Every year, the Toronto International Film Festival grows a little more front-loaded, cramming more star-studded titles and presumptive Oscar contenders into its opening weekend. But the films keep showing long after the buzz-hunters and gossipmongers have tweeted their last. In past years, I've watched the hordes thin for a few days before leaving town myself, but this time, I was in for the duration. As a festival juror, one of six representing the international film critics' association, FIPRESCI, I was due at the awards banquet on the final day. But staying also allowed me to watch one of the world's largest and most influential film festivals evolve over its full length, from feeding frenzy to a simple celebration of movies and the people who watch them. (The award went to Gianni Amelio's The First Man, a graceful, understated adaptation of an unfinished Camus novel.)
With my final tally at 50 movies — a personal best I'm not eager to repeat — programming currents seemed to run in every direction. Perhaps it's a coincidence that I heard the word "vaginoplasty" twice in consecutive days, once in the Korean thriller Countdown, the other in the new film from a major director I can't reveal without spoiling the plot, but the intersection of sex and transformation was a persistent object of study. In A Dangerous Method, Michael Fassbender's Jung and Viggo Mortensen's Freud turn their gazes on Keira Knightley's Sabina Spielrein, honing their techniques on her and, in the process, helping a patient become a psychiatric pioneer. David Cronenberg, working from Christopher Hampton's play The Talking Cure, builds the film around the sexual relationship between Jung and Spielrein, who later became his assistant, adding a touch of kink to suggest their experiments continued outside the lab. But apart from the way Knightley's jaw threatens to unhinge when she's first brought to Jung's clinic, her face roiling until she's on the verge of going Brundlefly, Method is more dull than dangerous, full of words but few ideas. Fassbender's skills, as well as everything else, are on far better display in Steve McQueen's visually commanding Shame, just announced for the Philadelphia Film Festival in October.
Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty and Malgorzata Szumowska's Elles approach the subject of prostitution from divergent angles: In the latter, Juliette Binoche plays a journalist whose sex-worker interviews change her understanding of her own marriage; in Leigh's hyperstylized take on the former, Emily Browning is a cash-poor student who lies nude and knocked-out for rich men to do with as they will. But both feel over-processed and one-note, with Leigh's abstraction verging on art-house camp.
Michael Glawogger's documentaries have the graphic strength of abstract art, but Whores' Glory balances the broad strokes with humanizing (if not individuating) detail. A triptych surveying the skin trade in Bangkok, Bangladesh and Reynosa, Mexico, the film functions as a mirror image of Glawogger's Workingman's Death, in which male manual laborers subject their bodies to a different kind of grind. The machinery in Bangkok's Fishtank may not be visible, but the industrialization of sexual labor is no less thorough. The women wait in a glassed-in room, arranged in rows like laying hens, while prospective johns look them over, and yet one customer muses, "We're the commodity here."
Set in a Parisian brothel at the dawn of the 20th century, Bertrand Bonello's House of Tolerance is a sweeping, slightly melancholic portrait of a dying way of life, with a substantial (and acknowledged) debt to Hou Hsiao-Hsien's luminous Flowers of Shanghai. In coolly observant shots, the film circles an ensemble of high-class whores, catering to a clientele that encompasses aristocrats and industrial magnates. Danger still lurks, as a violent incident makes cringingly clear, but there's a strange sort of intimacy, as well, even if it's merely transactional.
Speaking of transactions, best friends Jennifer Westfeldt and Adam Scott forge a doozy in Friends with Kids, pacting to conceive and raise a child while remaining sexually single. It's a goofy premise, but Westfeldt, who also wrote and directed, turns it toward pressing and painful questions about midlife anxiety and baby fever. That goes double for The Oranges, in which the lives of neighboring suburban families are upended when dad Hugh Laurie starts an affair with his best friend's daughter (Leighton Meester). Despite the whiff of American Beauty, the film's assault on conformist malaise is refreshingly uncynical, even idealistic, a small, glossy miracle of finely turned performances and sharp screenwriting. After the public screening, an audience member took issue with the film's morality, but Laurie shut her down. "If any film embodies the idea of the greatest good for the greatest number, it's this one," he said, paraphrasing Bentham as only a Cambridge man can.
As always, Toronto was a showcase for old favorites as well as new discoveries, though most of the old hands fumbled the ball: Francis Ford Coppola's Twixt was a bizarre if fitfully giddy doodle, mixing personal tragedy and Edgar Allan Poe in the mind of a sozzled horror hack (Val Kilmer). Given its minimal commercial appeal and the fact that its brief 3-D sequences make it off-limits to most art houses, the film is functionally unreleasable, although Coppola's plan to tour with it, Kevin Smith-style, should bring in the crowds.
William Friedkin's Killer Joe, however, is one of his best, a deliriously unhinged and yet perfectly calculated provocation. Reteaming with Bug playwright Tracy Letts, the film limns a seedy white-trash family who hire dirty cop Matthew McConaughey to bump off dad's ex-wife so they can cash in her life insurance. McConaughey oozes easygoing menace, and Thomas Haden Church is equal parts moron and monster as the father who pimps out his jailbait daughter (Juno Temple) as an advance on the hit man's fee. The film's gleefully depraved climax had the audience gasping, not all with pleasure, but I was grinning like a fool; it was my last night in town, and the festival had delivered the perfect going-away present. Killer Joe will leave sensitive viewers sick to their stomachs, but for those who like their steaks done rare, the only thing to do is leave the theater and head straight to the nearest bar for a bracing shot of cheap whiskey.
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