Hopefully you’ve been following along, but over the last decade there’s been a wonderful surge of young Canadian directors making exceptional short- and feature-length movies, all on a small, independent scale that should be invigorating to makers and audiences alike. While no one would (nor should) ascribe any kind of movement label to them, being eclectic in origins and approaches, it has been notable how many of the films hinge upon explorations of mental health, the search for well-being, and the weaknesses and strengths of community. Films as disparate as the substance abuse and social work documentary The Stairs (2016), the immersive impressionism of mental anguish of Anne at 13,000 Ft. (2019), and this year's Queens of the Qing Dynasty (2022), a striking story of social difference, hospitalization, and friendship filmed in Cape Breton, are among these adroit new Canadian films fueled by human inquiry and empathy.
This note is thankfully sustained in other Canadian films at TIFF, which have emerged as a major highlight in the festival’s sprawling program. One standout, which like a number of films at the festival was shot on 16mm film, is Sophie Jarvis’s surprising if somewhat wayward Until Branches Bend. It has in its foreground a story of small town conflict, social ostracizing, and agrarian mismanagement, and behind it an allusive story of family and community traumas, cross-class adultery, and abortion challenges. Sensitive to rural rhythms, yet wary with an atmosphere of suspicion and threat, the film delightfully pushes out of realism into the edges of body and eco-horror without ever escaping the realm of the possible.
In addition to Qing Dynasty, which is Ashley McKenzie’s bold, confrontationally compassionate second feature, is another sophomore work, Antoine Bourges’s Concrete Valley. Like his debut, Fail to Appear (2017), it is interested in exploring on the individual level how people try to integrate into their community, as well as their struggles with isolation and social contribution. The institutional perspective of the earlier film’s case-worker protagonist is turned around in Concrete Valley, which follows a married couple (Hussam Douhna and Amani Ibrahim, both excellent), both Syrian immigrants, who each struggle with their diminished positions in Canada—he was once a doctor, now out of work and practicing natural medicine on neighbors; and she once an actress, now clerking at a pharmacy. That strain challenges a marriage that may not have been so strong in the first place, before financial pressure, self-doubt, xenophobia, and alienation test its limits. Bourges shows this in a spare but attentive style emphasizing the vulnerability of the characters, their openness to wounds that are not physical, but just as painful. They move around in a world slightly deadened by their melancholy, a pit each tries to climb out of in their own way: the husband’s sulky, easy grudges give way only in the face of a pretty neighbor's loneliness, and the wife’s solution to her yearning is to join a community volunteer group. The story arc may not be as compelling as the revelation of this small-scale milieu, but that revelation is treated with compassion and care, and it is moving to encounter a film formed around such empathy and concern for its characters.
Both Concrete Valley and Queens are in the festival’s Wavelengths program, which is a bit of a shame. Yes, they both are less than straightforward in their approaches and challenge audiences to see and think about their subjects differently, but perhaps it’s better to infuse other sections of the festival with dramas that have a cinematic style that doesn’t reinforce the status quo. A great example of such a welcome festival placement is letting Graham Foy’s remarkable debut The Maiden escape the Discovery section, intended for new filmmakers. Programmed in Contemporary World Cinema, the film brings to that section a fresh voice whose style and sensibility avoids the pitfalls of the obvious and the televisual. Instead, it’s beautifully conceived around teenage states of mind and the tenor of their internal emotions. Admittedly, its subject is a bit too tried and true, focused as it is on disconsolate white teens. But Foy's handling transcends this cliché by taking the film's small town setting in Alberta and ensuring that its every splay of light, its attention to spaces and peoples in the high school, and the captivating textures of the surrounding woods all work in magnificent concert to evoke these damaged teenage souls.
The Maiden's teenagers are Colton (Marcel T. Jiménez), who descends into inconsolable malaise after his good friend is accidentally killed while the two mess around together outside of town, and Whitney (Hayley Ness), a nerdy outsider who increasingly feels too outside to ever come back. Where Colton’s story starts in the woods, Whitney’s ends there, pulled away from town and into an increasingly irreal landscape that has none of the pressures of her social milieu. Here the film echoes Tyler Taormina’s excellent Ham on Rye (2019), which similarly sees teenage-hood as directly adjacent, if not able to cross over, to places of uncanny dreams and transformed consciousness. Neither teen’s story connects with the other except in the space of the psyche; the film spends little time on dramatics and much more immersed in the atmosphere around these grieving, spaced out, unhappy, and increasingly isolated kids, in which the atmosphere speaks for their silence. Its closest comparison is likely Gus Van Sant’s tender, impressionistic Paranoid Park (2007), which also finds deep expression for its kids’ supposed inexpressiveness through the look and feel of their daily surroundings. Somehow, despite its old-news premise—it certainly would have benefited from a stronger, more distinct concept—the film rarely strikes a wrong note, composes a useless shot, or fails to richly convey the detail and feel of its world. And, perhaps above all, most of its time is spent in attentive sympathy and respect for whatever is going on in the minds of its anguished heroes.
As inexpressive as The Maidan’s woeful heroes are, the same could not be said for Vicky Krieps in Corsage as Empress Elisabeth of Austria, a nineteenth-century monarch who like many before her was ill-fit for the endless scrutiny and ritualized pomp of royal life. Her empress is a vivid rendition: all her discomfort, flighty moods, and wayward spirit flash and fade across Krieps's face in a role she seems born for. The actress’s notable recoil following her success in Phantom Thread has now transmuted into an expressive, precise interpretation of a woman thrashing in a situation that has no relief. (Other fragments of the mirror: the actress’s distraught mother in M. Night Shymalan’s Old and her shattered grief in Mathieu Amalric’s Hold Me Tight.) In director Marie Kreutzer’s imaginative version of the historical figure, it’s an unhappiness that hovers between depression and deeper mental health challenges. The empress's holidays to the English countryside, exhilarating horseback rides, and romance dalliances (unconsummated, just barely) seem to change little. What emerges from Krieps’s performance is a sense of distress that at the time had no definition (her ever-genteel imperial husband gives it the sinister euphemism “restlessness”), and, to the film’s credit, is not defined from our vantage point. (The empress's deep sympathy for a female mental asylum suggests life paths her position negates.) While scene by scene Corsage works well—handsomely produced, as all good period films must be described—and the camera is held by Krieps and an excellent supporting cast, ultimately the film struggles to tell a full story rather than showcase dynamic episodes.
Classical “storytelling” in cinema—that is, the old-school approach of leading an audience through a narrative, one shot or scene designed to head into the next, focus our attention on the intended details, and keep the whole enterprise moving with clear pace and momentum—is a craft seemingly lost on most moviemakers, even the best. This applies to minimalist slow cinema on one end of the spectrum and, at the other, mainstream pap that for no discernible reason crosses so far over the 90-minute mark that you’d be forgiven for accusing such dramatic largesse as pretentious, no matter the film. To escape these extremes, many films mistake illustrative montages over dramatic development, escaping the need to stage scenes. Or sometimes, in the case of Corsage, they are less a story told than a procession of examples that speak to the film’s theme. They are excellent scenes, but in construction they narrow the film to a character study, when the film, like the empress, seems to aspire to something else.
Lucky for us, conventional storytelling is not necessarily a requisite of good cinema, yet since so many movies purport to tell stories—aiming to take audiences from here to there—it is continually surprising how few films with this very aim put so little effort into the care of how we travel. Laura Poitras’s new documentary, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, which arrived in TIFF after winning the Golden Lion in Venice, at first seems to make a major storytelling gaffe in combining something as expansive as an artist’s biography—that of photographer Nan Goldin—with an account of one contemporary aspect of that life, Goldin’s public performance activism against the Sackler family and their culpability in the American opioid crisis. Each side of this diptych seems a rich enough subject for its own feature. The film’s core follows Goldin’s path out of a traumatic childhood in which her sister was institutionalized and eventually committed suicide, through her series of surrogate families living alternative lifestyles that opened her up to art-making and to numerous impactful bisexual relationships, through to her groundbreaking photography and slideshows revealing previously unseen milieus of New York underground and queer life. Into all of this, Poitras next weaves an insider portrait of Goldin’s creation of and participation in an activist group that stages confrontational performances at institutions like the Met, Guggenheim, and Louvre; their intention is to shame these museums into removing the Sackler names, so ubiquitous in art philanthropy and disconnected from the pain and deaths that their company, Purdue Pharma, engineered.
Each strand contains a lot, could be addressed individually, and indeed might be stories better told with more breathing room. But what’s lost in some detail and speed of narration is gained in the gathering profundity of the juxtaposition, whose crux lies in Goldin identifying where pain is created, continued, and exploited, and where she herself can intervene to stop it. Thus her photography, the central story of the film, is fueled by all of these threads: her sister’s abuse and death; Goldin’s lost years without support around her and ecstatic ones with it; her bouts of addiction, including to Oxycodone; and the AIDS crisis, which tears through her community. After all of this comes an extreme, pointed actualization: the transformation of Goldin's art into the staged protests at museums, which, crucially, are all communal efforts. One of the many revelations of Poitras’s documentary is just how in sync with her time Goldin is, how much her lifestyle and work, rather than step away in artistic isolation, reflect and embody the zeitgeist. In this moving way, Goldin and Poitras see political intervention—protests against the exploitation of pain and suffering—as a pinnacle of participation in today’s world.