Four Easy Pieces

Girish Shambu on four films screened at TIFF08

Claire Denis, 35 Shots of Rum, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 100 minutes. Joséphine (Mati Diop) and Lionel (Alex Descas).

Each visitor to a film festival makes a unique and particular passage through the new territory it offers. My own trek through this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was marked by one conspicuous recurrence: films, often by reputed and challenging filmmakers, that took the viewer aback with a disarming accessibility. On the one hand, I welcomed the ease with which these films dispensed their immediate pleasures; on the other, it meant being doubly vigilant about looking beyond the arresting surfaces for the wrinkles these works were hiding away.

Claire Denis’s lovely, lyric 35 Shots of Rum (2008) is about the close and tender bond between father and daughter. He’s a train driver, and she’s a university student who works in a music store. Most of the film takes place in a large Paris apartment building, and the film has a nearly all-black cast. But where, one might ask, is the key Denisian theme of “foreignness”? Beau Travail (1999) has its legionnaires in Burkina Faso, No Fear, No Die’s (1990) cock trainers are immigrants living on the outskirts of Paris, and most of Chocolat (1988) takes place in colonial-era Cameroon. It turns out that the foreign presence in the new film is felt but not seen: the muse of Ozu and Late Spring (1949), which this film affectionately echoes. A trip to Luebeck in Germany and the appearance of Fassbinder regular Ingrid Caven add an alien, sad touch. The high point of the movie—and indeed, of the festival itself—is a nighttime bar scene with a poetically charged choreography of bodies, looks, and space.

Another surprise: Lorna’s Silence (2008), the strong new film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, is an unabashed thriller, tense and suspenseful. Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) is a young Albanian woman in Belgium involved in a marriage of convenience and an immigration scam. Edited with fearsome precision, and mostly eschewing the signature Dardenne walking-behind, handheld tracking shot, the film has an ending that has aroused controversy. Read narrowly in psychological terms, the ending is unsatisfying, even inept. But to do this is a mistake. The film culminates in a metaphoric act that is both deluded and revolutionary-utopian, a mad attempt to bring into being a new life on a new set of terms. After spending most of the film vividly detailing a transaction-driven late-capitalist world that thrives on globalized flows of labor and capital, the Dardennes abruptly turn away from it. Is it a hopeful or a hopeless way to conclude? Either way, it doesn’t seem to be the dead-end cop-out many believe it to be.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Tokyo Sonata, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 119 minutes. Center: Ryuhei Sasaki (Teriyuki Kagawa).

Lorna was one of numerous films at the festival that was urgently in tune with its—and our—historical moment. Jerichow (2008), by Christian Petzold of what has been dubbed the Berlin School, is an icy, intelligent work that hums along satisfyingly on multiple levels. On its most basic one, it recycles familiar film-noir material, but then quickly complicates it with modern, up-to-the-minute first-world themes: capitalist values on a micro–social plane, attitudes toward multiethnicity, and the exercise of personal power in intimate relationships. Add to this rich mix a play of constantly shifting viewer identifications and a dark, wicked wit, and what results is a genuinely subversive film that has the potential to find popular appeal and also make its audiences squirm with the directness of its moral questions.

The ground rules of the “new globalized order” put Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s family drama Tokyo Sonata (2008) into motion when the family’s patriarch loses his job to Chinese white-collar workers who cost (he is told) one-third of what he does. Unable to bear the thought of losing his authority in the household, he doesn’t break the news to his family. For much of its duration, the film works in a keen and observant dramatic-realist vein—although with Kurosawa’s wry sense of humor ever-present. But in the last thirty minutes, it takes an abrupt, auto-destructive turn that can either be praised as a rupturing, Surrealist gesture or bemoaned as a crazy, failed experiment. Kurosawa is an undeniably gifted and innovative filmmaker, but until I hear the critical case to the contrary, I'll be in the skeptics’ corner.