The light fantastic

At a star-studded film festival, Canadian cinema finds its sense of humour

Brian D. Johnson September 17 2001

The light fantastic

At a star-studded film festival, Canadian cinema finds its sense of humour

Brian D. Johnson September 17 2001

The light fantastic

At a star-studded film festival, Canadian cinema finds its sense of humour



Our cinema has become severely typecast. When you think of Canadian movies, you think of car-crash sex, necrophilia and incest. Existential limbo and narcotic pacing. And that’s the fun part. In recent years, English Canada’s two star directors, David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan, have dominated the scene as the odd couple Sexual Gothic. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; I like their films. But as their influence has filtered down to a new generation of filmmakers, watching Canadian movies has often felt like being trapped in a house of erotic horrors.

Until now. With two new comedies, Last Wedding and Rare Birds—both premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 6 to 15)—our cinema may have turned a corner. Finally, it’s learning to lighten up. These movies come from opposite edges of the country. Last Wedding, an anti-romantic comedy, takes place in Vancouver; Rare Birds, which stars William Hurt as a brain-fried chef, was shot on Newfoundland’s Cape Spear. Both films mark a departure from the brooding, hermetic style of Upper Canadian cinema —they’re laugh-out-loud funny. Both feature Canadian cinema’s sweetheart, Molly Parker. And in the superheated atmosphere of the Toronto festival, they will get a shot at international recognition. The festival has become a world mecca

for filmmakers, industry movers—and stars. This year’s guest list includes Mick Jagger, Jeanne Moreau, Steve Martin, Denzel Washington, John Cusack, Helena Bonham Carter, Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, Glenn Close, Anthony Hopkins, Geoffrey Rush, Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. The festival is showing 326 films from 54 countries. But it also maintains a staunch Canadian mandate, and launches the new season of homegrown cinema. This year’s crop of 27 features is not especially strong. Most of the country’s veteran directors—Cronenberg, Egoyan, Denys Arcand, Robert Lepage and Patricia Rozema—didn’t have new pictures ready to premiere. But that proved fortunate for Last Weddings 38year-old Vancouver director, Bruce Sweeney, who landed the festival’s prestigious opening-night spot. And even if it was by default, the honour was welldeserved. Last Wedding, a three-ring comedy of imploding relationships, is one of the wittiest, juiciest, most outright entertaining Canadian films in recent memory.

Time and again, the question is asked: if Canada is the world’s leading exporter of comedy stars to Hollywood—names like Jim Carrey and Mike Myers—why are our movies so dour? Why can’t we make a good comedy? Perhaps because when we try, our efforts are often pale imitations of Hollywood formula. Sweeney sought

out darker influences. While creating the template for Last Wedding, he studied Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, Neil Labute’s Your Friends & Neighbors, Todd Solondz’s Happiness and Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. But Sweeneys film is also a work of ruthless originality, with a profoundly Canadian sensibility. In one priceless scene, an English professor sitting in his office blithely eviscerates the CanLit canon, from Margaret Laurence to Alice Munro—while he receives a disinterested hand job from a student.

OK, I know what you’re thinking: that here’s yet another kinky Canuck movie fixated on weird sex. But Last Wedding is more hilarious than disturbing. And after his first two features, Live Bait and Dirty, Sweeney has managed to take a step into the mainstream without losing his edge. This shrewd ensemble comedy revolves around three couples. A waterproofing specialist named Noah (Benjamin Ratner) tumbles into a hasty marriage to Zipporah (Frida Betrani), a clueless country-andwestern singer. Peter (Tom Schölte), the wisecracking CanLit prof, betrays his librarian wife (Nancy Sivak) with a slutty student. And Shane (Vincent Gale), an embittered architect, gets jealous when his wife (Parker) launches her own architecture career in a high-powered firm.

Although Sweeney sets a distinct tone, and threads the comedy with a needling so-

dal critique, his movie feels more acted than directed. Borrowing improv techniques from British filmmaker Mike Leigh, he built the script out of workshops with his cast. And while admiring Egoyan and Cronenberg, he doesn’t share their approach. “There’s a kind of Toronto style,” says Sweeney, “and there’s a West Coast style, which is not as much about the psyche, not as dark, and more behaviourally driven.”

Then there’s the East Coast whimsy of Rare Birds, which taps into Newfoundland’s tradition of wry humour. Its director, Sturla Gunnarsson, lives in Toronto, but was born in Iceland. And his films tend to convey a vivid sense of location, from civil war in El Salvador (Diplomatic Immunity) to social chaos in Bombay (Such a Long Journey). After shooting on the Rock, says Gunnarsson, “I seem to be inching my way back to Iceland.” His next movie, in fact, is a Canadian-Icelandic co-production of Beowulf.

As a director who doesn’t write his own scripts, Gunnarsson has never enjoyed the cachet of auteurs who employ a more selfconscious style. “I think a director’s work shouldn’t be seen,” argues the 50-year-old filmmaker, who cut his teeth making documentaries. “You know what John Ford said about directing: point the camera at the actor.” And in Rare Birds, which Edward Riche adapted from his own novel, Gunnarsson captures richly detailed performances from Hurt—and from former Codeo member Andy Jones.

Jones plays Alphonse, a nutty Newfoundlander who has built a “recreational submarine vehicle,” and salvaged a stack of contraband cocaine. Hurt portrays his friend Dave, a haute cuisine chef who owns a failing restaurant on a remote inlet. Suddenly he is back in business when

birders start flocking to the area—after Alphonse has spread false rumours that an extinct duck species has been sighted nearby. Lions Gate Films, the Torontobased producer of the $5-million movie, insisted on casting a marquee actor. But Hurt, who carries off a subtle Newfoundland accent, is at home in the role of a dazed and confused introvert. And as his love interest, Molly Parker slips in and out of the movie like a warm breeze. Asked about her chemistry with Hurt, Gunnarsson says, without missing a beat: “Molly has chemistry with everybody.”

Parker, who has moved from Vancouver to Los Angeles, is the It Girl of Canadian cinema. Ever since launching her career as a necrophile in Kissed (1996), she’s been making weirdness credible. “But I’ve probably exhausted what I can do with

psycho-sexual movies,” she told me last week over coffee, just before rushing off to find an outfit for opening night. “It’s been a luxury to pursue movies that don’t have to be marketable in the mainstream. On the other hand, a lot of people are interested in making movies that people will see.”

Casting marquee names is one way to do that. But it can produce some strange quirks of casting. In Picture Claire, California’s Juliette Lewis, who doesn’t speak a word of French, stars as a Québécoise woman adrift in Toronto who doesn’t speak a word of English. Whether Lewis pulls off this feat of cross-cultural contortion remains to be seen—because director Bruce McDonald {Highway 61) was still working on the film last week, it wasn’t available for advance screening.

Canadian cinema’s Jekyll and Hyde per-

sonality—flipping between commercial ambition and creative mischief—is perhaps no more apparent than in Suddenly Naked, a comedy by Vancouver director Anne Wheeler. It stars Wendy Crewson, a seasoned Canadian actress who works both sides of the border. In Suddenly Naked, she plays a famous novelist with writers block who has an affair with a promising writer half her age. Acting above and beyond the call of duty, and sitting still for two bubble-bath scenes, Crewson carves a funny, believable character from a silly script. Although the dialogue pops with “writerly” repartee, Suddenly Naked plays like a deliciously bad TV movie—one that ends with our heroine giving a reading at a ridiculous facsimile of a PEN benefit. Only in Canada.

Quebec’s cinema, meanwhile, continues to march to its own beat, and even its young filmmakers show surprising maturity. IS Ange de goudron, Denis Chouinard’s tragicomic story of Algerian immigrants, is a masterful fusion of lyrical and political drama. With Manages—set in the Victorian culture of 19th-century rural Quebec—Catherine Martin crafts a sternly formal yet elegant feminist morality tale. And in Bernard Emond’s La Femme qui boit, an almost unbearably austere drama set in the Fifties, Elise Guilbaut brings scary conviction to her role as a woman descending into alcoholic hell.

On a brighter note, André Turpin’s Un Crabe dans la tête reveals an energetic talent, even if his story is archly contrived: after a diving mishap, an underwater photographer loses his equilibrium, and ricochets through a series of giddy infatuations. With surreal riffs on the rapture of the deep, Turpin displays the visual flair that, as a cinematographer, he brought to Denis Villeneuve’s Maelstrom (2000). But here he offers more rapture than depth.

So many movies by Canadian writerdirectors are confined to a world no larger than their their own imagination—in Century Hotel, David Weaver’s ambitious but erratic first feature, it’s a single hotel room spanning a century of guests. But with Atanarjuat, the horizon seems unlimited. Now showcased in Toronto after its triumph in Cannes, Zacharias Kunuk’s directing debut is the world’s first Inuit feature. Based on a 4,000-year-old legend, it’s an epic of Homeric scale, a drama staged with documentary authenticity in

the Arctic beauty of Baffin Island.

Canada’s documentary tradition, meanwhile, continues to mutate. Paul Cowan’s Westray paints a harrowing chronicle of the 1992 disaster that killed 26 coal miners in Nova Scotia. Cowan weaves interviews of the victims’ wives with dramatic re-creations—a risky technique, but Cowan avoids the tabloid TV clichés. And although the film’s duet style of male-female narration seems forced, Westray conveys the tragedy, and lays blame, with heartbreaking pathos.

Lynne Stopkewich, who directed Parker’s necrophilia number in Kissed (1996), takes a documentary turn with Lilith on Top, which chronicles Sarah McLachlan’s final Lilith Fair tour in 1999. There are some magical moments, notably when the Pretenders perform. But for a concert movie, there are too many talking heads, and not enough music.

Peter Lynch, who likes to push the documentary form into poetic overdrive, offers Cyberman, his latest portrait of eccentric obsession. With Project Grizzly ( 1996), he gave us Troy Hurtubise, a man trying to build a bear-proof suit of armour. Cyberman plumbs the wired mind of University of Toronto professor Steve Mann, a geek provocateur who creates wearable computers. One of Mann’s inventions is the “eye tap” camera, hidden in a pair of dark glasses, which sends video images directly to a Web site. There are amusing scenes of Mann coverdy shooting a chain-store employee ordering Lynch to stop videotaping-—while Mann protests that he himself is being taped, without permission, by the security cameras. As the film explores issues of surveillance, Mann gets a little tiresome. But when we see him “dusting” time—photographing Manhattan at night with gigantic flashbulbs—Cyberman transcends the media politics with exquisite visuals.

The Frank Truth looks at a more prosaic bunch of media iconoclasts, Michael Bate and the Ottawa crew who run Frank magazine. Directed by Rick Caine, this documentary offers a revealing inside look at the boys club behind the rag. But giving Frank fair and balanced treatment seems too kind. And it’s amazing that Canada has room for journalism about journalists who prey on other journalists —a loop of voyeurism worthy of an Egoyan movie. ED