Film writers Fariha Roísín and Sara Black McCulloch are covering the Toronto International Film Festival this year as a series of conversations about the festival and its programming. The first dispatch includes Clouds of Sils Maria, Welcome to Me, Infinitely Polar Bear, and Frailer.
Clouds of Sils Maria stars Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders, a theatre star, and Kristen Stewart (Val), her assistant. Chloë Grace Moretz plays a bright and bratty up-and-coming actress with TMZ coverage that makes Lindsay Lohan look like the spokesperson for early bed times.
Welcome to Me's Alice Klieg, played by Kristen Wiig, is a woman diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, who wins the lottery and spends the money on airtime for her own talk show.
Infinitely Polar Bear, a story about a father (Mark Ruffalo) who grapples with his manic depression and care-giving of his two daughters. The story is loosely based on writer-director Maya Forbes's childhood.
Frailer is director Mijke de Jong's film about a woman (Noor, played by Leonoor Pauw) diagnosed with lung cancer. She brings together her three friends to explore topics like death and sexual desire during illness. As the women come together, tensions arise as they reflect on their friendship and their roles within the circle of friends.
Sara: During TIFF Toronto becomes heavily populated with film critics (mostly men). A lot of overheard conversations go something like What do you do? Who are you writing for? Don't you know who I am? You can Google me, you know. Where did you find that New York Times? The city also becomes a city of gawkers—people snap photos of celebrities; newspaper columns report on celeb sightings; and Instagram becomes an incessant stream of hashtag-humblebrag selfies with directors.
Thankfully, more and more films are now being written, produced and directed by women. That's why Fariha and I are going to be working as a team to bring you three dispatches from the festival. These dispatches are going to consist of reviews about the films we have seen, and we want to discuss important topics in the films and people of interest. Every year, TIFF either focuses on films set or made in a specific city, or, invites many films with a trend or topic in common—two years ago, it was film adaptations of novels. Our coverage is going to be focused; we're going to be discussing and writing about a dominant trend or topic in several films—say, representations of women and mental illness. As two women who enjoy film, and as two women who experience it in different ways, our primary goal is to create a space for movie lovers—especially the ones who are not currently well represented in film writing.
Fariha: Sara, we've had quite an interesting time at the Toronto Film Festival so far, aye? I'm sorry, I needed to add that last bit in. Canada! TIFF is, incidentally, the largest film festival in Canada. And it definitely shows.
Sara: I mean, the "festival fatigue" is already setting in, no? But we've seen some good films so far and some that have really...surprised us.
Fariha: Yeah the fatigue is real. Thankfully we've watched some beautiful films. A film that I really, strangely, liked was Clouds of Sils Maria, by Olivier Assayas. I love Assayas as a director, but I remember the last time I watched an Assayas film at a festival (Something In The Air; New York Film Festival, 2012). I thought the film was too long; too convoluted (at times) and inarticulate at other points. But not with Clouds of Sils Maria, which was so deliciously beautiful. The shots that captured those cloud formations were unbelievable. I felt like I was meditating; they were calming, and captivating, and so intensely alive. I also really liked the darkness of the film. It felt similar to the milieu of Claire Denis' Bastards at times, which was a film I also didn't like, but Clouds of Sils Maria had this darkishly noir characterization that appropriately highlighted the whole film. Clouds of Sils Maria is paced as a mystery, but you know going in that there really isn't one. The seducing meta-fiction enables this darkness that runs through, like the "Maloja Snake," wrapping together their lives and the sadness that all of them feel. All of the characters are unhappy, but it lends to the story of this actress, and her acceptance of her own increasing irrelevance.
Sara: This story is driven by women. All of the leads (all women) are also playing some version of their real selves. Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, who was discovered by an art-house director and playwright—Binoche in real life was discovered by Godard. Chloe Grace Moretz's character, Jo-Ann Ellis is catapulted to fame after playing a superhero (Moretz was in Kickass) and has her fair share of tabloid drama with her married lover (shout-out to Kristen!) Kristen plays Val, Maria's personal assistant, and they regularly rehearse the play "Maloja Snake" together. All them have their share of shortcomings and insecurities and these factor into how their relationships develop and ultimately end. Maria is so dependent on Val—she asks Val to move in with her to help her rehearse a few weeks before the play. The altitude and winding mountain roads make Val physically sick, and yet she stays on. As they rehearse lines, the dialogue itself becomes a substitute for what they're not already communicating to each other.
Fariha: It challenges many things—Maria's inability to find solace in a play that has characterized her life so much; her battling acceptance of age and maturity; her insecurities of accepting the tides of change, and irrelevance, are all struggles that felt real and important to explore.
Sara: Yes. Maria has been hinged to this role that made her famous, made her who she was—or thought she was. What Assayas explores so well is how people define themselves by their successes and who they were when they first broke out. It's terrifying how the past can either intentionally or unintentionally stick with you.
Fariha: Yes. Ultimately, I think what I took away from the film was ego and the creation of an "identity" within an industry that's so competitive and harsh, especially to women. It reminds me of that really apt Tina Fey quote from the Golden Globes this year. She says of Meryl Streep's role in August Osage County: "proving that there are still great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60." It's an elegant film, and the narrative is told in a complex and bewitching way that really stays with you. I love how it ended, and I loved how all of the leads were women. Assayas made a great film about feminine complexities; proving that being "all about women" doesn't mean it won't translate beyond the sexes.
A very emotionally draining film—one that I think we were definitely anticipating to be heavy and bleak—the Danish film, Frailer. We were both drawn to the film because it was also female-driven, focusing heavily on female friendships—their pitfalls, their strengths; and the inevitable annoyingness of close friends. Then on top of that, it was also about the lead, Noor, and her battle with a terminal illness, which was riveting to watch. Illness and disease were characterized in such a beautiful, fractured way, and Noor's frustrations with accepting her own mortality was also such a vital film experience.
Sara: When we discuss living and dying, it's usually through the lens of illness—or someone else's illness. Many of the problems that arise when discussing cancer is that the person diagnosed with the disease is supposed to be the worst case scenario or is immediately dismissed as dying. There are many different cancers and the grading and staging of cancer relies on many different factors—like the type of cancer (aggressive or not) or the progression of the cancer (ie: has it metastasized or not). This film focused less on the cancer and more on the effects of treatment, which was a really important take.
When Noor finds out that she is not responding to chemo, she decides to stop it. We watch her as she tells her friend, who is off-camera, that she doesn't want to suffer and that she was only doing it for her children. She starts crying and we watch her make a very difficult and personal decision. We also watch her process—as she realizes that she has no other options. "I thought he [the doctor] was going to pull out another trick, but no." The danger, a lot of the time, is that, when discussing an illness that is not so well understood (I'm generalizing all cancers here, I know), we get into the habit of using clichéd language and metaphor to discuss it. The very obvious one that so many have pointed out before me: war metaphors with cancer—cancer battle, is the most frequent one.
Fariha: Which is one of the reasons I found it so effective as a film. The "all out of options" is such a heartbreaking reality I've never seen in film before—the absolution of the statement stings. Truly, we know, for Noor, there is no other way. Death is inevitable, as we all know, and yet eschatological cinema rarely encapsulates the fullness of "death" without using clichés, or inanely sentimental glob that refuses to explore the complexity of "death" in the context of "life." Instead, just deciding to create a rhetoric of "life" versus "death"—as you said. When language and vernacular is so limited for something so vital, it is exciting to see a film like Frailer that I think really balances all of those things that are apart of death and illness, ie the happiness of having a life worth living amidst grave pain of learning how to die; surrendering to the unknown, whilst ultimately terrified to let go.
Sara: Yes. The only other film I can think of is Denys Arcand's The Barbarian Invasions, but with Frailer, Noor gathers all her friends to discuss her illness and her death. At first, they ask her questions about her body ("How do your lungs feel?"). The first comment that popped up too was "But you look good!"—which is such a common misconception with cancer, like you're supposed to look sick. Immediately, there is this discussion about illness—how does it manifest itself in her body. They can't see it, but they can hear it (her shortness of breath and wheezing) and she can't lie down. Her friend Carlos wrestles her to the ground with a hug, and she starts coughing and wheezing—it takes her a few minutes to stop.
Cancer is such a loaded word, and most of the time, as Susan Sontag said, a cancer diagnosis is considered an immediate death sentence in art and the cancer patient is supposed to be so wise and honorable because she is dealing with such an unforgivable and deadly illness. "The cancer patient" as a trope is supposed to make us feel grateful and blessed. And this happens so much in film and in literature. A film that was supposed to be the antithesis to those tropes and conventions was The Fault in our Stars.
Fariha: That movie was definitely supposed to be a realistic take on how the cancer rhetoric is so whack, and self-helpy, and sometimes you wanna just be sad, and have tantrums, and be angry that you're dying—but of course we all know how oddly terrible the movie ultimately was. I'm glad we both liked Frailer, I cried my eyes out and it was very satisfying.
It was also just a very layered and complicated look on how female relationships twist and fail, and how hard it is also on the periphery of humans in your life. Cancer affects all. It is all-encompassing. We mentioned Carlos, but all three friends at certain points have breakdowns. The daughters, who don't have much screentime, painfully explain the shock of knowing that this human being, your mother, will very soon be gone and how odd it is that you have to prepare for a life without her. My favorite part of the film was when all four friends were in a bed, laughing, crying—and Carlos begins to explain, through very broken and frustrated tears, that she was angry and sad that her best friend was going to die and there was nothing she could do about it. The humanity; the struggle, that we all have to just accept was as profound as it was beautiful.
Sara: And then they all start laughing at her! And Carlos gets even more frustrated because she explains, she loves language and she loves using language to express herself and to explore different concepts, but she can't find the words to convey how she feels and she can't even find the right words that best describe what her friend is going through. I found this part so moving in the film because we always feel we have to say the right thing and sometimes what we should do is just listen.
Fariha: This is a good transition to probably our least-liked film of the festival. Welcome To Me—starring the venerable Kristen Wiig—was one of my most uncomfortable film screenings to date. Lodged in between the mass of fans that continuously took pictures of Will Ferrell as he attempted to have a normal conversation, we sat in the huge Princess of Wales theatre; a very incongruent place to watch such an awfully tacky film. Almost everything about it was bad. Kristen felt as though she didn't really know what kind of character she was playing—a person with Borderline Personality Disorder isn't just crazy, or whacky—this is a person who has an illness. But, her characterization of the illness felt like a punchline. Her mannerisms felt like she had crafted a new SNL character, but unlike SNL, Alice Klieg isn't funny.
I'm just going to say it, I straight up hated this film. As a person whose parent suffers from this illness, I was offended. Which is a loaded statement, I know, but I was. It seemed as though Eliot Laurence (I know nothing about him; I could be wrong) didn't know anything about borderline, and looked through the DSM handbook and just chose something that sounded fun. Did he do any research before writing this character? This is not to say that all people suffering from borderline (or any mental illness) act the same, but there was an absurdity to her which was false and unstructured.
Ultimately this was a poorly written screenplay. I am surprised and saddened that it got a Hollywood greenlight, and also a premiere at TIFF. Mental illness is not a charming and endearing character quirk; it is ill-fated, at times toxic and fatal. I felt "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" was co-opted as "a mental illness" for Alice, as in this film those two things are isomorphic, which is depressing. I am angry that I had to sit in a room listening to people laugh at the most heinously awful of times.
Sara: I have never felt so uncomfortable listening to other people laugh, especially at Kristen Wiig. What really angered me was that so many of the punchlines centered around characteristics of the illness. It was the equivalent of having someone with Tourrette's swearing in a scene and finding it funny (it isn't). The other thing I found is that the film focused less on how Alice Klieg experienced the world, and more on how people reacted to her—another source of so many belly laughs. She was treated more like this mysterious hermit and we got very little insight into her world.
There was also this underlying theme of the public memoir narrative—that Oprah-like journey to greatness, which could have been interesting if drawn out properly, but instead it just reinforced this idea of performing some idea of mental illness and success. Instead of breaking the surface and delving into it and trying to understand it, we just get the same rehashing about the pitfalls of the American Dream—people have to earn their success, as if everyone is on a level-playing field to begin with! There were interesting ideas at play here, but they were held up by silly jokes and the result was an incredibly disappointing, offensive, spoof of mental illness.
Fariha: Okay, Hollywood—here's a film about mental illness that was spectaculaaaaaaaaar: Infinitely Polar Bear. What a beautiful, perfect film you are! This is what you talk about when you talk about mental illness—and have an actor characterize mental illness. Mark Ruffalo, I for real love you. I revel in your subtlety, hold and exceptionality inthis movie. Thank you for doing such justice to Cam Stuart; your performance was sweet, tender, superbly emotionally manipulative, heart wrenchingly articulate in your iteration of a man who suffers from the tenuous manic depression. Like, Alice Klieg there was a kooky charm to Cam Stuart, but it wasn't a punctuating joke. Cam was diverse; raw, confused, childlike. Nothing hinged on his peculiarities; he was perfectly disarming. The story was gorgeously rich—the screenwriting was on point, and the directing was magical.
The kids need to be talked about. Like Quvenzhané Wallis' complexity in Beasts of a Southern Wild their rage, their youth driven anger at their father's quirks, their sadness of having strange "bohemian" lives were captured in such a dynamic way. Mark Ruffalo is a genius, but Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) were my favorite part of this film. They battled being bi-racial in the 1970s so beautifully—at one point Amelia turns to her mother (Zoe Saldana) and says: "I'm not black." Her mother then explains to her that she is, because her mother is black. It was such a great way to include a conversation about race that was succinct and to the point. Often, I hear people talk about how hard it is to talk about race in film and TV. The reality is: it's not. It exists, and it's a problem—so don't shy away from it. It doesn't have to be a tautological debate. Sometimes the conversations can be simple, and this movie, in its subtlety, is a testament to that.
The film was written and directed by Maya Forbes, whose father had manic depression. So there's a feeling of intimacy throughout the film. The story itself feels personal and real, as opposed to Welcome To Me—which felt stark and underdeveloped in comparison. Thank you for making this, Maya. I felt understood by you, which is why we watch films—to connect, beyond us; to foster our solipsism, to gain greater access to our hearts, and our interior lives to unfold what lingers beyond the grey.
Sara: I mean, after Silver Linings Playbook and Welcome to Me, this was just a wonderful, nuanced script. The casting was absolutely perfect. The relationship between Cameron and Maggie was so much more deep and complex compared to how Hollywood typically portrays relationships in general. We were watching two partners help each other deal with life and stigmatization in their Boston community.
There is also this idea that everything is a process. With Welcome to Me, a life changes instantly because of good luck. But Cam's recovery is a process. Maggie's attempts at a better, more financially secure life for her family is an 18-month process. Infinitely Polar Bear is an argument against instant gratification. And the children struggle the most with this—one daughter constantly refers to the apartment as a "shithole." When Cameron's wealthy grandmother offers him a Bentley, he refuses it, and again, his daughters are astounded because the Bentley would have momentarily catapulted out of the have-nots. It's an important lesson in how progress is the slowest process and progress can mean so many different things in different contexts and stages in a life.
Fariha: All in all, it's been at time confronting, but for the most part satisfying first week at TIFF. What's exciting is that as an industry we are learning (albeit slowly) that there is a space for women's stories, or stories about mental illness that can be captivating and profound—and even immensely profitable.