Magazine article The Nation

Toronto International Film Festival

Magazine article The Nation

Toronto International Film Festival

Article excerpt

"Nothing is yet known about film," said Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinematheque Francaise, somewhere in the dim, aphoristic past. By attending a big international festival, one may learn that Langlois is still right. This year's Toronto festival, considered to be the most comprehensive in North America, gave me the chance to watch thirty-five pictures, which isn't bad for a week's viewing. Even so, no report on the State of World Cinema will be attempted here, since thirty-five is as nothing compared to the 274 films that were screened.

Were there no themes, no trends? Well, every inkblot has its butterfly. Out of the few pictures I saw and heard about, an uncommon number involved the death of a mother. In the opening-night presentation, Fly Away Home, a little girl lost her mother but gained a flock of geese. In Bogus, a little boy lost his mother but gained the imaginary friendship of Gerard Depardieu (in the Harvey the Rabbit role). Jacques Doillon's Ponette--which at the Venice festival had won a best actress award for its 4-year-old star, Victoire Thivisol--was about nothing but a girl's mourning for her mom. And then there were mothers who simply disappeared, as in Jan Sverak's well-received Kolya, the story of a man in Prague and the 5-year-old Russian lad who is dumped on him. You may imagine my gratitude when I finally got to Albert Brooks's new comedy, Mother; the title character is not only alive but loathes her child.

Let's assume that Brooks, as usual, is on to something. Let's imagine that the mom in his film--an outwardly pleasant, inwardly furious character in the shape of Debbie Reynolds--might represent Mother Cinema. Of course Brooks feels belittled. Here he is, a guy who gets to make a movie every four or five years, trying to live up to cinema's happier past and foregone ambitions. No wonder other filmmakers dream the death of Mother Cinema, rather than join Brooks in struggling with her.

One who did take up the fight was the Danish director Lars von Trier, whose Breaking the Waves had earlier won a big award at Cannes. Long, contrived and devilishly memorable, the film hauls you through the joys and sorrows of a God-infatuated young Scotswoman, who marries a secularist oil-rig worker; said joys and sorrows being less draining than the film's main action, which might be described as a seven-round bout between von Trier and the ghost of Carl Dreyer. Since I prefer invigoration to exhaustion in my movies, I had a better time with Olivier Assayas's Inna Vep, an off-handedly witty romp through the ruins of French film culture. Assayas amused himself by imagining how a washed-up New Wave director (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud) might take on the impossible task of remaking a French landmark, Louis Feuillade's Les Vampires. His only hope of breathing life into the project? To cast as the lead an icon of present-day film culture, Hong Kong action star Maggie Cheung.

The greatest struggler with Mother Cinema to show up at this year's festival was of course Jean-Luc Godard; he also turned out to be the most disappointing. In recent years, in his video series Histoire(s) du cinema, Godard has forcefully argued that film could show us the world as never before--a promise it long ago abandoned in favor of soul-numbing storytelling. I regret to say that his own new film, For Ever Mozart, reproduces this failure at a higher level.

A meditation "about" Bosnia, the film takes a group of well-reed but unemployed young people (who want to stage a classic play in Sarajevo) and contrasts them with a sorrowful old filmmaker (who gruntingly directs a picture that was financed out of a casino). At no point in this does For Ever Mozart touch directly on the world; its every character, word and action is allegorical. Now, even third-rate Godard ought to be treasured; the old man hasn't lost his eye, or his cheek for that matter. (Who else would begin a picture titled For Ever Mozart with a blare from the "Emperor" concerto? …

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