Toronto: Overseas overview

Titles from the continent unspooling at the fest

Yankees, stay home! | English spoken a lot here this year | Overseas overview
Toronto Film Festival

The Toronto Intl. Film Festival will unspool more than 240 films, several of them foreign-language pics. Here are a few titles from the continent

“My Joy”
Baffling, unsettling and utterly compelling, Sergei Loznitsa’s first feature, “My Joy,” emerged as one of the standout titles in this year’s Cannes competition. Nevertheless, it went unrewarded — perhaps because no one on the jury knew quite what to make of it. A journey into the darkest reaches of the Russian landscape (and psyche), its tale of a truck driver who takes a wrong turn on a highway choked with stalled cars — only to find himself plunged into a nightmarish world of roadside prostitutes, murderous peasants and corrupt border guards — plays like a lament for a country that has also badly lost its way. Yet rather than make crude didactic points, the film’s wayward narrative slips easily, at times almost unnoticeably, between past and present, as its writer-director leaves it up to the viewer to decipher connections between the atrocities of the Soviet era and the degraded state of Russia today. Ultimately, though, any precise reading remains elusive. What remains with you, at the end, is simply a sense of profound, almost haunted unease. For the former documentarian (best known for 2006’s Siege of Leningrad study “Blockade”), it marks an unusually assured feature debut.

“Love Crime”
Since his breakout in the late 1970s with “Serie noire” — brilliantly translating a Jim Thompson thriller to the dismal Parisian suburbs — the late Alain Corneau hovered on the margins of the French industry, never quite attaining the festival profile of peers such as Patrice Chereau or Bertrand Tavernier. However, he continued to maintain a steady output in a broad variety of styles, from handsomely mounted costumers like “All the Mornings of the World” (1991) to pitch-black comedies of cultural displacement (2003’s “Fear and Trembling”). His 2007 remake of Melville’s classic “Le deuxieme souffle” seemed superfluous, but he stood on surer ground with his latest and, sadly, last pic. “Love Crime” stars Kristen Scott Thomas as an older woman who mentors an ambitious young protegee (Ludivine Sagnier). The result, according to insiders, is pitched somewhere between “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Working Girl” — precisely the kind of unlikely fusion, in other words, that Corneau made his own.

Helmed by Brazil’s Andrucha Waddington (“House of Sands”), “Lope” is a portrait of an on-the-make and larger-than-life Lope de Vega, Spain’s greatest 16th-century playwright. It’s also a determinedly realist take on a man who discovers his calling, his genius, fame and true love — and in the film’s gentlest scene, as de Vega walks into a theater, his place in the world.
“We wanted a Madrid never shown before, the center of world entertainment but still a big village where people washed their clothes just once or twice,” says Jordi Gasull, one of the film’s screenwriters.
Unnaturally talented at verse and seduction, de Vega wrote 800 plays and probably had as many affairs, Gasull adds.
“Lope” also chronicles the scribe’s battles to introduce a bracing early realism into the Spanish stage, breaking with his times.
And so too, in an industrial way, does Waddington’s film. Period romantic romps are rare for Spanish cinema. Telco Telefonica co-produces, in a groundbreaking step. Equally pioneering, “Lope” is a Spanish-Brazilian co-production, between Spain’s Antena 3 Films, El Toro and Ikiru and Brazil’s Conspiracao. In a powerful thumbs-up, Warner Bros. co-produces, Fox distributes in Spain and Wild Bunch has international rights.

“Little White Lies”
One of the more hotly anticipated French titles at this year’s TIFF, “Little White Lies” reps helmer Guillaume Canet’s follow-up to his 2006 Harlan Coben adaptation, “Tell No One.” That film earned its star, Francois Cluzet, a Cesar award for best actor, and made the now-54-year-old thesp one of the most bankable male leads in international cinema. Handsome and nervily charismatic, he’s a star in the traditional leading-man sense of the word, and while his CV is formidable, studded as it is with a veritable who’s who of French auteurs (Chabrol, Tavernier, Denis, Assayas), he seems equally at home with more mainstream fare. “Little White Lies” is the latter: a dark-hued ensemble pic that sees him starring alongside Marion Cotillard as one of a group of bourgeois friends forced to confront their dark side. For Cluzet — who always seems at least two steps in front of the viewer — it’s a perfect fit.

“Le Quattro Volte”
Known as “the goat movie” following its world premiere at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, Michelangelo Frammartino’s “Le quattro volte” was one of the finds of that festival. A wordless, quietly rhapsodic study of life in a small Calabrian town, it took a lofty intellectual conceit — what Jay Weissberg, in his Variety review, called “the Pythagorean belief that animal, vegetable and mineral are ultimately one” — and turned it into a richly rewarding entertainment, suitable for all ages. Frammartino’s early training as an architect is evident in both the precision of his visual compositions and the physical ingenuity of his set-ups: One in particular — a single, lengthy shot of a pen filled with goats that descends through a series of accumulating events into chaos worthy of Inspector Clouseau — might be the single most impressively “directed” sequence of the year, not least for the obedient performances of its distinctly nonpro cast.

A professor at Barcelona’s prestigious Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Spanish filmmaker Jose Luis Guerin was already a minor legend among cinephiles for formally audacious, intellectually rigorous works such as “Train of Shadows” (1997) and “Under Construction” (2001), each of which muddied the distinctions between fiction and docu. But it was his 2007 feature “In the City of Sylvia” that propelled him to international attention. A mesmerizing rhapsodic study of a young man obsessively searching the city of Strasbourg for a woman he’d met by chance years earlier, its success launched Guerin on his own odyssey, traveling for more than 12 months to festivals around the world, presenting the film. Now he returns with “Guest,” a docu about his experiences during this period.

“The Big Picture”
Douglas Kennedy’s bestselling novel “The Big Picture” gets a dark-edged French makeover from Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp. Directed by Eric Lartigau (“I Do”), psychological thriller centers on a successful young investment banker whose seemingly perfect life collapses after he kills his neighbor. Staging his own death, the man takes on his victim’s identity and becomes the photographer he always wanted to be. Whereas Kennedy’s original work takes place in the U.S., EuropaCorp’s co-founder and producer Pierre Ange Le Pogam broadened the canvas by following the main character — played by French star Romain Duris (“Heartbreaker”) — on the run across France and all the way to a remote corner of Eastern Europe.
“Adapting Douglas Kennedy’s novel was a difficult bet, because I think you have to be an American producer to envision a film set in the U.S.” says Le Pogam, a self-proclaimed fan of Kennedy’s work who acquired the book’s rights three years ago. “So after spending a long time looking for the perfect locations, we figured Europe lent itself well as a mysterious terrain for investigations and self-discovery.”