1998 Toronto International Film Festival Update #2: "Beginning with Endings"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 13, 1998

With film festivals, one of the most-often neglected aspects of any overview is a discussion of the venues where the films are held. I have been at festivals where the theaters are falling apart, with substandard sound systems, uncomfortable seats, and poor video quality. These types of places can significantly detract from the overall viewing experience, if not destroy it altogether. Toronto is one of the better festivals when it comes to choosing locations, and the remodeling of the Varsity theater has given the festival a first-rate location, complete with stadium seating and a sound system that does true justice to the films. (One director stayed to see the tenth public screening of his movie just because the sound was so impressive.)

However, even the best theater cannot hide flaws in the actual films. And, while all movies have their own roster of unique strengths and weaknesses, one common problem emerged in several of the festival's early offerings. Three of the first four movies I saw fizzled in the last ten minutes, just when a motion picture is supposed to be at its strongest.

In one case, Mika Kaurismaki's disappointing L.A. without a Map, the poor quality of the denouement doesn't do much damage, since, by the time it arrives, the meandering script has already done in the movie. Actually, the film starts out strongly, setting viewers up for a sprightly romantic comedy. When the two protagonists, undertaker Richard (David Tennant) and aspiring actress Barbara (Vinessa Shaw), meet, they enjoy a delightful day together that prompts Richard to follow Barbara from northern England to Los Angeles, where she lives. It's when the film reaches the United States that things start to fall apart. The characters go through the predictable motions of every motion picture romantic comedy: they fall in love, break apart, then come back together again, and there's a clear rival for the woman's affections. Along the way, there's lots of unpleasant angst, as if the movie can't decide whether it wants to be light and fluffy or dark and depressing. As a result, it doesn't succeed on either level. Wasted is Julie Delpy, who has surprisingly little screen exposure as a waitress with an ambiguous accent. Vincent Gallo is expectedly loopy in a supporting role as Richard's laid-back American friend. Although Gallo essentially plays the same kind of person he essayed in both Palookaville and Buffalo 66, he's enjoyable nevertheless. Ultimately, Gallo and Delpy's characters do a better job of catching our interest than the leads, which isn't a good sign. As one well-known critic commented, Tennant should have dumped Shaw and taken up with Delpy.

One film that was hurt by a lackluster ending was the Australian effort, Praise. A first-time feature from director John Curran, the movie is powerful and occasionally disturbing, but a seeming uncertainty about how to wrap things up leads to a sense of mild dissatisfaction during the end credits. The movie, which is essentially a study of the obsessive sexual relationship between two emotionally damaged individuals, is unlikely to capture a North American distributor. The reason is obvious: the sex scenes, while not pornographic, are explicit, and there's no way that the film could get away with anything less restrictive than an NC-17.

Most movies, especially mainstream ones, like to tap-dance around sexual issues for fear of offending a puritanical audience. Praise attacks these issues head-on by illustrating the kinds of sexual trade- offs that have to be endured for a relationship to work. In this case, it's the woman who has the sexually voracious appetite and the man who is passive, but the patterns would be similar if the circumstances were reversed. Praise is as honest emotionally at it is when dealing with sexual issues – it doesn't lather on the melodrama to make its point. It is compelling precisely because it stays focused on the characters.

The basic story is fairly simple. A laid-back, chain-smoking asthmatic named Gordon (Peter Fenton) becomes involved with Cynthia (Sacha Horler, in one of the year's best performances), a nymphomaniac afflicted with severe eczema. From the start, their co-dependent relationship is not healthy, but, as the gulf between their sexual needs widens, they begin to grate on one another. It is clear from the beginning that the more interesting of the two protagonists is Cynthia. So, when the tail end of Praise decides to focus on the less-fascinating Gordon, the resulting anticlimax causes the movie to sputter to a halt.

Similar problems occur in Laetitia Masson's A Vendre, the tale of a private investigator's search for a woman who runs off with the money in her fiancé's bank account. After this movie reaches an optimal end point, it inexplicably drags on for another quarter-hour, doing little to advance the characters or their unusual relationship. Although A Vendre can be seen as a mystery, it's really more of a character study, and, as such, it doesn't need the epilogue to be complete.

Two stories are told in parallel. The first is that of France (Sandrine Kiberlain), a lonely prostitute who leaves her husband-to-be at the altar. As we learn through a series of flashbacks, this is not the first time she has willfully destroyed a seemingly-ideal relationship, and, although she accepts money for sex, she is also willing to pay cash for intimacy. The man investigating her disappearance is Luigi (Sergio Castellitto), whose function, as dictated by the plot, is mainly to act as a conduit for bringing France's life to the screen. We learn a few details about him – that he still loves his ex-wife, for example – but not enough to make him truly interesting. A Vendre is really about France, and, when it sticks to its central character, it's a worthwhile motion picture.

The fourth film, West Beirut, did not have ending problems, although the final scenes, which are much darker and more ambiguous than what precedes them, comes as something of a shock. The film is an account of how the hostilities in Lebanon escalated during the mid-'70s – but there is a twist. Instead of presenting the situation from a neutral historical perspective, director Ziad Doueiri chooses to show it through the eyes of teenagers, who are oblivious to the political and religious background of the conflict. Instead, they see it as an adventure of sorts, with a trek to a brothel through bombed-out streets resembling Dorothy & Co's trip along the Yellow Brick Road. West Beirut does a good job of melding the lighter, fantasy-type elements with the darker, more dramatic ones, resulting in a movie that satisfies emotionally and intellectually. If there's a complaint to be aired, it's that the film could use a little judicious pruning.

Obviously, I started my festival-going with a few less-mainstream offerings, but a series of commercial releases is just around the corner. I'll discuss some of them in the next update.

© 1998 James Berardinelli

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