2000 TIFF Festival Daily Update #7: "Of Stalkers, Warriors, and Princesses"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 13, 2000

Toronto isn't as "hip" a film festival as, say, Sundance. Unlike the mid-winter deep freeze feeding frenzy in Park City, this festival doesn't cater primarily to Generation X-ers. That's not to say, however, that Toronto ignores the crowd that gluts the turnstiles at Sundance. In fact, with the number of movies showing here, it's impossible to believe that any demographic has been underrepresented or ignored. If the Toronto International Film Festival has a personality, it's one of all inclusiveness. No film is too risky or controversial to show here, whether it's the pornographic Baise-Moi (which has received universally scathing reviews) or Liv Ullman's adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's last, slow screenplay, Faithless.

Attraction is the kind of motion picture that would pack theaters and draw raves at Sundance. In Toronto, it's too small to garner much notice, even though the cast contains a few familiar names: Tom Everett Scott, Gretchen Mol, and Samantha Mathis. This is the directorial debut of Russell DeGrazier, whose first feature shows a high enough degree of promise that there's little doubt someone will give him the money to make another movie. Attraction arrived at the festival with a North American distributor (Trimark) already in place, so the film will reach multiplexes in the months ahead.

If Attraction is in any way autobiographical, then DeGrazier is in trouble. A thriller that explores sexual obsession and betrayal, this film illustrates the kind of behavior that keeps many people home on Friday and Saturday nights. Populated by a gallery of dislikable characters, Attraction reminds viewers that it isn't necessary to sympathize with a film's protagonists to find their circumstances compelling. And with the way the screenplay twists and turns, it's difficult not to be fascinated by Attraction's singular rhythm. Although the characters may be self-absorbed, amoral, and mercurial in their feelings towards each other, they're fascinating to observe.

The story is presented from the point-of-view of Matthew (Matthew Settle), the only one whose actions and motivations are clear to us from the beginning. Obsessed with his ex-girlfriend, Liz (Gretchen Mol), Matthew has begun stalking her, one night turning violent and threatening to break down her door. Frightened, Liz employs the aid of Matthew's best friend, Garrett (Tom Everett Scott), who does his best to steer Matthew away from Liz. But does Garrett have his own agenda? And is Liz really as afraid of Matthew as she seems to be? Meanwhile, the frustrated main character tries another tactic by seducing Liz's vulnerable friend, Corey (Samantha Matthis). Corey is perhaps the only one in the film who isn't constantly plotting some sort of betrayal, which makes her the one most likely to be hurt. Yet, surprisingly, Matthew finds himself falling for her.

DeGrazier keeps Attraction moving at a fast clip, allowing each scene to reveal a new truth about one or more of the characters. At times, it feels like a game of "Who's stalking whom?" The fact that no one is who he or she seems to be keeps viewers guessing about how things will turn out. The ending, which wraps everything up, comes a little too quickly and has a rushed feel, but that's arguably DeGrazier's only obvious misstep. Aside from that, the movie is well paced, giving and asking no quarter.

As is true of many young filmmakers, DeGrazier likes experimenting with cinematography techniques. He uses a variety of unusual camera angles and out-of-focus shots to emphasize the confused reality of the characters. The most effective sequence occurs when Mathis' nude body is illuminated by strobe lighting - a bizarre and surreal way to present the scene. One could argue that DeGrazier goes overboard in with his stylistic and photographic explorations, but I think it keeps the movie's look fresh.

The quartet of primary actors does a good job. Matthew Settle is solid as the unstable Matthew, a seemingly normal guy who has strayed too far over the line. Tom Everett Scott's Garrett oozes rationality and sympathy, but there's something unsettling about his apparent selflessness. Gretchen Mol is the perfect modern-day femme fatale; Liz enjoys playing one man off against another, yet fails to recognize how dangerous the game may be. And Samantha Mathis, who literally and figuratively bares all, shows that the innocent pawn may be the most dangerous piece on the board.

Attraction is not for everyone. Some will be appalled by its grim and cynical tone. Those in search of a feel-good movie will not find enjoyment in a theater playing this film. But, as thrillers go, Attraction takes far more risks than its conventional counterparts, and enough of them pay dividends to make the movie a winner.

Many of those attending the screening of Attraction showed up 90 minutes later at the 1500-seat Elgin theater for the premiere of Tom Tykwer's The Princess and the Warrior. It's not surprising that the audiences for both films featured a lot of the same faces, since the pictures (at least on the surface) appeal most strongly to the same demographic. The crowd attending The Princess and the Warrior was not the biggest of the festival, but it represented one of the most enthusiastic. Ovations given to the director and his leading lady, Franka Potente, were heartfelt, not obligatory.

Tykwer first gained a measure of international recognition in 1997, when his second feature, Wintersleepers received attention outside of his native Germany. Then came the 1998 Toronto Film Festival and the debut of Run Lola Run, which became one of the hottest and most talked about properties in Toronto that year. 1999 saw Lola reach U.S. art house screens, where it attracted huge audiences (by art house standards, that is) and became an immediate favorite of the under-40 crowd. Now, with expectations set unreasonably high, comes Tykwer's follow-up to Lola -- and, incredibly, the director meets those expectations.

Although Tykwer uses many of the same flourishes that made Lola's style unique, the tone and pacing of The Princess and the Warrior are much different. Lola was an explosion of riotous color and kinetic energy; this movie is more restrained and thoughtful. It also has greater thematic depth and resonance. In fact, there's so much to say that it's difficult to know where to begin...

Franka Potente, who has traded in her bright red hair from Lola for blond tresses, plays Sissi, a meek nurse at a psychiatric hospital whose daily life represents a sea of monotony. One day, her path crosses that of Bodo (Beno Furmann), an ex-army officer who can't hold down a stable job. Because of something Bodo does, Sissi is struck by a truck while crossing a street. Unaware that he was the cause of the accident, Bodo slips underneath the stopped truck to escape the policemen who are pursuing him. There he finds Sissi, immobilized and struggling to breathe. Acting quickly, Bodo saves her life, then vanishes. Two months later, once her recovery is complete, Sissi seeks out her savior, only to find a bitter individual who wants nothing to do with her. But his rejection is not enough for Sissi, who believes that destiny brought them together, so she continues to pursue Bodo - only to have fate throw another curve ball in her direction.

The Princess and the Warrior has one of the most thought-provoking and intelligent scripts of any movie I have seen thus far at the festival. The final fifteen minutes can be interpreted in one of any number of ways, and the conclusion that you reach will affect how the rest of the movie looks in retrospect. Tykwer's screenplay refuses to talk down to the audience or to explain things that are open to individual interpretation. The ending, which concerns the redemptive power of love, will likely mean something a little different to each person who sees the movie - and it's the mark of an accomplished director to achieve such a thing.

Thematically, The Princess and the Warrior has a lot going on. One of Tykwer's pet issues - that of fate and coincidence guiding our lives - is in play here, as it was in both Wintersleepers and Run Lola Run. The film also explores ideas about life, death, guilt, salvation, and male anger towards women. Tykwer finds a way to blend everything together into a production that challenges as much as it entertains.

Stylistically, although The Princess and the Warrior borrows from Run Lola Run, it does not attempt to repeat the earlier film's feel. There are some Lola-like moments, such as Bodo's flight from the police and the opening credits trip of a letter to the post office, but it doesn't take long for this movie to stand on its own and for Tykwer to show that he is going in a different direction. The Princess and the Warrior plays like the modern-day fantasy the title hints at, with Tykwer's restless camera and relentless musical score creating a surreal atmosphere.

Potente, who was wonderful as Lola, elevates her acting a notch for Sissi, a multidimensional character who changes and grows as The Princess and the Warrior progresses. The star quality evident in her earlier work is confirmed here. Her co-lead, Benno Furmann, is effective at showing both sides of his "warrior" character - the angry, self-hating individual and the tender man buried beneath. Solid performances abound from the supporting actors and actresses, many of whom play inmates in the ward where Sissi works.

Many times, a director's follow-up to an acclaimed work results in a letdown. Thankfully, The Princess and the Warrior represents a step forward for Tykwer, not a step backward. Those who like stories with clean, unambiguous resolutions will probably not appreciate (or understand) the freedom and latitude offered by The Princess and the Warrior's conclusion. But for anyone who esteems the experience of participating in a movie rather than being a passive observer, this film comes with a "Do Not Miss" label. It is the reason I go to film festivals. (Fortunately, for those who aren't able to do so, Sony Pictures Classics has purchased The Princess and the Warrior for U.S. distribution - if you saw Lola in a theater, you should have the opportunity to see this picture.)

© 2000 James Berardinelli

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