Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas at TIFF

On June 9th, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott of the New York Times published ‘The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century,‘ a list of films that are “destined to be the classics of the future.” Because I read almost every review the two write, I went through the list and noted down films I haven’t seen that I’d like to see now that they’re meant for even more greatness. A few hours later, the marketing team at TIFF reached out with news of a new Summer-long complete retrospective — the first in 15 years — of the French master, Olivier Assayas whose 2008 film, Summer Hours, graced number #9 on NYT’s list and on top of my to-watch list. What are the chances!

Not all coincidences, it is said, are interesting. Considering that Assayas has long been synonymous with post-1968 generation of French cinema that deal with adolescence, political dissent, terrorism, and globalization, and that Summer Hours won numerous critics’ award around the world, perhaps this particular coincidence falls into the not very interesting category. Yet, it is, nevertheless, a fortuitous one, as I now have the chance to spread the news on TIFF’s Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas.

Scene from ‘Summer Hours’

Olivier Assays was a film-critic for France’s Cahiers du cinémathe prominent film magazine founded by André Bazin, before he became a director. Though he worked both as a director and screenwriter for numerous short and feature-length films alongside film giants like André Téchiné starting in 1978, Cold Waterreleased in 1994, is considered to be his breakthrough film as it was screened at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. Assayas has since established himself as a distinguished voice among contemporary filmmakers.

Assayas’s oeuvre is marked by the variety of genres. His 1996 satire Irma Vep about an actress (Maggie Cheung) and a failing director who wants to recreate Louis Feuillade’s 1915 classic Les Vampires is a strange and fascinating homage to the filmmaker and Hong Kong cinema. Sentimental Destinies (2000) is a costume drama set in the earl 20th centuries, concerning a Protestant minister. And with Demonlover (2002) and Boarding Gate (2007), Assayays forayed into noir and thriller. More recently, with Carlos (2010), Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), and Personal Shopper (2016), which won the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, Assayas has become a globetrotter. With each genre, however, it is easy to see Assayas’s search for his vision. Encompassing his oeuvre is his rumination on films, film history, and issues of identity in the face of larger disorienting cultural, economic, and political forces.

Kristen Stewart as Maureen Cartwright in ‘Persona Shopper’

Summer Hours is interesting in that, for many who’ve come to know Assayas through Carlos and Personal Shopper, it offers a quieter and lyrical side of his oeuvre. The film begins with the 75th birthday of Helene (Édith Scob). Her three children, Frederic (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and Jeremie (Jérémie Renier) gather in Helene’s home outside Paris to celebrate. Soon, Helene dies and leaves the house and her all-important art-nouveau furniture along with her inheritance from her famous artist uncle to her children. What ensues is a series of scenes and dealings with practical matters in which what holds a family together becomes increasingly vague; what was once thought to be a common ground — the house, both literally and figuratively — becomes a point of tension as money, emotions, and personal histories come into play. The center, however contentious and insufficient it had been prior to Helene’s death, does not hold once she is gone. Jeremie moves permanently to Shanghai and Adrienne to New York. Frederic, the only one left in France, struggles to realign himself as the new, albeit reluctant, center of his family of four.

Just next to the adult world of lawyers and contracts, Helene’s grandchildren lead, mostly unseen, entirely different lives. Shown Corot’s works nonchalantly hanging in his grandmother’s house, Frederic’s eldest son responds, “Well, it’s another era.” When Frederic is in the middle of closing a deal with regards to Helene’s furniture, his daughter, Sylvie, is caught shoplifting. That the film ends not in the adult world but with the children speaks to Assayas’s brilliance and vision. The movie that began with Helene and the art or artifacts of her life turns to one concerned with the disorder inherent in a family and becomes one about generations and youth, continuity and the lack thereof in families, cultures, and societies.

As with all great themes in film, family and adolescence and identity are materials that are visited without every really exhausting them. And Assayas’s continually revisits them from unexpected avenues.

Édith Scob as Hélène Berthier in ‘Summer Hours’

As part of TIFF’s ‘Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas,’ Assayas will make four in-person appearances to introduce four of his films: Cold Water, Clean, Le Diable Probablement, and Le Pélican. It is also a chance to see 35mm prints of many of his films, including Summer Hours, Clouds of Sils Maria, and Something in the Air. Finally, it is also a chance to see HHH — Portrait de Hou Hsiao-hsienAssayas’s documentary of the great Taiwanese director (A Time to Live and a Time to Die by Hou Hsiao-hsien is also a part of the retrospective). The retrospective begins on June 22nd and runs through August 20th.

Olivier Assayas with Hou Hsiao-hsien

You can find more information on the retrospective and its schedule here. And continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

What You Should Be Up to This March

It doesn’t look like it, but it is getting warmer and Spring is on its way. While we’re on this weather-transition that ultimately means mood-transition, it’s good to try to maintain a positive vibe — don’t stay cooped up inside just because there’s still bit of snow outside. And as you slowly fold away winter sweaters and take your coats to the dry cleaners, fold away moldy moods and thoughts that have grown over the winter. Here are a few things you should be up to in Toronto for a minor renaissance within and to herald in the Spring.

Cirque Éloize’s Cirkopolis

Dubbed the ‘sexier, hipper cousin’ of Cirque du Soleil, the Montreal-based contemporary circus troupe, Cirque Éloize, landed in Toronto earlier this month with its latest, CirkopolisThe set and the mood of the production are reminiscent of the early classic Metropolis by Fritz Lang, and the 80’s cult classic, Terry Gilliam’s BrazilIn it, eleven acrobats and multidisciplinary artists perform with extraordinary finesse and beauty under the continually revolving factory-cityscape. With bursts of humor, Cirkopolis expands circus’s possibilities as a medium for anyone — like myself — whose definition of it is riddled with lion tamers and unicycles.

Literary Events

Spring is publishing season — new days, new books. But before you are swamped by a rush of reading options, take a minute to immerse yourself in the literary outside the pages. Pivot Reading Series is a monthly series featuring both emerging and established poets and prose writers. Join Gwen Benaway (poet, Ceremonies for the Dead), Ashley-Elizabeth Best (poet, Slow States of Collapse), Robert Chafe (playwright, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams), and Shari Kasman (writer, Everything Life Has to Offer) this March 22nd at the Steady Cafe on Bloor West. Can’t save that date? Then consider the Poetry NOW: 9th Annual Battle of the Bards at Harbourfront Centre’s Brigantine Room on the 29th where twenty poets battle for the 1st place. But fine, if you don’t feel like enjoying poetry in a crowd, consider shopping at the Toronto Reference Library’s giant, cheap, and good-for-the-community book sale: with prices that low, you can cozy up inside with print material for days.

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After the Storm

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After the Storm premiered at 2016 Canne Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard to critical acclaim. In After the Storm, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), a divorced and less than self-actualized writer/detective attempts to close the distance with his estranged wife and son. A typhoon strikes and the family, including Ryota’s mother, are forced to spend a night together. With his meditative style, Kore-eda’s film dives deep into the ordinary to uncover undertows of familial relationships. Like the best of them, this family’s drama lies deep in their interactions. After the Storm opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this Friday and runs through March 23rd.

Stay in Touch

I know it’s hard enough to stay up to date with the daily goings on on the news. Every minute, it seems like, there’s some form of minor or major disaster looming. One way to keep yourself informed and in perspective is read long-form articles that offer in-depth analysis of whatever is going on in culture and politics. The New Yorker’s Andre Marantz’s ‘Is Trump Trolling the White House Press Corps?’ offers a good glimpse into the details of Trump’s war on the media and the intricacies of how we make, spread, and receive information in the age of social media, fake and “fake” news, and Seany Spciey. Kwame Anthony Appiah discusses what we talk about when we talk about ‘western civilization’ in the Guardian. In ‘Under the Skin of James Baldwin,’ Darryl Pinckney discusses Baldwin with the new documentary, I am Not Your Negro in mind. And lastly, in ‘The New Party of No,’ Charles Homans writes about the changing Democratic Party. Read a little bit at a time on your commute, or during lunch.

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Recapturing Past Happiness: Toni Erdmann

Image Credit: Sony Picture Classics

Earlier in 2016, movies like Manchester by the Sea, Birth of a Nation, and Captain Fantastic dominated film festival chatter, with speculations as to which were going to be the heavy-hitters for the Oscar season at the end of the year. Amidst such chatter however, was one film that was not getting as much media attention, yet it was slowly gaining a more vocal  following. With each passing festival, quiet rumblings regarding the German family dramedy Toni Erdmann started penetrating conversations more sharply, as it began picking up accolades at the Cannes Film Festival, the Toronto Film Critics Association and, most recently, the Palm Springs International Film Festival. This week, the Oscar nominations were announced, with Toni Erdmann receiving one for Best Foreign Language Film. At this point, it should be no stretch of the imagination to think it could very well be the front-runner, and for good reason. Not only is it a deeply affecting story about how family dynamics can drastically change in our modern world, but it blends moments of great pathos with humour, and will leave you chuckling to yourself far after it’s done.

The story begins with establishing the rather solitary life of Winfried Conradi, a man who finds great pleasure in finding ways to remind those around him of the exuberance and fun that everyday life can offer. A man comes to his door with a package, and Winfried answers pretending to be his deranged, twin brother known for creating mail bombs, and he also has a peculiar affection for wearing play-teeth whenever he performs such pranks on people. Unfortunately, those around him are more likely to be turned off or annoyed by his youthful playfulness. A boy that he was teaching piano lessons to abruptly quits, and he also finds out that his grown daughter, Ines, planned an early birthday party at her mother’s house, which he was not invited to.

Sony Pictures Classics

Shortly after we are introduced to Ines, we begin to understand that the film is more about her, and even though her father may seem objectively annoying to so many, she may actually be in desperate need of the kind of help he can provide. She is currently working as a consultant for an oil company, and has the unenviable task of finding options to outsource some of their services, potentially laying off hundreds of workers. Initially, she efficiently performs her job by refusing to speak her mind, while also accepting the responsibility of unpopular decisions. Winfred recognizes that, perhaps because of her job, Ines has difficulty with emotional honesty.  Her inability to be honest with him especially proves worrisome.  At one point, he visits her and in his signature way to lighten the mood, gives her a lame but good natured joke-birthday present: a cheese grater in an expensive-looking box. The next morning after a fight, she tersely says “If I wanted to jump out the window tomorrow, you and your cheese grater wouldn’t be able to stop me.” Winfred’s strategy then reaches a new level of theatricality: sporting the play-teeth he is so fond of as well as an oddly-fitting wig, he pretends to be the eccentric Toni Erdmann, a supposed life-coach to one of her business associates, and proceeds to unexpectedly show up at different events. Needless to say, if seriously uncomfortable humour is not your thing, think hard about whether you want to see this film.

The film certainly raises some interesting questions regarding whether Winfried’s values of trying to live in the moment by taking everything in stride, is applicable in the corporate environment the Ines finds herself engulfed in, and as a result the relationship between them takes on a sweet but melancholy feel. When Winfried is Toni, one gets the feeling he is trying to expose the phony attitudes of Ines’ business associates, as his antics become more obnoxious, yet garner little response from them in the moment. Doing so reveals the heart at the centre of the film, as the once-cold Ines begins holding back sly smiles and giggles as she watches her father. As though she wants to join in his silliness, but knows she can’t. And the performances by the two main actors, Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek, are stellar. Huller slowly reveals more layers of conflicted emotions, and Simonischek at times subtly shows the shadings of deep heartache thinly hidden behind his bizarre behaviors. Their performances are also a major reason why the comedy works so well, as their comedic timing can be so subtle that it feels completely emotionally authentic, grounding the outlandish plot, which makes it all the more charming and squirm-inducing.

About midway through, the film steps into darker territory meant to illustrate the consequences that Winfried’s carefree existence can have on the workers within the oil company. Yet soon after, the biggest crowd-pleasing moment in the film — that may make some audience members hold back tears — comes when Winfried pressures Ines into singing a certain Whitney Houston song in front of a group of strangers, underlining the emotional journey the character is on. The message that the writer and director Maren Ade may want us to leave with is that such a carefree and humourous outlook can co-exist in the seemingly cold modern corporate climate. But with that knowledge also comes the realization that those moments of happiness end up being all the more fleeting. Like Winfried notes, life starts moving so fast we end up just wanting to sit somewhere and force ourselves to try to remember and hold on to happier times.

Beginning today,  Toni Erdmann will be playing at the Tiff Bell Lightbox!  See it!

La Lupa — Anna Magnani at TIFF

Anna Magnani in Roberto Rossellini’s ‘Rome, Open City’ (1945)

Anna Magnani, during her near five decades long career, often played women caught in and defeated by a whirlwind of events outside her control. Watching her, even when a film begins in media res, one can easily fathom the bitterly fought over life of her characters. As such, it is not easy to watch Magnani’s performance without feeling a sense of injustice toward the world at large. Though this may in no small parts be due to the subject matter of Italian neorealism — the documentation of life in postwar Italy — and the nature of melodrama, the true genius of the uncontested Italian diva’s performances is how sincerely the said injustice is felt by a viewer. La Lupa does not call upon our empathy; the often impervious and irreverent characters of Magnani’s career defy comparison or easy comprehension. She evokes, rather, sincere compassion, revealing beneath her explosive emotions layers upon layers of pathos. In the male- and church- dominated society of postwar Italy, Magnani, with her portrayals of moral outrage, strength, and self-determination, look toward strong feminist characters found in today’s cinema.

Admired by critics and directors alike, Magnani won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1955 for her first English-speaking role as Serafina in Daniel Mann’s The Rose Tattoo. She went on to work with Sidney Lumet and Marlon Brando in The Fugitive Kind (1959), an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus DescendingDespite such success in the U.S., it has been notably difficult to watch Magnani’s works in North America, which makes TIFF’s retrospective of many of the actress’s films, Volcano: Anna Magnani — which runs from January 27th to March 11th — a much needed opportunity to witness her talent and voracious range.

Magnani in Paolo Pasolini’s ‘Mamma Roma’ (1962)

Magnani is perhaps best known for her breakthrough role in Rossellini’s neorealist classic, Rome, Open City. There she plays Pina, a devout Catholic and a member of the Italian resistance in the tail end of the Second World War. And in no other scene is the heralding of a great actress as clear as it is in Pina’s death mid-way through the film. Pina chases her fiancé captured by the Nazis and, as we watch from the point of view of the truck, is shot dead. Magnani’s eruptive energy, even as Pina lies dead, vivifies the gray landscape of Rossellini’s Rome and reshapes the nature of the pathos of the film; political and national crises become human ones with real victims.

In The Passionate Thief (1960), a comedy by Mario Monicelli, Magnani plays Tortorella, an actress who, middle aged, is still looking for her breakthrough role under the bright lights of Cinecittà. The film centers on Tortorella, her long-time friend, actor, and occasional con-man, “Infortunio” Pennazzuto (Totò), and a pickpocket on the job, Lello (Ben Gazzarra), on New Year’s Eve in various parties and street corners of Rome. The trio, each with different goals that are often at odds, roam the ancient city in this fast-paced comedy. Magnani’s Tortorella, unsatisfied with her life as a struggling actress only marginally and therefore more desperately in contact with glamour, wants to have fun. But the rich and the self-assured reject her while her companions share neither her sense of romanticism nor her moral fortitude.

Magnani and Totò in Mario Monicelli’s ‘The Passionate Thief’ (1960)

Although the comedy and the dramatic irony of the film — Tortorella is not aware that her friend and Lello are trying to steal from the rich at parties — is mostly carried by Totò’s garrulous and fumbling Pennazzuto, the pathos of the film is harnessed on Magnani’s performance. The sometimes ditzy and often rude and opportunistic Tortorella is by no mean dislikable because Magnani succeeds, without overtly dramatizing it, in portraying the character’s inner depth. There is much sadness in Tortorella that makes her persistent determination to have fun not only understandable but also courageous. Monicelli’s nuanced meditation on the economic and morale effects of the war and the generational rift in the postwar era truly shines in Tortorella’s consciously and fumblingly naive character.

Magnani and Ettore Garofolo in ‘Mamma Roma’

Paulo Pasolini’s Rome in Mamma Roma (1962) is a city brimming with pimps, prostitutes, thieves, motherless children, and merciless authorities. There is no relief from the surroundings. In many long shots, the horizon is stuffy with the apartments that were built during Mussolini’s reign as a proletariat dream project but now house the very hopelessness they once sought to relieve. And in this barren landscape, Magnani, in one of her last major roles, as Mamma Roma, a ex-prostitute from the countryside, attempts to start a new life with her once estranged son, Ettore (Ettore Garofolo). Her dream: to give Ettore a better life. All evidences to the contrary, Mamma fervently believes in her own ability to provide and Ettore’s innate entitlement to a better life. When Ettore steals records from the house to buy a gold chain for Bruna, a village prostitute, Mamma goes to the priest to ask for a job for her son. When the priest suggests restarting Ettore’s schooling, Mamma, with the help of her prostitute friend and her pimp, blackmails a local restauranteur to hiring her son. When Ettore seems to be in love with Bruna, Mamma asks, as a favor, her prostitute friend to sleep with him so that he will forget his ‘first’.

The drama of the film lies in Mamma’s — and in turn the audience’s — growing suspicion that her and her son’s failures are not so much due to the socio-economic confines of the times or the restraints of living in a ghetto but rather due to the moral consequences of her past. The question of who Ettore’s father is a subplot in the film. But outside of it, and even more importantly, Pasolini posits us to explore the relationship between lineage, economic stature, and morality.

Mamma certainly does and the fear of her having disadvantaged her son terrifies her. And Ettore’s suspicion that he has, somehow, been reduced to his teenage ennui because of his mother and the confounding existential and moral implications of his life lead him to ever more daring criminal activities. Ettore, after a failed stint attempted while delirious with fever, is put in prison and is tied down, arms spread to the sides, to his bed. Mamma, desolate, alone, attempts to commit suicide through a window but is stopped by her neighbors. As she looks out of her window toward a duomo beyond the apartment complexes, Magnani’s sunken eyes sing dreadful and desolate dirges.

Perhaps passion can be defined as a willingness and the persistency with which to turn a blind eye to obstacles that, to others, seem obvious in order to achieve a set of goals. And in a religious context, passion is associated not only with Christ’s suffering but also suffering — religious suffering, suffering religiously — in general. Pasolini’s notorious Mamma Roma can perhaps be described as a motion picture and late Italian neorealist rendition of the Pietàwith Magnani as the loving and bereft postwar Madonna. At every turn, Magnani captures the persistence and the suffering of a mother’s passion.

Magnani and Tina Apicella in Luchino Visconti’s ‘Bellissima’ (1951)

Many of the characters played by Magnani’s, seen in the span of two hours, often seem excessive and dangerously veering toward neurotic of the unbearable kind (for instance, Maddalena Cecconi in Luchino Visctoni’s 1951 Bellissima, is a classic helicopter mother and a cinematic precursor to Richard Hoover of Little Miss Sunshine). However, though the span of the film may only be two hours, the energy and sincerity with which she plays said characters are such that they seem reasonable, familiar. Reasonable and familiar in the context of reality and personal history, for the Magnani-effect is to make fictional characters have intricate layers of history that seem accessible through the actress.

Often, neorealist auteurs hired non-actors to play in their films in order to achieve a sense of ‘real’. Just as they insisted on shooting on location, nonprofessional actors assured a kind of authenticity of narrative flow, acting, etc. In Magnani, a renowned actress, they must have found the sweet equilibrium of talent and uninhibited rawness.

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Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival at TIFF

 

A man and his son track down a band of outlaws who has kidnapped his wife and daughter across the Arctic in Zacharias Kunuk’s Maliglutit (Searchers). Its plot takes inspiration from John Ford’s seminal 1956 western, The Searchers, but the similarities soon fizzle away to the aesthetics and elements of the genre. Kunuk’s long shots of the Arctic — the film was shot in Nunavut — are certainly reminiscent in their magnificence of Ford’s famed landscapes of Arizona; and the environment is itself a character, a violent and all encompassing force that shapes the story. However, the searchers of the original are by no means precursors of Kuanana (Benjamin Kunuk) and his son who share none of John Wayne’s Ethan Edward’s violence and racism.

Kunuk transposes the western to the Arctic landscape and gives it meaningful twists; Animals and their spirits — the loon’s in particular — replace Christianity; the chase is pointedly outside the colonial narrative; and, perhaps most importantly, violence is at best a questionable means to an end. With sometimes frustratingly claustrophobic close ups to the action, Kunuk refuses to give the satisfaction of watching simple — and frankly often entertaining — displays of violence on screen. At others, as in the shooting of a caribou or the rape of Kuanana’s wife and daughter, the violence occurs off screen. What we do see leave us thinking about lives led parallel to the continual presence of violence and its many faces.; the moral implications of abduction, rape, and retribution.

There are many beautiful pauses in the movie to help you mediate on them.

Maliglutit (Searchers) is now playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox as a part of the 16th annual Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival. The festival presents feature films, shorts, and student films to celebrate Canada’s diverse cinema. As Adam Cook has noted in the New York Times, the festival this year features a more independent and fresh roster of filmmakers. Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s Angry Inuka documentary on seal-hunting, Johnny Ma’s Old Stone, a drama about a cabdriver in the middle of a bureaucratic nightmare, and Kevan Funk’s Hello Destroyer (debut), about a minor-league hockey player, are among the A-list. Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World, starring Léa Seydoux, Marion Cotillard, and Vicent Cassel, is also on the list if you’re looking for more familiar names.

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