The TIFF 2023 Dispatch: Part II
We’re at an interesting inflection point in the fall movie season, where many of the big-ticket items have premiered, but there’s still plenty of festival offerings ahead. With that in mind, a few more thoughts on the Toronto International Film Festival’s 2023 slate:
Perhaps the biggest surprise hit of the festival was writer-director Cord Jefferson’s feature debut American Fiction, a smart and often uproarious dramedy about artistic integrity, adapted from the Percival Everett novel Erasure. Jefferson — making the jump from a television career with credits as varied as The Good Place and Watchmen — cannily weaves a nuanced character study into the heart of what initially appears to be an out-and-out satire, and while this does lead to a mild case of “too many ideas” syndrome, the strands all fit together well enough by the end that you’ll forgive a little bit of slack in the middle. He’s aided immensely by a stellar cast (including Erika Alexander, Sterling K. Brown, and Tracee Ellis Ross, all doing excellent work), headlined by the great Jeffrey Wright, clearly relishing a meaty role that allows him to show off his chops — the range Wright displays is itself well worth the price of admission.
The trials (apologies) of an author are also at the center of Palme d’Or winner Anatomy of a Fall, the latest from French writer-director Justine Triet. Sandra Hüller (having an impressive year between this and The Zone of Interest) stars as a writer (also named Sandra) whose husband — per the title — appears to fall to his death from the top floor of their home. As Sandra finds herself on trial for his murder, Triet constantly shapes and reshapes our perceptions, challenging us to oscillate between empathy and objectivity in frequently discomforting manner. Though the film does take a little while to hit high gear, once we enter the courtroom Triet’s keenly observed procedural crafting — alongside subtle work from Hüller — captivates. As a note, I feel as though I may be in the minority in not considering this piece a major step up for Triet, which is far from an indictment of Anatomy and more an exaltation of her previous work, particularly Sibyl and In Bed with Victoria. A recommendation: let the praise for her latest be an entry point to the entire filmography.
Concluding our writers trilogy is Ava Duvernay’s Origin, a highly anticipated but late addition to the festival season. Duvernay remains one of our more fascinating filmmakers, bouncing frequently between narrative features, documentary, and television over the past decade, and in many ways Origin represents her most ambitious project yet: both a drama about the life and work of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson (movingly played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) and an adaptation of Wilkerson’s nonfiction book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. It’s a big swing, and the approach is one I’ve rarely seen attempted, but unfortunately it doesn’t quite connect: torn between two aims, the film struggles to do justice to either. Duvernay remains a superb image-maker, and there are moments here — especially an extended sequence near the end of the film — that are overpowering in technical and emotional scope. But ultimately the bifurcation took a toll: the more academic exchanges rang artificial, and the characters lacked room to express their own individuality — Wilkerson gets lost at the expense of her quest.
General buzz seemed to peg Seven Veils as one of the more immediately polarizing films presented, but I land squarely on the side of it being a return to form of sorts for Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan; how long it’s been since he delivered a film worthy of his early output probably depends on your assessment of 2009’s Chloe, whose star (Amanda Seyfried) he reteams with here. Seyfried plays a young opera director tasked with restaging a production of Salome made famous by her mentor, and Egoyan takes the opportunity to incorporate his own recent staging of the work with the Canadian Opera Company. This melding gives the film a noticeable verisimilitude, at odds with the heightened nature of Egoyan’s dialogue and interactions. Yet, balancing the two works to elevate both; throughout his career Egoyan has interrogated how relationships are formed and shaped by artificiality — the video tapes in Speaking Parts, the strip club in Exotica — and Seven Veils successfully reframes those themes in thoroughly unsettling manner. In the world outside the opera house, is Seyfried’s Jeanine the martyred John the Baptist? Or is she Salome? Perhaps one becomes the other, or perhaps even that is too simple — with Egoyan, the clearest metaphor is never the most interesting.
Fittingly, perhaps, a pair of post-apocalyptic tales round out our final dispatch. From South Korea, Concrete Utopia pulls from the legacy of blockbuster disaster flicks, depicting the aftermath of Seoul’s decimation by a massive earthquake. Miraculously, one of the city’s many apartment buildings has been mostly spared, leading its residents to band together both as a means of survival and — predictably — to fend off and cast out anyone they fear might encroach on their territory. Director Um Tae-hwa has a strong visual eye, and he and cinematographer Cho Hyoung-rae impressively convey both the large scale of a ruined city and the confines of strongholds that can too easily become cages. Despite some tonal shifts that don’t fully mesh, a propulsive and twisty plot make for a satisfying piece of genre fare.
On the other hand, The End We Start From eschews action in favor of a more lyrical approach to the apocalypse. Working from a script by Alice Birch (adapting a novel by Megan Hunter), director Mahalia Belo envisions a near future in which the climate crisis has led to devastating flooding in England, forcing a young couple (Jodie Comer and Joel Fry) and their infant out of London and onto the road, searching for safe haven in a world where that may no longer be possible. It’s a quiet film, carried in no small part by Comer’s aching portrayal of resilience in the face of extreme adversity, and is a real showcase for Belo in her feature debut. Despite threatening to lose its way narratively at times, the filmmaking impresses, emotionally resonant and technically assured. In a festival where the biggest draws were new works by established auteurs, Belo — along with Cord Jefferson above — remind us of the excitement of hearing from new voices.