Emerging from the TIFF blitz of opening weekend is a bit like returning home after your first term at university: everything is in the same place, but your gaze, now hopped up on newness, makes it all otherworldly.
Am I really Anne in the here and now?
Laundry isn’t new. It’s still there.
Then there’s the back twinge after twisting and leaning too fast to pick up said laundry.
Yup. I’m here. Wincing and writing…
Here, in Part One of my TIFF reports, are some early stand outs in a stretch of seventeen films I’ve screened since opening night. All echo what Hungarian director László Nemes called,
First up for me on opening night was Nemes’ film, Son of Saul, a masterful directorial debut. Saul is a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of Jewish prisoners charged with cleaning the gas chambers of Auschwitz. This is horrifying material for a filmmaker to tread yet Nemes keeps it tight, in close-ups of Saul’s face and only what Saul himself can see for most of the film, leaving most of the grim background in brief glimpses. Saul’s mission throughout is to find a rabbi to give a young boy a proper burial in secret. As Saul, actor Géza Röhrig is a revelation, as is the audio design wrapping around the viewer in a ruthless and punishing medley of sound. In a fascinating post-film Q and A, Nemes detailed his frustrations with a genre often steeped in sentiment: the visceral experience of the death camps was missing. Not here. Profoundly moving, I found it hard to breathe for most of it, and unlike anything I’ve seen before. Intense, devastating, and essential, Son of Saul is a film I will never forget. Neither did the Cannes jury who awarded it with the Grand Prix earlier this year.
Elsewhere on opening night, Montreal-born director Jean-Marc Vallée’s film Demolition also concerns itself with survival, even if million miles away tonally from Son of Saul. Here, surviving barely, is Davis Mitchell, a New York investment banker struggling to feel something in the aftermath of his wife’s death. Playing yet another unhinged character with great skill -last year, he wowed me with Nightcrawler- Jake Gyllenhaal is a reason to catch this film when it opens here April 2016. If the premise; a meditation on grief’s unpredictable manifestations; falls into certain trope, the script itself is provocative, if implausible in parts. Screenwriter Bryan Sipe told the TIFF audience that he likes underdogs who have to fight for their happiness ( “Haven’t you ever wanted to smash the shit out of something?”) and thus we have Gyllenhaal’s character, who begins a curious journey in smashing things, including an entire house, to deconstruct his own numbness.
This is a movie for writers and yes, it pleased this one for avoiding the maudlin and going for the merry: there’s humour, wit, and irreverence to be found here, and a playlist chosen by the director as music is used as a plot turn-Davis begins to notice it as the film progresses. Mostly I embraced this idea posited by Sipe and Vallée; that a guy who doesn’t care anymore can say and do whatever he wants.
That’s a fun thing for a writer.
Bryan Sipe, screenwriter
More emotional wallops were to be found at the Canadian premiere of Room, an adaptation of Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue’s bestseller. I loved this book and was wary of any film version. Worry not, fellow Room fans for here is a thing of wonder, mostly in the form of a gifted young Canadian actor, Jacob Tremblay, who charmed all of us lucky enough to have seen this incredible film by Irish director Lenny Abrahamson. Tremblay is matched in talent by Brie Larson, as a mother kidnapped at seventeen and kept captive in a tiny shed, where she gives birth to Tremblay’s character after being raped by her captor (this occurs before the story begins). Like the films above, this is a story swirling around the survival of horror. And yes, all of my companions sobbed. Donoghue, who adapted her own book for the screen, now says she’s caught the screenwriting fever: a good thing if Room is any indication.
Other tales of survival worth a mention here: a beautiful story of sisters in a remote forest after a continent-wide power failure, Patricia Rozema’s Into the Forest is one of my favourites so far. Gorgeous cinematography, gripping narrative, powerhouse acting: this is all good stuff, but what gripped me most was the stunning authenticity of a sibling relationship. Actors Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood hung out for a year before the shoot began to establish a believable sisterly intimacy and the result touched this mother of daughters. Rozema avoids cliché at every turn and it shows. Don’t miss out on this portrait of immense courage when it opens wide in theatres.
Survival is also the undercurrent of Dheepan, winner of the Palme D’or this year at Cannes. I loved Paris-born director Jacques Audiard’s last TIFF entry, Rust and Bone, and this latest effort from the director did not disappoint. The story follows a Tamil freedom fighter who escapes the civil war in Sri Lanka with an improvised family and settles in a housing project outside Paris. Consistently immersive, Dheepan is one of the most absorbing tales of displacement I’ve seen yet. Both tender and terrifying in moments, with strong performances, this is a film laced with compassion and hope so you know already I’m in.
A final mention from opening stretch goes to The Lady in the Van, an adaptation of the play by playwright Alan Bennett, and perhaps the most British film I’ve seen in ages-in both spirit and execution. This is a “slice” more than a film, with slim pickings where dramatic tension is concerned, but a rich character portrait and a story already familiar for those who saw the hit play or read Bennett’s memoir: we are told at the beginning that the film is “a mostly true story”. I never saw the play, but the film is a bit stagey for my tastes-I got tired of seeing the same street, the same house, the same yellow van inhabited by homeless old bat Miss Shepherd. What is not tiresome is the performance delivered by Maggie Smith, here reprising a role she performed on stage. Smith at eighty years old is a goddess of timing and emotional subtlety and can lift anything off the page, as she does here. And yes, this too dwells in the land of survival tales for both the playwright and the real lady in the van who lived in his London driveway for fifteen years.
That’s it from this fangirl ready for the second half. Coming up: TIFT Part Two: the drivel and disappointment of what was billed as “the sexiest film of the festival”, and Part Three: the biggest thrills.
See you in line!