Unknown Knowns

Nick Pinkerton at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival

Peter Strickland, The Duke of Burgundy, 2014, color, sound, 101 minutes.

FAREWELL TO LANGUAGE reconfirmed both acolytes and apostates in their opinions of Jean-Luc Godard, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix was the scene of the big critical tug-of-war, and Tusk found Kevin Smith making movies among the Canadians—by and large a polite, pacific people who have done nothing to deserve such a cruel fate. This year’s Toronto International Film Festival, it can be said, was largely a matter of known quantities.

If this TIFF was lacking in unexpected revelations from heretofore unknown filmmakers, there were big showings by directors who aren’t household names with most moviegoers. Timbuktu, the fourth feature film by Mauritania’s Abderrahmane Sissako (Bamako), takes place in the titular Malian city during its occupation by a militant Islamic group on jihad. The populace of the city, as it happens, are almost entirely observant Muslims, so the invaders need to go out of their way to invent new interdictions to impose, so to justify their existence. The superfluity of their zeal is the source of an absurd humor at first, but this very subtly shades into outright horror after one of the film’s handful of knockout scenes—a field of men and boys playing soccer with an imaginary ball because sports have been forbidden. Sissako, who frequently has recourse to step back to philosophical, picturesque remove, doesn’t let his outrage shake his grip on the material, and so has no need to stack the deck—focusing on the trial of a man actually guilty of a grave offense, the quietly anguished Timbuktu shows how the criminalization of life itself obscures any sense of let-the-punishment-fit-the-crime proportion.

Less a resounding statement than a lateral move was the English director Peter Strickland’s follow-up to his 2012 Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy. Berberian was a movie that snuck up on people, the introduction of an eccentric and obsessive sensibility. Burgundy confirms that Strickland is possessed of a singular, fetish-driven directorial personality, while highlighting some troubling tendencies that that first burst of originality might have concealed. The film begins as a doe-eyed housecleaner (Chiara D’Anna) is bossed about by her employer, a lepidopterist some years her senior (Sidse Babett Knudsen), before being “punished” behind closed doors. Rather than the Tinto Brass/1970s Eurosleaze pastiche we’re set up for, Burgundy develops into a melancholy comedy about aging, which gets its laughs by domesticating s/m ritual—the “housecleaner” and her “employer” are in fact in a long-term consensual, cohabiting relationship, with all of the difficulties that implies. As in Berberian, Strickland loves using offscreen space and leaving matters to the viewer’s imagination, though here the restraint seems overcautious and even prudish, and when he finally dissolves Burgundy into a dither of effects, he doesn’t have Berberian’s film-within-a-film conceit to justify the unraveling.

Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja contains its own big narrative vault—one that left me behind on the opposite shore—but for most of its running time the film is a compelling study in foreground and background tension and the weight of open spaces, shot in the 1.33:1 Academy ratio with an antique, round-cornered frame. In nineteenth-century Argentina, a Danish military engineer (Viggo Mortensen) sets off across the Patagonian plains in pursuit of his daughter (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), who has run off with a low-ranking soldier. With his military mustaches and cavalry regalia, Mortensen invites comparison to John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1957), but in Alonso’s film the avenging conquistador is gradually whittled down to size by the landscape and its native inhabitants. The film’s spell is broken, however, when it jettisons its Story So Far around the time that Mortensen’s lost and defeated patriarch wanders into a vaginal cave, signaling a leap into the unknown which feels more literal-minded than the “straight” narrative that preceded it.

Quite the opposite number of either Burgundy or Jauja’s stretch-fades is the case of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden, a film whose opening—I think deliberately disorienting—gives the viewer very little to get a handle on, but which in the course of two hours arrives somewhere that is quite moving. A pop epic which flits through eras like a crate-digger’s fingers, Eden follows a clique of characters from 1992, when they are teenagers getting into the rave scene, to 2013, when they are in their middle-to-late thirties. At first it’s hard to even discern who the film’s intended protagonist is, in part because actors Félix de Givry and Roman Kolinka, playing friends Paul and Cyril, bear a close physical resemblance to each other. Eventually Paul, who forms a garage house duo and starts organizing parties, emerges as something like a main character, and the film follows him through two decades of matching beats, from party to party, city to city, girl to girl, line of coke to line of coke, each section separated by vast elliptical gulfs in which nothing much seems to change except the amount of Paul’s personal debt. I don’t believe Paul ever appears alone until the film’s somber and sober final shot, and when he does, the volume of this aloneness is deafening.

It’s difficult to discuss Eden without also mentioning The Clouds of Sils Maria, so why even try? The latter was directed by Hansen-Løve’s husband, Olivier Assayas; each offered input into the other’s work throughout their gestation, and in their respective movies they even use a similar, quizzical “chaptered” structure. All the world’s a rehearsal in Sils Maria, a film whose characters scrutinize motivations from every possible angle—Juliette Binoche is an international star returning to the play that established her twenty years earlier, now as the older half of the central same-sex May-December affair; Kristen Stewart is her personal assistant, with whom she reads lines and rakes through the subtext of the piece. Sils Maria demands the same level of scrutiny the women give to the play—the film should be seen once just to sop up the ideas, again to hang onto the moment-to-moment give-and-go of the alert central performances.

Will K-Stew scent Academy gold for her bold perf? No thinking human being should give this matter a moment’s thought, but Toronto is where the “Oscar buzz,” which will build to a deafening din over months to come, begins. What this means, from a practical standpoint, is that one gets the first crack at seeing some truly awful films there. 99 Homes, for example, offers further proof that writer-director Ramin Bahrani is our foremost practitioner of Neorealist camp. For his tale of an evicted Orlando-area construction worker (Andrew Garfield) who becomes the right-hand man of the suit who tossed him out of his house (Michael Shannon), Bahrani borrows the basic narrative outline of Wall Street, with just a soupçon of Gangs of New York. In the Gordon Gekko/Bill the Butcher role, Shannon is given full clearance to make the scenery into his own personal buffet, with predictably enjoyable results. But can’t just one of these movies end with the essentially decent guy who’s been tempted by the spoils of corruption failing entirely to recapture his soul? Or maybe we could get a movie about how we’re all not connected, instead of another we’re-all-striving-travelers-on-this-crazy-blue-green-ball ensemble piece like Jason Reitman’s toxic Men, Women, and Children?

By a significant margin, the best US movie that I saw north of the forty-ninth parallel was Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What. Arielle Holmes, who was a homeless teenager with a heroin habit when she was “discovered” by Josh on a subway platform, stars as a version of her not-much-younger self in the anecdotal film, adapted from her own unpublished memoir Mad Love in New York City. Holmes’s Harley knocks about between connections and consorts, while always returning to the worst one (Caleb Landry Jones, an orc with a translucent complexion). Shot in the grottier precincts of the Upper West Side, the film captures the purifying effulgence of the city’s winter light, assuming a perspective that veers between flurried intimacy and a passersby POV. At various points it put me in mind of the surreptitiously filmed scene where Laurie Bird hits up strangers for change in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), or some of the more punishing works of Tobe Hooper—the aggro electro score of Eaten Alive (1977) or Marilyn Burns on the side of the road at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Heaven knows who the intended audience is for this urgent, abrasive film, which sets its sights on highly dysfunctional human beings inflicting punishment on themselves and anyone who’ll put up with them, but here’s hoping they find it.

The Toronto International Film Festival ran September 4–14.