Film festivals are a great way to discover some of the best upcoming titles in world cinema. They’re also filled with mine traps of mediocrity, films inspiring even more lukewarm feelings than normal given the opportunity costs associated with seeing them over a hidden gem. These films were at TIFF 2017 for a reason, though, and to only cover the soaring sensations presents a false image of the festival. Away from the superlatives, here’s a glimpse at some of the films that took my time — but not necessarily my heart — in Toronto.
Silence can be such a cliché these days, but by the end of Clio Barnard’s Dark River, she’s earned every painful moment of it. As two bitterly divided siblings sit across from each other in a heated venue, it’s clear that they have nothing to say to each other — and the lack of dialogue brutally underscores their irreparable estrangement. Try as Ruth Wilson’s Alice might to successfully share the family land with her brother Joe (Mark Stanley), there’s only one way their story can end.
Dark River begins rather heavy-handedly with Alice returning to her childhood home and letting every object trigger a traumatic flashback. It portends a brutal experience, but Barnard quickly reins in her style and creates a vivid, haunting portrait of how Alice’s past continues to hold sway in her present. Her two realities begin to overlap and intermingle until they become hard to distinguish. Wilson does some heavy psychological lifting on top of some grimy sheep shearing; it’s a labor-intensive performance that yields a real harvest by the film’s close.
Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc
Bruno Dumont certainly goes for it in his rock musical Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, a unique retelling of the familiar Joan of Arc mythology. This audacious re-centering of the French hero’s earlier days takes a Baz Luhrmann-esque approach, sans pop irony, in its rendering of her struggle through head-banging tunes. It’s a little more interesting in concept than in practice, though I cannot deny the true pleasure of watching stoic nuns doing a full choreographed dance in their habits. Dumont is onto something here, and perhaps another filmmaker can more fully realize his vision in another project.
The struggles of those partaking in the world’s oldest profession are now standard cinematic fare, and Anahí Berneri’s Alanis ultimately adds little to the crowded ranks of films. Most of the film centers around the titular prostitute as she’s piece-mealing her shelter and food needs for herself and son Dante while also dealing with the ongoing legal dispute over her eviction. The red tape reeks, but it doesn’t pierce the soul the way it does in a Romanian New Wave film.
Berneri avoids easy sensationalism and poverty porn even as Alanis and Dante sleep on a clothing store floor, yet this resistance alone does not make a great movie. A little more impressive is Sofía Gala Castaglione’s lead performance. Towards the end of the film, Berneri shows her in a mirror providing service to a client, as she talks dirty to him while feeling absolutely nothing. It’s as if she’s at a table read for sex, knowing all the lines but bringing none of the intensity. The longer the take drags on, the more impressive her poker face becomes.
Michael Pearce’s Beast begins with a Hitchcockian premise: after bearded badboy Pascal (Johnny Flynn) wards off a rapey club clinger from the quiet Moll (Jessie Buckley), she becomes rather taken with his mysterious style. Her family does not share the enthusiasm since there’s a killer targeting young women on the loose in their coastal British town, supplying additional tension to the “is he or isn’t he the murderer?” drama powering the narrative. Sadly, there’s really nothing more to the film than this dynamic — which proves frustrating since we’ve all seen this done before (and executed better). Buckley’s performance at least helps maintain attention, but all else is essentially a wash.
If the Hexagon were as bad with ideological criticism as the U.S., I can imagine every review of Neil Beloufa’s Occidental would have to mention the film being a representation of “LePen’s France.” This precisely-cut farce — unfolding in a hotel where the third state has fallen off their exterior sign — sends up any number of prejudices from racism to xenophobia and even homophobia. It’s a world where the police officers are no better than the openly bigoted racial profiling clerk, all of whom force-fit the truth into their wild assumptions about how certain groups perceive each other. The message needs to be heard, yet Beloufa is so obsessed with making a point in Occidental that he forgets to tell a story or unravel any human drama.
Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).