by Bill Chambers I've been covering TIFF for, gulp, 25 years now. If I didn't expect to mark this silver anniversary in the confines of my living room, I have no complaints. Some of the show ponies were geoblocked for Canadian press or offline altogether, but although I'm fully vaccinated, I wasn't about to risk transmission or stew for hours in a mask to see the May-December romance Dear Evan Hansen, or another remake of Dune, or a Secret Steven Soderbergh Screening that turned out to be, lol, Kafka, which is almost as good a prank as moving Best Actor to the end of the Academy Awards ceremony. I did at least get to stream my white whale, Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog, so no regrets. No regrets, no complaints.
But the pandemic would not be ignored--which emerged as the theme of the Festival as I experienced it. Of the movies I watched, Dash Cam alone was explicitly set in our reality, yet others (Lakewood, The Humans, Mothering Sunday) seemed to place their characters in a protective bubble that only became one big COVID signpost. I suspect that much of the current cinema will, with distance, come to resemble zombie movies where the zombies are redacted--just this peculiar, foreboding desolation hemorrhaging into the subtext. TIFF movie after TIFF movie, however, raised the spectre of extinction, some uncannily (I'm Your Man, The Humans), some deliberately if not ghoulishly (Dash Cam, Silent Night). I don't know what exactly I expected from Alison Klayman's Jagged (**/****), a documentary about the creation and reception of Alanis Morrissette's disruptive 1995 album "Jagged Little Pill," but for all its superficial resemblance to a "Behind the Music" hagiography, it proved to be a veritable Tom Sawyer funeral--for radio, for the freedom of expression and richness of life experience that leads to a record like that, for Alanis herself. Front and centre for most of the film and conducting herself with poise, Alanis nevertheless disowned it prior to its TIFF premiere, saying the filmmakers had a "salacious agenda" and "lulled her into a false sense of security." While I realize Morrissette may regret commenting on her traumatic early experiences in the record industry during this victory lap (she shouldn't, but that's not for me to judge), I suspect she would find Jagged no less morbidly elegiac shorn of its sensationalistic asides.
Even a goony movie like Lakewood, featuring Naomi Watts as a mama bear who stops a school shooting via telephone from a patch of woods miles away, is depressing for how easily this could become the formula for Watts's very own Die Hard franchise. Status quo is restored at the end of Lakewood to the same variables that allowed for this harrowing day. Nothing changes now: between assault rifles and anti-vaxxers and a vengeful Mother Nature, senseless death is an everyday occurrence, and the socially-conscious crusaders are gradually losing the will to fight for change because they're constantly having to put out fires. Slowly, we've adapted to a holding pattern and made it the new normal. Camille Griffin's Silent Night (**½/****) captures the global apocalyptic mood in a very pure and very bitter way. Keira Knightley plays a mom and homemaker hosting Christmas dinner for family and old friends. At the end of the evening, they will bravely swallow their government-issued suicide pills before a swirling gas cloud outside can inflict horrible, painful deaths on them. Fans of Todd Berger's It's a Disaster will have déjà vu for a good portion of the film, but Silent Night goes harder in the homestretch with a seriocomic set-piece where Knightley's unravelling husband (Matthew Goode) keeps messing up his twin boys' last request for a Coke to wash down their goodbye-cruel-world capsules. Their other son (Jojo Rabbit's Roman Griffin Davis) is a precocious skeptic with a dawning sense of his free will. He's also a frightened little boy who wants to know why his parents insist on murdering him if he'd rather take his chances with the gas cloud.
Silent Night's fatalistic undertow--its commitment to the bit--is something to behold, and the child performers are fantastic: Davis has the looks and charisma of a tiny Rufus Sewell, while Davida McKenzie is indelible as the Veruca Salt-eseque Kitty, who clomp-clomps around in a Snow White outfit with perpetually-clenched fists. That being said, this is a more successful drama (or horror movie) than it is a comedy. The social satire is fairly toothless ("I should've voted Green," toasts one of these one-percenters), and the supporting cast members are all operating at such different frequencies that the friction they generate isn't particularly comic, with Lucy Punch and Kirby Howell-Baptiste's interracial lesbian couple displaying an anti-chemistry that's almost perverse. (Punch in general is always putting on a one-woman show.) And the last shot is a special sort of betrayal, though I understand the impulse: without it, the film would perhaps be untenably grim. Thing is, it's still untenably grim, except with an exclamation mark at the end of the sentence instead of a period.
Similarly albeit not as crudely a Song for Our Times, Michel Franco's Sundown (***/****) opens with Neal (Tim Roth), the wealthy scion of pork magnates, on vacation in Acapulco with his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her two grown children (Albertine Kotting McMillan and Samuel Bottomley), who are so glad to have Neal there that they hardly notice he isn't there, not in spirit. When word of her mother's passing finds Alice and the kids on the next plane home, Neal feigns a missing passport and stays behind, checking himself into a fleapit and parking himself among the throng of tourists and locals on the beach. He ghosts Alice, who eventually returns to Acapulco demanding to know what's going on with him, but there are no words. Neal, in a goodwill gesture, decides to sign over his share of the family business to her. That's when things get really complicated for this man, who seems to be seeking inner peace through outer peace. How can you die in grace when the world's collapsing around you?
New Order, Franco's last TIFF entry, was so eager to be part of the conversation that it practically watched itself and wrote its own thinkpieces. Sundown isn't immune to Franco's adolescent-feeling impulse to shock, but there's room for the viewer here. The logical explanation provided for Neal's weltschmerz isn't the whole story, and what begins as a critique of cultural tourism in the vein of "The White Lotus" becomes a broader rumination on coping with white guilt when it finally catches up with you and it's frankly too late to do much about it. (The hallucinatory image of a hog in a prison shower extrapolates all his weary shame.) Sundown is the rare movie to suggest that mindfulness, in the new-age sense, is actually kind of paralyzing. I can't say I'd describe it as a hopeful film, then, although it is a curiously palliative one.
Before we close the book on TIFF '21: I loved Arsalan Amiri's riveting folktale Zalava, in which a Gendarmerie sergeant (Navid Pourfaraj) is determined to protect the superstitious residents of a Kurdistan village from both themselves and a shaman (Pouria Rahimi Sam) who captures evil spirits in a jar. With his early-Travolta looks and smouldering intensity, Pourfaraj is a born movie star. I was won over by the bold colours and noble agenda of Brazilian writer-director Anita Rocha de Silveira's savage Medusa, a quasi-musical about the nonexistent line between fanatical religion and fascism centred on a group of Mean Girls for Jesus. And I'm still soaring from One Second, Zhang Yimou's Paper Moon-ish ode to fathers, daughters, and the dead art of film projection. It features the character of the year, the imperious but ultimately kind Mr. Movie (Wei Fan), whose proof that he's the best projectionist in all of China is that it says so on his coffee mug. Though he obviously relishes the opportunity to play film restorer and save the day, Mr. Movie is apoplectic when a canister of celluloid unspools onto the dirt road, in large part because he's out of cleaning fluid. Later, he confesses the reason there's no cleaning fluid is that his son drank some as a toddler and neither of them ever quite recovered from it. One Second is cute by any measure but emotional devastation is always just around the corner. I was grateful for the feels.