The Great Celluloid North: A Halftime Report from the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival

Every year at the Toronto International Film Festival is a little better than the last, as your humble critic-on-the-scene learns how to best navigate the chaos of the world’s biggest hub of movie culture. At long last, I’ve figured out how to worm my way into official afterparties and pre-festival screenings, the former of which has made the proceedings more fun and the latter of which has made it less stressful. (Hand to God, I made eye contact with Cardi B.) But I told the almost comically friendly customs agent that I’m in Canada for business and not pleasure, so in the interest of not getting apprehended by the mounties, my top priority remains the almighty cinema. A strong mix of new premieres and imports from the likes of Cannes, Venice, and Locarno this year, as aging masters contemplate oblivion and young guns launch all-out sensory assaults. I’ve organized some thoughts on the highlights of the festival’s first half below—don’t forget to check back next week for my final report summing up the next four days.

The Painted Bird

What is the utility of suffering on film? It’s a question that viewers of Václav Marhoul’s adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s infamous WWII novel may find themselves internally asking sometime around the fifth instance of animal cruelty. Or the second instance of pedophilia. Or the umpteenth rape. Or the part where vicious crows peck the scalp of a child (Petr Kotlár, deserving of a medal for extraordinary bravery) buried up to his neck, screaming as blood drips down his forehead and into his eyes. Marhoul includes snatches of breathtaking monochrome beauty among the man-made horrors, but there’s no shortage of “stop the ride, I want to get off” moments for the viewer (or at least, for this one, and I consider myself pretty hardy about that kind of thing). But the inability to make the violence and misery relent is almost entirely the point. 

There’s a big difference between understanding something and feeling something. It doesn’t take long for anyone to get the point that the Holocaust was a time of monumental pain; we all knew that already. But the individual’s sensation of there being no escape, of having gone far past the point of what’s necessary, of growing increasingly desperate for an end—that gets a person closer to an artistic subjectivity replicating one one-millionth of our boy’s experiences. Yes, it’s what we in the biz like to call a “tough sit.” It’s also worth the toll it demands of its captive audience, both for the hard-won humanity surfacing in the devastating final scene, as well as the shock to the senses that it provides. When the end credits finally bring the relief that the boy on-screen will never know, we exit the theater feeling more alive, and grateful to be so. 

About Endlessness

Roy Andersson’s detractors charge him with making the same movie over and over again, and while that has never actually been the case, his latest (and, at 76 drum-tight minutes, his briefest) feature clarifies the subtler differences of tone and ideology that have emerged over the past two decades. As in 2000’s international breakout Songs from the Second Floor, he’s assembled a collection of tragicomic sketches in still-life frames evoking a The Far Side omnibus set inside an existential black hole. A pair of embracing lovers float above an ashen Swedish metropolis, watching the tiny dramas of ordinary lives play out and occasionally commenting on them. Among them: a priest falling apart as he loses his faith in God, a loner with a crush on a girl watering plants, a caravan of war prisoners’ solemn trudge across a frosty wasteland. Some conclude with a despairing punch line, and others wait for one that never comes.

Now at age 76 and perhaps contemplating his own twilight years, Andersson has not quite softened his signature technique, but leavened it with flourishes of mercy. Andersson will most likely literally die before he allows a happy ending in one of his movies, and yet flickers of hope occasionally warm the ravishing, pallid greys and tans of the master’s palette. For those viewers familiar with the filmmaker’s work, it’s genuinely disarming to see him apply the same deadpan techniques to joy as he does misery. One exchange in which a man concludes that everything is “fantastic” may be the most moving Andersson has ever committed to celluloid. A marvel scaled to the technically massive and emotionally intimate, it’s nothing short of a Roy Andersson movie, the highest praise one can award in the given circumstances. 

The Twentieth Century

A quick primer on early-1900s Canadian politics, some background knowledge that will be of use to viewers of Matthew Rankin’s utterly batsoid biopic of former Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King: the guy steered the Great White North through World War II and kept a lid on Québécois separatism, but never really attained the status of a Churchill due to his lack of people skills and ineffectual presence. A lifelong bachelor and an unquestioning subscriber to superstitions, posterity remembers him as an odd duck. But history has nothing on Rankin’s revisionist, surrealist, wildly confabulated look into his pre-election years, which imagines his ascent to power as a parade of cuckoldry, fetishistic humiliation, and routine emasculation.

Leading man Dan Beirne, with his apple-face and slick of center-parted hair, hardly looks like the genuine article—this is both not the point and the entire point. Rankin, following the example of his mentor and fellow Winnipeger Guy Maddin, runs roughshod over factual reality on his way to a dream-realm of German Expressionist set design and floating inverted triangles. Beirne’s henpecked Mackenzie drifts through a world of cactus-handed men and mustachioed women, narwhal impalements, and so, so many Dadaist dick jokes. It will ultimately spit him out onto the seat of power, Rankin’s blackest joke being the way that idiots stumble into greatness they cannot possibly handle, and set Canada on track for its most momentous conflict. A goodly number of audience members walked out, but those intrepid weirdoes into The Forbidden Room (Rankin raids Maddin’s cast list and stylistic toolbox, his 16mm photography grainier than creole mustard) will be in paradise.

Anne at 13,000 Feet

People tend to talk about skydiving in symbolic terms. It’s about feeling something, sending a shock to your senses, looking death in the face and then winking as you pull the ripcord. For Anne (breakout star Deragh Campbell), a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, this extreme form of recreation may represent a tipping point in her struggle to keep it together. Between her polite yet concerned mother, a polite yet concerned best friend, and a polite yet concerned hookup, everyone recognizes that she needs help and can’t quite bring themselves to give it to her. Anne, meanwhile, revels in the awkwardness her behavior creates until she doesn’t; she likes how introducing her casual guyfriend as her “future husband” makes everyone in the conversation squirm, until he reacts just as one would expect.

As just-figuring-stuff-out-right-now character studies go, this one has more going for it than the typical Sundance export, both in Campbell’s engrossingly uncomfortable performance as well as the insights into the limits of our investment in people that aren’t always easy to be around. Director Kazik Radwanski works in tight handheld shots that put you right up in Anne’s grill and make you feel the full force of her presence, and with it the demands she makes as that one beloved yet tough-to-hang-with friend everyone’s got. Radwanski provides a glimpse into the interiority otherwise left unexplored, exposing her childlike impulses and capacity to be wounded. In other words, she’s a person, in all her odd, jagged angles.

Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s crowning achievement pits Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver against one another in a divorce proceeding that slides from amicability into acrimony as they come to realize just how irreconcilable their differences really are. He’s Charlie, a theater director successful enough to have landed his first MacArthur Grant and minor enough to barely have sufficient money for the legal ground war awaiting him. She’s Nicole, an actress once well-known for her scene-stealing role in a teen comedy, then lesser-known as Charlie’s constant muse, now slightly-better-known as she takes a clutch role on a TV pilot ordered to series. The problem is that it shoots in LA, Charlie would rather gargle formaldehyde than leave New York, and they’ve got a son (Azhy Robertson, raising the bar for his fellow child actors) caught in the middle. 

When the unstoppable force of Nicole’s career meets the immovable object of Charlie’s beloved theater company, the lawyers have to figure out the physics, and they play nasty. Representatives delectably played by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta cart out vicious character assassinations ripped from Kramer vs. Kramer (except articulated with Baumbach’s inimitable dialogue, somehow both wittier than real life and true to it), driving Charlie and Nicole to bare their teeth to each other outside of the conference rooms as well. These scenes are, to put it mildly, devastating. Anyone sensitive to depictions of arguing parents may be surprised to find themselves shaking with violent full-body sobs during the most intense showdown, a scene sure to be prominently featured in future highlight reels of Driver and Johansson’s long, storied careers. They’ve already established themselves as a couple of their generation’s most accomplished talents, and Baumbach knows it, putting them through their paces as each tries to act the other under the table. They manage to emerge on the other side without putting their son through hell; we’re left as the real collateral damage here.

Weathering With You

Makoto Shinkai made a name for himself with the crossover hit Your Name, an anime film that won over wide swaths of viewers cynical about the form. He’ll no doubt gain another round of converts with this sci-fi-inflected romantic fantasy, overwhelmingly beautiful enough to transcend the boundaries of taste we might think we have. Japan has been plunged into an unending rainy season, with the unusual exception of a single patch of light shining down on a rooftop shrine in Tokyo. That location becomes the nexus of the action between teen runaway Hodaka (voice of Kotaro Daigo) and his new friend Hina (voice of Nana Mori), who tumble into the heady high of first love. But she’s not like the other girls, and not in the “writes poetry” way; Mina’s a “sunshine girl,” a once-thought-mythical person capable of controlling the weather. This extraordinary ability brings them together, first as business partners (they start a clever nice-day-for-pay service, promising clement conditions for a fee) and then as more. What makes her special, however, also requires sacrifice.

Beyond a collection of haltingly gorgeous tableau—a massive cloud spitting the couple out into a brilliant cobalt sky, to cite the most memorable example—Shinkai has assembled an urgent text about climate change and the inevitable drowning of our planet. Most curiously, however, Shinkai doesn’t approach the eventuality of apocalypse with the abject dread of most Western filmmakers working with the same themes. Reflecting an environmentalism of humility, Shinkai posits that we have only ever been blights on the natural world, and that Mother Nature reserves every right to purge us from it. He finds a peace in oblivion, in the seas rising so that our planet may reset itself and begin anew. Bolstering novel ideas about what constitutes a happy ending with a swooning formal grace—Shinkai’s ethereally lovely animation of water is outdone only by his rendering of mouthwatering food—an emerging virtuoso worthy of the Global Anime Ambassador title that Hayao Miyazaki leaves behind.