Piers Marchant at the Toronto International Film Festival, Day One

September 6, 2019


Films: 4
Best Film of the Day: The Lighthouse

Parasite: Outside of The Godfather, you wouldn’t expect the sound effect of a door to signify the emotional weight of an entire film, but early on in Joon-ho Bong’s Palme d’Or-winning comic tragedy, that’s what he achieves. The door in question is the outer entrance to the stunning house where the ultra-wealthy Parks live: As it opens, you hear the echoing, metallic clank and whoosh of well-heeled machinery. Standing outside of it is Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee), the youngest member of the vastly less successful Kim family. He lives with his parents and sister in a dark, bug-infested basement flat. What comes out of this visit, a job interview, eventually leads Dong-ik‘s family to insinuate themselves into the Park’s home, systematically replacing existing staff, until they have fully taken over. To this point, the film is mostly a comedy, but Bong isn’t satisfied with a simple farce. True to his nature, he keeps probing the situation, teasing it out with several other revelations and twists, until it becomes something almost altogether different. By the end, as it swerves inexorably into blood-soaked violence, the film reveals to be a bit of a con itself, drawing us in with its enticing humor, then opening up into a much darker vision, before ending on an emotional note of surprising vulnerability. Through it all, Bong shows a mastery of odd tones, from the opening comedic salvo, to the final emotional beats. 

The Lighthouse: Horror is always deeply seated in myth, from our earliest beginnings, those things that terrified us became made manifest and canonized, as a way to explain them – or at least acknowledge their existence. No modern filmmaker seems to understand this better than Robert Eggers, whose debut feature, The Witch, utilized actual language from existing folk myths and incorporated it into truly terrifying work. His new film utilizes a similar device, but while The Witch remained rooted in the realism of the New England countryside, this film is much more interested in the wild, chaotic lands inside our skulls. Willem DaFoe is the aging, half-mad Scottish wickie, manning the light, and Robert Pattinson is the younger apprentice, dealing with the drudgery of the day’s work for what is meant to be a four-week stint. We have two men alone on a desolate and isolated rocky island that may or may not be haunted with the spirits of long-dead sailors. Working as a kind of companion piece to his first film, Eggers creates a similar atmosphere of dread, while utilizing several thematically linked tropes – substitute the desolate woods for the desolate ocean; and raving seagulls in place of a jet-black billy goat. It’s like a half-mad sea shanty come to horrible life and twisting on itself in swirl of frothing currents. Because Eggers is constantly re-establishing what we are to consider real, and what is left in the buggered minds of these two drunken sots, we are on much softer ground than in his previous effort, the distinction between a pine forest ground, and the sand, I suppose, which makes the film less immediately unnerving, but no less impressive. 

Zombi Child: It begins promisingly enough, with oddly interwoven threads from seemingly different films: a Haitian man is murdered with a Voodoo concoction only to return in undead form, escaping forced labor in the cane fields to return home; a group of French teen girls in a highly decorated private school outside Paris indoctrinate a new girl to their literary society; and one of the girls pines for the boy she is madly in love with, awaiting his return. Gradually, French director Bertrand Bonello starts connecting these threads, but the more they reveal themselves, the less luring the film becomes. From its intriguingly ambiguous start, it slides into disappointingly recognizable territory. Eventually, it settles into a commentary on cultural appropriation, by one of the characters, but also, as an indictment of the audience (and possibly Bonello himself), meddling in things we don’t begin to understand in the name of narrative thrill. It has many good moments, and some eerie sequences, but oddly loses power in its coherency. 

The Personal History of David Copperfield: Armando Iannucci is well-known as a satirist of the highest order – “Veep,” the HBO TV series that just concluded its run, was a ribald and unsparing depiction of politicians as ego-maniacal lunatics – but his adaptation of the beloved Charles Dickens’ novel hews much more closely to the writer’s own sentimentalist fancy than what we might have expected from Iannucci’s normal comic eviscerations. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy here, from Dev Patel’s winning performance in the title role (dude could charm fuzz off a peach); to the bevy of other great character turns from a resonant cast including Hugh Laurie, Ben Whishaw, Gwendoline Christie,  Benedict Wong, and Tilda Swinton, among others. It turns out Dickens’ penchant for capital C characters plays well in Iannucci’s hands, and everyone seems to be having a hell of a time taking turns chewing up the scenery. It’s certainly a lot less lachrymose than what we’re used to from him, but it’s understandable why he might have needed a breath of less befouled air. 

Tomorrow: Due to the vagaries of the schedule, it will likely be a simple, three-movie day: Beginning with Trey Edward Schultz’ Waves; moving on to The Sleepwalkers, an intriguing sounding film from Paula Hernandez; and closing the relatively easy day with Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela.

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