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TIFF 2017. Correspondences #7

From Toronto, we spotlight Xavier Beauvois's "The Guardians" and a preserved print of Anne Charlotte Robertson's beautiful "Pixillation".
The Guardians
Dear Kelley and Fern,
I'm sorry your initial schedule has been thrown off, Kelley. Logistics and mindspace are always major challenges at film festivals, where so many have to juggle venues, runtimes, jet lag, walk-speed, hunger-levels, memory recall, wifi-access, note legibility, awkward conversation time-sinks, and many other disparate variables. As a TIFF-newcomer, I wonder what your impression is of the festival event so far? A more vivid festival contrast could not be better made than between Fernando’s distaste, which I share, for Darren Aronofsky’s mother! and its false audacity, and the earthy mystery in Strangely Ordinary This Devotion, with its sublimely suggestive and tactile cosmogony of birth and motherhood.
No surprise that the latter is programmed in the Wavelengths’ section curated by Andréa Picard, who has made a name for herself, her program, and Toronto's festival for spotlighting such boldly challenging and invigorating films. As I mentioned in my first letter to you both, Wavelengths has been substantially constricted in 2017, though there are still many in the section I would still recommend you see—most especially among the longer films, Bruno Dumont’s electro-pop musical Jeannette and Pedro Pinho’s pseudo-documentary on a workers' strike in Portugal, The Nothing Factory. There are fewer Wavelengths selections, but paradoxically the much-anticipated shorts programs, of which there are four, have been moved to a substantially larger cinema this year, which feels like a promotion and vindication for these eclectic programs’ enduring popularity. If you haven’t attended one of the shorts sessions at Wavelengths, you really must: rather than a random festival audience, the attendees here feel somehow like family and friends, with long-time dedicated fans mixed with those newly venturing, all gathered into an ad hoc community united by a piqued and open-minded curiosity, a willingness if not a desire to see new things and explore the world of moving images in unexpected ways. A festival within a festival, the atmosphere conjured by Wavelengths achieves a rare ideal experience of wonderment, surprise, and community-building.
Part of the wisdom of this section is to include among its survey of the year in avant-garde cinema older works, often restored or re-discovered, to help place the new in greater context or simply to introduce the importance of a marginalized artist. The latter might be said about American filmmaker Anne Charlotte Robertson. After her death in 2012, Robertson's work has been preserved and advocated for by the Harvard Film Archive. I caught a small part of the artist’s deeply personal and utterly marvelous (not to mention her 38-hours long) Five Year Diary (1981-1997) a few years back at the Viennale courtesy of Harvard, and this year the archive has made a gift to the Wavelengths’ audience by lending Robertson’s 1976 short, Pixillation.
A bracing but unabashedly pensive self-portrait shot in black and white Super 8, it rapidly animates and oscillates opposing profiles of the young director against a cloudy, wind-riven sky. Stuttering rapidly, left, right, left, right—with other variations, including a brick pillar separating the two sides of the image and her doubled presence—we confront the antic vividness of a single person split and shuttling one from side of the screen to the other. That Robertson was later known to have bi-polar disorder only underscores the film's paradoxically precise evocation of self-fracture. The clouds behind the long-haired Robertson flow quick, jump forward (the film and its effects seem entirely created in camera, rather than in post-production), stop and jump again, adding a fierce disjointness of time to the already discordant and incomplete portraits of her face. Eventually, something like halfway through this thrilling travail, Robertson does face us directly in a sequence of brief frontal portraits. Her long, beautiful face evinces none of the discord Pixillation’s fluttered editing suggests. But the wind can't stop ripping at her hair, which swarms out of control despite her firm gaze.
Pixillation could well be seen as a documentary self-portrait: an artist inspired, but a woman in conscious turmoil. The strength of women left alone to fend for themselves is the communal focus of actor and director Xavier Beauvois’s The Guardians. After directing Of Gods and Men (2010), Beauvois’s excellent neo-western set among French monks in Algeria, we lost sight of this under-estimated director—his next was a quasi-comedy I’m dying to see about ruffians stealing Chaplin’s corpse—though it was a delight to encounter him earlier this year before the camera as one of Juliette Binoche’s many love (and sex) interests in Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In (a film whose absence from Toronto’s festival is the kind of inside-baseball scandal cinephiles rightly harrumph about). I am very glad indeed that Beauvois is back in the director’s seat and in the international spotlight with The Guardians, adapted from an obscure 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon about a struggling farmstead on the home front of the First World War, and so far one of the exceptional films at the festival. Beauvois, whose collaborations are impeccable (his regular cinematographer, Caroline Champetier, has worked with Godard, Rivette, Lanzmann, and Carax; his score is by The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’s Michel Legrand), is the kind of effortless filmmaker who reminds audiences that each edit can (and should) be adroitly chosen and timed, that the framing of an image can be beautiful without being adorned, and whose direction of actors keeps performances curt but moving.
Over the course of the war years, the inhabitants of The Guardian’s money- and manpower-strapped farm—its sorrowful, conservative matriarch (Nathalie Baye, a quiet force), who grieves for her three fighting boys, her married daughter (Laura Smet) yearning for her captured husband, and a newly hired farmhand (screen debutante Iris Bry, captivating)—carry with them the subtle but deep weight of daily struggle precariously conflated with the war’s immense psychic force. The tensions of returning men, of fitful love between a son (Cyril Descours) and the farmhand, nightmares of war, visiting American soldiers, and the pressure to make money and keep a family intact, may all seem dramatic, but the film’s sense of time is that of the farm and the provinces, and Beauvois’s technique is carefully restrained so that melodrama is avoided, yet tragedy can still subtly grow. A gorgeous pan across the faces of those working on the home front—themselves fighting to subsist, to be happy, and to keep to themselves and yet keep together—as they break for lunch during the harvest crystallizes in wheaty sunlight The Guardian’s superb, patient beauty. Beauvois has successfully yet modestly re-created a world and allows his cinema to rove within it, finding the people on history’s sidelines who think, feel and work as much as those who fight with gun and steel.
After visiting the troubled community of The Guardians, I returned gladly again to the next Wavelengths program, about which I'll soon update you both. In the meantime, where have you been traveling to, Fernando?
Warmly,
Danny

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