Grim Flicks Creep Out Toronto

Near the end of the 29th Toronto International Film Festival, after the unveiling of 328 movies in 10 days dedicated to sex, depression, incest, animal mutilation, war, suicide, sex, child abuse, divorce, vampires, more sex and what my aunt Charley Lorean Calhoun Smith used to call “puttin’ on airs,” something nice happened. It happened at the point when I finally surrendered to complete exhaustion and no longer had a clear picture of what I was seeing anymore—somewhere between the aptly named Calvaire (translated as The Ordeal, and they weren’t kidding), a Belgian freak show in which a touring cabaret singer’s van breaks down in the woods near a swamp filled with quicksand and the singer is kidnapped by a town of monsters who dress him in a skirt and nail him to a cross while one villager has sex with a screaming pig and the other villagers have sex with him, and Kontroll, a Hungarian horror flick in which a grim group of narcoleptic pimps, hoodlums, addicts and a mysterious woman in a bear costume are pursued through the wet, filthy underground tunnels beneath the Budapest subways by a masked creature that shoves passengers into the paths of oncoming trains. By this time, I couldn’t find my plane ticket home, I had run out of Valium, and I couldn’t swallow one more fried press-reception crab cake.

So how can I describe to you the unexpected joy I suddenly felt when two of England’s grandest “Dames” came waltzing to the rescue? I am talking about Dame Judi Dench and Dame Maggie Smith, in Ladies in Lavender, a warm and literate film written and directed by the actor Charles Dance that I found to be the perfect antidote to all the pretentious drivel that preceded it. A film with this kind of charm and sweetness and class may not be the usual fare in a cinematic marathon dedicated to numbing the brain and deadening the senses, but every film festival should have one.

Ladies in Lavender showcases these two snow-thatched icons as elderly sisters on the coast of Cornwall whose dull lives are interrupted by a shipwrecked Polish sailor who washes up on the beach below their cliffside cottage, nearly drowned with a broken leg. When their awkward nursing skills bring the boy back to life, he rekindles old sibling rivalries, jealousies and unfulfilled dreams of love and marriage in the practical sister who lost her husband in World War I (Maggie Smith). The spinster sister (played with childlike grace by Judi Dench) develops an affection for their wounded guest that is far from maternal. As the foreigner learns to speak crude English, they learn that he isn’t a sailor at all, but a skillful violinist. The film takes place during the time just before World War II, when foreign accents were regarded with suspicion and even fear in rural England; the boy comes dangerously close to problems with the stern local constable, until his musical skills enchant the villagers and attract the aid of a music lover (Natascha McElhone) who whisks him off to London for an audition without even saying goodbye. The sisters, who have come to regard him as both a brother and a son, are brokenhearted when he doesn’t return, but when the boy makes his debut with a radio orchestra on the wireless radio, who should be sitting in the concert hall but the women who saved his life. By the time the music swells (courtesy of exquisite violin solos by Joshua Bell), so do the tears in the eyes of everyone in the audience who can still find a pulse beat. Ladies in Lavender is the kind of small, touching, skillfully made filmed short story one rarely discovers these days, and I hope American moviegoers get an opportunity to discover it soon for themselves.

Neither of the Dames showed up in Toronto, which was probably wise. It’s doubtful that any of the paparazzi would have known who they were, and it’s a given fact that they would have been powerless to distract the screaming mobs of weeping, shrieking teenage fans clogging the streets of the chic Yorkville section to get a look at flavor-of-the-week Orlando Bloom. It wasn’t a banner year for glam spottings. Charlize Theron canceled because she’s still recovering from a serious neck injury that she sustained while doing her own stunt work on a movie location—an injury that landed her in surgery and came perilously close to severing her spinal cord. Al Pacino was a no-show. Lily Tomlin walked into the opening-night press party for her idiotic new comedy, I § Huckabees, and walked through the exit door 10 minutes later. My sacroiliac went on strike halfway through a filmed Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino as a Method-mumbling Shylock, so I showed up at Mr. Pacino’s press conference to see what he had to say about Shakespeare. He was a no-show. Scarlett Johansson was laid up with tonsillitis. And nobody recognized Henry Thomas, the manly little tyke in E.T., all grown up and unshaved now, who showed up in a supernatural Civil War schlockfest called Dead Birds, about a gang of Confederate bank robbers who hide out in a burned-out Alabama plantation inhabited by flesh-eating ghouls.

But if the marquee value was dimmer than usual, enough familiar faces were visible to keep the press agents and burly bouncers busy: Hilary Swank, Will Smith, Jeremy Irons, Heather Graham, Joan Allen, Matt Dillon, Chris Cooper, Jamie Foxx, Jeff Daniels, Ellen Barkin, Sigourney Weaver, Helen Hunt, Andy Garcia, Martin Short. Not enough to rush to your hotel room and unpack your digital camera, but nifty enough to dress up the reflections in a limo window.

They kept showing up when I least expected them. The bearded bruiser who yanked me out of harm’s way when the elevator closed on my elbow at the Four Seasons turned out to be Joseph Fiennes. The next day, in the same elevator, there was Elvis Costello, humming to himself. The radiant blonde with the Dove Bar complexion, who identified the man I had been yakking at all through lunch about Japanese animation as former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, was none other than Laura Linney.

It’s the kind of festival that attracts everyone from Wayne Gretzky to Robert Evans, who arrived to attend a charity benefit and conducted interviews in his bed dressed in silk pajamas. Mark Wahlberg was upstaged at his own party by two real live elephants from the Toronto Zoo. Talk about tasteless ironies: I emerged from one depressing film about children, their limbs blown off by land mines on the Turkey-Iraq border, who live off the money from shrapnel they sell to junk collectors, and was confronted by live camels marching past the Middle Eastern coffee urns in the windows of Williams-Sonoma, ballyhooing something called—God forbid!—the Dubai Film Festival. You can’t help feeling awkward and guilty leaving a three-hour film about a famine in Zimbabwe, pushing your way through window shoppers at Tiffany & Co. And in the middle of it all, there was Alexandra Kerry, the 31-year-old daughter of Democratic nominee You-Know-Who, declaring: “I had to escape from politics and see a few movies.”

In Toronto, where politics and movies were interchangeable, you couldn’t escape from either. In the focus section of films from South Africa celebrating 10 years since the end of apartheid, the best and most accessible was Hotel Rwanda, a powerful true story of the risky and heroic efforts of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who defied the Hutu extremists and saved the lives of his family and neighbors, who were barricaded in the abandoned hotel during the ghastly 1994 Rwanda massacres. The U.N. and U.S. peacekeepers had fled, leaving the Rwandan natives to be slaughtered by the militia, but it was one man who desperately dispatched telephone and fax pleas for help to the hotel’s European owners and President Bill Clinton and stole, borrowed and lied to keep 1,200 refugees alive during 100 days of terrorist devastation outside the hotel walls. Skillfully written and directed by the veteran Irish director Terry George, who makes his home in New York, this massive film collates information, catalogs history, never loses its sense of narrative coherence, tells a powerful story and provides Don Cheadle with the best role of his career.

Great acting dominated the screens in movies large and small. Sean Penn’s damp, nervous, dynamic performance in The Assassination of Richard Nixon as ill-fated loser Sam Bicke, the frustrated Baltimore furniture salesman who saw the death of the American Dream in every mirror until he decided to become a footnote to history by crashing a hijacked plane into the Nixon White House in 1974, is one of his most intelligently nuanced performances. Mr. Penn doesn’t play this lost and tragic figure as a nut job, but as a meek, hopeful, working-class Everyman deceived, discarded and doomed to failure who makes one final, fatal decision to fight the system. Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle and Jack Thompson lend excellent support, but it is really Mr. Penn—whose performance as Bicke is a series of carefully constructed blocks ultimately building a tower of clay while getting it all down in personal letters to his idol, Leonard Bernstein—who gives you the jitters. In the kind of loose-cannon press conference that guarantees great quotes, and in candid Bush-bashing interviews all over Toronto, Mr. Penn shared his own personal liberal political views and made it clear that on the eve of the current election, he wouldn’t mind repeating history by assassinating (fill in the blank with the name of your choice here) himself.

In The Woodsman, Kevin Bacon electrified audiences with a powerful, sobering and stirringly human performance as a convicted pedophile who returns from prison hoping to start a new life. Instead of peace, he finds frightened neighbors, suspicious co-workers in the factory where he works, hostility from his parole officer, and a cruel society unwilling to forgive or lend a helping hand toward a second chance. Mr. Bacon’s wife, Kyra Sedgwick, is rock solid as the woman who tries to ease his pain. Yet in the way he internalizes the soul of a social reject, showing his weakness without making him a monster, Mr. Bacon is the sad, afflicted and almost sympathetic focus of The Woodsman, a thoughtful and provocative film about an unsettling subject that never sinks to the level of prurient sensationalism. In P.S., Laura Linney is rhapsodic as an admissions director at Columbia University who embarks on a passionate sexual affair with a student that leads to some disturbing revelations about her conflicted psyche. International hunk Javier Bardem shaved his head, lost several kilos and twisted his body into grotesque contortions to play a terminally ill quadriplegic petitioning the Spanish government for the right to die with dignity in the euthanasia drama The Sea Inside.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a film fête without a scandal. This one provided the first of many before it even started. Jesse Power, an art student who created headlines in 2001 and ended up on trial for torturing, disemboweling and eating a domestic pet on videotape and passing it off as conceptual art, is the subject of a documentary that caused a near-riot. I didn’t have the stomach for Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat, but mobs protesting animal cruelty blocked the theaters where it played, cops were called to the scene, and Jesse Power was arrested and hauled away in a patrol wagon again. It is doubtful that we will see the film in the U.S. I think it’s a Canadian thing.

There is always a pimple-faced crew of directors who have just discovered the joys of oral sex and rush to share their research in a surfeit of nauseating and pointless sex films. Only the critics would praise a wacko like Swedish director Lukas Moodysson, whose vile A Hole in My Heart is about a group of cretinous pornographers who lock themselves in for several days to shred inhibitions and incinerate every moral convention in contemporary cinema. The horrifying results are too repellent to describe, unless your curiosity is aroused by close-ups of vaginal surgery and vomit as sexual foreplay. Half of the spectators walked out of this one after the first 10 minutes, and it was downhill from there. Toronto audiences are slavish film buffs, but they’re too polite. I don’t miss much about Cannes, but the good old days of booing and hissing and throwing things at the screen after a particularly rotten piece of swill was always a welcome sign of healthy disapproval, if you ask me. Keeps filmmakers in their place and prevents base instincts that lead to high blood pressure.

In the equally depraved French film Ma Mère, Isabelle Huppert plays a deranged mother in the Canary Islands hell-bent on turning her pious teenage son, home from a Catholic boarding school, into a raging male prostitute. When her friends recoil, she takes on the job of perfecting his sexual debauchery as only a perverted mother can—by initiating him herself. One Toronto headline described this one as “A Sphincter-Clenching Good Time!” Do you wonder why, after brushing my teeth, the search for my missing plane ticket home became a daily ritual?

Finally, there was The Machinist, a twisted psychological creep-out financed in Spain with Gloria Steinem’s super-hunky stepson Christian Bale as a cadaverous factory worker haunted by such grim nightmares that he can’t close his eyes. He can’t eat. He can’t bathe. He smells. Someone is sticking weird Post-Its on his refrigerator door. Mr. Bale lost 65 pounds for this role and looks like the emaciated, barely alive remains of what they found underground when they invaded Dachau. Giving his all for The Machinist, he plays a man who has not slept for one solid year. After 10 days in Toronto, I know exactly how he feels.