Festival-going inevitably results in apophenia, with unrelated films—seen in bursts and clusters, often with only a few minutes’ break in between—forming patterns that can’t help but seem meaningful. In three days, for instance, I’ve seen two different South American films in which the main characters are actors in the midst of rehearsing a play, and watched two movies back-to-back in which the protagonist is a woman trying to reclaim her identity by pretending to be someone who’s stolen it. Both of the debut features I’ve seen—The Lesson and I’m Not Lorena—have dealt with modern day anxieties about financial debt by placing the main character in middle of a bank repossession, and stacked the deck by making it somebody else’s fault. Most of these come in twos or threes: two films in which the male leads have a good, deep think on the john; two movies about people obsessed by music; three films in which the female protagonist either disguises herself as or is mistaken for a prostitute. Roleplaying seems like the dominant theme, though only because it’s long been one of the dominant themes of ambitious narrative cinema.
A lot of these patterns converge on Christian Petzold’s Phoenix (Grade: A), the best film I’ve seen so far at TIFF, and one of the best new movies I’ve seen this year. A kind of cross between Black Book and The Skin I Live In—though nowhere near as outrageous as either—Phoenix stars Petzold’s longtime muse, the great Nina Hoss, as Nelly, a disfigured Holocaust survivor who returns to post-war Berlin after having her face reconstructed by plastic surgery. As a result of the operation, Nelly doesn’t look exactly like her former self; in fact, her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, who co-starred with Hoss in Petzold’s superb Barbara), doesn’t recognize her, instead assuming that she’s a stranger who bears a passing resemblance to his wife, whom he presumes to be dead. Having lost her entire family to the camps, Nelly stands to inherit a large fortune that survived the war in a Swiss bank; soon, she gets roped into a scheme by Johnny—a former pianist now barely eking out a living as a busboy in a seedy American Zone nightclub called Phoenix—to impersonate herself so that he can collect the money.
As in his earlier films, Petzold underplays the pulpiness of his premise, instead focusing on its complex psychological and emotional undercurrents: Nelly’s tentative suspicion toward Johnny, whose memory she credits with keeping her alive in Auschwitz, but who may have been responsible for sending her there; sequences of Johnny teaching her to behave like her former self, and to imitate a vivaciousness long lost to trauma; the ambiguous discomfort of the scenes where Johnny, a gentile, coaches the woman he doesn’t realize is his Jewish wife on how to pretend to be a Holocaust survivor.
There’s a less queasy sort of roleplaying going on in The Princess Of France (Grade: A-), the latest twisty-turny modern-dress Shakespeare pastiche from Argentinean director Matías Piñeiro (Viola). Clocking in at just over an hour and composed almost exclusively of extended takes where the camera—its lens long, its aperture wide open—pans between different tight, abstracted close-ups, it plays like a chamber piece for face, voice, and bokeh. Piñeiro is, to my mind, one of the most interesting young filmmakers working today, and The Princess Of France—which transposes bits of Love’s Labor Lost onto the romantic troubles of a group of young actors in Buenos Aires—is a showcase for his playful sensibility. (Full disclosure: I’m sharing a double bill with Piñeiro at the London Film Festival next month.)
Princess Of France’s unconventional long takes, wonky chronology, multiple false starts and endings, and intentional repetition reminded me of Hong Sang-soo; the fact that its protagonist is a returning to a city he left behind, and spends most of the movie running into ex-girlfriends and wearing a backpack, didn’t hurt either. It’s appropriate, then, that I saw Hong’s new film—which has almost the exact same running time as The Princess Of France—the next night.
Hill Of Freedom (Grade: A-) is the prolific South Korean writer-director’s funniest work, a wry, mostly English-language comedy about a Japanese man—the latest in a long line of dislocated Hong protagonists—who travels to Seoul hoping to run into his Korean ex-girlfriend. His story is related through undated letters he left behind for the ex after failing to meet up with her; early on, she drops the stack, which motivates the movie’s playfully jumbled chronology. (She also loses one, creating a gap in the narrative.)
Hong’s drama has always hinged on socially awkward situations, which are compounded here by the fact that Mori (Ryô Kase) doesn’t speak Korean. Hong—who lived in the U.S. before starting his filmmaking career—demonstrates a sharp ear for non-native English and the overstatement and over-emoting that is the inevitable result of trying to communicate in a language you don’t speak fluently. (“Are you here for business or pleasure?”—a phrase that pops up in English phrasebooks around the world, but which no native-level English speaker would use sincerely—becomes one of the movie’s most consistently funny running gags.)
Friday night, I briefly departed the spaceship Scotiabank—the Star Trek-themed theater where TIFF holds its press and industry screenings—to awkwardly make my way into the premiere of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden (Grade: B, which seems more and more likely to go up the more I think about the movie), a two-decade-spanning drama about the French house music scene that the director co-scripted with her DJ brother, Sven Hansen-Løve. Plotted in roughly two-year intervals and divided into two parts—”Paradise Garage” and “Lost In The Music”—the movie follows Løve stand-in Paul (Félix De Givry) as he drifts in and out of relationships with various women (played by Pauline Etienne, Greta Gerwig, and Léa Rougeron, among others), snorts cocaine off every surface imaginable, and struggles to make a living; meanwhile, in the background, his old friends Thomas (Vincent Lacoste) and Guy-Man (Arnaud Azoulay) slowly ascend to worldwide stardom.
As in Hansen-Løve’s previous feature, Goodbye First Love, the characters don’t noticeably age; the approach is Boyhood inverted, the central focus being how and why particular obsessions—a romance in Goodbye First Love, a music genre here—endure across long periods of personal and cultural change. Despite—or perhaps because of—the broadness of its scope it struck me as less substantial than Hansen-Løve’s previous features, though her unconventional naturalism—which places low-key performances and images within eccentric frameworks—still makes for delicate, lifelike filmmaking, and her direction of actors (especially Etienne) is largely superb.
One of the most impressive aspects of the movie is its sensitive handling of music, which is always presented in personal, rather than communal, terms. I can’t say the same for Sion Sono’s Tokyo Tribe (Grade: B), a gleefully ludicrous, all-gold-everything rap musical whose many virtues do not include nuance. Most of the movies I’ve seen at TIFF have been in 2.35 widescreen, though Tokyo Tribe manages to pack more into that frame than seems feasible: outlandish costumes and sets (including a Scarface-style globe inscribed with “Fuck Da World” and a car so posh, it has chandeliers for headlights); garish color schemes and massive, star-filtered lens flares; crowds fighting, dancing, and fight-dancing. Throw in some consistently silly dialogue (“It ain’t dick size—it’s the size of a man’s heart that makes him great!”), a rabid performance from onetime Takashi Miike regular Riki Takeuchi as the wallpaper-suited heavy, and a Warriors knock-off plot, and you have the ingredients for an often fun, thoroughly brainless movie; the fact that most of the actors can’t rap worth shit is part of the appeal.
As far as purely aesthetic experiences go, I doubt anything I’ll see anywhere this year will beat Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye To Language (Grade: A-), the great, gnomic Swiss filmmaker’s first feature in 3-D. The latter portion of Godard’s career has been focused on constructing quasi-paradoxical arguments, expressed through the voices and movements of actors and the interplay of layered images and texts. Here, the ideas—most of them dealing with the relationship between human technology and speech and the natural world, which is embodied by a dog—are comparatively simple and straightforward, but the way in which Godard uses the stereoscopic format to express them is anything but. It’s easily the most imaginative use of 3-D I’ve seen, and a few moments—notably, the scenes where one stereoscopic plane pans while the other remains stationary—marked the first times in my adult life that I’ve seen something on screen and couldn’t immediately figure out how it worked. (The first of these hallucinatory pans—which effectively scramble the viewer’s vision—occasioned the only spontaneous audience applause I’ve heard at a press and industry screening here.)
I’ve had the good luck of seeing only one bad movie in the past two days, an often turgid Chilean quasi-thriller called I’m Not Lorena (Grade: C-). A poor relation to both The Princess Of France and the already not-very-good The Lesson, the movie stars Loreto Aravena—her eyes squinting from behind trapezoidal lenses—as an actress who is harassed night and day by collection agency phone calls intended for someone named Lorena Ruiz. If Tokyo Tribe represented the most densely packed use of widescreen I’ve yet encountered at TIFF, then Lorena represents the least purposeful; frankly, the movie is visual slop, and first-time director Isidora Marras’ sub-procedural flashbacks don’t do it any favors. The seeds of an interesting movie are there (the parallel between acting and identity theft might not be very deep, but it could be developed intelligently); too bad they never germinate.