The back half of the Toronto International Film Festival is often the best half. The excitement of opening weekend is ancient history, and the nightly Gala screenings are now playing Canadian or International premieres instead of world premieres. But there’s always something interesting just around the corner, even a spattering of world premieres left to discover. TIFF doesn’t roll out the red carpet for these, and they’re often hiding in other sections, like the Special Presentations program, a kind of catch-all program for big films from big names, a net that catches the overflow caused by the Gala program’s limited slots.
One such film is Mia Hansen-Løve’s Maya. In my third dispatch, I discussed the TIFF Group’s Share Her Journey initiative, and the work the festival does to increase representation. I deliberately seek out films like Rafiki and The Crossing, and in a similar vein, this mission to see more films directed by women led me, once upon a time, to a screening of Father of My Children. Hansen-Løve has been one of the best “discoveries” I’ve ever made here. After Goodbye First Love, I was a die-hard fan. I have been at the premieres of all of her films at TIFF, and also included Eden in my Top 5 for this site. Her films speak to me in a way few films ever do, and I show up obsessively to each and every one of them, pointing at the screen like the kid with glasses scrambling into his hole in Ito Junji’s The Enigma of Amigara Fault, screaming, “Th-this is my movie! It was made for me!”
I have maintained that every Hansen-Løve film is better than the last, but Maya is a combo breaker. It’s not a bad film, and I’m not sure I’d even say it’s a disappointing film. But the streak had to end, and I’m not surprised she would stumble in her attempts to follow up on Things to Come, which I consider the best film of 2016 and one of the best of the decade. Maya moves and feels like her previous films, but I found myself feeling a little ambivalent about the central story. To put it bluntly, the film is about a white dude who travels to India to rediscover himself, and then falls in love with a young local girl, who just so happens to fall in love with him first and fixes him right up. I never expected to side-eye a Mia Hansen-Løve film, but I went in to this one blind and was a little surprised by its trajectory.
But the film is more than just that, obviously. Hansen-Løve’s cinema is a little too slippery, a little too elusive, to stumble into such traps. Her depiction of India feels emotionally truthful to her own experiences there—unlike, say, in the aesthetics of a Wes Anderson film, which inadvertently turn Eastern landscapes into essentialist Oriental theme parks. And the relationship between Gabriel (Roman Kolinka, a regular of Hansen-Løve’s films at this point) and Maya (Aarshi Banerjee, a newcomer) is suffused with the typical lightness and ephemerality of previous films, the most obvious comparison in this context being Goodbye First Love. However charitable a reading I try to develop, however, that ambivalence keeps coming back; Hansen-Løve acquits herself well but never fully transcends the problems inherent in the conceit, and I can’t help but feel the character of Maya was held at too far of a remove, the film not giving her enough space and time to inhabit her own story.
Also in the Special Presentations program this year is 22 July, the new film from Paul Greengrass, which premiered in Venice and will be hitting Netflix on October 10th. But don’t bother waiting for it. This is easily the worst film I’ve sat through at the festival, a complete and utter waste of time. It depicts the events of the 2011 Norway attacks, when a terrorist killed 77 people in a car bombing and mass shooting. I initially approached the film with curiosity because of its casting choices. The terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik, is played by Anders Danielsen Lie, whom I also discovered through TIFF and the films of Joachim Trier. Lie is the star of Trier’s Oslo, August 31st, another of my favorites of the current decade. He doesn’t have a lot of credits to his name; I’ve only seen him in Trier’s films and a brief role in Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper. If nothing else, I hope this movie could perhaps give his career a nice boost, assuming he’s looking for one. He’s good in this movie, as good as any actor can be in a bad movie, and I hope to see more from him in the future.
And, yes, 22 July is a bad movie. Greengrass doesn’t seem interested in understanding the context of the events depicted in the film, or really anything about the events. But he’s perversely interested in minutiae, which results in a prolonged, exhausting depiction of the terrorist acts to kick off the film. It’s shockingly bald-faced in its emotional manipulation, inter-cutting somber, silent sequences of Breivik making a bomb with sequences of the soon-to-be victims on Utøya going about their innocent, blissful lives, complete with a music score that switches back and forth between ominous percussion and a joyous swirl of strings, respectively. Watch as a brother turns back for his wounded sibling, and Breivik slowly reloads a clip into his gun. This is admittedly a small portion of the film, but the ensuing two hours (this movie is way too damn long) is a slog of a character drama about survival and living with trauma, building predictably to inspiring speeches that affirm life and provide comfort to the audience in the knowledge that Nazis are bad. Who is this movie for, exactly?
The final world premiere screening I attended at TIFF this year is a world premiere by way of one massive technicality. Chen Kaige’s Legend of the Demon Cat opened last year in China and was a box office success. It also took home a few prizes at the 12th Asian Film Awards, including, unsurprisingly, Best Production Design. I was following this film closely during development, and the story is fascinating. Chen Kaige is my kind of crazy; unwilling to use blue screen effects, Chen decided to build a scale set of Chang’an, the capital city of the Tang Dynasty. It took five years to construct and cost an estimated US $200 million. Yes, the set cost more than most movies, even Hollywood productions. When combined with Chen’s fluid, dynamic camera, the result is one of the most visually resplendent films I’ve seen lately. Needless to say, this has to be seen on the biggest screen possible to appreciate the sheer scope of craft. It’s astounding.
Legend of the Demon Cat was never released in North America, and Chen decided to use the opportunity to bring a brand new version, designed for foreign audiences, to TIFF (he’s calling it a Director’s Cut because he ended up preferring this new version). I haven’t seen the original cut so I cannot compare the two, but the Director’s Cut of Legend of the Demon Cat is incredibly ambitious for a big budget film. The story is deliberately anti-dramatic, which is one hell of a gamble given the money being sunk into this production, but I can really admire the sheer audaciousness of Chen’s vision. The story is about bearing witness to the past, to unburying traumas and honoring forgotten memories; as such, the protagonists spend much of the film bouncing around between flashbacks, having absolutely no impact on the story whatsoever. In a way, it’s the perfect antidote to this year’s Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings. I spent a good portion of the film thinking it was a lot of nonsense, but by the end, I kinda sorta loved it. It’s encouraging to see that a filmmaker like Chen Kaige still has it, that his enormous passion and empathy remain fully intact.
In the next dispatch, I begin catching up with the some of the year’s biggest films on the festival circuit, taking a look at premieres from other festivals like Cannes (Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night) and Telluride (Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer). And still to come, more from Cannes (Lee Chang-dong’s Burning) and Venice (Shinya Tsukamoto’s Killing).
The 43rd Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6th to 16th, 2018.