Cats and Dogs

Amy Taubin on the New York and Toronto film festivals

Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog, 2021, DCP, color, sound, 127 minutes. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch).

EVEN WITH the New York Film Festival kicking off tonight with Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, I thought I had had enough of festivals, at least until 2022. Wild horses could not have dragged me to see Frances McDormand, whose every performance is more forced than the last, assay Lady M, although I would have liked to see Denzel Washington’s interpretation of the character whose name must not be spoken except within a performance of “the Scottish play.” (Were you under the impression that the “don’t speak his name” shit began with Voldemort?) And then, early yesterday morning, I went to a press screening of Jane Campion’s magnificent Montana melodrama, The Power of the Dog, gorgeously projected in the newly renovated Paris on West Fifty-Eighth Street, where, if you miss it at the festival, you’ll have a chance to see it before it streams on Netflix. The landscape is a character in Campion’s western (which was actually shot in New Zealand) and it needs a big screen to do it justice, as does Benedict Cumberbatch’s clench-jawed visage and spine-of-steel body that is as upright as his psyche is twisted with homophobic self-hate. The Power of the Dog premiered at Venice and played at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) before arriving as the centerpiece of NYFF. That route, or the alternative route from Cannes to perhaps Telluride to TIFF to NYFF is, for many films, unchanged from decades before Covid. The only difference this year is that TIFF gave its audiences the choice of theatrical presentation or home streaming.

I took the home viewing option whenever possible—for Sundance, Cannes (where I paid to attend as a programmer), and TIFF, also badgering publicists and distributors to send me links. As a result of these “travels,” I’ve seen enough memorable 2021 films for three top ten lists, and it needs to be said, many times more bad films and why-bother-to-make-this films, some by acclaimed directors. And while, as an experience, watching movies on small screens is never enough, I believe I can tell which films I want to see more of and which I’ll avoid. So here are some pleasures, some disappointments, and even some trends.

Celine Sciamma, Petite Maman, 2021, color, sound, 72 minutes.

Continuing with Cumberbatch, TIFF gave him a tribute award and programmed not only The Power of the Dog but also Will Sharpe’s The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, a biopic as eccentric as its titular subject, the Victorian-era illustrator, whose newspaper career was nearly extinguished by photography and then saved when his publisher encouraged him to draw cats. Unfortunately, Wain was careless about copyright and therefore his at once hilarious, tender, and scary images of felines—as temperamentally variable as the man who drew them—are ubiquitous but seldom attributed to their creator. In his failure to capitalize on his own genius and his belief in the psychedelic power of electricity for which cats as well as humans are receptors, Wain had much in common with Tesla, and Sharpe’s intelligent, poignant, and ingeniously cinematic first feature would make an intriguing double bill with Michael Almereyda’s 2020 film about the inventor. Sadly, Louis Wain isn’t in NYFF, though Amazon is releasing it in the US at the end of October.

Cumberbatch is not exactly a theme, but mother/daughter movies are. I’ve already written about two of 2021’s strongest, Tatiana Huezo’s Prayers for the Stolen and Teodora Mihai’s La Civil, both set in Mexico, both about mothers trying to save their daughters from the cartels. Each won a prize in Cannes, but only Huezo’s film made it to TIFF and NYFF, a programming decision I find inexplicable since they complement each other by employing opposing genres to tell similar stories and are equally brilliant in fusing form and content. Venice, TIFF, and NYFF have all embraced Celine Sciamma’s perfect Petite Maman, a matter-of-fact rendering of the imaginary life of an eight-year-old girl whose grandmother has just died and who fears an impending separation from her mother. In its Vermeer-like beauty and seemingly effortless projection of inner life, Petite Maman is the opposite of another French film, the Cannes Palme d’Or winner, Julia Ducournau’s Titane (TIFF, NYFF), which is all brilliant surfaces underpinned by one thuddingly dumb idea.

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Lingui: The Sacred Bonds, 2021, DCP, sound, color, 87 minutes. Amina and Maria (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane and Rihane Khalil Alio).

Two of the most powerful mother/daughter films in TIFF are not in NYFF: veteran Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Lingui: The Sacred Bonds and South African relative newcomer Jenna Cato Bass’s Mlungu Wam (Good Madame). Set on the outskirts of Chad’s capital, where the local Iman is the top dog, Lingui focuses on a woman who was disowned by her family and community when a man she loved got her pregnant and abandoned her. When her teenage daughter tells her mother that she’s pregnant and wants an abortion, the mother’s first impulse—to slap her—gives way to an unyielding resolve to find a way for her daughter to get the termination she needs in order to have a future she herself never had. In so doing she discovers an underground of women who support one another in a shared practical resistance to patriarchy. This is one of Haroun’s richest pictorial works, and it’s a great pleasure to see his pictorially elegant, richly colored compositions in the service of a fully feminist film. In the thoroughly engrossing Mlungu Wam, the effects of apartheid on three generations of women are not only economic and legal, but psychically so traumatizing that only a full-out horror film can express them.

Mia Hansen-Løve, Bergman Island, 2021, DCP, color, sound, 113 minutes. Chris (Vicky Krieps).

Another trending genre, and one that it would be better to eschew for the moment, is the film which is obliquely or straightforwardly about its own making. TIFF and NYFF programmed many, the best of which is Nadav Lapid’s Ahed’s Knee (Cannes, TIFF, NYFF), if only for a furious attack on the current Israeli regime, spewed by the central character, the filmmaker’s alter ego. I wish two other festival favorites, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Part II and Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island (both Cannes, TIFF, NYFF) had even half as interesting as reason for being. Hogg’s film’s only asset, and the only asset of the first of the two Souvenir films, is Tilda Swinton’s precise, delicate depiction of an upper-middle-class British woman, nervous about her own liberal inclinations and fearful of her daughter’s terrible taste in men. The idea that the first attenuated, empty Souvenir needed a sequel is head-up-your-asshole absurd. The second is basically a fashion video that climaxes with the most expensive, supposedly “experimental movie” ever made. Bergman Island, in which our heroine (kind of) resolves her ambivalence about the Swedish director (a task that women critics had thoroughly accomplished three decades ago) through endless bike rides, thereby finding an ending for the script she is writing, is even more pointless.

Stefan Forbes, Hold Your Fire, 2021, DCP, color, sound, 93 minutes.

TIFF made available two terrific documentaries, neither of which is in the New York festival. Maria Speth’s Mr. Bachmann and His Class, which won the Silver Bear at the Berlinale, is simply the best film about a great educator ever made. The titular Bachmann teaches at a K–12 school in a German town. Many of his students are children of foreign workers; to say their German language skills are spotty is generous. But Bachmann sees his role as cultivating whatever talents and interests they have, making middle school a foundation for a satisfying and even happy adult life. Four hours long with not a single dull moment, this is a heartening, useful doc and I fervently wish for its US release. Stefan Forbes’s brilliantly researched and constructed Hold Your Fire depicts a 1973 attempted robbery of a Brooklyn sporting goods store by four young Black men. The standoff with the police, which lasted over a week and was obsessively covered on the nightly news, is regarded as the first successful hostage negotiation in the US, largely because of the participation of an NYPD psychologist, Harvey Schlossberg, who died earlier this year. Forbes tells the story from multiple points of view, including that of the store owner, who as remarkably humane and resourceful as Schlossberg. Almost on their own, these two helped avert a bloodbath carried out by cops already ballistic at the loss of one of their own and just wanting to get the thing done with. Then as now, plus ça change. This is an unsparing documentary, and I’m sure you’ll be able to see it somewhere, hopefully soon.

Lastly, a word for an outlier from TIFF but not in NYFF: Clio Barnard’s Ali & Ava is set in a small Yorkshire town and describes the friendship between a white teaching assistant with four children and even more grandchildren and a childless undereducated but wealthier Asian-British man. Mining the social realism of Alan Clarke, Barnard’s films are tough but tender. Edged with hope, this is one of her best.

The Toronto International Film Festival ran from September 9 to September 18. The New York Film Festival runs from September 24 to October 10.