Film

LOST IN THE MAELSTROM

Toronto’s festival served up the bizarre, the famous and the unforgettable

Brian D. Johnson September 23 2002
Film

LOST IN THE MAELSTROM

Toronto’s festival served up the bizarre, the famous and the unforgettable

Brian D. Johnson September 23 2002

LOST IN THE MAELSTROM

Film

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Toronto’s festival served up the bizarre, the famous and the unforgettable

THREE ICELANDIC directors walk into a bar. One of them, Baltasar Kormákur, has just come from premiering The Sea at the Toronto International Film Festival. Right before the climactic scene, of a man torching a fish-packing plant, an alarm went off in the theatre—the popcorn machine was on fire—and the audience had to evacuate. But what’s weird, says Kormákur, is that when he shot the scene, in a real fish-packing plant in Iceland, the special effects blaze got out of control, and the whole place burned to the ground.

Not to be outdone, the other two Icelandic directors, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson and Canada’s Sturla Gunnarsson, offer a story no less dramatic. During last year’s festival, Fridriksson was booked to fly to Los Angeles via Boston on American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to hit the World Trade Center. But Gunnarsson, who was celebrating the premiere of Rare Birds, kept him drinking vodka into the wee hours of Sept. 11, so Fridriksson changed his reservation, for a penalty of $150. “He likes to say that his life is worth $150,” says Gunnarsson, toasting his friend’s health. “I like to say I saved his life.”

That kind of bizarre convergence is typical of the Toronto festival, an event that’s always tinged with a little madness. For its 27th annual edition (Sept. 5-14), stars descended on the media like a plague of locusts—Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ralph Fiennes, Sophia Loren, Sigourney Weaver, Robert Duvall, Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and Sting, to name a few. This year, I did my best to avoid the celebrity scourge, and focus on the films—345 films from 50 countries. (Among them were 42 new features from Canada, including co-productions, and I’ll survey them separately next week).

The Toronto festival, second only to Cannes in importance, offers an embarrassment of riches. And as you scramble to take it all in, the pictures start to swim together. Immersed in a flood of images,

cultures and genres, you become a kind of passive filmmaker, editing your own private movie out of the maelstrom.

A rough cut:

AFTER OVERDOSING on five movies from five countries during the first day of the festival, I’m jolted awake by nightmares at 4:30 a.m. The five films seemed unrelated at the time. But, addled by cinematic jet lag, I become a conspiracy theorist, convinced they’re all about hair and makeup. Setting the pace, fittingly, is Jet Lag, a delectable French confection in which two strangers (Binoche and Jean Reno) spend the night stranded in an airport. Binoche plays a beautician with lacquered hair and so much foundation she looks more like Elizabeth Hurley. Reno is a gourmet chef with a heavy stubble. The big dramatic moment occurs when Binoche washes her hair and removes her makeup.

Then there was Japón, a slow Mexican descent into neo-realism. It’s about a guy in serious need of a shave who sequesters himself in a poor Mexican village to commit suicide. The peasants play themselves. The guy has sex with a really old, wrinkled, complacent woman, who seems as surprised as we are. No one in this movie is given hair and makeup. I still have no idea why it’s called Japón. There are no Japanese people in it, and not one mention of Japan. They should have called it Hair and Makeup.

Next up was Heaven, an immaculate thriller directed by Germany’s Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) from a script by the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Cate Blanchett plays a well-meaning terrorist in Italy who kills the wrong people, escapes to the Tuscan countryside, and shaves her head. For an actress, that must have been one of those brave sacrifices, like Renée Zellweger eating pastries to become Bridget Jones.

Which brings us to White Oleander.

Zellweger plays one of three foster mothers in this episodic drama about a teenage girl (Alison Lohman) whose mom (Michelle Pfeiffer) is behind bars for murdering her boyfriend. Don’t let the title fool you. White Oleander is totally about hair. Pfeiffer and her daughter both start out with long blond tresses. But as the girl burns through a string of foster mothers—a white-trash Christian alcoholic, a Russian black-marketeer, an unloved Hollywood actress—her hair goes through

more character-revealing permutations than Milla Jovovich’s Joan of Arc in The Messenger. Pfeiffer’s hair, however, stays constant, because her character is tough and no one’s going to change her. How you get Hollywood hair and makeup while serving a life sentence is beyond me.

The fifth movie? Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her. A wonderful film. Funny, touching, unpredictable, lovely to look at—and, as it turns out, the best picture I’ll see at the festival. It’s about two women in

a coma and the men who love them. One woman’s a bullfighter, the other’s a dancer. The story turns on an unlikely romance between the unconscious dancer and the orderly who grooms her. And the movie’s talisman, the object that evokes its most poignant moment, is ... a comb.

AS THE DAYS go by, more serious patterns emerge, including a string of incandescent female roles. France offers the iiber-stylish 8 Femmes, a mille feuille

mystery/musical with a Dream Team that includes Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Isabelle Huppert and Emmanuelle Béart. Morphing from mother to whore to harridan, Miranda Richardson pulls off a three-character tour de force as the poisoned apple of a schizophrenic’s eye in David Cronenberg’s Spider. And in Morvern Callar, a delirious road movie by Scotland’s Lynne Ramsay, Samantha Morton unleashes raw outlaw energy as a store clerk who takes credit for a novel left with a suicide note from her boyfriend.

Meanwhile, Julianne Moore shines as a suburban goddess in Far From Heaven, a faux-Fifties melodrama that’s so archly designed even the autumn leaves seem tailored to match Moore’s flame-orange hair. Exquisitely directed by Todd Haynes ('Velvet Goldmine), it tracks the train wreck of a model family derailed by taboos of race and gender—the perfect husband (Dennis Quaid) turns out to be a homosexual and the perfect wife (Moore) gets scandalously close to the black gardener. The only false note is a glimpse of Quaid’s contemporary six-pack abs, an anachronism almost as jarring as the Ikea decor in Max, a portrait of Hitler as a young artist.

Another period piece with a flamboyant female role was Frida. Hispanic star Salma Hayek, who co-produced the film, conjures up Mexican painter Frida Kalho with credible passion and a physical authenticity that goes beyond the famous unibrow. Kalho’s life is too eventful for one movie—the crippling trolley crash, the tempestuous marriage to Diego Rivera, the tryst with Trotsky—and the paint-bynumbers script rushes to fill in the blanks. But director Julie Taymor (The Lion King, Titus) works with a rich palette. She turns a tale of art ’n’ communism, and pain ’n’ sex, into a picture suitable for framing.

It is odd, however, to see the life of such a subversive artist represented in so conventional a fashion. The same paradox affects 8 Mile, otherwise known as the Eminem movie. Universal Studios unveiled it as a work-in-progress, a tactic that seemed designed to generate buzz

and fend off early reviews, for what we saw looked finished. The movie is a rap Rocky. Drawing on Eminem’s own life, it charts the attempt of a trailer-trash white boy to make it in Detroit’s black hiphop scene. With Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) at the helm, it unfolds as a rollicking gang movie, an American Graffiti in the ’hood. And what’s remarkable is how Eminem emerges unscathed by formula. Punctuated by the lightning wit of his rap numbers is a performance that proves he can act. Eminem may be cast as White America’s next Elvis, but his sullen charisma suggests a James Dean in the rough.

Gang movies were all the rage. From Brazil came City of God, an action epic that traces gang warfare in the slums of Rio de Janeiro through two decades. The troops are mere children, and director Fernando Meirelles recruited his child actors from the ghettos he depicts onscreen. In a glossier vein, Better Luck Tomorrow follows an Asian-American posse of overachieving high school kids who get stellar grades, deal drugs and play with guns. You hear cellphones go off in the oddest places during a film festival. But this movie opens with one ringing from under a suburban lawn—where a body lies buried. Boys will be boys.

Much of the festival belonged to young actors—from the aboriginal runaways in Rabbit-Proof Fence to Jake Gyllenhaal in Moonlight Mile. Gyllenhaal portrays a young man who moves in with his fiancée’s parents after she’s killed in a shooting. As the father, Dustin Hoffman plays the kind of brow-beaten entrepreneur who might have pitched plastics in The Graduate, with Susan Sarandon as his irrepressible wife. Set in the early 70s, in the shadow of Vietnam, this is the kind of intergenerational drama that will be remembered at Oscar time.

The Hollywood galas also included at least one turkey, The Four Feathers. In this handsome but fatuous epic, Heath Ledger co-stars with Kate Hudson as Harry, a British officer’s son who chickens out of the war in Sudan, then changes his mind. With a noble savage by his side, a North African Tonto, Harry becomes a Lone Ranger out to save the redcoats. The timing of a pro-colonial saga about the romance of fighting Muslim hordes in the

desert is dubious, to say the least. And as Indian director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) tries to bury the politics in the sands of spectacle, he only digs himself in deeper.

There was, however, no shortage of anti-colonial films. Australian director Phillip Noyce delivered two: Rabbit-Proof Fence, a powerful story of abducted aboriginal children trying to find their way home, and The Quiet American, about America’s first incursion into Vietnam. Finally there was 11’09”01, the controversial collection of shorts from 11 international filmmakers on the topic of Sept. 11.

It was not just a memorial. With images of Afghan refugee children, Chilean torture victims, and an Israeli car bombing, it suggests that America doesn’t own a monopoly on the world’s grief, any more than Hollywood owns a monopoly on world cinema. Still, one of the anthology’s most memorable images comes from American director Sean Penn: an old widower is woken up by sunlight flooding his Manhattan apartment for the first time—as the shadow from one of the collapsing twin towers slowly sinks past his window. lifl