Susan Morris | Essays

2021 New York + Toronto Film Festivals

2021 New York + Toronto Film Festivals
The Capacity for Adequate Anger still.

The Capacity for Adequate Anger, Vika Kirchenbauer’s personal essay on artistic critique, has a section that tees up a thematic strand seen in films at both the 2021 Toronto International and New York Film Festivals: the contrast between the lives of the upper classes and those less fortunate. Here, the filmmaker examines the rustic village called The Queen’s Hamlet created in 1783 for Marie Antoinette. Inspired by Norman architecture featuring a windmill and dairy, it was located near the Petit Trianon so the queen could look out on it from Versailles. It was inhabited by people acting as “peasants,” just as the aristocracy also mimicked the simple life by dressing up as shepherdesses and the like. When a bakery was looted, Marie Antoinette had bread woven into her elaborate hairdo to commemorate the event, to which the filmmaker asks, was she an artist?

As Sundown begins, the wealthy brother and sister played by Tim Roth and Charlotte Gainsbourg vacation at a luxury resort in Acapulco— modern, private pool, lush landscaping, muted colors. But when Roth’s character stays behind as his sister departs to tend to their dying mother who heads the family business empire, he chooses a seedy hotel with cramped rooms, bad art, and bright colors instead, where the contrast in this tourist town between haves and have-nots couldn’t be starker.

2021 New York + Toronto Film Festivals
Beity poster.

A plush household in Beirut is the setting for Beity. The rich mistress of the main house is waiting for her daughter to come home, while she verbally abuses her live-in husband and wife servants who live in a small outer house on the property. The luxurious main house filled with art and furnishings, makes her life feel even emptier.

Signourney Weaver plays a high-end real estate agent in the posh mythical seaside town of Wendover, Massachusetts in The Good House. Her character, Hildy Good, is a descent of “witches” in nearby Salem. Chester, Nova Scotia situated on the Atlantic 40 miles from Halifax, stood in for this New England village. The colonial houses are no longer the exclusive domain of old families as new residents move in and chain stores threaten the bucolic main street. Hildy does understand the real estate market, the monetary value of the houses and how to sell them, despite her personal devils. “Buying a house that’s out of reach is a recipe for misery,” she muses. “I bought a house I could almost afford, and if everything had gone to plan I should be fine. That’s not what happened.”

Mothering Sunday depicts aristocratic Brits in Berkshire County and their servants who go to visit their mothers on a designated Sunday (the precursor to Mother’s Day) in 1924, except for Jane, a maid at Beechwood, who is an orphan. Instead, she goes to an assignation with her lover, the son of a well-to-do neighbor, at his family estate, Upleigh. When he leaves to join his fiancé, parents, and Jane’s employers at an elegant riverside outdoor luncheon at Henley-on-Thames, Jane wanders through the mansion on her own, exploring, in the nude.

2021 New York + Toronto Film Festivals
Benediction still.

Benediction is a portrait of World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon, who survived the war which he then criticized, and found himself among the “bright young things,” the Bloomsbury Group, and arts and letters luminaries in post-WWI Britain including Ivor Novello (who becomes his lover), intimates of Oscar Wilde, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Edith Sitwell, and Lady Sybil Colefax. The film showcases country estates (shot in the West Midlands), London clubs and theaters, as well as stately military hospitals.

Chateau de Roumont near Champs, Libin in Belgium is the palatial setting of Inexorable. Reminiscent of Loire Valley castles in France, the 1912 mansion is where a famous author, his wife (who inherited the property) and their daughter are moving in. A young woman of modest means insinuates herself into the family, making herself indispensable, but with sinister intentions. The house and the English park-like setting are integral to the storyline.

Another cluster of films conjures distinctive worlds, where we, the viewer, are enveloped in the surroundings. In Farha, a Palestinian town nestled into a hillside is attacked. The citizens evacuate, but the young, headstrong Farha refuses to leave before her town-leader father, so he hides her in the locked larder of their courtyard dwelling, which he had been repairing with stones and mud. Small circular windows permit her to look outside and witness atrocities, and afford light during the day. We live in this claustrophobic space, experiencing her terror and her ingenuity breaking out of the locked quarters when her father fails to return.

2021 New York + Toronto Film Festivals
Where is Anne Frank still.

Another trapped young woman is in Where is Anne Frank, an animated film set in the museum that was the garret where her family hid, with movie star photos on her bedroom wall. From the point of view of Kitty, Anne’s imaginary friend to whom she addressed her diary, we explore the attic loft, both in her own time as as a museum, the Anne Frank House. A running joke is how so many venues in Amsterdam are named after her — hospitals, schools, theaters, streets. A contemporary twist is how Kitty negotiates the return of the original diary, which she has stole from the museum, in exchange for current-day refugees including those from Mali, seeking shelter from the genocide in their home countries.

I’m Your Man is a robot, not an imaginary friend. Tom is the “ideal man” formulated for Alma, an archeologist specializing in Sumerian cuneiform, who works at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. We see her in the new buildings on Museum Island: working in an interior with dots on the floor, slanted ceilings and patterned coffers, and meeting in modern offices with geometric patterns on the walls and yellow and black abstract artworks. The office headquarters for robots is a modern glass box with a corrugated white circular exterior, very bright white interiors with large windows. Alma’s balconied riverfront apartment in a modern high-rise has panoramic views of the city, a white exterior with walkways and a red tower between two towers. All these sleek structures are in contrast with the nightclub where the two meet, an old-fashioned light-studded jewel box.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain depicts the world of turn-of-the century artist Wain (1860-1939) best known for cat drawings reproduced in newspapers, postcards and children’s books. A man who drew with both hands, his society was Victorian both in its inhibitions as well as its innovations including electricity, a particular fascination. We see British city and country houses, offices, restaurants and trains, as well as 1907 New York City, which he visited. It’s a hand-made, mass-produced world.

2021 New York + Toronto Film Festivals
Dear Chantal still.

Readying an apartment rental in the Mexico City neighborhood where Frida Kahlo lived for the late filmmaker Chantal Akerman, a fictions venture described in a series of letters like this one in Dear Chantal: “When a society has its basic needs met, it can afford to create, read, move to Coyoacán and have a personal library full of books on philosophy and art that it can really read, with a vase full of lilies and carnations, and huge pictures to hang on the white walls.” It’s a beautiful sunlit apartment topped by a skylight with lots of artwork, a cocoon for living.

An interior world is created in Out of Sync, where a foley artist, the person who reproduces everyday sound effect for films in post-production, takes refuge from the world. She begins to hear real-world audio slightly delayed or not “in sync” with what is visually generated by that sound. First, we see her at work on a film’s torture scene, walking across a debris-strewn floor to create sounds to match the pummeling of a man on screen. She tests her own delayed hearing by visiting a Romanesque church and tapping on a pew, and she keeps a precise record of how out of sync her hearing is. She feels comfortable watching silent films.

2021 New York + Toronto Film Festivals
Inner Outer Space still.

Inner Outer Space creates an art installation-like environment for images of water in the Basque region of Spain projected over two women in bathing suits, who then look at prints of the same images. We hear the rush of water, and are enveloped in this aquatic environment that plays on the dynamic between still and moving images.

Emi, the teacher at the heart of Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn walks the street of Bucharest going past both tacky storefronts, dilapidated brick buildings with crumbling cornices and broken windows as well as elegant neoclassical buildings with statuary, Corinthian columns and arched windows, and boring CeauČ™escu-era standardized tower blocks. She muses “A good building always makes a beautiful ruin.” Emi’s husband has posted a sex tape of the two of them, and she is undergoing an investigation spurred by disturbed parents, hence her contemplative walks.

The ancient metropolis of Kutaisiin, Georgia, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, is where What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is set for a body-switching tale. We get to know the city well as we walk the streets, have inanimate objects speak to us — bridges, doorways, lampposts — and get to know the outdoor cafes by the White and Red Bridges along the Rioni River, where our protagonists Giorgi and Lisa miss and meet each other.

We also become familiar with Seoul, South Korea, in In Front of Your Face, with wide shots of tower blocks and traveling shots of the urban fabric seen from a taxi. Former actress Sangok is afraid of heights, so avoids the windows in her sister’s high-rise apartment where she stays.

2021 New York + Toronto Film Festivals

Similarly, we get to know industrial port town Texas City, Texas on Galveston Bay with its oil refineries, petrochemical plants and low-rent businesses like the Donut Hole, and nearby San Leon in Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, when a native who has been working as a porn star in LA returns home to wreak havoc.

The opening wide shot of a city, which then zooms in on a sea of high-rises and cable cars criss-crossing the sky introduces El Gran Movimiento. Fun-house mirror distortions on housing blocks electrical wires dangling in front of dilapidated buildings while others are covered in graffiti and flypaper posters, are set to a soundtrack of jackhammering, car alarms, traffic noise and Spanish-language conversations in La Paz, Bolivia. Miners have walked seven days to the city to protest and, for some, to look for jobs, all in constant motion.

The worst of the city is infiltrating the idyllic oasis in Costa Brava, Lebanon lovingly created by political activist exiles and a once-famous singer. As a larger-than-life-size statue of the country’s president is trucked in and hoisted on a site designated a landfill for Beirut’s refuse, the venture touted as green is actually fetid, turning the family’s water into a biohazard. This new environment threatens their life and lifestyle.

Three Floors recounts the trials of the residents of an apartment building in Rome over 15 years. It is a beautiful building grounded by a central round elevator, and graced by terraces off each sunny flat. With stories of drunk driving, postpartum depression, dementia and infidelity as well as friendship, babysitting and bonding, the building knits them all together.

2021 New York + Toronto Film Festivals
Vortex still.

An elderly husband and wife signal to each other across the courtyard their apartment wraps around, to come to lunch on the terrace in Vortex. The book-stuffed, densely art-hung apartment is a series of small rooms where the couple has lived for decades and is now where they are largely confined due to the wife’s dementia. The film opens with shots of apartment buildings in the neighborhood, Stalingrad in Paris. Once the couple vacates the premises at the end of the film, we see the apartment cleared out, so we can finally see how the rooms flow into each other. It was full of memories and now is like a library that has burned down.

2021 New York + Toronto Film Festivals
Petit Maman still.

When her grandmother dies, Nelly and her parents pack up the house in Petit Maman. Her grief-stricken mother leaves, so when 8-year old Nelly encounters Marion, a girl her own age, building a fort, she comes to realize it is in fact her mother brought back from an earlier time. We, the viewers, see the house from two vantage points: today, though Nelly’s eyes, and when her mother Marion was her age more than 20 years ago, on play dates when the girls respectively invite their friend back to the house in each time period. Today, we see the old, intact wallpaper preserved behind a bureau when it is moved, and the blue-tiled bathroom and gated entryway then and now.

Another all-powerful, often oppressive environment is conjured in Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog. Here the 1920s-era Montana mahogany-paneled ranch-house mansion owned by successful rancher brothers, asserts itself on the plains like the house in the film Giant, “quiet wealth” as described by Annie Proux in her afterward in the re-issued novel the film was based on. Here the brothers live, one kindly and one sadistic, who preys on the weak. The house has art on the walls as well as animal head trophies, and we see buildings in town — restaurant, saloon, main street — all evoking this Western world, although more 19th century than Roaring Twenties.

2021 New York + Toronto Film Festivals
The Tsugua Diaries still.

The film within the film: In The Tsugua Diaries, is about cast and crew living under COVID for three weeks in a rural Spanish setting. Three friends build an outdoor butterfly pavilion while on this idyll. The conceit of the story is that it is told backwards in time, which mirrors the title, “August” spelled backwards.

2021 New York + Toronto Film Festivals
Memoria still.

Memoria, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film set in Columbia, first in Medellin then the countryside, with its wide shots, long takes, and precise framing reminds us that the director studied architecture.

2021 New York + Toronto Film Festivals
The French Dispatch still.

Another batch of films were graphically interesting with well-crafted environments that set the scene. Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, a riff on The New Yorker magazine, is set in the fictional French town Ennui-sur-Blasé (translation: “boredom-on-apathy”) and actually filmed in Angoulême in southwestern France — interestingly, home to 40 animation and video game studios, about half in the entire country. The film’s vignettes are all highly designed and stylized with tracking shots revealing side-by-side tableaus, and the film finishes with magazine cover art a la The New Yorker.

2021 New York + Toronto Film Festivals
Charlotte still.

Charlotte tells the story in animation of German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon who comes of age just as WWII begins. As her world was collapsing, she raced to create a series of 769 paintings between 1941 - 1943 before her death at age 26 in Auschwitz, to document her memories and experiences titled Life? or Theater?: A Song-play. The vignettes rendered in small gouaches and transparencies, depict scenes and portraits accompanied by text, which she intended as a Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art combining visual art, music and the written word. Some consider it to be the first graphic novel.

2021 New York + Toronto Film Festivals
Flee still.

Flee, which is Denmark’s entry in the Academy Awards for Best International Feature, is another animated film about a difficult subject, here about a Afghanistan refugee who escapes Kabul as a child and undergoes tremendous hardship seeking a safe harbor, continually looking for home. He eventually finds one in a house he procures with his partner, after living in a vast array of abodes once they are forced to leave the family house in Kabul.

2021 New York + Toronto Film Festivals
Srikandi still.

In Srikandi, a daughter goes through her deceased father’s Javanese shadow puppets and, defying convention, carries on to animate them. In Love, Dad, a Vietnamese daughter’s correspondence with her father is graphically treated in live action, recounting their life in Prague. He was jailed, and when released left the family because he wife became pregnant with another girl, and he wanted a boy. The animated Anxious Body “combines unpredictable physical forms, surprising geometries, and unexpected textures” most notably with a tape dispenser and frosted tape.

The Girl and the Spider opens with the floor plan of a dwelling given as a gift, accompanied by the sounds of a jackhammer, which gets drawn on and then drenched in coffee. It’s an indication of the cramped spaces used as metaphors for psychological shifts as the heroine moves apartments.

2021 New York + Toronto Film Festivals
Parallel Mothers still.

The opening and closing credits of Pedro Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers are marked-up contact sheets by Penelope Cruz’s character, a photographer. Her colorful, stylish Madrid, apartment (her wardrobe is also designer) is filled with photographs by such luminaries are Irving Penn; in contrast is her family’s country house which she has kept rustic. The latter is in a village where she spearheads an exhumation of graves from the Spanish Civil War.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn. Radu Jude
El Gran Movimiento. Kiro Russo
The French Dispatch. Wes Anderson
In Front of Your Face. Hong Sangsoo
Memoria. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Parallel Mothers. Pedro Almodovar
Red Rocket. Sean Baker
Petit Maman. Céline Sciamma
Vortex. Gaspar Noe
What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? Alexandre Koberidze

Anxious Body. Yoriko Mizushiri
Beity. Isabelle Mecattaf
Benediction. Terence Davies
The Capacity for Adequate Anger. Vika Kirchenbauer
Charlotte. Eric Warin, Tahir Rana
Costa Brava, Lebanon. Mounia Akl
Dear Chantal. Nicolás Pereda
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain. Will Sharpe
Farha. Darin J. Sallam
Flee. Jonas Poher Rasmussen
The Good House. Ramon and Silvan Zurcher
I’m Your Man. Maria Schrader
Inexorable. Fabrice Du Welz
Inner Outer Space. Laida Lertxundi
Love, Dad. Diana Cam Van Nguyen
Mothering Sunday. Eva Hussan
Out of Sync. Juanjo Giménez
Srikandi. Andrea Nirmala Widjajanto
Sundown. Michel Franco
Three Floors. Nanni Moretti
Where is Anne Frank. Ari Folman

The Girl and the Spider. Ramon and Silvan Zurcher
Power of the Dog. Jane Campion
The Tsugua Diaries. Maureen Gazendeiro, Miguel Gomes

Posted in: Arts + Culture

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