Arriving as it does at the end of major festival season—after Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Telluride, and half of Venice—the Toronto International Film Festival is a smorgasbord of world cinema, with hundreds of movies forming a mosaic of a given movie year, at least for North American critics and attendees. It can be fascinating to see how a film’s reputation from an earlier festival debut can change once it gets to Toronto, when the critical winds might be blowing in another direction. When Vincent Gallo premièred The Brown Bunny in Cannes, for example, it was a calamity of the first order, with the late Roger Ebert declaring it the worst film ever to screen in competition and Gallo, in turn, mocking Ebert’s weight and putting a “hex” on his colon. Gallo came back to Toronto with a re-edited cut—which actually won Ebert’s approval and led to a reconciliation—and the response was much kinder, which went some distance in salvaging the film’s reputation.
That’s an extreme example of a phenomenon that’s generally more of the items-may-shift-during-flight variety, but we’re seeing it happen again with Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is The Warmest Color. Back in May, when the sprawling three-hour love story premièred at Cannes, there was widespread consensus that it would win the Palme D’Or, which it did, with a special citation for its director and its two stars, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. There were rumblings of a backlash, to be sure, led by Julie Maroh, who wrote the graphic novel on which the film is based and likened its explicit 10-minute lesbian sex scene to hetero pornography. But over the past week, ugly stories have emerged about Kechiche’s bullying directorial style, with both actresses now saying that, having suffered through five and a half months of humiliation (the sex scene alone took 10 days) and torment, they’d never work with him again. So now a setpiece that drew spontaneous applause at Cannes for its audacity and inhibition is being viewed through a much cloudier filter—that of two uncertain, uncomfortable young actresses being put through an ordeal.
But you know what hasn’t changed about Blue Is The Warmest Color as it has made its way from Cannes to Toronto? Blue Is The Warmest Color. Details from a bad shoot are extra-textual: They don’t inform, they pollute. The thing I saw projected is not unlike countless other coming-of-age stories about sexual awakening and romantic turmoil—Mia Hansen-Løve’s superior Goodbye, First Love from two years ago leaps to mind—but Kechiche sets his apart by making the intimate epic in scale. Over three-hours-plus, the film follows Exarchopoulos’ uncertain teenager as she discovers her place on the Kinsey scale (about a five, I’d say), falls hard for a lesbian artist (Seydoux), and experiences the ecstasy and the agony that goes along with first love. Just as Kechiche’s brilliant The Secret Of The Grain culminated in an electrifying Big Night-style finale, Blue Is The Warmest Color allows key scenes to play out over a sustained stretch—not just the sex scene, but confrontations that explode with different shows of passion. It’s likely that Exarchopoulos and Seydoux were put under great duress to bring scenes like those across. It doesn’t make those scenes less powerful. Or it shouldn’t, anyway.
On the other end of the Cannes explicitness spectrum, the male form gets near-constant exposure in Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By The Lake, an insinuating gay “thriller” (pardon the necessary scare quotes) that questions the carefree pursuit of pleasure. Set entirely on a section of beach where men swim, sunbathe, and socialize in the nude, often as a prelude to furtive hookups in the woods behind them, the film is about an unusual murder case. Its hero Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), an affable and handsome young cruiser, witnesses Michel (Christophe Paou) drown his lover in the lake, but he doesn’t act on it. Instead he takes Michel as a lover himself and lies when an inspector comes asking about it.
If Stanley Kubrick hadn’t already taken the title, Stranger By The Lake could just as well be called Fear And Desire, given the emotional state that accounts for Franck’s moral paralysis. Guiraudie indicts Franck and others for their heedless sexual indulgence, but he also ties it to a subculture that’s still cordoned off from society at large and inclined to protect itself from outside judgment. He’s guilty of spelling out this thesis on more than one occasion, but the film is admirably focused on getting the scene right, presenting its nudity and at-times-unsimulated sex with a casualness that figure into Franck’s refusal to confess what he witnessed. He has sex without a condom, too. He’s willing to risk it.
To stay with Cannes-sure-was-super-this-year theme, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive may be his best film since Dead Man, and like Dead Man, it offers a distinctly Jarmuschian take on a well-traveled genre—in this case, the vampire movie. Though he follows two vampires whose love spans centuries—one (Tilda Swinton) residing in Tangiers, the other (Tom Hiddleston) in Detroit—Jarmusch couldn’t care less about florid romanticism and passion, and he minimizes the violence and heavy mythos that tend to go along with these things, too. (The vamps drink blood from secondary sources rather than live hosts, and they react to it with an strung-out ecstasy that recalls The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.”)
Flush with the humor and allusion of Jarmusch’s best work, Only Lovers Left Alive holds off on any major incident until late in the game, directing much of its fascination toward the condition of two people spending so much time on Planet Earth. Hiddleston collects electric guitars, cuts records, and fiddles with Tesla-inspired technology and alchemy; Swinton is a voracious reader and thinker. Both have tremendous wisdom and insight into the scope of human (or “zombie,” as they call us) history, and the follies that appear to be leading the globe to extinction. It’s a hangout movie with many pleasures small and large, including a typically eclectic soundtrack and sharp turns by Anton Yelchin as an enthusiastic black market wheeler-dealer and John Hurt as a droll Christopher Marlowe. The vampire genre needed this movie desperately.
Also seen: Prisoners, a star-packed white-knuckler from the director of Incendies, reminded me of those countless paperback thrillers that came out after Seven, jamming the story of a kidnapping with lots of red herrings and lurid detail. It’s a much better than the knockoffs, with a superb performance by Jake Gyllenhaal in full Zodiac mode, but its children-in-peril plot is unsavory to the extreme. François Ozon’s Young & Beautiful applies his pristine style and structure to the sexual travails of a 17-year-old whose fucked-up impulses lead her astray. And Iran’s Jafar Panahi follows up his contraband This Is Not A Film with Closed Curtain, another missive from house arrest, but here his confinement takes the form of abstract drama rather than docu-diary. Panahi’s Pirandello-like creations didn’t resonate as strongly with me as others, but we all agree that the film has one of the all-time great screen dogs.