TIFF Platform 2021: Drunken Birds Flies High

Surveying the festival's competition for auteur cinema

TIFF Platform programme returned after a one-year hiatus. The Toronto International Film Festival’s competitive spotlight devoted to auteur cinema offered a fair snapshot of the festival programming overall. 2021 is, artistically, one of the best years for Toronto in recent memory. Even the one film in TIFF Platform that I outright hate has a clear place in the festival. These films try something new and they capture the pulse of a world in change. Migration stories, tales of grief, and underrepresented voices cracking through the cinematic glass ceiling span the scope of Platform and TIFF overall. Platform was, however, a three-horse race this year despite eight jockeys. But when one sidebar delivers three of the best films at the festival, that still makes it an arena to watch.

 

Earwig

The TIFF Platform films again featured one or two films that just didn’t seem to fit elsewhere. Earwig, arguably the biggest misfire of the programme and the worst film at the festival overall, seemed in competition by default. Too slow for Midnight Madness, too narrative-driven for Wavelengths, but too weird to put anywhere else, Earwig would have played brilliantly in TIFF’s now-defunct Vanguard programme that inspired audiences to embrace the strange. Directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović, the Belgium/France/UK co-production is certainly the work of a distinct voice. However, the lethargic pacing and overall pointlessness make Earwig an impenetrable film. It’s one of the most arduous films I’ve ever seen at TIFF.

Earwig is a nightmarish reverie about a young woman with ice dentures and a mad doctor who tends to her care. Told with barely a word of dialogue—the first twenty minutes of Earwig have nary a whisper—Hadžihalilović employs a distinct visual language to unfold the tale. However, Earwig attempts chiaroscuro compositions of painterly shadow and light ballets, but they ultimately materialise as drab, sombre, and dull paintings waiting to dry. Lethargic pacing doesn’t help matters, either, and the film is an exercise in patience. Or, more aptly, a cure for insomnia.

 

Mlungu Wam (Good Madam)

More successful, but still somewhat missing the mark, was Jenna Cato Bass’s Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). This horror story about a life sentence of servitude comments upon the ghosts of South African apartheid. However, many horror fans will inevitably read Mlungu Wam as a lesser redux of Get Out. Jordan Peele’s influence lingers all over Bass’s film, straight down to the teacups that play pivotal roles about internalised racism, even if their colonial symbolism resonates strongly. However, nobody in Mlungu Wam wields a spoon and saucer like Catherine Keener does.

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Bass creates some moments of genuine terror as she and eleven (!) screenwriters explore the generational struggle to break free from colonial power dynamics. As Mlungu Wam slowly unfolds, characters explain everything that is already apparent in the carefully decorated house. The one-the-nose dialogue inevitable cuts the tension as the camera observes tribal art that adorns the walls of a home inhabited by unseen white people. The evil madam mostly appears as a photograph on the wall. Her spectre haunts the film and one wishes Bass let her cinematic eye guide the script. There are some fine images in Mlungu Wam—entranced servants scrubbing floors in one scene and forcefully brushing their teeth in the text—but the intermittent moments of greatness don’t quite come together overall.

 

Palme d’Oh! (aka Arthur Rambo)

Alternatively, the biggest head-scratcher in the TIFF Platform bunch was Arthur Rambo from The Class’s Laurent Cantet. For one, it’s odd to put a director who’s received the highest honour on the film festival circuit alongside a class of mostly newcomers. That’s either unfair to the filmmakers looking to prove themselves, or a backhanded compliment to Cantet. This critic votes for the latter after seeing Arthur Rambo, though. It’s less the work of a Palme d’Or-winning director and more a product of an artist who doesn’t understand the world on which he comments.

Arthur Rambo dramatizes the story of an Algerian-born author Karim (The Class’s Rabah Nait Oufella), who is the toast of Paris’s literary scene for a memoir about the immigrant experience. However, Karim’s fame barely lasts fifteen minutes when a Twitter user discovers that he’s behind an account responsible for years’ worth of racist, sexist, homophobic, fatphobic, and anti-Semitic tweets. Fellow Twitters turn on Karim and denounce him for the horrible things he filtered through his alias, Arthur Rambo.

Karim struggles to articulate his need for provocation, not that any explanation justifies such words, just as the moral of the story eludes the director. The film’s abrupt ending lets both the protagonist and the filmmaker off the hook from opening the conversation responsibly. As Cantet observes Karim’s meteoric fall, moreover, it’s unclear what he wants to say through Arthur Rambo. The film tries to have it both ways by finding sympathy for Karim, while also noting that words have power, especially in the age when any idiot can fire missives and stoke prejudice with a few tweets. However, Cantet’s delivery ultimately plays as an anti-Cancel Culture screed. Like most raving white guys who denounce Cancel Culture, however, Cantet’s message fails to grasp the necessary distinction between holding someone accountable for his actions and cancelling him for sport. For a festival that prides itself for tackling the conversations invited by vitriolic social media storms, the prominence of this ambivalent, apathetic film is surprising.

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Montana Story

Two domestic dramas in the TIFF Platform Class of ’21 mostly prove showcases for their compelling leads. (Three, actually, since Oufella’s turn as Karim is undeniably strong.) Similarly, Montana Story offers a great two-hander for leads Owen Teague and Haley Lu Richardson. Playing siblings Cal and Erin who are reunited for the final days for their ailing father, the young leads create impressionable dramatic sparks. This sedate slice-of-life domestic drama from Scott McGehee and David Siegel (What Maisie Knew, The Deep End) illustrates how many films at this year’s festival offer exercises in processing grief. Emotions run high and elevate the most conventional film in the TIFF Platform competition as Cal and Erin confront their father’s sins that drove Erin away.

Favouring restrained storytelling, natural hues, and earthy palettes, Montana Story draws its quiet power from the landscape. The film’s centrepiece sees Cal and Erin visit the site of an abandoned mine as they prepare to excavate the ghosts of the past. Richardson excels while delivering a monologue about Dante’s Inferno as Erin reads the scars in the landscape. She situates her father’s destiny within the deepest bowels of hell. The reading is also an indictment of the wounds of settler culture on the land, as Montana Story affords a strong presence for Indigenous characters. The struggle Cal and Erin face while reconciling their father’s affairs is also one of atoning for the greater suffering of which his legacy is a part. Although Montana Story slowly and somberly opens its wounds, it’s catharsis is well-earned. This is a thoughtful study of grief.

 

Huda’s Salon

Similarly, Huda’s Salon is an impressive feat for lead Maisa Abd Elhadi as Reem, who commands the film as a woman caught in moral crosshairs. A routine visit to her hairdresser sees Reem drugged and extorted to become as spy for Israel’s secret service. Reem’s merely a homemaker, though, and insists she knows nothing. However, her hairdresser, Huda (an excellent Manal Awad), grasps that her recently snapped nude Polaroids of Reem and another man wield considerable power.

Huda’s Salon has a fascinating premise to explore the fraught geo-political tension of the West Bank, but director Hany Abu-Assad (an Oscar nominee for Paradise Now and Omar) isn’t interested in espionage. Instead, Reem finds herself in a tailspin when Huda is arrested less than one day after recruiting her. There’s little to connect the two women, and literally nothing to suggest that Reem betrayed her people in the few hours after Huda extorted her, but Huda’s Salon embarks on an exit strategy for Reem as she recognizes that her suffocating marriage isn’t worth risking death–but also behaves like a total boob while navigating her escape. The least plausible element of Huda’s Salon is her survival. Abd Elhadi nevertheless gives a rich performance that mines Reem’s inner struggle between vulnerability and strength, while Awad is brilliantly steely as Huda. One just wishes that Abu-Assad had developed the story further. Huda’s Salon feels like a play that jumps from Act I to Act IV and Act V: instead of tension, we’re left with plot holes and logical gaps.

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Silent Land

As previously mentioned, while five films in the TIFF Platform competition might have been lacking, three entries were among the festival’s strongest selections. One that’s sure to enjoy a strong run in the arthouse circuit is Silent Land from Polish director Aga Woszczyńska. This striking feature debut about a spoiled holiday could be Force Majeure reimagined by Michael Haneke. It is an unnervingly tense film about the dynamics of race, class, and privilege that have the power to transform—and take—lives.

The film coolly observes Polish couple Anna (Agnieszka Żulewska) and Adam (Dobromir Dymecki) as their plans for a sexy Italian vacation are thwarted by an empty pool. Their landlord hires someone to fix and fill the pool despite the island’s water shortage—and the glistening sandy beach outside their door. The presence of the buff, shirtless poolboy—a migrant worker—sets the couple on edge. Yet instead of the simmering love triangle one anticipates, an accidental slip precipitates a different sort of infidelity drama. Anna and Adam find themselves explaining to the police how a young and healthy man drowned in their pool while they relaxed nearby.

The meticulously framed wide shots appropriate the large and clinical white interiors of the villa as Silent Land finds lingering dread in the banality of the couples’ existence. This is a portrait of people who have the luxury of inaction. Silent Land traps the audience in Anna and Adam’s intolerable, but consistently watchable presence, as they gradually question their actions, or lack thereof, and ask themselves how much they’re willing to risk accountability in search of closure. Woszczyńska captures the breakdown of a marriage with a detached portrait of the lies that can haunt people for a lifetime.

 

Yuni

A strong portrait of women’s rights comes in Kamila Andini’s Yuni. Expectations from the TIFF Platform crowd might have been high since Andini is the first filmmaker to the return the competition, but she more than capably delivers on the promise set by her 2017 TIFF Platform selection The Seen and the Unseen. Yuni is a departure stylistically from Andini’s previous film, which evokes the spirit of Apichatpong Weerasethakul with its surreal tableaux in which the ghosts of the past haunt the present. Yuni might be more restrained formally and aesthetically than Unseen, but it shows a filmmaker firmly in command of her craft.

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The sobriety with which Andini unfolds the story, moreover, simply befits the subject matter. Yuni is an urgent and artfully told human rights fable about a young woman (Arawinda Kirana) who aspires to a better future once she graduates high school. Her parents and teachers expect her to marry soon—many of her friends and classmates were married off much younger—but Yuni likes her studies and wants to go to university. She puts everything into studying, trying twice as hard as her male classmates do, but she receives only a fraction of the recognition. However, her greatest assignment is navigating the restrictive minefield of her blossoming sexuality.

As the elders in the school threaten to subject the girls to virginity examinations in order to test their virtue, the film asks why young women in 2021 are still subjected to the same outdated standards as their grandparents. As Yuni and her friends discuss boys and masturbation during recess, Yuni offers a bracing portrait of growing pains as the young woman wrestles with the awkwardness of first love. This film poignantly embraces the sloppiness of a first kiss, the suspense of conversations that flirt between friendship and romance, and the risk of love speaking its name. Andini smartly lets Kirana’s performance guide this perceptive character study as Yuni comes into her own and finds her voice. The final shot is a blistering moment of piercing sadness as Yuni looks her fate defiantly in the eye. Thanks to the rain soaking her to the bone, one can barely see the tears streaming down her young face.

 

Best in Show: Drunken Birds

Rain teems down with wrathful fury during a climactic scene of Drunken Birds. The tense altercation between Mexican migrant worker Willy (Roma’s Jorge Antonio Guerrero in a electrifying performance) and Richard (a mean Claude Legault), the farmer who employs migrants by the busload for cheap labour, offers pathetic fallacy at its finest. As Willy stares Claude down amid a torrential downpour and awaits his employer’s vengeful (and misguided) act of vigilante justice, Drunken Birds puts audiences in a direct encounter with the Canada we often choose not to see.

The film marks a reunion a decade in the making for writer/director Ivan Grbovic and writer/cinematographer Sara Mishara after their 2011 sleeper hit Roméo Onze. Drunken Birds is both epic and intimate as it follows a life on the run for poor Willy as he longs to return to his lover, Marlena, after enraging the Mexican cartel boss to whom she is married and by whom he was employed. This Canadian-Mexican co-production flips the usual tale of cultural encounters on its head as Willy’s appearance on the small Quebec farm awakens his host family to the ills that they ignore. Richard’s wife, Julie (Hélène Florent, as impressionable here as she was in Maria Chapdelaine) is profoundly unhappy. Willy’s arrival awakens memories of a relationship with a pervious worker who roused Julie from her despair. They bond despite the language barrier—Julie’s learning Spanish with the help of an audio guide—and find in one another the humanity that Richard clearly lacks. Meanwhile, Julie’s daughter, Léa (Marine Johnson), confronts her mother’s infidelities while keeping secrets of her own. Yet like Richard, the mother and daughter both use Willy for their own gain. He is worker and currency alike.

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Shooting much of the drama during the picturesque magic hour that bridges the long workday with the respite of a cool summer’s night, Drunken Birds, like Silent Land, intersects a domestic drama with a migration fable. Like some of the best Canadian films of the past decade, Drunken Birds situates its Canadian characters within a larger worldview, and Grbovic and Mishara successfully consider how lives that profit on the costs of cheap labour are setting with the sun.

Drunken Birds opens with a quote from John Steinbeck that reads, “It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.” Mishara’s sumptuous cinematography is an ever-present reminder of the precariousness of that light, and how there’s no returning to the day that passed before. Yet as Drunken Birds weaves between Willy’s past and present, mixing noir and melodrama as he finds himself running in circles, it crafts a moving account of homecoming and what that desire means who those who can’t go home again. Exceptionally crafted with its feet firmly planted between two worlds, Drunken Birds represents the best that is happening in Canadian cinema right now. It challenges us to look at the landscape we love and wonder if it looks so golden from another perspective. Drunken Birds is the best film the TIFF Platform competition had to offer this year and a Canadian standout for the year overall.

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