TIFF 2022 Report #4

The Eternal Daughter (Hogg, 2022)

There was such a sense of finality to The Souvenir Part II that I truly did not think Joanna Hogg would revisit its characters again. The fact that she created a sequel to the sequel—and a sequel, moreover, that goes in even newer directions than her previous Souvenir films—proves that Hogg is ready to be daring at every given opportunity. And daring she is with The Eternal Daughter, for not only is she trying her hand at her own version of a Gothic ghost story, but she essentially lets Tilda Swinton be a one-woman show in the dual role of both Julie (previously played by her daughter Honor Swinton Byrne) and her mother Rosalind (which Swinton did, of course, play in the other films). To play one distinct character is hard enough, but to play two people who are in constant conversation with each other is a challenge that even a seasoned actor would find tricky. Swinton, however, is no stranger to the conceit, and it may well be that her past experience playing multiple roles allows her to carry it off so fluidly here. Despite the roles being diametrically opposed in several ways, she is entirely believable as both an aging filmmaker with writer’s block and an elderly posh widow with secrets and recollections that continually blindside her daughter.

Naturally, because the illusion of two characters must be maintained, Hogg is more restricted in her framing, and for that reason I would not say that The Eternal Daughter is her most strikingly composed work to date. The shot/reverse shot technique, for instance, is used out of necessity, but after several consecutive scenes that feel almost identical to each other because of it, one can’t help but wish Hogg had more tools in her box to keep her compositions more varied. At the same time, however, I would not sacrifice the conceit of Swinton’s duality due to its importance in providing the film’s emotional throughline, so it is a sin I am ready to forgive.

Hogg does compensate for some of the visual repetitiveness elsewhere. The Welsh manor house-turned-inn that she sets the film in is given a life of its own like in any good Gothic story. Mysterious creaks and thuds fill the soundscape, while numerous halls and doors make it difficult to discern what the house’s true layout is like. The atmosphere is perfectly pitched and makes the subsequent revelations all that more haunting. Hogg is also careful to keep intact the droll wit that is characteristic of her work. The gentle joshing and fussing between Julie and Rosalind as they prepare Christmas cards or peruse the dinner menu are a highlight of what is otherwise a relatively more plaintive outing than we’re used to. Hogg’s humour may still be too crisp and dry to be appreciated by some, but with so many layers operating here in concordance, one can readily find something else to latch onto.

Mother-daughter relationships are sometimes neglected in cinematic stories, so it is welcome to see Hogg draw such a striking film on these exclusive grounds. The fact that both the mother and the daughter are played by the same person opens up a wealth of fascinating contradictions and gradations that help anchor a film that can sometimes feel a bit too restricted by its own limitations. Hogg is such a skilful auteur, however, that she still manages to make the most of it, adding yet another sublime jewel to her exquisite filmography.

The Whale (Aronofsky, 2022)

It is almost inevitable that discourse culture is going engulf The Whale as surely as intricate prosthetics had to engulf Brendan Fraser in order to transform him into a morbidly obese English teacher. The film, as originally written for the stage (and now adapted for the screen) by playwright Samuel D. Hunter, is awash in delicate subject matter: fatphobia, religious bigotry, eating disorders, encroaching mortality, suicide, absentee parents, alcoholism, cyberbullying and generally abusive familial ties. And, because the film is set entirely in a dingy little apartment, these themes jostle against each other with almost claustrophobic intensity. As this is a Darren Aronofsky film first and foremost, expecting this to be a comfortable watch would be a fool’s errand, but it’s difficult to prepare for just how truly grueling it can be at times, particularly as we watch Fraser’s character slowly deteriorate and constantly refuse hospitalization.

Now, this is not altogether a criticism. Tough subject matter needs to be reckoned with on its terms, and The Whale’s unsparingness works for the most part. The script readily accepts that these characters are fundamentally damaged, and we are tasked to figure out just how far they can be redeemed—and whether redemption is even possible for some. Now, is the film nuanced and sensitive in what it depicts? There lies the rub. If consistency is key, The Whale flunks the test. The biggest gripe really does come down to Fraser’s character and Aronofsky’s depiction of it. In some moments, we see the grace and humanity that Fraser imbues Charlie, to the point where his body is hardly noticeable to us. Fraser’s natural soulfulness and earnestness are great assets to realizing this character, and he pulls it off fantastically. But then, in other moments, Aronofsky cannot help but allow his camera to luridly gawk at Fraser’s physicality, photographing the graphic welts and folds on the fat suit in a way that is too intrusive and othering. Perhaps this is Aronofsky merely wanting to show off how realistic these prosthetics are, but when paired with the ominous notes of the score, it does come off as insensitive. If this is a story about humanizing people who are otherwise shamed for not living up to prescribed societal ideals, Aronofsky’s decision to focus the camera’s gaze on Charlie’s body is a misstep that threatens to derail the film’s intent.

It is a credit to the actors that the film does not derail. They are not entirely consistent—Sadie Sink, for instance, finds some difficulty in translating her character’s unremitting antagonism into something three-dimensional. But overall, the ensemble is committed to the truths of their characters. While Fraser is excellent, I would be remiss not to mention how wondrous Hong Chau is as his caretaker, Liz. Despite not having a lot of screentime, Chau deftly reveals new facets of Liz in each exasperated remark or sigh while establishing a touching rapport with Fraser that makes you believe they’ve known each other for years. If Liz is not the most developed character in this story, she is the one with the most groundswells of emotion, and Chau handles it with the same level of skill and professionalism that she’s shown in many other roles before.

Ultimately, it’s apparent that The Whale tackles too much for its own good and is overburdened by its inability to satisfyingly bring enough depth to every issue that it seeks to portray. It is a testament to the genuineness of Fraser and Chau that the film manages to scrape by as it does, flaws and all. However, general audiences will believe that its heart is in the right place, and for Aronofsky and his cast, this will be victory enough.

The Inspection (Bratton, 2022)

There is nothing egregiously wrong with Elegance Bratton’s debut fictional feature. It hits the correct emotional notes, the performances—especially from Jeremy Pope and Gabrielle Union—are raw and vulnerable, and Bratton’s direction has many striking compositions. It’s a vehicle polished and buffed for an awards season run, and it could very well rack up some nominations (and even wins) if it strikes enough chords. For all that, though, there is still something fundamental missing here that prevents it from reaching a true sense of greatness.

For a story about how intense familial homophobia and inequality forces a gay Black man to tough it out in the Marines as a means of doing something worthwhile with his life, despite the fact that the military’s homophobia is undoubtedly even worse than his own mother’s, there is a sandpapered smoothness to any potential rough edges to this story that yields too many unsurprising trajectories and not enough in the way of complexity or volatility. When Pope’s character, Ellis, unwittingly reveals his sexuality to his fellow trainees early on and is met with the expected violence and hostility (this being set during the early aughts, when “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was still the prevailing rule), the redemption narrative seems already preordained, as are the steps taken to reach it. Soon, Ellis finds some allies; soon, Ellis’s fortitude and determination are enough to “excuse” his lack of heterosexuality. The dots are already connected, and Bratton merely has to film the process.

But there is also some difficulty in discerning what this film truly wants to say. That being gay does not preclude you from being as intensely masculine as someone who is straight (which is somehow a virtue)? That the military can be a safe space for queer people, despite a couple of bad apples? That the military is a fundamentally good option for vulnerable and marginalized folks who have few options of survival? It’s here where the film’s overall lack of complexity becomes an issue, for without more rigorous critiques of the problematic institutions it’s depicting, The Inspection veers dangerously close to being propagandistic. It may fall just short of that by virtue of how upsetting some of the brutality against Ellis is, but I ended my screening with a sense of hollowness in thinking that Bratton doesn’t do nearly enough to shake up the natural ambivalences that a story like this should have. It is simply too neat, too compact, too systematic to truly take off.

My Imaginary Country (Guzmán, 2022)

It could be argued that Patricio Guzmán is Chile’s most important living filmmaker, and even if you were not prepared to go that far, it would be difficult to argue that he’s not one of the country’s very best. With a career spanning over five decades, Guzmán has been front and centre throughout his country’s turbulent history, keeping his camera trained on both its glories and tragedies. I first discovered his work when I watched Nostalgia for the Light in 2010, and to this day it remains one of the most lyrical documentaries in recent memory.

The Pearl Button and The Cordillera of Dreams struck similarly resounding notes, and so does his newest work, My Imaginary Country. The difference with this one is largely in its contemporaneity, as Guzmán closely documents the protests that took place in Chile over the past few years (known colloquially as the Estallido Social) which were sparked by such things as exorbitant public transportation fares, institutional corruption, high cost of living and a general state of inequality among social classes. Rather than elegizing the victims of Pinochet’s dictatorship or his country’s topography as he did in his past films, Guzmán is now sounding an ode to a brighter future for the citizens of his homeland, including the younger generations who helped spearhead the protests. Guzmán looks on with pride as he witnesses the arrival of a new and progressive constitution and the election of the young left-wing president Gabriel Boric.

As with any documentary that dares to look far ahead, time is not always kind to a filmmaker’s optimism. Since Guzmán finished the film, Chile recently held a plebiscite to adopt the new constitution, and it was resoundingly rejected by the population. Boric’s popularity, meanwhile, has also plummeted since taking office. It would be easy, then, to dismiss this film as a work of premature naiveté, but even if Guzmán’s so-called “imaginary country” must still remain imaginary, the film is still a very good and stirring primer into the Chilean youth’s fervent desire for equality and progressiveness. Seeing the protests unfold from Guzmán’s benevolent vantage is oftentimes shocking, especially when it comes to the brutal police response. Meanwhile, the people Guzmán interviews are all eloquent and expressive when talking about their goals to reform their country. The film’s brevity does not undermine the potency of its goals, even if one can’t help but wish Guzmán had waited a little longer to finish it in order to fill in the inevitable gaps that time and circumstance have left.