The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a legal drama from Quebec, a Hot Docs favourite, and an Chilean political fable about ousting Pinochet.
Directed by Daniel Grou
The Royal (608 College Street)
A multiple nominee at the inaugural Canadian Screen Awards, Daniel Grou’s L’affaire Dumont dramatizes the decade-long real-life legal struggle of Michel Dumont, a Quebec grocery store deliveryman and father of two who was convicted of sexually assaulting Danielle Lechasseur in 1990. As the film tells it, Dumont’s troubles began when he was picked from a police lineup. He later earned early parole after a series of appeals based on his accuser’s admission, in a televised interview, that she may not have identified the right man. The rest, as they say, is history, but it’s a tricky sort of history. L’affaire doesn’t have the clear narrative arc we expect of legal melodramas about wrongful imprisonment.
Though the dominant thread here is the courtroom drama, Grou is more attracted to the personal dynamics of his subject’s life. The film focuses on Dumont’s turbulent relationship with his ex-wife and children, and his burgeoning romance with his second wife Solange (Marilyn Castonguay), who becomes his legal champion. As played by international star Marc-André Grondin (C.R.A.Z.Y.), who turns in a nuanced performance, Dumont is the sort of shy, taciturn man who needs a defender in order to fight for his rights.
With such a passive presence at the centre of the story, Grou is left to supply his own pyrotechnics. He keeps the camera in constant motion as it tracks along courtrooms and dinner tables. He also shakes up the chronology so that we don’t see Dumont’s alibi for the night of the attack until midway through the film, keeping us in the dark along with Solange.
That ostentation tends to wear after a while (the jumbled timeline makes it hard to track the ebb and flow of both Dumont’s legal battles and his relationships), but Grou has a good eye, nicely evoking his subject’s subsistence lifestyle through details like reused Pepsi bottles and his beat-up pair of tinted glasses. His Quebecois spin on the Dardennes brothers’ realist portraits of the French underclass feels on-point. The film is at its best when subtly implying that Dumont’s trial was determined by gender and class dynamics beyond his control: the masculine smugness of his lawyer damning his client in the eyes of the judge, who can barely contain her distaste at the accused’s witnesses, many of them friends with criminal records for all manner of petty thefts and parole violations.
What definitely doesn’t work is the film’s way of ignoring Lechasseur’s victimhood in order to establish Dumont’s. A late scene shows a polygraph specialist dismantling the credibility of her testimony because of its rhetorical polish, which is ghastly. It’s bad enough that this moment is situated in a montage about Dumont’s rising legal fortunes. But the suggestion that a rape victim’s account can’t be too well-crafted lest it feel contrived is just a hair’s breadth away from victim-blaming. The next scene goes some way toward restoring the victim’s dignity, with a powerful performance by Kathleen Fortin. But, as with the accusation’s effect on Dumont’s life, the damage is already done.
Directed by Philip Lyall and Nimisha Mukerji
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
When 65_RedRoses premiered at Hot Docs in 2009, it marked a happy ending of sorts for its subject, Eva Markvoort, a Victoria theatre student with cystic fibrosis who, after years of being bound to an oxygen tank, was on the verge of starting a new life as a youth counsellor in Toronto. Sadly, while the film wrapped with her successful double-lung transplant in 2007, Markvoort was diagnosed with chronic rejection soon after and passed away the following March. That makes it a very different sort of documentary in retrospect: it’s an earnest case for organ donation as well as a one-woman show that’s now shot through with a haunting reminder of how fragile our bodies are.
Co-directed by Markvoort’s friends Philip Lyall and Nimisha Mukerji, 65_RedRoses is as much about Eva’s titular online identity—a monicker inspired by her childhood mispronunciation of the name of her condition—as her grueling months on the transplant waiting list, a pager by her side. Though Eva is surrounded by a circle of loving family members and well-wishers, she’s most at home in the cystic fibrosis community she reaches through LiveJournal, where her friends include Kina, who’s going through chronic rejection when we meet her, and Meg, a teenager who exacerbates her breathing pains with a cocktail of recreational pharmaceuticals.
Lyall and Mukerji lean too heavily at times on the sitcom potential of the conceit that if the three friends were to meet in real life they’d exchange deadly “superbugs” and harm one another’s health. But the directors lucked out with their subject, a vibrant young woman who’s also a natural performer. Eva’s blog, peppered with her confessional poetry as well as video dispatches from her bed, was a fascinating thing, at once deeply personal and highly constructed, just as her operatic pen name would suggest. 65_RedRoses is enormously moving as an account of the rough days before Eva’s transplant, especially in light of her death so soon after, but it’s most compelling as an accidental star vehicle for an actress whose illness kept her from performing, then paradoxically gave her the lead in her own biography.
Directed by Pablo Larraín
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
It’s a strange honour, but No surely qualifies as one of the funniest films about the Pinochet regime. The third entry in Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s trilogy about the dictatorship—shot entirely with analog technology that visually flattens the difference between archival footage from the ’80s and scripted material, making everything seem like a news dispatch from that era—the film tells the story of the 1988 plebiscite on whether to grant the Chilean general another eight-year term as president. It’s told from the perspective of René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), a young ad man who finds himself in charge of the television campaign for the “No” side of the vote.
René’s portfolio of hyperactive soda ads—which always make time for a mime’s smiling reaction shot—makes him an odd choice for the job, and a seemingly poor fit for the “No” campaign’s brain trust: a broad coalition of leftist politicians, community organizers, and broadcasters, endangered and driven underground by Pinochet’s oppressive rule. The schism between the campaign’s social democratic messaging and René’s tendency to boil things down to buzzwords and jingles—the shades of David Axelrod’s management of the Obama ’08 campaign and its promise of “Hope” and “Change” are surely not accidental—is gripping stuff. It’s also unexpectedly moving, as when the campaign’s banal sloganeering (“Joy Is Coming!”) becomes a populist anthem during a non-violent rally crashed by the police.
Most of all, though, it’s funny, thanks in no small part to Bernal’s buoyant performance as a gentler sort of Don Draper. The actual ad campaign likewise brings some levity to the film. It’s too bizarre to be be untrue.
No is the rare political movie that’s dead serious about its subject without being unduly enamored with itself. Lighthearted but sincere, it strikes roughly the same balance that makes René’s campaign a success.