TIFF 2022 Report #3

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (Johnson, 2022)

The people wanted more Benoit Blanc, and Rian Johnson has listened. And why not? With Kenneth Branagh struggling to revitalize the starry big-budget mystery vehicles of old with his take on Hercule Poirot, Johnson’s approach, by contrast, seems to be hitting its stride. Whereas Branagh has focused on over-adapted Agatha Christie stories which, while good puzzles in their own right, no longer have a sense of daring originality due to their familiarity, Johnson is giving audiences new mysteries that harken back to detective fiction’s golden age while still being fun, contemporary and involving. 2019’s Knives Out was that kind of a twisty caper, utilizing a strong cast of household names that knew how to have fun with the material. The same is true of this follow-up, Glass Onion. Yes, the names featured here are slightly less starry, but the pleasures of being thrown headfirst into a knotty and deceptive puzzle remain the same, and everyone on board—from Kate Hudson to Edward Norton to Janelle Monáe—seems to be relishing the opportunity to present their comedic chops up close.

Truth be told, I didn’t love Knives Out. I enjoyed it without feeling ecstatic reverence, mostly because I felt its script was oddly condescending towards Ana de Armas’s character in insisting that we take her goodness for granted due to her marginalized status. So it was a relief to find that Glass Onion has no such issue and lets us take the characters at (more or less) face value. And they might even be a more obnoxious bunch than the family in Knives Out: Everyone is morally suspect, vapid, self-interested and unwilling to be responsible for their actions. A perfect group to be murder suspects, in other words, and there is certainly murder on someone’s mind when a dead body or two (or three) crops up. To keep the plot a complete surprise, I will not go further than that, but rest assured that Benoit Blanc’s investigation is a bundle of out-of-left-field twists that mystery lovers will lap up with aplomb.

The mystery on display here does not re-invent any wheels, and the solution is not the most difficult ones to solve. More than a few viewers will likely guess the hows and whys even before Blanc’s summation. In spite of that, the film has high entertainment value, with some good gags (including ones involving Jared Leto and Jeremy Renner), healthy doses of much-needed camp, a degree of irreverence that keeps it buoyant, and—most importantly—a deliciously uninhibited performance from Daniel Craig, who understands that the key to success is a ridiculous accent and a warmth that permeates the outlandishness of everything around him. Glass Onion is good escapism without aspiring to surpass the genre’s masters, and that worked for me for this iteration. Whether or not the Benoit Blanc series will wear out its welcome remains to be seen, but for now Johnson has got a formula that’s working. May he keep finding new ways to surprise us with it.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (Poitras, 2022)

Not many films provoke such a visceral reaction as Laura Poitras’s All the Beauty and the Bloodshed did in me. The ways in which it both moves and upsets are sometimes elliptical rather than concrete, and a lot of the times it comes down to the ways in which Poitras juxtaposes her subject’s oral testimony with still imagery showcasing the depths of her rich and profound work. That subject, of course, is Nan Goldin, the renowned photographer of post-liberation queer subcultures and milieus—of ragged living punctuated by hedonistic pleasures and intimacies, of sexual lives that could be at once erotically ecstatic and discreetly blue.

In addition to her art, Goldin also focuses on activism against pharmaceutical companies like Purdue, who manufacture highly addictive drugs like OxyContin, and wealthy families like the Sacklers who have directly profited from the opioid crisis. Having founded the group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) and staged peaceful demonstrations in various museums to pressure them to permanently cut ties with the Sacklers, Goldin’s persistent spirit and crusade to avenge the lives cut short by the greed and indifference of a privileged few lends Poitras’s portrait of her a great deal of immediacy as we watch her fury and resolve up close. This look into Goldin’s current preoccupations also balances out the meditative stillness from the montage of photographs and reminiscences that showcase Goldin’s early life and career. These photographs comprise such a large chunk of the film, in fact, that it is almost half an art installation as it is a film. But Goldin is such a skilful and lyrical raconteur, and her photography still so evocative, that it is completely understandable that Poitras made this decision. Why ruin a perfect opportunity when all the right ingredients are there in front of you?

A common early criticism of this film—and one that will continue to be brought up in future reviews—is the natural disparity caused by moving in and out of Goldin’s early and present lives, linking these timelines in ways that are not altogether obvious or uniform. Poitras’s non-linear approach is rightfully demanding, but not incongruous: Rather, it helps to illustrate how much of Goldin’s past is informing her present activism. The parallels that the opioid crisis has with the AIDS epidemic are not apparent at first blush, but Goldin has suffered through both and knows full-well what it’s like to watch people suffer and die needlessly. With AIDS, she was mostly helpless. Her friends—people like Cookie Mueller and David Wojnarowicz—deteriorated before her very eyes, and all she had was her camera. Now, older and wiser and angrier, she is able to fight against a visible enemy so that needles and pill bottles will not send scores of more fragile lives to early graves. There was a time when death terrorized Nan Goldin, but now we see Nan Goldin terrorizing death so that the dead can rest with grace.

Nan Goldin has known death and has known it her entire life. There are segments of this film that deal specifically with the lasting trauma of her own sister’s suicide—segments so profoundly moving and courageous that it remains almost unbearable for me to remember them for this review. Death permeates this film thoroughly, but what we are left with is not defeat. Past sins and private sorrows leave their marks, but so, too, can resilience and the selfless fight for a better future—a future where the young and still-unborn will no longer have to struggle in the throes of addictions caused by insidious drugs. Nan Goldin is using her remaining years on this earth to fight and fight some more, and Laura Poitras wisely sits back and lets her carry on while we bear witness to her remarkable grit.

Truly, this is a special film.

Pacifiction (Serra, 2022)

Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra has relentlessly pushed the boundaries in terms of cinematic depiction. From the slow and gruesome end of a withered monarch’s life in The Death of Louis XIV to the wild debauchery of libertines meeting up for a midnight orgy in Liberté, Serra has stepped up to give light to the seamier sides of history while tapping into our existential fears using characters and symbols that have some sense of familiarity—both real and imagined. Pacifiction, his latest work, fuses many of his modus operandi into another heady concoction that will entrance some and repel many others. Set in Tahiti, we follow the exploits of the French High Commissioner on the island, De Roller, played with truly sinister sleaziness by Benoît Magimel in an ill-fitting white suit and a dodginess that recalls a late-career Marlon Brando villain, or even a more subdued Klaus Kinski. Serra follows De Roller as he ambles around the island, mixing with wealthy tourists and inhabitants with grievances, living the high life without seeming to do anything particularly useful—a familiar sight for anyone who knows the history of colonial excesses.

As with any Serra film, there is certainly more to it than mere casual observation. Eventually De Roller is told of a mysterious submarine working a short distance away from the shorelines and a rumour that the French government is planning to resume using the island as a nuclear testing site. With almost surgical precision, Serra wrests away De Roller’s bravado from under him and douses Pacifiction with a mounting sense of doom that wouldn’t be out of place in a Cold War-era thriller or a work by Alan J. Pakula (which Serra does cite as an influence). An imperceptible crack forms not only in De Roller’s sense of authority, but also in the film’s strictures, so that we feel ourselves descending into a hazy, sickly-coloured madness the longer it goes on, until any sense of stable narrative melts away completely.

Pacifiction could be considered Serra’s most accessible work to date simply for having the lushest settings and a story in constant need of interrogation, both within itself, subtextually and even metatextually. It does not have the same “moving painting” quality as some of his past works; indeed, this work is a work of immense restlessness that would be difficult to transfer onto a canvas. It is a film, moreover, about parasitic voids that grow darker and darker when knowledge and clarity is staunchly denied. It is frighteningly beautiful work that turns the cruel ambivalences and reckless indifferences of postcolonial corruption onto those figures of power, forcing them to contend with the same fears that colonial subjects were subjected to in the past, and are still being subjected to even now. Serra’s maverick spirit is louder than ever, and it’s exciting to see how new facets of his artistry continue to emerge with more and more intricacy.

Casa Susanna (Lifshitz, 2022)

During the 1960s, a sanctuary existed high in the Catskills for cross-dressing men and trans women of all stripes to gather in safety and camaraderie: A place where they could escape to in secret, without judgment or hatred from a conservative society, and simply present their truths amongst others who understood them. Casa Susanna was the name of this humble retreat, and although it only existed for a few years before it had to be sold off for financial reasons, its memory and history are still as present as ever in the many photographs taken during its heyday, as well as with some of the few surviving guests who remain to tell its colourful tales. In this documentary, a couple of these survivors return to the now-abandoned site of their happiest days to reminisce about the casa’s importance to the history of queer America and their own lives, testifying to how being a part of its milieu allowed for a flourishing of their self-acceptance and trans identities down the road. As such, Casa Susanna is not really about the casa as it is about what the casa gave and provided to the people who visited it.

Lifshitz’s approach here is gentle and respectful, both in terms of the casa’s surviving members (including the late trans activist Katherine Cummings, who sadly passed away shortly after the documentary’s completion) and of its late owners Susanna and Marie, both of whose fates are finally revealed by Marie’s grandson after years of rumours and uncertainty. Lifshitz also provides Katherine and the other former casa guest, Diana Merry-Shapiro, a chance to speak personally about their own journeys in becoming fully-fledged trans women after the casa’s dissolution, which is made ten times more moving when you realize this is Katherine’s very final testimonial before her death. Meanwhile, yet another subject, Betsy Wollheim, is given the chance to recount her childhood as the daughter of famed science fiction author Donald Wollheim, who was one of Casa Susanna’s avid cross-dressing regulars.

By giving these women time to reminisce about their own lives instead of further explicating the minute details about the casa’s function, one could argue that Casa Susanna lacks something of a strong focus, but it’s difficult to fault this when Lifshitz is so generous in allowing the queer elders here to testify about the past with so much sensitivity and candour. With most of Casa Susanna’s members now long gone, it is completely reasonable to allow its surviving few to fill in the blanks that the pictorial record otherwise cannot. There is much we will never know about what went on behind the casa’s walls, but there is enough here to get a taste of it. For me, at least, I was able to walk away enlightened and humbled by the beauty and freedom of these stories.