The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
TELLURIDE, Colo. -- Like the rains after a dusty season, the movies of September wash and refresh. You walk out of a screening here and think you have surely seen an Oscar nominee. You leave a second and third, and think the same thing. The 2006 Academy Awards could be populated from this festival, with Toronto still to begin on Thursday. And that doesn’t even account for the riches of the foreign films, and the revived classics, and the program called “Made on a Mac,” of films by such as Laurie Anderson.
Are they still making good movies? Yes, they are, but you have to find them. Millions of dollars will not be spent to shove them down your throat. Consider two movies I saw back-to-back on Sunday: Neil Jordan’s “Breakfast on Pluto” and “Bee Season,” by Scott McGehee and David Siegel. Both are about characters who impose an alternative reality on the difficulties of their lives.
“Breakfast on Pluto” stars Cillian Murphy, that brave survivor of the post-apocalyptic “28 Days Later,” the Scarecrow from “Batman Begins,” as an entirely different species of character. He plays Patrick Brady, who prefers to be called Patricia Kitten Brady, and who from his earliest days has preferred to live as a girl. No, he is not a “man trapped in a woman’s body,” but a person who chooses to present himself as he does because that is his nature.
In the Catholic school of his small town in the west of Ireland, he is an exasperation and a scandal. A priest (Liam Neeson) walks out of the confessional and slams the door behind him when he sees through the grating the soft-spoken young man in lipstick and makeup. Kitten’s life purpose is a quest for his mother, who he thinks may have gone to London. His father, who might be easier to find, he is not as interested in.
The movie follows his journey from Ireland to London and from early adolescence into his 20s, but is not founded on grim reality. So persistent is Kitten’s fantasy that he sometimes imposes it on the rough world. Even two British interrogators, who pound on him for a week convinced he planted an IRA bomb in a pub, end being won over by him. He makes no attempt to defend or deny, but acts in optimism that all will see him as he sees himself.
There are sequences that could come from Dickens, like one where he becomes a magician’s assistant and is sawn in half and made the target of a knife-throwing trick. He has an ambivalence toward sex: Kitten works for a time as a prostitute and even in a Soho peep show, but there is little nudity and no specific sex at all. What matters more is his inner journey, to find the Phantom Lady he believes gave him birth.
“Bee Season” is a film that astonishingly combines mysticism with spelling bees, and centers on an extraordinary performance by Flora Cross, as a girl of about 11 who goes to the finals of the National Spelling Bee. This movie is about spelling as much as “Breakfast on Pluto” is about employment in London. It explores a murky family dynamic. Her father (Richard Gere) is a professor who teaches Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah. He is forever preparing family meals, feeding his family as if it is a kind of passion. Her mother (Juliette Binoche) is a woman damaged early by the deaths of her parents, quiet, smiling too much, deferring to her husband, with a private life of astonishing complexity. Her brother (Max Minghella) is on a spiritual quest of his own – one that leads away from his father’s beliefs.
The father teaches that if all the shards of word and light could be brought back together, we could look upon the face of God. During the course of the movie the girl advances in a spelling bee, and the way she spells the words has something to do with a literal application of her father’s theories in a way he cannot imagine. He thinks he knows all about the Kabbalah, but in his own house live three people whose mystical lives are far beyond his theory.
“Conversations with Other Women” is another of the best films I have seen here. Directed by Hans Canosa, it stars Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham-Carter in an idea that seems like a stunt and then deepens into the sadness of unrealized love. The stunt is that that entire film has been made in split-screen, so that we are always looking at two pictures. The left is usually occupied by Eckhart, the right by Bonham-Carter, although they are free to enter each other’s frames and sometimes seem to be standing so close that the frame division is a formality; other characters sometimes enter either frame.
They meet at a wedding. She is a “substitute bridesmaid.” They talk. They flirt. They spend the night together. The nature of their complete relationship I will leave for you to discover. The movie is really about the passage of time and the finality of decisions taken and not taken -- about the loneliness of men, who seem condemned to regret what they have not had, and women, more content to accept what they have chosen. The two actors are talking for almost the entire movie, which depends on tone and pitch to sustain its deepening insights. The split screen comes to seem necessary.
There were many other films here, some of which I will be able to see at Toronto. And some films I remember from Cannes 2005, including Hou Hsiao-hsien’s elegant masterpiece “Three Times,” from Taiwan, and Michael Haneke’s “Cache,” from France, which played at Cannes under the better title “Hidden.” It is about a Paris TV presenter who receives videos indicating his family is under observation. Who do they come from, and what do they mean?
Where do any of these films come from, and what do they mean? After a summer during which we knew precisely where most of the films came from and how little they meant, Good Movie Season begins at Telluride and now the celebration moves on to Toronto.