CineFile’s Victoria Film Festival opening weekend roundup

I’ve seen 10 movies in four days. My friends and family are wondering where I am. I've forgotten what they look like. Totally worth it.

Ari Folman's The Congress has proven to be the favourite film so far of the Victoria Film Festival for writer Kyle Wells.

Ari Folman's The Congress has proven to be the favourite film so far of the Victoria Film Festival for writer Kyle Wells.

Well after a fabulous, and fabulously busy, opening weekend, the Victoria Film Festival is in full swing as it heads through its 10-day schedule of local and international films, documentaries and narratives, shorts and longs, guest speakers and art installations.

So far it has been a blast.

I’ve managed to catch 10 movies in the first four days of the festival, along with three speaker series presentations and one gala party featuring absinthe. My friends and family are wondering where I am and I’ve forgotten what they look like, but it’s a film festival, you know?

I present here some brief impressions of some of the films I have seen.

The first film I saw is probably thus far my favourite of the festival. I missed the gala screening of the Alan Partridge movie purely because I knew I had to see the one and only screening of Ari Folman’s new film, The Congress.

Folman is the director behind the 2008 animated memoir Waltz With Bashir, which was one hell of a film. He’s back with a part-life action, part-animated, all-captivating dive into the deep end.

This is one of those movies where I wasn’t immediately sure of what I had seen, but I knew it had been something incredible. It’s a movie which really comes with its own cinematic language, nothing in my background of film studies really felt applicable to helping me approach this movie. Which is exciting.

I was asked by someone who hadn’t seen The Congress what it was about. This is not an easy question. It’s about an actress named Robin Wright, played by Robin Wright, who, in the twilight of her mostly-failed career, is convinced to sign away, well, herself, as an actor and an image.

She is scanned so the studio can use the young Robin Wright, without the need for the real Robin Wright, in movies for all time. It is her final role.

But that really isn’t what the film is about. It’s also about family, about choices, about age, reality, corporatism, love, totalitarianism, entertainment and technology. At least I think it is. That’s what I got out of it, anyone else may have walked away with a completely different impression.

And that’s the beauty of this film. It’s wildly ambitious in scope, but also comes off as a deeply personal project and one which is, despite its lofty ideas, emotionally available. I didn’t always understand why I was so emotionally involved, but I was, undoubtably.

With beautiful animation, great performances (particularly from Wright and, in one scene in particular, Harvey Keitel) and stunning scope, The Congress is one to watch out for as it is rolled out this year.

Next up was Sarah Prefers to Run, from Quebecois director Chloé Robichaud, a real grounded movie (literally about feet hitting the ground) to follow The Congress with.

Sarah (Sophie Desmarais) is a high school track star, who gets accepted to McGill and moves to Montreal to continue her track career. She has little money so agrees to marry her friend and roommate Antoine (Jean-Sebastien Courchesne) to increase bursary eligibility. The arrangement leads to complications as Sarah explores her sexuality and faces a health concern.

It’s a compelling film primarily thanks to the performance of Desmarais, who is stunningly beautiful but manages to pull off a painfully believable portrayal of a shy, uncertain girl who is only sure of one thing: she likes to run.

Unfortunately, as with most things, life gets in the way of this simple desire and by the end of the film we have no idea of what is going to happen to Sarah.

The film is a great character study but I found the end puzzling. After what has so far been a straight-faced film the tone turns shockingly dissonant and fractured, leaving a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth as the credits role. It’s not that the ending is bad in and of itself, it’s just nothing in the film has led to its tone, it feels out of place and dishonest to what has preceded it.

But it’s a small grievance I had with what was otherwise a captivating film, with the highlight being the performance from Desmarais.

After a fascinating speaker series with Atom Egoyan where he spoke of his childhood in Victoria, the beginnings of his obsession with secret lives and a rare screening of parts of his unreleased 2004 documentary on his trip with his wife to her homeland of Lebanon (which were fantastic and Egoyan should release the film), we were treated to a screening of his newest film Devil’s Knot.

The film, about the West Memphis Three murder, is, as Egoyan explained, a look at truth and tragedy and their fickle nature. The title is in reference to a knot which the more you pick at it, the tighter it gets, with suggested similarity to this case, which remains mostly unsolved.

The problem with Devil’s Knot, and unfortunately there is one, perhaps lies in approach. Egoyan shows an intense commitment to the facts of the case, which I admired, with an attention to detail and a procedural approach to the investigation and subsequent trial. What was missing for me was an emotional connection, perhaps corrupted by the film’s choice to treat the movie as an ensemble piece, with no real protagonist through which to enter this world.

Colin Firth is about the closest we come to this, as an investigator working for the defence, but his performance is also cold and calculating and while I understood his obsession, I never became invested with him as a person. Perhaps he wasn’t a cinematic enough character for me, I’m not sure, but something about the performance and the portrayal kept me at a distance.

Reese Witherspoon as the mother of one of the murdered boys is also meant to establish an emotional connection, and while Witherspoon does her best, she is perhaps asked to do too much with too little, particularly in regards to screen time.

The material has been the subject of four previous documentaries, none of which I have seen. Egoyan said this film is for people like me. Honestly, I walked away feeling I would have got more, or the same thing, out of seeing the docs. It’s a fascinating case and the film often captures that, but in the end it felt more like a calculated exercise in investigative filmmaking, which didn’t make for a good movie.

Our Man in Tehran has the opposite intentions of Devil’s Knot, in that it is a documentary hoping to clear up some of the inaccuracies present in a fictionalized, highly entertaining movie about the Iran hostage crisis.

The film was in the works before Argo, but the filmmakers all but said outright in their speaker series presentation that Argo’s failures were their gains.

The film’s title refers to Ken Taylor, Canada’s ambassador to Iran during the crisis, whose role in helping Americans attempting to escape the country after their embassy had been taken over is largely glossed over in Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning take on the subject.

I was not a huge fan of Argo, partly because I found it entertaining but vapid, and even more so when I realized just how much of it was complete nonsense, historically speaking. Our Man in Tehran is proof that often the true story is the greater one, with the diplomatic and political wheelings and dealings of the crisis just as captivating as a made-up runway chase scene.

As someone born after the crisis, with little knowledge of it beyond Argo, Our Man in Tehran proved to be essential viewing. I learned about the events, felt privy to a compelling look at the roles and rules of diplomacy and came to understand the importance of the crisis to Canada’s international role, to the changing face of warfare and revolution and to the role of journalism, and film itself, in history.

Our Man in Tehran is a straight-laced, clear-headed look at an important event, expertly made and effectively presented. Much better than Argo, let’s put it that way.

Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy couldn’t be more different from his first English-language feature and USA breakthrough film Prisoners, which will be a good thing for some, and a baffling disappointment for others. A bizarre little movie, Enemy is a claustrophobic, menacing film which constantly blurs the line between reality, dream and nightmare.

On its surface it’s about a man who discovers his exact doppelgänger in a movie and becomes obsessed with contacting him. But it’s also about identity, sex and spiders. It’s a dark, brooding film, but keeps its pace tight and manages to be fascinating while perplexing. I can’t say I loved it, but it has stuck with me and I certainly enjoyed the experience of watching it.

First time English director Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant is a stark narrative feature about misfit youth who get involved in the world of illegal scrap metal dealing. The linear narrative film is full of rich performances and has a devastating outcome, leaving the overall impression of having seen something important to the discussion of the current state of England, the shortcomings of the education system and the importance of family and friendship.

Richie Mehta’s Siddharth is another look at family and hardship in tough economic conditions, but despite the tragedy of its story, is as much about the kindness of community and the human will to keep going.

It’s an emotional film, following a father attempting to find his abducted son in India, but appropriately so. As Mehta, who is attending the festival, explained to me, it is a true story and a real issue in India, where abduction of children is common.

But Mehta wasn’t out to merely capture misery, and the more powerful aspects of the film are found in the kindness of strangers, a wonderful ensemble of characters who help the father on his quest. So many movies would have presented obstacle after obstacle, with menace and indifference at all corners, but Mehta sees the good in people. His film is all the more powerful for it.

Finally, Stranger By the Lake, my Number 1 pick for the festival, proved to be one heck of a movie, though I don’t believe my praise would equal the fever pitch of the European critics.

This homoerotic tale is heavy on the sex and nudity, and also on the intrigue and violence surrounding the investigation into a murder at a popular lakeside cruising spot in France. The entire film is confined to the one location and it plays out as a theatrical Agatha Christie-type thriller, only we know whodunnit and we’ve also seen his penis.

As much an important film to normalize actual gay sex, as opposed to the eunuch type homosexual characters we commonly see on TV and in Hollywood movies, Stranger By the Lake is pornographic in content, if not intent. It’s akin to 9 Songs (2004) in its graphic detail, but, unlike the Winterbottom film, is also affective as pure narrative.

I enjoyed the commitment to the setting, the exploration of the borders of the beach and woods, the connections found and lost of the characters which inhabit the various areas. Sex, love and the desperate longing for connection motivate these characters, influencing them to commit or ignore horrible acts. It’s a boiled down microcosm of human interaction.

It’s not a political film but a personal one, where the homosexuality of the characters is treated as commonplace as the heterosexuality of characters in most movies, helping our connection to the characters be as fellow humans, with the usual flaws and fascinations.

Compelling, erotic and entertaining, Stranger By the Lake will likely be marginalized due to its graphic content, but those who have the chance to see it, should.

So there we are, a far-too-long check in. The festival continues, and so to will my coverage, until Feb. 16. Visit VictoriaFilmFestival.com for showtimes and ticket information. Follow @CineFileBlog on Twitter for ongoing coverage. Hope to see you there.

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