Lovers' Tiffs at TIFF 2004

Article excerpt

Even if it no longer makes the world go round, love certainly helps fill out a film festival. From the first of its 253 features from 60 countries, the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival surveyed the myriad forms of love and fantasy--and treated those two impostors as the same. As fiction is expected to do, the films confront our most disturbing reality--"We're sentenced to solitary confinement in our own skins" (Tennessee Williams)--even as they profess to divert us from it.

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ALTHOUGH the festival's choice for its opening gala, Being Julia (2004), is Istvan Szabo's first comedy, it shares many essential qualities of his "serious" films, such as Mephisto (1981), Colonel Redl (1985), Hanussen (1988), Sunshine (1999), and Taking Sides (2001). The project is scripted by Ronald Harwood (Taking Sides, The Statement, The Pianist) and is based on Somerset Maugham's 1947 novella Theatre. The film is so rich in period detail it credits an "Historical Consultant." It is rich also in period prejudice: "Real actresses don't make films," the heroine avows, and she dreads the day when all that is left is "to tour Canada and Australia, God help me."

The period pop songs comment on the immediate context like a Greek tragedy's chorus: "I'm busy cause I'm on my way," "How are you going to lose what you never owned?" and "They'll never believe me--that from this great big world you've chosen me." The young lover taps the woman's money to "I Get a Kick out of You," and the film ends on the romance of deception, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."

In a comedic reference to the looming war, a busker entertains a West End theatre queue with jokes about Hitler, "Macaroni," and the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose being secured away to Canada. More importantly, like Szabo's tragedies--most emphatically in Mephisto--the film centres upon a hero radically divided and forced to switch masks by the compelling forces of the times.

IN THIS CASE it is time's aging effect that shakes stage actress Julia Lambert (Annette Bening). Bored with her star turn in the melodrama Farewell My Love and her (wide) open marriage with her director Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons), she craves some indefinable change. This she finds in an affair with an American boy, Tom Fennell (Shaun Evans), who is less flavourful than his name and success suggest. While he callously exploits her sex, status, and money, her love makes her radiate giggles. But his abuse erodes her dignity. On a country holiday, Tom prefers her son Roger (Tom Sturridge) to rogering her. The reality of their relationship sinks in when Tom falls in love with a blonde actress, Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch), and promotes her for the role of Sybil--i.e., the discomfiting truth-teller--in Julia's new play, Nowadays. The very title scores time's inevitable changes.

When Julia learns that Avice is also having an affair with Michael, she plots an exquisite revenge. Feigning generosity, she secures Avice the role, then volunteers staging and wardrobe changes that will focus the climactic scene on Avice, not her. On opening night, however, Julia dons a flamboyant costume, grabs the focal spot, hijacks Avice's specialty comic sneeze, and extemporizes--in character--an exposure of the young actress's adultery. Without the wit or confidence to keep up with Julia, Avice is reduced from appealing comic to hapless clown. Worse, the long-term contract--Michael's "first night present"--imprisons her as Julia's victim for a year of eight performances a week. "It will be an experience you'll never forget," Michael cruelly assures her. For Julia's rewrite so regales the audience that Michael insists on keeping her changes.

From the opening scene, Julia draws confidence from the advice of the ghost of her first mentor, the provincial director Jimmie Langtonn (Michael Gambon). He contends that "on the stage the theatre is the only reality.... What civilians call the real world is just fantasy. …