a Healthy Disdain

TIFF Counts Down to Christmas with Roman Polanski: The latest Lightbox retrospective gifts Toronto cinephiles with seven of the naughty director’s best

Upping the ante on Columbia Pictures’ claim that the forthcoming remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the “feel bad movie of Christmas,” TIFF’s programmers have readied a veritable advent calendar of psychological anguish with their latest directorial retrospective. Opening this evening and running through December 25, the Grinch-approved slate features six of Roman Polanski’s bleakly brilliant early-career efforts, as well as a Christmas Day screening of 2010’s similarly sombre The Ghost Writer. As tempting as it is to construe the timing of the series as an insidious bid to deflate Torontonians’ high Holiday spirits, TIFF’s official line is that the retrospective was scheduled in anticipation of the director’s latest, Carnage, which arrives at the Lightbox on December 30.

Based on an award-winning play by Yasmina Reza, Carnage is a blackly comic battle royale of bourgeois debasement, tinged with the sort of existential claustrophobia that has long been a Polanski trademark. Indeed, it’s been an element of his cinema since his superb debut feature, 1962’s Knife in the Water (★★★★1/2), which screens tonight at 9 p.m. A lean psychological thriller that would lay the thematic groundwork for a remarkable career, Knife in the Water elegantly positions a recreational yacht cruise as a microcosm for generational conflict, simmering with sexual tension. The crew are a well-to-do couple and their impromptu guest, a handsome young hitchhiker invited aboard at the husband’s whim. Prefiguring Carnage conceptually if not in tone, the film is a fiendish chamber piece wherein a veneer of civility gives way to petty posturing and base agression, exacerbated by intimate, inescapable confines.

Screening on Wednesday, December 21 is Polanski’s first English language feature, 1965’s Repulsion (★★★1/2), also the first film in his masterfully unsettling “Apartment Trilogy.” The titular affliction refers to the psychosexual paranoia suffered by Catherine Deneuve’s virginal protagonist, which blossoms into homicidal dementia when her sister departs on holiday and leaves her alone in her London flat. Polanski immerses the audience within his lead’s increasingly fractured psyche, rendering her descent into madness via a series of hauntingly surreal hallucinations that, even 45 years later, were an evident point of reference for Darren Aronofsky in conceiving 2010’s Black Swan.

1966’s Cul-de-sac (★★★1/2), which screens on Sunday, December 18, is perhaps Polanski’s most peculiar effort, even as, thematically, it’s entirely of a piece with his previous features. (The director, for the record, cites the film as the best of his ’60s output.) Reprising the mental ménage à trois dynamic of Knife in the Water, and adding dashes of Repulsion‘s derangement and sexual dysfunction, Cul-de-sac casts Donald Pleasance and Françoise Dorléac as an effete husband and promiscuous wife whose stately, isolated dwelling is invaded by a loutish thug (Lionel Stander) on the run. Though physically less confined than Polanski’s previous protagonists, Cul-de-sac‘s couple are bound by bonds of a more metaphysical nature, as they prove resolutely incapable of seizing their chances to escape. Ditto Stander, who’s called his boss to bail him out, but seems destined to face an interminable, Beckett-esque wait. Laced with dark humour, the director’s third feature is an absurd but compelling curiosity.

If Cul-de-sac is a slightly esoteric selection, then Rosemary’s Baby (★★★★★) remains as widely acclaimed today as when it first propelled Polanski to Hollywood stardom in 1968. Quite simply, his adaptation of Ira Levin’s bestseller is one of the best horror films ever made, expertly evoking a sustained, sinister unease, and establishing a marvelously ambiguous scenario wherein it seems equally likely that the bizarre goings-on at a Gothic Manhattan apartment building might be the product of a genuine demonic pact, or of paranoid prenatal delusions. Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and her actor husband (John Casavetes) are the building’s newest tenants, and are eager to start a family, particularly once he lands a starring role thanks to another’s sudden misfortune. Rosemary’s pregnancy proves a literal nightmare, however, and she becomes consumed by concern that she’ll lose the baby. Naturally, we’re not letting on one way or the other, save to assure you that Rosemary’s Baby is a certified classic. The second and most beloved of Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy screens Friday, December 23—perfect for those who fancy a bit of Satanist mystery ahead of Santa’s big night.

TIFF aren’t entirely without a seasonal sense of generosity, though, hence the retrospective’s two scheduled screenings of Chinatown (★★★★★). Of these, we recommend the screening on Sunday, December 18, which will be accompanied by lecture from Toronto film critic Adam Nayman on the development of Polanski’s career and artistic personality. If you can’t make that, the film also screens on Tuesday, December 20, and, even without Nayman’s insights, Chinatown is still a fixture in the pantheon of all-time greats. Polanski’s devastatingly nihilistic neo-noir features a signature turn from Jack Nicholson as ’30s P.I. Jake Gittes, who takes on what he believes to be a routine mission of marital reconnaissance, and winds up nose-deep in a murderous scheme to divert the water reserves of an already drought-stricken L.A. Faye Dunaway is nearly as iconic as a tragic femme fatale, while John Huston’s defiantly lascivious antagonist now reads as a fascinating, stand-in for his controversial director.

Polanski, in fact, would assign himself the lead role in 1976’s The Tenant (★★★★), his last film before his flight from justice in 1977. The final, Paris-set instalment in the Apartment Trilogy is an apt exploration of displacement and persecution, and, like both Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, demonstrates a thematic concern with claustrophobia and paranoia, and trades heavily in the tenuous nature of the boundary between the authentic and the imaginary. Polanski plays Trelkowski, a French citizen of Polish origin, who, like Rosemary, moves into a new building after the apparent suicide of a young female tenant. Also like Rosemary, Trelkowski’s neighbours are an elderly, meddlesome bunch, though The Tenant is more cagey than Rosemary’s Baby in its references to the supernatural. The film ultimately emerges as a fusion of its Apartment predecessors, but inverts the deranged aggression of Repulsion‘s Deneuve into a spookily manic portrait of self-annihilation.

The Ghost Writer (★★★★), TIFF’s Christmas Day offering, postdates The Tenant by over 30 years, but is no less brooding, and no less personal. It was edited during Polanski’s recent period of house arrest, and features a central character in a similar predicament, in Pierce Brosnan’s Adam Lang. A former UK Prime Minister, Lang has been charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court, and must remain in the US to avoid extradition. Ewan McGregor plays the man tasked with helping Lang complete his memoirs, and who subsequently stumbles upon a Chinatown-like web of intrigue linked to the disgraced PM. He’s no Jake Gittes, of course, but Polanski supplies his customary guile, as well as plenty of his customary cynicism—an essential ingredient where political subject matter is concerned, in any era.

Images courtesy of TIFF. For tickets and a complete programme schedule, visit Tiff.net



Although I didn’t find time for any mid-festival updates, now that I’m done doin’ TIFF I’ve had a chance to articulate some semi-intelligent thoughts on my faves of the fest.

I’m Still Here, the big buzz Joaquin Phoenix “documentary” had been in the running, but Casey Affleck’s recent revelations have dampened my enthusiasm considerably.  To put it briefly:  In contrast to the public pratfalls of Borat or Bruno, much of I’m Still Here features Phoenix in private, interacting with people who we now know were in on the joke.  In hindsight, Phoenix’s spiral into delusion and debauchery is admittedly very credible, but absent a compelling narrative, watching people react to someone they know is pretending simply isn’t very affecting.

With that note out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff.  My legitimate favourites of TIFF 2010 were:

5. THE GAME OF DEATH (France, Christophe Nick, Thomas Bornot)

Stanley Milgram’s 1961 obedience study is perhaps the most famous psychology experiment of all time.  A professor at Yale, Milgram sought to determine the psychological underpinnings of the obedience demonstrated by Nazi collaborators during the Second World War.  His findings demonstrated that ordinary individuals will generally obey the instructions of an authority figure, even where their actions might result in the injury or death of an innocent human being.

French documentary The Game of Death transposes Milgram’s experimental design onto the framework of a reality TV show, with gravely disturbing results.  In the updated scenario, at the behest of a television hostess and before a live studio audience, fully 80% of participants demonstrate a willingness to endanger an innocent life.  Most distressing, through a series of post-experiment interviews, the film illustrates that the individuals involved are otherwise normal, compassionate people.

It’s difficult to label a film “important” without sounding pompous, but the Game of Death is a film to which that label certainly applies.  It’s a grimly fascinating spectacle of genuinely universal relevance, given that it deals with a facet of human socialization that is both deeply ingrained and deceptively powerful.  Just as Milgram’s findings should be general knowledge, this is a film that everybody should see.

4. THE TRIP (UK, Michael Winterbottom)

Despite being one of the most talented comic actors of his generation, mainstream popularity continues to elude Steve Coogan, particularly outside the UK.  It’s difficult to imagine that his muted stardom isn’t a source of frustration for Coogan himself, but in The Trip, he demonstrates an admirable willingness to poke fun at his limited celebrity, with hilarious results.  Director Michael Winterbottom re-teams Coogan with friend and fellow comedian Rob Brydon for what GQ UK has aptly dubbed “a very British bromance”.

Adopting fictionalized personas similar to their roles in Winterbottom’s Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005), The Trip sees the pair embark on a week-long tour of England’s gloriously picturesque Lake District, ostensibly to review several gourmet restaurants for a London newspaper.  If the premise sounds less than enthralling, rest assured, the end result is a masterclass of wit and improvisation from a duo that share an unrivalled comedic chemistry.

Perhaps the only caveat is that the film benefits enormously from familiarity with Coogan’s earlier work – his legendary BBC series I’m Alan Partridge above all.  It’s against the larger context of Coogan’s underappreciated output that The Trip’s biting self-mockery truly shines.

3. BLACK SWAN (USA, Darren Aronofsky)

Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler was a TIFF sensation in 2008, and duly went on to become one of that year’s most acclaimed films.  When it was announced that this year’s festival would host the North-American premiere of his follow-up, Black Swan instantly became the prize ticket of TIFF 2010.  Thankfully, Aronofsky’s latest largely delivers.

Mickey Rourke’s transcendent turn is a tough act to follow, but Natalie Portman copes wonderfully – even if the same cannot be said for her character, Nina.  A dancer with a prestigious New York ballet company, Nina’s perfectionism mutates into pathological obsession as she strives to embody a strenuous dual role.   Barbara Hershey emerges as the standout supporting performer, playing Nina’s aggressively overbearing mother, while Vincent Cassel and Mila Kunis are superbly cast as the company’s manipulative director, and Nina’s seductive rival, respectively.

Evoking the paranoia of early Polanski, and elements of body horror as pioneered by Cronenberg, Aronofsky demonstrates an impressive stylistic versatility.  Despite adhering to some well-worn genre tropes, the juxtaposition of those tropes against ballet’s high artistry sees the film achieve a darkly operatic splendour.  While it lacks The Wrestler’s haunting resonance, Black Swan is an excellent, memorably enthralling thriller, and another notable success for Aronofsky and Portman, in particular.


2. BIUTIFUL (Spain/Mexico, Alejandro González Iñárritu)

Biutiful, the latest film from Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), is a quintessential festival offering.  Variously described, after its debut at Cannes, as “purposefully doleful”, “unrelentingly grim”, and “pervasively bleak”, it’s the sort of film readily summed up by Nas’ famous refrain:  “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”  For Uxbal (the astonishing Javier Bardem), a petty hustler with two young children, a bipolar ex-wife, and terminal cancer, things are essentially that simple.

There’s no denying that Biutiful is a sombre, and indeed harrowing affair, but to those who view film as more than mere escapist entertainment, it is also easy to recommend.  While Uxbal’s personal travails are compelling, and even deeply moving – the performance landed Bardem the Cannes Best Actor Prize – Iñárritu avoids exploiting the character’s imminent demise as a source of cheap sentimentality.  Rather, from the perspective of the audience, Uxbal’s illness actually lends the character an aura of invulnerability.  Because his death is certain, we grow more attuned to the fates of those that he will leave behind.  In Uxbal’s case, that includes not only his family, but also a cross-section of Barcelona’s migrant underclass.

The manner in which Biutiful surveys the exploitation of the disenfranchised recalls Haneke’s Code Unknown, and elevates the film beyond personal melodrama, to a work of trenchant social insight.  Amid the glitz and glamour of red carpet premiers, it’s perhaps easy to dismiss as a downer, but in such a setting it’s also surely a meaningful counterpoint.


1. OUR DAY WILL COME (France, Romain Gavras)

Introduced by programmer Collin Geddes as “one of the ‘what the fuck?’ films of the festival”, Our Day Will Come seems an unlikely candidate to top many best-of-fest lists.  Indeed, some will simply interpret the debut feature from Romain Gavras – of M.I.A.’s infamous, banned-from-YouTube, “Born Free” – as a derisive “fuck you”.  It’s an understandable take-away, given the director’s stated aim, “confusion”, and the nihilistic misadventures depicted on screen. Clearly, however, it’s not an interpretation I share.

Though it lacks the video’s genocidal overtones, Our Day Will Come echoes “Born Free” in employing redheads as an allegorical representation of marginalization and other-ness.   Olivier Barthélémy plays Remy, an implosively awkward adolescent, whose red hair becomes a source of twisted kinship with Patrick (Vincent Cassell), a bitterly disaffected therapist.  Cassell’s performance – my favorite of the festival – imbues Patrick with a listless, cynical, and manipulative charm.  Initially, Patrick’s overtures of mentorship are a source of selfish amusement, but when the long-repressed Remy blossoms dementedly, he proves impossible to control.  Fixated on the delusion that the pair will find acceptance in Ireland, an apparent ginger wonderland, Remy drags Patrick on an increasingly anarchic, oddly beautiful, crusade toward France’s northern coast.

There are significant elements of Our Day Will Come that defy ready explication, but the film crackles throughout with an undercurrent of iconoclastic intelligence.  Where “Born Free” was an overtly political gut-punch, Gavras here deliberately declines to provide a tidy message.  Despite its bracing depictions of violence, the film clearly strives to be thought-provoking, as opposed to merely provocational.  Whether or not you agree that Gavras succeeds in this endeavour, there can be no doubt that he has the makings of a genuine cinematic force.



Christmas more or less lost its magic for me when I stopped believing in Santa, but that’s not to say I don’t participate in an annual ritual that marries rabid consumerism with religious fervor.  For me, said ritual occurs between early and mid-September, and is called the Toronto International Film Festival, or TIFF for short.

Here’s what’s on my slate for 2010’s ten days of TIFF-mas (all links are to official TIFF film profiles):

Friday, September 10th:

10PM – I’M STILL HERE (USA, Casey Affleck)

Saturday, September 11th:

930AM – BIUTIFUL (Mexico, Alejandro González Iñárritu)

1159PM – BUNRAKU (USA, Guy Moshe)

Sunday, September 12th:

930PM – OUR DAY WILL COME (France, Romain Gavras)

Monday, September 13th:

630PM – THE GAME OF DEATH (France, Christophe Nick, Thomas Bornot)

Tuesday, September 14th:

9PM – LEAP YEAR (Mexico, Michael Rowe)

Wednesday, September 15th:

915PM – KABOOM (USA, Gregg Araki)

Thursday, September 16th:

445PM – A SCREAMING MAN (Chad, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)

Friday, September 17th:

930PM – CONFESSIONS (Japan, Tetsuya Nakashima)

Saturday, September 18th:

9PM – BLACK SWAN (USA, Darren Aronofsky)

Sunday, September 19th:

12PM – COLD FISH (Japan, Tsumetai Nettaigyo)

3PM – THE TRIP (UK, Michael Winterbottom)

6PM – SUBMARINE (UK, Richard Ayoade)

Somewhere in there I hope to publish some reviews.  Until then, a merry TIFF-mas to one and all.

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