TIFF 2014: On Magic, Dance Clubs and the Ottoman Empire

By: Daniel Reynolds

It’s Day 7 of TIFF, I’m four movies in and haven’t even broken a sweat. I’ll admit that I may have back-loaded the schedule a bit. As my intro column outlined, we’ve still got five films to go – and the potential for an additional film here or there remains high. But enough about the future, let’s look at what’s already been seen.

Magical Girl.

Magical Girl.

Magical Girl

Think of the structure of early Quentin Tarantino – the partitions, the overlapping scenes. Now, remove much of the cultural pastiche and music from his films, amp up the creep factor to a more David Lynch level, and crank up the violent tension. You are beginning to arrive at something like Magical Girl. Directed by Carlos Vermut of Spain, Magical Girl concerns itself with three people. Luis, Barbara and Damian – parceled out as The World, The Devil and The Flesh. Don’t ask me what those signify. Each of their obsessions maybe? For Luis, his 13 year old daughter Alicia is dying of leukemia. He’ll do anything to keep her happy as she marches towards certain death. To do this, he’ll need money. Barbara is troubled, she makes horrifying jokes at terrible times; her psychiatrist husband is concerned (and majorly condescending). She is blackmailed by Luis and to get money she’ll put herself at the mercy of some unsavoury characters. Damian is a teacher, he likes jigsaw puzzles. His role in the film remains largely obscured until the final third.

Vermut uses a still camera and frames his scenes for maximum suspense. A note of violence hangs over the entire film like a string stretched taut. His actors Luis Bermejo, Barbara Lennie, Jose Sacristan, play the aggrieved father, troubled wife and overwhelmed retiree with the appropriate notes of disquiet. The construction of the film is a gimmick, but not entirely. We are given time with each character and get to understand what puts them on the path – however desperate it may be – that they are on. I don’t mean to sound intentionally vague, but what rewards there are to be found in Magical Girl are best found by approaching with little fore knowledge. Just pretend it’s a jigsaw puzzle for which the final image is a total mystery. Vermut’s film is intriguing enough that you’ll want to keep working at it, but its final effect left me feeling like every jigsaw puzzle: flat.

Eden.

Eden.

Eden

Many movies can be said to be of a scene or moment. Blow Up is very much a 60’s mod movie, Almost Famous rolls with 70’s hard rock. But what then, of 90’s electronica? With Mia Hanson-Love‘s Eden we now have an answer. Starting in 1992, the film follows a gaggle of optimistic French youths as they travel through the dance clubs and raves of Paris, before moving to New York, Chicago and back to Paris again. By the end in 2013, we’ve seen the rise and fall of the garage brand of electronica. One such hopeful DJ, Paul (Felix de Givry) is there at the start, enjoying the nascent music scene, hobnobbing with club luminaries and dreaming of his own glittering musical empire. Hanson-Love directs Eden much like her previous films, with a naturalist flair that favours handheld cameras and an absence of melodrama. Paul and his friends go through good times and bad, and we see it all. The highs include a fling with a traveling American writer (played with vague interest by Greta Gerwig) and a friendship with a young Daft Punk (who’s presence become something of a running joke in the film). The bad times are the usual combination of late nights, early mornings, sex, drugs and disco.

Eden is an easy film to recommend with its combination of fun parties, great music and the relentless energy of youth. Paul glides along, riding a wave he believes will last forever. Hanson-Love never pushes or pulls us in one way or the other, she just calmly guides her characters from innocence into adulthood. The finest image in the film however is at the beginning; it’s a morning after exodus from the woods after a rave. The Eden imagery is inescapable. Knowledge is coming and not everyone gets to become Daft Punk.

Theeb.

Theeb.

Theeb

The word theeb means wolf in Arabic. The boy Theeb is one of three brothers, the youngest son to a Bedouin sheikh. Like any other boy, he wants to be bigger, braver, stronger – like the men he sees gathered around the campfire at night. These are men who can travel great distances across the desert, men that others – mostly religious pilgrims – trust to guide them safely through the harsh environment. Despite the vastness around him, Theeb’s world is very small, until two men come wandering in from the darkness; one is an Arab, the other an English soldier.

The film Theeb, directed by first timer Naji Abu Nowar, takes place in 1915. It is a time of great unrest in the Middle East region. World War I is breaking out and the Ottoman Empire and its expansive train plan is facing down the Arab Revolt. Nowar uses this rich setting to zero in on the people in the margins of this period: the Bedouins. For Theeb and his brother Hussein to take these two men across the desert is no great hardship. Only the Englishman seems perturbed when Theeb tags along. It’s the soldier’s trinkets that charm Theeb – a lighter, a pocket watch with the picture of a woman (the only one seen throughout), and a mysterious wooden box. The scenery bears down on them with that unique effect only the desert can conjure, that of being both totally isolated yet feeling constantly watched. The music swells appropriately. It is clear that the Englishman is on a mission, one that Theeb cannot understand until his group’s story spins into a different direction in the second half of the film. A new companion arrives and the actions of history clang closer and closer into Theeb’s vision, ready with lessons on survival, brotherhood, and – quite literally – sticking to your guns. Early in the film Theeb hears that the strong eat the weak. Later, Theeb himself says it, still sounding unsure of its meaning. It is only at the end of the film, when faced with his first real choice, does he truly understand. With Theeb, Nowar has created a powerful and rare film – one that appreciates both the huge sweep of history and the small steps of the personal. Go see it.

Two Days, One Night

Two Days, One Night

Two Days, One Night

The conceit of a film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is usually very simple. The brothers have been making films together since the 70s, and have refined a realist technique that can modestly be named after them. In their film, Two Days, One Night, a young Belgian mother named Sandra (Marion Cotillard) learns she has lost her job because her coworkers opted to take their bonuses rather than keep her on staff. A vote was taken, and Sandra lost. The boss agrees to allow for a second vote to take place on Monday morning, which gives Sandra the weekend to convince the majority to let her keep her job. That’s the Dardennes, wrapping a personal struggle in with a subtle social critique and a bracing style that clutches at reality.

As Sandra, Cotillard anchors the film. Her character is coming back to work after some unspecified time away due to mental illness. Her face alternates between radiant movie star smiles, and crumpled despair. One gets the feeling that the plant manager would prefer if she’d just stay away. But with the help of her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) she marches from house to house, opening a window into the lives of a diverse set of people. It’s been said that everyone believes themselves to be the protagonist of their own story. With Two Days, One Night, the Dardennes push this statement to its extreme. In each situation Sandra is asked to look into the eyes of another and ask them to sacrifice for her. But, they all have problems – with money, with relationships, with just trying to make things work on the margins of Belgian society. The Dardennes’ films are lo-fi productions, but they almost never feel cheap. Even the ease at which Sandra appears to bounce back from depressive moods feels earned. She will not be defeated. For a film to create such a rousing story out of such a simple and simply presented premise is something of an achievement. By any other director we’d call it Dardennes-esque.

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Hang in there fellow TIFF-ers and enjoy the rest of the festival. We’ve still got four more days of films to watch. What other gems could be waiting for us? Check back on the Same Page after the festival for more TIFF reviews and discussion.

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