296 feature films, 101 shorts—are you ready? Could anyone be? I can assure you, as someone lucky enough to travel to several other festivals this year before Toronto, there are many, many great films here, among them Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (as you've already discovered), Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, and Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion. All easily among the year’s most surprising, most beautiful, most complex works of cinema. Don’t miss them. But what I’ve already seen is a drop in the bucket, and I have the bounty of the short films of the adventurous Wavelengths section (which Michael Sicinski has wonderfully and extensively covered for us) to come; along with not one but two Terrence Malick films (really two cuts of the same film), not one but two Werner Herzog movies; Japanese genre master Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s first French language film; American independent filmmaker Barry Jenkins’s second movie (his follow-up to Medicine for Melancholy), Ulrich Seidl going on a safari, and much, much more. I promise to tell you nothing of the films I don’t like, and only report on what really grabs me.
A good place to start would be the festival’s young Platform section. Now in its second year, this small, juried competitive program is aimed to highlight “high artistic merit that demonstrate a strong directorial vision by significant international filmmakers,” which is admirable though admittedly confusing when there is also a Vanguard section (which should be strong) and Masters section (should be significant filmmakers). The main point seems to be, simply, to underscore international auteur films (no longer in the vanguard, not yet masters) that would be lost in the larger, broader sections like Special Presentations and Contemporary World Cinema. Last year’s inaugural program was a mixed bag that had several major highlights, the Brazilian rodeo film Neon Bull among them. This year, some of the festival’s most anticipated pictures can be found there, and perhaps best among them is Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama.
Bonello’s last film, a Yves Saint Laurent biopic, followed the famed 20th century designer from enfant terrible into the 2000s and his doddering old age. Saint Laurent’s fashion may have changed the world, but that world is now being changed by forces far more radical than any of his designs. The enfants terrible of Paris in Nocturama aren’t provocative artists but rather a gang of 20-something Parisian terrorists. Shockingly, despite the ties to radical Islam of the attacks in France over the last year and a half, the terrorism of Nocturama’s youths seem to be enacted without explanation, as if in a cultural vacuum. When originally conceived, this cinematic possibility of Bonello’s clearly had the aim of presenting an abstract action. But since the real world has yet again surpassed the cinema by realizing the horrors originally considered on the silver screen, this enthralling film feels all the more strange by being at once utterly devoted to and disconnected from the moment.
The shocking and intentional absence of the film is that of -ology. The ideology, psychology or sociology of these terrorists is only vaguely suggested through a brief scattering of flashbacks and the strange bond—variously familial, cordial, affectionate, and professional—between the group that holds them tenuously but never quite envelopes them all. For the film’s first third, we watch these kids (one in fact is a teenager) methodically and intricately working their way through the Parisian Metro and office buildings to what end we don’t know—until we eventually realize they are priming scattered attacks. After the explosions, gunshots, and fire, they retreat as planned to a luxury department store in the city center, safely ensconced from the presumed chaos and manhunt, awaiting a new world being birthed outside they can only guess at.
While some may jump at the film due to its instant (seeming) obsolescence in a (seemingly) new world where France’s internal enemies appear far more clearly defined than they do here, Nocturama is without a doubt intended to strip clear motivation from the actions of its youth. They do not aim to kill or make a coherent political point, or even enact a grand gesture of generational nihilism. They are fastidiously followed by a cool, snaking camera and fierce cross-cutting that in the film’s expansive first act orchestrates intersecting pathways, synchronizing and decoupling time and space to follow different actors and actions across the city. It’s a technique continued in the department store, but in a constrained, closed circuit environment.
This approach and look pulls inspiration from methodical arthouse thrillers like Jacques Rivette’s Secret Defense and Gus Van Sant’s elegantly hypnotic mass school shooting film Elephant, along with the sly, bravura of mainstream formalists like Paul Verhoeven and Brian De Palma. (De Palma, incidentally, is sitting on the jury for the Platform competition.) But the metaphysics of the former two and the irony of the latter two don’t seem Bonello’s purpose, which is indeed hard to identify. Certainly, as in Fritz Lang’s Depression-era You and Me , which also ends up with its criminals stuck in a luxury department store awaiting enlightenment, much is to be said about the fortress of consumption to which these terrorists retreat. Barilla, Fendi and Bang & Olufsen share equal screen time with the bombers, a murderer, and their accomplices. The kids play with and try on the fantasy clothing—but with near indifference. Despite Bonello’s slick camera and preference for a catchy soundtrack mixing ominous electronica with unexpected pop, Nocturama stops short of being the kind of hip youth-criminal lifestyle movie, like The Bling Ring, Springbreakers, and this year’s American Honey, whose impressionist indulgences have become dismayingly common lately in arthouses. Nocturama explores and defines its spaces more precisely, with the Metro and the department store extensively pushed, pulled and probed by the camera as spaces of fraught tension, psychological uncertainty, and mixed emotions as the adolescents wind their ways through these mazes and their self-selected luxurious siege. The opening is a sprawling helicopter shot of daylit Paris, followed by a cut that plunges us into the darkness of the underground—a signal the film is focused not on the macro rationale of terror acts but the micro practicality and sensation of those activities.
Curious about what the outside world is like after their attack, a gang member—one of the most evocative of the group, a furtive young man, played by British actor Finnegan Oldfield, who looks perennially tired and strained, and shows a touching and genuine affection for his girlfriend, who is also in the group—steps out of the store to look around. Finding a young woman loitering with her bicycle in the empty street, he asks her what she thinks of the day’s surprise attacks. Her answer: “Frankly, it was bound to happen, no?” What the “it” is in that question is one of the mysteries of the film: not an attack like those against the zaibatsu and political figures in Japan in the 1930s nor against politicians in Italy in the 1970s; nor indeed like the radical Islamic attacks over the last year. Something else—the violent action’s unnuanced mixed message above all resembles the jumbled purpose but unavoidable anger and presence of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The youth in the movie are a mixed crowd, a range of classes and origins, half of them brown, the others white; they stay off their devices for most of the film, abstracting them from the flow (and excuse) of techno-millennial zeitgeist. We don’t know who they are, we catch glimpses, perhaps make some assumptions. Mostly, we witness what they do, how they do it, and how they treat each other. We are with them in the moment, and in that moment, in no small part due to Bonello’s sensual filmmaking, they certainly are sad and sympathetic.
Nocturama is having its festival premiere here, but as you are catching up with highlights that began their life in the spotlight at Cannes, I am doing the same for Sundance's best titles, and one of the most anticipated here is Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea. This grief-wrought drama is a broadside for cinema in the forever on-going debate over the engrossing pleasures of long-form television supposedly exclusive to that medium. An emotionally flush, simmering melodrama of sorrow surrounding a death in small Massachusetts family that echoes and underlines older trauma, Manchester by the Sea is Lonergan’s eagerly awaited follow-up to his tremendous epic of post 9/11 New York emotions, Margaret, whose release was sabotaged by its distributor, spawning a fervent cult of admirers who keep discovering its considerable riches.
Less long and less sprawling, Manchester by the Sea nonetheless is not a story (since its male melodrama plot points are nothing if not obvious) so much as a sensitive immersion into the dynamics of the Chandler family after the early death by heart failure of eldest brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) in the eponymous small Massachusetts town. It necessitates that his younger brother, Lee (a fantastic Casey Affleck, our best go-to for haunted working class New Englander), take leave of his life as a solitary drinker and building supervisor in Boston and take care of arrangements in Manchester—not just the funeral, but also seeing to Joe’s teenage son, Phillip (Lucas Hedges). Lee’s monotone lack of affect and propensity, even before his brother’s death, to get blind drunk and start fights, points to suffering that predates this recent event, and indeed as we follow him trying to care for his nephew and his brother’s body the film feathers in flashbacks to build out his past with a wife (Michelle Williams) and kids, a mistake and a tragedy that drove him out of town and sunk him into despair.
The story, founded in cliche, is about Lee coming to terms with his past through coping with this new sadness, and not so much by helping his nephew—less grief stricken and in fact socially frolicking, juggling a band, two girl friends, hockey practice, and school—as figuring out how take responsibility outside of himself. It is to be expected. But what is surprising and is the film’s greatness is its lack of urgency to pursue this theme. You spend time with Lee, driving back and forth in Manchester ferrying Phillip from place to place, you get a feeling for the town and its winter light. The flashbacks, a potentially obvious structure (as Lee processes grief in the present we learn concurrently from the past how he ended up a shell of a man), are sometimes placed elegantly, sometimes with the awkwardness that made Margaret’s large canvas endearingly frayed. (Not excusable, however, is an egregiously overwrought shellacking of Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor over the revelation of Lee’s grievous trauma.) There aren’t many “big moments,” Lee is too withdrawn for that, Patrick too wry and charmingly sarcastic despite his mild sadness, Jody Lee Lipes’s lighting serious but Lonergan’s direction unhurried, attentive, and surprisingly varied in tone from scene to scene. The film certainly abuts both the limits of this tried-and-true story as well as the frustratingly unalterable introversion of Lee. But since the purpose is not to draw an epiphany from either, but rather to take our time and sink into the enjoyment of watching well-written characters played by great actors in a story that gives them room to define corners of telling behavior, hints of comedy, brushes of new emotions, and bits and pieces of discovery of the small town atmosphere, the film indeed attains that great feeling of “sinking into” something.
It's always a surprise to discover—again—that cinema can be so, so many different things.