The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a sublime Talking Heads concert film, the opening salvo of the French New Wave, and a queer thriller from France.
Stop Making Sense
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
Widely regarded as the best concert film of all time, Stop Making Sense feels especially vital in light of the Talking Heads’ current status as one of the few critically acclaimed bands of the 1980s to resist the siren call of a lucrative 21st-century reunion tour. As directed by a pre-Silence of the Lambs Jonathan Demme, who would go on to make a trio of middling films profiling Neil Young, Stop Making Sense operates as the Platonic ideal of a Talking Heads show, a record of three 1983 performances at the Pantages Theatre shot and edited from a disembodied perspective that allows unimpeded access to frontman David Byrne and the sparsely but meaningfully arrayed stage—with nary a view of the audience until the last encore.
That isn’t to say that the rest of the band, who join Byrne in increasing numbers with each successive song, isn’t given its due, but that Byrne is clearly the ringmaster. So strong is his conceptual focus that one could argue the film is co-directed. We begin, for example, with just Byrne and a boombox, and the promise that he has a tape he wants to play us. From there, he launches into a possessed rendition of “Psycho Killer,” his lurching dance determined by the staccato clicks of the drum machine ostensibly lurking somewhere inside the cassette player. You could read that postmodern snake-charming entrance as a metaphor for Demme’s authorial vision here: to let his own record of these performances fall in line with whatever rhythm Byrne sets.
An art-school dropout before he formed the band with fellow Rhode Island School of Design alum Chris Fentz, in temperament Byrne is as much a visual artist as a musician. It’s perhaps that designer’s sensibility that has led to the ranking of Stop Making Sense as among the most visually distinctive rock documentaries ever made, despite Demme’s no-frills approach. Governed by Byrne’s aesthetic, the stage transforms into a vast installation space capable of accommodating various set pieces—like a surreal performance of “Girlfriend is Better,” in which he is decked out in an extravagantly oversized suit, and a tender rendition of “This Must Be the Place” that transforms the theatre into a modest middle-class home, adorned with back-projected bookshelves and an oversized lamp for Byrne to dance with.
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Legend has it that much of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless was shot from a wheelchair, with cinematographer Raoul Coutard pushed along by the director himself, in lieu of using a dolly they couldn’t afford. That can-do spirit, evident in everything from Godard’s novel approach to trimming the running time (cutting parts of scenes rather than removing them wholesale) to his means of keeping the script spontaneous (giving the actors their lines each morning) ushered in a new school of filmmaking.
Breathless was the first major product of the French New Wave, a clear break from the ornate period pieces then in vogue, and fronted not just by filmmakers but by film critics working for the influential magazine Cahiers du cinéma. It’s no surprise, then, that despite all the bold experimentation with cinematic rules of space and time, the film is also steeped in tradition. The biggest tell comes when charming no-good criminal Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo, a former boxer) admires a portrait of The Maltese Falcon star Humphrey Bogart, then rubs his lips and fixes his own expression in imitation of Bogey’s tough-guy mug. Breathless isn’t just a dead ringer for American gangster pictures, though: it’s a study in self-fashioning. Michel, after all, is more cinephile than hardened gangster, a sentimental guy who daydreams of shootouts from his dashboard but doesn’t seem to know his way around an actual gun.
Godard spoke of the film as a documentary about actors Belmondo and Jean Seberg, who plays Michel’s American lover, a novice journalist who pays her way in Paris by selling copies of the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs-Elysées. What’s arguably freshest about the film now, after the New Wave itself has been firmly entrenched in cinema culture, is the dynamic energy in their relationship. Fueled by Martial Solal’s propulsive jazz score and Godard and Coutard’s restless camera, Breathless is never as engaging as when its leads lock their heads in a series of high-stakes games with goofy rhymes and grisly payoffs.
Stranger by the Lake
Directed by Alain Guiraudie
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Early in Stranger by the Lake, Alain Guiraudie’s Queer Palm winner out of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, a pair of men sit by the water in which another man has just been found dead, apparently drowned by his lover. They’re at a nude beach unofficially sanctioned as a gay cruising spot, and the younger of the two men secretly witnessed the murder only a few short nights ago. The older man asks why the younger man intends to swim again so soon after the corpse has been removed, and all the younger can muster in response is that he might have another go at the lake in a few days: much as he’s bothered, life goes on.
That mix of eager anticipation and dread is Stranger by the Lake in a nutshell. Though it begins in something of a documentary register as a detached, almost anthropological examination of the random couplings of naive, fresh-faced Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps, the aforementioned younger man), it gradually reveals itself as a thriller, as Franck begins to fall for Michel (Christophe Paou), the murderer—who, soon after vanquishing his old partner, effectively becomes Franck’s boyfriend.
That’s a loaded premise, and at times the film runs the risk of coming across like a polemic about the pathology of gay cruising—a conservative attack, albeit one from inside the community, on cruising as an inherently dangerous sexual practice. But Guiraudie is too smart a filmmaker to fall into such traps altogether, sustaining an ambiguous tone throughout that has us questioning the extent to which Franck’s temporary madness in hooking up with Michel is just a version of the usual heartsickness that accompanies a new crush. More than that, the film works surprisingly well as a thriller, with the last ten minutes delivering one delirious punch after another.