Thursday, September 17, 2009

TIFF 2009 Reviews: La Donation

Every year, I try and see at least one Canadian movie at the festival, either in the Canada First! program or Reel to Reel or wherever it happens to fall. This year, though an oddity of funding and immigration, Survival of the Dead counted towards that goal, but I also wound up seeing Bernard Émond's La Donation (The Legacy). I'd actually been looking forward to this one since I read about it in the Program(me) Book, for reasons that now seem a bit baffling to me. Homesickness for Québec? Well, I only lived in Montréal for four years and barely ventured off the island. I guess it was just my attempt to guarantee myself something humanist and low-key amidst the British kidnappings and Australian serial killers. Of course, I wasn't really in much of a mood for low-key and humanist by the time 3PM on TIFF Day Eight rolled around. An early morning oil change turned into a $371.00 repair job, I missed lunch, and I raced to make it to the Scotia in time for the lineup. Plus I've been reading "Downtown Owl" over the past couple of days and my mind was already floating in a haze of elitist sadness about what life is like in a town of less than 800 souls.

This seems an opportune moment to bring up something that's puzzled me for ages, or at least I've found oddly frustrating. We in North America have a strange idea of what constitutes an "art movie" and by extension a "film festival" movie. Basically, any foreign language film, no matter how mainstream it is thematically, qualifies for that particular millstone of categorization. There's a story, which may be apocryphal but probably not, about a film distributor in the mid-eighties who was shopping A Better Tomorrow around in search of an American distributor. This U.S. studio exec sat patiently through John Woo's classic Heroic Bloodshed epic, the film that made Chow Yun-Fat a megastar across Asia, and when the lights came back up shrugged to the rights holder and said: "I can't do anything with it. It's an art movie." To which the poor guy said "What the fuck are you talking about? It's an action movie! In fact, it's got more action than Lethal Weapon! Are you crazy?" and the exec calmly pointed out "It's all Chinese people. That's an art movie."

True, this was about eight or nine years before the underground following of HK would spill over into a couple of years of mainstream box office acceptance of dubbed Jackie Chan, and more than a decade before Crouching Tiger accomplished the long-sought-after CrossOver. But it's indicative of a mentality that still, I think, affects distribution thinking, not to mention festival programmers. There are always a few Indian movies in the TIFF lineup, often even as a gala, and every couple of years one sneaks through the ramparts to wind up with some sort of low-level distribution. I wonder, though, if these films, are the truly brilliant ones that deserve to break out of the Bollywood pack. Or if you could grab any well-directed non-hacky yet still utterly generic Indian film, put some solid subtitles on it and peddle it as the next arthouse hit. I suspect this theory runs smack up against the other theory I spouted a few days ago about how we can learn more about a country's culture through its genre cinema than its pious nationalist cinema. But my point is that what we in this limited market think of as an art movie, or a film festival selection, is, for its country of origin, Just A Damn Movie.

Which brings me to Québec. It's the sad cliché that Canadians don't go and see Canadian movies. It's such a cliché in fact, that it barely bears rehashing here. We've gotta be the only country in the world where our own movies go straight into the arthouses for the most part. Yet, just five hours east of here there exists a Distinct Society that supports its own vibrant self-contained industry, films made for and by Québecers with very little eye on the commercial markets beyond the borders of the province. On one hand it's admirable, on another hand it`s indicative of a certain insularity that results in separatist ideology. But on a third hand, it baffles me when I see some Québec films, because I have no idea what audience they’re aimed at, but then again I’m not from la belle province and I don’t claim to understand what makes them tick cinematically. In 2006 I saw a film called Dans Les Villes at TIFF. I just scoured my old MySpace blog to dig up my review of it:

Oh, jeez. Never would I have thought that Montreal could seem as hideously unromantic onscreen as it does in this movie. A bunch of miserable, suicidal, blind, insomniac and senile Quebeckers walk rainsoaked streets, cross paths randomly and drink a lot of coffee and wine. For an hour and a half. Truth be told, it's actually quite well-directed, but to what purpose? I'm enough of a believer in film as a necessary art that I think if you've got the chance, you make a film to tell the story that you want/have to tell, and Québec has a long and justifiably proud history of supporting their homegrown filmmakers at the box office. But who is going to want to watch this? Who in god's name is this film meant for? “Marie-Joseph! We must hurry if we are to get to the cine for the new Catherine Martin film! I've heard there's no dialogue for more than sixty minutes, and Robert LaPage stares at a wall for half an hour! We don't want to be at the back of the line!”

Okay, La Donation isn’t nearly as bad as all that. In fact, it’s the most atmospheric film I’ve seen in ages, completely immersing the audience in the mood and tone of West Abitibi with a skill that Alan Rudolph could take notes from. But oh Buddah is it sad! Its portrayal of a cold, grey community that is slowly dying from lack of industry and general old age is utterly heartbreaking. And in keeping with the aesthetic of misery, the lead actress maintains a rigid squinty emotionless mask for nearly the entire running time. There are at least four deaths over the course of the film, many more tales of wasted lives and dreams deferred, and an oppressive gloom that penetrates every frame. And is this mainstream Québec filmmaking? Is there an audience for this, enough of one to make back its budget?

But dammit, like I said, it’s so freaking well-made that it could only be totally intentional. Still, the director stood up beforehand and explained that it was the third part of his trilogy dealing with faith, fate and charity (a triptych I wasn’t aware of), and maybe that’s what tipped the scale for me. As soon as he provided that key, I couldn’t help but flash back to Kieslowski`s Trois Couleurs trilogy, a trio of films that coincidentally came out when I was living in Montréal, and Faraway, So Close!`, a film which I always associate with Bleu, Blanc and Rouge because they all shared a certain vibrant thematic and tonal aesthetic that I came to associate with post-unification European cinema. And La Donation just seemed so freaking dour and sad in comparison. (**1/2)

So I don’t know. All I know is that it’s not the movie I really needed to see today. I’ve got three more to go: a French cold war thriller, a Danish kids’ fantasy and an Australian musical. Come on, TIFF...blow me away!

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