VIFF 2009 – A Wrap

Seattle boasts the biggest film festival in the United States, in terms of both audiences and films shown. But Seattle filmgoers are also lucky enough to be within easy driving distance to the Vancouver International Film Festival, one of the five biggest festivals in North America. Coming on the heels of Toronto, it boasts a sampling of highlights from Toronto and Venice as well as a spotlight on Canadian cinema, an annual spotlight on French Cinema and the Dragons and Tigers series, one of the best collections of new Asian cinema in North America with a special focus on young talents and new filmmakers.

VIFF 2009
VIFF 2009

The sixteen day festival opened this year on Thursday, October 1 with a day of screenings leading up to the Opening Night Gala A Shine of Rainbows, an Irish tale with Connie Neilsen and Aidann Quinn, and concluded on Friday, October 16 with Closing Night Gala Queen to Play, a French romantic comedy of love and chess starring Sandrine Bonnaire and Kevin Kline. In between, over 215 features and documentaries (along with 160 short and mid-length films) from over 70 countries screened for audiences from Vancouver and beyond. Like Seattle, this in an international festival for the local audience. In this case, local extends south of the border to Seattle.

I’ve been making a trip to Vancouver every year for a decade now, sometimes for as little as a weekend, sometimes as much as a week. It’s well organized, beautifully centralized and smoothly run. Centered in the heart of downtown Vancouver, the festival hub is in walking distance to dozens of hotels and easy access to the train. And but for a single theater, The Ridge, the screens are mere blocks from one another, with seven screens in a single multiplex dedicated to the festival for its two-week run. Screenings begin at 10am every day, the final shows end after midnight and there as many as a dozen screens showing films throughout the day. You can pack a lot of screenings in a day and, coming just weeks after Toronto, there’s a wealth of films on the schedule. Here’s just a few of those I caught.

Lars von Trier’s latest provocation Antichrist created a furor at Cannes (for scenes of, and there’s no other way to say this, genital mutilation) out of proportion to the film, a psycho-sexual chamber drama of an unnamed couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) confronting grief, guilt and madness after the death of their child (which occurs while they are having aggressive, feral sex in dreamy slow-motion). He’s coldly analytical and controlling, only comfortable playing the paternal authority figure and nurturing healer, and he brings her to a primal forest retreat “ironically” called Eden. Von Trier isn’t subtle when it comes to irony. Diseased and damaged animals romp in this garden. She drifts into on obsession with the nature of Evil in mankind, or more specifically womankind, and proclaims that “nature is Satan’s church.” It’s set in and around Seattle but shot completely in Europe and it certainly feels more European than American, channeling the spirit medieval witches and images of purgatory out of Bruegel and Bosch, which look painted on the screen by Von Trier’s regular cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle. Von Trier stirs up sex and sexual control and primal imagery and human psychodrama with a ferocity that has a life outside of his often reductive take on the human animal and its social habitat.

Sex in the purgatory known as a Lars von Trier film
Sex in the purgatory known as a Lars von Trier film

Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, a prison drama about a 19-year-old French-Arab delinquent thrown into the forge of prison, won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. Audiard (whose The Beat That My Heart Skipped” played SIFF 2005) makes crime movies about people, not plots, and he has a fascinating character in Tahar Rahim’s Malik, an outsider and a loner who enters prison as a vulnerable, scared kid shunned by the Muslims and the Corsicans and, through modesty, patience and quiet observation, learns and masters the workings of power while using his outsider status to move between the groups in the prison population to serve his own purposes.

I Killed My Mother is Canada’s official entry for the 2010 Foreign Language Film Oscar, which is all the more remarkable considering that it’s directed, written and produced by 19-year-old Xavier Dolan, who also plays the teenage protagonist of the semi-autobiographical story. It’s an accomplished debut for anyone, a familiar but well-observed dramatization of teen alienation and rebellion and parental exasperation. Dolan isn’t shy about painting the mother (an excellent Anne Dorval) as a caricature of middle class garishness, but neither does he spare his sneering, self-absorbed Hubert, a gay teen who looks like a refugee from an eighties synth-pop band and treats every minor irritation as high drama. While he offers no fresh insights or enlightening nuances to the material, he makes this impossible relationship between a mother and son who love but don’t really like one another authentic, funny and infuriating. And the title, while accurate, is not literal.

Anne Dorval and Xavier Dolan in "I Killed My Mother"
Anne Dorval and Xavier Dolan in "I Killed My Mother"

I Killed My Mother won this year’s Canwest Award for Best Canadian Feature Film, one of the festival’s juried awards. But like Seattle, the top award is voted upon by the audience and the Roger’s People’s Choice Award went to the documentary Soundtrack for a Revolution.

Thirty features and documentaries were screened in the “Dragons and Tigers” sidebar, with eight of those films in competition for the “Award for Young Cinema.” The competition can be a mixed bag, but it almost always offers promising talent and fresh filmmaking ideas that otherwise would be unseen on North American screens and it’s my priority every fest. Most of the films are scheduled for the first week, which due to unusual conflicts (yes, there are some things more important than movies) I missed this year. But I did catch up on a few re-screenings including the winner of the Dragons and Tigers competition.

Eighteen, a quasi-autobiographical drama from first time South Korean filmmaker Jang Kun-aje, a largely low-key study in the impulsive, illogical self-absorbed nature of being age eighteen that is not as funny but much more wry than I Killed My Mother. My Daughter, another first feature (this one from Malaysia), is a near-minimalist portrait in emotional distance and disconnection between a single mother and her daughter, exasperated and appalled at the abuse her mother takes in her affair with a married. Charlotte Lim Kay Kuen has stripped the film down to its essence and, even more than in Eighteen, she reveals a powerful talent trying out expressive ideas. While neither film seems quite fully realized, these two World Premieres of debut features offer exactly what the Dragons and Tigers competition strives for: the discovery and presentation of young filmmakers and formative talent. I look forward to seeing more from each of these filmmakers.

For more on the “Dragons and Tigers” series, see my coverage on Parallax View here.

For more on the films and the awards, visit the VIFF website here.

Also published (with minor differences) at the Seattle PostGlobe.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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