Movies

Toronto Diary: Fears, Freud And At Least One Woman With Grace Kelly Issues

Leila Hatami stars as Simin, a woman struggling to reconcile her own needs with those of her child and her estranged husband, in Asghar Farhadi's A Separation. The film, playing now at the Toronto International Film Festival, is set to open in the U.S. this December. i i

Leila Hatami stars as Simin, a woman struggling to reconcile her own needs with those of her child and her estranged husband, in Asghar Farhadi's A Separation. The film, playing now at the Toronto International Film Festival, is set to open in the U.S. this December. Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Sony Pictures Classics
Leila Hatami stars as Simin, a woman struggling to reconcile her own needs with those of her child and her estranged husband, in Asghar Farhadi's A Separation. The film, playing now at the Toronto International Film Festival, is set to open in the U.S. this December.

Leila Hatami stars as Simin, a woman struggling to reconcile her own needs with those of her child and her estranged husband, in Asghar Farhadi's A Separation. The film, playing now at the Toronto International Film Festival, is set to open in the U.S. this December.

Sony Pictures Classics

Viggo Mortensen's slyly funny performance as Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method had me in a psychoanalytical mood at TIFF this weekend. So when I wasn't over-thinking the significance of Toronto's CN Tower, it occurred to me that Freud's old notions of the id, ego and super-ego might serve as pretty good shorthands for three central types of people you tend to meet at Toronto.

The super-ego types, all ethics and lofty ideals, are die-hard worshipers of cinema – veteran journalists and knowledgeable amateurs who'll happily talk your ear off about Romanian cinema during interminable pre-screening waits. A quick test to spot them: How many Danishes are they smuggling out of that industry breakfast party for mid-screening snacking?

Then you have your ego types, focused on pragmatism and efficiency. These are industry pros, who may or may not care a whit about cinema, but do care deeply about self-promotion. Consider the well-manicured actor-type in a muscle tee, stage-whispering into his phone: "Just trying to lay low – don't want the audience to know that I'm here!"

As for the ids, TIFF has conveniently contained their raging, uncontrolled impulses in a separate sidebar — the "Midnight Madness" series, which features the festival's most adrenaline-fueled genre freak-outs. There, even a film like The Raid — an Indonesian Rio Bravo heavy on body slams and snapping necks — can seem mild compared to the baying-for-blood audience. (A pre-screening advertisement for a festival tribute to Grace Kelly was met with a woman screaming, "Punch her in the face!" This, in turn, was met with applause).

A good film, I'd argue, will appeal to all three segments of our collective self. Consider festival highlight Take Shelter, a thought-provoking examination of end- times paranoia with gut-churning visceral power. Jeff Nichols' film stars Michael Shannon as a blue-collar family man plagued by recurring dreams of supernatural plagues — raining oil, Hitchcockian birds and so on. These night terrors come as more everyday cataclysms beset Shannon's character and his wife (Jessica Chastain) —the specter of unemployment, growing medical bills for their deaf daughter. The initial dramatic question, as Shannon stocks up on gas masks and frightens the local Lions Club, is clear: Is he a prophet or a psycho? But Nichols has a more interesting dilemma in mind: When barricading yourself in a bomb shelter is clearly untenable, but the unthinkable seems more possible every day, how should you live? It's a question explored unnervingly and with tremendous force by the current undisputed champion of on-screen insanity; Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Boardwalk Empire) moves between implosive brooding and explosive outbursts with twitchy unpredictability.

Another world-class audience-unnerver is still at it, if in a newly restrained way. David Cronenberg's past films (The Fly, Eastern Promises) have used science fiction and pulp setups as smart metaphors for psychosexual issues like obsession and repression. With A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg drops the metaphor part; this story, about a sexually dysfunctional patient (Keira Knightley) and how her "talking cure" rehabilitation birthed modern psychoanalysis, finds Cronenberg addressing his obsessions as directly as possible. The filmmaking is similarly straightforward, with Cronenberg pulling back on his outlandish directorial signature in favor of a style that's surprisingly conventional.

Not that conventional means unsatisfying. This is also a moving film with two tragic romances — Carl Jung's torrid (and deeply unethical) affair with his patient, and the troubled father-son relationship of Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his mentor Freud. I've mentioned Mortensen's droll portrayal of the latter, but the other leads are just as good; Knightley, in particular, goes for broke with a limb-flailing performance that can put you in mind of Gollum. (This is a compliment.) Touching on intricacies of race and class as well as desire in its portrait of pre-World War Europe, this is a dense film worthy of far more analysis, but it has definitely distinguished itself as one of the festival's most intriguing films.

I'll be lucky if I see a film here better than Asghar Farhadi's A Separation, however. This Iranian drama starts with a marital crisis that brings members from two families together in a small apartment: one Westernized separatee, his senile father, the pregnant maid brought in to care for him, the maid's debt-ridden husband. Then something happens — a tragedy in which multiple people may deserve some blame, but the question of legal guilt is hard to answer.

This, of course, doesn't stop the authorities from trying to answer it, and the result is an intense Rashomon-style investigative thriller. Farhadi has made a taut and visually dynamic film out of a story consisting mostly of people talking to each other in court offices; his compositions and his fluid camerawork often say as much about the characters' relationships as his script.

But his writing is the standout here. The ingenious central incident Farhadi has created puts his characters into a devastating situation. What, the film asks, do you do when sticking to your deepest moral principles conflicts with doing the right thing?

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