It’s an unusual year for the Toronto International Film Festival. The annual event for film lovers from around the world has had to dodge pandemic precautions, mask protests, and even bad publicity regarding its limited virtual platform. And yet the movies don’t really have much to do with any of this. Yes, festivals are about networking and atmosphere, but that stuff dissipates—it’s the movies that people remember. And there have been a number of high-profile premieres and repeats from other fests, including the Opening Night presentation of “Dear Evan Hansen,” which our Robert Daniels covered, and a trio of films from around the world in the first couple days of TIFF 2021 that I’ve been lucky enough to see.
Scout Tafoya and Peter Sobczynski have already praised Celine Sciamma’s wonderful “Petite Maman,” her tender follow-up to the widely acclaimed “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” and I want to add my voice to the chorus of adoration for this moving little film (and I do mean little—it’s an effective 70 minutes). Joséphine Sanz plays Nelly, an eight-year-old girl who has just lost her grandmother. She has been taken to grandma’s house with her mom to help clean it out, but she mostly spends the days walking through the nearby woods. The struggles of her mother’s grief and a difficult relationship between her parents hang in the background, but Sciamma keenly understands how these things can impact a child’s behavior without making them explicit. Still, Nelly is in one of those chapters of a child’s life where a kid knows something isn’t quite right but doesn’t have the emotional vocabulary yet to deal with it the same way that adults try (and usually fail) to do. In an early, beautiful scene, she tells her mother that she wishes she had given grandma a better goodbye. It’s the kind of heartfelt statement that kids make, often with the bluntness and truth that adults use to hide their feelings.
One day, Nelly finds a path that leads her to a house that looks a lot like grandma’s cottage. She meets a girl there named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), who looks exactly like her and happens to be exactly the same age. The two play together, building forts in the woods, and Sciamma’s delicate drama turns into a subtle fairy tale that allows a kind of emotional commentary on grief that I’ve never really seen before. “Petite Maman” is truly about those years in which we start to realize our parents are human and imperfectly packed with complex emotions—the days we understand that our mom and dad were kids too. It’s a gentle, sweet, incredibly moving film, one of the best of 2021.
Another film that will rank among the best of 2021 when my cinematic year is over is the latest from Jane Campion, returning triumphant after more than a decade since her last film (“Bright Star”). “The Power of the Dog” premiered at Venice and Telluride before jumping up to Canada today for its TIFF premiere. It’s a riveting piece of work, a slow-burn Western that will play in limited theatrical release before a Netflix launch later this year. We will write about it much more extensively in the future, but it’s also one of the biggest TIFF titles, so I thought I’d add my voice to its increasingly rapturous praise now.
To be fair, “The Power of the Dog” is likely to be more divisive than it has been out of the fall festivals. It’s a difficult movie, nowhere near the crowd-pleaser that some may expect, although those who know Campion’s work shouldn’t be surprised. She makes films (and television) that challenge genre, typically coming at them from unexpected angles, and that makes her a good fit for Thomas Savage’s cult novel of the same name.
“The Power of the Dog” unfolds in the sprawling, ominous landscape of Montana in the 1920s—although Campion shot in Australia, where she found mountains and valleys that still look like America’s past. Brothers George (Jesse Plemons) and Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch, doing career-best work) have been pushing their way across the west for years, even though the journey seems to have turned them into completely different people. Where Phil is ruthless and conniving, George is soft-spoken and kind. Their increasing divide shatters when George meets a widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and the two marry. Phil hangs in the background of this growing relationship like a gun about to fired. And the tension only rises when Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) comes to the ranch.
Unfolding like a thriller, “The Power of the Dog” contains some of the most unpredictable tension in years. Cumberbatch deftly portrays a man who seems to have little moral conscious left, a selfish creature who takes the suggestion that perhaps he needs to bathe as an affront to his manhood. Someone could write a book on how Campion’s film is unpacking definitions of masculinity and what that word means, and doing so through the typically male-dominated genre of the Western. It’s also just a technical stunner from Ari Wegner’s gorgeous cinematography to a mesmerizing score by Jonny Greenwood that is really a main ingredient in the spell this film casts.
There are passages of Hany Abu-Assad’s tense “Huda’s Salon” that also cast their own kind of spells, usually through long, unbroken shots, often from the side of a room as if we are observers to an unfolding car crash in slow motion. His technique is interesting in that the unobtrusive style enhances the initial warmth of an opening conversation between a stylist named Huda (Manal Awad) and her client named Reem (Maisa Abd Elhadi). The two seem like old friends, and we find ourselves drawn into their casual conversation until it’s revealed that Huda has drugged Reem. She takes her to the back room of the salon and strips her naked. That’s when a male accomplice removes his clothes and lays next to Reem, and photos are taken. It’s a blackmail scheme, but not for money. She wants information, using the photos to have Reem spy on her own community in Bethlehem in 2002.
Abu-Assad subverts his set-up again, immediately bringing down forces on both Reem and Huda that divide them, threatening both of their lives. As Huda’s system of blackmail collapses, it threatens to take Reem’s young family down before she even has a chance to protect herself. “Huda’s Salon” therefore becomes a commentary on how shifting power structures and alliances can destroy people who weren’t even a part of them when the sun came up that day. At one point, someone asks Reem, “Why did you bring others down with you?” More than most films, Abu-Assad’s understands the futility of this question in that others were always going to fall anyway.
There are times when the unsparing brutality and breakneck momentum of “Huda’s Salon” can be a bit much. It’s a lean, 90-minute thriller, but I found some of the best scenes to be the ones between Reem and her family, moments that deepen the human cost of this horrible situation. And there are scenes, especially an extended interrogation of Huda, wherein the dialogue feels a tad overwritten, like both characters know they’re in a movie. Having said that, this is a confident, passionate piece of work. And that kind of passion is why we go to film festivals, even in 2021. Maybe more than ever.