So Close, and Yet So Far

The intimate pleasures and necessary detachments of Toronto 2007

The exemplary achievements of the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival succeeded by two means: either narrowing the gap between author and subject in pursuit of intimate effects, or else working distance into the material and profiting from the vantage. Contemporary neorealism at its most confident and alert, Chop Shop finds writer-director Ramin Bahrani so thoroughly immersed in a working-class puddle of Queens you can smell the motor oil. At the opposite pole, Werner Herzog reports from Antarctica on his Encounters at the End of the World in a tone so quizzically bemused that to call it a "nature documentary" is almost a joke—and funny it is to hear the director grill a penguin expert on the animal's capacity for homosexuality and madness.

An unflinching engagement with the ugly facts of life distinguished Before I Forget, Jacques Nolot's scathingly confessional account of the financial and emotional legacies passed down through multiple generations of hustlers and their johns. Paul Schrader takes a more measured approach, to quietly caustic effect, in The Walker, starring Woody Harrelson as a high-class Washington, D.C., gigolo who finds himself exploited by the power wives he manipulates for a living.

Here's as close as I'll get to touching the Great Abortion Master Theme of 2007: At Toronto, the super- with-it-yet-out-of-touch comedy Juno, about a high-school wiseass who's keeping her baby, met its antidote in the hardcore mommy shocker A l'Interieur. This nasty number from France stars Beatrice Dalle as an enigmatic psychopath who terrorizes a pregnant woman in the most repellent, uncompromising, they-are-so-not-releasing-this-fucked-up-shit-uncut-in-America fashion. A scissor in the belly put the madness in the Midnight Madness program for real, though Takashi Miike did his part with Sukiyaki Western Django, a movie that opens with a lurid prelude featuring Quentin Tarantino striking grindhouse cowboy postures, proceeds to tell a ridiculous saga of color-coded Japanese bandits squabbling for gold and speaking in phonetic English, then continues on, as so often with Miike, and on and on and on.

Another maverick with a penchant for extreme duration, Manoel de Oliveira, keeps things brisk in Christopher Columbus, the Enigma, a curious essay on the possible Portuguese origins of the legendary Spanish explorer. Based on a book of the same name by a real-life husband-and-wife team of Columbus revisionists, the movie is part literary adaptation, part scholarly romance, part impish exercise in avant-garde nationalism, and altogether enchanting.

Suave but airless, Ira Sachs imagines Married Life in the style of a Hitchcockian domestic suspense picture, with Chris Cooper as a conflicted patriarch, Patricia Clarkson as the object of his murderous marital impulses, Rachel McAdams as a disastrous platinum-blonde mistress, and Pierce Brosnan as a charismatic cad and incorrigible scene stealer. Where Sachs builds too much distance into the material, Noah Baumbach improves on his autobiographical The Squid and the Whale by stepping away from his bobo Brooklyn upbringing to visit Margot at the Wedding. Nicole Kidman (slightly miscast) plays the pinched, estranged sister of Jennifer Jason Leigh (unnervingly exact), whose engagement to a genial vulgarian (an improbably restrained Jack Black) is the pretext for passive-aggressive psychological terrorism—and scene upon scene of deft, acerbic, despairingly funny insight.

The long view and the close encounter are not mutually exclusive, and the one film at Toronto with a possible claim on masterpiece status is the one that managed to generate the greatest intensity of feeling through the most preposterously complicated means. It's amazing enough the way Todd Haynes splinters his Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There across six different, equally inspired performances, with Marcus Carl Franklin as the apprentice, Christian Bale as the born-again Christian, Cate Blanchett as the electric rebel of the '60's, Heath Ledger as an actor playing Dylan, Ben Whishaw as the poet . . . Rimbaud, and Richard Gere incarnating Dylan incarnate as Billy the Kid. More amazing still is how harmoniously Haynes arranges and sustains this semiotic free fall through the Dylan history and myth without losing dramatic momentum or indulging the hagiographic impulse. But the deep wonderment of this strange and wondrous picture is how language so aggressively mediated, so insistently postmodern, and so apparently nostalgic can speak with such eloquence about the world right now. A movie about the struggle to negotiate freedom, creativity, and political integrity in a media-addled culture at a time of war, I'm Not There has everything and nothing to do with Bob Dylan.

 
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