Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Devil is a Woman

“To reality one should prefer the illusion of reality.” So said Josef von Sternberg, whose films bear the proof of this philosophy in their carefully sculpted worlds, typically crafted entirely in studio settings where Sternberg was free to indulge the exacting whims of his tyrannical imagination. The Devil is a Woman, his final collaboration with Marlene Dietrich, is no different. Set in turn-of-the-century Spain during carnival, the film is fittingly raucous, but with melancholy and violence behind its revelries. Free-spirited mobs dancing through air thick with balloons and streamers, giving way to empty streets where the streamers now reveal themselves as cobwebs, swamping our protagonist Antonio in desire and memory. All the settings, the lights, the costumes, are designed to drive us straight to the face of Dietrich, her mature eyes and childish mouth, those meticulously drawn features. At times, she seems the only real thing in this fantastic world. In Luis Bunuel’s no-less-masterful That Obscure Object of Desire (based on the same Pierre Louys novel), Dietrich’s character Concha is played by two actresses, emphasizing the fundamental capriciousness of the woman, and her unobtainable and indefinite essence. But here, all that is needed is Dietrich. Her smile shakes the world.

Considering the title, the film might at first appear like some musty old-world misogyny, but the sympathy of the story is clearly with Dietrich and not the pompous, frail male egos that frame her (“You’ve always mistaken your vanity for love,” she tells one, demolishing her entire suite of suitors/tormentors in a single blow). She draws them near and pushes them away, but it’s clear she’s just a woman looking to survive while adding interest to her assets. Her last line—“I used to work in a cigarette factory”—says it all. “I began with nothing, but now look at me.” And while she needs the men to climb out of her humble beginnings, it’s also clear that giving herself entirely to one would destroy everything she has worked for. None of the men are satisfied with this state—preferring, perhaps, a reality to the illusion she offers—and so she dispatches each in turn. But how startling to see the final shot set not in one of Sternberg’s studio sets, but the real world, where a carriage drives Concha not deeper into the tyrant’s dreams but out of them. A final bittersweet parting between director and star—she is banished from the dreamland, but at last free, free to go where you see not through a veil of rain and streamers, leaves and lace, but clearly, in harsh, unyielding light.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Never Let Me Go

Completely tasteful and entirely bland—that’s the central problem of Never Let Me Go, Mark Romanek’s adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel. Set in an alternate past where boarding schools prepare clones for a life of donating organs until they “complete” (in other words, die), there is a certain haunting quality to the film’s banality, the dullness masking the horrors of this brave old world. But the film’s self-regarding artfulness becomes so intrusive that we’re soon watching nothing more than a scrapbook of the most common sins of the cinema of quality. The score, in particular, is a grade-A exhibit in preening musical affectation (seriously, do everyone a favour and choke a violinist today—at the very least, punch a harpist). This is the sort of film where people stare into empty fields at sunset and cry while the voiceover tells us what to feel. I get it, you’re serious and meaningful and profound, big deal. If I had a voiceover following me around whenever I gazed vacantly at fence posts, I’d probably look pretty deep too.

The love triangle between three of these future organ donors, supposedly the human spark at the core of this otherwise cold piece of work, remains hopelessly inert throughout (the film contains the seeds of a great piece of exploitation trash, perhaps titled “Young Clones in Love,” but opts for safe respectability instead). The bright young things—Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley—play the trio with a restless seriousness that suggests all are awaiting their turn to make sad faces at the camera. There is a tragedy here, in these three slabs of meat slowly discovering their meatness, just as the film has some real and true things to say about the painful revelation of mortality we all must experience and the feebleness of art in the face of this terrible knowledge. None of which can excuse the feebleness of this particular art in the face of the blackness that lies beyond harvest time at the organ farm.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Atomic Cafe

“Risk is part of a pattern of daily routine.” Quite true—and what better way to illustrate this than by showing an obese opera singer stepping on a bar of soap in the shower and taking a vicious (and very possibly fatal) pratfall?

This hilariously offhand sequence from an old propaganda movie is just one of the many nuclear-age curios unearthed in The Atomic Café. Directed by a trio of anonymous artisans (Jayne Loader, Kevin and Pierce Rafferty), the film is a collage of newsreel footage, army instructional films, television broadcasts, and other assorted audio-visual artifacts of Cold War dementia. Film essayists as diverse as Adam Curtis and Michael Moore bear the influence of this epochal 1982 work and its blending of archival footage and music, but those directors typically rely on narration to carry their arguments. In The Atomic Café, the images are the argument.

The film begins rather prosaically with an old interview with Paul Tibbets (pilot of the Enola Gay) framing the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But as American society struggles to rationalize life under the bomb, the film’s tone grows more mordant, the footage simultaneously more disturbing and more ridiculous. There’s plenty of atomic kitsch on display here, from the well-known Duck and Cover, with Bert the turtle and his far-from-reassuring advice on how to respond to a nuclear attack, to a child in a radiation suit awkwardly riding his bicycle to the sweet country twang of that Lowell Blanchard and the Valley Trio classic, “Jesus Hits Like An Atom Bomb.”

But the film is more than a repository of outdated paranoia gathered together for our amusement. The directors construct two major threads running through the film: first, the propaganda and news footage serenely explaining the imminent threat of total death and the many forms this death will take, and second, the average American devouring all this heady information. A favourite device of the film is to introduce its next propaganda clip with some 1950s American family turning on their radio or television.

This isn’t just a glib narrative technique. The overwhelming subtext of the propaganda films is that the bomb can reach any American, anywhere, even in their most private and protected moments—even in the shower, for instance. The campy humour of Duck and Cover derives from its depiction of people in the middle of normal activities—picnicking, bicycling—dropping to the ground and cowering at a sudden flash of light. In traditional war, there is a home front and a battlefront, but in nuclear war the distinction disappears. You are vulnerable wherever you live. The front lines are everywhere.

This culminates in the film’s tour-de-force closing montage, which depicts an all-out nuclear assault cobbled together entirely from images both real and staged, all taken from news and propaganda films. The final punch line is not just how persuasive this sequence is, but the fact that it has been taken from films talking vigilance and safety, from the government’s feeble attempts at reassuring and educating the populace. The final assertion is that this endless talk of nuclear safety is specifically designed to spread nuclear fear and terrify the public into subservience.

This imagined nuclear blast essentially wipes out the film. The atomic-era domestic sphere reconstructed by the directors is finally obliterated not by war but the images of war. In the aftermath, a survivor calmly—because everyone in these films is insanely, terrifyingly, oozingly calm—says, “Nothing to do now but wait for orders from the authorities and relax.” And to the man lying in a wet pool at the bottom of the shower—paralyzed by confusion, pain, or helplessness, it doesn’t matter—this must sound like a very good plan indeed.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


“Is it real?” The question periodically buzzes through the mind. We ask it often of ourselves, perhaps as we’re walking down a summer street, light breeze flowing by and our brains on a cloud, feeling so good we suspect we’re in a dream. We ask it of reality television and gossip rags and porn stars. We ask it of those flowers in that vase in the hall and the silhouette of the cat that sits in the window across the street watching us. We ask it all the time, except when we need to know the answer.

Then we’re all too happy to go along with whatever sweet lie is proffered—a basic truism of human nature illustrated by Catfish, a sort of docu-thriller from first-time directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. Facebook offers many beautiful illusions amid its imitation of human connection, not least of which is the idea that we’re at the centre of a great network of associates, the star of the story of our lives with a captive audience attentively watching. Yaniv “Nev” Schulman—a New York photographer and younger brother of co-director Ariel—is one such star, discovering the dim edges of the stage and realizing what lies behind the footlights for the first time.

When Abby, an eight-year-old girl from Ishpeming, Michigan, begins sending Nev paintings of his photographs, the young man is at first flattered by the attention and even a little awed by the girl’s talent. But the relationship doesn’t stop there, and as his office fills with paintings his inbox fills with friend requests from Abby’s family. He talks on the phone to Angela, the mother, while kindling a fiery virtual romance with Abby’s older sister, Megan. Soon, he has an entire cyber-life centred on the Ishpeming clan, including cousins and friends, all keeping him up-to-date on the latest exciting developments in Abby’s painting career and egging on his romance with Megan.

Despite its ostensible documentary origins, Catfish is shaped like fiction, right down to the pervasive Mark Mothersbaugh score that coats every sequence in thick sonic shellac (direct cinema, this ain’t). The film has been promoted as a thriller, and the story certainly takes on that shape as it works its way towards the truth behind the Ishpeming family. I don’t doubt this is a savvy marketing move, but there are dangers here as well. Other films before have merged documentary and thriller conventions to ramp up the drama—The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity, for instance—but they were pure fantasy, while Catfish tramps through the lives of real human beings. A little more responsibility and maturity is required, to say nothing of a more sensitive touch (I’m not sure if secretly filming people necessarily qualifies as any of these things, is what I’m getting at).

The directors happily, if somewhat blithely, flirt with fiction, although the ambiguity is surely part of the point. We spend 90 minutes being taught to doubt everything we’re told, so little wonder we doubt the teacher. But this blurring of fact and fiction often feels less sophisticated technique and more side effect of fumbling filmmaking. The revelation that Megan has been claiming other people’s songs as her own to impress Nev, for instance, is so curiously condensed and neat that it appears to have been staged for our benefit. Now perhaps the scene really was staged for the sake of convenience, or maybe just edited so tightly that it lost all naturalism, but I don’t trust it either way.

Regardless of the explanation, this is definitely a far cry from unruly documentary truth, as some critics have commented. That’s no great sin necessarily, but what really makes the scene questionable is the fact that one of the songs Megan steals credit for is “Truman Sleeps,” the distinctive Philip Glass piano piece from The Truman Show. It’s just too much—Nev, trapped in a false world, is sent a song from a film about that exact subject? Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it’s rarely so convenient, is it?

But such doubts begin to fade once we meet the Christof of Nev’s world, the person who has been pulling the strings and building the sets, constructing a pseudo-world around Nev in order to fulfill some obscure personal need. Once this person enters the scene, the film, seemingly linear and constrained, opens up with some surprisingly emotional and complex questions about identity in the digital age. More than anything, the ability to assume a new life online has shown how malleable our identities truly are. We are not merely who we are in our daily lives, but also an accumulation of possibilities and regrets, who we were once and who we never were at all.

These are fascinating questions posed by an imperfect film. The greatest drawback of the film’s reliance on thriller archetypes is how it pits Nev against his deceiver, when the relationship is clearly more complicated than that. The film does much to compensate for this in the end—the last third is surprisingly tender and sympathetic—but the imbalance is clearly felt. All this subterfuge and suspense turns the film into a sort of labyrinth, and we all expect to find a monster at the heart of each labyrinth, right?

Of course, this isn’t a thriller, there are no monsters in real life, and the person at the centre of the maze is more complex and sympathetic than you would imagine. It’s notable that when the trio is steps away from the truth, they almost turn around but for the goading of Nev, who taunts them into staying. Callow youth? Perhaps so, but they might simply sense that there are questions here too big for them to answer (their suggestion that life requires people who fool us and keep us on our toes is a feeble attempt at insight, and somewhat narcissistic to boot, as if everyone in life is just here to make things more interesting for them). We’ve created a vast web of digital connections and transformed human relationships into electrical commodities that can be numbered and ranked, collected like bottle caps and discarded as easily. But when you look a person in the eye and ask yourself just who they really are, no amount of programming ingenuity can solve that problem. “Is it real?” Don’t ask—you don’t want to know.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Vancouver International Film Festival 2010: Part Three

Thomas Mao
Consider me charmed. Here we have a culture clash comedy that actually breaks free of the stifling clichés of the genre and creates something unique and truly engaging. The film merges documentary and fiction by using an entirely imagined context to examine the relationship between two real people—Thomas Rohedewald, friend of and model for Chinese painter Mao Yan. However, in the film, Thomas plays the artist, and he comes across Mao running an inn on a remote Chinese plain. Director Zhu Wen finds the expected humour in miscommunication, but he takes these ideas to some strange places. A typically garbled exchange between the two men involves Thomas contemplating the existence of life on other planets while Mao replies that yes, it will snow in October. Rather than leave the joke at that, the film combines the two ideas into a single entity, giving us the lovely spectacle of aliens landing at Mao’s inn during a nighttime snowfall. The film’s skewed sensibilities go even further with a second part that portrays Thomas and Mao in something more closely resembling their real-life personas (although still not quite documentary fact). As Wen explained after the screening, the first part can be seen as a house, and the second part as its reflection. The two are inseparable from each other and yet uniquely different—much like Thomas and Mao, it could be said.

Crossing the Mountain
Even by the standards of the slow, painfully slow art film, Crossing the Mountain is a challenge. There’s presumably a narrative in this Chinese film, but it’s buried as deep as a stone idol from a long-dead tribe. Set in a remote village, the film hints at violence. We see armed squads and hear talk of the dangers of unexploded grenades in the jungle. People tell stories of past human sacrifices (the head of a man with a beard and long hair is good for the rice crops, apparently). A stunning (and stupefyingly long) shot of two people watching a funeral procession in the distance is punctuated by several distant explosions, with clouds of dust cascading down a far-away mountain. The film carries a tantalizing aura of mystery and death. It prickles my imagination even as it numbs my mind. I don’t want to hate, but I don’t know how to love!!!!!!DOESNOTCOMPUTE0100110100101

Sorry, but I don’t know what I can say about this one. Director Rui Yang has undoubtedly created something beautiful—I just don’t know what that something is, and after a long day of festival going I’m certainly in no shape to find out (apparently I shouldn’t struggle with the avant-garde too close to my bedtime). With so little in the way of coherent narrative, each scene becomes its only element, removed from any organizing pattern, an artifact of the present. As an aesthetic experience, there is something to be said for this. Even if you’re half-asleep, you can be lulled into the film’s beauty as if it were a waking dream (I can testify to the lusciousness of the film’s sound design, which is quite enveloping if you shut your eyes—just to rest them, of course). But I don’t feel like I can seriously speak to the film’s merits at this point, without repeated viewings. I sense something moving just below the surface, and that’s all I can say for now.

In the Shadows
A quiet German film about a man fresh out of prison and restoring contact with his old criminal friends. Seriously, another one of those. But Thomas Arslan approaches the clichés by completely underplaying the drama, turning the story into something so banal it almost becomes original. There are the usual corrupt cops and implacable low-lifes, as well as our ex-con, Trojan, who is planning an armored car robbery with a few old associates. Obviously, things go wrong—the violence in this film has the cold, sickening feeling of slabs of meat being dropped on the floor. There’s none of the usual crime-movie glamour here, nothing grandiose in this modest drama. It’s almost like a documentary of these clichés, trying to provide us a new perspective on an old story by removing the usual excitement and stylistic flash. A respectable approach, and perhaps the only way to successfully film this kind of plot anymore, even if I ultimately would prefer that Arslan avoided these worn-out tropes altogether.

Surviving Life
Although I was initially disappointed by this film in comparison to director Jan Svankmajer’s last feature—Lunacy, with its deliriously macabre combination of Poe and de Sade—there’s still a lot to appreciate in this deliberately ugly, but often funny film. Svankmajer mixes photo cut-out animation with live action (including plenty of his trademark close-ups of mouths—no dancing meat this time around, though), achieving an effect that is jarring but also surprisingly fluid. The unnatural aesthetic allows for dream and reality to remain indistinguishable, which is perhaps Svankmajer’s intention, even if he does begin the film by explaining he is doing this strictly to save money. I suppose we should be grateful that an eccentric like Svankmajer can find any sort of budget to make a film at all.

The story itself is a mish-mash of psychoanalytical humour. Eugene, a middle-aged office clerk, finds himself falling in love with a woman in his dreams, which turns out to be his anima (that is to say, his mother). He impregnates her—a rather sneaky way of inserting a bit of incest into the film—and develops a sort of dream-life infidelity that angers his wife. Freud and Jung duke it out on the walls of his therapist, who thinks having sex with Eugene will resolve all of this angst and frustration. Surprisingly, this does somehow cohere in the end, and while the film doesn’t really feel like first-rate Svankmajer, it’s too witty and imaginative to be a waste of time.

Mysteries of Lisbon
Somewhere around the middle point of this four and a half hour epic, perhaps just after the latest random supporting character has decided to tell us their entire sordid life story, you might reasonably wonder just what sort of nonsense you’ve committed yourself to watching. Brilliant, beautiful nonsense, that’s what. Raul Ruiz’s epic adaptation of the eponymous mid-19th century Portuguese novel (unavailable in English, to the best of my knowledge) is on the surface nothing more than ravishing soap opera silliness, but he brings a sophistication and intelligence that adds greatly to the experience. So yes, random monk, tell me about your wayward youth, because I would dearly, dearly love to hear more.

The story is an overstuffed concoction of false identities and secret affairs, perhaps best described as an elaborate costume ball played out over the span of a hundred years and five countries. Pedro, a young boy of unknown parentage, lives in a boarding school where his closest parental figure is the kindly Father Dinis (himself a former gypsy slave trader and Napoleonic soldier, among other identities across the continent). After a violent altercation with another student, Pedro falls into a feverish state where a mystery woman, apparently his mother, visits him. His noble roots are uncovered in an ever expanding circle of coincidences and chance meetings, a beautiful organized chaos mirrored by the graceful peregrinations of Ruiz’s camera, which argues more persuasively for the art of the long take than any other film I’ve seen in the past decade.

Ruiz is capable of a remarkably tricky tone, poised somewhere between sincerity and ironic mockery. He is clearly aware of the absurdity of the plot, but nonetheless savours it as a platform for meditation upon many things—the art of storytelling and the nature of history and memory, for instance. Each character holds another fragment of the central tragedy, creating a sense of history as something shared, a communal storytelling in which each person passes off the tale to the next teller, and on and on until a grand saga is at last revealed. But Ruiz encourages viewers to look at the story from the outside as well—a favourite example of this being the beggars at the end, who scoff at how what is the common stuff of life for the poor becomes unbearable tragedy for the nobility. That’s all part of the essential generosity of Ruiz’s vision here, which even allows space for criticism of the complex world it invests so much time and energy in creating.

Vancouver International Film Festival 2010: Part Two

A Somewhat Gentle Man
The latest example of a loosely defined genre that could be termed Scandinavian deadpan—those films where lots of pasty, sad-looking people stand around chatting endlessly in uninflected tones about ridiculous things. A fair example: Ulrik, just released from prison, meets up with two former criminal associates who begin arguing over whether or not he was supposed to be released from prison today or tomorrow. Gentle absurdity rules the day, and the film plays a game of thwarted desires. Women repeatedly throw themselves at Ulrik when all he wants to do is sit down and eat. His criminal buddies want him to kill the man who ratted him out when all he wants to do is to live a quiet, good life as a mechanic. The film is certainly funny, even if the humour starts to taste a bit sour after a while (much of it is based on the basic ugliness or stupidity of the characters). However, a touch of violence is required for the crime story to play out, and this is where the film shows its weakness. Once that dark cloud appears, the film loses its bearings—it can’t quite find a believable way to resolve the drama and maintain the comedy.

When Mija, the grandmother protagonist of Lee Chang-dong’s excellent Poetry, is told that her Alzheimer’s disease will cause her to first forget nouns, and then verbs, she sighs fretfully, telling the doctor that the nouns are the most important words. But for Mija, verbs are what give her the most difficulty. She struggles throughout the film with finding the correct course of action in response to her slowly collapsing world. Mija (a complex and powerful performance by Yoon Jeong-hee, who came out of a 16-year retirement for the role) is a woman faced with some difficult moral questions. She ekes out a modest living with a part-time maid job for an elderly stroke victim, who takes Viagra and wants her to make him feel like a man again, much to Mija’s disgust. Meanwhile, her grandson is accused of raping a classmate recently driven to suicide. In the faint hope of avoiding a scandal, Mija must pay off the mother of the dead girl. At the same time, she seeks relief in the form of a poetry writing class.

What might seem overbearingly trite—a journey of self-discovery through the art of poetry—is instead something subtler. The actions Mija settles upon are perhaps not the wisest or even most moral choices, but they are the only ones she has left in her vocabulary by the end. And the film’s final sequence serves as an eloquent demonstration of the necessities of art. Only by learning to speak for someone else does Mija at last find her own voice.

Winter Vacation
Li Hongqi’s Winter Vacation might be one of the weirdest and most unexpected pleasures of the entire festival for me. There were a fair number of walkouts when I attended, but if you’re on this film’s wavelength you’ll be aching with laughter. This is a comedy of nothingness—pauses and blank stares, empty lots and dead space. The film is essentially a series of vaguely related vignettes focusing on a group of bored kids on their winter vacation. Every actor is directed for maximum stiffness, heightening the absurdity of each awkward conversation. In this strangely lifeless industrial village, children say they want to grow up to be orphans and father keeps forgetting to take his medicine. Everyone sleepwalks through a slow-motion farce on the tedium of wasted lives.

The only reference point I can think of for this idiosyncratic sense of humour is Sweden’s Roy Andersson, who specializes in a more apocalyptic variant. So to give a sense of the film’s peculiar charms, it’s probably easiest just to describe a typical gag: a woman goes to a cabbage seller and begins peeling off the wilted outer leaves before handing the vegetable to the vendor, who then weighs it, taking his time fiddling with the measures and just generally drawing out the process to absurd lengths. They haggle on the price, settling on $2.10, but when the woman opens her purse she says that she doesn’t have the $0.10. Exasperated, the vendor agrees to sell the cabbage for $2.00, and as the woman leaves, she grabs up all the leaves she had peeled off. “It would just go to waste otherwise,” she explains, scurrying away. That’s a long walk for a short gag, but so what? A good stroll improves the constitution, I say.

After Nicholas, a young Georgian filmmaker, finds his work banned at home, he heads abroad to France for a bit of free expression, only to discover a new set of barriers comparable to what he left behind. Director Otar Iosseliani has a lot of interesting points to make here about art under oppression and the plight of the expatriate filmmaker, but he also has an irritating tendency towards cuteness, including the rather questionable addition of a mermaid. I suppose this is some sort of symbol for Nicholas being swept away by his artistic indulgences, but it could just as easily be Iosseliani who is being dragged under by own whimsy. Still, there’s a lot of admirable wisdom in this film, and it possesses a hazy, meandering sort of beauty at times, despite its unevenness. In his final, best joke, Iosseliani also suggests that even if you are free to say what you want, there is no guarantee that anyone will listen—or that what you are saying is even worth listening to. A pity Iosseliani didn’t apply this self-questioning instinct to improving the film itself.

Sadly, this film about a sentient rubber tire that explodes people’s heads with its telepathic abilities is not the cult oddity you would hope. Mind you, it’s still an oddity, but more of a high-concept, self-aware meta-film than campy horror. A stirring manifesto kicks things off as a character looks into the camera and delivers an impassioned defense of the “no reason” aspect of art, the senseless whims that can be found in every film (“Why is E.T. brown? No reason!”). An audience is transported into the middle of a desert to watch the film through binoculars. Characters in the film attempt to poison the spectators in the hopes that they can finish the film early if no one is watching. And yes, a tire rolls around, following a beautiful young woman like a horror-movie stalker, and blowing up random animals and the occasional human head. It’s funnier than you would expect, and mastermind Quentin Dupieux has a passion for the aesthetic possibilities of man-made objects that makes for a weirdly pretty ode to the inanimate. Dupieux reserves his most loving gaze for the tire, while the humans are treated more like props. Still, precocious high-concept trash only goes so far, and by the end I found myself yearning for a bit of low-concept reality after all this empty cleverness.

Vancouver International Film Festival 2010: Part One

Cold Fish
The film begins with pounding drums and staccato credits announcing that what we’re about to witness is based on a true story (aren’t they all though?). Perhaps it really is based on fact, but I think the strangest true story can’t begin to compare to the delirious imagination of Sion Sono. While Cold Fish finds him working in a relatively restrained mode after the four-hour epic Love Exposure, I doubt there will be a more grandiose orgy of depravity on screens this year. Charting the moral decline of meek tropical fish seller Shamoto, the film follows its hapless hero as he is taken under the wing of an aggressive alpha-male type named Murata, who goes on to sleep with Shamoto’s wife, steal the man’s daughter, and then force him to become an accomplice in a series of brutal serial killings.

Not being one to flinch from such details as how to dismember a corpse, Sono provides plenty of blood—consider this a film noir crossed with a family drama, all painted sloppy red and dressed up in that meat gown Lady Gaga wore that one time. Sono has a real talent as a button pusher, and he knows how to scramble an audience’s instincts with his schizophrenic shifts in tone. Mundane moments of family interaction are laced with so much shuddering dread you’ll feel nauseated, while grotesque sequences are pushed towards comedy (when Shamoto punches out his daughter whilst raping his wife, the laughter produced by the inappropriate slapstick is enough to send you out of the theatre and straight into the shower moaning, “Unclean, unclean”). Sono dances upon a pile of corpses, all to the tune of “life is pain” (as one character observes, quite reasonably given the circumstances). Profound it ain’t, but you can’t really turn away once you enter this moral freakshow.

Oh, speaking of piles of corpses…this subdued, enigmatic Quebec film from Denis Cote has got ‘em too. But Cote is working in an entirely different vein than Sono. Julyvonne, a twelve-year-old girl, discovers a mound of frozen bodies in a field near her home in a quiet Quebec village, but after her initial horror, she becomes accustomed to the pile, even making snow angels in the midst of it one day. This might seem like a curious reaction, but Julyvonne has been almost completely shut off from the world by her neurotically protective and emotionally damaged father. Her general sense of how reality works is naturally a bit shaky.

In a Q&A after the film, Cote spoke of the forest as a place out of a fairytale, a place where anything is possible. Perhaps it is this playful tone that makes the film stand apart so successfully. Filmmakers who like to withhold narrative explanations for the sake of effect are fairly common on the festival circuit, but few share Cote’s sense of humour: a scene where father and daughter sit stiffly listening to “I Think We’re Alone Now” is hilarious even as it is kind of heartbreaking. Cote is obviously aware of the danger of taking this sort of loneliness too seriously. Instead, he prefers to follow this pair (superbly played by real-life father and daughter Emmanuel and Philomene Bilodeau) back into the world, with all its attendant dangers and joys.

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields
If there is one aspect of music documentaries I truly, deeply, madly hate, it’s the part where famous people stop by to testify to the genius of whatever lesser-known luminary is in the title of the movie. For this film, we get Sarah Silverman and Neil Gaiman fluttering by to sprinkle a bit of their celebrity pixie dust on Stephin Merritt, the acerbic and occasionally brilliant songwriter responsible for the Magnetic Fields. Because if there’s one thing Silverman and Gaiman know, it’s songwriting.

But to credit of co-directors Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara, these cameos are mercifully brief and dispensed with early on as a bit of distasteful necessity. Instead, the film maintains a strong focus on Merritt himself, a somewhat cagey interview subject who often hides behind a sharp wit. The results aren’t always illuminating, but Merritt is too smart and funny to be less than engaging. In fact, he’s downright hilarious in an appearance on a local morning show, where the sleep-deprived singer must perform a morbid children’s song for the chirpy host (“Do you think kids will like it?” the host asks, to which Merritt flatly replies, “They better”). The directors dig up some intriguing angles for the film, particularly by focusing on the intense long-term friendship between Merritt and collaborator Claudia Gonson. Other noteworthy issues—such as details of the band’s own internal workings and the bizarre controversy over Merritt as musical racist—are dutifully explored, punctuated by the expected live and rehearsal footage. Basically, it stays true to the typical form of a music documentary. That’s not always a good thing, but when the subject is worthy of the attention—as he is in this case—it’s hard to go wrong.

Barney’s Version
The great dream of CanCon junkies everywhere—looks like Hollywood, smells like Hollywood, but by god it’s a genuine Canadian movie based on a genuine Canadian book (by Mordecai Richler) set in a genuine Canadian city (Montreal). That faint quivering noise you just heard was the sound of a hundred CBC executives swooning. But if I set aside my knee-jerk snark towards an overhyped domestic behemoth like this, I can at least appreciate the film for what it is: a slick entertainment with a good cast that more or less does right by the source material. Some of the striking literary features of the novel—notably the way Barney’s son annotates and corrects his father’s life story—can’t translate into film, and the filmmakers (director Richard J. Lewis and screenwriter Michael Konyves) sensibly don’t even try to find an equivalent. Given the richness of the plot, they have enough to keep themselves busy.

At its best, the film compresses the novel nicely with some smart little moments, like that great suspicious look Barney gives to an onion he finds in his freezer, unaware that he put it there himself. It’s a funny aside, but it also lightly suggests his growing forgetfulness and the coming revelation of his Alzheimer’s disease. In these moments, the film best captures the tricky funny-sad tone of Richler’s original. But the film also overplays the novel’s sentimentality, and the final revelation is condescendingly drawn-out and over-explained We’re miles away from Cote’s deliberate withholding here. Surrounded by so much oblique and artful filmmaking, a five-tonne giant like Barney’s Version can’t help but feel a little obvious and leaden at times.