Popcorn, syrup and a convict lost in space
While Steve McQueen and Barry Jenkins led the hype for Oscars, it was veteran director Claire Denis’s bizarre sci-fi High Life that really caught the eye, writes Simran Hans
The Toronto international film festival is an increasingly glitzy affair, with enough world premieres from celebrated auteurs to have even casual moviegoers frothing at the mouth – and critics positively weak at the knees. Courting the sweet spot between art house and mainstream, it’s a prime destination for Oscar contenders opening on the festival circuit (taking place just after Venice and the prestigious though less well-known Telluride). Distribution deals are made in highrise hotels, and celebrities roam the streets like civilians.
The festival may be a hype machine, but the hype itself is as fragile as a bubblegum balloon. Praise swelled around Steve McQueen’s Widows, a wildly entertaining female-led crime thriller co-written by the director with the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn, and set on the mean streets of Chicago’s South Side. Viola Davis is Veronica, widow of Liam Neeson’s criminal Harry Rawlings and inheritor of a sizable debt in the wake of his last, bungled job. McQueen’s previous three films were elegant and sombre, and interested in how bodies do and don’t yield to violence inflicted by the self, society and the state. The altogether lighter, slighter Widows feels like a sharp left turn: the artistdirector has made an almost trashy popcorn movie with a sly sense of humour, indulging in adrenalinepumping, car-chase set pieces and soapy parodies of seedy politicians. It’s a little top heavy and rushes its conclusion, but it’s exciting to see McQueen having so much fun.
On the other hand, I felt the bubble deflate upon exiting Barry Jenkins’s follow-up to the Oscarwinning Moonlight. His adaption of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk was rapturously received but I couldn’t quite connect with it. A painstakingly crafted melodrama about two lovers in Harlem, cast in rich, primary colours, its syrupy tone and languorous pacing carve space for the kind of characters that have traditionally been written out of this kind of movie, but the fussy, self-conscious genre flourishes left me oddly cold.
The festival’s highest profile nonfiction offerings both took on Trump’s America, but Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 and Errol Morris’s Steve Bannon documentary American Dharma are two distinct animals. At its best, the former is a passionate challenge to establishment politics, criticising the Democratic party for its lack of due diligence regarding the Flint water crisis in Michigan (Moore’s home town), suggesting it had an impact on the community’s voting behaviour. When confronted with footage of Barack Obama drinking a glass of the polluted water as if to suggest possible contamination is not a problem, or a scene of Moore cheekily spraying a local politician’s manicured front lawn with water from a tank labelled “Flint water”, it’s not an unconvincing theory. Overall, however, Moore’s project is too sprawling to be considered an outright success, attempting as it does to juggle an analysis of Trump’s victory while also documenting the efforts of the president’s younger and more optimistic challengers. At least Moore’s inclusion of recent activism, including that carried out by the teenage survivors of this year’s Parkland school shooting, offers a kernel of hope.
Morris’s American Dharma, on the other hand, is downright irresponsible. A oneon-one conversation between Morris and Bannon takes place in an aircraft hangar; a scene that sees the structure go up in flames seems to be a product of giving Agent Orange’s former media strategist too much oxygen. Bannon is frighteningly articulate and rhetorically adept; Morris frustratingly mild in his softball challenges. If the film is an attempt to skewer him, it’s a resolute failure.
There were several films directed by actors, including Teen Spirit, the directorial debut from Max Minghella (son of the late director Anthony Minghella, and star of HBO’s The Handmaid’s Tale). Set on the Isle of Wight, where Mingh ella is from, the music-driven drama imagines Elle Fanning as the school-aged daughter of a Polish farmhand who enters an X Factorstyle competition, aided by former opera singer and local drunk Vlad (Zlatko Burić). “It was the wrong song – should’ve done a ballad,” laments Fanning’s Violet and, indeed, many of the film’s music choices feel weirdly and wrongly dated. (Fanning’s covers of songs by Robyn, Adele and Ellie Goulding appear on the film’s soundtrack.) Still, the detail and specificity of the film’s distinctly British cultural reference points are inspired in their naffness – and Rebecca Hall is delicious as a riff on Simon Cowell.
The French actor Louis Garrel (also the son of a film-maker, Philippe Garrel) writes, directs and stars in A Faithful Man. It’s surprisingly good – a nimble romantic comedy with a puckish sense of humour regarding crushes, fantasies and romantic affairs. Garrel casts himself as the axis of a love triangle, but it’s the women, Lily-Rose Depp and Garrel’s real-life partner, Laetitia Casta, who steal the show.
Acting-wise, I spotted some starry turns that will surely court Academy votes. In Karyn Kuasama’s grimy desert noir Destroyer, Nicole Kidman disappears into the unglamorous Erin Bell, a hard-boiled FBI agent and unlovable antihero with red-rimmed eyes and a history of illadvised decisions.
Timothée Chalamet is affecting but showy as a crystal meth-addicted teen in Felix Van Groeningen’s blandly sentimental Beautiful Boy, based on Rolling Stone journalist David Sheff’s memoir. Yet it’s Steve Carrell as his father who’s the more understated of the two leads, communicating the pain of a parent unable to rescue their child from an ugly cycle of self-imposed suffering. Kristen Stewart’s awkward, shuffling physicality is a good fit for the role of JT LeRoy in Justin Kelly’s Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy, while her co-star Laura Dern has a ball as the slippery, manipulative author Laura Albert.
A British film I liked was Michael Winterbottom’s The Wedding Guest.
A tense, wiry little thriller set in Pakistan, India and Nepal, its first 30 minutes are exhilaratingly tight. We see a brooding and seductive Dev Patel travel from London to Lahore with four passports in his suitcase; he hires a car, buys a gun, and drives across Pakistan with the confidence of a Bourne or Bond. His chemistry with his co-star, the Indian actress Radhika Apte, is similarly smouldering.
India also features prominently in Maya, the new film from Mia HansenLøve (Eden, Things to Come). A political journalist from Paris (Roman Kolinka) travels to Goa to regroup after being held hostage for several months in Syria, but the film is less Eat Pray Love than it sounds, and subtle on the subject of overwork.
Best of all was Claire Denis’s English language debut, High Life, whose plot alone is so wonderfully bizarre I can hardly believe the film exists. An experimental sci-fi, it stars Robert Pattinson as a convict marooned on a spaceship with only a small baby to keep him company; flashbacks reveal that there were once other crew members, at the mercy of a horny mad scientist (Juliette Binoche, eyes hungry and hair knotted in a witchy, bum-length braid). The film is haunting and spare, deeply sad, obsessed with death and powered by a demonic, erotic charge; at 72, the venerable French film-maker is still trying new things.
Starry turns include Nicole Kidman as an unlovable hardboiled FBI agent with a history of ill-advised decisions
In Claire Denis’s ‘haunting’ High Life, Robert Pattinson plays a convict in space with only a baby for company.
Steve McQueen at the Toronto premiere of his ‘wildly entertaining’ Widows. Empics
ABOVENicole Kidman working the Toronto red carpet last week. Photograph by Valerie Macon/AFP/ Getty Images
‘Brooding, seductive’ Dev Patel, below, in Michael Winterbottom’s The Wedding Guest. TFF