This was a great year for TIFF, the best in a long while. About four days after the start of the festival, I found myself in an industry line-up behind a man who was trying to write a review. Snooping over his shoulder, I could see that it was about Xavier Dolan's Mommy, Dolan's fifth feature film to win critical acclaim including the shared Jury Prize this year at Cannes with Jean-Luc Godard. The man turned out to be Toronto critic Thom Ernst. Striking up a conversation, he confessed to me that he was struggling with his review because "it's hard not to just gush." (In the end, he did gush -- and I am so glad he did. You can read his review in Playback, or you can watch him do a mini-review here.)
Dolan is the most entrenchedly Québecois filmmaker I can think of. His cinematic vision is influenced by many (including New Zealander Jane Campion whom he thanked in Cannes this year), and makes clear visual hommages to his cultural colleagues (there is one in Mommy to Denys Arcand). But Dolan has a visual style unlike anyone's and perhaps greater than all of them: in your face but controlled, vibrantly colourful and yet dwelling in chosen colour palettes which vibrate like a rainbow inside the movie's radiating intensities. Only Dolan could suddenly surprise us by moving to a full widescreen image and then moving back again moments later. It is a devastating and utterly cinematic choice that guides us into the film's harrowing final scenes.
The film moves almost operatically between sequences of startling and powerful emotion, but there is still much opportunity for nuance and grace. In a short sequence in which Steve skateboards, the camera follows him as he raps quietly to himself under headphones, his dance-like moves (and the camera's, shadowing him) hinting at the violence under the surface and providing an awkward contrast, positioning him in his own humanity, and in a place of loving life even while his essentially violent nature cannot be subdued. It's an incredible sequence. Like Laurence Anyways, Mommy is set against cold, sometimes wintery, dispassionate Québec landscapes, that are nonetheless emotionally lit up by the depth of feeling Dolan's characters find in their darknesses.
Clearly I am gushing too. It might be the only way to respond to this brittle and beautiful movie.
*Added after posting: TIFF has sponsored this beautiful and brilliant video portrait of Dolan which will now become a classic of my classroom for understanding how critical reception interacts with personal visual style.
|Mali Harries in Hinterland|
In Hinterland, she plays a character (DI Rhys) whose tough professional edge belies an open and compassionate soul. I love how much I recognize her as someone any of us might know: she captures a sense of ordinary life while registering, when the moment is given to her, a number of layers at once. The show I want to get my hands on is Pen Talar, which fictionally recounts some of the more recent history of Wales, but there doesn't seem to be a Region 1, English-subbed version of it anywhere. Harries is vivid in scenes over a handful of Foyle's War episodes and her comic capacity brightens a tiny moment of the otherwise unremarkable Amy Adams vehicle Leap Year. I am excited for the next season of Hinterland and the show Critical, currently filming, and hoping they will bring her into greater light in North America. There is something magical about Mali and more people should know it. Here's a demo reel from IMDB.
This video describes the process.) The whole film took four years to put together. I was in wonder at how narratively compelling it was, despite that two-thirds of the film occurs without movement. Perhaps this is due to a voiceover which narrates for us through Erna's letters a series of places in time in which life seemed to be both halted and moving on. Stealing bread in the woods. Rejoicing in a prison-camp wedding. These spoken words create a dreamy haze but not a romantic one. The words become the animator, alongside the camera's listless exploration. The lugubrious work of sound designer Janne Laine allows just enough ambient sound to mix in with the voice to suggest these realities to us without actually depicting them. The scoring by composer Pärt Uusberg then lies like a thin shroud overtop, delicately lacing the elements together. I was not the only one surprised by the film; it has received glowing reviews (see this one on Indiewire) among those who saw it. I keep waiting for it to turn up on indy circuits but I haven't seen any sign of it.
I am very intrigued that both In the Crosswind and Boyhood are playing cinematically with time in unprecedented ways and creating work of astounding beauty. There is something happening here which speaks to the very deepest truth of what film can do.
quotations of this year by any artist: "There’s a time element to all of our lives just inherently and the way we process every day, so I think in a lot of my storytelling methodologies time has largely replaced the notions of what a plot is, which to me feels kind of constructed." A man after my own heart - but that's another blog!
Martha Henry's gorgeous production of this classic work seemed to want to play on both our discomfort and our intimacy with those around us, including the players. Before the show started, actors in costume (but not in character) mingled with the audience, deliberately destroying the 'fourth wall' but increasing our sense of connection to them. The first time I went, I spoke with a young actress who was a graduate of the SUNY acting program, who asked me as many questions as I did her. The second time, I was on the other side and watched the musicians rehearse casually while hanging out with us. That time, my seat was so far to the side that I was able to watch them backstage as well, and all of this I know, was intended.
We have been so gifted in this country by the great Martha Henry, who is one of the world's finest living actors, but I have not always been convinced by her as a director. This production laid that to rest for me. Every single decision in staging and pacing and emotional life seemed designed to reveal the play's deepest life. The selection of the Davd Edgar translation/adaptation (with some additional changes by him for this production) was a great example. This version should be done more often as it brings forward the heart in Brecht much more than most versions do, which choose instead to dwell in the hard spaces offered by the play's relentless journey through war. This is my favourite role I've seen McKenna do in some time. The ruthlessness of Courage seemed to run like a rod of steel through her performance, making the moments of human failing and desire all the more profound, and she delivers these in careful shading. There is one moment in the play where Courage understands / hears the fate of one of her children, a fate complicated by the possibility that she might have saved him. We hear what we hear as it happens offstage, but we see her, sitting on a stump, the light shifting around her. The whole production was much more deeply felt than the play normally is in my experience.
As a last note, I have to say that in a very strong cast, I have carried with me besides McKenna, the performance of Carmen Grant as Kattrin. Like Kyla in Mommy above, the character is unable to speak, allowing for many moments of what might have been a kind of clumsy mime, but which in this performance was always an expression of the inner anguish of the character. Her final moments on stage are the second most powerful scene in the play - and one gets the sense the actor has wholly earned her way to that place. I was less enamoured with the marching of place-and-time signs around the perimeter of the stage, though they were completely in keeping with Brecht. But no matter: this was a production I will remember for a long time. I heard the play newly, and have had many moments since of reliving its emotion.
The music that night was a mixed program of Grieg miniatures, a Schubert sonata, selections from Ravel's Miroirs and an array of Chopin: an impromptu, some mazurkas and a ballade. Lulled into tranquility by the earlier pieces, the Chopin end of the night folded me into a deep introspection. It wasn't just that this is music my father often played while I was trying to go to sleep at night. The dance of hands had its own special beauty and seemed to divine the music more than summon it. They were the hands of an older woman like myself, bearing a lifetime of experience, endless years of rehearsal and performance, growing and changing and becoming more refined and precise. The music they made was sublimely realized. Besides Chopin, Fialkowska has acquired other Polish composers; she seems to climb in their skin. I remembered an old story about George Sand and how she would lie under the piano when Chopin played it. Being close to this master's hands were enough for me. I can still see them, can still reconnect with the place of peace and longing that the music found in me. Although a different work from the one I heard, this video captures some of what I felt. She is my favourite living pianist.
|The dining room of the Leaskdale home of|
Lucy Maud Montgomery
The guide spoke of Montgomery comprehensively, without being thorough. Yes, there's a difference. She spoke to the prism sides of the writer's personality, but not in unwanted detail. She described her darkness as well as her gifts, and without any prurience or showmanship or desire to show off her own knowledge. She spoke of her like a friend and as we passed from room to room, I could almost see the Prince Edward Island author, transported to Ontario, going about the tasks of her daily life, a life that included marriage to a pastor and motherhood of two boys.
These forty minutes I spent in a house I had passed many times without interest, in a strange way put me back in the heart of my own soul as a writer. I found myself imagining how she made room for her own work amid the chaos of other responsibilities (a real problem of my own). I came to a stop in one particular room, feeling a sense of creative energy and power. I dwelled there, unable to name what I felt. The guide told me: "this is where she did all her writing". I felt that energy come into my bones. Later, standing in a hallway, watching a breeze move some curtains at a window, I was grateful for this chance to live momentarily on the real life set of a writer I had just been coming to admire. Finally. For the first time. Indeed, I am grateful to all of the artists that inspired me in 2014.