A cinema of extremes

The Toronto festival's crop of Canadian movies is diverse and wildly idiosyncratic

Brian D. Johnson September 15 1997

A cinema of extremes

The Toronto festival's crop of Canadian movies is diverse and wildly idiosyncratic

Brian D. Johnson September 15 1997

A cinema of extremes

The Toronto festival's crop of Canadian movies is diverse and wildly idiosyncratic



Canadian movies have developed a racy reputation in recent years. With such taboobusting fare as Exotica, Crash and Kissed, film-making in this country was beginning to look like a peculiar kind of sexual preference.

But Canadian cinema—which seems to have been “coming of age” for decades now—keeps changing. Just when everyone has Exotica director Atom Egoyan figured out, he breaks stride with a sensitive tragedy about a school-bus crash. As the opening film of the Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 4 to 13), Egoyan’s Cannes hit, The Sweet Hereafter, has dominated the spotlight. But it is just one of 21 new Canadian features at the Toronto event, which serves as an annual showcase for the country’s film-makers—and this year’s crop is one of the most diverse in years.

The fictional genres range from family pathos to gangster gore, from Gen-X satire to surreal fantasy. There are also documentaries, exploring everything from South African apartheid to female erotica, from a father’s suicide to a daughter’s murder.

These films—most of which will be shown in theatres or on TV over the next year—form a composite portrait of a national cinema that is adventurous, personal and wildly idiosyncratic. A partial survey: Halifax writer-director Thom Fitzgerald makes an impressive feature debut with The Hanging Garden, a tale of family secrets and lies set in rural Nova Scotia. An outrageous wedding scene with a foul-mouthed bride, a blind-drunk father—and Cape Breton dervish Ashley Maclsaac fiddling the chaotic wedding march— sets the tone for a drama fuelled by Celtic mood swings of dark humor and dire emotion. The story centres on the bride’s gay brother, Sweet William (Chris Leavins), who comes home after a long absence and suffers traumatic flashbacks to his sexual awakening as an obese teen. Novice actor Troy Veinotte is bravely vulnerable as the 300-lb. youth. And New Zealand native Kerry Fox is a riot as Rosemary, the tough-as-nails bride.

Naming all his characters after garden plants, and structuring the film with floral color design, Fitzgerald runs the risk of over-cultivating his metaphor. The Hanging Garden’s magic-realist conceit—that Sweet William is alive and kicking years after hanging himself in the garden as a teen—certainly requires a stretch of the imagination. But Fitzgerald’s conceptual audacity seems rooted in authentic emotion, and the result is a strong, fertile drama that breaks fresh ground.

By weird coincidence, there is another Canadian movie about an obese adolescent boy emerging from a repressed upbringing. In The Planet of Junior Brown, the oversize hero is a gentle black teenager, played with quiet aplomb by Martin Villafana. Junior Brown is an aspiring pianist, but he must play in silence, because his controlling mother cut the strings out of their piano in a fit of anger. Directed by Toronto’s Clement Virgo, the film’s muted whimsy marks an about-face from the incendiary poetics of his feature debut, Rude (1995). It is a Christmas fable that tacks through a series of tangents to a sweet, unsurprising conclusion. But Junior Brown, which was filmed for the CBC (and is expected to air in December), has a gentle, unaffected charm that spells relief from the punched-up formulas of most TV movies.

Offering a more satirical slant on youthful alienation, Kitchen Party delivers more flat-out entertainment than any of the other new Canadian films. Returning to the manicured turf of his first feature, The Suburbanators (1995), Calgary writer-director Gary Burns has assembled a terrific ensemble of young actors to create a deft, witty farce about a teen boy hosting a party in the kitchen of his parents’ house while they are out for dinner in a neighboring subdivision. The rest of the house is strictly out-ofbounds—and the slightest disturbance in the broadloom’s freshly vacuumed pile is cause for major alarm. Of course, property damage ensues. With a small debt to Risky Business, and a deadpan style all his own, Burns sends up suburban conformity to hilarious effect: this is one Canadian movie that could become a cult hit with North American audiences.

Shopping for Fangs, another flick with some satirical bite, bills itself as a “GenerAsian-X genre-hopping thriller.” In fact, it seems more like a screwball comedy, intertwining the tale of an enigmatic waitress stalking a lonely housewife with a spoof about a man turning into a werewolf. Set among twentysomething Asians in Los Angeles, Shopping for Fangs is only marginally Canadian—its Hong Kong-born producer and co-director, Quentin Lee, 26, received funding from the Canada Council and grew up in Montreal before settling in California. With its breezy style and candied visuals, the film plays as a film-school homage to Wong Kar-wai, the hip Hong Kong director of Chungking Express. But it is not in the same league.

Cube brings the spirit of film-school innovation to the science-fiction genre.

Directed by novice Toronto film-maker Vincenzo Natali, 28, and produced by the Canadian Film Centre, it is a Kafka-esque thriller about six characters trying to escape a prison constructed as a diabolical maze of interlocking cubes. The film’s brain-teasing plot and mathematical design are ingenious; the characters, however, tend to be equally schematic.

Men with Guns—not to be confused with the John Sayles movie of the same name—pursues more conventional terrain. A grisly tale of gangster violence, it is about a trio of smalltime hustlers who buy guns to seek revenge on a band of bullying cocaine dealers. The script slides into grim, blood-slick formula.

But there is a strong cast, including Paul Sorvino as a crime boss and Callum Keith Rennie, who steals the movie with his off-kilter performance as a spaced-out druggie. And director Kari Skogland, who cut her teeth on rock videos and commercials, shoots in a slick, kinetic style.

If nothing else, Men With Guns proves that a Canadian woman can shoot bloodshed and mayhem as brutally as an American man.

Another female director, Vancouver’s Mina Shum, follows up her acclaimed first feature, Double Happiness (1994)—a portrait of a Chinese immigrant family—with an escapist fantasy. Drive, She Said is a road movie in the joyriding tradition of Thelma and Louise. Moira Kelly (Chaplin) stars as Nadine, an unassuming bank teller who gets taken hostage by a robber, and then falls for him. While her husband back home, an assistant bank manager, struggles to make amends in their relationship, she develops a new taste for adventure and romance.

While some directors flirt with Hollywood convention, others venture ever deeper into the fringes of the avant-garde. And for something completely different, Winnipeg director Guy Maddin can always be counted on to take a flying somersault into some new hinterland of eccentricity. Maddin’s Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is a surreal fantasy set in a mythical land called Mandragora where the sun never sets and skies run from magenta to chartreuse. Maddin’s archly artificial sets, dioramas festooned with Day-Glo lichen, are a marvel of kitsch. But this fairy tale of crisscrossed love—involving an ostrich farmer (Shelley Duvall), a cruel mesmerist (R. H. Thomson), a forest nymph (Alice Krige), an ex-convict (Nigel Whitmey), and the woman of his dreams (Pascale Bussières)—soon descends into an unrelieved silliness that seems self-indulgent. Twilight lacks the controlled edge of Maddin’s previous feature, Careful—and one sign that something has gone awry is the way Whitmey delivers his lines: this lead role is uncredited, and his dialogue has been woodenly overdubbed by another actor.

Director André Forcier, the enfant terrible of Quebec cinema, is another impresario of the surreal who seems to have hit the wall.

La Comtesse de Baton Rouge is a film-within-a film about carnival freaks and the creative process. Its corkscrew narrative revolves around an aging movie director named Rex Prince who has made a self-portrait of the artist as a young man—an aspiring Eisenstein who drives an Edsel to New Orleans and becomes a human-cannonball so he can be with the world’s most beautiful bearded lady (just a light stubble). “I waited till I’d run out of ideas before I made this film,” admits the director in the movie, which seems true of Forcier himself. But even when he is spinning his wheels, there is some amusement in his madness.

Forcier’s veteran producer, Roger Frappier, seems to have had better luck with six young Quebec directors who pooled their talents to make Cosmos, a serendipitous weave of six short dramas filmed in black and white. Linked by the travels of a Greek cab driver in Montreal, the segments add up to an art-film party pack. While the mix is uneven, Cosmos shimmers with energy, humor and a simple elegance that suggests a new generation of directors has arrived to restore the fading glory of Quebec cinema.

Another film that toys with conventional genres is L’absent (The Absent One), an extraordinary first feature from 45-year-old writerdirector Céline Baril. A mystifying blend of fact and fiction, it follows the tortured odyssey of a composer named Roland Kadar, played by Roland Bréard, who travels through Europe in an attempt to understand his father’s suicide. Kadar retraces the steps he took with his family as a 12-year-old, when he and his mother watched his father, a musician, throw himself into the Danube as a final act of artistic surrender. The film, which unfolds as a meditative travelogue, is intercut with exquisite black-and-white stills of the family’s original trip through Rome, Budapest, Prague and Tokyo. And as Kadar travels, he composes the score (which was in fact created by the actor who plays him). Just where the truth of the story leaves off and invention begins is, from a casual viewing, impossible to say.

Some of the most dramatically personal new features do, in fact, take documentary form. And none is more personal than Tu as crié: ‘Let Me Go’, Quebec film-maker Anne Claire Poirier’s devastating farewell to her daughter, Yanne—a prostitute and heroin addict who was found murdered in Montreal five years ago. With a poetic voice-over cowritten by author Marie-Claire Blais, Poirier mixes interviews of addicts and parents with elegiac explorations of her daughter’s former haunts. From the long opening shot of an iceberg calving, Poirier’s attempt to fathom the separation of death, and the submerged mystery of her daughter’s life, casts an unforgettable spell. The film is an almost unbearably eloquent cry of mourning. But it is also an exemplary act of therapy. And as Poirier dissects her feelings of guilt and anger, she conducts a valuable inquiry into the social roots of addiction, and delivers a passionate polemic arguing for the decriminalization of drugs.

Meanwhile, Toronto film-maker Sturla Gunnarsson takes a highly personal look at South African politics with his CBC documentary Gerrie & Louise—the story of a marriage rooted in the terror of apartheid (below). And Tim Southam’s Drowning in Dreams, a National Film Board documentary, plumbs the depths of Lake Superior with the bizarre story of a man obsessed by a shipwreck. Fred Broennle, a Thunder Bay, Ont., multimillionaire, squanders his fortune on trying to raise the Gunilda, a luxury steam yacht that

hit a shoal and sank in 1911. Despite the death of fellow diver Charles King Hague—who succumbs to nitrogen narcosis and drowns clinging to the Gunilda’s flagstaff—Broennle persists in his treasure hunt. The film’s loopy narrative occasionally seems, like Hague, to lose its grip to the rapture of the deep. But the collection of characters is fascinating, and the story’s ironies get progressively weirder.

Many documentaries play on the unabashed voyeurism of glimpsing lives much stranger and more adventurous than our own. Erotica: A Journey Into Female Sexuality addresses that curiosity while providing a thoughtful framework for a world encumbered by misconceptions. Toronto film-maker Maya Gallus conducts a guided tour of women’s erotica, focusing on interviews with a gallery of self-styled professionals—from a Parisian dominatrix to an American rap queen. Her best subjects are a remarkably cogent Pauline Réage, the 90year-old author of The Story of 0, and Bettina Rheims, a French photographer who shoots provocative, artful pictures of ordinary women, not models, in the nude.

The American women in the film, meanwhile, seem determined to democratize, and demystify, lust. Former porn star Annie Sprinkle delivers a self-affirming seminar that drags sex into the analytical light of day. Feminist porn producer Candida Royalle comes across as the solid sexual citizen, showing that even a pornographer can construct a prosaic corporate image. Wisely, Gallus refrains from passing judgment and lets her subjects speak for themselves.

In a more experimental vein, Uncut explores sexual politics with a genre-bending mix of melodrama, documentary interviews, revisionist history and opera. After winning a Genie last year for his lavish production of Lilies, gay film-maker John Greyson has downsized to the guerrilla scale of his first feature, Zero Patience (1993). His story involves three characters named Peter: a video artist who flirts in cyberspace, a typist obsessed with Pierre Trudeau and a grad student penning a paper on circumcision. With film-makers like Greyson, Gallus and Forcier exploring erotic frontiers, Canadian cinema’s reputation for sexual transgression seems safe at least for a while.

Squeezed between artistic ambition and economic stress, Canadian films tend to be driven by extremes of obsession and desperation. One of the most curious documentaries at the Toronto festival is Pitch, by Spencer Rice and Kenny Hotz, a self-portrait by two floundering Canadian film-makers trying to sell a screenplay to Hollywood big shots visiting the same festival last year. As they pitch their script for The Dawn—a comedy about a Mafia don who goes in for a hernia operation and gets a sex change by mistake—their attempts become increasing laughable. After making serious fools of themselves in Toronto, they take their quest to Hollywood, where a bottom-feeding agent actually gives them cause for hope. The Dawn is still waiting to be made. But in documenting their failure, Rice and Hotz actually succeed in making a film—a Canadian success story if ever there was one. □