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The A.V. Club At TIFF '08: Day 6

A Christmas Tale

Director/Country/Time: Arnaud Desplechin, France, 150 min.

Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Jean-Paul Roussillon

Program: Special Presentations

Headline: Have yourself a bitchy little Christmas.

Scott's Take: The first Arnaud Desplechin movie I ever saw was My Sex Life… Or How To Get Into An Argument, a literate and dizzyingly verbal relationship film that delves into a post-graduate's love life and doesn't resurface until three hours later. Of his last film, the excellent Kings And Queen, I wrote that his script must have looked like a David Foster Wallace novel, given all its little stylistic footnotes and detours and page-long unbroken monologues. Desplechin's latest again immerses itself in the lives of complicated, hyper-intelligent, and generally fucked-up characters; that this particular symphony of dysfunction is framed as a holiday story—complete with Christmas dinner and Midnight Mass and all the seasonal trappings—gives it an extra kick. Even the lightest holiday comedies depict family scenes fraught with simmering tension and conflict, but A Christmas Tale pushes it to the nth degree. There's not a single stable creature among Desplechin's sprawling cast of characters, and their tenuous bonds are tested when matriarch Deneuve contracts a fatal genetic disease and looks to one of her children or grandchildren for compatible bone marrow. There's a metaphor here for how families are bonded (or not) by blood, and Desplechin doesn't gloss over their pettiness and narcissism for our benefit. In fact, the film puts up such a resistance to our sympathies that it can be actively irritating, with few of the playful diversions that made Kings And Queen so exciting. (The clever use of puppet interludes being the notable exception.) To me, A Christmas Tale is the epitome of a movie to be admired more than loved. Grade: B

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Noel's Take: I actively enjoyed A Christmas Tale more than Scott, though I share some of his qualms. I had a hard time getting into Desplechin's Kings & Queen because I didn't recognize the characters or their behavior as reflective of any reality I'm familiar with. And while much the same is true of A Christmas Tale—despite the usually universal family reunion/holiday milieu—the way Desplechin sets up the story allowed me to at least accept it on its terms. As is Desplechin's style, the movie is at once novelistic and cinematic, and develops a very specific mood around this collection of people who distrust and even dislike each other, but are bound by blood (in more ways than one). I wish the way the movie resolves moved me more, or that I cared about all the different character threads the way I care about the central relationship between the wayward Almaric and the three key women in his life: his chilly mom, his disapproving sister, and his unexpectedly loving girlfriend. But any visit to Planet Desplechin is a strange and exciting one.

Grade: B+

Martyrs

Director/Country/Time: Pascal Laugier, France, 100 min.

Cast: Morjana Alaoui, Mylène Jampanoï

Program: Midnight Madness

Headline: A new extreme for extreme French horror

Scott's Take: Watching this highly skilled and ingeniously structured exercise in torture and mayhem, I was reminded of a hilarious Scharpling & Wurster bit called "The Auteur." Wurster phones into Scharpling's show as Trent L. Strauss, a horror maestro (and Academy member) responsible for such cinematic touchstones as The Hacksawist, Doctor Sleaze, Nurse Sleaze, and You're Soaking In Her. Of the latter, which centers around a killer who fills his luxury spa baths with pureed organs and body parts, Strauss boasts, "It makes I Spit On Your Grave look like Amélie." Replace I Spit On Your Grave with Hostel, and you've got an idea of the viscera offered up by Martyrs, which may sound repulsive (and if you have no tolerance for this sort of thing, is repulsive), but it's smarter than you might imagine. What starts as a disturbing, Ms. 45-like story of a victimized woman seeking empowerment through revenge and violence winds up in a place so completely unexpected that I nearly laughed out loud at its audaciousness. The visceral thrills in the early going are handled with grisly élan, but then it segues into something more clinical and even spiritual as it goes along. It's the damnedest film I've seen out of the French extreme horror mini-movement, and I hope it finds some release in the states. (Since it has no chance at an R-rating, however, it may be direct-to-DVD.) Grade: B+

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Jerichow

Director/Country/Time: Christian Petzold, Germany, 93 min.

Cast: Benno Fürmann, Nina Hoss, Hilmi Sözer

Program: Contemporary World Cinema

Headline: Hunky German ex-soldier takes a job working for a jealous, wealthy immigrant and his hot wife

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Noel's Take: I made this German neo-noir a late add to my festival schedule after my friend Michael Sicinski gave it a 9 out of 10. In addition to being one of my favorite critics, Michael is known to prefer more avant-garde, adventurous cinema than the kind of subtle genre exercise that Jerichow looked to be from the TIFF catalog description, so I was anxious to see what would give it such a boost in his estimation. And for roughly the first 85 minutes of the movie, I couldn't really figure it out. Jerichow is a fine film throughout, exploring the ever-shifting relationship between the stoic Fürmann (a paragon of German manhood, despite some shady dealings in his past), the shrewd Sözer (a self-made man with a soft-heart, a hot head, and a drinking problem), and the ambiguous Hoss (a sweet-looking femme fatale with her own set of secrets). Jerichow proceeds in the direction of James M. Cain and Blood Simple, and while it's entertaining and artfully staged, it didn't strike me as especially brilliant. And then the last five minutes happened. I don't want to spoil anything—nor do I want to build future viewers up to expect some kind of mind-blowing twist or thrilling set-piece at the end, because it's not that kind of movie—but the way Jerichow ends changes a lot of the context for what happens before, in terms of what the film says about national identity, trust, and generosity. It also sets up an epilogue that the audience has to provide for itself. I'm still not convinced that Jerichow is a masterpiece, but it's definitely smart and insinuating.

Grade: B+

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Summer Hours

(For headline info and Noel's take, click here.)

After doing his best to deconstruct sexy thrillers of the cyber- (Demonlover) and cosmopolitan (Boarding Gate) variety, Assayas settles into a subtle, refined drama about the dissolution of a family. But unlike the emotional fireworks in A Christmas Tale, Assayas grapples with the more commonplace phenomenon of siblings drifting apart after their mother's death. When the mother was still alive, her three grown children and their kids had a reason to come together every summer at her gorgeous villa in the countryside, but once she passes, the home and the valuable museum pieces within it (paintings, vases, exquisite hand-crafted furniture) gets split up and sold off. Summer Hours goes about its business at a leisurely pace in the first half—though a sequence where appraisers are picking over the home's objects like vultures is a memorable one—but it builds to a quietly devastating scenes like one where the auctioned items, once warmly integrated into the family's everyday life, are put on hermetic display for the public. The unexpected and moving final scene is a bittersweet reminder of what's been lost. Grade: B+

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Religulous

Director/Country/Time: Larry Charles, USA, 101 min.

Documentary

Program: Special Presentations

Headline: Comedian Bill Maher proves atheists can be self-righteous too

Noel's Take: How you respond to this stand-up comedy routine masquerading as an essay-film will probably have a lot to do with whether you're sympathetic to Maher's two main points about religion: 1. That it is stupid, and 2. That it is dangerous. And even if you are sympathetic to Maher's perspective, you may find yourself wishing that he'd shut up every now and then and let his interview subjects answer the questions he asks without openly scoffing and rolling his eyes. For the most part, Religulous is a string of funny Maher comebacks to unfinished comments by everyday religious folks. Personally, I found the movie's methodology a little unfair, and the premise a little off-balance. It's primarily an atheism advocacy doc, yet Maher and Charles aren't quite fearless enough to interview or lay into the multitudes of moderately devout folks who use their religion as a cultural signifier and a way to make a difference in their communities. All of that said, I found Religulous pretty consistently hilarious, and many of its points—though surely well-known to anyone who ever sat around their dorm room talking God with their buddies—to be worth compiling and re-asserting. And there are a couple of sequences that are downright thrilling: one a trip to a Holy Lands theme park that devolves into a shouting match between tourists with varying opinions on what being "saved" means, and the other a climactic sermon delivered by Maher over a montage of organized religion's lowest moments of the past 20 years or so. Clearly, Maher is preaching to the converted here (so to speak). But even religion-haters deserve a liturgy.

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Grade: B

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The Ghost

Director/Country/Time: Karen Oganesyen, Russia, 105 min.

Cast: Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Mashkov, Chulpan Khamatova

Program: Contemporary World Cinema

Headline: Crime novelist befriends contract killer

Noel's Take: There's not much to say about this stylish B-movie, except that the premise is strong if a little familiar. A blocked pulp writer gets contacted by an honest-to-goodness hit man, who pledges to show him the ropes, but has ulterior motives. Many well-composed overhead shots ensue.

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Grade: B-

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$9.99

Director/Country/Time: Tatiana Rosenthal, Australia, 78 min.

Animated

Program: Discovery

Headline: Indie films can be just as patronizing and cloying when they're animated

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Noel's Take: You know those "everything's connected" arthouse efforts? The ones inspired by Crash or Magnolia or Short Cuts, where people stumble miserably through a seemingly meaningless universe until they realize that what they do in the world has an impact? Well, if you've ever been watching one of those and thought to yourself, "This should be animated," then $9.99 is the movie for you. The actual style of the film is quite striking, with the stop-motion figures sporting a look at once realistic and somewhat dirty. But at the same time, I'm not sure that the animation adds much besides novelty. I'd rather see $9.99 than a live-action film in the same vein, but honestly, I'm pretty well over this whole subgenre.

Grade: C

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Paris, Not France

Director/Country/Time: Adria Petty, U.S.A., 68 min.

Documentary

Program: Real To Reel

Headline: Come for a pop culture phenomenon, stay for an extra on a DVD nobody in their right mind would want.

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Scott's Take: The Toronto Film Festival brass has some 'splaining to do. For one, this movie should never have been made it into the festival, especially with James Toback's reputedly excellent Tyson documentary not on the docket. (More on the aesthetic craptitude in a moment.) More immediately, the festival has to answer for the utter debacle surrounding this film's unveiling. When the schedule was first announced, Paris, Not France, an hour-long doc on Paris Hilton, was slated for five screenings—two for the press and three for the public. Then word came down that Hilton and her people were not happy with the film, and had pressured the festival into canceling all but one screening at the Ryerson, the festival's largest venue outside of the Galas-only Roy Thomson Hall. There were some rumors that Hilton was alarmed by how she was depicted, that lawsuits were in the works, and that the film would never see the light of day again. It would appear those rumors are complete bullshit: The cancelled screenings were, in fact, a ploy to drive up publicity for the premiere and grant the dead-eyed hellbeast the red carpet treatment to which she is accustomed. And given that she posed with director Petty (Tom's daughter) in front of a phalanx of paparazzi and politely applauded her on her way out of the door, Hilton clearly wasn't unhappy about how the film might affect her all-important brand.

Festival officials haven't gone into any detail yet about how they allowed Hilton's people to manipulate them, but today's event was a boondoggle. Cutting five screenings down to one only makes sense as the publicity stunt that it was; if Paris, Not France were truly unauthorized and Hilton owned the rights to the end result, then it would have simply been pulled. So why didn't the festival just drop it from the schedule altogether rather than play along? This way, the blame for yanking the screenings would have fallen entirely on the Hilton camp. (As it happens, not many people would have been put out. Today's screening didn't come close to selling out the Ryerson, though it probably drew a bigger audience than The Hottie And The Nottie did in its entire theatrical run.) It's especially silly to make these compromises for a film that aspires to be the next Madonna: Truth Or Dare, but winds up getting sucked into the Hilton vortex.

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Absurdly overlong at a paltry 68 minutes, Paris, Not France isn't even up to date on Hilton gossip. A generous section of the film is devoted to the fallout over her sex tape with Rick Salomon, which happened all the way back in 2003, and the most recent footage appears to be from the lead-up to her debut album Paris, released in August 2006. That means nothing about her arrest, her time in prison, and the media circus that swirled around it. Petty's exclusive access to Hilton is limited mainly to a drive around Los Angeles, wherein the heiress prattles on about who-the-fuck-cares-what. The rest is basically B-roll footage, occasionally tricked-out with arty camerawork, and interspersed with interview footage of Hilton's risible family and talking heads like Donald Trump (!), Camille Paglia, Michael Musto, and Richard Johnson. (My favorite subject is Hilton's personal "crisis manager," who's like a comically effete version of the full-time band therapist in Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster.) I'll admit to being intrigued by the idea of unauthorized Hilton documentary, given the wealth of dismal footage that does meet with her approval, and I had hoped that Petty would capture the raw machinations of Hilton Inc.

No such luck, alas. All one could do before, after, and during the screening was just stare at Paris and contemplate the void. The one thing the documentary suggests, inadvertently I'd guess, is that Hilton seems to have no inner life whatsoever. And that's the difference between her and Marilyn Monroe, the icon who's fun-and-flirty image she's trying to replicate: People gawked at Monroe because she was bubbly and sexy and flirtatious; people gawk at Hilton because her eyes reflect the blank, pitiless implacability of death. She's like Barbara Steele in Mario Bava's Black Sunday: You're powerless to look away. Grade: D

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Tomorrow: Charlie Kaufman directs! Lebron James dunks! A.V. Club writers pack their bags!

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