TIFF 2018 shows that filmmakers are up for the fight

Pamela Hutchinson

Pamela Hutchinson reports from Toronto, where the movies focused on corruption, turmoil – and survival

17 September 2018 15:21

From headlines to hemlines, there are many ways for a historian to take the political temperature of a past culture. From the Twentieth Century on, movies have been adopted as a fairly sure barometer of global anxieties and aspirations. The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) presents a staggering range of cinema, from the likely Oscar-contenders and popular hits, to independent films that offer a view from the ground in the world’s crisis points. So, as the festival wraps, what would future scholars conclude about 2018 from this year’s lineup?

There was plenty of fuel for the argument that we live in an age saturated by toxic celebrity culture, with a clatter of films examining the fragility of fame, led by Bradley Cooper’s passionate revival of an old, old story. A Star is Born – a movie that rewarded its own excessive hype – stars pop phenomenon Lady Gaga as a waitress who gets her big break when she meets Cooper’s sozzled rock star. It’s a remarkably effective film, especially in the first hour or so, revealing Gaga to be a nuanced and versatile actress. The audience reacted with glee to her opening scene, half revealing their enjoyment at her tetchy dismissal of a below-scratch lover, half expressing their relief – yes, she really can pull off this storied role.

‘A Star is Born’ is a remarkably effective film, especially in the first hour or so, revealing Gaga to be a nuanced and versatile actress.

Elsewhere, Elle Fanning fizzed as a shy teenager entering an X Factor-style contest in the glitzy Teen Spirit, Natalie Portman played a troubled pop star in Vox Lux, Elisabeth Moss a narcissistic grunger in Her Smell, and Jessie Buckley an aspiring country singer in Wild Rose.

The precarity of literary fame was laid bare in two films about real-life hoaxes: Jeremiah Terminator Leroy was an enjoyably sordid account of an author hiding behind an elaborate pen name. Kristen Stewart plays the androgynous youth who impersonates the fictional Leroy, giving a sensitive performance that will likely resonate with people who resist gender binaries.

Much better, though, was the delicate and downbeat Can You Ever Forgive Me? starring Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel, a washed-up biographer living beyond her last dime in 1990s New York. Hooking up with a shifty barfly played deliciously by Richard E Grant, Israel begins forging letters from dead celebrities and selling them to collectors. She’s a fascinating character, depressed and often vicious, but taking great pride in her illegitimate creations, claiming, with some justification: ‘I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker.’ It’s an evocative image not just of gay New York but of a now almost-obsolete literary scene.

To come bruisingly up-to-date, one need only watch Olivier Assayas’s intellectually flashy Non-Fiction, which brilliantly weaves a sex comedy in and out of lengthy discussions about the demise of print and the unwieldy rise of digital publishing.

For most of the films in the festival, though, characters were simply scraping to get by, not rise to the top. Two of the best movies, Steve McQueen’s glorious female-led heist thriller Widows and Jacques Audiard’s black-comedy western The Sisters Brothers present characters entering or exiting a life of crime to save their necks.

In the former, Viola Davis gathers a group of women left behind when their criminal husbands die on the job to pull off their first heist. It’s a terrifically clever and exciting movie, surely bound to be McQueen’s biggest hit yet, which isn’t as much a deviation from his previously hard-hitting filmography, including 12 Years a Slave (2013), as it first appears.

In the latter, hired gun siblings John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix ponder their criminal past and future as they potter though gold-rush territory. This profane and often very icky western likewise appears a handbrake turn for the director best known for his Palme d’Or-winning refugee drama Dheepan (2015), but its strange and wonderful conclusion mines some poignant emotional truths out of a generic setting.

If Beale Street Could Talk, possibly the most-anticipated film of the festival, is Barry Jenkins’ impressive follow-up to his Oscar-winning melodrama Moonlight (2016). In this gorgeous adaptation of James Baldwin novel, the characters are not criminal but criminalised – survival is a case of evading the law, not breaking it. The film contains both a luscious and dreamy portrayal of young love as Fonny and Tish begin their life together in 1970s New York, and an urgent polemic. Jenkins unfolds their story through flashbacks, as Fonny is jailed for crime he didn’t commit, and contextualises the story with historical inserts about how the law and order system victimises black men. Jenkins just about pulls off this hybrid format with this beautifully photographed and emotionally resonant film, although it lacks some of Moonlight’s elusive lustre.

It’s bitterly revealing that a thoughtful film set in the modern day, Monsters and Men (Reinaldo Marcus Green), deals with the self-same issues: the ramifications of an unprovoked police killing of a black shopkeeper are played out through the perspectives of three peripheral characters. For all three, the best chance of survival is to keep quiet, which means perpetuating a violently unjust system.

These last two join a raft of films at this year’s TIFF that presented the law as corrupt and oppressive and focused on the urgent fight for survival in turbulent times – surely the festival’s dominant theme, if a worrying one.

A much smaller film, Egyptian satire, Ext. Night (Ahmad Abdalla), invites us on an elongated night out in the seediest streets of Cairo. A frustrated filmmaker, a sex worker and a taxi driver are thrown together in a series of loose escapades, which reveal that liberty depends solely on being able to manipulate an unjust system.

The stakes of the self-preservation game were raised even higher elsewhere. In Amma Asante’s latest, Where Hands Touch, Lenya and Lutz are teenagers who fall in love in Berlin. It’s 1944, though, and while Lutz is a member of the Hitler Youth, Lenya is biracial, the daughter of a Senegalese man and a German woman – one of many young people of colour known at the time as “Rhineland bastards”. Asante follows her tragic lovers right to the horrors of the concentration camps, in a heartfelt and ambitious drama that illuminates an obscure corner of history. Endurance here is a matter of disguise and compromise as Lutz’s father advises him to ‘wear the mask that will help you survive the war’.

The Day I Lost my Shadow, the fiction debut of documentary maker Soudade Kaadan, focuses on a more contemporary conflict, as a young mother is separated from her son in Syria in 2012. In this raw and often visually arresting drama, the reality of life under bombardment is given a sinister expression as the struggle for survival visibly dehumanises people, one at a time.

Claire Denis, Mia Goth and Robert Pattinson introduce ‘High Life’ at TIFF 2018

It’s hard to find a more extreme expression of the fight for persistence than Claire Denis’s English-language debut High Life, a bizarre sci-fi film in which Juliette Binoche’s deranged scientist leads the convicts on a prison spaceship through a series of experiments to ensure the survival of the species.

Less discussed, and playing in the experimental Wavelengths strand, was Ulrich Köhler’s intriguing take on the apocalypse, In My Room. In the first half of the film, we meet Armin, a hedonistic scruff, failing at work and relationships, living in a scuzzy flat in Berlin. After a personal tragedy shatters his world, the film begins again, a few months later as Armin is seemingly the sole survivor of an extinction event. He’s now lean, smart and tough, a modern Noah, with a smallholding for an ark. Among the many questions this sharp movie raises is this: if you were the last people on earth, would you rebuild civilization or just dance into oblivion?

Among TIFF’s many visions of society hanging on for dear life, the best was Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, a sumptuously photographed monochrome film set in Mexico in 1970 and 1971. The subject is not President Echeverría’s authoritarian regime, nor the riots. These events are glimpsed in the margins while our attention is turned on Cleo, the maid to an affluent family. Inside their four walls, Cleo and the family endure their own domestic revolutions to rival the turmoil on the streets, in this astonishing drama that builds slowly from the intimate to the universal.

If this film, which will be released by Netflix soon, is as successful as it deserves to be, those future scholars may be heartened. As it patiently explores the value of personal connections, Roma reminds us just what the fight for survival is all for.

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