2020 Toronto Int. Film Fest Diary: Entry 2 - The Oscars Race in the Time of Corona

by C.J. Prince

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday September 15, 2020

As I said in my previous dispatch, TIFF has spent years developing itself into a major player for the awards season, which puts them in a bit of a bind for 2020. The Oscars have already adapted to the new normal by expanding its eligibility rules and timeline to make non-theatrical films qualify this year. But there's a lot of money to be made in theatrical for Oscar hopefuls, as they typically come out early in limited release and gradually roll out to more theaters as more nominations or wins roll in. That strategy is pretty much impossible this year, meaning a lot of films will hold off on their release until it's safer to break even.

So, what does a festival like TIFF do when they're in short supply of the very thing that's come to define them? They work with what they have, and luckily some studios have decided to play nice with them during this unprecedented year. One of the biggest films to fit in this category is "Nomadland," Chloe Zhao's follow-up to her 2017 festival hit "The Rider" that she quickly made before getting plucked from the indie world to direct a new Marvel movie. It stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a widow who loses her home after the factory in her small town shuts down. She decides to buy a van and take to the road, living a nomadic life while traveling across the west coast, making connections with fellow nomads and finding work where she can.

At first glance, I was taken by "Nomadland" in the same way I was by "The Rider." Zhao directs with a hybrid docu/fiction approach, using first-time actors and developing a story based on their own lives. This is the first time Zhao is working with a well-known actor but most of the supporting cast is comprised of real people Zhao, McDormand and her crew encountered during shooting. And as hard as Zhao tries to adapt herself to the presence of prestige star power, "Nomadland" doesn't really work under these circumstances. Several scenes amount to nothing more than McDormand listening to the tragic stories of real people dealing with poverty, disease, death and other hardships they've struggled through. There's no doubt that Zhao has nothing but empathy for everyone she films but the naturalistic style means these moments come across as exactly what they are, which is a two-time Academy Award winner playing pretend with poor people. The star power completely alters the dynamic Zhao developed across her two previous features, making much of "Nomadland" border on the voyeuristic.

Still, Zhao and McDormand really give it their all to try and overcome this hurdle. Zhao's ability to get such strong performances from people who have never acted before is still remarkable to see in action, and McDormand's commitment to her role is undeniable. But I feel more conflicted about "Nomadland" the more I think about it, whether it's McDormand's presence or the way Zhao makes her film as apolitical as possible. Part of why "The Rider" worked was because of how much its naturalism came from specificity and the collaborative nature of Zhao's direction with her actors. This time, I found myself wondering on whose terms this story's coming from, and Zhao just can't thread the needle well enough to provide a good answer.

"Pieces of a Woman" represents a fall festival story that's common every year: an independently produced film with some star names makes a splash after its premiere, resulting in a nice distribution deal and awards campaign not too long after (a recent example would be "I, Tonya" becoming a hit at TIFF and then taking home an Oscar months later). "Pieces" premiered at Venice a few weeks ago where it earned rave reviews, won an award for Best Actress (Vanessa Kirby), and got picked up by Netflix for a worldwide release in the near future. At the moment, things are looking pretty good for the film.

Directed by Hungarian filmmaker Kornel Mundruczo and written by his partner Kata Weber, "Pieces" starts with a couple Sean (Shia LaBeouf) and Martha (Kirby) expecting their first child at any moment. Martha opts to have a home birth, but things go horribly wrong once she goes into labor. Mundruczo lets the tragedy play out over a long, harrowing sequence that unfolds in one take, then spends the rest of the film showing the fallout between Sean, Martha, her controlling mother (Ellen Burstyn), and the rest of Martha's family, all while a criminal trial over the negligence of the midwife (Molly Parker) looms over them.

The easiest way I can describe "Pieces" is little more than talented people trying to elevate a cliché-ridden script. As someone who tends to hate the stunt filmmaking nature of long takes, the birth sequence manages to be effective minus one unfortunate music cue. Beyond that, much of the film plays out as a frustrating and familiar melodrama, with little insight or development of its characters. LaBeouf and Kirby give good performances, but they can only do so much with a screenplay that doles out histrionics as highlight-reel moments without much weight behind them. Whatever goodwill the film creates goes out the window at its climax, which turns the film into a courtroom drama that has Kirby crashing the proceedings to deliver a monologue to the entire room (an unusual request, the judge notes, but he allows it). Aside from a few highlights, it's a film with a lot of wasted effort that I'm sure we'll be hearing about for a good while.

The last film of my day comes from out filmmaker Francois Ozon, whose output is hit or miss but has carved out a nice niche for himself with middlebrow arthouse audiences over the years. His latest film, "Summer of 85," is adapted from Aidan Chambers' 1982 novel "Dance on My Grave," which tells the story of a summer love affair between 16-year-old Alexis (Felix Lefebvre) and 18-year-old David (Benjamin Voisin) in northern France. Ozon frames the story as a mystery, cutting back and forth from Alexis recounting the affair to an investigation around David's death several weeks later.

Ozon leans hard into the pastiche of the 80s, shooting on 16mm with the director of photography Hichame Alaouie highlighting the warm colors of the beachside town and fashion. This, along with the chemistry between Lefebvre and Voison, gives "Summer of 85" a light touch that makes its story of young love entertaining, culminating in a sequence set to Rod Stewart's "Sailing" that's one of the best things Ozon has done in a while. But Ozon's framing device around David's death undermines the central story, and the final act has the story veering off a cliff with sequences like Alexis crossdressing in order to fool a mortician into seeing his dead lover's body. It's a shame to see Ozon squander his film's goodwill into trashier territory by the end, as the earlier moments do a good job capturing the intense and fleeting emotions of adolescence. Ozon has said that he's wanted to adapt Chambers' book ever since he read it over thirty years ago, but from the looks of it, he probably should have been a little less faithful in bringing it to the screen.

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