'Call Me By Your Name' - Image courtesy of TIFF

TIFF17: Day One

Sep 08, 2017 By Jason Wilson
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The first day of TIFF is always hectic, especially if you schedule your screenings with eager over-exertion. In my case, my eyes are always bigger than my stomach. This may not be a detriment right away, but the loftier the ambition, the more substantial the inevitable crash. The preceding highs, and the joys of seeing so many interesting creative endeavors makes the whole enterprise more than worth it.

Out of (perceived) necessity, I pretty much had three screenings back-to-back with very little break since the first day happened to schedule three of the films I did not want to miss.

The first of these was Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, a film that I’ve wrestled with as much as I could in the hours since, even with other screenings sliding into my consciousness. Armie Hammer, effortlessly handsome as always, fills the frame as Oliver and the gaze of 17-year-old Elio when he arrives as a summer grad student for Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg). Hammer’s size and general presence (often shot from below to enhance his stature) combined with Elio almost shrinking into the world around him provide the dynamic from the younger man’s perspective – the script underscores this with Elio repeatedly self-deprecate. Call Me by Your Name is a relatively simple story of discovering self and encountering a forbidden love, and while it’s wholly told through Elio’s eyes, there are glimpses into Oliver’s own amounts of self-doubt and self-loathing, he’s just older, and better at hiding it. In many ways, this story is about admiration as much as it is about love. Oliver represents the man Elio longs to become – and this manifests first as resentment before growing into lust. The power dynamic between them isn’t always so cut-and-dry, which makes the sex scenes more than just titillation. Guadagnino does a wonderful job of ensuring the world around the characters is alive. In one sequence, Elio is in the foreground listening to music while his father and Oliver have a conversation in the background. Only snippets are audible. Meanwhile, a worker returns with a fish for supper and shows it to Elio and other people mill about in the periphery. The world marches on, and showing it only adds extra textures to the film’s already rich palette.

Even if you didn’t see the trailer, you know from the moment Oliver arrives at the Italian villa that something more than friendship is on the horizon for the two. While the source of the film’s title feels shoehorned in and unnecessary, it’s one of the few missteps. Anyone who has been an insecure, introverted youth trying to navigate romance will find a part of them in Elio (wonderfully realized by Timothee Chalamet), just make sure his father’s advice sticks. Own the sadness.

Next was Michael Haneke’s Happy End, which has an amazing final 30 minutes, and little else to latch onto prior to it. It’s a joke with a punchline but a meandering and frustrating set-up. It’s much lighter than its predecessor, Amour, from which a couple characters re-appear. Of the threads present, the ones following Georges Laurent (the husband from Amour) and his depressed granddaughter Eve are the most interesting and well-realized. Georges, beginning to descend into dementia at 85, longs to die but has been deemed too fit. Eve, at 13, is understandably distraught by the overdose of her mother. There is a fascinating bond that fuses fleetingly between the elder and the young Eve, as they develop an understanding, albeit a somewhat reluctant one on her part as she’s grown to distrust those who profess they love her after she caught her father two-timing his new wife (years after he left Eve’s mother).

The other threads are not as well formed. The relationship between Anne (Isabelle Huppert) and Lawrence (Toby Jones) is empty with no insight provided on who they are or what brought them together. They’re simply engaged. Anne’s son Pierre is a hopeless screw-up who refuses help, and there is a storied history between the two that gets touched on but abandoned before an abrupt (and a combination of funny and cringe-inducing) finale. Eve’s father and his dalliances barely leaves an imprint, and that goes double for the immigrant family that works for them in their country house. It’s a frustrating mess that feels like a group of half-started ideas with no concern for follow through, other than to take a proverbial shit on the rich.

Fortunately, Yorgos Lanthimos didn’t let me down. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is the first Lanthimos film I’ve loved immediately upon its completion. Both Dogtooth and The Lobster have lingered with me, but still fit in a space of “I appreciate them” more than fully embrace. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not exactly more accessible, either. It may fit more securely into genre filmmaking and have a more straightforward narrative structure, but it’s still incredibly strange and portrayed with the same deadpan cadence that permeates his previous work. It opens with a close up of open-heart surgery – a visceral table-setter that only mildly prepares the audience for the unnerving sequence of events that follows. A surgeon (Colin Farrell) has an odd relationship with a troubled young man whom he invites into his family’s life. When things get increasingly uncomfortable, he starts to back away only for things to get complicated. Providing a lack of plot detail is necessary because the film’s impact will be greatest by going in blind. It’s got a dark sense of humor punctuated with a sinister undercurrent as Lanthimos has created another singular work that will go down as one of the best – and divisive – films of the year.

It’s a shame, then, that my first day ended with Bornila Chatterjee’s The Hungry and John Woo’s Manhunt. The former is a contemporary retelling of Titus Andronicus set in India’s seedy underbelly. It’s a mess. Tonally and formally, it misses the mark of telling a satisfying and coherent story. It never fully commits to the Bacchanalian fringes that it teases and instead hedges when it could have gone full bore into something feverish and truly discomfiting. It also isn’t reserved or well-written enough to be taken as a serious drama. When the bodies start piling up, there is no dramatic heft and it ends with a whimper. The first real fiasco of this year’s festival.

One good disaster deserves another. Manhunt is silly – and, to its credit, those involved are aware of this – but it’s incoherent and only sporadically entertaining. Camp is very difficult to pull off, and just because Woo knows he’s making a tongue-in-cheek action movie that includes all the basic mistaken-identity tropes, it doesn’t mean it works. It never feels like the laughs are coming with the movie, but are instead at its expense. This type of filmmaking will work for those who find over-the-top, dumb action – and doves! – funny, and many in attendance seemed to be having a good time, but it’s a hard sell otherwise.

Day two of the festival brings on new films from Lucretia Martel, Sean Baker, and others, including my first trip to Midnight Madness with The Ritual.



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