I was waiting in line the other night at the Toronto Film Festival for a public screening to which I had a ticket, when an eager young college student standing next to me in the queue spotted my press badge and started to chat with me, using the surefire conversation starter for film festivals: “So what have you seen that you’ve liked?”
I reeled off a few titles, then returned the favor: “What about you?”
“I loved ‘Antichrist’,” he said fervently, referring to the controversial Lars von Trier film that will be part of the upcoming New York Film Festival, which starts Sept. 25. He enthusiastically praised von Trier’s use of symbolism, saying that, while he didn’t necessarily understand all of it, he thought it was deep, anyway. “I couldn’t figure out why the woman suddenly decided that women were evil,” he said, seriously.
And then he mentioned that, during the film’s provocative scenes of violence – in which Charlotte Gainsbourg smashes Willem Dafoe’s genitals with a log; impales his leg with a metal rod to which she affixes a grindstone; then performs a circumcision on herself with a scissors – the audience at his screening was absolutely silent.
Ah, the well-mannered Canadians – too polite to yell “Bullshit!” in a crowded theater.
Which, of course, is what “Antichrist” is, dressed up with pretensions of art. Von Trier’s director’s notes drone on about how he made the film to pull himself out of a bout of clinical depression (apparently so he can provoke one in his audience).
I saw “Antichrist” before I went up to Toronto and so didn’t have to waste precious time on it during the festival. It will play the New York festival, have a limited American release in October and then, one assumes, disappear forever (though, unfortunately, von Trier himself won’t).
I have nothing against transgressive cinema; but “Antichrist” has the feeling of pushing buttons for its own sake, like a child smearing its own feces on a wall. Why does he do it? Because he can and knows he shouldn’t. I’m not offended by “Antichrist,” just bored with von Trier’s act.
On the other hand, I held out high hopes for Todd Solondz’s “Life During Wartime,” the last film I saw before heading back to New York on Tuesday. Like many of the most anticipated films at the festival, its press screening was at 9 a.m. Apparently the thinking is that being exposed to something intense or weird first thing in the day gets the blood flowing – or perhaps it’s the festival programmers’ little joke on the filmmakers, as if daring them to get a fair shake from a press corps forced to ingest caffeine intravenously to keep their eyes open.
Solondz has been a consistently intriguing cinematic artist, a chronicler of human pretense, self-delusion and misery in films such as “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Storytelling” and “Happiness.” He finds painful comedy in people failing to hide their worst impulses from other people – and great humanity behind monstrous behavior.
The press notes – always a dangerous thing to ingest before seeing a film – refer to “Life During Wartime” as a sequel to “Happiness,” despite the fact that none of the characters overlapped. But it’s not, really, other than the fact that both films deal with unhappy members of an extended family.
Solondz’s affectless film is about regret and recrimination; several characters use the phrase “forgive and forget,” debating whether either is truly possible in the case of, say, a pedophile or the 9/11 terrorists. But the acting is purposely flat and becalmed, reminiscent of the performances in Werner Herzog’s 1976 film, “Heart of Glass,” in which the actors were hypnotized before each take and trudged through the movie like zombies.
Solondz is a provocateur, to be sure, with sharp, stinging dialogue and ideas that challenge the façade of daily life. But “Life During Wartime” seems too deliberate in its lengthy pauses and its characters’ inability to summon emotions beyond undemonstrative tears and ennui.
I caught a plane home after seeing that film – although I nearly missed my flight when it was called almost 45 minutes early, while I was sitting in the boarding-gate area, doing some writing on my laptop.
I heard the boarding announcement, looked at my watch and thought, I must have heard wrong. Then I heard: “Anyone else for the flight to LaGuardia?”, the implication being: use it or lose it. I scooped up my things and handed the gate attendant my boarding pass, saying, “This plane isn’t supposed to leave until 1:30.”
She shrugged, cocked her head in the direction of the puddle-jumper on which I’d be flying, and said, “He wants to leave now.” We landed 30 minutes ahead of schedule; when does that ever happen?
My final total for the festival was 19 films between Thursday afternoon and Tuesday morning, along with 10 more from the festival that I caught in New York ahead of time. For me, the most memorable, powerful and entertaining were “Precious,” “Up in the Air,” “A Serious Man” (not to be confused with “A Single Man” – which I didn’t see – and “Solitary Man,” which I did) and “Broken Embraces.”
I’m glad to be back in New York. Let the fall film season commence.