TIFF 2011 motors along with three movies being released by Sony Pictures Classics later this year, two by talented auteurs who have been making classic, Oscar-worthy films for many decades and one by a bright young talent from the indie world.
Toronto’s hometown hero David Cronenberg offers A Dangerous Method, an adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play “The Talking Cure,” starring Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley and Viggo Mortensen, while Pedro Almodovar delves further into genre with his thriller The Skin I Live In, reuniting him with Antonio Banderas. Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter stars Michael Shannon as a man who foresees a giant storm coming, much to the concern of his wife, played by Jessica Chastain.
A Dangerous Method (Sony Pictures Classics – November 23)
Directed by David Cronenberg; Written by Christopher Hampton
Starring Keira Knightley, Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortenson, Vincent Cassel, Sarah Gadon
It’s been some years since David Cronenberg brought his Russian thriller “Eastern Promises” to TIFF, and while it continues some of his earlier themes, “A Dangerous Method” gets away from what we’ve come to expect from the filmmaker who started out by making some of the most disturbing genre films.
The film opens with a bedraggled Keira Knightley being carried kicking and screaming into an institution in Zurich. This is Sabina Spielrein, a young woman who went through abuse and humiliation at the hands of her father, leaving her completely unhinged, and she’s been put into the care of Dr. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) who uses groundbreaking methods in psychotherapy devised by his mentor Sigmund Freud. We see how the two of them establish a rapport as he tries to help the young woman get through her problems by getting her to help him with her experiments, and her treatment helps her get to the point where she can get into therapy herself.
It’s a full 20 minutes before we’re introduced to Viggo Mortensen’s Sigmund Freud and we get some idea of the rapport between the godfather of modern psychiatry and his student. Rather than being solely about this relationship, it’s more of a traditional period-set love story and about Sabina’s journey and how her relationship with Jung causes a rift in the friendship between the two medical colleagues.
Fassbender plays Jung in a rather low-key manner, and this is far from the norm of what we’ve come to expect following some of his other more boisterous roles, and in some ways, Mortensen–looking a lot like Christoph Waltz, the Austrian Oscar winner who was originally lined up to play the role–maintains a similarly leveled performance showing very little emotion. They have an interesting relationship, one where they spend hours analyzing each other’s dreams. As one might expect from its origins as a play by screenwriter Christopher Hampton, the movie involves a lot of discussions between the two of them. Later on though it becomes more about them writing letters back and forth, which means we don’t see the two actors together on screen as some might expect. It’s fairly easy to see how their friendship would deteriorate with Jung trying to get out of the shadow of his mentor, who in turn is jealous of the luxurious way that Jung has become accustomed to living from marrying into wealth.
Knightley’s performance may take some getting used to, especially at the beginning when her Russian accent, heavy stammer and exaggerated facial expressions are quite off-putting. Even so, it’s her performance that really has the most impact, as much as it may be hard to believe the woman we meet at the beginning can transform herself into a respected psychoanalyst in her own right.
The final piece in the puzzle is Vincent Cassel’s Otto Gross, a patient sent by Freud to be treated by Jung, but whose depraved sexuality ends up influencing Jung to cheat on his wife with Sabina. Otto is a small role but another scene-stealing performance by Vincent Cassel after laying a similarly lecherous character in “Black Swan.”
Ultimately, it makes for a surprisingly low-key film for Cronenberg, as much as he comes to life in this period European setting, creating beautiful shots of the estates and buildings of early 20th Century Zurich and Vienna. The closest it gets to some of the explorations of depravity and obsession in which Cronenberg has excelled are the love scenes between Jung and Sabina, in which he indulges her masochistic streak by spanking her.
This isn’t going to be a movie for everyone and Cronenberg’s regular cadre of fans might feel disappointed he’s doing something more for the prestige than continuing with the genre fare for which he’s loved. This is certainly an interesting story but it contains little of the dynamic qualities we’ve come to expect from Cronenberg, so despite solid performances, “A Dangerous Method” may have been more impressive coming from a younger director rather than one we have seen greatness from in recent years.
The Skin I Live In (Sony Pictures Classics October 14)
Written and directed by Pedro Almodovar
Starring Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Roberto Álamo, Blanca Suárez
The premise behind Almodovar’s latest foray into arthouse genre involves elements that may have felt quite at home in one of Cronenberg’s early movies, making it feel a lot like a B-horror movie only using the same stylish visuals that have made Almodovar such a compelling filmmaker.
After nearly two decaes, Almodovar reunites with his “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” star Antonio Banderas, this time playing prestigious plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard, who lost his wife in a car fire years earlier and has spent his time since trying to create a synthetic skin. Like in their previous collaboration, Robert is holding a woman named Vera (Elena Anaya) hostage, and we’re led to understand she’s his patient whose entire body has been grafted with his new type of heat-resistant skin. There’s aspects to this premise that fall in line with torture porn like “Martyrs” or the recent oddball horror flick “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” but Almodovar approaches more under the influence of Hitchcock that he just hasn’t been able to escape in recent years.
Before we can figure out the complex relationship between the surgeon and this woman, a guy in a tiger suit shows up to the front door of Robert’s mansion. This is the maid’s son Zeca, who has just committed a robbery and is looking for a place to hide. Seeing Vera doing yoga in her room, he breaks in and rapes her, thinking she’s Robert’s wife who he had killed years earlier. Robert comes home and stops him, and that’s pretty much when the whole movie starts going off the rails and never quite returns.
As Robert and Vera consummate their relationship, the movie goes back in time six years to a party where Robert’s daughter is raped, driving her insane, so Robert plots revenge against her attacker. The way these scenes are laid out, returning to Robert and Vera in bed then cutting back to the rapist, Vincente, while he’s working at a dress shop, makes it hard to keep track of the time lines. It almost feels like Almodovar gave up on his original story idea to start a brand new one, and it’s quite some time before we figure out how the two stories are connected. Once we do, it’s quite disturbing but not in a way that can be enjoyed or relished.
There are other aspects that don’t quite add up and a number of plot points that serve absolutely no obvious point. When Robert finds his daughter unconscious at the party, it seems to happen fairly quickly like when we actually see what happened with Robert’s daughter, which seems to take place in its own extended timeframe.
Other than Anaya, who looks absolutely amazing, bolstering Almodovar’s constant ability to make the most beautiful women absolutely shine on the screen, the performances aren’t that great, being almost comically bad at times.
Every frame of the film looks fantastic of course and the music is beautiful, but there’s no one in the movie you can feel an ounce of empathy for. Robert’s motivations for what he does are fairly clear, but it’s never believable that a surgeon who has shown benevolence for helping people might do what he does. It’s equally hard to believe his captive Vera might fall for him or vice versa in the way Almodovar’s sick twist on “Stockholm Syndrome” tries to parlay. These issues just pile onto one another making it quite difficult to get through, and when it ends in the most obvious and unsatisfying way possible, you’ll just be even more disappointed.
Considering how great “The Skin I Live In” looks and the cinematic artistry behind the film, it’s a shame the odd choices Almodovar makes in telling the story turn it into one of his first big misses in a long time. It’s torture porn that’s torturous for reasons other than gore.
Take Shelter (Sony Pictures Classics September 30)
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Katy Mixon, Kathy Baker
In Jeff Nichols’ second movie following the smaller budget “Shotgun Stories,” Michael Shannon’s Curtis is a family man with a beautiful wife (Jessica Chastain) and a deaf daughter, whose very being is falling apart as he starts to have horrendous nightmares and waking visions of an enormous storm that threatens to destroy everything in its path. He becomes obsessed with building onto the old storm shelter, taking out another home loan and borrowing equipment from work. Inevitably, Curtis’ odd behavior starts causing trouble in his marriage, at his job and with his best friend and co-worker Deward (Shea Whigham).
“Take Shelter” may have been designed to be a pre-apocalyptic thriller, though it’s essentially a family drama that delves into the world of horror in a similar fashion as Conor McPherson’s “The Eclipse.”
There’s little doubt that the success of Nichols’ sophomore effort rides entirely on the performance by Michael Shannon, this time playing a normal working family man, dealing with things he can’t explain. As things progress, Curtis seems to get better but then something snaps and no one does balls-out crazy like Michael Shannon. In fact, this may be the best performance of Shannon’s already stellar career, one that allows him to go through an incredibly satisfying character arc. Likewise, Jessica Chastain continues to add terrific work like this to her incredible resume as one of the most reliable young actresses working today. You really believe this is a loving couple and that she will do whatever she can to help her husband get through his issues even if it jeopardizes their entire livelihood.
The visuals are fantastic especially Curtis’ nightmares which are absolutely horrifying and fantastical, doing a lot with the CG despite a minimal budget. Some of it works better than others, but they’re all done in a way that’s quite effective in keeping you guessing about what is real and what isn’t.
We’re not going to give away how it all ends but Nichols goes for a big slow build, squeezing out every ounce of tension and throwing in at least one red herring before delivering a far more satisfying epilogue. It’s doubtful everyone will have the exact same takeaway from this sometimes frustrating but always thought-provoking experiment in genre, though there’s no question that Jeff Nichols has arrived, proving he has what it takes to deliver on far bigger ideas than his indie roots have shown so far. Likewise, Shannon has proven he can carry a film and give a performance that moderates his intensity, something that may not have been as obvious from some of his earlier efforts.
We rounded out Day 2 on Friday with the premiere of Chicken with Plums, the new film from Persepolis directors Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. It was a lovely film, very special, and it reminded us of vintage Jeunet, but unfortunately, the screening was way too late for us to form any coherent thoughts for a review. Hopefully, a distributor will pick it up (we’d recommend Sony Pictures Classics or Music Box Films) and more people will have a chance to check it out.
Day 3 of TIFF was mainly spent doing interviews for some of the movies we’ve seen so far, but we did attend the Sony Pictures Classics dinner and tried to stay as far away from the Almodovar camp as possible – Almodovar himself wasn’t there.