Three very different women filmmakers, each at a specific place in her life work, kicked off my 2009 TIFF today. All three directors take on the multifaceted complexities of love: love of self, love of God and love of another. Margarethe von Trotte (Vision), the veteran German filmmaker who has also acted in movies by her countryman and fellow legends Volker Schlondorff and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is experiencing twilight years of her own mature 'vision'. Xiaolu Guo, making her TIFF debut with a drama that was my first festival screening of the year (She, a Chinese) is a relative newcomer in the west. And Aussie Jane Campion, whose career started in the 1980s with the instant arthouse iconic hit Sweetie (also being screened this year in the Dialogues programme) has added to an always-interesting, if critically up and down career, with a gorgeously shot and emotionally rich new film about the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne (Bright Star). Though not always even, all three were bright stars indeed.
The opening of Vision shows a group of faithful fanatics huddled in a church, counting down the arrival of the first millenium and the presumed end of the world. (Sound familiar?) In the wake of the sun that rises as usual the following day, a miraculous child is born: Hildegard, who would later become the great mystic, known in association with the cloistered Benedictine order she founded in Bingen, Germany in the 11th century. This choice of how to start the film gives much away in the filmmaking perspective: the movie is as much about the repercussions of ecstatic experience than about Hildegard herself. Von Trotte seems to want to tell this 'based on' story with many different brushstrokes, always favoring Hildegard's humanity over her spiritual wisdom. The many scenes of her acting boldly and against the establishment certainly establish her strength and religious politic, but the more controversial aspects of her nature float a bit uncertainly in the absence of real spiritual presence in the character. Instead of creating depth, the many brushstrokes become jarring. I longed to feel the unique and profound 'indwelling' in Hildegard (played by Barbara Sukowa). On the other hand, I very much liked some of the relationships of the film, and in particular the ambiguous and complex relationship between Hildegard and her adopted novice-daughter Richardis (Hannah Herzsprung). When the latter is torn away from her to become abbess in her own cloister, the news is greeted like the separation of lovers. It is only here that the film successfully conveys how profoundly stirring any kind of love can become when it is entwined with the divine.
Meanwhile, a thousand years later, a girl is born in a village in China and there is absolutely nothing special marked out for her at all. Instead, she lives a dull life of seemingly endless lack of opportunity and promise. Xiaolu Guo transforms this truth, however, by focussing not so much on Li Mei's (Huang Lu) innocence but on her restlessness and her beauty, despite her averageness. A series of boyfriends, young, middle aged and even older men offer her at the very least kindness and at the most love and she loses them all through this quality of restlessness. The one man she most loves (who has the very western name Spikey), dies in her arms. Having lived most of her life within the five miles of her village, when the cacoon is broken it breaks big: she immigrates first to the big city, then to England. But even this far away from home she cannot "settle". Listening to her boyfriend's IPod throughout the film, she escapes her own often very harsh reality. At the same time, Guo's astonishingly insightful eye never allows us to judge her. After seeing her go through scene after scene wearing the same skeleton t-shirt, there is a sudden resonance when she takes work in England as a human model in medical school - and the teacher draws on her naked body the things beneath her skin that cannot be seen. It is a wonderful allegory for how the others in her life attempt to draw out of her all that cannot be seen in our heroine. Love feels impossible, especially played out in front of a vastly ugly industrial landscape. The old and new China are never far from each other. A man leads a cow past a dump filled with electronics parts and a bulldozer plowing through it.
As a quick aside, both Guo and von Trotte coincidentally used the same strange camera movement: a continuous take pan back and forth between characters who are in dialogue. It works well in situations of tension, like when Spikey asks Mei to hit him to test his strength. But an unusual convention to see twice in one day!
Jane Campion's gorgeous, lyrical and emotionally evocative Bright Star is easily one of her best films to date and already likely to place high in my final festival favorites. Working in 19th century milieu is hardly new to this creator of Portrait of a Lady and The Piano. Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw are compelling as the young (and how young they do seem) Fanny Brawne and John Keats, the poet. I want to herald Campion for championing the non-sexual but hugely sensual qualities that passionate love can also have, especially in this era. The kisses, when they finally occur, are gentle touches of the lips, but they hold magic all the same. (In Vision, everyone greets everyone with kisses on the lips - a surprisingly jarring practice to observe, though common in the time.) The pacing serves this piece so well - as we literally watch the slow drop off the cliff of two people in love. The drop is into their own deep attachment, not anything more sordid, desperate or dramatic. Money issues stand in the way of these lovers, and an overbearing poet-friend, Mr. Brown (played by Paul Schneider) who sees Fanny as too-shallow for his intellectual mate. Those two details are enough to prevent the truest possible union from fulfilling itself. Mr. Brown is wrong: Fanny's instinctive intelligence about poetry and her plain way of speaking are exactly what the young writer needs. The movie allows their deepening affection to grow in silent moments each is on her/his own, when the dance of even a wind-driven curtain can seem to embody all that is growing in the heart of the character. The character arcs are subtly but keenly drawn: Fanny's confidence and delight in her own enormous design and sewing skill completely charms us, as it does him, in the first moments of the film, but by the end of the film love has transformed her intelligence, style and wit into a fully-rounded young woman. The movie also contains my favourite dialogue of the day. In presenting herself early on to Keats in one of her new outfits, she boasts that she is wearing the "first triple-layer mushroom collar in the county". His reaction, both disarmed and completely drawn to her, is to say, "you mean like the one behind you?" Amazed that someone else could be wearing her creation, she wheels to see who it is and finds her own image in a mirror. It is a moment that completely captures the elegance and wit of this film.
There was just one hitch with this screening: the fourth reel was spliced on backwards so that the end played out suddenly upside down and sounding like underwater dialogue. It took ages to alert the projection booth but the problem could not be fixed while sitting there. (What a shame, since this was the only scheduled Industry screening to a room full of critics.) So at some point I need to see the last ten minutes. It made no difference. The first 110 were glorious.