The first string of films I saw at the Toronto Film Festival all mark themselves as major “huge” films by their respective filmmakers. Ruben Östlund ties together his previous two major acclaimed movies into a satire on global politics and wealth. Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor aim their cameras inside the most dynamic and complex organism they’ve yet excavated – the human body. Albert Serra meanwhile takes his aim at global politics in a more meditative but just as huge in scope film as Östlund‘s.
Triangle of Sadness (Ruben Östlund)
If Force Majeure (2014) presented a comically incisive look into the cruel nature of human instinct, and The Square (2018) took a full sledgehammer to the haute culture of the rich and pretentious, then Ruben Östlund’s latest film Triangle of Sadness combines these two elements in a deliberately full-throttle attempt to examine class structure, work relations, and the materialistic fabric of beauty and wealth. These are all opulently highfalutin aims and Östlund is a filmmaker who wants to say everything in every movie he does.
Östlund is also a maximalist like James Cameron but instead of a huge scope in world-building, he thinks of himself as a filmmaker of grand ideas. In Triangle, we begin with Carl (Harris Dickinson), a male model auditioning for a shoot for a clothing brand, then Carl and his girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean Kriek) who argue about money and sex in their relationship, and then Carl, Yaya, and a whole slew of rich patrons and their servants on a yacht. In these sequential events, Östlund continuously extends the scope of political metaphor as well as explicit political commentary.
While an early sequence between Carl and Yaya splitting the check at a fancy restaurant mocks gender-essentialism when it comes to money in relationships, it’s on board the yacht where the movie hits a topical peak. Östlund tackles worldly socio-political webs that manifest in hierarchical relationships. The hierarchical nature of the ship is not an original metaphor (an obvious mix of both The Rules of the Game (1941) and Snowpiercer (2016)) but Östlund employs some clever refreshing turns by insisting on the fetishization of the rich for the working poor. One billionaire maiden tries to get the entire crew to give up their posts and break the rules of the ship by going swimming. This knowingly puts all of their jobs at risk and while the rich woman thinks she’s being liberationist, she’s actually asserting a nefarious power dynamic by commanding “fun”.
Woody Harrelson’s Marxist sea captain, the single best invention of the film has a quote-off competition with a Russian billionaire capitalist while guests vomit and shit their guts out due to the turbulence in the sea causing mass nausea. As one quotes Engels and Twain and the other quotes Reagan and Thatcher, toilets overflow, puke festoons the walls of the brig, and one would think this is the grand finale, where metaphor turns into a fully grotesque explicit joke on the rich and working class amid an aimless drunken dialectic between a capitalist and communist. This could be a perfect end to a movie that had already made enough points on what it’s all about insofar but then creeps in the problem that has plagued Östlund through most of his career. He stretches it out for a third act that slogs its way through those same points again, if only for the belief that a movie that isn’t at least 2 hours can’t be taken seriously by the film art community.
De Humani Corporis Fabrica (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verana Paravel)
One of the most difficult films of the year to sit through is also one of the most memorable and worth watching. Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor have created a notorious and devastatingly respectable repertoire as documentarians of the exact sort of things human beings actively try not to look at. In their latest foray into the depths of where no eyes want to go, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor create their most emotionally affecting film. It’s a celebration of life, a requiem of death, and a deeply graphic and emotional look at the mystery and miracle of our biological forms.
The camera maintains a closeness to its subjects both inside the body and outside and aims for eye contact with the human form as a functional and aging biological mechanism. Scenes of various surgeries and examinations mix with footage of senile elderly folks, just-born babies, various hospital orderlies carting things in and out, and cadavers being dressed. The surgery sequences are incredible and also seemingly impossible to comprehend. There is a definite cheeky sense of humor incorporated here, nervously perhaps to offset how grueling and potentially disastrous these sequences could be.
Doctors make dick-jokes while operating on a man’s penis (which ejaculates blood). The camera has a close-up on a man’s face with a doctor asking if he’s experiencing pain, then the camera pulls out to show the doctor driving screws into his head. Perhaps the most unnerving of them all is a massive spinal surgery on a young man that feels like mechanics operating on a car (yes, they use actual drills and drill bits to cut and restructure bone).
Existential conversations are inherent to these sorts of images, beckoning questions on the brutal and unfiltered reality of ourselves, what’s really inside us, and the coinciding strength and fragility of it all (how can we withstand drilling our spine and giving birth but feel like our body can fail us in an instant?). From a spiritual sense, which the movie doesn’t shy away from given its final scene, there are hardly many movies that make one consider greater operating forces on our being. As an agnostic, there is no meditative Ingmar Bergman drama, nor any Mel Gibson torture porn that gets so close to the nature of our relationship with greater power than an excavation of the internal organs of the human body. I’m still in disbelief that we exist.
Pacifiction (Albert Serra)
Albert Serra’s last two movies The Death of Louis XIV (2014) and Liberté (2020) are slow-cinema that still have an immediacy that makes every moment count. Unfortunately, that’s not really the case with his latest movie Pacifiction. It is actually more traditional than his previous two, having a clear character-driven plot and can even be considered in some respects, a genre film (slow-burn political thriller), but each moment is too muted and detached to really serve as a foundational piece to its greater narrative. Does that narrative and Serra’s ultimate point reveal themselves at the end? Sure, but it’s not the kind of payoff that I would say is conducive to the laborious previous two and a half hours that lead up to it.
The film’s depiction of colonialism is era-spanning even though the events take place over less than a year. Colonial dynamics of French Polynesia operate in the movie on multiple levels of power. From the Polynesians themselves to the French High Commissioner De Roller (Benoît Magimel) on assignment to be the state representative to their island, to the French military, and ultimately the French global intelligence. The examination of these levels happens in incredibly banal terms – that is not a condemnation of Serra. Cruelty, especially that espoused by bureaucratic decisions is often banal, it’s the result that belies that banality. The film takes its time relaying many conversations with characters that create a piece-by-piece unraveling of relationships between the native people, their liaison in the commissioner, and the French government. When a nuclear test rumor starts to prove to be true, the commissioner, who functionally serves as our cipher and translator for the colonial relations web, begins to understand his fragile and ultimately inconsequential place in the proceedings.
The tropical expanse of the film’s setting lends to both authentic and manufactured landscapes. Inside, where the diplomats lay their plans, all of the clichés of Pacific Islander culture as appropriated by white colonialists are laid bare – tropical drinks with umbrellas, fake war dances, neon lighting. On the outside, however, is where we get the haunting shadows of the island’s history and the raw restlessness of its people. The final forty minutes of Pacifiction are pure Serra. The menacing silence created by the still shots and the slow-moving figures of people in the vast expanses are like pawns on a chessboard, while the people really moving the pieces are never seen. It’s a fitting ending that makes a rather laborious movie (by Serra standards) less unforgiving on the attention span.
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