TIFF 2019: Portrait of a critic on fire

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      Anxiety of choice is the pandemic of our age, and movie-watching is as prone to infection as anything else.

      From the comfort of the couch, the modern cinephile has access to a few thousand films at any given moment, and that’s only if one restricts oneself to the purely legal channels. The sheer number of films hiding in the less reputable corners of the internet boggles the mind.

      In this time of glut, film festivals offer a welcome reprieve from choice, or at least the illusion that a reprieve is still possible. Allow filmmakers, juries, and programmers to step in and pick something for you. That’s the promise anyways.

      In reality, a movie gathering as large and diverse as the Toronto International Film Festival, which offers hundreds of features and shorts, induces its own kind of selection anxiety. Some things will be prioritized over others, a few films will get crossed off the list, painfully, and no matter how many times you repeat the mantra that says “I will get another chance to see this, someday,” there’s always a voice in the back of your head pondering, with horror, the possibility that perhaps you won’t.

      But the schedule is out and the festival has begun. Choose you must.

      There’s always the option of risking a first encounter. Céline Sciamma is not exactly a new voice (her debut feature, Water Lilies, premiered at Cannes over a decade ago, and her critical renown has been on a steady upward trajectory ever since) but she is, for me, an unknown quantity.

      Portrait of a Lady on Fire, on the other hand, is something quite familiar: a stately costume drama in the cinema du papa tradition, one of those ornate, plushly appointed period pieces that the French turned into an industrial product roughly a century ago, churning them out year over year like factory-made reproductions of Louis XIV commodes.

      Unfortunately, Sciamma’s newest film is more an output of the assembly line than it is the work of a major auteur entering mid-career maturity. The scopophilic potential of the premise does, for a time, promise a more iconoclastic approach to the shop model: Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of a young woman (Adèle Haenel), but must do so in secret; sidelong advances and furtive glances are the only tools available for the clandestine artist who must  scope out her subject from afar.

      But as an observer herself, Sciamma is rather abashed. She blushes with embarrassment whenever her scenario arouses the pervy pleasures of voyeurism, and her go-to maneuver is to flirt with lusty scopophilia before executing a hasty retreat into chastity and tastefulness.

      The love affair that inevitably blossoms between artist and model should throb with danger, should pulsate with uneasy suggestions of exploitation and predation, as if the possessiveness of the canvas is synonymous with the desires of the greedy lover. In the very least, it ought to call up the fear of social opprobium: the world around these women would surely snuff out the flames of lesbian passion at the first sign of smoke.

      But Sciamma keeps that world offscreen throughout because she is committed to an idea of gay romance that is generous, kind, and thoroughly contemporary. Given the setting, you might even call it utopian, which surely helps explain Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s widespread appeal: it offers the fine gilt pleasures of the period movie while simultaneously providing all the moral conveniences of modern life.

      Sciamma’s finicky attention to candlelight and 18th century domestic fripperies can’t hide the fact that Portrait of a Lady on Fire actually takes place in the present. And like any ready-made facsimile, the historical varnish is merely a concession to bourgeois tastes, a decorative contrivance, and therefore entirely dishonest.

      TIFF positions itself as a festival of festivals, and should the odds of rolling the dice with unfamiliar artists prove too variable, you can always try your luck with prize winners imported from the big European festivals: Berlin, Cannes, and Locarno. (The less said about Venice, the better: as I write, they’ve just given their top award to the auteur of The Hangover 3.)

      This is not, however, a risk-free proposition; juries the globe over have a famously spotty track record. But there is broad consensus that Synonyms, Parasite, and Vitalina Varela (the winners of the Golden Bear, the Palme d'Or, and the Golden Leopard, respectively) represent an unusually daring triumvirate of first place finishers.

      Nadav Lapid and Bong Joon-ho are certainly uncompromising artists, of a sort: they both approach the world as if it exists for the sole purpose of providing them raw material with which to shape their visions. The resultant work is—in a purely definitional sense—singular: these films emerge from the psyches of two filmmakers whose preoccupations and predilections defy easy replication. Synonyms and Parasite are genuinely eccentric movies, which is indeed worth celebrating.

      On the other hand, eccentricity often makes a bedfellow of insularity, and there’s a sense that these filmmakers mobilize social and political concerns primarily as a means to further their pre-established aesthetic systems.

      Nadav Lapid sees a neat correlation between his behaviorist approach to character—which abstracts human behavior into a series of violent tics—and the unstable psychogeography of Israeli selfhood. It’s unclear, however, that his style alone is sufficient to explicate his subject, at least to anyone living outside the confines of Nadav Lapid’s skittish mind—which is to say, the rest of us.

      Psychologically coherent behavior has never been Bong’s strongest muscle, either. He’s generally at his best when flexing his not insignificant compositional skill: his images possess the graphic panache and pith of a comic book panel, and in Parasite, he tosses them off with characteristic ease.

      But as Bong bulks up his visual prowess with each new film, his characterological muscle only atrophies further. We’ve reached an unhealthy point: the internal and external stimuli that motivate his people are now second order concerns at best, always subordinate to the next punchy composition. And as the title suggests, he views Parasite’s characters at an entomological remove—a problem for a film that otherwise seeks to humanize those very people, even if the bootheel of global inequality will invariably crush them like so many bugs.

      Pedro Costa is also a man concerned with the inequities of our economic moment, though he’s the opposite of a remote observer. His films are a radical act of collaboration with Portugal’s immigrant underclass—or at least that’s what he’d like you to believe. Vitalina Varela extends the project that Costa initiated at the beginning of the century, when he began working in Lisbon’s impoverished shantytowns and started shaping his films around the hardscrabble stories he encountered there.

      But it also raises a question that both Costa and his fans are intent on avoiding. If Vitalina Varela truly belongs to the woman at its center, who lends the film her name and her life story, shouldn’t Costa bend his style around her? His signature chiaroscuro compositions dominate, despite that fact that Vitalina clearly does not belong to this shadow world.

      To be fair, that’s partly the point: she leaves her native Cape Verde to seek out her long-lost husband in Portugal, is greeted in Lisbon by a gravestone and the warning that “there is nothing for you here,” and spends the rest of the film trapped in a foreign underworld.

      Like Costa’s previous film, Horse Money, the crepuscular images seem to externalize a half-waking nightmare state. Unlike Horse Money, this film is not dream. Vitalina Varela’s stylistic inflexibility proves that Pedro Costa—no matter his post-film Q&A protestations to the contrary—makes films just like the rest of them: Lapid, Bong, and Costa all refashion the world in their image. And there’s probably nothing wrong with that.

      In the film’s final moments, Costa does, however, acquiesce: he acknowledges that this woman’s unblinking resilience is a mundane, daily tribulation, not a baroque terror of the night, and Vitalina Varela ends up where she belongs: in light.

      Even if I remain a mild skeptic of the Costa project, I cannot deny that his images are as striking as any in contemporary cinema; they are incredible things to witness on a movie screen, and I fear that too few will have the opportunity to see them writ so large. TIFF’s Wavelengths section is the only reason I got the chance. Spearheaded by Andrea Picard, Wavelengths has a reputation for playing the year’s most challenging and innovative works. And so, when my selective capacities are well and truly exhausted, I find myself wandering into whatever Wavelengths film happens to be playing, hoping that it will at least offer a novel experience.

      The feature-length movies in this year’s lineup have, regrettably, hewed to an aesthetic paradigm that is now commonplace for politically committed arthouse cinema: anonymous voices narrate impenetrable communal histories, preferably over long, fixed takes—bonus points if the images have nothing to do with the soundtrack.

      Not exactly boundary breaking.

      The short films in the program have proven more fertile ground for experimentation, however, even if they’ve failed to blow open the doors of perception quite as forcefully as I might have wished.

      Still, a film like "Austrian Pavilion" is a welcome reminder that cinema is not comprised of top-down auteurist visions alone. In lieu of a conventional camera, director Philipp Fleischmann builds his own image-capture apparatus, and unsure of what this makeshift contraption will record, boldly removes authorial choice from his artistic toolkit.

      The four minute film that results, which consists of hazy ceiling arches rolling across a blue sky background, is a modest achievement by any measure. But at this moment, as I stare down the barrel of another day of scheduling decisions, there’s something to be said for a film that so freely gives itself over to chance.