Money, Bad Luck and Terror in Toronto

Michael Moore, the Coen brothers and Lars von Trier screen at Toronto International Film Festival

Sep 16, 2009 at 2:06 pm

TORONTO — The worldwide economic recession and the retrenching — or, in some cases, evaporation — of movie studios and distributors has clearly impacted the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Word is that nearly half of the festival’s 300-plus films are still looking for distributors.

A quick glance at the lineup also reveals far fewer buzz-inducing offerings over the festival’s all-important first weekend: Juno, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler and Borat is but a small sampling of the recent films that were kick-started here.

But there’s more to Toronto than buzz. The festival is perpetually rife with under-the-radar gems from across the globe, and this year looks to be no exception. (The back-to-back-to-back 2007 screenings of Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light, Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park and Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, two of which didn’t even have a theatrical release in Cincinnati, remain a favorite festival memory.)

Yet one film arrived in Toronto with plenty of advanced notice. The unveiling of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival yielded a hyperbolic response not seen since … well, at least since Al Gore invented the Internet. I took in the flood of frothing-at-the-mouth online “reviews,” which in some cases appeared within a hour of the Cannes screening, with a mix of fascination and jealousy: Can it really be as disturbing as everyone says? And, dammit, why can’t I be there to witness it?

One critic/blogger actually went as far as to say it felt like he was witnessing not only a critical moment in the history of Cannes but also a critical moment in the history of cinema.

Needless to say, Antichrist was my most anticipated film at TIFF. I missed the only press screening — which, curiously, was the first screening on the first day of the fest — but I was able to score a ticket to a 9 a.m. public screening two days later. A festival programmer opened his introduction of the film with this ominous statement: “You guys are brave.” He went on to say that Antichrist is “one of the most disturbing films of this or any year” before concluding with, “Let chaos reign!” a reference to one of the film’s more surreal moments.

How could Antichrist possibly live up to such off-the-charts hype?

Sure enough, it doesn’t. That’s not to say it isn’t disturbing. It is. But in the age of the Internet and ultra-violent manipulation machines like the Saw and Hostel films, Antichrist is not as toxicly provocative as its Cannes reputation might lead one to believe. (Not one person in the sold-out theater walked out, nor were there very many gasps.)

The film opens with a long slow-motion sequence, shot in stark black and white and accompanied by operatic music, of a couple having rigorous sex (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe, both of whom are extraordinary), apparently oblivious to the fact that their young son has climbed out of his crib toward an open window. The child looks eerily serene as it falls through the air to the snow-covered sidewalk several stories below.

It’s a beautifully rendered sequence, a clear contrast to the harrowing event it depicts. Yes, ever the provocateur, von Trier is fucking with us from the get-go.

Gainsbourg’s character — the couple remains unnamed throughout, one of many ways von Trier attempts to allow the viewer to identify intimately with them — is deeply distraught, blaming herself for the death of their child. Dafoe’s character, an uncommonly calm cognitive therapist, decides to take her to a secluded cabin in the woods (which they dub Eden) in an effort to work through her debilitating grief. The shift into the woods — both literally and metaphorically — is the point at which Antichrist descends into psychosexual hysterics marked by a talking fox that hisses “chaos reigns,” furious masturbation and excruciatingly violent acts, including an explicit scene in which Gainsbourg takes a pair of scissors to a certain part of her anatomy.

Anyone familiar with von Trier’s work shouldn’t be surprised by Antichrist’s extreme melodramatics or ample technical chops. The guy has long been a master manipulator, and he’s at his exploitative apex here. The film is gorgeous to look at, and its intimacy and ominous atmospherics are skillfully sustained throughout.

Yet any informed critique of the film would require, at the very least, a second viewing. Certain themes are obvious — the absurdity of modern psychoanalysis, the differences between men and women, the nature of evil — but, just as Dancer in the Dark was his twisted version of a musical, Antichrist is, first and foremost, von Trier’s version of a horror film, one shot through with (what seems to be) a deeply personal, emotionally naked vision. It’s as if Bergman decided to take on the so-called “torture porn” genre.

Which brings me back to the hype. Antichrist has been called everything from “misogynistic” and “an abomination” to “a game-changer” and “a masterpiece.” To which I say: Whatever your reaction, you won’t forget it.

If nothing else quite reached the level of anticipation for Antichrist, several works from established filmmakers definitely piqued my interest.

The Coen brothers’ latest, A Serious Man, is their most personal film to date. It’s 1967 in suburban Minneapolis, where Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor with a wife and two children.

The film opens with the Rashi quote, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” On cue, it’s not long before an avalanche of bad fortune turns Larry’s world upside down: His wife leaves him for a pompous neighborhood acquaintance, someone is writing letters to his superiors in an effort to sabotage his chance at gaining tenure at the university, his 13-year-old son smokes pot and his socially inept older brother runs afoul of the law — all of which leads him to question his faith and seek advice from three different rabbis.

Coming on the heels of the impressive, noir-infested adaptation of No Country for Old Men and the disposable Burn After Reading, A Serious Man feels like a real departure for the Coens — an uncommonly personal film that’s not only set in the brothers’ hometown but is also based on their own experiences growing up as Jewish kids with professor parents. Of course, this being the Coens, the “serious” material is presented in a both surreal and subtly amusing way that will no doubt leave many asking, like Larry Gopnik, for deeper insight. (Look for my interview with the Coens when the film opens in early October.)

Michael Moore’s latest documentary is just as steeped in personal history. Capitalism: A Love Story finds the rabble-rouser in the same relatively scaled-back mode — in terms of both self-importance and context-distorting one-sidedness — that made Sicko such a welcomed surprise. Moore largely steps aside to let his various subjects and a barrage of vintage, often hilarious footage — everything from old television and movie clips to fascinating, never-before-seen footage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt — tell the story of how the U.S. came to this sorry point in its economic history.

But where Sicko was his most cohesive film in terms of narrative, Capitalism is all over the place — the topic is just too complex and broad to investigate in a two-hour movie.

That said, the footage of Moore as a child and the memories about his father’s longtime factory job work well as a foundation to explain how capitalism in the U.S. changed in the wake of President Reagan’s corporate-friendly conservative revolution. Better yet is the film’s powerful final third, a damning portrait of the 2008 bailouts that Moore describes as one final Bush-approved cash grab by Wall Street.

The largely Canadian audience at the sold-out North American premiere reveled in the film’s critical look at their neighbors to the south.

“Hey, at least I’ll have one great night before I get attacked in America,” Moore said when he addressed the crowd during a brief, post-screening Q&A.