Monday, October 22, 2007


Every fall in Montreal, a seemingly small festival sneaks in with the colder weather. I had never paid it much mind in the past. It always appeared as too experimental for my taste. This year though, I was asked to cover the festival and interview directors so I had to put my entirely unfounded apprehension aside and deal with my fear of the experimental. If only I had done so sooner. As it turns out, there is very little that is experimental about the FESTIVAL NOUVEAU CINEMA. The festival is dedicated to showcasing new and original works from the independent field of cinema. New films by Denys Arcand, Brian De Palma and Gregg Araki were screening. Films that were already working the festival circuit, like PERSEPOLIS and LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, were screening. And then there were the three films I caught that I am now presenting to you – FUGITIVE PIECES, DEFICIT and I’M NOT THERE. One is by an experienced director whose works are only getting bigger all the time; one is by an actor-turned-first-time-director who should perhaps stick to what he’s already good at; and the last is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

Jeremy Podeswa. The name meant nothing to me when I was asked to schedule an interview with him to discuss his new film, FUGITIVE PIECES. The night before the screening of the film, I sat down to watch a season two episode of SIX FEET UNDER, entitled “The Invisible Woman.” The opening credits were rolling and there it was, “Directed by Jeremy Podeswa.” I paused for a moment to grasp the coincidental timing of it all as this was just the next episode in line on my trek to rewatch the series. By the time the episode, in which a woman dies alone in her home and no one discovers her for three weeks, was finished, I could not wait for the screening. Podeswa not only allows his characters to be flawed, he encourages it. At the same time, he does not lay blame on the characters for their troubles but rather forgives them and gives them the space to understand themselves. FUGITIVE PIECES is sweeping and romantic but still hard and honest. When Jakob is a young boy (Robbie Kay) in Poland, he is hidden under a table by his mother before Nazis break into the home, kill both his parents and leave with his older sister. He survives the ordeal and the war but years later (now played by Stephen Dillane), as he struggles with relationships and himself in Canada, it is clear, he is still hiding under that same table and praying for it all to end. The film defines itself by its nuanced performances, tight storytelling and unorthodox editing, choosing to tell both Jakob’s story as a boy and as an adult simultaneously instead of one after the other. The result is an intimate portrayal of his life with an understanding of how he became who he did and desperate longing for him to realize whom he could be.

Gael Garcia Bernal is a talented actor. He brings depth and innocent curiosity to his performances. The roles he takes on are often socially relevant and insightful contemplations on human interaction. After so many years in the business, making the move to directing would seem like a natural progression for someone of his pedigree. Somehow, this is simply not the case. His first feature, DEFICIT, is aimless. Any point it thinks it might be trying to make is entirely undermined by lack of driving action in the plot and the exhausted clichés that are used as character definition. Bernal stars in his own movie as Cristobel, a spoiled, young college student who has come to his Mexico home for the weekend to party it up with some friends. He gets to the house. His sister is already there with friends. His friends show up. They party by the pool. They drink and do drugs. The boys try to get with the girls. Someone almost overdoses. He cries about how he’s lonely and can’t get into the college of his choice. People go home. The movie ends. The young party goers all seem to be having a grand time but why would I want to watch this? Quite frankly, I’d rather be at such a party than watch other people have it. Throughout the day, Cristobel makes looks and comments at the house staff so it would appear as though he is trying to point out the disdain between classes. It is so plain a statement, so obvious in its execution and so underdeveloped that it hurts the film more than it helps. Why bother trying to make a point when you’re not quite sure what point it is you’re trying to make?

And then there was that Dylan movie everyone’s talking about. This is the one where six different people play different incarnations of the American icon from his illustrious life. There is no sequence to the story; there are no boundaries in the casting. Todd Haynes’ I’M NOT THERE is simply the most accessible experimental film I have seen and the most original film of this year so far. Throughout his life, Bob Dylan has filled many roles. He has been a folk-singer, a sellout, a husband, an outlaw, a hero and, at one point, he was someone he was not. Much like FUGITIVE PIECES, Dylan’s story is told in a fragmented fashion to paint the complete picture of this one complex man. Each fraction of his life is a story unto itself but intrinsically linked to the whole and each features a different actor playing the Dylan part. Albeit fine performances are delivered by Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and even Richard Gere, it is Cate Blanchette’s performance that is most memorable and most moving. She plays Dylan at a very low point in his life. His fans worldwide have turned on him, accusing him of being a sellout and going against everything he ever stood for. He has also traded sleep for drugs, making it near impossible to stop shaking his leg. In this time of confusion, all he is trying to get across is that he never believed he could change the world with a song despite everyone wanting him to do just that. Blanchette plays him as righteous, put upon and fragile and she is a marvel in this man’s shoes. I’M NOT THERE implies that Dylan is at the same time none of these people and still all of them at once. Haynes’ direction of the brave effort is genuine in intention, not the least bit pretentious and creatively alive – just like the man whose portrait it paints so beautifully.

As the festival has now wrapped, I can look back and honestly say that covering it – from morning press screenings to free passes to interviewing directors to mocha javas in between – has made me feel more like a legitimate film critic than I ever have before. Funny how being a part of something designed to distance itself from the mainstream managed to make me feel so included.

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