Must-See Movies to Keep an Eye Out For: Dispatch from the 2013 Toronto Film Festival

09/11/2013 12:31 PM |

Closed Curtain Jafar Panahi Toronto
  • From Closed Curtain

At the sprawling 2013 Toronto Film Festival, more than 300 movies screen in 10 days. Every feature seen means innumerable features missed; the festival endlessly generates regret. The mourning stages are quick, though, with another film to fill the void. I filled it with a variety of directorial self-examinations and laments.

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Closed Curtain continues to mine Jafar Panahi’s headspace after he was banned from filmmaking for 20 years by the Iranian government. As with his first contraband feature, 2011’s This is Not a Film, Closed Curtain is a study in containment. Where the first reenacted his day-to-day routines while under house arrest, this one attempts to depict the imprisonment of his mind. Fugitive characters from his unproduced screenplays haunt his vacation home, enacting their own locked-room drama. But like Panahi, they cannot escape to the wider world—they are stuck in his head.

Directed by Mark Peranson and Raya Martin, La Ultima Pelicula is another kind of head trip, a ragged riff on Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie. The Color Wheel director Alex Ross Perry stars as a megalomaniacal director set on shooting every last extant scrap of film stock, coinciding with the Mayan prediction of apocalypse in 2012—the final film for the end of time. Equal parts invigorating and enervating, it implodes into a meta-travelogue of its own making. One of the only features to screen on film at TIFF, its medium is also its message.

The message in Catherine Breillat’s Abuse of Weakness is about the incomprehensibility of the self. It’s an autobiographical purging. Breillat had a stroke in 2004, and was then swindled out of 678,000 euros by conman Christophe Rocancourt. No one knows why she kept writing him checks, and according to the film, neither does she. Isabelle Huppert plays Breillat in the film, her post-aneurism body half-paralyzed, her left arm permanently clenched in a fist. Her body has become alien; even laughing requires a reeducation of her facial muscles. Every “ha” Huppert utters feels artificial, an act of muscle memory rather than from the spirit. Filmed in ascetic, static frames, usually blanketed in white, Huppert’s whole life becomes a hospital. While aroused by getting men to serve her, almost as slaves, she is still at their mercy. As she takes in macho con man Vilko (French rapper/producer Kool Shen), even her brain turns against her, writing checks as mechanically as she laughs. Abuse of Weakness would make an ideal double bill with Claire Denis’s The Intruder, another tale of a body turning against itself.

The most purely pleasurable film of the festival so far is Johnnie To’s Blind Detective, a knockabout comedy that features an impromptu tango lesson to avoid getting doused in sulfuric acid. Overburdened with plot, it still motors along thanks to Sammi Cheng’s fearlessness as the titular detective’s gal Friday, taking a beating for the good of the case. Even more self-abnegating than Cheng’s sterling turn is Scott Haze in James Franco’s Child of God, playing the feral foundling Lester Ballard from Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 novel. Spouting snot and growling in a semi-intelligible howl, Haze is McCarthy’s vision of natural man, “a child of God much like yourself, perhaps.” The film, bruisingly faithful to the book, tracks Ballard’s descent into base animality, from forest shack to cave dweller. Franco uses a lot of run and gun handheld camera to approximate Ballard’s mud-level viewpoint, but it obscures more than it reveals, losing Haze’s detailed work in the jumble. Though it inspired the most walkouts I’ve seen so far, the film is genuinely committed to its outré material, with no outraged morality to sully McCarthy’s original vision of what a truly free man might look like.

Another man trying to be free is Casanova, as depicted in Albert Serra’s haunting The Story of My Death. A two-and-half hour gambol in the dying light, an aging Casanova (Vincenc Altaio) reflects on his life and conquests, generating stories for his memoirs. On his journeys he passes through the Carpathian Mountains, where he encounters a farmer, his willing daughters and one Count Dracula (Eliseu Huertas). Lighted like a Caravaggio painting and shot in long, lulling takes, it exerts an intoxicating pull into black nothingness.