Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
My final dispatch from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival catches some of the best films of this year’s fest, all from continents other than North America. A class system in Russia that is destroying people. The other side of “The French Connection.” A cleverly crafted tale of Korean fishermen forced into a nightmare at sea. A devastatingly real look at the economic inequality in France. And a film that’s as hard to describe as one of its creator’s previous masterpieces, “Songs From the Second Floor,” a work that Roger adored. These works have little in common except that their country of origin is not the United States, and so they may be harder for you to see, especially if you don’t live in a major market. They are all worth seeking out.
The best of the bunch is a film you’ll be hearing about a lot this awards season—if there’s any justice—the Dardennes Brothers’ “Two Days, One Night,” starring Marion Cotillard. The Oscar winner does what I consider to be the best work of her career as Sandra, a Belgian worker coming back to the force after a delayed absence. She learns that her boss has essentially turned her co-workers against her by telling them that to reincorporate Sandra’s salary back into the company’s budget, they’ll have to forego their bonuses. After arguing that this poisoning of the well wasn’t fair, Sandra is given the weekend to convince her former colleagues to bring home 1,000 fewer Euros so she can keep her job. It’s a move designed to breed dissent in a work force, and the Dardennes’ criticism of such corporate behavior is insightful and scathing without being didactic. As they have in films like “La Promesse” and “Rosetta,” Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne take a very specific, human story and allow it to grow into an internationally relatable one through the sheer force of its realism. This is one of the best films of 2014. We’ll have an interview with the Dardennes conducted at TIFF later this year. Don’t miss it.
The Dardennes' film was an import from the 2014 Cannes Film Festival to TIFF, as was the Sony Pictures Classic film “Leviathan,” from the director of “Elena” and “The Return,” Andrey Zvyagintsev. “Leviathan” is an ambitious, sprawling work, as it gradually unfolds like a storm crossing the Russian plains. It is a character-driven piece that also serves as a scathing commentary on a societal class system that is entirely broken. Like the Dardennes' film, it never feels like a moral message movie, but if you walk away from it without thinking something is deeply flawed in the part of the world it captures, something is wrong with you. This is a film about people struggling through life’s horrors, aided almost solely by a constant supply of vodka.
Nikolai (Aleksey Serebryakov) lives in a coastal town on the Barents Seas with his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and teenage son Romka. His most valued asset—his home—is being threatened. The government has essentially told him that his home is now theirs. They’re taking it from him as government-owned land, and it’s clear, especially after a painfully rote reading of a legal judgment, that Nikolai has few options. His old Army friend (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who is now a lawyer in Moscow, comes to town to help, but he can’t navigate the corrupt system any more effectively, sending everyone involved down a rabbit hole of increasing drama.
“Leviathan” is a tough, brutal film, but it rewards the patient viewer. I wish it was a little more tonally balanced—Zvyaginstev’s previous works didn’t feel quite so insistent in their gloom—but this is undeniably refined filmmaking. Watch how deftly Zvyaginstev uses his setting to invoke mood. It’s almost another character—this bleak landscape with evidence of a humanity that’s been lost to the passage of time.
Humanity, or the destruction of it, also sits at the core of Shim Sung-bo’s excellent “Haemoo,” a film about a tragedy so deep that it basically breaks everyone within its radius. Sung co-wrote Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece, “Memories of Murder,” and the director of “Snowpiercer” and “The Host” returns the favor by co-writing and producing here. The result is a film that doesn’t quite have the perfect tonal balance of Bong’s work but connects through the sheer force of its storytelling, well-defined characters and unique settings. “Haemoo” is a grim, relentless film, but it’s one that justifies its darkness through the power of its filmmaking.
Kang (Kim Yoon-seok of the great “The Chaser”) has reached the end of his rope. He’s the captain of a fishing boat that hasn’t been bringing home an adequate haul to pay his crew. He catches his wife cheating on him. And his boat is in such need of repair that his way of life is threatened. Illegal but lucrative opportunity crosses his path when he’s asked to help smuggle some immigrants from China to Korea. Kang will head out into international waters, a boat will transfer the human cargo, he’ll come back. What could go wrong?
I won’t spoil what does go wrong but Shim and Bong cram a lot of character, action and social commentary into the skeleton of their plot. Kang’s bitter, violent cynicism is balanced by a young crew member named Dong-sik (Park Yu-chun), who falls in love with an immigrant named Hong-mae (the excellent Han Ye-ri). Their romance casts a little light into what becomes an increasingly dark tale of high seas adventure.
“Haemoo” features a few sequences that stand with Bong’s best work, including the initial transfer of the desperate people looking for a new life in the middle of the ocean on a rainy night. It’s a breathtaking scene. And I liked that I never quite knew where Shim’s was going. Like the unmoored lives it captures, it doesn’t end up where one expects it to land.
More conventional but tightly constructed enough to maintain its entertainment value is Cédric Jimenez’s “The Connection,” a chronicle of the deconstruction of both a criminal empire and the structure put in place to dismantle it, shot on actual 35MM film in some of the most beautiful locales in the world. “The Connection” is familiar but solid, the kind of work that should make a sizable chunk of change on the arthouse circuit when it’s eventually released. It has two solid performances at its core, and just looks great from first frame to last.
Jean Dujardin stars as Pierre Michel, a juvenile magistrate forced to move over to the drug trafficking beat during the height of “The French Connection,” the heroin trade chronicled so memorably in William Friedkin’s classic. Consider this the other side of the coin. Michel is well-intentioned, having seen the impact of drugs on the youth of his country, but seemingly up against an immovable force in the powerful Gaetan Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), France’s reigning drug kingpin. Michel’s strategy to weaken Zampa is to damage everything around him. How do you take down a King? Kill his pawns first. What follows is a great battle of wills between Michel and Zampa, all set against the gorgeous French Riviera.
There are some phenomenal scenes in “The Connection,” including a great sequence between our hero and villain that reminds one of “Heat” in that our two central characters rarely actually interact. Instead, we watch Michel and Zampa deal with their foot soldiers—the cops, some of whom are clearly not on the up and up, and the criminals. As the underworld starts to shrivel from the light, both sides of the war intensify combat. There’s nothing really here you haven’t seen before, but it’s well-made and never less than entertaining.
Finally this year, we have the defiantly unique “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence,” the third part of a trilogy “about being a human being” by Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, following ”Songs From the Second Floor” and “You, the Living.” Like those films, “Pigeon” is a deliberately stagey, quirky, strange piece of work that challenges viewer expectations of film by blurring the lines between traditional narrative, fantasy and something almost indefinable. It suffers a bit from the law of diminishing returns on Andersson’s vision and isn’t as consistently mesmerizing as its first half-hour promises, but there’s so much clever, hilarious, solitary filmmaking here that it can’t be ignored.
“Pigeon” consists of vignettes, scenes in which the camera never moves, as if we’re watching a series of brief one-act plays. The curtain goes up, we watch anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, and then the curtain falls again, rising anew on an entirely new scene.
The vignettes are sometimes loosely connected—we regularly return to a pair of novelty gag gift salesmen who sell vampire teeth, a bag of canned laughter and a grotesque mask with deadpan delivery—and sometimes have no connection at all. Much of “Pigeon” is very funny, but Andersson turns the tonal table in the final half hour, ultimately ending on notes of horror and melancholy. What it means to be a human being to Andersson is what it means to be unpredictable—life can take gorgeous or tragic turns with every curtain raise. Just like TIFF itself, one never knows what to expect next.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...