Unrepresentative of the major sex theme at Toronto, Brazilian director Julia Murat's 'Historias Que So Existem Quando Lembradas' went back to basics: close observation of an isolated elderly community that's gently disrupted by the arrival of a young outsider.

Dark Thoughts Fill TIFF’s Lightbox

B. Ruby Rich September 18, 2011

Sex-filled fictions dominate Toronto International Film Festival; eclectic docs inspire action.

If there's a scent of autumn in the year, it must be coming from Toronto, where herds of film journalists begin their reporting year and countless filmmakers, publicists, curators and distributors from around the world gather to pan for gold. And, of course, where the studios traditionally launch Oscar product, throwing a peculiar shadow over the international and indie worlds convened there.

There's been a truce between these contradictory worlds for some time: The Toronto International Film Festival, successfully rebranded as "TIFF" (I even heard hipsters on the subway calling it that), has always pitched a big tent. Galas get their giant halls, which folks like myself typically avoid, and smaller films get smaller venues full of dedicated fans. This year, that was not a bad deal: The Bell Lightbox, Toronto's version of Cannes' Palais—if the Palais had a museum and gift shop—opened all of its magnificent jewel-box screening rooms for the festival and let the hordes sweep into the premises. The result was a packed 80-seat theatre at 10:00 p.m. for a documentary. At the same time, TIFF expanded outside its theaters and screening rooms entirely, even though it now runs nearly two dozen simultaneous venues, making its “Future Projections” sidebar into a citywide showcase of digital installations. Ah, life in a democracy of cinematic choices can be good, especially this year, when there were more women directors than I’ve ever seen in a film festival.

Just try getting to all of it, though. Even with Toronto's new bike-share program and bike lanes that have sprung up globally (more on that later), it's impossible. So don't believe any of us when we tell you the themes of the festival: better to describe the report, as I hereby proceed to do, as the themes of one critic's perambulations.

Feeling no Shame is one theme that comes to mind. Steve McQueen's second film arrived in Toronto already crowned by Venice. It's even better than described, at once less shocking and more interesting, by far, than Hunger. Michael Fassbender makes a huge leap in his acting, despite all the talk being focused on his “junk,” which does appear with full-frontal panache through much of this film. Pause. How exactly is Fox Searchlight, proud winner of Toronto's first acquisition battle, going to exhibit this film?

Fassbender is serviced by countless porn videos, interactive laptop-sized porn actresses, constant pick-ups and quickies: Strip out the R and X rated and what's left? Well, Carey Mulligan, for one: she is a revelation as Brandon's chaotic, disoriented sister Sissy, who arrives to stay on his couch and never exactly leaves. Her version of “New York New York” will never move out, either; it's been haunting me all week. Slowly but surely, a film that seemed to be all about sex or sex-addiction turns out to be something else, too: a movie that obliquely dives into the emotional residue of trauma as well as the complexities of brother-sister relations. Shame hits the mark on every score. Even better, McQueen, co-scripter Abi Morgan, and his Hunger team of Sean Bobbitt and Joe Walker have crafted a cinephile's dream in which every master shot, every cutaway, every frame of composition, timing, editing all culminate in a burnished work of representational power.

With Shame as the flagship, weird inappropriate sex spilled all over festival offerings. The Oranges is the romantic-comedy version, with Alia Shawkat as Vanessa, slacker daughter moved to action when her high-school friend turned mean-girl (Leighton Meester) returns home and sets out to bed … Vanessa's own dad and best friend of her dad. Think of it as Lolita moves into an American Beauty neighborhood. From the meet-cute to the happy-ending, it goes down easy but leaves a bad taste. Comedy, really?

What's worse than sleeping with your best friend's father? Well, sleeping with the man your sister loves. My Sister's Sister by the “mumblecore” movement’s Lynne Shelton has a Salingeresque sensibility and a nature-in-the-Northwest setting applied to a relationship comedy of manners. Its modernity, look-ma-no-script improvisations and terrific casting would make for a great indie film if only Shelton picked a theme as original as her style. Not a triangle involving two gorgeous women and an unattractive, unemployed, badly behaved guy (a.k.a. Mark Duplass). Where have I seen that before? Rosemarie DeWitt and Emily Blunt are adorable company, don't get me wrong, but I wish Shelton's wit kicked in a lot sooner than the ending: a pregnancy-test cliffhanger that almost redeems everything leading up to it.

Kristin Scott-Thomas is recruited into the ranks of impropriety in The Woman in the Fifth. The French quasi-thriller presents her as a (possible) muse who greets Tom (Ethan Hawke) with a funny version of an introductory handshake. In Dangerous Method, sex is the snake in the analytic paradise of Freud and Jung; its inappropriate object (a patient) disrupts their bond. Pedro Almodóvar is the veritable godfather of weird sex on screen, but even for him, The Skin I Live In is extreme: Georges Franju's classic Eyes Without a Face updated into a contemporary horror show, as a father's devotion to his wife and daughter goes way too far. None of these films work in the end, but ah, the twists and turns of getting there. Oh, it's an interesting moment when the truly benign view of sex, love and heterosexual romance comes from Gus Van Sant, who hasn't exactly built his career on such things. Restless is like Harold and Maude except they're both teenagers. Just quirky enough, it could play a multiplex.

Sometimes the sex in my theme enters the family vicariously, as in Malgoska Szumowska’s Elles. Sick families, another theme. Juliette Binoche plays a journalist on assignment for Elle magazine to research an article on modern prostitution in Paris. The testimony of her teenage informants begins to have a strange effect on their interviewer, leading to her domestic snooping and to one of my favorite festival lines: “Every man in this household has pornography on his computer!” Despite some predictably French missteps on issues of femininity and sexuality, Elles wraps up the action with another immensely satisfying ending: daddy opening a jar of jam at the breakfast table in a display of reinstated masculinity.

Sometimes it's just the family itself that's inappropriate. A chaotic sister disrupts a sibling's household and fractures its surface in Nancy Savoca's directorial return, Union Square. Just like Mulligan's character in Shame, Mira Sorvino's Lucy is a Hurricane-Irene-force gale wind blowing into xx's pristine NYC apartment on the eve of her in-laws’ arrival. It's a traditional cinematic set-up that Savoca moves in both typical and original directions which had me wishing I liked Mira Sorvino more. But everything is redeemed—as with Elles and My Sister's Sister—by a tour-de-force ending in which Patty LuPone steals the show via a supposed YouTube video. Genius.

I have to admit, though, that my favorite festival discovery (apart from Shame, prediscovered by Venice) has none of these characteristics: no messed-up family, no weird sex, no hand-job handshake, in fact, no families or sex at all. Instead, the young Brazilian director Julia Murat brought a debut feature stripped of such conventions. Her Historias Que So Existem Quando Lembradas goes back to basics: close observation of an isolated elderly community that's gently disrupted by the arrival of a young outsider. There's a touch of the fable and the fabulous here, as well as a restrained tone and lack of contrivance that reveal Murat's fresh vision. With a distribution deal inked in Toronto, Historias is likely to get around.

Toronto isn't all about fiction, though. I'll never forget my first encounter with Sheila Nevins, HBO's doyenne of documentary. It was at Sundance, as it happens, that I was introduced to the living legend. I remember babbling enthusiastically to her about some feature film I'd just seen. Suddenly she heard the word “acting” and interrupted me: “Oh, so it's just make-believe?” That was her term of scorn for all fiction filmmaking. I often summon those words when I switch gears at a festival, as I did mid-way through Toronto, to race over to the documentary aisle.

That's where I found two of the films that most interested me all week. Urbanized by Gary Hustwit (who also directed Helvetica) surveys the future of cities and explores how we got this way, on the one hand, and what people from Copenhagen to Bogota to Brasilia are doing about it. Imagine the scene in Stuttgart: riot police water cannons and pepper spray against desperate crowds trying to stop the destruction of a downtown park with 200-year-old trees. They sadly come down. But so does the government, in the next election, which kicked out the conservative rulers of decades in favor of a new Green government. There are plenty of architects and visionaries in the film, but its best gift is the need to discuss its models and dive into imagining new ones – including, yes, bike lanes. Amusingly, I found myself in a crowd of film critics at a late-night screening: We were all indulging our secret passion for urban design.

Even more relevant to Bay Area audiences is a new documentary from the National Film Board of Canada, Pink Ribbons, Inc. that's directed by the great Quebec filmmaker Léa Pool, produced by Ravida Din, and based on the book by Samantha King. Far more dispassionate than an activist's film would be, it nonetheless delivers a sucker-punch to the breast-cancer-philanthropy establishment: Susan G. Komen, Avon, Revlon. Oh, and did you know that Breast Cancer Awareness Month (once just a Week), coming up in October, was invented by … AstraZeneca? SF's own Barbara Brenner appears, as do Judy Brady, Barbara Ehrenreich, and many other articulate women. Positions vary as the documentary takes its time pacing through the arguments to end with the strong suggestion that something's very wrong when an international health crisis is recast as a matter of individual choice: Eat healthy, think pink.

The other documentary that made a powerful impression was not in a theater at all but rather in a gallery: Road Movie by Elle Flanders and Tamira Sawatzky fills six screens with speeded-up views of driving down the parallel system of West Bank roads: the ones for Israelis and the one for Palestinians. It's easy to tell which is which, even without the touching interviews edited into a soundtrack from conversations with the drivers. The fragmentation and repetition work to reinforce the perspective of an off-kilter world where even highway construction is ideologically determined, then laid open for examination by Road Movie's further deconstruction. Bullhorns with a cacophony of voice mark the entrance and exit, an open-ended conversation carrying on past the images.

Ironically, my walk to the gallery took me by chance past a beautiful art deco office building. I read the plaque that explained this had been the center of an early garment district, filled with Jewish textile shops. The name carved on the building was Balfour. The plaque confirmed it had been named in honor of British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour, whose 1917 Balfour Declaration laid out the plan for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” I had innocently traversed a path to my viewing that set the stage for it with absolute irony.

But let me not leave the impression that the best of Toronto was up to date, whether documentary or fiction or installation, of the moment and its issues. No, my very favorite was probably Invasión, directed in Argentina in 1969 by Hugo Santiago from a script he wrote with Jorge Luis Borges and his long-time collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares. Recently and magically restored after its missing reels were found, Invasión was both avant-garde and prophetic, obviously inspired by the prior decade's New Wave Cinema yet foreshadowing the rise and triumph of fascism in Argentina and Chile. One chilling scene takes place, in fact, in the national stadium where the “invading” forces have positioned a transmitter. Throughout, the film's style is a swirling film noir with sci-fi overtones. It also bears an uncanny resemblance to Melville's Army of Shadows which was made in the very same year and similarly concerns a fight against shadowy invaders (well, okay, Nazis).

In the end, Toronto always wins. Much as I might like to complain about any number of films or filmmakers, I nonetheless prize the satisfactions to be had by anyone with the nerve to look, with nerve or wisdom or random whim, at one of the screens lit up with moving shadows. TIFF (there, I said it again) always prevails, for with it, so does cinema. The good fight goes on.