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The director of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire pivots from romantic to motherly love

Themes of parenthood run through three films from TIFF: Petite Maman, Earwig, and Good Madam
Petite Maman
Petite Maman
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival
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As much as I would have loved to soak in the awkwardness as critics filed out of Dear Evan Hansen on Thursday night—I’ve seen bad movies at festivals with the cast and crew present, but this sounded like a truly special experience—I have to admit that I’ve been in my element catching arty, women-directed genre movies these first few days of TIFF. As A.A.Dowd has already laid out, we’re covering the festival virtually this year. And while I do feel like a sickly child trapped indoors watching the neighborhood kids play kickball as TIFF reviews of Dune and Last Night In Soho hit my Twitter timeline, the biggest problem with covering this festival virtually so far has been coming up with fresh commentary on the experience of setting up an account on a virtual screening platform and pressing “play.” (I have a lot of opinions on Apple AirPlay. Is anyone interested in those?)

Besides, one of my most anticipated titles of the festival was available virtually, and on opening night no less. Swooning period romance Portrait Of A Lady On Fire made Céline Sciamma a household name, at least in cinephile circles. Her new film is also about love, but of the familial variety: Recalling Portrait’s theme of seeing and being seen, Petite Maman speaks to the desire to know everything about a loved one—specifically, to know what your parents were like at your age. Sciamma explores this idea through the heartfelt story of a sensitive little girl named Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) who joins her mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne) at the home where her mother grew up. Nelly’s mother is heartbroken by the death of her own mother, and decides to leave before the family is finished packing up grandma’s belongings. Nelly and her dad aren’t alone for long, however; that same day, Nelly sees a girl her age who looks exactly like her playing in the woods.

Nelly’s new friend, Marion, is played by Sanz’s identical twin sister, Gabrielle, and their physical similarity is significant for reasons best not disclosed here. Suffice to say, along with some gentle interweaving of past and present, this element supplies Petite Maman a light dusting of magical realism that combines with the luminous cinematography to create a delicate, dreamlike mood. Although the dingy shadows of grandma’s near-empty house suggest that this could pivot into a ghost story, any spirits who do appear bring nothing but reassurance and affection for the living. Past and present, death and life: All coexist in the little glowing moments of memory that make up this compact 70-minute film, which is like a loving hand gently stroking your hair until you fall asleep.

Mlungu Wam (Good Madam)
Mlungu Wam (Good Madam)
Photo: Visit Films

Motherhood is far more fraught in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), a new horror film from South Africa that made its world premiere at TIFF earlier this week. Here, single mom Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) is estranged from her birth mother, Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe), whom she resents for giving 30 years of her life to raising a white family’s children while leaving her own child in her grandmother’s care. Well, now Grandma has passed, and Tsidi and her daughter are forced to move in with Mavis due to some family strife that’s only partially articulated in the film. But no matter, because that’s all just setup for a suspenseful tale of ancient blood magic that kicks off when Tsidi decides, over Mavis’ protestations, that there’s something sinister about the “madam” of the house, an elderly, semi-comatose white woman named Diane.

Good Madam draws clear inspiration from Get Out, deploying similar themes and imagery to explore the aftershocks of apartheid and the dynamic between white South Africans and the Black domestic workers they call “part of the family.” There’s a strong anti-colonialist thread in the film as well: The land Diane’s house sits on, not to mention the African tribal art displayed throughout, was acquired through violent means, and violence is used to maintain this status quo. Good Madam’s greatest strengths are technical: The sound design, dominated by scrub brushes scraping across tile floors and clothes churning in a washing machine, is perfectly calibrated to fray the nerves. The cinematography and direction are evocative as well, lingering on sterile cabinets full of china cups as well as the calloused hands that polish them. Certain key details of the story could stand to be fleshed out, but Good Madam does effectively unnerve, and there are a handful of good scares once it finally gets going, including an inventive sequence that brings shock and horror to the everyday act of brushing one’s teeth.

Speaking of enigmatic stories, heady imagery, and dental distress: In her virtual introduction to her new fom, Belgian director Lucile Hadžihalilović asked viewers to “allow yourselves to be hypnotized” by Earwig, adding that it was best to go in “knowing as little as possible” about the film, which would make us her “prisoner” for the next two hours. Of course, I ate all this up; there’s no better way to get me to watch a movie than by vaguely daring me to sit through it. And you do have to give yourself over to Hadžihalilović’s vision to appreciate her films, which place atmosphere first and story a distant second.

Photo: Wild Bunch

Six years have passed since Hadžihalilović’s last film, Evolution, which is nothing compared to the 11 years between that project and her sumptuous, underseen 2004 breakthrough Innocence. Hadžihalilović has worked with co-writers and adapted literary works throughout her career, but her version of Brian Catling’s surrealist novel Earwig departs from the hazy dream logic of her earlier films. The storytelling here is clearer than in Evolution. That said, presenting the imagery in a more matter-of-fact way doesn’t make its meaning any less elusive. But surely we went in expecting that?

Minimalist and languid, the narrative documents the gloomy, isolated existence of Albert (Paul Hilton), a hangdog widower who is the “keeper” and de facto parent of Mia, a girl with ice cubes for teeth. Every day, Albert catches Mia’s red, viscous saliva in what can best be described as a steampunk mouthguard, re-freezes it, and puts a fresh set of teeth back into her mouth. Mia plays with shards of glass wrapped in newspaper, the only entertainment available in the series of darkened, empty rooms that make up her world. Every night, a man calls on behalf of the mysterious “Masters” who employ him and asks Albert how Mia is doing. Then, one night, the voice tells him to begin preparing the girl for the outside world.

It goes without saying that if you have a thing about tooth trauma, this movie will be very upsetting to watch. Hadžihalilović punctuates the narrative with moments of shocking violence, but mostly Earwig is “about” its hypnotic mood as much as anything. Set in a fantasy mid-2oth-century Europe anesthetized under heavy clouds of charcoal-colored fog, the film operates with a palette of yellows, grays, and greens—the colors of a bruise—and under an internal logic that eludes the characters as well as the audience. There’s one scene that beautifully encapsulates how watching the movie feels. A woman with a scarred face and a plush burgundy coat boards a train. The camera cuts to the view from her window, which is as dark as late evening even though it’s midday. Lulled by the steady chug of the train and the stormy skies outside, the woman begins to drift off, but is soon jolted back into reality. Now, sure, walking out of a dark theater and blinking in the sunlight might have enhanced this feeling. But even padding into the kitchen to get a glass of water, Earwig’s hypnagogic power turned a sunny afternoon into a murky daydream.