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TIFF 2023: The Teachers’ Lounge, The Dead Don’t Hurt, Dream Scenario

Sometimes dispatches like this naturally form around themes or even premiere dates. Sometimes they need just be random pick-ups of things seen. This is the latter. Let’s do it.

Quietly progressing from a sidebar at Berlin earlier this year to being picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, Ilker Çatak’s “The Teachers’ Lounge” is an important drama, the kind of character study that plays like a great thriller. With echoes of Michel Haneke’s examinations of power, class, and the unknowable, Çatak’s film shifts left when you expect it to go right, maintaining a low-simmering tension from the feeling that these characters are headed down toward tragedy. That it doesn’t wrap up neatly or end where one might expect is an asset, allowing it to be more of a conversation starter than a blunt instrument. Those are the films that matter and the ones that last.

Leonie Benesch is stunning as Carla, a new junior high teacher who has just arrived at a German school out of college when she’s stuck in a growing controversy. It starts when things go missing from the teachers’ lounge, leading the faculty to suspect a student. From the beginning, determining the identity of the thief is problematic, both in how fingers are pointed and how interrogations are handled. Carla makes enemies among other staff members by commenting on what feels like racial profiling when a Turkish student is targeted, but everything shifts when she sets up her laptop to record. She captures what looks like her colleague Friederike (Eva Löbau) committing the theft, sending the film into an alternating dance of accusations and denials. Friederike insists she’s innocent, and her son Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch) brings the conflict directly into Carla’s classroom. As students begin an investigation into what they perceive as false accusations and illicit surveillance, the societal structure at this school crumbles.

“The Teachers’ Lounge” displays a confident management of pacing and tone, never resorting to monologuing or manufactured conflict. Every choice made by Carla, Oskar, and the staff feels emotionally logical, revealing how even the best of intentions can get derailed, and gives the film a natural momentum. The cinematography by Judith Kaufmann is as fluid as a thriller without ever being overly stylish. It may sound impossible for a film that takes place entirely at a German junior high to be one of the most thrilling of the year, but that’s the wonder of filmgoing. Sometimes, the impossible is true.

I don’t think anyone would call Viggo Mortensen’s “The Dead Don’t Hurt” thrilling, but there’s something comfortably entertaining about this old-fashioned Western, one that sometimes drifts from lyrical into languid, but also hums with the craftsmanship of its creator, who has assembled his best cast to date to tell this story of violence and heartbreak. Like a lot of actors-turned-directors, Mortensen clearly adores performance and character, grounding his genre piece in its people instead of what happens to them. Not only does he display his deftest hand as a filmmaker, but he gives a strong performance here, and he surrounds himself with people who really understand the assignment.

His main asset here is Vicky Krieps, increasingly affirming her status as one of the best living actresses. The star of “Phantom Thread” plays Vivienne Le Coudy, a French-Canadian who meets a Danish carpenter named Holger Olsen (Mortensen) in San Francisco. Immediately fleeing the bland aristocrat that she’s with for the charming cowboy, Vivienne finds herself in a truly corrupt town in Nevada. There’s something here regarding two people who came from very far away to try and find happiness in a land in which it’s in very short supply. When Holger decides to enlist in the Civil War, it leaves Vivienne on her own in a town filled with men in black, including the sociopathic Weston (Solly McLeod), son of a power player named Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt). Danny Huston and W. Earl Brown fill out a very Western cast.

“The Dead Don’t Hurt” opens with Vivienne’s death, jumping back and forth between the years that led up to it and the events it spawned. I’m not fully convinced the film gains enough by this chronological jumbling, and I almost wished it could have just been a more direct genre piece. However, it does set the stakes early, making sure you know this will be a tragedy, which gives what comes later a different emotional power. Most of all, it’s a strong performance piece as Mortensen and Krieps create nuanced character beats other actors would have never considered. It could have been tighter and more straightforward, but Mortensen and Krieps are both so good that Western fans are unlikely to care.

The cleverest concept of this year’s TIFF probably goes to Kristoffer Borgli’s “Dream Scenario,” co-produced by Ari Aster and released by A24. It’s a likely hit for the company, the kind of surreal conversation starter that it loves to turn into catnip for Letterboxd users and Film Twitter acolytes. I’m not sure what it all adds up to, and I think there’s a version that leans into its surreal concept with a bit more weight, but it’s undeniably enjoyable and sharp, a reminder that a great idea can go a long way.

Nicolas Cage delivers as Paul Matthews, about as ordinary a guy as you could find. He’s a sweater-wearing teacher with two daughters, a loving wife (Julianne Nicholson), and a good job, but there’s also a sense of unfulfilled promise. He accuses an old colleague of stealing ideas they worked on years ago and tells people he’s writing a book when he’s really still in the idea phase. He’s one of those average dudes who’s interesting enough to tolerate in small doses but not invite to the dinner party. Cage deftly sells the idea that Paul knows his shortcomings a bit.

Hysterically, those shortcomings start to manifest in dreams, and not just Paul’s. People around the world start having dreams about Paul Matthews. Well, that’s not quite right. Dreams that include Paul Matthews, usually in the background, doing a lot of nothing. The real Paul seems startled that his dream vision is basically an observer. Is this all the universe thinks of him? Of course, things shift, first with a group that wants to profit off Paul’s newfound fame and then with a brutal shift in how the dream Paul behaves and, more importantly, how the real one responds.

Comparisons will be drawn from “Dream Scenario” to Charlie Kaufman’s work, but Borgli’s script is much more straightforward, and I wanted it to really get weird, especially in the final act. I'm also not convinced the film isn't just using the idea of cancel culture instead of actually saying something about it. Having said that, this is a fun movie with a fantastic lead performance. I want to see it again in an atmosphere wherein I can discuss it with others and unpack what it’s doing without running to another screening. Sometimes, you need time to truly know what a dream means.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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