Articles by

<R. Emmet Sweeney>

09/16/13 11:20am

When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism Corneliu Poromboiu

Digital tools allow filmmakers to adjust their work down to the pixel so that there’s no mistake that can’t be fixed in post-production. Orson Welles described the director’s job as to “preside over accidents,” though perhaps today it would be better to define it as deciding which accidents to preserve or erase in post. Such absolute control over the material can be paralyzing, and provides the subject for Corneliu Poromboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism, which screened at the Toronto Film Festival after premiering in Locarno. An analytical artist who finds humor in the slipperiness of language, Porumboiu in Metabolism puts his own process under the microscope.


His stand-in is Paul (Bogdan Dumitrache), who starts a fling with a supporting actress in his film, Alina (Diana Avramut). Her role is about to wrap, so he decides to add a dramatic nude scene for her. He soon becomes obsessed with perfecting this short sequence, painstakingly eliminating every “unrealistic” element until it is centered on Alina drying her hair for 10 minutes. Early on, Paul compares the built-in limits of film, having to express a thought in one 11-minute reel, versus the almost unlimited potential of digital. He’s hoping to shrink the borders of his creativity and pare down the decisions he’ll have to make. A neurotic perfectionist, he struggles to contain his anxieties, and soon he hopes his faked ulcer (to postpone shooting) turns into a real one. Poromboiu shoots this crisis in opposition to Paul’s desires, in long sequence shots that elongate time and expand the performative options of his actors. Paul gets stuck in these long takes, deploying his obsessively logical mind toward explaining the existential import of cutlery rather than to the mounting problems of his oft-delayed production.

Porumboiu has named Hong Sang-soo as one of his major influences, and the Korean master of drunken indolence returns to TIFF this year with Our Sunhi, his own tale of indecision. An archetypal Hong tale of fumbling males, it circles around Sunhi (Jung Yu-mi), an errant film student who returns to her college campus to request a reference letter from Professor Choi (Kim Sang-joong). Her sudden appearance triggers the libidos of the Professor, Sunhi’s ex-flame Munsu (Lee Sun-kyun) and fellow filmmaker Jaehak (Jung Jae-young). Hong rearranges the four corners of this lust-rectangle in a series of increasingly hilarious repetitions, as Sunhi plays with their pliable emotions. It’s remarkable how Hong turns Munsu’s banal sentiment of “digging deep” into a touching statement of self-actualization, as the term passes through the three men, and then out of Sunhi’s lips, as she passes out of their lives.

Bertrand Tavernier’s Quai d’Orsay is also about the manipulation of language, a screwball comedy about a speechwriter for France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs during the run up to the Iraq war. Tavernier treats the material, adapted from a graphic novel by Antonin Baudry, as a live-action cartoon, with the Minister (an uproarious Thierry Lamitte) blazing through halls like the Road Runner to the speechwriter’s stunned Wile E. Coyote. A pseudo-intellectual who highlights instead of reads, the Minister (based on Dominique de Villepin) is the hot-air spouting head of a team of overworked advisors, held together by a narcoleptic chief of staff. Tavernier keeps things zipping along, with breathless dialogue close to matching the land-speed record set by His Girl Friday.

09/13/13 12:32pm

12 Years a Slave Steve McQueen

The first press screening of Gravity at the Toronto Film Festival nearly caused a stampede when the vast majority of ink- and pixel-stained wretches were shut out. I was one of the unlucky masses, but I managed to restrain myself from indulging in the rampant line-cutting and elbow-throwing. I was reserving my dirtiest tricks to get into the Wavelengths programs, although thankfully I didn’t have to employ them. The festival’s experimental section, programmed by Andrea Picard, has been expanding year-by-year, and 2013’s edition is overflowing with innovative work.


In her first year, 2006, Picard booked four programs of shorts. This year there are 21 events, with films ranging from five minutes to four hours. The shorts are still the event’s backbone, and this year’s series acts as a celebration of sorts of David Rimmer, the Canadian avant-gardist. His works are being restored by the Academy Film Archive, the initial result of which is a beautiful version of Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper (1970), a kaleidoscopic breakdown of an industrial-footage fragment. A woman flips up a sheaf of cellophane, a look of glazed contentment on her face. Rimmer puts her through the wringer, using the cellophane sheet as a cue to experiment with various visual strategies, abstracting the worker into a mass of color and sound. Set to the grinding synth score of Don Druick, it’s a symphony of materialist grandeur.

Nathaniel Dorsky and Peter Hutton were two more elder statesman with work on display: Dorsky’s Spring and Song, and Hutton’s Three Landscapes. Dorsky wanders his hometown of San Francisco with a 16mm camera, searching for the uncanny in the everyday. His color compositions are uniformly disorienting, close-ups that remove objects from their context, forcing a reassessment of their visual possibilities. The edge of light over a door frame, for example, looks like a portal to another world. Though Dorsky complained of focus issues with the projection, I was still transported. Hutton’s films are more concrete, almost anthropological, but they display a similar sense of patience. For Three Landscapes he captures static 16mm portraits of industrial Detroit, a farm in the Hudson River Valley, and the Dallal Depression in Ethiopia. They are scenes of contemplative stillness that awaken with spurts of movement, from an errant seagull to a tractor burping out a bale of hay.

I was intrigued by Scott Stark’s stereoscopic pop-art fantasia The Realist, in which he jury-rigged two digital cameras together to imitate the 3D process. The result, shot in a Macy’s, is a delirious spectacle of gleaming toasters and leering plastic models. (I chose to interpret it as a sequel to Mannequin: On the Move, sans Meshach Taylor.) Funnier was Bann, by Nina Könnemann, in which she spied on the increasingly isolated smokers in London’s financial district. Forced to skulk in dark corners outside looming skyscrapers, it’s as if the architecture itself is pushing these tobacco partisans into oblivion. The outcasts in Natpwe, the feast of the spirits are the transgendered of Burma, who gather each year in a small village to take part in a trance ritual to purge evil spirits. Shot in degraded B&W, its gyrating penitents use this ancient ceremony as a platform to express their individual freedoms inside of a repressive state.

My favorite in Wavelengths, and the entire festival, is Ben Russell and Ben Rivers’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, a feature-length search for the secular sublime. The directors place musician Robert AA Lowe in three defamiliarizing situations: on a commune in Estonia, the wilds of Finland and a black metal bar in Norway. Lowe for the most part stays silent, a wanderer observing these attempts to transcend reality without the aid of god. The communards (improvising friends of the directors) frolic in the nude and picnic by a rusting industrial site. They are reclaiming the world for themselves. Lowe, a black man with a frizzy beard and head-to-toe tattoos, is ill-at ease in this white hippie-based culture. He plucks his guitar, sticks to himself. The second section is without dialogue, as Lowe sets off in a canoe in Finland to commune with nature alone. The camera is either following or staring head-on at Lowe, his quietude unsettling. Then—the conflagration. The last section is a convulsive catharsis. Lowe applies the white “corpse paint” of black metal bands, and ascends to the stage to perform a blistering set with the super group Queequeg (with Americans Weasel Walter and Hunter Hunt-Hendrix). The devotional faces from the crowd emerge from inky blacks, Russell and Rivers shooting in low-light with Super 16mm cameras. Wavering in and out darkness and focus, they seem liquid, a mass of metal parishioners receiving absolution in the sonic assault, until Lowe removes the paint and dons his human face once again.

Outside of Wavelengths, one of the most buzzed about titles is Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, with rumors of standing ovations trailing in its wake. It tells the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man in Saratoga, New York, who is kidnapped into slavery, separated from his wife and children for those 12 years. McQueen, making his third feature, deploys a fusillade of styles to mirror Northup’s physical and mental state. On his ride on the slave ship, McQueen uses quick cuts and punishing sound design to convey his confusion and despair. The sequence is punctuated by the piercing noises of boots on steps, shovel into coal, and the never-ending churn of the ship’s rotors. Once on the plantation, McQueen utilizes a longer take style, used to devastating effect when Northup is lynched in the middle of the field, left just enough rope to tiptoe in the mud to avoid strangulation. As he toes the ground, the other slaves go about their daily work behind him, heads down to avoid their reality. Ejiofor is a rock of aggrieved injustice, his eyes unbelieving founts of despair. The rest of the cast is equally game, from Benedict Cumberbatch’s faux-sympathetic plantation owner to Michael Fassbender’s decadent, demonic one. The only false step is a distracting cameo by Brad Pitt, who shows up late as a white savior deus ex machina. But by the end, when Ejiofor lets his posture slack and tears flow, nothing else matters.

09/11/13 12:31pm

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.


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.