Showgirls in Doc Land
This year’s Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal (RIDM), Montreal’s popular equivalent to Hot Docs, opened with Crazy Horse, legendary Cinéma vérité docmaker Frederick Wiseman’s 39th movie, his first shot in HD.
Following up on his La comédie française (1996) and Le ballet de l’Opéra de Paris (2009), both films that steer away from Wiseman’s signature deadpan coverage of American institutions like mental hospitals, high schools, and department stores, Wiseman’s Crazy Horse depicts the most famous erotic cabaret in the world.
Established in 1951, the quintessentially Parisian Crazy Horse mounts intricately choreographed and lit shows featuring female dancers in cunningly designed costumes that reveal most of their long legs, melony buttocks, svelte bellies, and pretty breasts. In his movie, Wiseman shows viewers what appear to be complete performances from the vantage point of the audience (mainly champagne-drinking middle-aged couples).
The doc-maker also takes viewers backstage for rehearsals, production discussions, and disagreements about a new spectacle called Désirs. Director/ Choreographer Philippe Decouflé, the multi-talented creator of the Cirque du Soleil show, Iris, frets that his budget won’t allow him to take Désirs where he wants it to go. Some comic relief gets provided by Artistic director Ali Mahdavi, who effuses grandiloquently about how the cabaret has always been the focal point of all his dreams and aspirations. At the same time, Mahdavi makes wise comments about the best performances emerging from the dancers’ inner lives, not just their looks.
During the festival’s invitation-only opening night screening, some audience members stirred restlessly. Then as Crazy Horse ended, a shout pierced through applause for the film. “Sexist! Sexist,” yelled a woman who turned out to be a respected doc-maker and social activist. Soon after, she fired off a letter to RIDM challenging its choice of an opener, which she accused of being “boring,” not to mention ”complicit” in the “exploitation” of the Crazy Horse Dancers who we never meet as individuals and who are filmed in a way that “favours their breasts and buttocks.” The letter also claims that dance numbers deploy “all the codes of pornography,” including “pole-dancing, caged women,” even a link between sexuality and violence. About 30 Montreal filmmakers signed the letter, which was not intended to go public, but did. Individual signatories did not necessarily agree with every point in the letter, for example the idea the cabaret’s stylized and aestheticized show is porn.
Before you could say XXX, RIDM responded publically, asserting that the movie, which kicked off not just the fest, but a 10 film retrospective of Wiseman’s work, was a carefully considered, perfectly appropriate choice for an opening film. And “Wiseman has never been a polemicist. His approach is more anthropological in nature, taking an in-depth look at a subject and allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions … Given that one in three people who signed the letter have not seen the film in question, the criticism appears to be more of an unsettling dogmatic reaction than a considered response in the spirit of freedom and openness that the RIDM represents.”
I know and admire some of the people who signed the protest letter, but when I first heard about it, I blew my top and sent a message of solidarity to RIDM.
In no way is Frederick Wiseman’s Crazy Horse sexist, pornographic, or even titillating. The protest ignores the fact that the women, many of whom are trained dancers, are rehearsing or performing difficult-to-master routines. They’re not standing around, wriggling and grinding, flashing tits and ass. Of course, you constantly see certain physical features, emphasized by the costumes, but it’s not as if the movie shakily zooms in and out on bums, as if this were some 1970’s XXX extravaganza.
Perhaps for some, RIDM crossed a line by opening with a film that’s meant to be seductive and pleasurable, while also hinting at aspects of the Crazy Horse enterprise, like any human enterprise, that are unsettling. The movie opens and closes on refined hand shadow performances, suggesting that the Crazy Horse is an ephemeral shadow play, a dream world, or as critic Todd McCarthy put it, “Wiseman seizes the opportunity to create an impressionistic portrait of a highly rarefied realm, a tiny sanctuary from real life where the refined expression of sensuality, eroticism and, as per the name of the new show the film documents, desire is the be-all and end-all. Beautifully wrought images capture the dancing, the costumes, the simple but elegant settings and, of course, the exquisitely shaped girls, very often enhanced by striking and sophisticated lighting techniques and backed by generally catchy songs and techno rhythms. One could simply experience the film as a warm, gentle, seductive shower of similar but ever-changing images and be happy with that.”
There's something really sad about accusing an 81-year-old man with a long and distinguished career as a documentarian, one of the form’a innovators in fact, a man who's being honoured at a festival with a retrospective and an opening night, a man whose latest movie is often beautiful, of being complicit in some kind of sexist smut. Violence toward women yet.
It would have been interesting to learn more about the dancers’ private lives and thoughts, but maybe you find out a lot about them through their work, which is what this film, like most of Wiseman’s, is about. Who are these young women? They are disciplined, focused, talented, and completely comfortable with their bodies, even when almost totally nude in a dressing room being filmed by a little old man.
Even more importantly, they are empowered with a gift for enacting highly stylized, tongue-in-cheek erotic fantasies. They dance their way into the trance-like world of the Crazy Horse, and at certain moments, turn a commercial sex show into something beautiful and mysterious, all of which is summed up by a Russian dancer, face close up, reading an exquisite love poem into a mic. That moment says that the womnen do have an inner life, the image resonating with the choreographer’s insistence that the prettiest girls are not necessarily the best dancers. “Crazy Horse is a study of artistic process that is itself a work of art,” wrote A.O. Scott in The New York Times, “and as such, a reminder of what a documentary can be.”
Other docs in RIDM’s excellent lineup included Mia Donovan’s Inside Lara Roxx, in which the filmmaker becomes very close, professionally and personally, with a young Montreal woman who briefly worked the porn scene in L.A. and came home HIV positive.
Leonard Retel Helmrich’s Position among the Stars, the final instalment in the director’s intimate trilogy about hardscrabble Indonesian life, verges on magical realism in its visual beauty. Almost as virtuoso, Tristan Patterson’s Dragonslayer depicts a 23-year-old skateboarder’s chaotic life and touching love for a young woman as still as he is hyper-kinetic.
Joe Berlinger’s and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost: Purgatory seems to complete a story the filmmakers have been following for 18-years. It’s the uncanny account of three teenagers, now grown men, who got railroaded into prison for the grotesquely brutal murder of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Because of Berlinger’s and Sinofsky’s work, many people, including high-profilers like Johhny Depp, became convinced of the West Memphis 3’s innocence and agitated for their freedom.
RIDM’s 14th edition screened 119 films from 32 countries, attracting more than 30,000 viewers.
As I write, Phillipe Falardeau's Monsieur Lazhar has screened in Los
Angeles for the panel that selects Best Foreign Film Oscar® contenders, and for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which
could have placed the writer-director's fourth feature on its Golden
Globe nomination list, but didn't. On the other hand, Variety just
catapulted Falardeau onto its 10 Directors to Watch roll call.
Canada's official pick to vie for the Oscar® nod, an award winner at
last summer's Locarno Film Festival, TIFF 2011's choice for Best
Canadian Feature and on the festival's Top 10 Canadian Features list,
not to mention the audience choice for most popular movie at the
Whistler Film Festival, Monsieur Lazhar closed Montreal's Festival du
nouveau cinéma and will play in Sundance's Spotlight section. After
its first month on Quebec screens, the picture earned a solid $1.5
On one level, Falardeau’s subtly crafted mix of pathos and comedy plays as a Heroic Teacher and Troubled Students story, a genre with a long history that includes 1955’s Blackboard Jungle, 1989’s Dead Poets’ Society, 1995’s Dangerous Minds, and 2008’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner, The Class. On the other hand, the eponymous Monsieur Lazhar differs from the teachers depicted in these films. For instance, unlike Glenn Ford’s teacher in Jungle, Michelle Pfeiffer’s in Minds, and François Bégaudeau’s in The Class, his students are not hardass juvenile delinquents, or indifferent inner city high school kids.
Moreover, although Falardeau brings you in close to his protagonist, Bachir Lazhar remains something of a mystery man throughout the film. In the opening sequence, he shows up abruptly in a Montreal elementary school at precisely the moment of grave crisis when he’s needed. A popular teacher inexplicably hung herself in her classroom, and Lazhar (Algerian actor and stand-up comedian Fellag), convinces administrators that he’s exactly the right person to replace Martine. While some of the new teacher’s unconventional methods piss off the authorities, he quickly establishes a deep connection to his students, especially Simon (Émilien Néron) the ten-year-old who discovered Martine hanging from a ceiling, and Alice (Sophie Nélisse), a pretty, intelligent little girl whose writing about her feelings really gets to her new instructor.
An Algerian refugee from horrific violence that destroyed his family, Lazhar struggles to rescue the kids from their guilt-ridden trauma even as he suffers his own, while at the same fighting to stay in Canada. “He feels that he abandoned his murdered family,” Falardeau told me during a TIFF interview, “and that he is responsible in some way for their deaths. Intuitively, he senses the children’s guilt, and he wants them to transcend it. And in a way he also wants to transcend his own guilt.”
Expanded from a one-man play by Evelyne de la Chenelière, Monsieur Lazhar recalls Falardeau’s 2008 release, C’est pas moi, je le jure! in that both movies display almost perfect finessing of mise-en-scène, cinematography, performance, dramatic and comedic rhythm. And both showcase Falardeau’s gift for directing children into vividly believable and touching performances.
“Directing children is work, work, and even more work that starts in the audition process,” says the moviemaker. “Because I can’t be with them all the time, a children’s coach rehearses with them, then on the set, I try to install some kind of playful atmosphere for everyone. I want the kids to feel that it’s work, but we can also have fun.
“I treat them like adults,” Falardeau continues. “On the day of their big scenes, I leave all the cinema stuff to the crew and work with them closely. I ask them, ‘OK, what you think the character is feeling right now?’ They tell me and I ask them, ‘Do you think you ever felt like that?’ And they give me an anecdote, which I try to tap into. But I do a lot of breaks, and then I go play basketball with them. Even if I’m a little late, I do that. It always pays off.”
Garbage, Sex Addiction, and the End of the World
Another new release that played the Festival du nouveau cinéma, in fact premiered at the event, Benoit Pilon’s Décharge (Trash) is the writer-director’s follow-up to his debut fiction feature, the Prix-Jutra and Genie-winning Ce qu'il faut pour vivre (The Necessities of Life). In Décharge, Pierre (David Boutin) runs a garbage pickup company and works hard on one of the trucks. Once in trouble with the law, he has become a difficult taskmaster at work and a warm-hearted family man with a vital relationship to his wife (Isabel Richer) and kids.
The dark cloud on the horizon is the acceleration of Pierre’s beloved working-class quartier into turf for gangbangers, junkies, and whores. A filmmaker who first drew attention with his doc Roger Toupin, épicier variété (2003), an immersion into the world of a convenience story owner, Pilon loves zeroing in on daily ‘hood life. In Décharge, we get everything from social life in laundromats to the details of a garbage disposal operation to the techniques of low-level prostitution.
The movie’s storyline, flawed by overlinear development, on-the-nose tendencies, and a surplus of exposition, revolves around Pierre’s fascination with the ironically named Ève, a gangster’s teenage trick-turner. Seeing a flashback to what he once was in this doomed junkie, he resolves to rescue her from perdition, kind of like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. On the other hand, maybe Pierre simply wants to grab for what’s underneath this hot chick’s tight pink T-shirts and short shorts. He doesn’t seem to know, but for sure, Pierre goes ga-ga when, in an ostensibly touching moment, Ève sings Over the Rainbow with her tremulous, faltering voice. The movie is about the futile longing to escape the Mean Steets of this Last Exit to Brooklyn kind of world. “When I’m alone,” says Ève, “I don’t know what to do.”
The Festival du nouveau cinéma ended way back at the end of October, but some of its highest profile films, many of which screened first at TIFF, have recently popped onto the screen, or are about to.
Topping the list, Lars (I Don’t Know How to Keep My Mouth Shut) von Trier's Melancholia splits into two parts. In the first, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) loses her bearings at her own wedding, an insanely dysfunctional affair being held on the insanely lavish seaside estate belonging to her brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland). In the picture’s second chapter, which goes deep into Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the characters start to get seriously uptight about a threat that’s been ongoing throughout the film. A gigantic, mysterious planet has swung into an orbit that might bring it into a collision course with Earth. The planet is called Melancholia, an obvious metaphor for the emotional apocalypse threatening all of the movie’s characters.
Von Trier's vision of Endtimes is loaded with exquisitely hyper-saturated images, some of them defying reason. And the director gets very intimate with the 29-year-old Dunst’s face in which we are allowed to see flaws and inevitably encroaching middle age. For me, that’s the most interesting aspect of the picture. Von Trier celebrates his star’s beauty, even as her youth begins to fade.
As Melancholia looms overhead, Justine’s anxiety and depression melt away, and von Trier offers a beautiful, neo-romantic shot of Dunst bathing naked in a waterfall and Melancholia’s supernatural light. Justine, whose inner state fuses with and transcends the cosmic event that’s about to happen, seems like a pagan princess, or some kind of witch, fine-tuning her psyche with everything in nature, including the approaching planet.
Overall, however, Melancholia, which recently nabbed the Best Film prize and other honours, at the European Film Awards, proposes haunting ideas, but fails to deliver them with the force they demand.
In Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, which recalls Luis Buñuel’s straight-faced approach to outrageous characters and situations, not to mention schlock 1950’s scarefests and the poetic horror of films like Eyes without Face, the Spanish moviemaker has come up with a witty and unsettling fairytale that reunites him with Antonio Banderas, performing against type as a demonic, yet pitiful surgeon.
The protagonist of Australian novelist Julia Leigh’s debut feature, Sleeping Beauty, is a delicately pretty, porcelain-skinned student who is offered a strange and potentially dangerous temp job. In a richly appointed drawing room, Clara (Rachael Blake), who comes across like the headmistress of an elite private school, explains to Lucy (Emily Browning) that she will drink a narcotic tea, fall into deep sleep, and lie naked in a luxurious bedroom where elderly male clients have their way with her. When Clara assures Lucy that she will not be penetrated, she says, “Your vagina is a temple,” and the prospective Sleeping Beauty replies, “No it isn’t.”
Leigh’s movie, with its tonal shifts from banality to the surreal, succeeds in establishing an atmosphere pitched somewhere between seductive allure and unsettling menace.
The opening film of the FNC’s adventurous Temps Ø section also tracks a young woman’s initiation into shadowy sexuality. Japanese writer-director Shion Sono’s Guilty of Romance, the final instalment in a trilogy that began with Love Exposure (2008) and Cold Fish (2010) typically fuses crazed erotica and thriller tensions. In the movie, Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka) is a prim, proper, and obedient housewife who gets drawn into nude modelling, porn, and prostitution, mentored by Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi), a philosophy professor who turns herself a Goddess of Sexual Depravity by night.
Its lush visuals often accompanied by Mahler, Guilty of Romance was written for Kagurazaka, who appeared at a post-screening Q & A in a silky dress, answered numerous questions via an interpreter, and charmed the audience almost as much as she did in Sono’s feverish phantasmagoria.
Likely to pick up a best actor Oscar® nomination for Michael Fassbender’s performance as a poised, attractive, but hopelessly compulsive sex addict, British director Steve McQueen’s Shame plays like a cross between American Gigolo and American Psycho. The movie is as sleek and smooth as its protagonist’s nocturnal dalliances. For me, the highlight of the picture comes in a Manhattan nightclub when the sex addict’s unstable sister (Carey Mulligan) sings New York New York languorously and wistfully in a single closeup. “I want to wake up in that city/That doesn’t sleep/And find that I’m King of the Hill/Top of the heap.” From the stage, her eyes lock onto her brother’s for obvious reasons.
As for the festival’s documentary content, Mathieu Roy’s and Harold Crooks’ Surviving Progress is an intriguing and provocative investigation into whether or not technological and scientific advancement really benefit human beings. The fest world premiered Stuart Samuels’ RasTa: A Soul’s Journey, a thoroughly enjoyable excursion into Rastafari history and spiritual philosophy through the wide-open eyes of twenty-five year old Donisha Prendergast, the soulfully beautiful granddaughter of Bob and Rita Marley.
The FNC reports that its 40th edition was one of the most successful ever with a “significant boost in box-office and a record attendance in theatres and at special events.”
Chicoutimi-based writer-director Sébastien Pilote’s first feature, Le Vendeur (The Salesman), played the
Sundance Film Festival a year ago, then won awards on the international festival circuit, including the Turin Film Festival’s Cipputi Prize, which acknowledges the excellence of a picture about the work world. During its first four weeks on Quebec screens, Le Vendeur earned $250,000, and by early December, made TIFF’s list of the year’s Top 10 Canadian Features.
Set in a small Lac St. Jean town during winter, Pilote’s eloquent movie opens on an enigmatic scene of a moose carcass being hauled onto a flatbed truck. The camera lingers on the blood staining the snow.
The town is in trouble. A pulp and paper mill that is a primary source of income is closing; people are moving to Montréal, hoping to find work. Pilote highlights the menace of the factory closing with a graphic that periodically counts down to the dreadful day.
In this atmosphere of impending disaster, the vendeur of the title, Marcel Levesque (Gilbert Sicotte, sure to win best actor awards in the coming year) is an ostensible winner, named the number one salesman in the car dealership where he works, selling high-priced American vehicles to people who live in the middle of nowhere and are collectively going broke. Marcel needs his stability, living for daily rituals. When he’s not buying Cokes for every guy on the garage crew, he lavishes unconditional love on his daughter Maryse (Nathalie Cavezzali), and grandson, Antoine (Jérémy Tessier). Marcel, who calls good-natured hairdresser Maryse “My Beautiful Princess is a widower; she is a single mom.
Above all, Marcel sells. A man with 10,000 business cards, he knows exactly how to finesse customers and connect with them via his chummy, yet highly professional manner. His clothes are good quality and quietly dapper. He has a Buddha-like calm and projects a trustworthiness that inspire confidence.
Made with precision and great love for its people and setting, Le Vendeur’s cinematography and lighting are highly refined, dignifying the characters and giving them beauty. Soft luminosity on Marcel’s face makes him look like he’s in a state of grace; in other scenes, shadows give him quiet menace. Marcel is perfectly capable of pitching a costly pickup truck to an about-to-be-unemployed factory worker who can’t really afford it.
As the story builds via quiet moments rather than operatic crescendos, Le Vendeur spins toward a devastatingly tragic climax that shatters the stillness pervading most of the story. Pilote resolves his movie without resorting to either a schmaltzy Triumph of the Human Spirit ending, or blacking out into total darkness.
In fact, in Le Vendeur winter is bleak, boring, and at the same time magical. The movie takes you into a whited-out world, sensitive to all kinds of changing winter weather, nuances like the variations of late afternoon snowfalls.
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