TIFF – – French Films from Liege to l’Afrique

La France Globale

Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)

In Toronto, the cultural capital of English-speaking Canada, there’s an openness toward every culture of the world, just less so toward France. A long history explains that.

At TIFF, a Flag of Cinema

At TIFF, a Flag of Cinema

The Toronto International Film Festival is an exception to that attitude, with strong representation of French films every year. As the major portal to North America in the autumn season, that stands to reason.  The French don’t simply want to be at TIFF. They want to be wherever the press and industry that comes to Toronto can take them.

And French cinema, reflected in the selection in Toronto, is being redefined. Many of the films were co-productions with multiple other countries. Some were in languages other than French, as was the case with Mustang, the French (Turkish-language) nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in the most recent Academy Awards.  So what’s French? The answer is different today than it’s been historically – we saw that historic France in Bertrand Tavernier’s rapturous and perceptive My Journey Through French Cinema (at Telluride and at the New York Film Festival, NYFF).

One of my favorites at TIFF was The Unknown Girl, by the Dardenne Brothers, a French-Belgian co-production about a doctor’s guilt over the death of a young girl who sought refuge at the doctor’s clinic.

A Guilt-Stricken Doctor Pieces a Life Together

A Guilt-Stricken Doctor Pieces a Life Together

The setting is Liege (Belgium), with its palette of gray on gray, and the cast is familiar, with the addition of Adele Haenel as Jenny Davin, a young doctor at a local clinic.

At the core of The Unknown Girl is Jenny’s search to find out who this young girl was, beyond the image from the surveillance camera of a panicked African teenager who rings the bell at the clinic door.  Characters around her know pieces of the story. Many feel threatened by the true story that might emerge. Eventually the doctor learns who the girl was, and what her life had become.  As with so many Dardenne films, complex lives take shape when you look at them closely enough.

This is one of the most heavily plotted films by the Dardennes. The conventional wisdom among critics is that Jenny’s pursuit of the truth is a compelling detective story. That’s part of it, and the police play a role in impairing the investigation that she’s conducting. Under the pressure of mixed reviews, seven minutes were cut from the film since Cannes. Too heavily plotted? Perhaps too heavy for the mass audience that the Dardennes hoped the film might reach. Since I did not see the film at Cannes, I can’t comment, although I did not find the version that I saw too long or repetitive.

Instead, it seemed that the film’s portrayal of the doctor, stricken by guilt when she learned of the death of the young woman who rang the bell after hours, was modulated by the many encounters that a woman in her job would have. In a telling exchange, when the doctor goes to the scene of death at a riverbank where the young girl is thought to have fallen, a bored workman asks her with contempt, “Are you a journalist?”

“I’m a doctor,” she responds. His expression changes from contempt to incredulity.

Things take time. So did this story, with Adele Haenel as the sleep-deprived young doctor attending to immigrants, the elderly and the poor in what looks like crawl space. The tension of the story is gripping enough that the logistics of filming seamlessly in those interiors goes unnoticed.

Haenel Again in 'Orpheline'

Haenel Again in ‘Orpheline’

If there was a star of the French films at TIFF this years, it is Haenel, who was in two films. In Orphan, or Orpheline, by Arnaud de Pallieres, also at TIFF, she plays a school administrator whose life turns upside down when a former accomplice in crime gets out of prison and seeks out her old friend to collect what she’s owed from their caper. But Haenel is one-fourth of the equation here, as other actresses like Adele Exarchopoulos play her or an approximation of her at various stages of her life. There’s an abstract formula at work in Orphan – the conceit that we evolve through different persons in distinct stages of life to become who we are.  To its credit, the film gives us the hard reality of prison, of life as a runaway in nightclubs and lonely streets, and of the flight of fugitives toward Romania. Yes, toward Romania, the country from which masses of desperate souls are trying to escape. A birth scene there in all its unblinking pain brings into the world a new character that’s destined to go through its own stages of personhood.

In The Misfortunes of Francois Jane, the Australian photographer Patrick Pearse, who directed, shows that he can film monosyllabic people who look like models in scenes that look like ads for expensive perfume or clothing that most of us won’t be able to afford. Any number of tableaux here could make a great album cover, if those are still made, and the queasy sex in the film’s minimal story, always carefully composed on the screen, reminds you of a certain side of Peter Greenaway. But is it French? Perhaps only in its evocation of a vague sense of l’art de vivre that you might find in a fashion magazine. You’re reminded that it takes more than a vapid look and a cadaverous body to act convincingly, even if that body is having sex with another comparable body.

It’s hard enough to survive in Greece as an ordinary citizen, but in Blind Sun by Joyce Nashwati, Idris Ashraf (Ziad Bakri) is a new caretaker for a French family’s modernist summer villa, and he’s left, when they depart, in the blazing sunlight, with no protection besides an angora cat, as forces seem to be converging on the house. Somehow the water is turned off and a prowler has entered the premises, as the sun burns down on this lonely outpost in the dust and weeds.

'Blind Sun' - Greece in the Blazing Sun

‘Blind Sun’ – Greece in the Blazing Heat

Joyce Nashawati is taking a cue from Michelangelo Antonioni with her minimal deadpan script and her palette of sundrenched primary colors against a desert background of varying shade of desiccated brown.  We don’t know who Idris is, so he’s immediately in line to be a suspect – but of what? – and the Greek authorities are forcing him to get a visa. The name, which isn’t Greek, leads to all sorts of assumptions that are never identified. When he’s asked where he comes from, he says Athens. Does anyone believe him?

You feel as if you’re back in the 1970’s with the film’s play of color and light. Circumstances can force extraordinary acts upon ordinary people, and they do here. Think also of the broader conceit of a lone foreigner in what the French might call a colonie de vacances.

A Quiet Moment in the Violent 'Jesus'

A Quiet Moment in the Violent ‘Jesus’

Jesus, a French-Chilean co-production directed by Fernando Guzzoni, begins with a father-son tension in Chile’s conflict-ridden history, and conjures up the theme of martyrdom in its young cast of uncontrollable boys, some of whom are  fighting gay impulses inside them. Think of The Wild Boys by William Burroughs in a concrete landscape in Chile covered with graffiti. Working with non-professionals, Guzzoni captures the spiral of violence against the defenseless, as a drunken kid taken out of a nightclub is brutalized by the boys who mock him for being gay. The horrific scenes are a bravura view of action in drunkenness and darkness. Is it the legacy of more purposeful violence in earlier generations?

Jamais Contente, translated into English as Miss Impossible, is a family comedy that seems more suited for commercial television than for a film festival like TIFF. A pre-teen is fighting with her siblings and her parents, and there aren’t drug addicts here, or immigrants fleeing a genocide, or religious groups slaughtering each other. Where’s the drama?

A French Family at TIFF

A French Family at TIFF

Miss Impossible does have Lena Magnien, in the role of Aurore, a contentious girl of 13 who can offend her sisters, her parents and her teachers. Even with this young actress’s rare charm, there’s a striking messy realism here in Emilie Deleuze’s portrait of domestic bedlam, especially since things are not as bad in Aurore’s family as they could be.

In this subtle adaptation of Marie Deplechin’s novel, Jamais Contente: Le Journal d’Aurore, the family has a place to live, no one is suicidal, and the parents love their children. Yet within that bubble of comfort, Aurore’s battles with her teachers. The creation of a rock band (despite the limitations of her voice) makes for unexpected performances  – and perhaps a pilot for a television series? Just don’t expect the film to open in the US.

Lena Al Arabi in 'Noces'

Lina El Arabi in ‘Noces’

You can see the other side of family life in The Wedding (Noces) by Stephan Streker, in which a young woman in a Pakistani immigrant family in Belgium comes up against the honor of parents who expect to marry their daughter off to another Pakistani family. Zahira, the daughter, refuses, and she just happens to be pregnant by her boyfriend. The story, which seems taken right off the tabloid press, is now an everyday fact in western Europe. 

There’s not much style in Noces, and in the film’s everydayness there’s a reminder that practices that seemed buried in the past in Belgium are now part of that country’s culture.

The French doc at TIFF that got attention was Hissein Habre: A Chadian Tragedy, by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, a series of conversations with victims of the dictator who ruled Chad with savagery for decades, and reclined at leisure in Senegal after he was removed from power. Habre was protected from real accountability until the international criminal Court caught up with him. He is now serving a life term for his crimes.

Hissein Habre and Friend, the Good Old Days

Hissein Habre and Friend, the Good Old Days

 Despite its title, this doc is not Hissein Habre 101. If you don’t know how Habre came to power, you’ll need to go consult Wikipedia (or something more reliable) to prepare for the film, despite a pro forma preface from Haroun. You also might not know that Habre was supported by France and the US.

Habre ruled through repression and torture. Thousands of his victims were murdered, up to some 40 thousand, according to some estimates. Murder, in many of these cases, was dying in jail of neglect. Many more died from more deliberate means. We hear in gruesome detail what those explicit means were. Victims even drew pictures of their mistreatment, and we hear long accounts from those who survived prison of what those hellholes were like.  Men and women speak of unbearable conditions in prisons and go through lists of the dead. With no one else to bury the dead, prisoners dug their graves. Now they’re compiling inventories of the disappeared, most of which are sure to be incomplete. Habre is locked up, yet Chadians who killed their compatriots are free. One of them who was supposed to confront his victim on camera fails to show up.  Truth doesn’t always bring reconciliation. To ad insult to injury, Habre even has his own web-site, created by his family, that proclaims his innocence. Haroun’s doc, as we see, is a work in progress.

More soon on French films at the New York Film Festival, some of which I did not see at TIFF.

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