When you make the (brave? foolhardy?) decision to stay at a festival like Toronto past the half-way point, past the point where both major stars and hit-seeking journalists have gone home and the remaining premieres are usually less hit than miss, you do it because you hope that you're going to be the one to catch a hidden masterpiece. Michael Winterbottom's Genova may not qualify for use of the M-word, but for a film that made it through two of its three public screenings with zero buzz, it casts a lasting spell that comes as a pleasant surprise. (Ironically, perhaps, I walked out of the Genova screening and directly into David Poland, who wrote this post late last night lamenting TIFF's problematic front-loading. All I'll say is that though there are 6 or 8 or 10 films that I'm kicking myself for having missed, none of them were scheduled to screen for the press after Tuesday.)
Marianne (Hope Davis) steers the family car down an icy road. Her daughters Kelly and Mary (Willa Holland and Perla Haney-Jardine) play a giggly road trip game in the back seat. Mary innocently involves her mother in the game, and Marianne loses control of the car. Though teenage Kelly and pre-tween Mary survive unscathed, their mother doesn't, and six months after a funeral where all involved seem more dazed than grief-stricken, their academic father Joe (Colin Firth) announces that they're going to pack up and move from Chicago to Genova, Italy for a year. He'll teach, the girls will learn a second language, and all will leave their grief behind and start new lives. That plan works best for Kelly, who responds to the break from normalcy like the "on" switch has been flicked on her latent adolescence altadefinizione.today. But while she's flitting back and forth between sullen theatrics and secret rendesvous with a scooter-riding Italian jerk (about which we learn as little as the average single father probably knows about who their teen daughter is dating, and who Kelly is given convenient excuse to discard when the narrative demands that she Grow Up A Little), her sister and father are having a harder time forging ahead. Little Mary comes to believe that Marianne has been visiting her from beyond the grave. She wakes up screaming for her mommy, she wanders off into the woods convinced that the spectre of her mother is leading her by the hand, she drives her stoic Englishman father crazy with her deeply felt spiritualism.
Meanwhile, Joe seems suspiciously unhaunted by his dead wife, and is instead forced to deal with the past in the form of Barbara (Catherine Keener), the college colleague who has invited him to Italy in the hopes of finally consummating her 20 year crush. Apparently not interested in looking backwards, Joe instead gravitates towards Rosa, an attractive, much younger Neopolitan student. Numb with anxiety over how to raise two girls alone, his choice to seek attention from the sexy, undemanding source as opposed to a mother surrogate is not unlike Kelly's moves to flee the family and reinvent herself as a nubile party girl. Both father and daughter are avoiding the baggage of the past and their responsibilities to an unplanned present.
We've seen a number of Mediterranean travelogues of late from filmmakers who-at least according to some segment of the critical audience-"should" be offering us more. Though there's no shortage of location-dependent beauty in Genova, it provides literal background and mood that's essential to Winterbottom's portrait (shot with his signature hand-held cameras, which generally follow the characters closely, even into the sea) of these emotional fugitives. And while if you asked me to name an actor synonymous with on-screen naturalism, I would not before now immediately name Colin Firth, he very convincingly envelops himself in the desperate fog of Sudden Single Father Syndrome. So while it may not be the great unknown discovery of TIFF 08, Genova more than succeeds as a small, precise, personal picture with no larger ambition than to set a tragedy in motion and fully describe the way it feels for each member of a family of three to be mired in the fallout. What it lacks in grand aims it makes up in emotional honesty, and for those of us Winterbottom fans who were starting to get impatient with the filmmaker's drift into political didacticism, it's nice to see him return to making films about people.
From its crash and burn debut at the Venice Film Festival (watchable on the working one 123movieshub.eu) to its slightly more positive but still definitively mixed reception here at the Toronto Film Festival, people who like to spend a lot of time bitching have spent a lot of time bitching that the Coen Brothers' Burn After Reading is at the very least a "disappointment" as a follow-up to No Country For Old Men, and is maybe even Exhibit A to the charge that this is a disastrous year for American pseudo-indie film. The former might be true, if one was of the mind that No Country as a masterpiece ... which I was not. The latter might be true, if one was of the mind that a star-studded festival entry with little to no chance of impressing the stodgy middlebrow fetishists of the obvious of the Academy is synonymous with failure...which I am not. Burn After Reading may not have the sparse majesty of No Country--it may not go out of its way to tell you that We Are Getting Deep Up In Here--but in its own way its even more brutal assignation of moral confusion. Saying too much about the plot here won't do any of us any good, but to sum up: the trouble starts when Osbourne Cox (played by John Malkovich, who should really do more comedies) gets fired from what appears to be a not particularly impressive position at the CIA for being a loose canon and an alchie. "Fuck you," he tells his now former boss. "You're a Mormon, next to you everyone has a drinking problem." Then he goes home and fixes himself a drink.
That night, at a cocktail party thrown by Cox's uptight pediatrician wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), we learn a few things: Cox is considered an outcast and a creepazoid by the upper middle class DC nouveau society in which his wife plays; his wife is having an affair with Harry (George Clooney), a marshall who brags about carrying a gun which he portentously insists he's never used; and, with a single flick of the eyes, it becomes clear that Harry's wife knows about the affair but Harry doesn't know that she knows. When Katie finds out that Osbourne has been fired and intends to while away his remaining years moving cocktail hour further up the clock while ostensibly producing memoir on his less than spectacular career, she sees this as the out she's been looking for to run off with Harry, and copies some files off her husband's computer so that a divorce lawyer can assess his financials. These files end up in the hands of Chad and Linda (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand), two bumbling fitness instructors--or so they appear to be, but as Chad reminds us several times, "appearances can be deceptive"--who swiftly determine that a little blackmail is in order. Chaos, paranoia, and a number of surprising deaths ensue. There's a randomness to the violence here; the cause-and-effect tether that decides who lives and who dies in classic works of genre just isn't there. This makes Burn one of the most extreme sojourns into the land of (a)moral relativism that the Coens have ever taken. If No Country was set in a world divorced from the notion that bad people get punished and innocent people don't, a world where the fates of middle class lives were in the hands of a single source of calculated evil, Burn removes that calculation. It turns a mirror on a contemporary culture in which the players are too self-interested in the extreme to actually, actively try to hurt anyone else, but instead accidentally inflict pain and instigate tragedy when their respective single-minded pursuits of pleasure become all-consuming to the point of mania. You can't stop what's coming--not because it's so mysterious, but because it's so mundane.
In the end, nobody on screen gets what they want and their tangled storylines resolve themselves in such a way that it's easy to question whether or not the Coens have played a dirty trick in sucking you in. This has led to a good deal of frustration amongst festival circuit journalists, who rarely have time to sit and let a film sink in, especially at Toronto where even the biggest "hits" drift in and out of the spotlight in a single 24 hour news cycle. If I had written about Burn After Reading immediately after seeing it last weekend, I would have focused on the performances (particularly from Brad Pitt, who has created an iconic Coen character for the ages) and on the several handfuls of infectious one-liners--not since The Big Lebowski has a Coens film been this quoteable--while admitting that on the whole, it left me feeling unfulfilled. And yet with a few days perspective, I see the film differently. Burn After Reading has what it takes to become a cult comedy classic, the stuff of Halloween costumes and fan festivals, but it's also a searing critique of the pursuit of happiness in an age of near end-times anxiety.
A film about the world's greatest living couturier would have to work overtime in order to not be beautiful, but Matt Tyrnauer's Valentino: The Last Emperor manages to find a certain poetics behind the eye candy. Where Unzipped--to my mind the last great fashion documentary--was heavily invested in a kind of designer-as-tortured artist schematics that inevitably could only resolve themselves, competition doc-style, in a final runway show, Valentino is both a more surface-oriented portrait of a man and a deeper examination of the changing politics of the luxury industry.
Vanity Fair reporter Tynauer's handheld camera follows the designer and his lover/business partner/constant companion Giancarlo Giammetti as they workshop and present a collection for Paris fashion week, then prepare for a three day celebration of Valentino's 45th anniversary in fashion. All the while, Valentino the brand is being sold off to a corporate interest bit by bit, and if there wasn't enough pressure on Valentino to design a collection befitting his 45th anniversary, the deafening buzz just outside his personal bubble contends that this line will surely be his last. Though age has not noticeably dulled his design instincts and acumen (nor his perfectionism, which usually takes the form of last minute accusations of sabotage directed at Giammetti), buzz grows that the new bosses want the old man to retire so they can bring in fresher (or, at least, younger) blood. The personal toll of trying to essentially stave off death by holding on in the face of the incoming storm of fashion's future is evident in the anxiety behind the eyes of both Valentino and Giammetti. Valentino offers a rarely-seen glimpse into the lives of two elderly gay men who have been together almost as long as they've been adults. Giammetti runs interference between Valentino, his money men and his countless employees. He absorbs his every complaint, and knows just what to ignore, when to snap back (usually in the form of minor but ultra-catty barbs about his boyfriend's physical appearance), and when to jump into action to make a change. For the most part, it appears to be a thankless job, but then every now and then, the bitchy, prickly Valentino will drop his armor and show his true appreciation. If Valentino isn't exactly a warts-and-all expose on Valentino (not that he seems likely to allow one to be made -- twice, during what seem like completely innocuous moments, the designer insists that the camera be turned off) it does humanize this impossibly talented man who seems like absolute torture to be with.
Valentino functions as a document of the final career phase of the last working designer trained in the old couture tradition (up until the end, Valentino's dresses were made without a single machine in sight--down to last sequin, everything was sewn by hand). A lot has changed in 45 years. With haute couture now an unprofitable loss leader and most houses making most of their money on cosmetics, accessories and perfume, not only is Valentino's single job in danger, and not only is an entire art form on the verge of extinction, but the impossibly glamorous jet-setting life-style led by top designers and their few couture consumers is threatened as well. What does a brand like Valentino really mean, when the market becomes geared toward the masses instead of just the super-rich? Valentino's spectacular, no expense spared anniversary blow-out ends with couture-clad dancers suspended on wires in mid-air up against the night sky. It's a fittingly bittersweet image of an aesthetic, a class and an ideal gently floating off into the ether.