The two best films at the 27th Toronto International Film Festival, Gus Van Sant's Gerry and Claire Denis' Vendredi Soir (Friday Night), featured stories too thin for a haiku, with enough dialogue between them to fill out 10 script pages at most. But in a festival swirling with trumped-up controversies and post-Sept. 11 political fallout, they provided a much-needed sanctuary in sound and image, unfolding with the simple, elemental force of silent movies. While other world-class directors labored, for better or worse, to refine their style to a laser point, Van Sant and Denis did away with words altogether and found the aesthetic "purity" everyone else was seeking.
Judging by the steady stream of walkouts during Gerry, many viewers must have taken its long silences to mean that the film had nothing to say. But with apologies to Samuel Beckett and Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr (Sátántangó), his two clearest influences, Van Sant uses his simple premise of two hikers (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) getting lost in a desert to speak volumes about the oft-hilarious disconnect between humanity and the natural world. Part existential comedy, part rapturous landscape film, Gerry offers a new experience in American independent cinema, a point that even its detractors couldn't argue.
Vendredi Soir also contains long, wordless passages, but provides fewer reasons to complain, since the film's delicate spell would be shattered by small talk. The bittersweet story of a woman (Valérie Lemercier) in transition who picks up a handsome stranger (Vincent Lindon) in the middle of a Paris traffic jam, Denis' beautiful dusk-to-dawn romance would make a great double bill with Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise. In Linklater's movie, the incessant chatter between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy dodged the uncomfortable silences; here, the lovers have a tacit understanding that anything they say could only spoil the mood. Denis' last two films, Beau Travail and Trouble Every Day, have been working toward a pared-down, elliptical style, but she reaches new levels of clarity with Vendredi Soir, which virtually defines the phrase "minor masterpiece."
Several other filmmakers worked toward perfection, but perfection isn't always what it's cracked up to be. Based on Patrick McGrath's novel, David Cronenberg's Spider plays like an ossified Naked Lunch, returning again to the ambiguous relationship between an author and his work, with a few Freudian dimensions thrown in for good measure. Nothing seems out of place in Cronenberg's world, which is exactly why Spider feels drab and airless; for all its precision, the film seems like a museum piece suspended in amber, ready to be admired without actually moving.
The same complaints could apply to Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, which would seem like an academic exercise if it weren't bursting with feeling. Haynes' sumptuous production basically parrots Douglas Sirk's 1955 classic All That Heaven Allows down to every meticulous detail, but by tweaking the racial and sexual identity of two major characters, Haynes makes an altogether different movie. At first, the romantic entanglements of a '50s housewife (Julianne Moore), her closeted husband (Dennis Quaid), and their black gardener (Dennis Haysbert) veer toward camp, like they were made for the smug ironists who chuckle their way through Sirk retrospectives. While Far From Heaven is still too studied to work on an emotional level, Haynes goes beyond mere mimicry and makes the material his own, with themes of suburban repression and unrest that rhyme beautifully with his 1995 picture Safe.
On the other end of the spectrum, the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, re-energized by the digital-video revolution, advances his aesthetic to the next logical step with Ten, which could serve as Exhibit A for the Death Of Cinema. Mounting two DV cameras on the dashboard of a woman's car, Kiarostami records 10 conversations from a fixed position, leaving the viewer to sort out an affecting narrative from miles of grueling tedium. Apparently, this is what pure cinema looks like: no staging, no lighting, no composition, and not the slightest trace of artifice. Though more honest and rigorous than the average Dogme project, Ten achieves a dubious success by removing the visuals from a visual medium.
Fortunately, there's visual dynamism to spare in Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale, a glorious return to the trashy wit (and witty trash) of his early thrillers, particularly the Vertigo-inspired Body Double and Sisters. Fed up with the studio system after a series of flops, most recently Mission To Mars, De Palma stepped away from the pressures and expectations of Hollywood, moved to France (where he's adored), and found himself again. A clever riff on Double Indemnity, with expected nods to Hitchcock and De Palma's previous work, Femme Fatale opens with a bravura heist sequence at the Cannes Film Festival and closes with a third act that ties the whole movie into knots, creating a Möbius strip effect to rival last year's Mulholland Drive.
De Palma's philosophy"repeat yourself, only better"carried over into stellar new films by the Dardenne Brothers, Mike Leigh, and Ken Loach, who each brought fresh insight and emotion to their expected working-class portraiture. The Dardennes, former documentarians who won a Palme D'Or for 1999's Rosetta, return with Le Fils (The Son), a gripping and unexpectedly suspenseful story about a lonely carpenter (Olivier Gourmet) who comes into contact with the juvenile delinquent who killed his only son. Attaching the camera to their hero's shoulder, the Dardennes emphasize the day-to-day grind of the carpenter's trade before morphing into a tense, agonizing finale that finally calls his hand. Screenwriters take note: This film is a lesson in covering up exposition.
Loach and Leigh's careers have always been associated, so it makes sense that after a couple of detoursLoach with his first American film, Bread And Roses, and Leigh with the more successful Gilbert & Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvythe two are back to the familiar tenements of Glasgow and London, respectively. Loach's Sweet Sixteen, his most affecting work since 1998's My Name Is Joe, follows a young hoodlum (Martin Compston) as he delves perilously further into a life of crime, yet the film makes Compston's motivations so clear that he gains a heartbreaking, scruffy nobility. Richly entertaining and equally moving, Leigh's All Or Nothing contents itself with detailing the sad and darkly funny interplay of a dysfunctional family, until a shocking incident forces them to re-examine their lives together.
Amid a slate widely considered the festival's strongest in years, with a list of highlights too voluminous to mention, Toronto paused to acknowledge the first anniversary of Sept. 11, which took place at the midway point of last year's fest. The filmmaking world responded with 11'9"01, an omnibus shorts package in which 11 esteemed directors (Loach, Claude Lelouch, Danis Tanovic, Sean Penn, Amos Gitaï, Shohei Imamura, Samira Makhmalbaf, Youssef Chahine, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Mira Nair, and Alejandro González Iñárritu) turned in films that were precisely 11 minutes, nine seconds, and one frame long. The press was quick to label the collection "anti-American"particularly Loach and Chahine's entriesas if criticizing American foreign policy were somehow beyond the pale. But it wasn't quick enough to call them "ill-conceived" and "inept," with only Makhmalbaf's sensitive and deftly proportioned entry lending a sane perspective on the events. Great films can and will be made about Sept. 11, but some distance is required; after all, no one considers the dashed-off likes of Paul McCartney's "Freedom" and Neil Young's "Let's Roll" the greatest songs of the singers' respective careers.
With all the controversy directed toward 11'9"01, there was hardly any left for the pornographic skate-punk vignettes in Larry Clark's Ken Park or the unprecedented brutality of Gaspar Noé's Irréversible, which reportedly cleared out half the 2,000-seat Lumiere Theatre when it premièred in Cannes last May. Featuring a nine-minute, single-take anal-rape scene as its centerpiece, Irréversible had grown into an urban legend by the time it finally screened in the festival's second half, yet it's one of those rare cases where the viewing experience is actually more punishing than it sounds. A rape-revenge story told from back to front, Irréversible opens with a harrowing trip to the depths of Hell, doubles back to the rape sequence, and, even more sadistically, continues into happier times, when the victim (Monica Bellucci) doesn't know what lies ahead. Easy to dismiss as mere provocation, albeit technically astonishing provocation, the film does have something to say about the breakdown of order and the deterioration of the rational mind. It just may take a few days of recovery to appreciate it.
Coming near the end of the 10-day festival, Irréversible felt like a sucker-punch to the gut, but bracing for the worst, few people in the sold-out crowd fled from Toronto's cavernous Uptown 1 theater. The festival may have been business as usual a year after Sept. 11 split it in half. But this screening was the surest sign yet that audiences were capable of putting even the most appalling images into their proper context.