The strange thing about The Danish Girl (Grade: C+) is that it conveys its trans heroine’s experiences in terms of erotic obsession—with silk stockings as the major fetish item—but is itself mostly sexless, at least as far as her life as a woman is concerned. Tom Hooper’s just-sophisticated-enough re-telling of the life of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery, is all about the desire of female forms; a typical scene finds Elbe watching a peep show, copying a stripper’s movements until she notices through the glass, and the two enter into a mirror pas de deux. And yet, the movie resists the one thing that could prove that it has some guts—namely, it resists turning Elbe into an object of desire herself.
Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) is introduced as Einar Wegener, Copenhagen-based landscape artist, whose wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), needs a model for a painting, and asks Einar to don a dress. The resulting series of portraits—of an idealized, enigmatic female figure, dubbed “Lili” by a friend of the couple—jumpstarts Gerda’s career and leads her husband to embrace a new identity as a woman. The source material here is a novel by David Ebershoff, which plunks The Danish Girl somewhere between biopic and literary adaptation; among other things, the movie de-queers its 1920s art world milieu, with Gerda portrayed as more or less straight here, despite the fact that her real-life equivalent had a significant sideline drawing lesbian erotica.
This is one of those cases where you shouldn’t believe the dialogue (“It doesn’t matter what I wear, it’s what I dream,” goes the movie’s signature line); “trans” as both a prefix and an idea suggests fluidity, but The Danish Girl is rutted in binary oppositions. The story of a man so captivated by women’s bodies that he becomes one is intrinsically interesting (see: lingering close-ups of bare shoulders, knees, ankles, none of them Elbe’s), but it is not a trans story, and even if it weren’t trying to be one, The Danish Girl would still suffer from an uncertain sense of its own shape and outline.
Hooper’s designer-eclectic direction, with its near-fish-eye wide-angle lenses, stripped walls, and unmotivated art-history references (including a few direct lifts from Hammershøi, presumably because he was also Danish) begins to rush aimlessly once the focus shifts from the way the title character looks at women to Elbe herself. Perhaps the problem is that the movie treats Einar Wegener and Lili Elbe as two completely separate characters (“I’ve only liked a handful of people in my life, and you’ve been two of them,” goes another key piece of dialogue), and simply isn’t as interested in the demure shop girl who wants nothing more than to settle down and have a baby as it is in the conflicted artist.
A young movie director with a Che Guevara beard gets into his Land Rover and drives off into the Moroccan countryside, where he is abducted by bandits; they cut out his tongue and force him to dance in a suit sewn with rusty lids, calling him “King Of The Tin Cans.” A.V. Club favorite Ben Rivers (Two Years At Sea) started coming into his own just as doom and black metal were becoming dominant influences on experimental film, and The Sky Trembles And The Earth Is Afraid And The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (Grade: B-) works in that now-familiar palette of natural landscapes, rituals, and enigmatic violence. (There’s even a Nadja track playing on the car stereo.)
At the same time, Rivers’ second solo feature is the closest to “conventional” that his work as ever come—the term being used very loosely here, given that The Sky Trembles opens as a somewhat absurd behind-the-scenes documentary before following Spanish filmmaker Oliver Laxe off into the unknown. (Laxe plays himself, and the movie he’s shown directing is actually his next film.) Shaggy and obtuse, the film—to date, the only one I’ve seen here screened from a print—still has the advantage of Rivers’ knack for mesmerizing texture, especially when it comes to the soundtrack, which is thick with magnetic scratches, analog hiss, and natural sounds; in the first sequence, it coalesces into a steady drone that, for some reason, brings to mind Tangerine Dream’s score for the opening heist in Thief.
Transformation seemed to be dominant theme of the last couple of days at TIFF, and the scores of press and industry folk who left during the screening of Man Down (Grade: D+)—with the first walkouts beginning halfway through the opening credits—robbed themselves of the unique experience of watching a fundamentally wrongheaded movie transform into a merely misguided one. Graded into a sewage-runoff palette of watery fecal browns, Man Down poorly juggles three different timelines: one that follows a Marine (Shia LaBeouf) from training to Afghanistan, another set during a day-long meeting with a Marine Corps psychiatrist (Gary Oldman), and a third set in cheaply realized Red Dawn-esque post-apocalyptic future in which Islamist militants have taken over America after killing off most of the population with chemical weapons.
There’s an easy-to-guess twist here that shifts the movie’s politics away from fear-mongering—which makes the movie potable, if not exactly palatable—and LaBeouf is perversely committed both to his role and to director and co-writer Dito Montiel’s sense of macho atmosphere. (Sample improvised line: “Hey, like, what do you know about dog hats? What do you know about dog hats?”) Despite cinematographer Shelly Johnson’s admirable attempts to ape Janusz Kaminski’s lighting style—covered up by the color grading, which A.V. Club contributor Adam Nayman likened to camouflage meant to hide the fact that anyone had put any effort into this movie—this basically looks and moves like an over-heated fan film, and Montiel’s tin-eared use of country music doesn’t make it seem any less amateurish. The director has made some good movies (Fighting, for one), but not recently.
Theme and variation: South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo makes the same movie over and over again, but it’s okay, because the movie happens to be really good. Right Now, Wrong Then (Grade: B+) introduces another Hong stand-in, who once again spends most of the movie smoking, drinking, and toting around a backpack. Invited to Suwon for a screening of one of his films, arthouse director Ham Cheon-soo (Jeong Jae-yeong) finds himself spending the day hanging out with aspiring painter Hee-jeong (Kim Min-hee), leading to a checklist of Hong-isms: comically awkward conversations over food, followed by even more awkward scenes of people apologizing; strangely contentious interactions with new acquaintances; jumbled chronology; characters standing around in the cold for much longer than they should.
Hong has the distinction of being fixated on form, while being largely indifferent to aesthetics, which makes it refreshing to see a Hong movie as handsome as this after a run of features that looked like they were shot on mid-2000s consumer video. (It still has a chintzy Casio keyboard score, though that’s part of the charm.) Every scene in Right Now, Wrong Then plays out in a single take, with Hong’s signature zooms and pans employed to edit in-camera—abruptly shifting from a close-up to a wide shot to a medium and so on and so forth.
As per usual—a phrase that critics have to invent at least a dozen variations on when writing about Hong—this creates a sense of fluid causality, which matters a great deal in a movie that’s largely about people trying to recapture moments that happened only minutes ago, but are already slipping away. Coming on the heels of last year’s Hill Of Freedom—one of Hong’s best films, and his funniest—Right Now may feel like a retreat, but the fact is that the director is still better than just about anyone at drawing out the complex subtleties of a missed connection, and having done it a dozen times before seems to have only made him better at it.
A little less than 24 hours after seeing Right Now, I found myself back at the Scotiabank—the bizarrely space-themed multiplex that serves as TIFF’s main press and industry screening venue—for another movie with an ambling protagonist who goes everywhere with a backpack slung over his shoulder. The Apostate (Grade: B-), Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj’s underwhelming follow-up to A Useful Life, is another flight of fancy about a somewhat schlubby man of principle. Here, his hero is Gonzalo Tamayo (Álvaro Ogalla), a Spanish agnostic who sets out to get his name removed from the church’s baptismal records. This absurd, quixotic task quickly recedes into the background, giving way to dream sequences and Nanni Moretti-esque detours; perhaps The Apostate is too scrambled and sputtering to be very good, but too gracefully directed to come within spitting distance of bad. An interminable sequence involving whispering nudists is worthy the old-fashioned simplicity of the shot that introduces Gonzalo’s childhood priest, sitting behind his desk in the church basement, mending a button as light glints off the dandruff coating his shoulders. I know I’m selling the movie short here; I’ll have more thoughts in the next dispatch.
How little can music matter in a movie musical? Deliriously designed around massive wireframe sets, translucent walls, and minimalist parallel lines—a look that’s part Absolute Beginners, part IKEA warehouse aisle—Johnnie To’s Office (Grade: B+) is one of the most inspired movie musicals in recent memory, despite its unremarkable pop score. Best known in the U.S. for his crime movies, the Hong Kong-based To has drawn on musicals for inspiration before (see: his superb pickpockets-in-love romance Sparrow), and, in his first official foray into the genre, he largely eschews dance choreography in favor of tricky camera moves and frame-within-a-frame compositions that create a sense of dance-like movement even when the characters are standing still.
Set at a Hong Kong investment firm during the 2008 financial crisis, Office finds To and his creative team—which here includes production and costume designer William Chang, Wong Kar-wai’s main man—visualizing the market through parallel narratives, geometric lines, and capital-M metaphors. (A high-speed elevator and a giant ticking clock figure prominently.) An executive (the great Sylvia Chang, who also wrote the source play) begins to see her power slip away while a hard-working young assistant (Wang Ziyi) tries to get his foot in the door, and everybody seems to be making a different back room deal or keeping a different secret.
Here, business culture is defined through contrasts and contradictions: secrecy and conspicuous consumption, loyalty and ego, success and failure. The rows and spirals of white bars that make up the headquarters of Sunn & Jones resemble a playground and a prison in equal parts. To is one of the most gifted film craftsmen working today, and here he has a knack for the sort of moments of heightened convergence that make a great musical. Pity about the songs, though; at least the lyrics are interesting.