Film

Hollywood stars and Canadian style

Toronto’s festival is awash with big names and quirky films

Brian D. Johnson September 20 1999
Film

Hollywood stars and Canadian style

Toronto’s festival is awash with big names and quirky films

Brian D. Johnson September 20 1999

Hollywood stars and Canadian style

Film

Brian D. Johnson

In 1976, when Bill Marshall launched the first incarnation of the Toronto International Film Festival, he planned it as a one-two punch. The idea was to attract Hollywood stars to put the event on the map. Then local producers, such as himself, would be able use it as a glitzy showcase for Canadian movies. The only problem in those early days was finding stars who were willing to show up—and finding Canadian movies worth celebrating.

Toronto’s festival is awash with big names and quirky films

Now, years later, Toronto festival (Sept. 9 to 18) is second in importance only to Cannes. And it has more stars than it knows what to do with. This years guest list includes Denzel Washington, Robin Williams, Holly Hunter, Kevin Spacey, Sean Penn, Claudia Schiffer, Elton John, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Damon, Susan Sarandon, Sigourney Weaver, Bruce Willis, Nick Nolte and Catherine Deneuve. Canadian filmmakers, meanwhile, have popped into prominent focus. From Felicia’s Journey, a haunting portrait of a serial killer by Toronto veteran Atom Egoyan, to Rollercoaster, a jarring descent into teenage delirium by Vancouver novice Scott Smith, Canadians are challenging Hollywood formula with an assertive sense of style.

If one clear trend emerges from their latest crop of films—at least from English Canada—it is the episodic narrative and the ensemble cast. Last year, Don McKellar directed a millennial rollcall of the Canadian acting community with Last Night. This year, another Toronto writer-director, Jeremy Podeswa, marshals multiple protagonists around the drama of a missing child in The Five Senses. The story explores the lives of various neighbours, each representing one of the senses: a peeping tomboy of a babysitter who lets the child out of her sight, a baker with jaded taste buds, a gay housecleaner with a sensitive nose, an ophthalmologist who is going deaf, and a massage therapist who feels everyone’s pain but her own.

With his second feature, Podeswa, 37, displays an assured touch, framing fine-tuned performances with beautifully textured images. But except for the baker (Mary-Louise Parker) and the mother of the missing child (Molly Parker), the characters seem suspended in a kind of trance, as if frozen in aspic. And despite the originality of its conceit, The Five Senses is eerily reminiscent of Egoyan. It is, after all, an acutely measured, densely atmospheric drama about alienation, loss, voyeurism— and babysitting.

Jerry Ciccoritti offers a less freighted ensemble piece with The Life Before This, a sushi-sliced narrative similar in style to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. It opens with a random shooting in a café, then rewinds to trace the 12 hours leading up to it in the lives of the victims, witnesses and perpetrators. Exploring how fate can turn on the slightest nuance, the drama hinges on a variety of compact, gem-like performances. Catherine O’Hara is a scream as a skittish bridal consultant looking for love. Stephen Rea (The Crying Game) plays a sadly catatonic exterminator devastated by his daughter’s death. And the mercurial Sarah Polley shows up as a waitress flirting with commitment after moving in with her boyfriend.

In his two previous features, Paris, France and Boy Meets Girl, Ciccoritti’s directorial flair has been squandered on baroquely overwrought material. But with The Life Before This, deftly scripted by Toronto screenwriter Semi Chellas, he creates a compelling impressionist drama from a series of spare brushstrokes. To say it has its moments is to say a great deal, for this is a movie that consists uniquely of moments, those random points where destiny catches up with peoples lives.

The festivals program also includes half a dozen feature debuts from young Canadian filmmakers, notably Rollercoaster, written and directed by the 29-year-old Smith. Yet another ensemble piece, it is about five teens who hop the fence of a defunct Vancouver amusement park to pursue a dangerous fantasy. Two of them, Darrin (Kett Turton) and Chloe (Crystal Bublé), are planning a lovers’ leap from the top of the roller-coaster after nightfall. Until then, with the help of an unctuous security guard, the teens run riot in the park and activate the rides. While the suicide pact provides the narrative arc, Smith plants a time bomb of a subplot involving the sexual paranoia of Darrin’s best friend, Stick, played by Brendan Fletcher (.Little Criminals). And Fletcher—who also appears in The Five Senses and in Canadian Davor Marjanovic’s debut, My Fathers Angel— proves to be an explosive talent.

Although the script’s payoff falls shy of its promise, Rollercoaster contains some exhilarating filmmaking. The derelict midway, with dusk settling over the mountains behind it, serves as an extraordinary setting, a skeletal landscape of faded adolescence. Smith’s aggressively kinetic camera embodies the energy of the actors. And his dark scenario coolly subverts teen-movie cliché, along with the whole Hollywood notion of the movie-as-roller-coaster.

Tales of delinquency also feature in fare from French Canada, but in a more conventional style. In Full Blast, director Rodrigue Jean, an Acadian from New Brunswick, makes his feature debut with a grim, barroom-sink drama about loser guys scraping the dregs of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. More engaging is Emporte-moi by Montreal veteran Léa Poole. It is her sixth feature, but she perfects the kind of autobiographical coming-of-age film that most directors attempt their first time out.

It is about a 13-year-old girl (Karine Vanasse) who is at odds with her Québécois mother (Pascale Bussières) and Jewish immigrant father (Miki Manojiovic)—and who deeply identifies with the doomed heroine of Jean-Fuc Godard’s Vivre sa vie. Due to show at the exclusive New York Film Festival (Sept. 24 to Oct. 10), Emporte-moi marks a breakthrough for Poole, a moving portrait of the artist as a young woman.

Toronto director Patricia Rozema paints a more lavish portrait of the artist with Mansfield Park, playing Toronto after it opened the Montreal World Film Festival last month. Her adaptation of the 1814 Jane Austen novel, bolstered by the author’s letters and journals, is a marvel of wit and beauty that upstages Merchant-Ivory on their own English turf. No, it is not a Canadian film; it was produced by the almighty Miramax. But Rozema has left her incisive signature on the script and on the direction, which feels fresh and modern without violating the period setting. She also has a superb cast that includes playwright Harold Pinter, Jonny Lee Miller, and Frances O’Connor as the headstrong heroine, Fanny Price. For Rozema—who spearheaded English Canada’s new wave of personal cinema 12 years ago with I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing—Mansfield Park marks a triumphant leap into the major leagues.

The influence of the Canadian filmmaking community now goes far beyond Canadian films. Take Sarah Polley. After making her name with Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, she now confronts the whole idea of stardom in the role of a nervous ingenue who falls for a roué photographer (Stephen Rea) in the festival’s Guinevere, by American director Audrey Wells. Molly Parker, meanwhile, is ubiquitous. Aside from The Five Senses, she gives tour-de-force performances as a pregnant Englishwoman in Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland and as a Hungarian Holocaust victim in István Szabó’s Sunshine.

Starring Ralph Fiennes in three roles spanning three generations, Sunshine is the year’s most ambitious Canadian film, even if the only Canadian thing about it is the passion of its Toronto producer for his Hungarian roots. In 1978, Budapest-born Robert Lantos launched his career at the Toronto festival with In Praise oft Older Women, a lame sex comedy about a Hungarian immigrant that inflamed censors and caused a near riot at its première. With Sunshine, Lantos comes full circle.

Also this week, Toronto’s Hollywood veteran Norman Jewison unveils The Hurricane, the story of boxer Rubin (Hurricane) Carter. At last, Jewison has made a movie set in his home town— and starring Denzel Washington, an actor he introduced to the Toronto festival audience at the 1984 première of A Soldier’s Story. Bill Marshall’s dream to have Hollywood stars share an international spotlight with Canadian moviemakers has come true in more ways than he could ever have imagined.