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TIFF 2017. Correspondences #8

The eighth entry in our critics' TIFF correspondences highlights new films from Guillermo del Toro, Agnès Varda, and the Taviani brothers.
Dear Danny and Kelley,
I like that that you use the word “traveling,” which marvelously evokes both the continuous physical wandering from one screen to the next, as well as the transporting experience of the cinematic rabbit-holes themselves. These travels can have a palpably elemental side, and this year’s TIFF has offered generous lashings of fire (mother!), air (The Florida Project), and crumbly earth (Let the Corpses Tan). Now comes the aquatic side with Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, a luxuriously fanciful rendering of an amphibious King Kong out of the primeval Amazon and into Baltimore circa 1962. A fairy tale, as stated in narration and visualized under the opening credits, in which the camera swims through a majestically submerged abode that’s gradually drained and revealed as the shabby apartment of the protagonist. Introduced as “the princess without a voice,” mute cleaning lady Elisa (Sally Hawkins) goes to work in a subterranean government laboratory where, as a fellow janitor (Octavia Spencer) grumblingly observes, the great scientific minds still piss on the floor. It’s a modest existence, but not necessarily a dreary one: Elisa enjoys a daily dose of vigorous bathtub masturbation, losing herself in old musicals with her neighbor (Richard Jenkins), and wandering green-tinted streets that, as shot by cinematographer Dan Lausten, often suggest the canals of an emerald city. And then, of course, there’s the mysterious creature inside the top-secret steel cylinder.
Played by Doug Jones with his customary contortionist’s grace under layers of scaly latex, the fishman pokes its head above the liquid surface to blink in wonder at the yearning heroine. Their bond—and del Toro deserves credit for making it a full-bodied, go-all-the-way romance—is threatened by the obligatory “normal” fascist, a club-swinging G-man (a Michael Shannon part, you might say, and sure enough...). The Shape of Water has exquisite design, voluptuous romanticism, and piquant playfulness. It also has an overall rigidity that unfortunately works against the fluidity of its fantasy realms and camera movements. Like James Whale, del Toro’s fascination and sympathy are always with those marginalized, transgressive outcasts tagged “monsters.” Yet his tendency to neatly schematize his characters, to pin them down like butterflies, tempers his poetry. Moments of beauty are underlined. Early on, Jenkins’ melancholy gay illustrator (a lovely turn hampered, again, by the film’s inflexible compartmentalizing of outsiders) sniffs the air as a chocolate factory burns down outside: “Ah, tragedy and delight, hand in hand together.” Does the fabulista not trust his own images to make the point? The Shape of Water often engages but only sporadically ravishes. It’s wonderful to think of the young del Toro watching Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and dreaming of beauty and beast actually getting it on. A shame that his own retelling of it turned out to be rather arid.
A couple almost as wildly mismatched is at the center of Faces Places, namely co-directors Agnès Varda and JR. Elfin and birdlike with her two-toned helmet of hair and endlessly inquisitive eyes, the octogenarian Belgian auteur is paired with the semi-anonymous French street artist, a wiry and teasing thirty-something perpetually attired in pork-pie hat and dark shades. Both are buoyant roamers, both craft art out of their brushes with people during their voyages—she with her generous cinematic portraiture, he with his trademark blown-up photographs pasted on the sides of houses. “Making images” is the stated goal, and from one provincial French town to the next there are miners and farmers, relatives and eccentrics, all ready to contribute a pose and a memory. In this breezy and affecting pendant to her splendid Beaches of Agnès, Varda continues a profound exploration of creativity and memory in the face of mortality and impermanence. A snapshot of a late friend is reproduced on a seaside rock, only for the tide to wash it away the following morning. Later on, a trio of women married to Le Havre dock workers are perched high on top of stacked crates bearing their amplified photographed likeness, in a playful yet evocative composition. A botched visit to her old New Wave comrade Jean-Luc Godard brings the trip to a bittersweet halt, yet a poignant visual grace note—a literal sight gag—acts as reminder that human encounters are the ultimate souvenirs. Varda may be struggling with an eye disease, but her vision is as crystalline as ever.
Like Faces Places, Rainbow: A Private Affair has the ruminative delicacy of an artist’s final work. Or two artists, in this case the fraternal Italian team of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, whose bending of heightened emotions and plainspoken artifice has for decades placed them as truly worthy heirs of Roberto Rossellini. A slender memory-film, it opens amid thick fog with an earful of Judy Garland and the apparition of a stately, spectral home, which might be Italy herself gripped by the traumas of the Second World War. The romantic triangle caught in the flow of the conflict—a belle (Valentina Bellè) and two partisans (Luca Marinelli and Lorenzo Richelmy)—is reminiscent of Frank Borzage’s aching portraits of hearts and battlegrounds, though madness is never far from the Taviani brothers’ ethereal vistas. In a characteristic passage, the camera stumbles upon what appears to be a pile of dead peasants next to a burning house, then watches as a little girl calmly gets up, saunters into the home for a drink of water, and returns to take her place among the corpses. In another surreal rupture, a captured fascist takes over the screen with a display of bravura mania, just about threatening to tear the pastoral surroundings asunder with a one-man symphony of ferociously spastic sounds. So it goes with this graceful and mysterious view of love and violence and history, a lustrous album of remembrances that leads not to nostalgia but to the horror of being alive in a void.
Over to you, Kelley.
Warmly,
Fern

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