Film festivals are what you make of them. Well, most of the time anyway. But it’s especially the case with a behemoth like the Toronto International Film Festival. With its 41st edition just concluded, TIFF is comfortably coasting into middle age, perhaps a bit too content to view itself as the center of gravity for the film world. With more than 400 films screening across 11 days, it’s by far North America’s biggest festival and the one where the deals go down. This last bit is actually not entirely true. Insiders confided to me that the myth of the deal continues to seduce up-and-coming filmmakers to seek premieres at TIFF, even if they’re better served at a smaller festival where their film might actually be watched.
The sheer volume forces you to make big decisions up front. And that’s a good thing, because if you ignore the noise and explore the peripheries, you’re likely to find some really great stuff. Nestled inside the festival are several programs dedicated to adventurous and personal filmmaking. The best and most reliable of these is Wavelengths, lead by curator by Andrèa Picard. Named in honor of Michael Snow’s 1967 experimental film, it’s where you’ll meet a mix of artist films and features by international auteurs. (This year also included gallery installations of work by Ana Mendieta and Albert Serra with his 13-hour Singularity.) It’s also where I had the pleasure of seeing some of the festival’s most singular movies. And there’s more than a good chance you can catch them in New York very soon.
Both The Ornithologist by Jõao Pedro Rodrigues and Mimosas by Oliver Laxe were described at different points as “Westerns,” and though they feature lone men lost in sprawling wilderness, they are also spiritual odysseys. Set along a river fjord in northern Portugal, Rodrigues’s audacious film plays like a contemporary picaresque in which the hunky titular bird-observer endures a series of erotic and violent encounters, first and most hilariously by a pair of Christian Chinese pilgrims, before transforming into a modern-day Saint Anthony. It’s a wild ride, close in spirit to his provocative debut O Fantasma (2000). Contrary to early reviews, the second feature by Moroccan-based Spanish filmmaker Olivier Laxe, which won Critic’s Week at Cannes earlier this year, is a film about faith that can easily be enjoyed as a straight-ahead adventure film. It follows a caravan tasked with transporting the body of a sheik across the Atlas Mountains to a mythic city. Featuring terrific performances by its mostly non-professional cast, stunning landscapes, and hypnotic 16mm photography, Mimosas is tactile and sensual. Sure, there are some inexplicable leaps in time. But when those ruptures deliver exhilarating moments of cinema, like the image of taxis racing across the desert at sundown to an ominous score, who really cares if it all adds up?
Movies that don’t entirely make sense are, in my experience, usually the best kind. Spanish troublemaker Albert Serra, known for idiosyncratic period pieces, has delivered his most commercial film to date. And it’s great. The Death of Louis XIV stars a fabulously be-wigged Jean-Pierre Léaud as the so-called infallible Sun King in his last moments on earth. Set almost entirely around his bedside, the film is a wry chamber piece-slash-procedural, with the king’s bodily needs, tracked in clinical detail by his doctors and valet, and lent perverse comedy from Serra’s matter-of-fact presentation. The director asks us to stare long and hard at the aged visage of Léaud, now 72, pausing to reflect on the French icon’s once luminous and now fragile presence. In doing so, The Death of Louis XIV becomes at once a weirdly poignant tribute to its star, an elegy for European art cinema, and an ironic farewell to an obsolete political body. But if hanging out in an 17th century bedroom isn’t your thing, and you’re looking something more kinetic, try Matías Piñeiro’s Hermia & Helena. The latest by the Argentine is an intricate romantic puzzle that shuttles between New York and Buenos Aires, and two time frames, as it tracks the entanglements of a restless young theater director (Piñeiro regular Agustina Muñoz) working (or not) on a Spanish translation of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Awash in swooning dissolves and animated text, and featuring a detour into early cinema, it’s easily the director’s most visually extravagant film to date. If that’s not enough, Wavelengths also offers a number of shorts and I would be amiss not to mention Brooklyn-based James N. Kienitz Wilkins’s excellent Infinite Pitch. Beginning as an imagined movie pitch, Wilkins, a master of the deep Wiki dive, spins out a dizzying and very funny yarn in this 20-minute post-film object that doubles as a deft commentary on the strange ironies of trying to make movies in the 21st century.
Named in honor of Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke’s 2000 epic, TIFF’s Platform program, ostensibly a showcase for “bold and visionary” films, offered up several high-profile movies that caught me by surprise. Wrongly labeled “the Paris terrorism movie” by the French press following its dismissal from Cannes earlier this year, Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama is in fact not about terrorism, and has absolutely nothing to do with Islamic fundamentalism. Instead, Nocturama (which was written five years ago) is a stylized meditation on nihilistic youth culture in a post-Occupy era. Like his 2014 biopic Saint Laurent, it’s more concerned with evoking dreamlike atmospheres than arguing ideas. We never know how or why this diverse group of millennial kids coordinate a series of violent attacks on financial targets and then hole up in a Paris department store, where they watch themselves on TV screens while blasting Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair.” Maybe they’re just beautiful automatons programmed by some mysterious force. But, do automatons dress up in drag and lip-sync Shirley Bassy’s “My Way”? It might be absurd and even dubious, but Bonnello’s movie stuck with me, as did the deeply strange experience of watching a robotic Natalie Portman, especially doll-like in an oversized wig, wander the White House bedrooms in a listless haze of alcohol-fueled grief to the buoyant strains of Broadway’s “Camelot” in one of the more flamboyant and gratuitous sequences in Pablo Larraín’s bio-pic Jackie. Set in the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, the Chilean director’s first English-language film is an odd hybrid indeed. Shot on 16mm and featuring fastidious recreations, it feels both indie and lavish, intimate and operatic, deadly serious and knowingly camp. That Portman never really transcends “Portman doing Jackie” has a sort of meta-quality that works here. You can’t take your eyes off her for the same reason America couldn’t take their eyes off the First Lady—you’re waiting to glimpse a crack in the poise. Framed by an interview for Life magazine a week after her husband’s death and flashing back to the making of her televised White House tour and the tense preparations for the public funeral, Jackie’s true subject is (surprise!) media manipulation. Who would have imagined that Larraín, whose previous films tackled Pinochet’s dictatorship and the Catholic Church’s hypocrisy, would be the right guy to tell this most hallowed American story? Oh, wait, it all makes perfect sense.
Jackie opens December 9 from Fox Searchlight. Indefinite Pitch, Hermia & Helena, The Death of Louis XIV, The Ornithologist and Mimosas will be screened at the 54th New York Film Festival next month, the latter three titles in the new Explorations program, Hermia & Helena in the main slate, and Indefinite Pitch in the experimental Projections sidebar. Nocturama remains without US distribution.