TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) divides its film selections into a number of programmes— Galas, Masters, Wavelengths, TIFF Docs, Contemporary World Cinema, Short Cuts Canada and others. One of my favourites has the blandest title, Special Presentations. What does it mean? Not much. It feels as if Special Presentations films are a rhapsody of “nots”: not filled with enough stars to be Galas; not cutting edge enough to be contemporary Masters; not formally inventive enough to be in Wavelengths—and yet, important enough not to be tossed into the giant programme called Contemporary World Cinema.
So why do I love Special Presentations? I find that some of the best films at TIFF reside quietly and quite brilliantly there. High profile filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Francois Ozon can be found in Special Presentations as can such talented actors as Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton. The films are stylish but they do have plots and plenty of scenes that show off actors, cinematographers and directors at their best. True, the films are rarely masterpieces but they certainly are fine pieces of cinema and well worth viewing.
Having stated that you aren’t likely to see masterpieces, let’s start with the new film by Indie American veteran Jim Jarmusch, who has certainly made his best film in years, Only Lovers Left Alive. Yes, it’s a vampire movie but please don’t hate it right away. It might be a masterpiece—time will tell—and it is definitely Jarmusch’s best movie since the Johnny Depp-Gary Farmer revisionist Western, Dead Man, which came out 18 years ago.
It is a revisionist vampire film, more interested in a couple of hipsters in love with each other than with anyone getting killed. Tom Hiddleston, who dominated The Avengers as the villainous Loki, is impeccably bored and mysterious as Adam, a way-cool rock musician, living his undead life in splendid isolation in the outskirts of Detroit. His wife, Eve, is stylishly dislocated in Tangiers, buying the best blood in the world from her “connection,” the exhausted and rather ancient playwright Kit Marlowe. It doesn’t hurt the film at all that two of the most entrancing performers in cinema are playing Eve and Marlowe—the impossibly cool Tilda Swinton and the desiccated John Hurt.
Eventually, the two get together in Detroit, where things are fine until Eve’s crazy little sister, played by emerging cult icon Mia Wasikowska, shows up to wreak havoc on Adam’s under-the-radar approach to hanging out in the former Motor City. Only Lovers Left Alive is less about plot and more concerned with mood and atmosphere. Jarmusch has crafted a film that incorporates Goth culture, rock music and romantic love into a genre piece that has just enough bloody violence to satisfy audiences. And it offers a lot more for those willing to embrace it. This is a hip film that is actually about emotions and love—a beautiful contradiction.
Young and Beautiful (Jeune et Jolie) is the latest film by French writer and director Francois Ozon, whose previous entry at TIFF In the House deservedly won the International Critics FIPRESCI prize last year. Like that film, the sexual desire of an adolescent foregrounds the proceedings. Where In the House dwelt on the fantasies of a boy and was presented in a meta-fictional format that threw off mainstream audiences in North America, Young and Beautiful concentrates in a quite straight-forward manner on what happens to the gorgeous Isabelle (Marine Vacth) over the four seasons of her life as she transitions from a 17-year-old virgin into a remarkably experienced woman.
What Isabelle decides to do—and what will make this film a commercial and festival hit—is to become a high priced call girl in Paris. Why does she do it? She’s from an affluent family so she doesn’t need the money. Nor is her mother, brother or stepfather mistreating her. Ozon never reveals Isabelle’s motivation to us, nor does the perfectly cast model Marine Vacth (in her first starring role) show much emotion until nearly the film’s denouement. We’re left with a chic psychological mystery tale, which ends with a punch thanks to the presence in the penultimate scene by a brilliant world-weary Charlotte Rampling.
The Invisible Woman stars Felicity Jones and Ralph Fiennes, who also directed the film. Fiennes is absolutely arresting as Charles Dickens, the great British novelist and celebrity, whose appearances as a lecturer and an occasional theatrical creator, turned him into a star. The film, based on Claire Tomalin’s excellent non-fiction work, recounts the affair that Dickens had with actress Nelly Lawless Ternan from 1857 to his death in 1870.
In order to satisfy his public and Victorian morality, Ternan and Dickens conducted their affair in secret. Only their closest friends and family—among whom, famously, was the writer Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone, The Woman in White)—knew about Nelly and the deep affection that she shared with Dickens.
The film explores their exceedingly difficult courtship—Ternan didn’t want to be a “mistress”—and how their relationship played out. Fiennes clearly enjoys evoking the Victorian era and its theatrical troupes. There’s lots to admire in The Invisible Woman but I do have two reservations.
Playing Nelly’s mother is the wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas, who was Fiennes’ romantic counterpart in the best film either have made, The English Patient. Isn’t it interesting that Fiennes can still play romantic leads while Scott Thomas is reduced to character roles as mothers? More devastating is the performance of Felicity Jones, who is being touted as a rising star. Her “Nelly” doesn’t entrance me—and one wonders what Dickens saw in her. That’s not the question you should be asking about a romance that left a woman invisible for over a century and a half.