The human psyche is marked by a constant struggle between order and chaos. That internal conflict figured prominently in many of the 300 films at this September’s 34th annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
In Applause (Denmark), a diva of the stage wins acclaim for her precisely calibrated performance in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” She’s impulsive, choleric and pathetically out of her element, however, when it comes to dealing with people in real life (including the young sons she lost to a broken marriage). It’s an up-close-and-personal look at chaos personified and Paprika Steen delivers the best performance by any actress at the festival, in a role that doesn’t shy away from its intimately unflattering encounter with a damaged, self-destructive soul.
That character’s polar opposite dominates White Material (France), in the person of a single-minded woman (Isabelle Huppert) who is determined to keep her coffee plantation (in an unnamed African country) up and running, despite the murder and mayhem precipitated by a brutal civil war. Such iron-willed resolve might be admirable in other circumstances but here it degenerates into monomania-an irrational fixation on a single objective, regardless of the ruinous toll it takes on oneself and others. Indeed, the whereabouts (let alone fate) of her immediate family scarcely figure in this woman’s thoughts, for she has given herself over, body and soul, to the idea of her farm and the false sense of order it represents.
In Together (Denmark), we get a stark lesson in what happens when tragedy tears people apart. In this case, a man is so devastated by the sudden loss of his wife that he loses the ability to cope with work, sobriety, or even his responsibilities as a parent. While a North American film might have the surviving parent and child forging a closer bond through their shared grief, this Scandinavian take on family breakdown is darker, with the father selfishly hoarding his own grief, excluding his 12-year-old son, and ultimately abandoning himself to despair and the boy to institutional care. The result is one of the best films of the festival. But it had strong competition from Get Low (U.S.), the story of a man (Robert Duvall, in the festival’s best male performance) who is driven by grief and guilt to shun the company of others for 40 years and lead an existence of self-punishing solitude. Yet his only hope for coming to terms with the past lies in reaching out to others at the “living-funeral” he orchestrates for himself.
The Irish film Ondine delivers both a charming premise and the festival’s best performance by a child. In its opening moments, a fisherman (Colin Farrell) finds a beautiful young woman (Alicja Bachleda) in the nets he has just hauled from the sea. His wheelchair-bound young daughter (the precocious Alison Barry) declares the mysterious newcomer to be a “selkie,” a mythological being that turns from seal to human. One thing is clear: She represents something serendipitous and transcendent in the quotidian lives of these ordinary folk. Marred only by the later intrusion of mundane elements like gun-wielding drug smugglers, the film is a sparkling example of the other side of ‘chaos’ and its role in enriching the fecundity of our imagination. In stark contrast, when a disemboweled fox tells us, in the repulsive Antichrist (Denmark), that, “Chaos reigns,” we know the result is going to be far from benign. This grotesque, harrowing tale of a man and woman who lose their child and descend into madness has images and situations that are so wretchedly ugly they can only be called vile. Director Lars von Trier has, it seems, been overcome by the very chaos he seeks to chronicle.
John Arkelian is a writer, film critic, and editor-in-chief of Artsforum Magazine.
Copyright © 2009 by John Arkelian.