TIFF 2018 Dispatch #4: We’ve Only Just Begun


By the middle of the festival, things can start to feel like they’re winding down. Festival Street closes, many of the stars have come and gone, and a lot of big world premieres are behind us. Second and third screenings of films are underway, and the press are already getting ready to pack their bags. On Monday, Wavelengths also came to an end for another year. TIFF, as I said before, tends to be front-loaded. But the title of the final screening, “Wavelengths 4: We’ve Only Just Begun,” proves a necessary recalibration of perspective. There is a sense of finality throughout this selection, as programmer Andréa Picard noted in her introduction; two of the filmmakers with films in this collection are no longer with us. But through tragedy and loss, there is a glimmer of hope, something to cling to and carry forward like a torch in the dark—or the flickering light of a projector, illuminating a movie screen.

The film most emblematic of this theme is David Dudouit’s Île d’Ouessant, which recontextualizes itself with one final and incredible cut, delivering the most breathtaking closing shot of any film I’ve seen this year. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Dudouit’s film was the fourth in this set, and it reminded me in many ways of two of the shorts that preceded it.

Nathaniel Dorsky’s Colophon

The first is Nathaniel Dorsky’s Colophon, another beautiful movement of images from a master of the form. I had previously seen Dorsky’s Song and Spring here at the festival and enjoyed both. Spring remains my favorite, but Colophon is a massive work, a cycle of images that continually shift perspective, discovering and re-discovering beauty within chosen perspectives, Dorsky’s shifting focus creating abstract patterns and layers of reflections, whether they be in glass windows or bodies of water. Along with ALTIPLANO, it’s one of the highlights of this year’s Wavelengths section.

The second is James Edmonds’s A Return, an often frenetic montage of images of places close to the filmmaker’s heart. I’ll admit to struggling with this one more than most; its rapid pace of cutting was disorienting, and the repetition started to wear me out. There were fleeting moments of striking imagery, and one sequence of cuts in particular has stuck in my mind, but I otherwise couldn’t find anything to hold onto.

Île d’Ouessant reminded me of A Return in its editing, or the pace of its editing. Dudouit films lighthouses and birds and bodies of water and often cuts rapidly around and between them. Unlike with A Return, however, I was able to attune myself to Dudouit’s rhythms and found myself sinking deeper and deeper into the film as it went on. Île d’Ouessant reminded me of Colophon in the way Dudouit shot bodies of waters and reflections, often getting the camera right up near the water to capture abstract patterns, and at one point, he even abstracts a landscape into a stunning, rhythmic body of pulsating energy.

James Edmonds’s A Return

Dudouit has long since passed away, but watching his film now, in communion with the other films in the fourth and final set, it felt like he was alive and speaking. I was reminded of something Apichatpong Weerasethakul says about cinema: that to sit in a theatre is to be haunted by ghosts, lights and images conjuring forth the past. Dudouit’s widow came to TIFF to present the film, and the message she brought with her was one of the most inspiring and uplifting moments in any Q&A I’ve attended; she spoke of her husband’s work, was overwhelmed and humbled to be able to watch it with people and keep it alive, so to speak, and urged everyone to be more present in their surroundings, more attuned to nature and each other. I don’t want to spoil the film’s ending for anybody reading this—needless to say, I literally gasped—but as I already suggested, it recontextualizes the whole film in this way.

To this end, I already feel like I underrated the film while I was logging all of my recent festival viewings on Letterboxd. At the very least, I know the ending has forced me to reconsider both what I was feeling and thinking throughout the early sections of Île d’Ouessant. Sometimes, it’s hard to unpack a film after a single viewing, especially during a hectic event like a film festival. This topic has recently resurfaced on social media, as hot takes keeping pouring in for the year’s most anticipated films, and not surprisingly, High Life has been at the center of this discussion. A festival does not always offer the most ideal conditions to absorb a film, and some films need to sit for a long time. That’s something I’m really feeling this year as I try to cover the festival with these dispatches; I’m continually readjusting ratings, going over my impressions and feelings, and recalibrating as they shift.

Dudouit’s Île d’Ouessant

I don’t have a solution for this. I’ve been attending TIFF for roughly a decade now, and the excitement of it all is just so palpable and inescapable. So, too, is the fatigue. It happens at least once a year, and I’m sorry to say, this year I slept through Laura Huertas Millán’s The Labyrinth. Technical difficulties caused the film to restart after a couple minutes, and while waiting for the problems to get sorted, I sat in my chair, staring at a blank screen, and suddenly drifted away. I woke up just in time to catch the credits. It seemed like an interesting film based on the couple minutes I saw; the Q&A discussion afterwards was certainly lively and interesting. It’s one thing to fall asleep during a bad film, but I felt really terrible about sleeping through this one.

Rounding out “We’ve Only Just Begun” were Natalia Marín’s Julio Iglesias’s House and Hu Bo’s Man in the Well. I take no pleasure in cutting a film down, but I have to admit, I was scratching my head at Julio Iglesias’s House. There’s a good story in here, and the ideas in the film are conceptually strong and compelling; Marín merely fails to present those ideas in an interesting or worthwhile manner. The majority of the film is black text on a white screen, with some quotes thrown around for good measure. And as I was just sitting there, reading the text, I kept looking around as if to take the temperature of the room. But audiences here are dutiful and respectful, and I couldn’t tell how others were reacting. Perhaps I’m alone on this, but sorry to say, I did not like this one at all.

Hu Bo’s Man in the Well, however, was a strong finisher. It’s bleak and depressing, but not in the way you might at first suspect. Along with Dudouit’s film, this most clearly expresses the finality Picard discussed in her intro. If Picard had chosen to end with Île d’Ouessant, I’d say “We’ve Only Just Begun” would have earned its hopefulness. But with Man in the Well, the feeling walking out of the theatre is a lot more ambiguous. Yes, the characters survive, but survival in this scenario is a horrifying existential prison of its own. Hu also directed the feature film, An Elephant Sitting Still, which is playing this year at TIFF. If you’re unaware, the film has been garnering a lot of interest because Hu committed suicide last year during the film’s post-production, and nobody can resist the temptation to now interpret his work in light of this sudden finality.

Hu Bo’s Man in the Well

It doesn’t look like I’ll be able to catch An Elephant Sitting Still; trying to fit a movie that runs over four hours long into my limited schedule is challenging. So I was happy at least to catch Man in the Well. The film was produced under the guidance of Béla Tarr, with whom Hu Bo studied. Tarr came to the screening to introduce the film and discuss his friend, offering a eulogy full of love and rage, with all of the emotional intensity you would expect from the man. From the opening shot, it’s clear that a real talent was lost. Hu’s visual direction is alluring and well-developed; the film does feel a little shapeless in the middle, but it begins and ends on strong notes.

The film follows two kids who wander a seeming post-apocalyptic wasteland, the only other human they encounter being a man chained up on a mattress in an abandoned building. Death is such a permeating and powerful force here that the kids cannot decide if he is alive or dead, and don’t even stop to consider the possibilities until after they instinctively cut him up and dump him down a well. Man in the Well showcases the perseverance of life in the face of all adversity, yes, but is that a good thing? Life goes on because it will always insist on it, but Man in the Well seems to suggest that at some point it’s better to be… well, the man in the well. It’s easy to see how Hu’s suicide casts a shadow over his work; or perhaps I’ve already succumbed to the same interpretative trap.

In the next dispatch, I’ll be checking out the Short Cuts program and discussing new films from Guy Maddin, Charles Williams, Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels, and more. And still to come, new films from Mia Hansen-Løve, Karyn Kusama, Shinya Tsukamoto, and more.

The 43rd Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6th to 16th, 2018.

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