The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a free double feature of strong new work by emerging female filmmakers, Alan Zweig’s look at Jewish comedy, and the much-talked-about Palme d’Or winner from this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Fogo and My Blue-Eyed Kid
Directed by Yulene Olaizola and Shalimar Preuss, respectively
Double Double Land (209 August Avenue)
Lauded in their own right for last year’s impressive debut, Tower, and also for accomplished shorts like Out in That Deep Blue Sea, Toronto-based filmmaking team Dan Montgomery and Kazik Radwanski have been making new waves of late as the hosts of a free screening series launched through their production company, MDFF (Medium Density Fibreboard Films). This week’s screening is a double feature, with a pair of films by emerging female filmmakers that have gotten attention on the international festival circuit.
The first is Yulene Olaizola’s Fogo, which screened as part of Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight in 2012. The film is a beautifully shot, moving, and formally sophisticated hybrid of documentary storytelling and fiction. It profiles the remnants of an isolated community in Fogo Island, off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, as those who remain decide whether to stay or leave. There’s always the danger, in films about islands, that the inhabitants will come across as the folksy guardians of an enchanted lost world, but Olaizola cuts through such stereotypes by rooting her subjects in their place and keenly observing their rhythms, both in their speech and in their physical interactions with their environment.
Fogo will be followed by Toronto filmmaker Shalimar Preuss’s My Blue-Eyed Kid (Ma belle gosse), a tender, low-key portrait of seventeen-year-old French girl Maden (Lou Aziosmanoff) in the waning days of a summer holiday with her estranged father. Though the French coming-of-age-near-the-sea story is a fairly well-trodden one, the nuance Preuss brings to this story is remarkable. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, both Maden’s pen-pal relationship with a thirtysomething inmate and her strained bond with her father could have been the stuff of tired melodrama and hysterics about teen sexuality—but Preuss withholds judgment, delicately observing how her characters go about their lives (and cultivate parts of them in secret). Some might find Maden underdeveloped as a result, but that seems precisely the point. It’s a rare pleasure to see a film that doesn’t reduce its teenage lead’s every action to pop psychology.
The two features will be preceded by Ashley McKenzie’s new short film, Stray, which was shot in Nova Scotia.
When Jews Were Funny
Directed by Alan Zweig
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
A number of people were surprised when the powers-that-be at TIFF announced Alan Zweig as the winner of 2013’s Best Canadian Film prize for When Jews Were Funny, his characteristically unfussy, chatty examination of the Jewish roots of American humour. Zweig has always occupied an odd place in the Canadian film scene, respected for his consistent output and distinctive voice and yet underestimated by virtue of his modest, confessional aesthetic. When Jews Were Funny is not exactly a technical leap over earlier films like I, Curmudgeon and last year’s 15 Reasons to Live, but it might be the best synthesis of Zweig’s frank interview style and his penchant for marrying his personal interests to broader cultural issues.
Zweig sits down with a range of older Jewish comics—among them, Shelly Berman, Shecky Greene, and Super Dave Osborne himself, Bob Einstein—and younger blood like Eugene Mirman, hoping to get to the bottom of a couple of questions that are pressing on his mind as the father of a toddler who, he suspects, may not inherit the Jewish comic sensibility he received from his own parents. The first is whether there’s something inherently Jewish about American comedy, an issue that spans conversations about the Yiddish rhythms of comics like Don Rickles and more sober discussions about comedy’s origins in oppression and pain. The second is whether Jewish North Americans’ increasing assimilation into mainstream culture well into the twenty-first century is distancing more recent comedians—and lay enthusiasts like Zweig—from their roots.
This is an interesting two-pronged thesis, though Zweig’s conversational style and range of subjects have their limits: his interview with Toronto’s Mark Breslin is the closest the film comes to historicizing Jewish comedy, and one yearns for more basic information about the importance of places like the Borscht Belt and the Catskill Mountains, which are addressed only in passing. Still, much of the film is absorbing, our interest stemming from Zweig’s obvious personal investment in the subject as well as the often poignant, always funny stories of his subjects, who impress with their range of idiosyncratic voices. It’s a rare testament to how effective talking-head documentaries can be, provided the talking heads are saying interesting things in novel ways.
Blue Is the Warmest Colour
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Though it was the most talked-about film at Cannes and the eventual Palme d’Or winner, Blue Is the Warmest Colour is nothing too earth-shattering. At most, it’s a handsomely produced and tender portrait of a doomed romance between high-school student Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and visual artist Emma (Léa Seydoux), enlivened only by some of the longest sex scenes in recent memory.
Those sessions, gamely played by the two leads, rival the acrobatics of the puppet sex in Team America, but it’s arguably director Abdellatif Kechiche who’s having the best time here. Kechiche is so fixated on the actresses’ ecstatic faces and, more worryingly, assorted body parts—all framed in close-up—that one suspects he’s patting his own back behind the camera, satisfied at his ostensible documentary realism in capturing lesbian sex at its most intimate.
Since the film’s debut at Cannes, Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel on which it was based, has disowned it as lesbian pornography for straight, male audiences. That reading may do a disservice to the earnest stretches devoted to Adèle’s burgeoning career as a teacher and to her heartache over her stalling relationship with art star Emma, but in the end it’s hard to shake, in part because of a lengthy monologue by a directorial surrogate character in the middle of the film—a seemingly endless speech about Western art’s difficulty with depicting the elusive woman’s orgasm. Whether this is self-parody or audience instruction is hard to say, but what’s certain is that it has little to do with the film’s ostensible subject, the maturation of Adèle, whose perspective is seemingly abandoned in the sex scenes that linger over her body, and then further sidelined by pompous declarations about her sexuality. Colour us unimpressed.