Rightwing Film Geek

Toronto capsules — Day 7

Partir

PARTIR (Catherine Corsini, France, 4)

The script for this adultery drama feels like the work of a high-school girl in her Feminist Creative Writing Collective — consciousness raising and denunciation of men and marriage, but with plenty of Sergi Lopez topless and other forms of adolescent sentimentality. Lopez’s character — a manual laborer working on a home-expansion project for bourgeoise Kristin Scott Thomas — even says he’s not surprised she fell for him “after spending all day with a hunk like me.” There’s even a scene, I am not kidding, of the two lovers — both married — naked in a sun-dappled field of waist-high grains and grasses … spreading some fertilizer.

Obviously such portrayals risk upholding the patriarchy, so every other element in the story has to contribute to wymyn’s lib, and the decks must be stacked for that purpose. And heck … Jayne Mansfield wasn’t as stacked as this movie’s deck. KST’s husband is a complete jerk — rude and patronizing to her, no good in bed but insists on getting it when he wants it (KST looks as bored in bed as I was in the theater). His interest in sex is purely patriarchal territory-marking. When she first tells him she’s fallen in love with another man, the only questions he asks is whether they had had sex and details/elaboration therein. And if you have seen a movie or two in your life, you know that after KST has asked for divorce, when she, Lopez, her son and his daughter pull into a gas station and KST goes to fill up, there’s gonna be some credit card issues. I know it reads like I’m making fun of the actors, but to be fair, they’re both quite appealing and do what they can with this script (unlike Yves Attal as the husband, who is given nothing but a set of hate lines).

This is a French movie about adultery and so “Madame Bovary” inevitably comes to mind, but Emma commits suicide, and we can’t have that in Our Enlightened Time. PARTIR strikes a blow for feminism by having this adultress kill her husband rather than herself. I’m sure the teacher beamed with pride as she congratulated the script and gave it an A for undermining Flaubert’s patriarchal ending.

Sharazid

SCHEHEREZADE, TELL ME A STORY (Yousry Nasrallah, Egypt, 5)

As feminist morality tales go, this one is actually kind of okay. The title tells you you’re going to see some form of the basic “Tales of the 1001 Nights,” though not any of the famous stories — Ali Baba, Sinbad, Aladdin, etc. Instead of a slave/concubine who every night must keep the Sultan’s interest in the next night’s story in order to avoid beheading, “Scheherezade” is a talk-show host on Egyptian TV who is being encouraged to avoid politics, the better for her husband’s career. So she does Oprah-like stories of the lives of ordinary Egyptian women, and finds out that that is no way to avoid politics.

As I say, it’s a better film than I expected and some of “Scheherezade’s” stories have elemental power and don’t fall into the trap of some recent Iranian films of portraying women as if ignorant of social rules. For example, the story of three sisters being used by the same man ends with one of the three women taking over the situation. In another, a woman unfurls a banner accusing a Cabinet minister of dishonoring her (this sequence also has the bloodiest portrayal of an abortion I have ever seen). The TV show isn’t relied on too much but director Nasrallah shoots it with some inventiveness, using tropes from talk shows themselves — stuff like monitor-created split screens between host and guest (I don’t remember how popular or widely seen it was, but the style reminded of Lauren Hutton’s late-night interview show from the mid-1990s.) “Scheherezade” also becomes part of the story, in a way I saw coming but only because I know the dramatic framing device of “1001 Nights,” the situation the original Scheherezade faced. If you don’t, it might pack a wallop. This is nothing more than OK festival filler … but the way this festival has been going, I’ll take it.

Leaves

LEAVES OF GRASS (Tim Blake Nelson, USA, 2)

Serves one useful function — proving what a genius Quentin Tarantino is and how people who criticize the “movieness” of his movies are missing the key role that postmodern style plays in his work — it’s not just movie-nerd immaturity.

At least I think that. And I’m certain that unless Tim Blake Nelson was trying for some Tarantinoesque mix of comedy and ultraviolence, I have no frackin idea what he was trying for. For the first hour, LEAVES OF GRASS is an innocuous (and not terribly funny, to me) comedy about mismatched identical-twin brothers, both played by Edward Norton. The concept is higher than (insert punchline when you read on) — one’s a buttoned-down Classics professor about to get a Harvard appointment; the other a tattooed hick who applies his IQ (actually higher) to developing and building the world’s most-sophisticated hydroponic pot-growing farm. The prof gets called back to Oklahoma, and there ensue switcheroos and resentments over abandoning hippie-mom (Susan Sarandon), the family and “plain foke lahk uss.” You can imagine Rob Schneider or Adam Sandler in this movie, and though Norton is an incomparably better actor who actually manages to create two persons, there’s only so much even he can do with this hackneyed material.

And then things get serious — way too serious for a featherweight sitcom. Talking vaguely to minimize spoilitude — the drug-dealer brother tries to fix some business in Tulsa and a violent shootout occurs in which several people are killed. There are two more violent scenes, one a multiple-death shootout and another involving a metal-tipped arrow impaling someone’s body (the 3rd movie with such a scene at this TIFF). And we’re not talking cartoon Bugs Bunny violence — this is serious 80s-Stallone cop-show stuff and we see gaping wounds, etc. Oh … and did I mention that swastikas get painted on a synagogue? And that they were done backwards (ho ho ho … aren’t they STOOPID in Oklahoma). Now I believe that any subject is appropriate for a movie — in the right movie. Stuff like this does not belong in the same movie as hayseed jokes like a TV anchorman saying on camera that “police are not sure whether the backward swastikas indicate a hate crime or, rather more implausibly, that Hindus were involved.”

How does this very ill-conceived film shine light on Tarantino? Because he can get away with a mixture of loopy comedy, shocking and gory violence, and a smart-aleck tone toward taboos (like … ahem … Jews during WW2) because nobody could mistake his movies as being (directly) about the real world. His movies and his characters are fundamentally based on movies QT has seen and those his characters have seen. The stylization makes it hard to take offense at anything “real” and makes it plain that his movies are about discourse. And while LEAVES is a comedy based on an unlikely premise, the film is made and acted in a naturalistic, straightforward way that indicates that we’re supposed to, at least provisionally, suspend disbelief and take this movie as somehow reflecting the real world. In which case, this is the offensive garbage in my opinion.

Mother

MOTHER (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 9)

Thank you, Mr. Bong Joon-ho for single-handedly redeeming what looked like it would be another crap day. As I write this with only the last-day Midnight showing to go, MOTHER remains the best film of the festival for me. And, like Bong’s MEMORIES OF MURDER and THE HOST, it’s a film that I think could find a decent and appreciative audience among ordinary American filmgoers. It’s an approachable, straightforward narrative in a conventional genre — like MEMORIES, it’s a crime-investigation story, though the two incompetent detectives are replaced by a crusading, slightly dotty woman out to prove her son’s innocence in the death of a local teenage girl (it’s practically a Korean version of a Perry Mason or an episode of “Murder, She Wrote”). It’s also funny at times, has a gallery of interesting supporting players and like the best crime movies is ultimately about more than whodunnit.

The central role is played by Kim Hae-ja, apparently the Harriet Nelson / June Cleaver of Korea. She’s maternal, faithful, slightly weird and never less than absolutely convincing, even when the story has her character cross some lines in defense of her son (he’s mentally slow and flies into a rage when anyone calls him “retard”). As a measure of how good she is, she comes across that way even for those like myself whose knowledge of her Korean TV persona is strictly second-hand. It’s her mannerisms, her worrywart quality and her total focus on her boy and his cause, even when he doesn’t want to pursue it. In other words — the perfect mother.

Bong handles the genre material expertly — he makes work suspense scenes like the mother hiding in the closet on an evidence hunt while watching the person she suspects of murdering the teenage girl prepares to seduce (rape? kill?) another girl. Even a scene as commonplace as the detectives dismissing Mother’s latest evidence find becomes new in his hands — there’s no berating her nor her triumphant declaration of having solved the case, just a video of someone doing something with her lips, then a technician coming in and saying mournfully “do you really want us to do a DNA test on this? Anyone can see it’s lipstick.” He really earns the last scene (this is not a spoiler), of people dancing on a bus viewed from outside as the sun sets and their shapes mere black shadows pulsing against the sky. Given the three scenes that have preceded it, including a chilling, heartbreaking one in which the mother and son are finally completely united, the bus image felt like the truest cinematic depiction of [a certain emotional phenomenon] I’ve ever seen.

Refuge

LE REFUGE (Francois Ozon, France, 3)

And I should gave a crap about this selfish, flighty, passive-aggressive using bitch because … ??? I know some of my very favorite movies have dislikeable protagonists, but this movie isn’t about that nor does it even acknowledge the natural reaction to a smackhead slut who tries to seduce the gay brother of the baby-daddy who fatally OD’d alongside her and who keeps the baby largely to spite that family only to abandon the newborn in the hospital with the brother and flee on the Paris metro. And it’s not as though the film really has anything other than her to be about — the vast middle portion of the film is like an Eric Rohmer film of her on August “vacances.” A character study is in real trouble if you spend every second of it wanting to punch the protagonist in the face, and the film doesn’t manifest any realization of that.

Um … I guess that last graf’s got spoilers, but I don’t care. Indeed, the ending is exactly where Ozon makes it undeniable how rotten this film’s soul is. He ends the film by having her read aloud on the soundtrack from the note she left at the hospital, while she looks into the camera. Occasionally, Ozon cuts back to the brother, and he’s not angry as a normal person would be. The note’s self-justifying tripe is read in a meant-to-be-sympathetic pleading tone — “I’m not ready to be a mother … You and the baby are the two most precious things in the world to me.” Both visually and orally, the end of this film is an apologia — no doubt about it. And I spit on it.

September 19, 2009 - Posted by | TIFF 2009

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