Craving the thrill of the new while gravitating towards the comfort of the familiar is basically the human condition. It’s also one of the defining internal conflicts of covering a film festival. As critics, we want to be knocked on our asses by something we’ve never seen before—to report from the frontlines of an artistic revolution in progress. But that requires rolling the dice on a lot of unknown quantities, when the latest works from proven masters (from filmmakers we know we love) are right there for the taking. At TIFF, these competing impulses can’t really be reconciled, only separately indulged by a schedule that tries to squeeze some potential discoveries in between first looks at the major auteur talking points of the season.
As the second feature from a filmmaker who made waves at this very festival, Ramon Zürcher’s The Girl And The Spider cannot, by definition, be called a discovery. And yet it continues a style so confoundingly singular that it still feels new—in part because, in the nearly decade that’s elapsed since its predecessor hit the fest circuit, no one has made any discernible effort to build on or even imitate that style. The Strange Little Cat, Zürcher’s first movie, was a portrait of a family preparing to host a get-together in their cozy Berlin apartment. Yet from that simple, even mundane setup, Zürcher seemed to scramble the basic grammar of narrative moviemaking, subverting expectations about how a film is supposed to introduce its characters, unfold its nominal plot, manage its dramatic conflicts, and keep track of its own timeline. It was the kind of movie where, watching it, you felt like you must have missed something crucial, even if it had your complete, undivided attention at every moment.
Right from the start, The Girl And The Spider is unmistakable as the work of the same filmmaker—though Zürcher’s twin brother and producing partner, Silvan, shares a directing credit this time. Again, the premise is simple and tied to questions of cohabitation: Essentially doubling the last film’s central locale, Girl unfolds across two Berlin apartments—the one that twentysomething Lisa (Liliane Amuat) presently shares with roommate Mara (Henriette Confurius), and the new one she’s moving into without Mara. If The Strange Little Cat was rather feline in its drifting, distracted perspective, The Girl And The Spider creates an apropos web of relations, as supporting players from the two women’s entwined lives—friends, lovers, family members, neighbors, acquaintances, movers—flit in and out of the parallel spaces, the ballooning size of the supporting cast almost becoming a running gag. More often than not, the Zürchers decline to explicitly define the nature of these relationships, which creates a rather constant state of baseline interpersonal confusion and forces the audience to play detective with the very basics of the dynamics.
At the core of the chaotic, choreographed movement of bodies through cramped spaces—a nonstop bustle that suggests slamming-door farce without the farce—is a relatable situation that movies rarely dramatize: the mess of complicated feelings that can come when someone you’ve been living with decides to move out. Yet The Girl And The Spider complicates those feelings further, obliquely articulating tensions (some possibly sexual) without ever quite defining their source. Undercutting the dreamlike atmosphere, the sense that characters are disappearing into their thoughts (as in Cat, the dialogue often consists of significant anecdotes, recounted in monologue), is a general free-floating hostility that implies backstory we’re never entirely privy to. At one point, Mara dumps a cup of coffee on a dog. At another, Lisa frankly, and without provocation, tells her mother that she’s never seen her as that. The casual cruelty defies easy explanation without feeling random, exactly.
It’s like someone has taken a legible life experience, translated it into an alien emotional language, then translated it back. The movie has several metaphors that mirror its bewildering games of obfuscation and abstraction. The most telling might be the discussion of a PDF that’s become corrupted, scrambling its words and numbers and images. There will be those who find The Girl And The Spider maddening beyond belief. (One of many reasons I wish I had boots on the ground in Toronto this year is it would be fun to count the walkouts at a public screening.) But those who find discombobulation to be an exciting sensation will be enraptured by this movie. It is unlike anything else out there. Well, except for Zürcher’s last movie, of course.
Like The Girl And The Spider, Compartment No. 6 is a second feature that builds on some of the themes of the filmmaker’s festival-feted debut, and also happens to be set predominately in a narrow location. That would be a train running from Moscow to the remote Arctic outpost of Murmansk, where Finnish graduate student Laura (Seidi Haarla) hopes to see some ancient cave paintings and perhaps put a profound punctuation on her time abroad. The journey, however, is a long one, and she’s stuck spending it in the undesired company of Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), a young, boorish Russian also assigned to her compartment. He’s unspeakably rude at the start, and a repelled Laura makes attempts to find somewhere else to sleep. But as the trip drags on, she finds herself slowly warming to his… well, maybe charms is pushing it, but he’s a little less cretinous than he first appears, at least.
The film’s writer-director, Juho Kuosmanen, previously made the very likable anti-biopic The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Mäki. Here, he offers a similarly winning mixture of behavioral realism and understated romantic possibility. In some sense, the film almost collapses the arc of When Harry Met Sally… into a single trip, wondering what might have happened if that film’s initially testy rapport had blossomed into attraction over the course of its long, opening car ride, instead of over a matter of years. The destination ultimately proves rather conventional, but Kuosmanen takes a smart path to it: The film implies that Laura’s growing affinity for her travel-mate might be a reaction to his near total lack of pretension (he’s basically the opposite of her Moscow girlfriend, introduced in a telling opening scene that finds Laura feeling out of place among know-it-all students). Or it could be due to his inability to disguise his vulnerability under a lot of loutish bluster. Borisov is terrific in the role, undercutting the obvious trajectory of the movie by keeping the guy’s psychology inscrutable throughout; he doesn’t so much redeem himself as slowly reveal different facets of a waveringly sympathetic personality.
Compartment No. 6 is a minor-key charmer, additionally improved by the spatial fun it has with its locomotive location, the way the tiny cars and lean hallways make the characters feel like they’re constantly on top of each other. (Set more movies on trains, folks!) For psychological claustrophobia, one might look instead to Violet, the feature directorial debut of Justine Bateman, starring Olivia Munn as an executive at a small Hollywood production house who’s caught in the vice grip of her anxiety. The film conveys what she calls The Committee, a.k.a. the voices in her head constantly undercutting her confidence, through an assaultive barrage of pop-Godardian techniques: feverish montages of stock footage; overwhelming thoughts scrawled in cursive across the screen; an enveloping red anger filter; intrusive voice-over by Justin Theroux as her booming insecurity, blurting out that she’s worthless and telling her not to challenge anyone. (One wonders if the project has newfound resonance for its star, given how ruthlessly she’s been subjected of late to an external chorus of disapproval from the peanut gallery.)
This is an undeniably blunt gimmick, but an effective one, too, at least for a while. Violet is intentionally oppressive in its attempts to communicate what life is like for someone whose mind is constantly attacking them, and for a woman whose self-doubt and self-loathing is fed by an industry that constantly undermines and disrespects her. At 90 minutes, though, the approach inevitably wears thin—which, of course, could be appropriate in its own right. Shouldn’t a portrait of negative thought cycles be as wearying as negative thought cycles? Shouldn’t we feel as trapped by this device as Violet feels by her own destructive mental patterns? Maybe, but the effect is numbing to questionably productive ends, even once Bateman starts to steer her heroine into a therapeutic arc, towards a corner that can be turned. It is, in the end, a rather tidy message movie, codifying anxiety into a digestible (and inspiringly vanquishable) cinematic language. To watch it back-t0-back with The Girl And The Spider, which turns the psychology of its characters into a labyrinthian mystery, would be as jarring as, well, The Girl And The Spider.