TIFF 2019: Corpus Christi

Dark, tragic, pessimistic — Komasa’s film encapsulates the power of second chances

TIFF 2019: <em>Corpus Christi</em>

Though the title, synopsis, and main poster — which features a still of the protagonist in a rich green chasuble, face contorted in emotion as he calls out — suggest that Jan Komasa’s newest film Corpus Christi is about an individual’s battle with faith and religion, it is actually much more grand.

Premiering in North America at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Corpus Christi follows Daniel, a 20 year-old youth with convictions who can’t return to seminary school after being released from a youth correctional facility. He goes instead to a small Polish town to work at a carpenter’s workshop. But after spontaneously asserting that he is a priest, Daniel eventually takes over the town’s parish. It’s a premise that could have easily been a slapstick comedy, however Corpus Christi is anything but: it’s dark, tragic, and, most of all, pessimistic.

Daniel’s faith in Corpus Christi is unwavering; he never questions his beliefs. Quite the contrary, he remains a believer even after many injustices are committed against him and those around him.

Corpus Christi is about the systemic barriers that are built to stand in Daniel’s way of becoming what he truly wants to be. For instance, Daniel is told by the correctional facility’s priest — who he looks up to — that it is impossible for him to go to theology school.

It becomes apparent that Daniel is not simply a devout Christian. He is able to have profound effects, both positive and negative, on people through his sermons, yet he isn’t able to nurture them further in a scholarly and official environment because of the mistakes he made as a teenager. Komasa isn’t asking us how this is fair — he’s plainly showing us that it isn’t.

There is another movie that challenges the church in a similar way: First Reformed, a movie by Paul Schrader which screened at TIFF 2017. First Reformed centers on Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), who, after failing to console an environmental activist with depression, begins to question the politics within his own parish.

Similar to Daniel, Toller sees how the systemic infrastructure of the church actually stands in the way of pure preaching. For Daniel, his record prohibits him from going to seminary school. For Reverend Toller, his church having a close relationship with an industrialist puts limits on his ability to move his congregation toward stewardship, a religious ideal that suggests that humans are responsible for taking care of the earth.

Films like Corpus Christi and First Reformed are important because they detail the extensive politics that exist within what is supposed to be the most sacred of organizations. They outline the way in which greed, power, and money get in the way of the upkeep of justice and environmental sustainability.

These films remind us that social issues, such as the environment and the criminal justice system, can be viewed in more ways than one. By framing them through religion, Schrader and Komasa effectively assert that there is no excuse to plead ignorance or turn a blind eye. We must familiarize ourselves with our surroundings — be it politics, religion, education, or even entertainment — and then decide what kind of narrative is being presented, and by whom.

Corpus Christi and First Reformed ask us about personal responsibility and accountability, both to the institutions that we choose, and those that we do not. They prod the idea of responsibility to our surroundings, the environment, and the people that we interact with every day.

These philosophical questions are not answered in either of the films. Instead, Komasa and Schrader sow the seeds for us to examine our place in the web of society, and to subsequently decide to whom or what we owe our loyalty, and where owe rebellion.

TIFF 2019: Knives Out

Witty murder mystery combined with a stellar cast, Knives Out is a must-see

TIFF 2019: <em>Knives Out</em>

Knives Out is a quick-witted, revamped mystery that is, at its core, about the good in people, not their murderous instincts. Director Rian Johnson employs his miraculous cast in a story most closely comparable to a game of Mafia, as a detective and a private investigator try to determine the cause of death of a mystery novel magnate. With a backdrop of the stately Thrombey mansion and a rich family of money grabbers, the main character, Marta, is impressively played by the up-and-coming Ava de Armas.

In 2017 de Armas played a key role in Blade Runner 2049, but her performance in Knives Out is much more authoritative, nuanced, and magnetic. Marta is the close confidant and private nurse to our victim, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), and she is very trusting but certainly not naïve. There’s an argument to be made here that Marta is the most complex and substantive role written of its kind, one which avoids annoying tropes and fits perfectly with de Armas’ lived-in performance.

The cast includes a wealth of other celebrities, including Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, and Jamie Lee Curtis. A cast of stars that size can cause serious issues for a film, with actors trying to outdo each other or sacrificing too much character development.

Johnson sidesteps these issues deftly, by carefully choosing peppery moments of characterization and maintaining a deep commitment to character-based comedy. Each performance has its own sensibility, and picking a favourite is definitely some sort of Rorschach test — mine is Toni Collette. Do with that what you will.

If you were to read the script, devoid of character names, you would still be able to tell who’s saying each line. It’s that tight.

When Johnson came out to introduce the film at its premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, he pumped up the audience by calling Knives Out a “classic whodunnit.” The film snaps between genre tropes and modern touches frequently, and evokes a similar edge-of-your-seat, Agatha Christie-esque feeling to its mystery. The movie is set to a snare-drum-heavy jazz score and has a self-reflexive structure, which is far more effective and intriguing than a simple final reveal.

Knives Out gives you the same feeling as driving down a dark road at night while listening to a funny podcast. You can barely see what’s six feet in front of you, and certainly not any further than that, but you’re having a great time. It’s not a ‘twist movie’ per se, it’s just a really good movie with spectacular planning and an attention to detail that rivals most actual police investigations.

The movie’s road is a spiral. Much of this has to do with Marta, who’s caught up in the death in a couple different ways, not least of which in her enlistment into solving the case by Detective Benoit Blanc (Craig). Marta is the daughter of an undocumented migrant, a fact not parachuted in, but woven into her character trajectory, the overall story progression, and Johnson’s main moral aims.

The divide between kind-hearted Marta and the Thrombeys is never more apparent than after Harlan’s death. The family squabbles over who is actually ‘self-made’ and who just coasts by on their parents’ money — hint: all of them coast.

The chasm between the Thrombey’s lifestyle and Marta’s is huge, yet the family does everything in their power to keep it that way. Even more frustrating is when they force her into a very timely discussion on the detention of asylum-seeking migrants and hand her an empty plate in the same breath, even though she is not a housekeeper.

It’s not a political film in terms of elections and debates, but it is political in the sense that this is actually what it feels like to be alive right now. Johnson somehow threads this needle, and pulls off a magic trick. He argues for goodness above all else, but recognizes the way the deck is stacked for the supremely wealthy, powerful, and white. It never feels hypocritical, and it never feels preachy. Magic.

Knives Out is going to be an absolute crowd-pleaser, and deservedly so. It’s beautiful and hilarious, and the genre-bending that Johnson pulls off is one for the books — the mystery books specifically. I’m not sure if it’s a great sign that a murder mystery is the film to nail our daily experiences, but it is a fantastic reminder that a movie can be about something as simple as goodness.

TIFF 2019: All the films I saw

If you like lists and films, then this is the article for you

TIFF 2019: All the films I saw

Over the seven total days I spent at the Toronto International Film Festival I saw 19 films, had upward of 20 cups of coffee, got less than five hours of sleep a night, and attended, optimistically, 60 per cent of my classes. It was an absolutely insane experience that I could only compare to some sort of army-ranger training, cramming so much emotion and exhaustion into such a compressed amount of time. Here is what I have to show for it: this list of films and many great memories.

1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

I wrote a full review of this film, which is good because I certainly do not have enough space here to express my admiration and reverence for this movie. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a French lesbian period drama directed by Céline Sciamma. It’s a stunning, heartfelt rumination on love and art, and maybe ruined me for any other film this year.

2. Uncut Gems

The latest film by the Safdie brothers stars Adam Sandler as a New York jeweller with a crippling gambling problem, in a performance that fully cements the Sandler renaissance. Sandler’s classic anger comes out in new and desperate ways, as the film clips away with the Safdie brothers’ unique mix of gaudy and genuinely cool. 

3. Knives Out

Rian Johnson’s Clue-inspired murder mystery is as beautiful as it is intricate, and features a deep bench of sensational performances. Knives Out feels profoundly committed to fun, which is not to say that it has nothing else going on. Johnson’s grasp of genre contributes to this balancing act, and his obvious love of mystery iconography permeates this wholly original film.

4. Parasite

The Palme d’Or-winning Parasite was directed by Bong Joon-Ho and is a clawing commentary on upstairs-downstairs class relations. Pretty serious and deadly funny, Parasite corners hard. The film is anchored by amazing performances and tight cinematography, and epitomizes ‘must see to believe.’

5. Pain and Glory

Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s autobiographical film is a lovingly-constructed exploration of the body and mind. Almodóvar’s expressive use of colour and a brilliant performance by Antonio Banderas are the standouts of this graceful and open-hearted feature.

6. Ema

Pablo Larraín’s follow up to 2016’s Jackie is a thumping, distraught piece that follows Ema, a dancer. Rhythmic dance sequences are interspersed with Ema’s decaying relationship with her husband and adopted son. It’s empathetic and pounding, emotional and sensual, and gorgeously photographed.

7. Hustlers

Lorene Scafaria directed this true story about a group of exotic dancers who run a very successful con on Wall Street ‘dudebros’ in the wake of the financial crisis. It’s bright, it’s loud, it features extended sequences of Jennifer Lopez absolutely killing it on the pole, and it invests in its female characters with deep understanding and interiority. What more could you want?

8. True History of the Kelly Gang

Justin Kurzel’s Australian gangster period piece is just as insane as it sounds and very rad. George MacKay is absorbing as the notorious Ned Kelly, and, together with a host of other great performances rounds out the strobing clanging film, complete with homoerotic sexual energy and exquisite cinematography. The film does the story justice, and peppers the storyline with as many questions as it answers

9. Hope Gap

William Nicholson’s film is about a couple living in a picturesque English seaside town and the breakdown of their marriage. Annette Bening is orders of magnitude better than the film deserves; she is painfully biting and deeply tired. She is honestly the only reason Hope Gap is ranked this high, but it’s my list so we are going with it.

10. Disco

Norwegian director Jorunn Myklebust Syversen teamed up with actress Josefine Frida in this film which combined hyper-intense religious cults with super athletic dance sequences. It’s all set to a pounding house score and flooded with purple neon light, while the characters crumble under the pressures of their faith.

11. Hala

Minhal Baig’s coming-of-age story about the daughter of Muslim immigrants is a welcome addition to the genre and boasts a star-making performance by Geraldine Viswanathan. The film catalogues the tension between Hala and her parents, and builds to show the consequences of repressive familial ties.

12. Synonyms

A complex story about stories, Synonyms was directed by Nadav Lapid and follows an Israeli immigrant on his first couple weeks in Paris. As Yoav — played intensely by Tom Mercier — struggles between aspects of his identity. Formal choices bring a sense of newness to the story about a man trying to find his place in a rigid societal structure.

13. Jojo Rabbit

Taika Waititi latest film is a satire about Nazi Germany, and stars newcomers Roman Griffin Davis and Thomasin McKenzie, as well as Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell. The first half is far more outrageous than the second, when it morphs into something genuinely heartfelt. Too much gets reconciled in time for the ending, but the film achieves its goal and sticks with you.

14. Beanpole

Kantemir Balagov’s Russian postwar drama is exhausting and gouging, and a dire portrait of a country in mourning. Anchored by two unbelievably gripping performances by Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina, Beanpole makes its warm-toned art design feel incredibly cold. Visually impressive, but it will leave you with the biggest lump in your throat.

15. Just Mercy

Just Mercy tells the true story of Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who works with prisoners on death row. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, we follow Jamie Foxx, who plays an innocent man framed by a racist police department, a role which Foxx is fantastic in. Stevenson’s story is amazing, so the film has trouble doing anything other than rephrasing how amazing he is. It’s evocative and devastating, but struggles with traditional biopic issues.

16. Endings, Beginnings

Drake Doremus’ feature, starring Shailene Woodley, Jamie Dornan, and Sebastian Stan is basically a coming-of-age movie about white people in their 30s. It’s an inoffensive study of relationships and chemistry, but it’s a little stale. Also, someone should introduce Doremus to a wide angle.

17. Guns Akimbo

Jason Lei Howden’s video game action-comedy has something to say about our penchant for violent content and the churning antagonism online, but it gets in its own way with the same violent content and churning antagonism. Daniel Radcliffe is good as an online troll forced to take part in a deadly livestream game, but the film reads more like an energy drink commercial than a movie.

18. Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band

According to Daniel Roher’s new documentary, Robbie Robertson has never done a thing wrong in his life. Great music and fun talking-head appearances — Bruce Springsteen! Martin Scorsese! — cannot save this film from itself and its aggressive need to mythologize Robertson. Just watch The Last Waltz.

19. Synchronic

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead directed Jamie Dornan and Anthony Mackie in Synchronic, which, despite its great concept, is a pretty big miss. The film limps along until it finally explains what’s going on and why it’s cool, but by that point we’ve lost all interest in our one-dimensional characters to even care at all.

TIFF 2019: Student by day, tired by night

U of T undergrad on her time starring in a TIFF film

TIFF 2019: Student by day, tired by night

Dear Readers,

My name is Mick Robertson. I am a fourth-year student, a writer, and an actress. Most recently, I played the lead in Sofia Banzhaf’s short film, I am in the World as Free and Slender as a Deer on a Plain. Luckily for me, this sweet short just had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). And so, for my Varsity friends, I kept a little log. Here are some selections that I would like to share, from the first six days of the festival.

Day one, Thursday, September 5:

I wish I could start this series by saying, ‘I went to a party where I was the lamest person, which I was cool with, because the room was filled with STARS!’ But that would be a lie, and unfortunately my editor is holding me to ‘journalistic standards,’ despite my being a dramatist.

Day two, Friday, September 6:

I watch Black Conflux by Nicole Dorsey, which the director of my film, Sofia Banzhaf, is in. As I step onto the escalator at the Scotiabank Theatre, the woman behind me is stopped by a volunteer and asked to show her ticket. Nobody has asked me for a ticket yet. Either I’m too quick for the volunteers to catch me or this pass around my neck is working its magic. After the film, I run uptown to see a comedic magic show, but that’s a story for another time.

Day three, Saturday, September 7:

Today is the day that my film premieres. I spend my morning buying boob tape. I spend my afternoon doing overdue work on my computer as my sister curls my hair. A good sister, my Martha.

At the cinema, I swap giddy smiles with my friends and family as I am welcomed to the front of the auditorium. The show is sold out and the theatre is so much larger than I had anticipated. The lights dim and my movie is up first. I count the minutes as my dad and I are in the same room watching my character watch anime porn. When the credits roll, a loved one leans over our shared armrest and whispers to me in the dark, “Congratulations! I am so proud of you!” Ahh, warmth.

Outside of the theatre, and we’re all gabbing. “I like it when you’re huge,” my boyfriend says. My mom and dad approach. Uh-oh. A shiver goes down my spine as I think about them watching me ‘try to S-E-X’ with so many men. My big, tough, vegan dad shakes his head, and then says with a sigh, “You know, you told me about the sex and the drugs but you did not tell me about the stirloin.” He laughs and so do I. “You look like Scarlett Johansson on the big screen!” says my overly-generous Mom.

Day four, Sunday, September 8:

I spend the morning workshopping a script with friends and spend the evening watching There’s Something In the Water by my lonesome. This makes me cry — not my being alone, but the documentary. Directed by Ellen Page and Ian Daniel, There’s Something In the Water examines environmental racism in Nova Scotia. After the film, the cast and crew take the stage to answer questions. The room rises to its feet. The passion is palpable.

Day five, Monday, September 9:

I miss my morning class to watch Marriage Story by Noah Bombach. And so, I cry both Sunday night and Monday morning. I have a soft spot for sad love stories. I wish I didn’t, but I do.

Day six, Tuesday, September 10:

Log written at 12:30 pm:

I’m on a mission to get free stuff today! I had to skip another morning class for a last minute photoshoot — whoops, oh well! Afterward, I took a gander around the TIFF village. I got free coffee and free hair conditioner! I realized that there’s free coffee all over TIFF, you just have to know where to find it. I take a professional air when ordering my espresso, hoping to mask the stench of a scavenging student. But alas, I realize that the stench is not metaphorical but that this morning while getting dressed up, I forgot to wear deodorant.

After a quick run to Shoppers Drug Mart, I sit and people watch in the industry centre. I watch as industry folk bump into each other. ‘I wish my friends were here,’ I think.

Additional log at 3:45 pm, typed exactly as written in my notebook:

“Drank too much free beer coffee + then I had a beer at a meeting. Now I have to go to my classics class. Hopefully we grow older as we grow wiser.”*

*I would like to note that at this point I absolutely went home and ate sweet potatoes until I felt better before heading to class. Take care of yourself, folks!

Current place, current time:

As I sit here and write in Robarts — relatable content — the festival is creeping closer and closer to its conclusion on Sunday. That said, there are still many movies to see and plenty of studying to fall behind on.

I would like to thank The Varsity for inviting me to write this piece, and in doing so providing me with a reason to sit down in this whirlwind time and reflect on all of the things I am learning and loving about being around movies. If anyone is reading this and wants to make films, well, I want to make them too! Please feel free to reach out to me. Who knows? Maybe a bunch of us could be back here with a film next fall.

If you would like to see some of Roberston’s work, she invites you to attend a reading of Lone Island Lovers at the Luella Massey Studio Theatre on September 21 at 2:00 pm.

TIFF 2019: Parasite

One of the best thrillers of the last 20 years

TIFF 2019: <em>Parasite</em>

Last week at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho premiered his newest film, Parasite, to a Canadian audience. Not a second is wasted in the film’s more-than-two-hour hour runtime as Parasite slowly builds from a sardonic black comedy to its electrifying conclusion, making its audience toggle between bursts of laughter and squirms of discomfort along the way.

Parasite focuses on the interweaving lives of two South Korean families in vastly different economic situations: the Kims, who live below the poverty line in a cramped, sub-basement apartment; and the absurdly wealthy Park family, who live in a sleek mansion far away from the Kims’ poverty-stricken neighborhood.

When Ki-Woo, a member of the Kim family played by Choi Woo-shik, ends up securing a job as a private English tutor for the Parks’ daughter, played by Jung Ji-so, Parasite’s tale of deception begins to slowly unravel itself. What begins as a Robin Hood-esque tale of mischief devolves into something far more sinister, intricate, and highly entertaining.

In one of the film’s earliest gags, the Kims’ upstairs neighbor puts a password on their router due to the Kims’ freeloading, forcing them to sneak onto a nearby café’s connection in order to get on WhatsApp and stay up-to-date with the world and job openings.

This leads into a small, comedic exchange among the family, showcasing how often this modern utility is taken for granted and just how quickly we are to notice its absence. Right out the gate, this tale of internet theft ends up setting the tone for the rest of the film, firmly cementing Parasite’s world in a contemporary reality where one’s socioeconomic status often dictates their quality of life and access to everyday luxuries.

Gone are the fantasy and sci-fi elements of Joon-ho’s most recent features — for example, 2013’s post-apocalyptic thriller Snowpiercer, starring Chris Evans. Instead, Joon-ho chooses a twenty-first century capitalist society as the backdrop for this thriller, where every twist and turn is entirely conceivable.

Social commentary aside, Parasite never reduces its two families into a mere set of archetypes or symbols. Instead, it carefully crafts its moments of humor and tenderness to paint a realistic portrait of the film’s main cast. The Kims are not portrayed as characters we should pity, but rather they manage to garner the viewer’s respect and admiration through their shared charm, charisma, and resilience in the face of adversity.

The self-centered and vapid Park family often display their humanity, garnering the audience’s sympathy and attention, even as they are rooting for the conniving Kims. Joon-ho himself has described the film as “a comedy without clowns and a tragedy without villains.” This sentiment rings true throughout every moment of Parasite.

Joon-ho’s gentle balance between extremes is proof that the director is working at the peak of his abilities. Especially in the film’s latter half, long portions of it would often go on without a breath heard in the theatre, as everyone anxiously anticipates the main characters’ next daring move. The silence would then be broken by a lewd remark, absurd bit of slapstick, or sudden violence without warning.

Attachments to characters are built, destroyed, and restored several times over the course of the film, building toward a climax that switches the gaze away from the misfit families and instead toward the capitalist countries that allow the vast wealth disparities it showcases to occur in the first place.

Parasite goes on sale as part of the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s regular-season screenings starting October 2.

TIFF 2019: Honey Boy

On the circularity of trauma

TIFF 2019: <em>Honey Boy</em>

Content warning: mentions of physical and emotional abuse and alcohol use disorder.

Described by director Alma Har’el as a film made by and for children of people with alcohol use disorder, 2019’s Honey Boy was is set up to be an emotional ordeal from its get-go. Having had its international premiere last week at the 44th annual Toronto International Film Festival, Honey Boy is a story told through two interconnecting timelines.

The film details the life of a child actor named Otis, played by Noah Jupe, and his experience growing up in the presence of his physically and emotionally abusive father, James, played by Shia LaBeouf. With a screenplay written by and based on Shia LaBaouf’s own upbringing, Honey Boy is an intimate tale of Otis’s trauma and exorcising of personal demons that ends up coalescing into a work of art that will surely resonate with its audience.

The film follows Otis through two stages of his life: 1995, when Otis is just a twelve-year-old actor on an unnamed sitcom — but one that is definitely based on Disney Channel’s Even Stevens. The second period takes place in 2005, where a 22-year-old Otis, now played by Lucas Hedges from the critically acclaimed A24 films LadyBird and Mid90s, now spends his days in  rehabilitation as a Hollywood star with an alcohol use disorder.

Har’el switches between the two timelines through a series of clever transitionary sequences where Otis ends up interacting with some object or physical space that parallels an experience his other self has, or will, experience.

In one such instance, an older Otis is in rehabilitation and cleaning a chicken coop when he is reminded of his father who, in his own youth, was a less-than-successful rodeo clown who often used chickens in his showcases. These aimless chickens return throughout the film as a hilarious and surreal motif that often leads Otis into some of his most heart-wrenching revelations. Never has a chicken aimlessly prancing around been so emotionally impactful.

At times self-referential and fourth-wall-breaking, Honey Boy is also a film about film itself. Har’el is very invested in exploring the cathartic process of filmmaking itself through the kitschy, mainstream comedies and action flicks that Otis — and Labeouf — once starred in. At certain points in the film, it becomes difficult to distinguish between Otis’ memories, his reality, and his acting on a film set.

Otis’ timelines interweave not only with one another, but with the sitcoms and action movies sets he’s working on. Whether it be through slapstick, prop humor or high-octane stunt sequences, the shoots often have Otis undergoing some form of a physical or emotional challenge as the scripts begin to parallel his real life. This blending of timelines and realities helps elevate the movie from straight-forward, narrative biopic into an experimental, reality-bending film.

In the post-screening Q&A session with the cast and director, LaBeouf was quick to point out that he wrote this movie for himself and, more importantly, for his own father. Labeouf’s portrayal of his father is revelatory in its ability to make one feel so angry at his failures as a father yet also be the focus of so much of our sympathies.

To see a person so openly face their own demons on screen was one of the festival’s most emotionally-impactful moments. Honey Boy’s greatest strength is in its ability to combine dream-like vignettes with wonderful dialogue to create moments of beauty in the most unexpected of places. Whether that place is a chicken coop, a Hollywood film set or a highway interstate, Har’el’s cast of misfits manages to bring a smile — and a tear — to everyone’s face.

Honey Boy hits theatres on November 8, 2019.

TIFF 2019: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Two Varsity writers are mesmerized by Céline Sciamma’s stunning feature film

TIFF 2019: <em>Portrait of a Lady on Fire</em>

When the lights came up in the Winter Garden theatre mere seconds after the credits began to roll, I felt betrayed by the caustic brightness. I was positively sobbing. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is French director Céline Sciamma’s fourth feature film, and it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May. After it won the screenplay prize at the festival, I knew that it was going to be good, and after watching all of Sciamma’s past work to prepare, I knew it was going to be even better than I thought. Finally, after seeing the film at TIFF this year, reader, I can only describe it as the most admirable film I have ever seen.

This period piece follows a young painter named Marianne, who is commissioned for a portrait of a subject who refuses to be painted. Each shot is as beautiful as Marianne’s painting, lit with only natural light and photographed largely outdoors at a cliffside beach and inside the simple French mansion. The pureness of the blacks and the starkness of the whites in the frame punctuate moments of stirring dialogue. Sciamma spends a great deal of time with Marianne’s meticulous hand, sketching and painting various pivotal moments of the film.

The nature of her work is classical, but it’s imbued with bottomless integrity and emotion. As Marianne notes, the conventions of art at the time are specific and limiting, while Sciamma’s approach to her own art is profound and riveting.

Marianne and Héloïse share glances and whispers, and much of the film is composed of watching them look at each other. These prolonged moments of looking might have been lifeless, but the coursing energies between the two are captivating. It is also quite radical, as the way they look at each other, and indeed the way Sciamma’s camera soaks them up, embodies a new sort of gaze for the cinema, one that is distinctly intimate and distinctly female. Unlike an unfortunate number of films with queer subject matter, Portrait of a Lady on Fire could never be accused of hetero-lensed lesbian relations to check some representational box. The beauty of the film lies in the core of what it means for women to love women; their lesbian relations are not incidental but integral.

So much of their courtship is quiet and unsaid, until it isn’t. Marianne and Héloïse are scared but thrilled, and because of the generally reserved contact their smiles are cathartic expressions of joy. At the post-film Q&A, Sciamma told us that she often uses music to act as an important moment of dramatic composition, and several times in the film this comes to fruition. Most notably in a striking scene around a bonfire where a choir performs acapella, and in a final churning and astonishing shot.

Beyond these few moments of musical release, the soundtrack is silent, as we are consumed by the growing joy and liveliness of Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship. We spend so much time with these heroines that, when a man appears near the end of the film, it truly feels jarring. The currents running through the film are feminine and bold, and they feel like less of a statement and more of a given.

When I exited the theatre I found myself in a rainstorm on Victoria street, sure that I looked like a wreck, I could only smile. I would not call this movie sad, or happy, or any word that suggests I could quantify exactly what Portrait of a Lady on Fire did to me. I would not even say fabulous, effective, exquisite. I would call this movie unimpeachably perfect, and so invested in art’s ability to make you feel that it absorbed all of my feelings and left me shipwrecked in a rainy downtown Toronto. Sciamma has unlocked something here, something so devastating and sparkly that it’s a wonder we ever lived without it.

TIFF 2019: Disco

A compassionate yet exhausting display of mental illness and fundamentalist religion

TIFF 2019: <em>Disco</em>

Disco is Jorunn Myklebust Syversen’s second feature film, and the Norwegian director managed to create a thumping, flashing treatise on cult-like religious devotion.

The film stars the Toronto International Film Festival’s 2019 Rising Star Josefine Frida, and follows her character Mirjam through trials of dance and faith alike. These dance competitions are somewhere between a gymnastics floor routine and Toddlers and Tiaras, as we open on a glittery compilation of dancers of many ages set to a strident electronic song.

Our first moment with Mirjam is a long shot of her barely-faltering smile as she waits to compete. It’s eerie, and although she doesn’t smile often in the film, the forced, labored effect never fades. This also immediately introduces us to one of Syversen’s most employed techniques — the long take. We spend enough time on Mirjam’s bruising smile so that we can note each individual piece of glitter on her face.

Mirjam is active in her church, a shiny millennial rebranding of Christianity called Freedom. Her stepfather speaks in the services often, a kind of Justin-Timberlake-knockoff pastor. Mirjam’s entire family, including her younger sister, is consumed by Freedom.

This is a highly fundamentalist institution, although the pink neon lights and pounding club music attempts to create a gauzy overlay. Syversen draws a comparison between the highly-athletic and performative dance sequences and the extended scenes of monologuing by Mirjam’s stepfather, suggesting the mental gymnastics required in both contexts.

Through long sections of the film that are spent listening to speakers at Freedom, Syversen lets her audience ponder the content themselves and hone in on the specific way that Mirjam’s church will fail her.

Mirjam has a spectral pain from a childhood incident that her mother refuses to tell her about, as well as anxiety and an eating disorder. She begins to crumble as the exertion required between her dance and church performances starts to eat her up inside. Frida is remarkable in her performance, staring deep down the lens of the camera and willing the audience to recognize her ache.

Frida is highly internalized, seldom speaking during her scenes at the beginning, and almost never raising her voice by its end. We are watching a woman drown in her own mind, and Frida plays it as if she’s grieving, over God, sure, but mostly over herself. When Mirjam plugs into recorded sermons from American mega-churches, the searching in her eyes and soul is detectable.

When she begins fainting during her competitions, her mother and stepfather insist that her faith is wavering — if she only believed harder, trusted harder, she would feel better. The shame of her faith being questioned and her neglected personal issues push her on a dangerous path toward a more fanatical religious cult.

Syversen’s sustained scenes of church sermons are cut together with personal meetings Mirjam has with her uncle. The inundation of religious rhetoric is suffocating, with Syversen expertly creating the sense that there is literally nowhere else to turn.

By putting the audience in the same position as Mirjam, Syversen composes a compassionate, if exhausting view of mental illness and fundamentalist religion. Watching Disco is watching someone be betrayed by her family and her faith. The failings of the institution to consider any different method of coping is clear. Syversen is not exactly grinding an axe against religion, but creates a flashing neon sign that warns all those who enter.

As the film builds to a clanging finale, her point is made. No one can survive on faith alone.

Disco hits theatres September 7.