As the Toronto International Film Festival made its dazzling debut less than two weeks ago, so too did it make its regrettable departure. Yesterday’s awards reception at the Intercontinental Hotel officially closed this year’s festival, one that really left a resounding effect on moviegoers and industry reps alike.
A number of films received incredibly strong support from audiences, including The Conspirator, Sarah’s Key, and Potiche, all of which went on to secure film distribution in the United States. One of the festival’s main themes was the sweeping influence of French cinema, including the aformentioned Sarah’s Key and Potiche, as well the equally popular Little White Lies (Les Petits Mouchoirs), all of which were Gala Presentations and received standing ovations. In addition to producing all kinds of Oscars buzz, TIFF managed to provide some of the best customer service in the hard work and help of thousands of festival volunteers and staff. Going out with a bang, here’s week two of TIFF in review.
Women continue to take the business world by storm and if you’re not careful, Catherine Deneuve might just take your job too. In François Ozon’s foreign comedy, Deneuve plays Suzanne Pujol, the wife of an egotistical, sexist, and adulterous umbrella factory owner (Fabrice Luchini), and has no responsibilities except for domestic affairs—until her husband suffers a heart attack. She seeks the advice of a former flame, Maurice (Gérard Depardieu), who advises her to run the company until her husband recovers. With the help of Maurice and her children (Judith Godrèche and Jérémie Renier), Suzanne reconfigures operations at the factory following a strike against her husband’s dictatorial methods, and becomes the first uplifting boss the company has seen in a long time. But when it’s time for her to hang up the umbrella, she instead challenges her husband for the position and won’t go down without a fight. Furthermore, she begins to spend more time with Maurice; and, though the effects of a real-life affair can be widespread and devastating, Ozon manages to infuse the plot with tasteful and side-splitting French humour from beginning to end.
Deneuve’s legendary class and regality mixed with her wit and bold personality make her the perfect actress for the role, while Depardieu’s cool and jovial demeanour provides a nice contrast to the despicable, yet entertaining antics skilfully portrayed by Luchini. The story is light yet poignant, and hilarious yet cruel, but most of all, even though the film takes place in the 70s, the same situations and relationships still resonate strongly. For that, Potiche is a winner in 2010. ★★★½
Legendary actor and director Robert Redford delves into the time of the American Civil War, as tensions flare between the Union and the Confederacy. As the northern states see a victory in their sights over the southern rebels, the nation’s hope is shattered when President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated by the crazed stage actor John Wilkes Booth. He and the other conspirators flee the scene, with some apprehended, one who gets away, and one shot dead: Booth (sorry for ruining the surprise, but it’s history, after all!). The authorities soon arrest another suspect, this time a woman, who is the mother of the escaped man. Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a devout mother from the south, is accused of welcoming the conspirators into her boarding house and providing them with a location to discuss their plan to murder the president. Which she did—her son John is one of them. A trial ensues, even though the military tribunal’s preconceived contempt for the woman almost ensures she’ll be proved guilty.
The southern senator (Tom Wilkinson) defending her realizes he can’t influence the Union into giving her a fair hearing, so he pushes his young northern protégé Frederick Aiken (James MacAvoy), a lawyer and military hero, to take on the case. Aiken is strongly opposed to defending a woman whose rebel countrymen he nearly fought to the death, but his moral obligation to the law forces him to represent Mary and as he gets further into the case, he discovers she may in fact be innocent. He soon becomes aware that these men of law have no regard for justice whatsoever, rejecting every claim he makes and turning every one of his witnesses against him. He is shunned from high society and loses all his colleagues’ previous respect. He realizes that he can’t emerge victorious from the case either way: if he loses he’ll seem like too inexperienced a lawyer, and if he wins he’ll be seen as a traitor. Aiken’s last hope is to have Mary’s daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) give testimony to her brother’s guilt in order to prove her mother’s innocence. Everyone around Aiken condemns him for supposedly wavering loyalty, but he feels he must do what is right by the constitution, by justice, and by his heart, even if it means losing everything.
MacAvoy gives a wonderful performance as a reputable war captain, and commands the screen as he infuses his character with bravery, compassion, and the desire to seek justice at all costs. He masterfully manages to evoke a nervousness in Aiken, who is clearly lacking in legal experience, yet transforms the character with perception and confidence, shocking both the fictional jury and the real-life audience.
Robin Wright instils every ounce of pain and suffering into her battered character, and is quite spectacular to watch, even when her character is silenced by the gravity of her situation. The conviction she delivers as a mother protecting her guilty son is so genuinely and effortlessly conveyed, as many of her past performances have been. The cast also includes the various talents of Kevin Kline, Justin Long, Alexis Bledel, Evan Rachel Wood, Steven Root, and Jonathan Groff, all of whom make up an American dream-team of actors and actresses. ★★★★
Rodrigo Cortés’ claustrophobic thriller Buried was perhaps the only film of its kind at this year’s festival. With a cast of one, Ryan Reynolds literally commanded the screen for 94 minutes as the action never leaves the confines of the wooden box in which truck driver Paul Conroy is buried alive. The only items available to him are his cell, a Zippo lighter, and a small flask of water, all of which are slowly becoming less and less useful. Though one might expect the film to become dull within the first 20 minutes (really, how much can be done in the same scene for an hour and a half?) you could not be in for more of a shock. Just when you think there’s nothing left to explore, an entirely new element manifests itself and makes the audience gasp and squeeze their eyes closed. We are along for the ride with Reynolds and feel just as trapped as he does in every single moment; we feel his pain as he struggles to move around, as well as his frustration at the ineptitude of emergency phone line operators. Cortés’ real skill is in the way he adjusts the camera around Reynolds, so as to show the fear in his eyes or the beads of sweat trickling down his throat. The use of lighting and colour is also a key feature of the film; when Reynolds’ character is bathed in a green light, it seems to calm both him and the audience; when the regular white light is on, it reassures us that he is buying himself more time; and when the red light fills the space, an uneasiness creeps in and sends chills through your veins. There is a definite psychological element at play which is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock, and even moreso of the unknown, as we are left guessing right up to the film’s final moments. ★★★★
Every year, the festival has a favourite film that people don’t want to stop talking about, and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan could very well be this year’s “it” movie. When Nina (Natalie Portman), a New York City ballerina, gets the part of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake, she pushes herself even harder to be able to nail the other half of the performance as the Black Swan. She is perfect for the White Swan, but is too innocent and not impulsive enough to play the dark side…yet. As she begins to spend time with Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer and a less-than-ideal influence on her, Nina begins to transform into something visceral, both in a mental and physical sense. Her impulses become nervous ticks, and she becomes exposed to a world that didn’t exist before. Her desire to be perfect in her pursuit of becoming the Swan Queen overrides everything else, and her decisions converge into a dramatic climax from which there is no going back. Portman’s portrayal is quite simply one of the most invested and impressive female performances of any of this year’s films: she transforms from a sweet, timid girl into a dangerous, disillusioned fanatic with a fiery passion and a disturbing mindset, which is unlike any of her previous cinematic roles. Nothing is off-limits for Portman when it comes to acting, and the level of comfortableness she projects in difficult situations is incredibly admirable. Kunis emerges as a contender for the supporting actress role, as she too completely invests herself in whatever is expected of her, and examines the complexity of her character by portraying various different emotions and states of mind. Aronofsky’s shadowed corners and eerie encounters between characters do an incredible job of creating spooky moments, as does the music throughout the entire film. It infuses a life of its own into the plot, and sends goosebumps along your arms as your mind adjusts itself to the peculiar surroundings. Black Swan is shocking, provocative, agonizing—and completely mesmerizing. ★★★★★
Little White Lies
Guillaume Canet’s film will disappoint those expecting ruthless scandals and cold-hard confrontations, but pleasantly surprise those that like some comedy in a serious film. Funnier than its title suggests, Canet’s film examines a group of friends on vacation together in the countryside of France, but in the back of their minds is the thought of their friend lying unconscious in a Paris hospital after a motorcycle accident. They try to make the most of their trip by boating and bonding, but when certain secrets start revealing themselves, everyone is on edge, trying to cope with the news they receive. However, with situations like a 35-year-old man trying to decipher a woman’s text messages, Marion Cottilard on a raft on the open water, and a man’s pant leg getting stuck in the mud and causing him to freak out, the film is absolutely chock-full of laughs—none of which are lost in translation, but even enhanced by a uniquely French humour. Nevertheless, the film’s ultimate sense of gravity is not lost, and the humour is tastefully done in order to provide a perfect balance of both ends of the emotional spectrum. ★★★★
Gilles Pacquet Brenner’s emotional tale of a Jewish family’s separation during World War II is the focus of Sarah’s Key. Sarah locks her little brother in a closet to hide him from the police when their house is raided., and promises to return for him, but is taken to the French camps and separated from her parents. Rather than depicting only the traditional brutality and inhumanity of officers during the war, Brenner showcases a glimpse of mercy that may have been more common at the time than we expect.
One officer looks into Sarah’s eyes, and helps her escape under the barbed wire before any of the others notice. This scene is one of many emotionally-charged moments in Sarah’s life, as the audience is taken back and forth between the time of the war and present day. In the latter, a woman (Kristen Scott-Thomas) is working on a magazine feature about the Jews during the war, and is looking to uncover the truth about what happened to Sarah and her brother all those years ago.
Scott-Thomas gives a strong performance as a character striving to lay some demons to rest, both her own and those of Sarah’s family. Aiden Quinn, though only playing a small role as Sarah’s son, manages to convey an absolutely genuine revelation when he finally discovers some of his mother’s true history 40 years later. Though the film touches you deeply at many points, there could have been a lot more development for Sarah’s character (as well as the subplot with her brother); instead, most of the film focuses on the present search of answers in retrospect, and so creates somewhat of a disconnect between the real experiences of Sarah and the stories that were simply recounted. ★★½