“I feel a bit like the character in my movie,” Claire Denis told a sold-out 11 a.m. audience for High Life, her philosophical space oddity, runic but spectacular, that had already become a TIFF cause célèbre. Denis was describing the hermetic sensation of attending a film festival, dislocated from space and time, suspended for days inside dark theaters, surrounded by crowds but absorbed in solo itineraries and inward journeys, and exacerbated in Denis’s case by a refusal to read reviews before going home (“But I will when I return—the good with the bad, always!”). High Life struck me as an essay on these exact tensions between discomfiting solitude and enforced, unshakable connectedness. Both Robert Pattinson’s downcast astronaut and his floating penal colony–cum–research station are immediately emblematic of radical isolation. However, as High Life introduces more characters, each posing their own scientific, erotic, social, epistemic, and familial quandaries, the film coheres around how staggeringly difficult it is, even for the loneliest man in the universe, to keep to himself. Status reports, bodily fluids, and kinship obligations, among many other things, are continually and increasingly extorted from him, tying him into networks even as he faces a jet-black abyss of utter abandonment.
This predicament, I submit, is also the fate of most festival movies, especially amid a program as sprawling and gloriously multifarious as Toronto’s. Each film presents its own sharply defined universe, even to spectators who schedule as many as five or six features per day. Some blaze with glamor and light, exerting gravitational pull over the largest audiences, the most feverish discourse. Others inhabit the furthest rings of conversation, flying below the radars of most attendees. As the fortnight unfolds, though, even these ostensible outliers enter into dialogue with the rest of the program, revealing points of fruitful convergence with one another and with marquee attractions. As the saying goes, no movie is an island, not even those that feel like private discoveries for small bands of ardent seekers, and that will hopefully find ways beyond Toronto to prolong their exhibition life.
One case in point, exemplary of TIFF fulfilling its mission for under-heralded properties, is the Swedish sci-fi parable ANIARA, based on an intergalactic epic poem by Nobel laureate Harry Martinson (who, controversially, was a member of the very review board that awarded him the prize). Picked up by Magnolia for U.S. distribution, ANIARA may open around the time A24 unleashes High Life on unsuspecting Americans, allowing more viewers to toggle as I did between two visions of the cosmos and of individual wills facing tremendous challenges. The title refers to a commercial, mall-sized ship ferrying passengers from Earth to Mars, in a near (possibly very near) future in which our blue planet is uninhabitable; pointedly, the end credits play at the start, over a montage of drowned, burnt, and storm-ravaged landscapes. Early in the voyage, some of that same space junk that spoiled Sandra Bullock’s good time in Gravity punctures the ship’s fuel tanks, knocking the craft badly and maybe permanently off course. The suspenseful question of whether thousands of people will die adrift is filtered through a female protagonist, the steward of a Solaris-like chamber on the ANIARA that allows anxious or nostalgic flyers to immerse themselves in their happiest memories of time on Earth. As the passengers get crankier and more pessimistic, the ship itself seems to turn on them, injecting their waking dreams with intimations of apocalypse. Social contracts fray, although not unilaterally or entirely as expected. Any picture whose epilogue transpires 5,000,000 years after its opening is taking some bold risks with narrative and temporal scale.
ANIARA is hardly immune to the conceptual questions that Tarkovsky and Denis raise inside the obsidian shell of space, but its register of disquiet and its discursive framing are different. As biting as the film remains about interplanetary travelers’ demand for cushy comforts—if you imagine José Saramago rewriting the second half of WALL•E, you’re not far off—it also asks earnest questions about spectacle and environment, as mediated by capitalism. What if, while hurtling through a vacuum toward likely and drawn-out doom, your biggest concern was not existential or theological, but phenomenological: how hard are you willing to work, and with what are you willing to pay, to shore up a multisensory mirage of contentment and plenitude? What battles do people pick when upholding a lie they know to be a lie? You don’t have to leave our planet or our present to consider these timely questions, and ANIARA, ambitiously conceived and craftily executed, poses them in provocative ways.
Failing the prospect of escape to other realms, plenty of films at TIFF trained their eyes on terrestrial problems, extracting core samples from polluted soils and haunted cities and excavating historical traumas that linger in both. Venice-based rumors about Graves Without a Name, Rithy Panh’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated The Missing Picture (2013), mostly held that the new film achieves comparable emotional impact in re-exploring the genocidal legacies of the Khmer Rouge but lacks the earlier film’s formal innovations. Indeed, The Missing Picture’s gambit of staging this awful story through a series of clay-model dioramas, culled from the very terrain where so many bones stay buried, was a stroke of plastic genius. Graves Without a Name may not command instant attention in the same way, but we under-read its figural and stylistic language at our peril. If anything, the new film clarifies that what seemed so sui generis in its predecessor reflects a widespread cultural practice in Cambodia, where young and especially older citizens deploy any number of artisanal, oratorical, archaeological, and spiritual practices to conjure the dead and lay them to rest. Panh, as hungry for answers and solace as anyone he films, refuses to editorialize on anyone’s strategy for vivifying the past, channeling old souls, or staging hunts for objects that will never be found. As in Patricio Guzmán’s pained but poetic studies of Chile, Panh’s gaze on his country is both intimate and panoramic, frequently cutting between aerial wide shots and extreme close-ups on dirt and sand, where much of Cambodia’s history abides, most of it irretrievably interred. The movie builds to a climactic image of a tree growing upside down, its root system stretching into the heavens—a breathtaking icon of a nation where everyone monitors the ground, not the sky, for portents and revelations. In his structuring of story, his clarity of perspective, his expansive but tightly controlled montage, and his generous showcasing of dozens of voices without losing his own, Panh retains a fluency with nonfiction storytelling that was especially welcome at a festival where equally distinguished colleagues from James Longley to Frederick Wiseman seemed uncharacteristically stymied by their subjects or vague in their approaches.
While Graves Without a Name tilled its bloodied pastoral, Lebanese multimedia artist Ghassan Halwani prowled the streets of modern Beirut, scalpel in hand, exhuming the images of fallen compatriots from the thick palimpsests of posters and pamphlets that permeate the built environment. Repeatedly throughout Erased,__Ascent of the Invisible, Halwani peels layer after layer of accumulated ephemera from exterior walls; applying an art restorer’s solvents to seemingly bare spots or blank sheets beneath, he reveals the spectral images of old “MISSING” photos, dating back to the Lebanese Civil War that engulfed the 1980s. To see the visages of the mysteriously vanished or presumptively dead emulsify before Halwani’s camera is staggering. To learn how gentrification in Beirut seems not-so-subtly strategized to raze the very spots where these phantom archives persist, or to submerge them beneath seaside boardwalks, or to construct new developments atop the final resting places of thousands of unidentified bodies, is to witness a conscious, mercenary process by which a nation effaces its past. Halwani is too lucid and humble to suggest he can reverse these trends, but he uses all the methods at his versatile command—retouched photos, topographical X-rays, poignant flip-book animations—to give long-lost faces and long-denied calamities whatever life he can.
Graves Without a Name
Panh’s and Halwani’s efforts unfurl at lesser and greater distances from classic documentary tradition, but this was not the only genre through which filmmakers at TIFF farmed the bones of past eras, honoring their mysteries while rendering blanked-out lives legible for modern audiences. One standout in the festival’s Platform section, spotlighting early career work by up-and-coming global talents (or, if you’re Alex Ross Perry, showcasing your sixth feature), was Angelo, the second film by Markus Schleinzer, a longtime casting director for Austrian countryman Michael Haneke. The titular figure, Angelo Soliman, is seized as a boy from an unrecorded African site in the 18th century and sold into a wealthy young widow’s household, where any distinction between “freedom” and “slavery” collapses. Technically out of bondage, Angelo is raised as a walking curio and a plume in the household’s cap: a black man who can read, recite, and perform so proficiently that he is impounded during a walk in the woods by a covetous, higher-ranking aristocrat and absorbed into the Viennese court. Once there, his life of “good” fortune and relative independence flourishes, but the threat of sinking at a moment’s notice into dehumanized oblivion also escalates. Schleinzer’s rare but potent gestures to the 21st-century traffic in bodies—like the fluorescent bulbs lining the bare cell where young Angelo is first auctioned—make distant history feel quite near, without belaboring the point.
Excluding those fleeting anachronisms, Angelo is an austerely stunning gallery show of 18th-century aesthetics, a world where the protagonist is not just surrounded by opulent mise en scène but is fundamentally, despite all his optimistic pretenses, a piece of royal furniture. His story synthesizes two veins of tragedy, that of Barry Lyndon and that of Black Venus, and everything in Schleinzer’s masterful film—the rhythms of speech and behavior, the rigidly comported bodies, the lensing and framing choices that make the world seem so deoxygenated—keeps the movie on a precise balance where we can hear, but just barely, Angelo’s heartbeat within the sarcophagus of Western ritual and imperial wealth. The last act, which could easily have been subtitled What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, indelibly catalogs the process by which black bodies throughout history are reduced to material artifacts and then vaporized unceremoniously into nothingness. Schleinzer described the historical Angelo’s story as one that every Austrian child learns in school, but in infinite versions that agree on few particulars. His film takes inspired steps to admit its necessary fabrications, but it maintains the ring of truth.
Enlightenment-era aesthetics and literary tropes resurfaced, of all places, in Vox Lux, Brady Corbet’s boldly fragmented study of a contemporary school-shooting survivor who graduates, for better and worse, into a life of synth-pop mega-celebrity. Sectioned into panels like a baroque triptych, and narrated by Willem Dafoe in the arch diction of Fielding-era prose, Vox Lux was rivaled only by Peter Strickland’s delirious and risible Killer Dress thriller In Fabric as the love-or-hate proposition of TIFF. I constructed my schedule to see Vox Lux right after Bradley Cooper’s deliciously well-oiled A Star Is Born remake, expecting these tales of two songstresses to harmonize in some way. Their projects, however, differ starkly: whereas A Star Is Born inhabits a nearly abstract realm of century-spanning pop-cultural tropes, Vox Lux attempts to think historically about a somewhat Gaga-adjacent figure and an entire idiom of 21st-century post-postmodernism that seem to repudiate history entirely. What does fame look, sound, and feel like when nobody—not you, not me, not Irene Cara, not a million anxious teenagers heading down the hallways toward homeroom—assumes for one second that we’re going to live forever? What conditions of life produce a scenario where a girl’s best friend and most enduring ally is the manager and brand curator who profits off her labor?
Nobody will accuse Corbet of having too few ideas, or overly familiar ones, or too bashful an approach to them. His aesthetics and his story choices vacillate among the resplendent, the murky, and the willfully tacky, as do the performance stylings of Natalie Portman and Jude Law as the fire-tested pop phoenix and her scuzzy but devoted Svengali. These swings make it all the more remarkable that Vox Lux finally feels both touching and revealing, about its people as well as their epoch. Its long conclusion features the most obnoxiously extended concert performance since Georgia (1995), toward equally glorious and salient ends. Having trotted out copious anecdotes from its heroine’s life, many of them disparate, disjointed, or superficially irrelevant, Vox Lux dares you to stare down an endless, sonically monotonous, sequin-heavy stadium-pop performance and see something other than empty spectacle. What exactly you do see, given Corbet’s welcome refusal to dictate theme or moral, is refreshingly up to you.
Vox Lux was just one of many movies, otherwise dissimilar, in which women played the eccentric heirs of ambivalent personal, regional, and global history: victims of their own success, victors over their own oppression, or something in between. Overlapping with Vox Lux on the subject of musical celebrity, but only for the first sequence, is Darlene Naponse’s Falls Around Her, the most accomplished and intriguing of several Canadian features I saw with indigenous casts and makers. In this one, which recalls the best kind of John Sayles–style character study, Métis acting legend Tantoo Cardinal (Dances with Wolves, Wind River) stars as Mary Birchbark, a guitar-shredding rock ’n’ roll bard with a devoted cult following. Mary disappoints a lot of people when she precipitously decides to forsake the stage and forge a new life on the outer, woody periphery of the reservation she left long ago. In one way, the storyline could hardly be cleaner: everyone is glad to have Mary back except for one shadowy nemesis, easily guessed, and despite general misgivings about whether Mary wants company or solitude. (Yes, we’re back in the High Life again.) Beyond this strong, clear conception, two factors complicate and enrich this tale: the generous showcasing of Cardinal in close-up, sustaining so many moods and contradictions like the durable pro she is, and the series of narrative curlicues and off-roads that furnish a beguiling map of her community, richly detailed but pleasingly enigmatic.
Mary Birchbark’s competing desires to forsake the world and to rejoin it also propel Juliette Binoche’s character in Naomi Kawase’s Vision. She plays a French herbalist who arrives in a remote Japanese forest in search of a mythic plant that blooms only once every thousand years and is rumored to alleviate all forms of human pain. Binoche, giving a less adventurous but more persuasive performance than the one she offers Claire Denis, spends the first hour of Vision in delicate, quiet service to two love stories: the one between her character and Masatoshi Nagase’s rural hermit, and the one Kawase orchestrates, as ever, between humankind and nature. This latter part manages at once to be modest and majestic with sound and image; it stays so attuned to microns of nuance in landscapes and close-ups that it feels like a new peak for its prolific maker. Unfortunately, the second half of Vision indulges crude conceits of story and form, chasing archetypal logics, abruptly introduced, instead of its own moving idiosyncrasies.
Thankfully, though some strong movies fall apart as they proceed, others start humbly and steadily improve. In Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria Bell, Julianne Moore’s diffident divorcée comes steadily into her own voice and persona, only to be rewarded with a romantic partner who conceals her from his daughters and who serially disappoints her. She also contends with her own pair of grown children, who are more and less graceful in the ways they stake out their own lives, away from their over-invested mom. This very faithful English-language remake of Lelio’s 2013 breakout feature Gloria might feel redundant if Moore’s gift for fragile translucence on screen weren’t such a contrast from Paulina García’s charismatic punchiness in the Chilean original. That divergence furnishes a different tension to the question sustained across the film of whether Gloria herself is or is not, as per Laura Branigan, headed for a breakdown. Meanwhile, Gloria Bell undertakes its own step-by-step journey toward clarity and confidence, so winning over its world-premiere audience that they applauded with gusto, not just after but during the film. Some films at TIFF are small and others are self-consciously Big; Gloria Bell was a rare case of a movie from the former category that reveals itself, slowly but surely, as one of the latter. A star, as it were, was born, and though A24 has slated it for springtime release, they would make a mint if they released it at Christmas. It’s the last thing that Gloria Bell herself would expect, bobbing along through her low life of cubicles, irksome neighbors, dodgy discos, and spoiled dates. But this sweet sketch of a hopeful loner did what TIFF itself does year after year, via movies famous and otherwise: it brought people together.