TIFF Day 6: Catching my Breath

After four movies and two parties on Tuesday, I knew I would have to take it easy on Wednesday, so I scheduled a two-film day. Of course, what I didn't account for was the fact that I had to get up early in the morning one last time to go to the box office, and my afternoon was booked for a group-Chlotrudis lunch (the only time I would see Ned & Ivy during the entire festival!) With the ever-growing festival fatigue that hits in the latter half of the trip, and another party looming in the evening, I knew this was going to be a tough day. Fortunately, our first film wasn't until 12:30 p.m., so we did have a couple of hours in the morning to rest.

UNE VIEILLE MAÎTRESSE (France; 114 min.)

director: Catherine Breillat

cast: Asia Argento, Fu'ad Aït Aattou, Roxane Mesquida, Claude Sarraute, Yolande Moreau

A new Catherine Breillat film is always something that sparks my interest, and in her latest film, the first after the director endured a serious stroke, Breillat tries her hand at a period piece... a true costume drama set in the early nineteenth century. Based on writer Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s notorious novel of sexual intrigue, UNE VIEILLE MAÎTRESSE charts the tempestuous ten-year relationship between young Ryno de Marigny and the foul-mouthed, half-Spanish libertine Vellini. Now that Ryno is engaged to marry the virtuous gem of the French aristocracy, Hermangarde, he must come clean about his past to her grandmother La marquise de Flers, who is shockingly understanding. Ryno insists that it is over between he and Vellini, and explains to La marquise the sexual dynamic that kept him in her clutches for so many years. Their late night conversation is punctuated by the voracious sexual encounters and the social manipulations between the young lovers.

The casting of Asia Argento as Vellini is an interesting choice for Breillat. Argento is not known for her deft acting skills, and her on-screen presence is decidedly modern. Still, she inhabits the roll of Vellini quite well; her unrefined screen presence matching the uncouth Vellini in a way that works for the film. Newcomer Fu'ad Aït Aattou, a barber Breillat discovered at a French cafe, does a fine job as Ryno, acquitting himself nicely despite being chosen quite obviously for his looks. Frequent Breillat collaborator Roxane Mesquida (FAT GIRL; SEX IS COMEDY) adds just enough backbone to the virginal Hermangarde to give her much needed depth. The standout in the cast is certainly Claude Sarraute as the unflappable La marquise de Flers, who takes in Ryno's scandalous story and gives him the benefit of the doubt that he has changed.

What lifts UNE VIEILLE MAÎTRESSE above the vaguely reminiscent DANGEROUS LIAISONS is the way the two main characters are allowed a range of emotions. There is more than just cruel manipulations behind the actions of the young lovers; true emotions simmering just beneath the surface. As far as the production itself, Breillat, who in her introduction to the film explained her obsession with period details, has taken pains to create an accurate look and feel of the time. The film's budget is more than all her previous films combined, and you can see where the money was spent onscreen. This is a fine continuation of a controversial filmmaker's body of work.

THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS (Canada; 77 min.)

director: Bruce McDonald

cast: Ellen Page, Ari Cohen, Max McCabe-Lokos, Max Turnbull, Julian Richings, Zie Souwand, Slim Twig

This was surely the year of Ellen Page at the Toronto International Film Festival. After receiving well-deserved accolades for her fine comedic work in JUNO, she turns around a floors audiences in Bruce McDonald's ("Twitch City"; HIGHWAY 61) dramatic feature THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS. This is a film that has the potential to blow your mind, incorporating a strong enough screenplay, a powerhouse lead performance, and a visionary director that pushes the boundaries of filmmaking to take the film's title literally and give the audience visual fragments of the titular character's psyche.

In some ways, Tracey Berkowitz is similar to Juno, Page's other leading role at the festival. Both are high-school girls on the fringes of that community. But while Juno has a strong support base in her friends and family, Tracey is adrift alone, picked on mercilessly by her peers, and shunned by her parents who find her to be a problem child. Or it's possible that Tracey is just a very disturbed young girl rejecting any assistance that comes her way. The film is told entirely from Tracey's decidedly skewed point-of-view, it is difficult to gauge the ineffectiveness of her parents accurately. Central to the story is the disappearance of Tracey's seven-year-old brother, who thinks he's a dog. The story is told in flashback, through erratic flashes of Tracey's memory, as she rides a bus through the city, wrapped only in a flowered shower curtain, an impending blizzard looming in the near future.

Two films came to mind as I watched THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS: Lukas Moodysson's LILJA 4-EVER and Darren Aronofsky's PI. The former because we are watching the helpless downward spiral of a girl in way over her head. The latter because of the visual and aural assault Bruce McDonald uses to convey this tragic story. The fragmented visuals and helter skelter editing McDonald employs really adds tremendously to what might have otherwise been an R-rate after-school special type of story. The powerful, sountrack by Broken Social Scene matches the visuals nicely. The film works best if you stop resisting and let it wash over your senses. Moments of near calm are granted in Tracey's discussions with Dr. Heker, a female psychologist cast and played brilliantly by the very male Julian Richings (MY LIFE WITHOUT ME; THE RED VIOLIN).

The film has some minor flaws, mainly in the screenplay, but Page's outstanding lead performance and McDonald's creative and assured directorial hand managed to catapult THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS into my top film of the Festival. I'm hoping that a successful roll-out of JUNO will grant THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS a U.S. distribution deal. I would also love to co-present this film at the Independent Film Festival of Boston next April if it hasn't yet been released.

Once again, we hooked up with Don and Tracy after the film, along with Gerry Peary and Callum Keith Rennie, to walk over to the Century Club and THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS after-party. We once again chatted with Nadia Litz and Kish, as we navigated the crowded party filled with Canadian film notables. Just as the late hour threatened to overwhelm us and we made our way to the exit, we came across the star of the evening, the incredibly talented Ellen Page, and we were able to chat with her, congratulating her on her success. She graciously allowed us to take all the credit south of the border for discovering her rising star when we gave her the Breakout Award at the 11th Annual Chlotrudis Awards.