Great Dramas at TIFF 2010: Deep in the Woods, The Matchmaker, Black Swan, plus The Light Box

Well, the Toronto Film Festival is in full swing, and there’s still time – this Friday, Saturday and Sunday — to catch some really great movies, surrounded by other people who also love movies. It’s not everyday you get to ask a director questions about a movie right after you see it, or know that the person sitting beside you definitely has an opinion too, and is willing to share it with you – whether you like it or not. In fact, it’s one of the few times when semi-straight-laced Toronto sheds its inhibitions and throws aside the childhood warning: Don’t talk to strangers.

Now is also the time to check out the Tiff Light Box at the corner of John and King in downtown Toronto. Just this past weekend they’ve opened up a brand-spanking new headquarters for the film festival to function as a full-year event. There’s a restaurant and café with huge glass walls downstairs, and upstairs are some really nice looking movie theatres, that seat up to 500 people. It feels like you’re entering a museum or an international exhibition. Very impressive, very exciting experience.

If you listen to my reviews regularly you might remember my lament over the death of the velvet curtain, the dramatic opening and closing that used to mark every movie. To paraphrase Mark Twain, news of its death has been greatly exaggerated. And evidence of this is right there at the Light Box. Huge red curtains part to start each show, and rows of neat red seats arc out in the theatre. My only complaint is they sacrificed looks for comfort. There are impressive, minimalist, row after row of little square fold-down seats… but no arm rests. What are they thinking? I guess they figure people who like movies all wear black turtlenecks and have tiny bums and straight backs and will sit for hours with their hands neatly folded in their laps, calmly contemplating Fassbinder and their next fix of heroin.

We’ll see how that pans out…

CORRECTION: I have since discovered that, while the seats in my row at the Light Box had flip-up seats with no arm rests, most of the other rows had regular, comfortable seats. So I just lucked into that one special row for the Fassbinder fans in black turtlenecks… or maybe people who use wheelchairs.

The Light Box also has a series of galleries-cum-movie theatres that straddle the space in between art and cinema – movies projected as art; video art using cinematic narratives. There are shows and installations on right now by Canadian directors Atom Egoyan and the amazing Guy Maddin, as well as Singapore-born artist Ming Wong’s show in which he plays all the characters, male and female, in a Berlin soap opera.

Now let me talk about a few of the films I found interesting at this year’s festival.

Deep in the Woods

Dir: Benoit Jacquot

Timothee, a kid, a ruffian, really, in torn clothes with matted hair appears in a small town in France in the 1850’s – he can barely speak, and has filthy teeth and black hands. But he makes eye contact with Josephine (Isild Le Besco), the well-educated daughter of the town doctor, and proceeds to study her, climbing trees, peering through her windows, and hiding in the bushes as she fends off a boring suitor trying to impress her with his poetry.

She is straight laced and wears a bodice, but Timothee (Argentine actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) sees her true self yearning to be free, standing at the edge of steep cliffs daring herself to fly away.

So he insinuates himself into her life, and soon impresses the family with his seemingly magical skills in magnetism, prestidigitation, fortune telling, and hypnotism. When they are alone together, Josephine is quick to strip off her clothes and have sex with Timothee. Has he forced her using hypnotism?

Soon she follows him deep into the woods where they live a random, itinerant life, encountering people and events as they travel down a road. Their relationship – a sort of a marriage is constantly evolving; and the power dynamics – a rich educated woman living with a destitute man with survival skills and perhaps magical powers – gradually shifting from him to her.

This is a powerful and strange movie, unlike any I’ve even seen. Maybe it’s closest to the great movie “The Lovers on the Bridge” / “Les Amants du Pont Neuf”, (dir: Leos Carax) but different. It’s not for everyone, but I really liked it, especially the two main actors who are captivating in their roles.

Another movie that I really liked is

The Matchmaker

Dir: Avi Nesher

Arik, a kid in Haifa, Israel in the late 1960’s, is hanging out with his friends playing soccer when a man with a cane and huge scar across his face, and a mysterious past, arrives on their block. He’s Yankele Bride (Adir Miller), and he’s a matchmaker from Romania who’s there to find husbands and wives for unusual people with peculiarities who haven’t had any luck on their own. He says, he’ll find them the match they need, but not necessarily the one they want.

So after Arik’s prank misfires, he hires him to come work for him in the wrong side of town where he lives. His office is right beside a movie theatre that only plays movies with happy endings, run by a family of little people, dwarves who had survived concentration camp experiments by the notorious Dr Mengele, and near to an elegant woman Clara, who runs a late night speak-easy. The Matchmaker also earns his money in a shady occupation, but his vocation – matching up people who truly love each other – is his mission. None of the characters dare to bring up the concentration camps; in the 1960’s it was still considered taboo to talk about. They refer to it only as “there”.

Meanwhile, young Arik is falling for his neighbour, a tempestuous Iraqi girl, Tamara (Neta Porat), who has rejected her family’s conservatism and embraced the American youth culture of psychedelic music and the sexual revolution.

If this sounds like a complicated plot… it is, but it’s a fantastic story with compelling, captivating, and unusual characters – not all loveable, but you really want to find out what happens to them. Nesher is a not just a great director, but also an amazing storyteller. This is the kind of movie, one with a great story – with comedy, passion, romance, intrigue, betrayal, and truly memorable characters — that you rarely encounter anymore. Look out for this movie – the Matchmaker — hopefully it will be released after the festival.

Another movie, and one that definitely will be released, is

“Black Swan”

dir: Daren Aronofsky.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina, pure of heart, who wants the lead role in Swan Lake. She’s been raised to reach perfection, en pointe, by her relentless stage mother who was also in the ballet, but never made it big. Nina doesn’t drink or smoke or have sex – she still lives at home, she’s bullemic, plays with stuffed animals, wears a fuzzy pink coat, and listens to her little music box with a dancing ballerina by her bed.

But the ballet director, played Vincent Cassel, wants to put new life into the that cliched old ballet. He pushes her to also play the role of the Black Swan, the sinister evil twin of the Swan Queen. For this, he wants her to abandon her remaining childhood and purity and to become angry, passionate and sexual. He’s exploitative and cruel. Meanwhile, Beth the former diva at this ballet, (Winona Ryder) is forced to retire, and a new competitor, Lily (Mila Kunis) is also trying for the role, and trying everything she can to take it from Nina. Sophisticated Lily is Nina’s opposite – sex, drugs, smoking, and backstabbing all come as second nature to her. Nina has to hold on to her role in the ballet, as well as her tenuous grip on reality.

OK: does Aronofsky’s latest venture work or not. I have to admit, at times, this movie drifted into high camp, was unintentionally hilarious, and felt like nothing more than a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls”, another movie about backstabbing dancers. Who knows, maybe “Black Swan” and “Showgirls” will still be double-billing it at rep cinemas 50 years from now.

That said, I think it’s a totally watchable classic melodrama and psychological thriller, with great acting by the two main women, plus very enjoyable overacting by Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey (as the over-the-top stage mom). The movie’s also stunning on the eyes and ears, with great production values.

I think Aronofsky knows exactly what he’s doing, neatly alternating super-real, documentary-like footage just like in The Wrestler – behind the scenes bone-cracking, massages, rehearsals, warm-ups and make-ups – with equal parts scenery-chewing soap and surreal, drug-induced psychological fantasies (like in his great “Requiem for a Dream”). For me, this balanced worked.

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