Telluride, Toronto and After

For folks involved in film, seasonal clocks can be set by the annual confluence of international film festivals (Telluride, Toronto, New York, Edinburgh, Venice) that shape reputations and kick-start the movies that show up on screens throughout the fall and winter. Usually, festivals are measured by which premieres and stars they snag, which prizes are awarded. This year, however, only one factor comes into play: whether festivals and films ran before or after September 11.

Telluride took place in the bucolic setting of the Colorado mountains in the prelapsarian weeks prior to September 11. In addition to hot-off-the-press premieres, the Telluride festival is known for its tributes and archival revivals. Each year features a guest director who brings some special expertise to spice up the mix. (Full disclosure: I was the 1996 guest director.) This time it was Salman Rushdie, who unspooled Indian classics and chatted about science fiction films to the thrill of the crowd. (A few days later in Toronto, opening my copy of the Globe and Mail, I was surprised to find Rushdie’s name on the front page. An item on September 11 reported that the FAA had alerted Air Canada that it could not board him as a passenger, bound for Toronto that week, due to “extreme security measures” that required air traffic to operate under a “heightened state of alert.”)

Yes, Telluride was before all that. Still, it’s a festival that often has a political spin buried in its offerings. (Its very first festival, after all, honored Leni Riefenstahl.) The roster of films this year included everything from Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s French blockbuster Amelie to a documentary on Walt Disney. No Man’s Land, by first-time Bosnian director Danis Tonovic, was a popular hit, offering an antiwar message that combined M*A*S*H-style humor with the despair of Waiting for Godot.

Telluride’s succès de scandale was Dear Fidel, a quirky German documentary on the life and love of Marita Lorenz, a German-American woman whose love affair with Fidel Castro during the first year of the Cuban Revolution led to a subsequent assignment from the CIA to murder him. Conspiracy alert: She was also a member of a convoy that drove from DC to Dallas on–guess which day. And, yup, Lee Harvey Oswald (she calls him “Ozzie”) was one of the gang. The documentary, by investigative journalist Wilfried Huismann and producers Detlef Ziegert and Yvonne Ruocco, is packed with these astonishing stories and more, plus all-important witness corroborations. The confused editing might boggle the mind, but Dear Fidel‘s central subject never fails to fascinate. Showing up in person for the premiere, Lorenz basked in the crowd’s attention and told even more stories: For example, her daughter (by Venezuelan ex-dictator Gen. Marcos Pérez Jiménez) is now married to the son of Orlando Letelier! Check out the website ( and prepare to be astonished.

The pure cinema part of the Telluride schedule featured an award and retrospective tribute to Catherine Breillat, the French director whose brilliant examinations of female sexuality freed from societal constraints have made her one of the most original filmmakers of our time. That her cinema is itself freed from societal constraints, and thus free to explore sex explicitly on screen and ignore taboos regarding both age and agency, is not incidental. Romance, the 1998 film in which she used actors alongside porn stars, pierced the facade of feminine wiles and instead constructed a character who was willing to go to any lengths for satisfaction.

Breillat’s new film, Fat Girl (À Ma Soeur!), went on to both the Toronto and New York festivals after Telluride, and opens in New York City on October 10, with a national release thereafter. A deliberately troubling film about adolescent female sexuality, Fat Girl can easily be interpreted as a long-overdue riposte to the French coming-of-age movies centered on summertime first loves, such as Eric Rohmer’s beloved Pauline at the Beach. Breillat explores the hypocrisy of a society that weighs down the sexual act with sentimental and moralistic baggage through one summer affair between a beautiful teenager, Elena (Roxane Mesquida), and Fernando, the Italian law student (Libero de Rienzo) who woos her after a chance meeting in a beachside cafe.

For a clear-eyed view, Breillat has written into the narrative a plump and grumpy younger sister, whose role is to accompany the Lolita-ish teenager throughout the flirtatious escapade. Protected by age and weight, Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) dissects the terrible contract by which a teenage girl is allowed to possess beauty and “lose” virginity. In a hilarious cameo, Laura Betti, Pasolini’s star and muse, appears as Fernando’s social-climbing, bejeweled mother.

Naturally, since this is a Breillat film, sex and death are never far apart. There’s unpredictable violence lurking at the movie’s end, just when the audience relaxes, thinking it knows what’s up. From its tranquil beginning to its shocking finish, Fat Girl shows Breillat to be a world-class artist working at the top of her form–even when the lessons of gender, sexuality and social custom may be hard to swallow. Without her, they wouldn’t be available to us at all.

Telluride is not known for favoring women directors, but this year was different. Alongside Breillat was a new talent from Argentina, Lucrecia Martel. Her first feature film, La Ciénaga, churned up attention at virtually every festival and, like Fat Girl, was programmed at Toronto and New York. (It will also have a wider theatrical release, at New York’s Film Forum in October and elsewhere throughout the fall.) La Ciénaga is an astonishing debut that mixes a Gabriel García Márquez sort of setting with a thoroughly cinematic imagination. Summer is a time of disintegration in Martel’s universe, constructed from her memories of growing up in Salta, a province in the northwest of Argentina near the Bolivian border that’s haunted by its own fears and illusions. In La Ciénaga, a middle-class family comes unglued over the course of several days in which petty disasters add up to major calamities. What distinguishes the film is Martel’s wholesale reinvention of Latin American film language, so long bound by the rules of realism and/or melodrama. With La Ciénaga, cinema gets a shakeup, and the result is intoxicating.

La Ciénaga does what cinema at its best can do: It reveals a universe we’ve never even imagined and then gets us to look differently at both the society and medium we’d underestimated. Here, that means seeing water balloons thrown by young men at young women in the glorious frenzy of a fiesta. Or the modern-day stigmata self-inflicted by a boozy mother who, drunk, drops her glass on the patio and falls right into its jagged remains. Or the aura surrounding a maid, adored by the children she cares for and depended upon by their parents, who is nevertheless accused of stealing whenever anything cannot be found. Martel lays open a system of contradictions–individual, familial, racial, class–that show up like fissures in the bedrock of Argentine society. It’s the audacious vision of a true artist who has paid close attention to the society around her.

When I arrived in Toronto, I was half-afraid I’d already seen the two best films in the festival. I needn’t have worried. The lineup was terrific. Fat Girl and La Ciénaga were still standouts, but they had good company in the 300-plus films from Albania to Zanzibar and most places in between, including Hollywood. David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive proved to be a terrific return to form for him, all dark intrigues and homicidal corruption. Alfredo Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También? spiced a road movie with riffs on adolescent masculinity and the Mexican elite. From Hong Kong, Stanley Kwan sent Lan Yu, a gay melodrama looking at the tumultuous relationship between a businessman and a student hustler. Chilean Patricio Guzmán brought El Caso Pinochet, an examination of the legal and political work of trying the ex-dictator. Toronto is known as an exceedingly democratic festival, with something for everyone–its programmers even sign their catalogue entries so you know whom to blame–and the scope pays off for moviegoers who choose wisely.

Midway into the festival, it began to look possible to divine a new trend in American independent cinema. A series of accomplished films deployed a new narrative structure, tracing a large cast of characters across a series of ever-interlocking dramas. Jill Sprecher’s Thirteen Conversations About One Thing and Rose Troche’s The Safety of Objects (based on a collection of stories by A.M. Homes) both carry their audiences through multilayered journeys of loss, anxiety and redemption with commanding complexity. In Thirteen Conversations, tricks of fate direct a series of characters whose interconnections are slowly exposed through a complex structure that moves across time and locations. In The Safety of Objects, Troche’s script stitches disparate stories together into a treatise on lives touched by tragedy and redeemed by connections that bind them through a similarly complex structure of events. A film by another American woman director, Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely and Amazing, offered a brighter and leaner version, with a family story of interconnecting events that culminate in cinema’s funniest McDonald’s scene. Unlike earlier films that played with narrative–Happiness, American Beauty–these women do not rely on irony. Instead, they’re perfecting a new approach to storytelling for complicated times.

Not surprisingly, films at Toronto played differently before and after September 11, a date that fell directly mid-festival. It was astonishing how quickly the hippest buzz dissolved once the events of the world intruded and, conversely, how much excess meaning accrued to those films with the “luck” to consider life-and-death issues, now utterly amplified. Indeed, after the 11th, Toronto was not the same event. The first half wound down as the press corps, in high spirits, emerged from a screening of Mira Nair’s deliriously joyous film, Monsoon Wedding (which had been named the Venice festival’s grand prize winner the day before), to enter a lobby filled with weeping colleagues staring at a giant monitor above the concession stand carrying the now-familiar scenes of unimaginable destruction. In the aftermath, all parties were canceled, industry presence was diminished and lines of Torontonians wound around the block, eager for the diversion and transport that movies deliver so well.

Suddenly it seemed that the festival was spilling over with films about loss, sudden death, fatal accident and families rent by grief. There were so many I tired of counting (The Safety of Objects, by the way, is one). Three are such exceptional films that they would have been singled out at any time; now they resonate, trembling like a tuning fork with the nervous hum of recent weeks. From Italy, there’s The Son’s Room; from Taiwan, What Time Is It There?; from France, L’Emploi du Temps (Time Out).

Laurent Cantet’s Time Out is an unemployment thriller, detailing the desperate denial and increasingly psychotic behavior of a middle-management family man who loses his job, and with it his identity, sense of safety and all bearings. He never tells anyone what has happened. He cuts off all contact with his old colleagues and concocts one strategy after another–from pyramid investment schemes to outright smuggling–in order to maintain his face-saving fiction. As the screws of his deception tighten, a Hitchcockian shadow of slowly and excruciatingly built tension begins to shadow the film’s events. Surely this will end violently? But Cantet is a latter-day Marxist whose last film, Human Resources, looked at a father-son struggle based on a factory floor. Here, he seems to tell us, nothing can compare with the violence experienced by any human caught up in mindless white-collar management, whether working or laid off. In that sense, the lie told by Cantet’s protagonist–claiming that he’s got a new job with a Swiss NGO doing business in Africa–is merely one more irony in his doomed flight from capitalism.

Tsai Ming-liang appeared in these pages earlier this year when his film The River had a delayed US release. Now he’s back, with a wonderfully mature film, What Time Is It There? A comedy of sorts, it considers, among other things, how a son and mother cope with Dad’s sudden death. The mother weeps and tries valiantly to communicate with her husband on the other side, utilizing variously a cockroach, a carp and a Buddhist priest. The irreligious son, played as always by Lee Kang-sheng–star of all of Tsai’s films since his 1992 hit Rebels of the Neon God— is shaken, too. He works as a street vendor. When an attractive customer insists on buying the watch on his wrist instead of the one he’s selling–arguing that the dual-time dial is essential for her trip to Paris the next day–she sets the film’s structure in motion. As her geographic absence begins to stand in for his father’s passing, the son performs his mourning by changing every clock in Taipei to Paris time, seven hours ahead.

It’s a hilarious conceit, which Tsai carries through with smart cinematic wit. One scene explicitly evokes Harold Lloyd’s silent-film antics. In another, our hero purchases a video–Truffaut’s 400 Blows–and watches the scene of Jean-Pierre Léaud stealing a bottle of milk and gulping it down. Constant cross-cutting to the watch-bearer, now a lonely Parisian, reveals her chance encounter with the now-aged Léaud himself in a Paris graveyard. The themes of love and loss, nurturance and abandonment, couldn’t be clearer; for added resonance, consider that actor Lee is often compared to James Dean, who so famously drank milk from the bottle in Rebel Without a Cause.

Nanni Moretti has made a career’s worth of film grounded in humor, but here he has turned serious. The Son’s Room, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this spring, is a portrait of a family, first in happiness and then in grief, its moods bifurcated by the accidental death of an adored son. Conveniently, Moretti’s script supplies the father (played by the director’s favorite star, himself) with a profession uniquely suited to its needs and ours: He’s a psychoanalyst. Prior to his personal tragedy, the doctor is able to handle his patients with ease, even though each one seems to have a problem that echoes his own issue in some way. But after the terrible twist of fate–how cruel film scripts, and life, can be– he is less and less able. The marriage, too, enters difficult territory. All seems to be lost. And then a letter arrives out of the blue from an unknown girl, and everyone gets a second chance.

The experience of watching The Son’s Room two days after the WTC tragedy has forever marked my sense of it. In return, it makes me confident of this film’s ability to crack open the heart and heal its wounds again. Totally different from one another, each of these three films takes up loss (of child, parent, job) and looks for a remedy. All three appeared in the New York Film Festival as well and will, one hopes, open across the country quickly. We need them. The movie theater needn’t be the place, as the late Pauline Kael once wrote, to “send our minds away.” It can be the place where we find them again. And with our minds, our hearts.