Women At Toronto Film Festival 2008 – Kim Voynar reports

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The Toronto International Film Festival this year had a few noteworthy femmes in the spotlight; one of the highlights of fest included outstanding performances by both Kristin Scott Thomas and Elsa Zylberstein in I’ve Loved You so Long, which is one of my favorite films this year. The actresses play two sisters reunited when the older sister, Juliette (Thomas) is released from prison after 15 years. Both Thomas and Zylberstein give finely nuanced performances; while Thomas is garnering the Oscar buzz, it would be unfair to overlook Zylberstein, whose turn as younger sister Lea is every bit as powerful. She’s more well-known in France than in the US at the moment, but this film, given the right marketing, could bolster her name recognition outside the European market.

Another strong female lead role in a foreign-language film was Maria Heiskanen in Swedish director Jan Troell’s Everlasting Moments, just announced as Sweden’s entry in the Oscars for Best Foreign Film. The film tells the tale of a turn-of-the-century woman, Maria Larsson, a strong-minded, intelligent woman who stays in a marriage with her alcoholic, abusive, philandering husband; she finds solace and a measure of independence through exploring photography with a camera she won in a lottery. The film was based on the life story of Troell’s wife’s grandmother; it’s often wrenchingly difficult to watch, but Heiskanen’s performance keeps the focus on Maria’s strength and courage, and it’s well worth watching for that alone.

Strong female performances were also to be found in The Burning Plain, the directorial debut of famed screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Babel, 21 Grams, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada). While the film overall is burdened by some convoluted writing and a tediously slow first half, the second half of the film is picks up the pace and is much better. Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger largely carry the film with their powerful performances of women traumatized by life events who make decisions that have shattering impacts on those around them. I’d like to see the film undergo some editing to pick up the pace in the first half, so that Basinger and Theron’s performances don’t get lost in the wash.

Burn After Reading, the latest film by Joel and Ethan Coen, also offered up some strong roles for women. While the film is packed with some solid performances on the male side by John Malkovitch, George Clooney, and Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton’s icy-cold, finger-drumming pediatrician and Frances McDormand’s plastic surgery-obsessed fitness center worker are equally strong. McDormand in particular could easily garner an Oscar nod for her role — her performance is funny and satiric, and tragically reflects our societal obsession with what constitutes beauty. McDormand’s Linda Litzke is so myopic in her pursuit of obtaining the plastic surgery procedures she’s convinced she needs to “reinvent” herself that she fails to see the possibility of love right in front of her in the form of her manager, Ted (Richard Jenkins, in a perfectly played sad-sack performance). Linda’s perceived need for surgical perfection leads her to make a series of stunningly bad decisions that drive the film.

One of the femme films many were curious to see at TIFF was The Secret Life of Bees. Adapted and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood from the book of the same name by Sue Monk Kidd, the film stars Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keyes and Sophie Okonedo. The story is about a Lily, a young white girl in the South at the dawning of the Civil Rights Act, who runs away with her friend (and family housekeeper) Rosaleen (Hudson). The pair end up in Tiburon, South Carolina, taken in by an independent black businesswoman, August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) and her sisters. While the film is decidedly light on exploring issues of race and racism in the South in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act, it’s a sweet film overall that will play well to fans of the book.

Controversial director Deepa Mehta was in the fest with her latest film, Heaven on Earth (I missed this one at TIFF, but have loved her previous works, and am looking forward to catching this one down the road). I did catch Firaaq, the powerful directorial debut by Nandita Das, and the latest offering by French helmer Claire Denis, 35 Rhums, which proved to be one of my favorite films of the fest. Another nice surprise at the fest was Ellen Burstyn’s touching performance in Lovely, Still, the directorial debut of Nik Fackler. It’s always a pleasure to see Burstyn in a good role, and while it’s not quite as strong a film as Sarah Polley’s Away from Her, a film that worked in a similar theme, Lovely, Still is a sweet, accessible film that’s just charming enough to avoid being sappy.

On the flip side, Saul Dibbs’ The Duchess, a narrative biopic on the life of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, ended up being one of my least favorite films of the fest. Although bolstered by a strong performance by Keira Knightley, the film reduces the life of a woman who was a political activist a century before women’s suffrage to a romantic drama centered around her husband, who takes Georgiana’s best friend as his live-in lover, and her own lover, Charles Grey (who would go on to become prime minister after fathering an illegitimate child with Georgiana). The period drama is replete with stunning costumes, gorgeous cinematography and a soaring score, but misses the opportunity to focus on the intellectual side of Georgiana rather than on her relationships with men.

Also playing Toronto was a film I saw at Cannes, Serbis, by Filipino director Brilliante Mendoza. This film turned me off immediately with its opening shot featuring gratuitous nudity of a young Filipino girl, and went downhill from there, sinking ever lower into the depths of “poverty porn”. I was frankly surprised that some rather noted film critics at Cannes (including at least one prominent female voice) praised the film; for me, it was utterly wretched and earned the dual distinction of being the only film I’ve ever walked out on at a film festival, and supplanting Robert Rodriguez’s The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D in the top spot on my personal “Worst Films Ever” list.

Other notable films showcasing strong femme roles at TIFF (all of which I saw earlier this year at Cannes) included Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, featuring a moving lead performance by Maria Onetto; Arnaud Desplechin’s Un Conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale), with three very strong female roles for Catherine Deneuve, her daughter Chiara Mastroianni, and Emmanuelle Devos; and Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas’s Linha de Passe, which won the Best Actress award at Cannes for lead actress Sandra Corveloni. I did not catch Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, but the film played strongly at TIFF, and could be a strong comeback for the helmer, who hasn’t directed a feature since 2002’s abysmal K-19: The Widowmaker.

As is always the case at a fest the size and scope of TIFF, there were many films I didn’t get a chance to see that I hope to catch in January at Sundance. While it would always be nice to see more female directors with films at a fest like Toronto, the reality is that male helmers significantly outnumber the women; at least, though, there were enough talented femmes at the fest to leave one with the feeling that the women who were there, for the most part, were representing some strong films.

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Kim Voynar

Kim Voynar was an internationally recognized film critic for a decade, covering the film festival circuit and independent cinema for Movie City News, Cinematical, IndieWIRE and Variety, before transitioning into producing films in 2010. She has served on juries and expert panels for many prestigious film festivals, including the Seattle International Film Festival, SXSW, Sarasota Film Festival, Dallas International Film Festival, Miami International Film Festival, Oxford Film Festival, and deadCENTER Film Festival. After three years producing for a Seattle-based prodco, she's now producing and consulting independently under her boutique production shingle, Lateralus, and is working on some killer projects with avant-garde music group The Residents, Will Calhoun (Living Colour), and Ken Stringfellow (Posies, REM), and consulting on some projects in the VR space with Hollywood producing legend Scott Ross (Apollo 13, Benjamin Buttons, Titanic). Her hobbies include trendsetting Seattle street style, staying up late nights pondering post-apocalytpic survival techniques, and deep thinking on virtual reality and the mathematical perfection of logarithmic spirals and fractals.