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The Midpoint of the Vancouver International Film Festival is here

From the front lines: CineFile checks in from the trenches of the 35th annual VIFF
Photograph from Elle

My time at the 35th annual Vancouver International Film Festival is up and running. I’m taking in about four films a day at venues throughout Metro Vancouver, all so I can report back to you and let you know the merriment and mirth heading your way through upcoming international releases. It’s all for you folks.

So let’s get right to it; here are some of my thoughts on films I have seen so far:

It’s quite possible UK director Terrence Davies will have two films on my best of the year list for 2016. It will have to be one hell of a great winter in cinemas to knock Sunset Song off the top ten, and now I have A Quiet Passion to reckon with, Davies’ portrait of American poet Emily Dickenson, played with grace, subtlety and fierce passion by a top-of-her-game Cynthia Nixon. Davies is one of those directors who clicks with me on a personal level. I love his even-handed, patient approach to storytelling. He is not an invisible director, instead using camera motion, gorgeous visuals and music to create a true cinematic experience, but one always devoted to the characters and the material. But even if you don’t marvel at Davies’ slow-burning direction as much as I do, I can’t imagine anyone not being blown away by Nixon. Her presence and passion as she unpacks this troubled but essential figure in literature and feminism, is beyond captivating, and she beautifully captures all the simmering emotions and pent up fury of this sensitive, determined woman.

Seeing A Quiet Passion early on the festival and falling in love with its exploration of truth, both personal and artistic, maybe didn’t do Milton’s Secret any favours when I caught up with the Canadian feature from Barnet Bain. Here’s a movie badly in need of a single character that doesn’t feel like a caricature and a line of dialogue that sounds like something someone might actually say, rather than a quote from a new age self-help book. Which, with Eckhart Tolle credited as a writer, is exactly what this film is: wishy-washy platitudes roughly thrown together as a movie. Not even Donald Sutherland enthusiastically, and charmingly, embracing his quirky hippie character roots can save this film from collapsing under the weight of its own self-importance. Judging from the audience I saw this with, I may be among the few who didn’t fall for the warmth and kindness the movie purports to encourage, but its clichés and superficial earnestness left me cold.

For a more clear-eyed form of realism, one needs only turn to Europe. There’s a certain brand of realism that is the staple of modern European cinema, generally speaking. Some of it is very good, especially when in the hands of directors such as the Dardenne brothers (whose film The Unknown Girl is also playing at VIFF) or Mia Hansen-Love, whose Eden made my list of the best films of 2015. I am growing a little tired of all the family drama, repressed emotions, invisible direction and ambiguous endings that dominate this style of filmmaking, but when done well it can be affective. Things to Come, Hansen-Love’s latest, is an example of this sort of filmmaking done well, even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Eden. Isabelle Huppert plays a philosophy professor dealing with a series of deeply disruptive life events as she comes to terms with loss, aging and an unwanted cat named Pandora. Ultimately, the film didn’t add up to much for me, but it was a compelling watch and Huppert is a pleasure to watch perform.

The Isabelle Huppert with Cats Film Festival continued with Elle, the latest from Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct). This is one I’m still digesting, and I’m not sure I’ll ever really get to the bottom of it. It’s another in the European hyper-realism mode, but with its troubling story of rape, evil and attraction, I’m still trying to figure out whether Verhoeven isn’t satirizing this entire approach to filmmaking. This is a very hard film to watch at times, and a difficult one to fully embrace, but it can’t be denied as a compelling, challenging piece of filmmaking, with a knockout performance from Huppert as a videogame designer with a deeply troubled past and a unique approach to the present. And if you only see one movie featuring Isabelle Huppert with a cat, let it be Elle.

For a change of pace, Jim Jarmusch’s Stooges doc Gimme Danger was a welcome change of pace. It’s energetic, bombastic and as determined to wring as much chaotic power out of every second as Iggy is charging through “Search and Destroy.” As an embarrassingly casual fan I didn’t know much about the history of the Stooges going on, which is often the best way to take in these films. I am growing a little weary of music docs; there’s a lot of them right now and in terms of form, they’re often pretty similar to one another. Gimme Danger has the inevitable origin story to rock gods trajectory, but with Iggy Pop’s colourful storytelling and Jarmusch’s determination to honour the bands anarchic spirit through his presentation of archival footage mixed with contemporary interviews and crude animations, there’s enough energy to put this film ahead of the pack. Basically, it’s a lot of fun, with great music and a kick-against-the-pricks attitude that had me appropriately riled up for a rock show I attended following the screening.

Ok, and some quick looks at other films I’ve seen:

The Canadian film Maudie, starring a rough Ethan Hawke and an outstanding Sally Hawkins, is a war, tender love story that at times borders on feeling like a Heritage Moment, but mostly manages to stay on the right side of that line. Heartwarming and lovely.

Being 17 is a French film about two teenage boys who start off fighting and end up…well, the opposite of fighting. With brave, nuanced performances from the two leads, this is a powerful look at finding your identity as a young person and having to deal with the weight of life for the first time.

Asghar Farhadi became an international sensation in the film world when the exquisite A Separation came out in 2011. For me, Farhadi has yet to live up the promise of that high-water mark (although About Elly, filmed before A Separation but released after, is excellent), and his latest, The Salesman, is another film that’s enjoyable but doesn’t add up to the cohesive whole I hoped for.  Farhadi is the master of the unspoken, of traditions influencing the choices we make now, revealed in only a look or a harshly spoken word. His talent for unpacking these subtle social cues with a light hand is still revelatory but perhaps too much was left ambiguous this time around.

And, for something completely different, The Love Witch started off strong, with a 1960s exploitation, Ken Russell kind of aesthetic I can get behind, but unfortunately it never really got off the ground, with a meandering, crawling plot that never lives up to the sexy, fiercely feminist promise of the early sections.

All for now, folks, but check back later in the week when I will reveal my picks for best of the fest. Happy trails.