TIFF 2016: Isabelle Huppert and a harbinger of Things to Come

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      TORONTO—Murphy’s Law governed the first day of the Toronto International Film Festival. Coming over on a red eye flight with a crying baby, a smelly couple seated next to me, and a dude that wouldn’t stop kicking my seat, I landed sleep deprived and deluded. I only packed one pair of shorts despite Toronto’s hot and humid climate. If this seems like privileged bitching, it kind of is, and to give you a sense of the class of puerile complaining that goes on here, know that the Hollywood Reporter went out of its way to write a story about the broken escalator at the Scotiabank theatre, the venue for the press and industry screenings. This theatre also has a functioning elevator. Yep.

      While it seemed like Hell outside, the festival’s offerings inside the (overly) air-conditioned theatres were a cinephile’s heaven. Dumping the Greatest Hits of Cannes, Sundance and Berlin into a dense and overlapping schedule, TIFF began with a series of Sophie’s Choices: Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful Manchester by the Sea or Jeff Nichols’ acclaimed Oscar-bait Loving; Olivier Assayas singular Personal Shopper or Paul Verhoeven’s gonzo Elle—all of which will be playing at VIFF in a couple weeks. Having attended a few major festivals this year, I had the chance to discover a few films I otherwise might have missed out on, like Mia Hansen Løve’s deceptively deep Things to Come.

      Starring Isabelle Huppert as Nathalie Chazaux, a high school philosophy teacher, the film spans ten years and three generations, a similar structure to the French filmmaker's previous feature, Eden. Despite Nathalie’s educational background and class positioning, her life remains purposeless and characterized by conflict. Her husband has an affair, her mother is suicidal, and she eventually gets stuck with a useless cat that nobody else wants. Steeped in the trivialities of life and the ennui of middle age, Things to Come is a striking portrait of the examined life, the only one worth living according to Socrates.

      More profoundly—and there are many more layers—Things to Come is about a country perpetually in revolution. Ozu-like in structure, the film is loose but connected by a generational cycle, as one age’s revolution becomes another’s conservatism to be overturned. Things to Come bends left politically yet remains critical of glorifying the “ideology of the week”—I was a communist for only three years Nathalie says, as if it were like a child’s fad. Aware of the cognitive dissonance within Nathalie, the film recognizes her bourgeois leftism, which is critical of those in power while failing to recognizing its own position. These conundrums silently wrestle within Huppert’s subtle performance, and it's a character we don’t often see at the movies. Nathalie is a female intellectual that isn’t the brunt of a joke, a passive love interest, or window dressing. It’s refreshing to experience a film where we can eavesdrop on the conversations of smart people without Woody Allen’s irony, where intellectuals aren’t objects of condescension.

      Even though I came out of the Hansen Løve’s film with a brief surge of energy, I invested in a nap at the screening of a quiet and soothing Thai film. I went into Fire at Sea mildly refreshed and knowing nothing except that it was recommended by mensch and my host Adam Cook, a VIFF and TIFF programmer, and Georgia Straight contributor.

      At once a visceral documentation of the European migrant crisis and artful ethnography, the film shines a light on the goings on in Lampeduza, an island 150 miles from Sicily that is the first port of call for a large group of migrants hoping to make their way to Europe. A difficult but necessary film, Fire at Sea candidly photographs the migrants as they’re pulled off the ship, treated by doctors and processed by the Italian authorities. Director Gianfransco Rosi deals in oppositions (also reflected in its title): the open spaces of the island and the claustrophobic confines of the battered ships that brush up on the island, the carefree lifestyle of a young boy and the desecrated, excruciatingly hard lives of the migrants. Neither a message movie nor devoid of political fervor, Fire at Sea is a brave journalistic feat that is artfully crafted. At its core, the film appears profoundly optimistic as it finds beauty amidst misery and altruism inside a clinical system that is simply meant to “deal” with the crisis efficiently, not humanely.

      Nihilism and misery, isn’t that what all this is anyway?  But maybe we can all be a little more grateful. A flight of stairs ain’t so bad.