Sunday, September 26, 2010

AFF #4: Some Are Born to Endless Night

It's a funny thing about festivals: Watch any random sampling of movies in a concentrated period of time, and eventually a theme will begin to emerge. And the major theme of the thirtieth Atlantic Film Festival (at least in my experience) was death. The best film I saw by a rather wide margin was Apichatpong Weerasethakul's mystical Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) about a man dying of kidney failure in a Thai farmhouse. There, he's visited by spirits, recalls his past lives as an ox and a princess, and describes a vision he had of the future. Joe said in an interview in Cinema-Scope that he still believes in reincarnation, but that he has doubts and would like to see more scientific evidence. The film's ending suggests that we not only live again and again, but that we live multiple lives simultaneously.

I was also impressed by Woody Allen's atheistic You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010), a multi-protagonist comedy-drama set in London that only seems to be about romance, but ends in an unexpected way that makes you realize that the real subject of the film, lurking just behind the merriment, is death. I left the theatre feeling profoundly satisfied, making this the festival's most unlikely feel good movie. And then there was Yael Hersonsky's powerful documentary A Film Unfinished (2010) about the making of a Nazi propaganda film in the Warsaw Ghetto in the Spring of 1942--not to mention Javier Fuentes-Léon's disappointing Undertow (2009), a magic realist coming out story set in a Peruvian fishing village that suggested a cross between Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Ghost (1990).

To this inventory, I have two more films to add. First, Mike Leigh's Another Year (2010) is about a woman growing old alone. The plot is about a year in the lives of a happily married couple named Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), and Gerri's unhappily single coworker, Mary (Lesley Manville), and as the seasons change, so does the film's colour scheme, reflecting the emotional tenor of the movie as it moves from a sad, blue spring to a cheerful, green summer, followed by a tense, brown autumn, and finally a winter that's sombre and black. I felt that the film peaked with the third segment, and after that, since there's really nothing left to say about how miserable and sad and pathetic Mary is, the story seems to be spinning its wheels. Leigh's mastery is evident throughout (a seemingly offhand remark turns out several reels later to be an ingeniously subtle bit of foreshadowing), but overall this strikes me as the least of his films since Career Girls (1997).

As in Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), Leigh's major insight here is that some people seem to have a natural gift for happiness which others simply lack. Leigh's most memorable characters are often the unhappiest--David Thewlis' existential drifter in Naked (1993), Brenda Blethyn and Timothy Spall as estranged siblings in Secrets & Lies (1996), the deranged driving instructor (Eddie Marsan) in Happy-Go-Lucky--and here Manville steals the show as a lonely woman heading into middle-age who drinks too much (even for a movie about British people, there's a lot of drinking in this film) and has a pathetic crush on Tom and Gerri's grown son, Joe (Oliver Maltman). I was hoping for a bit of spring at the end of the film's long, grim winter, but Leigh just fades to black on a note of despair, which I found unsatisfying. At one point in the film, Ken (Peter Wight), an old friend of Tom's who's even more of a loser than Mary, sports a t-shirt reading, "Less Thinking, More Drinking." And after a year with these characters, I felt like having a stiff drink myself.

The Dead Weight of a Quarrel Hangs

Incendies (2010)--Denis Villeneuve's ambitious new film about the civil war in Lebanon, adapted from a play by Wajdi Mouawad--is a kind of unofficial companion piece to Villeneuve's earlier Polytechnique (2009), another story about massacres and motherhood. (That film was a dramatization of the 1989 shooting at the École Polytechnique in Montreal.) After the haunting opening sequence of child soldiers having their heads shaved, scored to Radiohead's "You and Whose Army?," the story moves to Montreal where adult siblings, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux) and Simon Marwan (Maxim Gaudette), go to their lawyer's office for the reading of their mother's will. In the will, their mother, Narwal (Lubna Azabal), stipulates that Jeanne and Simon must deliver two letters--one to the father they never met; the other to a half-brother they didn't know existed--before they can place a tombstone on her grave. As Jeanne and Simon discover more about who Narwal was, there are flashbacks to her early life in Lebanon. As a young woman, we learn, Narwal fell in love with a Muslim refugee from Palestine, which was a disgrace to her Christian family. After giving birth to a son, Narwal was sent to live with an uncle in a city to the north, and the child was placed in an orphanage. (Importantly, Narwal's mother tattooed three dots on the baby's heel so that Narwal would be able to recognize him.) Several years later, when the war breaks out between Christians and Muslims, Narwal returns to the south in search of her son, and there she witnesses atrocities at the hands of Christian nationalists that radicalize her, leading her to fight on the side of the Muslims.

I'll leave you to discover subsequent revelations for yourself, except to say that I found the ending a little too dramatically perfect. Obviously all stories depend on coincidence to some degree, but here, the Big Reveal felt contrived in order to make the point that Villeneuve (and presumably Mouawad) wanted to make about this conflict. And while this is clearly the most ambitious feature that Villeneuve (a native of Trois-Rivières based in Montreal) has ever attempted, in terms of its overall narrative structure (which is essentially that of a procedural, not so very different from The Secret in Their Eyes [2009]), it's also his most conventional with Best Foreign Language Oscar written all over it. In Polytechnique and now this film, Villenueve seems to find it inconceivable that he might somehow reconcile the flair for the fantastic that characterized his exciting early features Un 32 août sur terre (1998) and Maelström (2000) with his ambition to grapple with serious issues in his later work. Consequently, he's become precisely what I used to admire him for not being: another square, middlebrow Canadian director like Thom Fitzgerald or Sarah Polley.

La Nuit américaine

Two other themes of this year's Atlantic Film Festival were nighttime photography (I still contend that Uncle Boonmee has the best I've ever seen, in any of my past lives) and stories about young lovers. On the latter count, the best film I saw was obviously Xavier Dolan's Les Amours imaginaires (still the Québécois film to beat for 2010) for its Wong Kar-wai inspired slow motion shots of the two leads walking down Montreal streets, memorably set to Dalida's "Bang Bang," and because Dolan seems to get that these people are idiots, making this one of the funniest films of the festival. (Its treatment of imaginary loves is, in any event, a lot more enjoyable and less depressing than Another Year's.) I was also charmed by Ingrid Veninger's Modra (which I would hope is not the best English Canadian feature of 2010) about a pair of cute kids from Toronto who have a mostly cute time together in Slovakia, which I liked mainly for the beguiling lead performances by Hallie Switzer and Alexander Gammal.

I was less keen on David Robert Mitchell's The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010), even though next to Modra it's obviously more accomplished as storytelling and more ambitious (but not that ambitious), crisscrossing between several plot lines that unfold over a twenty-four hour period--a structure that inevitably invites comparisons with Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (1993). However, I wasn't sure if the film wanted me to feel nostalgic for my lost days of youth (in which case it failed because the kids don't do anything very exciting that would make me think, "Oh man, I was I were a teenager again"--quite the opposite, in fact), or whether it wanted to show things as they really are (in which case it's authentic but just not particularly interesting). I wanted either the film to be lighter and snappier, or better still, darker and angrier. As it is, it's enjoyable but slight.

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