Family feuds and beasts of burden

In case you’re wondering if I’ve dropped off the face of the festival, or gone to a party and never come back, I’ve been preoccupied writing for this pesky magazine that we still insist on publishing with ink and paper, which takes longer than blogging because they worry about facts, typos and whatnot. Now time for some catch-up.

The thematic trends at TIFF ’08—which could be indicative of the zeitgeist or of pure serendipity—are starting to coalesce. It’s an especially strong year for French cinema. Highlights include L’Heure d’été by Olivier Assayas and Un Conte de Noël by Arnaud Desplechin, both big, buoyant stories of large families unravelling. And I’ve heard great things about Philippe Claudel’s Il y a longtemps que je t’aime, a tale of two sisters that sounds vaguely akin to Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, which is perhaps the most universally loved hit of the festival. I’ll see the Claudel film tonight. And I’m looking forward to the final screening, tomorrow night, of Les Plages d’Agnès, Agnès Varda‘s documentary memoir, which has generated terrific buzz.

If any one trend has emerged strongly this year it’s a retreat from dramas of epic violence (No Country For Old Men, Eastern Promises, In the Valley of Elah) to stories of emotional turmoil at the heart of families. Prominent examples include The Brothers Bloom—Rian Johnson’s delightful caper movie starring Rachel Weisz as an eccentric heiress who confounds con-men siblings (Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo)—and A Year Ago in Winter, an exquisite drama of sibling loss by Oscar winning German director Caroline Link.

It’s also fun to detect idiosyncratic sub-themes, and this year we’ve seen a preponderance of movies featuring beasts of burden—both animal and human. Two of the most surprising feats of acting are sensitive, eloquent performances from actors we’ve tended to see as brutish instruments of chaos—Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler and Jean Claude Van Damme in JCVD. In both cases there’s a fabulous life-art resonance as the character’s dramatic arc mirrors that of the star—an actor who’s spend his career enslaved by visceral cliche and is finally shedding his old showbiz carcass.

As for actual animals, the festival has been a virtual menagerie of critters great and small. So far I’ve seen vivid shots of animal placenta in two movies—in Tulpan, a movie full of sheep and camels, the lead actor goes above and beyond the thespian call of duty by delivering a lamb in the Kazakhstan desert. It is a long, arduous scene that is clearly not faked. It would make a great double bill with Tuya’s Marriage, a movie about Mongolian sheep herders that was recently released in Toronto. Then there’s Two-Legged Horse, in which Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf repeatedly dotes on the gooey placenta of a newborn foal. In this brutal allegorical drama, a child amuptee who has lost his legs from a land mine hires a gangly, mentally challenged youth to serve as his horse—a human wheelchair who serves both as a beast of burden and a jousting steed. It’s a cruel saga of a sado-masochistic relationship—before it’s over the human beast of burden is wearing a bridle—and after seeing it, I feel piggybacking has lost all of its childhood innocence. I found it excruciating to watch, but it’s hard not to acknowledge the guts and originality of Makhmalbaf’s vision. She shot the movie in Afghanistan with a neo-realist veracity that had tragic consequences when a grenade wounded seven people on the set, one of who later died in hospital. The director herself was spared only because a horse, which killed in the explosion, bore the brunt of the blast. Although they were in Afghanistan, the region was not a war zone, and she figures the grenade was a personal attack on her by those who don’t appreciate her filmmaking.

Other animals included a magic realist cobra that coiled from the backyard of a bleak Toronto suburb in Deepa Mehta’s baffling Heaven on Earth. Multiple dogs are murdered in Disgrace. A camel popped up in The Brothers Bloom. Cats decorate Agnes Varda’s kaleidescopic memoire, Les Plages d’Agnès. Everywhere you looked there were cats. The one that sticks in my memory is the feline that gets killed in a long, agonizing fashion in Justin Simms’ Down to the Dirt, which stars Joel Thomas Hynes in a story based on his own novel about a drunken, drugged-out Newfoundland loser goin’ down the road to nowhere. It’s pretty extreme. But at least the cat is hidden in a plastic bag; we only hear it. And unlike Two-Legged Horse, it can at least make the claim that no animals were injured in the making of the movie.

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