Sunday, August 31, 2008

Black Sheep @ The 2008 Montreal World Film Festival

The Montreal World Film Festival attracts a very particular crowd. It is an appreciative crowd, both respectful and intelligent. For two weeks at the end of August every year, Montrealers craving truly international and independent fare have the opportunity to congregate and marvel at the best the world has to offer. As per usual, I caught what I could. I was pleasantly surprised by some and astonished by others. Good or bad, I was amongst my peers and the Montreal World Film Festival is a community well worth being counted amongst. Although, I must ask, who is in charge of their marketing? Look at that poster! Cats in glasses and hats? C'mon.

Festival head, Serge Losique, is notorious for disliking American fare and so, just like the previous years, this festival was very light on the kind of splashy Hollywood pictures that attract so many to the upcoming Toronto film festival. Still, Losique did manage a sizeable coup with the festival’s opening night selection, FAUBOURG 36. Hailing from France, as one might be able to deduce from the title, PARIS 36, as it is known in English, is Christophe Barratier’s second feature film and follow up to his international debut, LES CHORISTES. While his first feature effort was brazenly honest, direct and unexpectedly hopeful, FAUBOURG 36 is decidedly theatrical – appropriate considering its setting in a dying Parisian theatre. The vaudevillian players that run the show and weave in and out of corridors and dressing rooms know this space as if it were their home and fight for it, again as though it were their home, when it is shut down just before the start of the second world war. Actors don’t fight with guns though; they fight with words and songs and laughter. In order to save their own jobs and livelihood, a trio of amateurs do the only thing they know how to and put on a show. Barratier exerts a strong command of his extravagant picture, balancing delicately between the romanticism and idealism of realizing your dreams and the hardships and tension felt amongst the Parisian people during the trying time. My only true complaint is that the main plot is bookended by a murder that adds nothing and is far less interesting than the formal plight. It is as though the show comes back for one too many encores.

Losique may not like Hollywood productions but the American fare he finds sometimes is embarrassing. No offence to the well-intentioned cast and crew, most of whom were present for the screening I attended, but Ron Satlof’s MISCONCEPTIONS was so ridiculously off the mark that it had no business playing as part of the festival. I feel awful bad mouthing the lot of them because they were all so happy at the screening but it was a miracle I didn’t get up in the middle of it all and scream uncontrollably so I have to get this out before it gives me an ulcer. Nothing about this farce makes any sense. It opens at some Jesus picnic in the South somewhere. Two sisters are peddling their wares (a catering company called “Fishes & Loaves”) when one decides to carry a fertilized embryo that had been liberated from a lab where it would have been used for (gasp) stem cell research. The other can’t seem to get her husband to entertain the notion of another child after they lost their first child to some rare syndrome five years prior. It is this night that Jesus tells her in a prayer that finds her falling back on to the floor in Hallelujah-style ecstasy that she should seek out the interracial gay couple she saw on late night cable and carry their child for them. Considering how much Jesus hates gays in that part of the world, this is pretty shocking to her. This would also explain why she lies to her husband. Apparently, lying is a commandment that is only loosely followed. Let’s see, what else happens? Her husband flips out when he finally finds out and sues her for custody of the child that doesn’t belong to her. Her sister’s husband has an affair and she decides she wants nothing to do with the devil children she is carrying. Oh, and one of the gay guys (the costume designer/ choreographer) can’t find his Prada shoes when his boyfriend reminds him that he returned that gift. What self-respecting gay man would return Prada? Nonsense, through and through.

I returned home from the states to watch a Quebec-produced premiere, LE BANQUET. It was a red carpet affair, which meant that the general film going public, including the press apparently, had to sit on the upper levels of the theatre to make room for the industry to fill the entire first floor. Ordinarily, this would tick me off but I wouldn’t have wanted to have been any closer to this film from skilled Quebec director, Sebastien Rose. LE BANQUET is a bizarre experience. On the one hand, it is a technical marvel. The film moves so smoothly and Rose exerts a tight control over the numerous storylines that all revolve loosely around a particular Montreal university. The color shifts from soothing blue to sparse white and the editing between scenes or moments is so specific, calculated and executed perfectly. Still, for all its formal perfection, it is a very cold experience that is hard to appreciate simply because it is so heavy. Rose, who co-wrote the screenplay with his father, Hubert-Yves Rose, also a film director, explores the education system by asking pertinent questions. Is education really for everybody? Do universities just let anyone in these days as long as their cheques clear? Would increased tuition for students help elevate the level of education or simply make it impossible for those less fortunate to attend? While these are all relevant and intriguing questions, the answers are better discussed over dinner than on film. After all, this is not a documentary so how does one explore serious, political issues in a narrative setting? A lot of talking, that’s how – too much talking. With all its mechanical mastery, LE BANQUET is the TRAFFIC of the Quebec educational system without any of the emotional impact or future insight.

Sometimes, given the obscure unknown nature of the titles, all you can go on is the title itself. And when a film has a title like, THE CHICKEN, THE FISH AND THE KING CRAB, how can you pass it up? This documentary from Spain follows Spanish chef, Jesus Almagro, as he, his assistant and team of a dozen or so consultants prepare for the Bocuse d’Or, an international cooking competition held annually in Lyons, France. If I happened to be one of these people with hours upon countless hours of time to waste, I would spend a good chunk of them watching the Food Network so the idea of going behind the scenes of a cooking competition truly wet my appetite. Sadly, the cinematography in this film has got nothing on the popular television station. If I can’t eat it, I’d better be able to devour it with my eyes and this film, from Jose Louis Lopez-Linares, famed Spanish director and cinematographer, does nothing to get you salivating. Unlike other docs that focus on competitions, this one follows only the Spanish. There are occasional testimonials from other participants but nothing so extensive that you actually get a strong sense of what the world is cooking. Instead, with Spanish bearing the weight of the focus, we can only root for them to win. Spreading the love improves your chances of following a winner but narrowing the focus makes it all do or die. We do grow to love the earnest, Spanish chef but what we’re left to sit with is not a wide bouquet of flavor, rather it is a bittersweet after taste.

One of my favorite things about this festival is the unexpected surprise. There isn’t always a plethora of information available on each title so sometimes you’ve just got to leave it to fate. China’s PARKING was that picture for me this year. First time filmmaker and writer, Chung Mong-Hong, makes a strong mark with his startling debut. It isn’t perfect but its tone and originality are as striking as they are haunting. Popular Chinese actor, Chen Chang, plays Chen Mo, a man going through an extreme bit of bad luck. It is Mother’s Day and all he has to do is pick up some cake to bring home to his wife so that they can share a much needed night of intimacy and connection. He pulls up in front of the bakery and parks illegally. A few seconds later, another car pulls away and he decides to play it safe and park in the legal spot instead. It is a decision as basic as deciding to have a cigarette before sitting down to dinner but in this case, it changes his entire evening and maybe even his life. When he exits the bakery, another car has double parked next to him, making it impossible for him to get out. And so he meets a number of strangers as he looks for a way to get home. Mong-Hong creates a unique experience that is always unanticipated and always insightful. While his encounters are clearly meant to mean something greater than the way they appear on the surface, Mong-Hong makes no particular effort to infuse these meetings with meaning but rather allows the meaning to form in the minds of his audience. It occasionally veers slightly off course but the promise it shows more than compensates for any shortcomings. PARKING is a quiet film that creates fragile, complex spaces and leaves you wishing that he was never able to get his car out.

The festival has left me spent and with just enough time to prepare for Toronto. At least at Toronto, I won't have to think to much. Thanks for reading and I hope you had as much fun at the festival as I did.

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