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Crisis Cinema:
Toronto International Film Festival 2013 

Girish Shambu


There is now a widespread sense that the world changed in 2008. The global financial crisis and its aftermath do not feel like events of a normal economic boom-bust cycle. The Great Recession, as it is now called, has been characterised as the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Grave as this comparison is, we are now realising, with a sinking feeling, that things might in fact be worse. The Second World War was followed by economic miracles in many parts of the world but today, in the wake of unprecedented environmental ruination, one wonders: can any sane, rational person believe that miracles await us?


Oddly enough, 2008 seems to have had little effect on Toronto , which has continued to experience a great explosion of growth. It was recently reported that the city has more high-rise buildings currently in construction than any other North American metropolis. Which makes it particularly ironic that so many of the films I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this year were marked by traces of our grim, global, late-capitalist moment.


I began by echoing a frequently expressed sentiment – that the world experienced a historical rupture in 2008. But is this really true? Can we confidently draw a line between a pre- and post-2008 world? Jean-Luc Godard once asked: ‘How is it that the day the Berlin Wall fell is historic but not the day before or the day after?’ (1) It is a cautionary question: Godard is resisting the temptation to mark certain points in time as being more momentous, more explanatory than others. He wants to remind us that the workings of history are more complex than this.


The trajectory of capitalism that led to 2008 and the present moment is more usefully compared to Mark Fisher’s characterisation of the world of the dystopian science-fiction film Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006):








1. Quoted in Douglas Morrey, Jean-Luc Godard (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2005), p. 202.

  The catastrophe in Children of Men is neither waiting down the road, nor has it already happened. Rather, it is being lived through. There is no punctual moment of disaster; the world doesn’t end with a bang, it winks out, unravels, gradually falls apart. What caused the catastrophe to occur, who knows; its cause lies in the past, so absolutely detached from the present as to seem like the caprice of a malign being … (2)  


2. Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (Winchester, UK and Washington, USA: Zero Books, 2009), p. 2.

For Fisher, the film does not imagine an alternative to capitalism; it is an extension, an extrapolation of it. Thus, it exemplifies the present-day condition he calls ‘capitalist realism’: a sense that capitalism is the only practical system that exists today; that it has spread so deep and wide into our collective unconscious that the task of trying to imagine a different world defeats our imagination. Fisher believes that, tragically, most of us have internalized this realist principle: capitalism is here to stay; as we move forward, let us simply do the best we can within the parameters it permits us …    


If capitalist realism views our present condition as normal and natural, Claire Denis’ Bastards, possibly the darkest film of her career, and the closest she has come to nihilism, views our moment as profoundly sick. Bastards is a noir in which money, sex and family come together in a perverse nexus of destruction. The protagonist, Marco (Vincent Lindon), is a sailor who goes AWOL in order to help his sister’s family when it lands in distress; the only working-class principal character in the film, he is also the one for whom money matters the least. In a bad economy, he turns his back on his job for the sake of family, but he is also a true-to-form noir hero: he is often in the dark. Corruption surrounds him, but he is the last to understand how deep it runs.


For any long-time Denis admirer (I am one), Bastards holds several surprises. First, it is far and away her most narratively dense and dialogue-heavy film. Second, it finds Denis channelling David Lynch, evoking Twin Peaks (1990-91), Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Dr. (2001), not just in terms of mood but also in specific images and plot turns. The curious mixture of shock, grief and inevitability that permeates those works is also evident in Bastards. Third, this is her first digitally shot feature. Possibly as a result, Denis pushes her camera closer than ever to her characters. Her images, which we have always known to be hyper-tactile, now burn with clarity – especially in facial close-ups. On the big screen, this has the effect of breaking down all sense of distance between spectator and film, achieving a quality of real, utter menace. Nearly every fellow critic I spoke to described the film as disturbing.


We think of Denis as a paradigmatic contemporary auteur, and rightfully so, but Bastards is also remarkable for the way it reminds us of the under-recognised value of collaboration in the careers of even the most fiercely independent and visionary auteurs. The film marks the return of Denis’ two key partners, cinematographer Agnès Godard and co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau, who were absent from her previous movie White Material (2009). That film struck me as merely good – and thus, given Denis’ track record, disappointing. The end credits of Bastards signal the importance of their collaboration in a moment of lovely, graphic play: their three names appear on the screen as a collage of superimposed text.



Of money, sex and family, the one that is unexpectedly absent from Catherine Breillat’s new film Abuse of Weakness is sex. Eight years ago, at the age of 56, Breillat suffered a stroke that paralysed the left side of her body; she spent five months in the hospital. Soon afterward, she contacted the convicted conman Christophe Ronancourt about casting him in her next film; they developed a close (but non-sexual) relationship. Over the next few years, he swindled her out of seven hundred thousand euros, eventually going to prison for his crime. Her new film recounts this story, with Isabelle Huppert playing Maud, a screen version of Breillat.


Until now in Breillat’s filmography, there has been an equation between sexuality and the human body. ‘The vulva is like the black hole of the universe’, wrote Breillat thirteen years ago, in the program notes accompanying the Toronto screening of her debut film Une vraie jeune fille (1975), which was banned in France for twenty-five years. Her new film evokes the older one in its obsessive focus on the human body. Fille, as Breillat’s statement suggests, is about the awakening of the female sexual body, its fluids and secretions, and its interactions with the natural world. But the human body explored by Abuse of Weakness is divorced from sexuality. Instead, the film depicts, in everyday detail, the effects of trauma and destruction followed by a reawakening, and partial restoring to basic health, of the body.


Abuse of Weakness is a not an entry in the long and time-honoured tradition of films about filmmaking, but it is nevertheless among the most fascinating filmmaker auto-portraits in cinema. The intriguing but perturbing closeness of Breillat’s relationship with her actors was the key subject of Sex is Comedy (2002). It had a generative function in that film, since the push and pull, the power struggle between director and actors led dialectically to moving the filming process forward. But the new movie is a chronicle of spiralling loss. Maud/Catherine, as is her habit, immediately strikes up an unusually close relationship with her lead actor Vilko (played by charismatic rapper Kool Shen), actively participating in the process of being defrauded and ending up financially insolvent. This is a film about the risks and dangers of the inter-subjective openness and emotional (super)investment that is integral to Breillat’s unique working method.


The movie also brings together two tropes that have an interesting, interconnected lineage in cinema: films about solitude, that also work by emphasising everyday repetition. (Bresson’s A Man Escaped [1956] and Pickpocket [1959] might be the most famous examples of this combo.) Although we are initially shown Maud’s family – her pregnant daughter and son-in-law – they disappear until the climax. Her daily battles, such as trying to get up off the ground after a fall, struggling to close a heavy front door, or climbing stairs, are performed alone, or occasionally with Vilko. The film opens on a striking image of white credits on white bed sheets as Maud is having her stroke, and we return repeatedly to this bed throughout the film. On a half dozen occasions, the image of sheets and pillows fills the screen in stillness – with, a few seconds later, the soundtrack erupting with the buzz of her cell phone, jarring her awake. If we ever envisioned the typical, successful film director as leading a colourful, gregarious existence forever in the midst of friends, collaborators and admirers, this film will provide a strong corrective to that fantasy.



From an intimate piece on solitude to an epic institutional study teeming with dozens of speaking parts: Frederick Wiseman’s extraordinary documentary At Berkeley is over four hours long, and divides its time between observing administrative meetings and listening in on classes from a variety of disciplines. The sharp de-funding of public universities like the University of California at Berkeley in the era of neo-liberalist capitalism forms the ever-present background to all conversations and actions we witness here. At Berkeley was shot in 2010, and the figure occupying centre stage is then-chancellor Robert Birgeneau.


When discussing this film with my critic friends, I noticed something curious: there was no agreement on our conjectures about how Wiseman himself felt about the material. We ended up in one of two camps: those who believed that the film was, in general, sympathetic to the challenges facing the chancellor and the administration; and those who felt (like I did) that it was more critical than sympathetic. When dealing with most contemporary documentaries, I would claim that the stance of the filmmaker toward her interview subjects and material is often not too difficult to divine. Even directors far more subtle than Michael Moore will quite openly provide clues to their attitude toward the stories they tell – via voiceover, choice of interview subjects, or formal means such as shot composition or music.


But this proves unexpectedly difficult with At Berkeley. Even Wiseman’s remarks to journalists are not to be entirely trusted: he speaks of the Chancellor warmly and positively, and takes great pains to come off as ‘balanced’. It is only when discussion turns away from the specifics of the film to general matters of filmmaking theory and practice that we begin to understand the reasons for our difficulty. In an interview with Daniel Kasman, Wiseman calls his films ‘novelistic … even fictional’. It becomes clear that Wiseman wants to avoid, at all costs, being seen as a ‘didactic’ filmmaker. But what lies behind this desire is not a relativist position about all parties and perspectives being equal. Instead, Wiseman speaks of using structure, organisation and point-of-view to indirectly, quietly hint at his own personal attitude toward the material.


A careful look at the film, especially its montage, unequivocally bears this out. Long meetings about achieving ‘operational excellence’ by cutting costs with a program of comprehensive simplification are followed by silent images of construction equipment working steadily to build new facilities. (I would not lose money by betting that these facilities are for vocational/career programs, and not for humanities or liberal arts education.) In the last third, we see a student protest and sit-in, accompanied by speeches that oppose rising tuition costs and declining state support for higher education. It is a stirring scene, even if the student protesters are not all equally eloquent and coherent in their demands. But Wiseman creates a sinister effect by juxtaposing this scene with three others.


One shows military personnel on campus performing their drills, thus hinting at the crackdowns that might ensue if the protests were to escalate. Another captures a meeting on how to create an easy, smooth and quick process for calling in the police force of the city of Berkeley to assist campus security, in the event of a student action. The third features a meeting of senior administration in which the Chancellor (who often grins when he speaks, a mannerism that recalls George W. Bush’s smirk) belittles the poor organisation and inconsistent demands of the student activists. He compares them disparagingly to the protesters of the 1960s, boasting, a little smugly, of having been fired for a day because of his involvement in a protest in his younger days. I immediately flashed back to an earlier moment in the film when he is informed that all grass on the 1200 acres of campus is now mowed – in the aftermath of budget and personnel cuts – by a single person. ‘That person’s pretty good’, he tosses off lightly, a big smile on his face. But the joke stings – it comes off as callous and offensively casual. All this strikes me as clear evidence of Wiseman’s critique. But I also realise that he may have made a ‘Rorschach film’ in which we all see a slightly different picture, ‘a world that conforms to our desires’. (3)   3. In the epigraph to Contempt (1963), Godard attributes to André Bazin the following quotation: ‘The cinema substitutes for our gaze a world that conforms to our desires’. Godard was, however, in fact transforming a citation from Michel Mourlet’s 1959 Cahiers du cinéma essay ‘On an Ignored Art’. On his blog in 2008, Mourlet drolly attributed this lapse to a ‘certain mental confusion’ on Godard’s part ‘associated with his couldn’t-care-lessness’. His post is available here.


Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu’s anarchic, comic thriller Love is the Perfect Crime makes an extremely unlikely pair with At Berkeley, but they are both set at universities touched by economic anxieties. Wiseman’s film was shot in Californian autumn, the high season for university-brochure photographers, but Crime takes place in the deep of winter, in an academic institution nestled in the Swiss Alps. The Larrieus bring out both the majesty and the menace of this setting by staging several key scenes outdoors. But even in the indoor scenes, we are never allowed to forget – given the ubiquity of windows – the enormity of the frigid, mountainous landscape towering in the off-frame.


The charismatic Mathieu Amalric is Marc, a philandering literature professor who routinely seduces his students, and lives with his sister Marianne (Karin Viard), with whom he has a bizarre relationship. Meanwhile, the university administration is gravely concerned with falling enrolments and shoring up its ‘brand’. After one of his student lovers goes missing, he is called in by his departmental superior and put on notice. Until this point, his womanising was common knowledge but not economically problematic; now, it is beginning to tarnish the university’s image and hurt its business prospects.


The film swims around in various genres, including the romantic thriller, the detective story, the ‘amnesia film’, and satirical black comedy. Particularly delicious is the way it skewers the image of the magnetic, brilliant male professor who exerts an allure over his young and impressionable female students. Marc shows Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s L’âge d’or (1930) to his class, and pontificates about Dante, Joyce and Breton. It soon becomes clear that he is only ostensibly the agent/seducer/motor of this story; nearly every woman around him (and this is a film made up predominantly of women) possesses some kind of special knowledge, while he remains clueless. The film’s glee in its wickedness and perversities recalls late Claude Chabrol (The Bridesmaid [2004], The Girl Cut in Two [2007]). As in The Bridesmaid, the film climaxes with a droll and ingenious send-up of the surrealist-inspired grand gesture.



Lukas Moodysson’s We are the Best! is not about today’s economic moment, and it does not engage with political issues in any direct way – but it is still a surprisingly wise work. This Swedish teen movie takes place in Stockholm circa 1982, and is adapted from a semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Coco Moodysson, the director’s wife. It is also strongly reminiscent in tone and approach of his wonderful debut, the teen lesbian film Show Me Love (original title: Fucking Åmål [1998]).


The story is simple, even familiar. Two vaguely alienated schoolgirls, Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin), decide to form a punk-rock band. Neither has any experience playing a musical instrument. Bobo is quiet, serious and intelligent; Klara is tempestuous and loud. They recruit Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), a schoolmate with long, blond hair, Christian parents and basic skills as a classical guitarist. They give Hedvig a drastic brush cut, find rehearsal space in which to practise, and quickly write their first song (‘I Hate Sport!’) – which becomes their own, private anthem.


This light, funny entertainment is also, deep down inside, a film with true punk spirit. For one thing, the band experiences no ‘musical journey’: they sound almost as inept at the end of the film as they do when they pick up their instruments for the first time. (As much as I love The School of Rock [Richard Linklater, 2003], its ending is pure fantasy in comparison.) Their only public performance ends in unmitigated disaster, and they exit the stage after attacking and being attacked by the audience. In its own iconoclastic way, it is an uplifting moment.


Moodysson is 44, but his personal Tumblr page is an indication of his teen-like personality: the posts circle obsessively around a handful of subjects like The Cure, photographs of fountain pens, and chess champion Bobby Fischer. In Best!, he captures something about teenagers that so many of us lose when we grow into adults: the capacity to feel strongly, to experience intensities both positive and negative, to be swept up by torrents of both enthusiasm and outrage. It reminds us that the passage from adolescence into sober, ‘mature’ adulthood is already a kind of death.


from Issue 4: Walks


© Girish Shambu and LOLA, September 2013.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.