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Toronto International Film Festival 2018 (part one)

By Shane Danielsen
A British outlier and a British newcomer are among the stand-outs in the first part of the festival

Things move at a particular pace in Canada, even in Toronto, its largest metropolis (“You know, this isn’t New York,” someone admonished me as I crossed a street on a red), and even at the Toronto Film Festival, one of the world’s busiest. How else to explain the chap at the head of the queue for the concession stand on Saturday night, who, with about 15 people lined up behind him, and a dozen screenings about to begin, not only asked the server what varieties of wines were for sale (“I don’t like shiraz – do you have a cabernet merlot?”), but then enquired about their respective vintages.

Behind him, some exasperated soul (full disclosure: me) said loudly, “Mate, it’s a fucking multiplex. I’m pretty sure the ‘vintage’ is last week.” I assumed my fellow patrons would approve – after all, we were going to be late for our various movies. But instead came further admonishing glances and someone actually, audibly tut-tutting. I bowed my head and returned, soda-less, to my seat.

At least (some of) the films were great. Weirdly underrated on its premiere in Venice a few days earlier, László Nemes’s Sunset suffers only by comparison to his debut, the Oscar-winning Holocaust drama Son of Saul. And even then, not by very much: this is very much of a piece with that film, both in terms of technique and achievement. Once more, we’re plunged into a historical inferno – this time it’s Budapest in 1913, the tinderbox that was pre-World War One Europe. A young woman, Irisz (newcomer Juli Jakab, more than a little reminiscent of Emma Watson), arrives from Vienna and turns up at the city’s most prestigious milliner, Leiter’s, looking for a job. We soon discover that she’s actually a Leiter herself – the daughter of the family – and that some catastrophe befell them some years earlier. There was a fire, in which both her parents perished; the business was rebuilt and then sold, their fortune lost.

Taken in, somewhat reluctantly, by the store’s new manager, Irisz also learns that her long-lost brother is still alive and may be a murderer, a revolutionary, or both. She sets out to find him, but instead is drawn into a vast conspiracy that implicates hundreds of men, foreign and local, across all social classes, and which reveals the rot at the core of this grand, decaying culture.

If history, as James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus said, is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake, this film pulls us further down into that bad dream, until unreality closes above our heads like dirty water. Questions go unanswered. Leads are explored and then abandoned. And everywhere, at every moment, is a sense of mounting insanity, as Irisz is propelled from one frightening and/or mysterious situation to the next. Ostensibly a requiem for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, indebted equally to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, Sunset actually foreshadows the deadlier global conflict that would follow. A familiar enough theme – but few contemporary directors possess Nemes’s genius for staging action, or his ability to convey the sense of impending cataclysm. Aided by Mátyás Erdély’s roving camera, the drama plays out in a series of long, precisely choreographed takes, the action – as in Son of Saul – often occurring at the edges of the frame, almost lost in the shadows. The effect is haunting in the literal sense: you feel, by the end, like you’ve communed with the dead.

A slightly different kind of retail experience was on offer in the latest from English outlier Peter Strickland. Set in a fictional London department store that might also be a locus of Satanic activity, In Fabric is a horror-comedy about a possibly sentient, decidedly malevolent red dress, one that brings ill fortune to whoever puts it on.

Billed as a kind of giallo, it is actually something rather more British: from its fizzy analogue visuals, to its synth-heavy soundtrack (by Cavern of Anti-Matter, the new project from ex-Stereolab co-founder Tim Gane), it offers a rare cinematic example of Hauntology, the recent British arts movement whose aesthetic draws upon 1970s library music, public information films and commercial photography – all of which were referenced here. (If this sounds intriguing, I refer you to the late Mark Fisher’s excellent 2014 study Ghosts of My Life, and the artists on the UK’s Ghost Box record label.)

It is also extremely funny, peopled by an array of spooky eccentrics. There’s Miss Luckmoore (Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed), a witchy saleswoman who speaks only in enigmatic sort-of haikus (“A purchase on the horizon, a panoply of temptation, soon to be an echo in the recesses of the spheres of retail”), and who fiddles after-hours with the female mannequins until their vaginas discharge what looks like blood. And there’s the pair of gay middle-management types who communicate solely in bland corporate-speak. (One of whom is played by Julien Barratt, a fine and underrated actor, formerly of The Mighty Boosh and more recently seen in the remarkable Channel 4 series Flowers.)

The design is suitably retro – I kept being reminded, no doubt deliberately, of the set from Morecambe and Wise – and the casting unorthodox, mixing dependable veterans (the great Marianne Jean-Baptiste) with comparative neophytes (former Magazine bassist and occasional Bad Seed Barry Adamson). Was it a delight to watch? Or, as Miss Luckmoore would have it, “Did the transaction validate your paradigm of consumerism?” It was, and it did.

By contrast, Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro (“Them”) offered much but delivered very little – in this sense, at least, it is an appropriate representation of the Berlusconi era it aims to depict. I haven’t liked a Sorrentino film since Il Divo (2008), his baroque, playful takedown of former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti. The Great Beauty (2013) took almost three hours to bring us the mind-blowing revelation that Italians might be a tad superficial; Youth (2015) was a young man’s take on an old man’s fantasy, a pervy, unapologetic celebration of the Male Gaze. And this one, edited together from two separate features for international release, is even more insubstantial than those two, little more than a 150-minute music video.

As with Youth, there’s plenty of skin on display: acres of nubile, barely dressed female flesh. And while it’s meant to signify the currency of this sordid, everything-for-sale world, it’s also hard to respect a film about potency (and its opposite) that hasn’t the courage to show so much as a single dick. But even these party scenes – Sorrentino’s speciality – feel perfunctory; watching, you sense a growing weariness on the part of the filmmaker. Who, you know, just might also be a little superficial himself.

There’s a way he could have filmed these sequences and avoided repeating himself. He might have taken the point of view of the waiters – glimpsing the noisy, decadent action as the doors to the kitchen swing open and then closed; bringing these jaded, loathsome hedonists their drinks, or disposing of their used foils. But to do so would mean pausing for a moment to understand or at least contemplate the life of the underclass. Who are not always beautiful or elegantly dressed. Who don’t have time to dance to those club bangers (Sorrentino’s taste in music remains excellent), or the money to buy the best drugs. But theirs is entirely another world, one in which this director – secretly in love with what he purports to despise – clearly has no interest whatsoever.

Argentine writer-director Pablo Trapero followed up his 2015 crime drama The Clan with a melodrama, La Quietud, starring The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo, a resident of Paris but a native of Buenos Aires. Playing Eugenia, who returns home to Argentina from France after her father has suffered a stroke, Bejo struggles valiantly with the material but never quite gets a handle on it – mostly because the film never commits to the story it’s trying to tell. Instead, it flirts half-heartedly with various things: fascism, incest, logic …

Daddy, we discover, might have done some unpleasant things during the post-Péron dictatorship, but that information doesn’t seem to stop everyone from shagging everyone else, or masturbating. (Frankly, I prefer my alternate title: Junta Fuck House.) Neither the audience nor the actors seemed to quite know whether it was intended as a comedy or a drama. But about 40 minutes in, as erotic tensions sizzled during an open-casket funeral, a handful of spectators finally exploded in laughter, and a palpable sense of relief settled upon the theatre; thereafter, the film’s mounting absurdities seemed almost welcome – certainly preferable to the weightier historical concerns at which it was feinting. And while it’s too easy to saddle every story of wealthy Latin families with the telenovela tag, it’s hard to see how else this one could be understood. The insistent score, the passionate embraces, the tearful recriminations … all muy dramático.

Smaller and far better was Ray & Liz, the debut feature from acclaimed British artist Richard Billingham. Adapted from his reputation-making 1996 monograph “Ray’s a Laugh” – itself inspired by his own childhood, growing up on a council estate in the West Midlands – it offers a deep immersion in the squalid realities of working-class British life, circa 1980. A diffident, recessive presence, Ray is sliding further into alcoholism after being laid-off from work; his wife, Liz, meanwhile, fills her days with jigsaw puzzles and chain-smoking and not bothering much about their two children. Yet the couple, superbly played by Justin Sallinger and Ella Smith, are never allowed to become mere grotesques. Their affection for each other is apparent, making their nearly autistic lack of concern for their sons all the more inexplicable.

Wallpaper peels from walls stained with nicotine; cockroaches and flies swarm over piles of unwashed dishes in the sink. A neighbour drops by to get some fag-ends, scavenged from the street under the subway. (“There’s an inch of white left on that! Incredible, what some people throw away.”) And while their older boy, Richard, is already planning his escape, nine-year-old Jason is sliding unnoticed into neglect and depression. His plight, and its resolution, carry much of the film’s emotional payload, aided in no small part by Joshua Millard-Lloyd’s extraordinary performance.

Watching, the debt to Terence Davies’ early work is clear, from its three-part structure (reminiscent of Davies’ Trilogy) to its tactile, sensual qualities, the play of light and shadow across glass, fabric and skin – all superbly captured by cinematographer Daniel Landin in granular 16mm. (Kudos, too, to production designer Beck Rainford, who brilliantly recreates what a friend eloquently described as “the smeary, trinket-infested havoc of the family home”.) But even as Billingham is reckoning with his past, he takes care to inject occasional flashes of the surreal and irrational. Having taken refuge for two nights at a friend’s house (where, in the film’s most heartbreaking moment, he abruptly hugs the mother who has shown him kindness), Jason encounters his parents in the park on his way to school. “Oh, there you are,” Liz murmurs, almost distractedly. “Coppers been out looking for you.” She’s pushing a pram, and in it, we see, is a rabbit – a detail altogether too surreal to be anything but true.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

In Fabric. Image courtesy of TIFF

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