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Toronto International Film Festival

24th Toronto International 
Film Festival (1999)

by Carrie Gorringe

Toronto's Best
Posted 10 October 1999

Carrie Gorringe takes you into the screening rooms of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Rosetta was the Palme d’Or winner at this year’s Cannes festival and, along with Tom Gilroy’s tiresome indie retread, Breaking Ground, was among the films that were least deserving of the praise being heaped on them by the proverbial truckload. Purporting to be a story about the tragedies suffered by a downwardly-mobile teenager at the hands of her shiftless, trailer-trash mother, RosettaRosetta plays out its hands with sparse background details, alternating between extreme sentimentality and extreme dissociation. Aside from the questions of how one says “trailer trash” in French (roll the phrase “les petits Blancs pauvres” around your mouth a couple of times, and begin to appreciate the succinct, dismissive cruelty redolent within the English counterpart), and why the filmmakers chose to shoot this twaddle in an aggravatingly clumsy cinema-verite style, there are very few others worth posing about this film.  One might argue that Rosetta is yet another one of those – yawn! – “stinging indictments” of capitalism so beloved by those both well-heeled and politically “progressive”, and one might just manage to sound reasonably articulate on the subject, if it weren’t for the well-documented effects of the asphyxiating cradle-to-grave welfare system in France upon the upward mobility of the socio-economically disadvantaged like -- Rosetta.  Imagine that.

The level of social enlightenment offered by Rosetta is, to put it kindly, non-existent;  after eighty-six minutes, the only “awful truth” the film can reveal to its audience is this:   sometimes poor people aren’t very nice to each other.  Since Marxist historian Raymond Williams was the first to codify this presumably axiomatic hypothesis back in the ‘50s (and it apparently wasn’t all that self-evident in some quarters, so necessary was it for Williams to state the obvious),  the brothers Dardenne (Luc and Jean-Pierre, who brought us the heart-string tugger La Promesse in 1996) are in the rather embarrassing position of having too little to say and having said it all a little too late.  With its unwieldy thematic blend of sentimentality and outrage, Rosetta plays like a film for people who have just discovered the specter of intractable poverty after reaching their majority.  Those expecting intelligible – never mind intelligent – revelations concerning the plight of the poor should turn their minds elsewhere.

The film that should have won this year’s Palme d’Or, but didn’t, was Atom Egoyan’s creepy little masterpiece, Felicia’s Journey   Perhaps the jury at Cannes mistook the film’s title and expected a pleasant little travelogue through the quaint nooks and crannies of Ireland.  Instead, what the audience gets is an unpleasant (but compellingly constructed) travelogue through the modi operandi of a British serial killer named Hilditch (a magnificent performance by Bob Hoskins) at the point where his life and the life of a pregnant Irish teenager (an equally masterful debut by Elaine Cassidy) intersect.  Felicia's JourneyAfter watching Felicia’s Journey, you’ll be convinced that The Sweet Hereafter is the aberration in Egoyan’s oeuvre, at least in its more low-key style and tone;  Felicia’s Journey is an atavistic journey back to themes of voyeurism, outrage and guilty secrets so prevalent in his past projects. Bob Hoskins and newcomer Elaine Cassidy make a wonderful cat-and-mouse team as each plays out his or her inner drives on the other, one unwittingly.   The talented Arsinee Khanjian (Egoyan’s wife) is wonderful as Hilditch’s obsessive and brutal French-chef mother, seen only in black-and-white videotaped accompaniments to Hilditch’s cooking sessions, as the killer tries, yet again, to beat Mother at her own game.  After enduring the psychological wringing-out imposed by  Felicia, it’s no wonder Toronto audiences rushed to The Five Senses; allegories on solipsistic behavior, after all, are considerably less stressful on the mind. [review the review and interview by Cynthia Fuchs]

Before Felicia, there was a brief interlude in Happy, Texas.   Consider the comedic possibilities in two convicts (Jeremy Northam and Steve Zahn) escaping from a Texas chain gang courtesy of a plot device ripped unapologetically from The Fugitive (either version).  Happy, TexasSaid ex-chain-gang members steal a DOA RV, decide to assume the identities of the former owners, then discover they have to not only impersonate artistic advisors to help the no-account town of Happy, Texas win its first beauty pageant, but they have to act as long-time lovers.  Then, to top it all off, the local sheriff (William C. Macy, of all people) decides it’s time for him to come out of the closet and take a shine to one of the “advisors”, who’s really in love with the local bank manager (Ally Walker, from TV’s The Profiler).  Naturally, our boys, being so experienced in crime and all, know an easy mark when they see it – and Happy’s bank, with state-of-the-art security, by nineteenth-century standards -- has “open” signs all over it.  Northam and Zahn (the latter best known for his role as the crazy guitarist in That Thing You Do! and his intriguing work in Out of Sight) update the traditional “buddy” routine with a great deal of vigor. Add Illeana Douglas as a Southern-Belle music teacher always coming down with the vapors at the drop of a hat (or the utterance of a dirty word), and the results are wickedly funny, so funny, in fact, that one wonders whether or not the film will spawn a Southern Anti-Defamation League. Tyro feature director Mark Illsley (a USC grad) might not want to make any travel plans that focus south of the good ol’ Mason-Dixon anytime soon.

Snow Falls on Cedars is the latest offering from Scott Hicks, whose last project was a little film called Shine.  Ostensibly a murder mystery set in Washington State in 1949, Cedars alternates between the post and pre-war years to illustrate a grim tableau of anti-Japanese-American prejudice, and its embarrassing refusal to disappear, even after the specter of Manzanar.  Snow Falls on CedarsAll it took was a suspicion that a Japanese-American war veteran turned fisherman had murdered his former (white) best friend for the trouble to bubble up from its barely-concealed trough of guilt and resentment.  Cedars  is at its best recounting the wartime trials of Japanese-Americans, notably in the sequence in which Japanese-Americans are being rounded up for deportation.  Shot in alternating long takes and extreme close-ups, it encapsulates all of the outrage and misery of the unjustly accused without veering into histrionics.   Unfortunately, the film falls on  weaker ground when it lands on its “contemporary” passages, tending toward treacly denouements in an attempt to paste some sort of happy ending on an extremely grim situation.  Snow Falls on Cedars has several deeply resonating moments, but overall, it lacks the necessary cohesiveness characteristic of great filmmaking.

Ride With the Devil is Ang Lee’s interpretation of  the American Civil War and it is a subtly spellbinding exploration of how the conflicting forces tore apart life in the state of Missouri;  the conflicts depicted here, both emotional and martial, also serve to represent, via synecdoche, warfare nation-wide.  Devil also provides an explanation for the rise of the post-Civil-War lawlessness as the frontier and opportunities for advancement began to narrow and finally close (the guerilla tactics of the Missouri “Irregulars” (those who fought for secession) would prove useful training for outlaws like Jesse James and the Younger Brothers). Lee takes this volatile material and renders it without hysteria or sentiment, but with a great deal of compassion, and is one of the few directors capable of achieving such a goal (perhaps the Taiwanese-born Lee had the advantage of emotional distance on his side, but his story-telling skill is also painstakingly exquisite). [Click here to read the full review]

Tobey Maguire (also seen in Lee’s The Ice Storm) and Skeet Ulrich (Scream, The Chill Factor) are the two individuals charged with the tall order of distilling the Secessionist ideology into a comprehensible, and nearly sympathetic, viewpoint.  They do so flawlessly.  Ride with the DevilUlrich’s character, with the unlikely name of Jack Bull Childs, is a Southern Bryon,  flamboyant in manner, hot-headed and stubborn (literary talent unknown), who will do anything to defend the slaveowning classes’ way of life.  Jake Roedel (Maguire) becomes the film’s Everyman figure, whose character embodies the contradictory situations in which those who fought for the Secessionist cause often found themselves (Jake’s father, a German immigrant, is murdered for his pro-Union beliefs, and although Jake keeps on fighting for “the cause”, seemingly despite all reason, his loyalty is always suspect to everyone but himself).   Folksinger Jewel makes her screen debut as a wily Southern widow, and carries herself with far more dignity and humor onscreen than, apparently, she does when off (there were stories in The Globe and Mail of Ms. Kilcher throwing conniption fits when “unauthorized” photographs were taken of her at the public screening of Devil).  Jeffery Wright, as Holt, the former slave of the Childs family, and Jake Bull’s devoted companion, has been given a wonderfully-written role and plays it to its limits and beyond. 

From Sam Mendes, director of London and Broadway sensation, The Blue Room (best known, or notorious, depending on your point of view,  for its showcasing of  Nicole Kidman in the altogether), comes American Beauty, the debut film that was the talk of the festival and the winner of the People’s Choice Award for best film.  American Beauty’s premise reads just like another one of those suburban expose films (i.e., there are kinks floating around underneath the bland veneer of ticky-tacky homes that, as Malvina Reynolds sang,  “all look the same”), with wife-swappers, pedophiles and what-have-you all conspiring against each other while trying in vain to preserve their own domains.

In fact, stripped of all of its elegant veneer and acting power, that’s exactly how American Beauty plays, as Lester Burnham (Spacey), a forty-two-year-old family man with a rotting marriage, psyche and career (amazing how troubles always run in threes in these films), attempts one last fling with his teenage daughter’s best friend (Mena Suvari).  American BeautyMeanwhile, as Lester goes on the road to ruin and (we are informed in the film’s first five minutes) his Sunset Boulevard-like impending death, the film emphasizes the fallout that his midlife crisis-to-be generates within both the family and his immediate neighborhood.  His wife, Carolyn (Bening), an individual so obsessed with home and style that she makes Martha Stewart look like a Jane-come-lately to the world of haut monde place settings and fine Irish linen, also begins to come undone ( it should come as no surprise that she is especially fond of “American Beauty” roses, those deep-crimson works of art whose petals project the most exquisite, fragile elegance one day, then rot at warp speed), and his daughter (Thora Birch) is being stalked by the next-door video voyeur/pot dealer (Wes Bentley), whose Marine Corps father (yes, that is Chris Cooper) collects Nazi-era china plates (yet another instance in this film, and perhaps the most obvious, of  beautiful veneers concealing the hallmarks of ugliness which are easily revealed by the most simple of gestures).  He makes Pat Buchanan sound like a moderate Democrat.  He, too, has a Nasty Little Secret, which will naturally be revealed by the final act.  Any one of the misdeeds, evil acts or thoughts could be credible by themselves, but so many have been jam-packed into one temporal and spatial block that American Beauty sometimes seems like Grand Guignol in the suburbs.

Sounds like fun?  Replace the gloss, Spacey’s projection of cool irony over a cauldron of emotional breakdown, and Bening’s explosive rendition of a social striver whose carefully-constructed veneer of respectability has been repaired so often that it is on the verge of permanent collapse, and American Beauty is, at its best, an updated version of Death of a Salesman (and the comparison is not in any way meant to be an insult). The elusive, deceptive and arbitrary nature of beauty, and its relationship to financial and personal success is the focal point of Mendes’s film:  the literal and metaphorical manifestations of beauty (what it is like to no longer be “beautiful” to your employer, your family or even yourself), its limitations and consequences, unsparing in their intensity even to the unaware.  Certainly, with its chock-a-block compiling of misery upon misery, Mendes and playwright-turned-screenwriter Alan Ball could surely be accused in some aspects of pandering to a so-called “liberal intellectual boomer elite,” through heavy-handed symbolism (those red roses make far too many symbolic appearances in a hundred-minute film to prevent their descent into triteness), but the film has many of those so-called “moments of truth” which more than compensate for the occasional misfiring.  It is an elegant, ugly, ungainly, precise, and, in balance, a most worthwhile film. 

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