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Performance, realism and melodrama.

Toronto's Festival always provides a buffet of enticing choices for spectatorship of films from all over the world. Critics can follow favourite directors, genres or national cinemas; or selection of films can be random--what fits in the schedule or what films are likely to never surface theatrically again. Avoiding the growing flock of undistinguished Hollywood openings is easy because the Festival still fulfills a mandate to bring films from all over the world, unlimited by commercial considerations. Looking back at the more than 20 films I saw this year, I realize some films faded instantly, others have remained in my mind, prompting further reflection, even another viewing if possible.

Most of the films I found impressive stand within contemporary strands of the great traditions of cinematic realism; and my attention was particularly drawn to the acting styles and performances in many of these films. Acting is one of the least analyzed of the aspects of cinema, even as our casual criticism so often refers to it. Realism, and the naturalist acting style most associated with it, is still often derided by film academics. But a simple evaluative polarity with realism subordinated to modernism and the avant-garde has not proven historically resilient. Realism and modernism, as styles and movements, have always been entwined and social realism clearly remains a vibrant, often radical, tradition in most countries. In fact, these films provided a fascinating snapshot of the historic lineage, its permutations, international migrations and contemporary ambitions.

Rachel Getting Married and Happy-Go-Lucky were both avidly promoted for the outstanding lead performances. Anne Hathaway's Kym, a sardonically miserable, precariously recovering drug addict crashing through the weekend of her sister's almost idyllic nuptials, is quite a contrast to Sally Hawkins' irrepressibly positive Polly, just determinedly living a few days of her everyday life. But each memorable performance dominates the film and each film is organized around the intensity of that performance. Both films have since opened, although not widely, to critical and considerable, if modest, commercial success, again led by critics' acclaim and multiple award nominations for the leading actors.

Rachel is an interesting example of a resilient genus of American films--a Hollywood director apparently responding to developments in European art cinema. Director Jonathan Demme's new film recalls some of the films of the DOGME 95 movement; this manifesto promoted a stripped-bare realism encompassing acting, camera and sound work, editing and narrative, posed against Hollywood spectacle. While most of the films associated with DOGME, such as Lars Von Trier's provocative work, go far beyond this aesthetic, the film that seems most apposite for Demme is Thomas Vinterburg's The Celebration. That film is similarly organized with a family gathering disrupted and galvanized by painful revelations. The work of other celebrated European realists such as Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and the Dardennes brothers doubtless provided inspiration as well. At the same time, Demme owes a great deal to the work of Robert Altman, another Hollywood 'art' cineaste, perhaps a film such as The Wedding, although without the uncomfortably acerbic humour or intricately multiple story lines. We can also see, in Rachel's intense roving hand-held cameras and intrusively revelatory dramatic structure, the impact of decades of American reality television, older verite documentaries or even parodies of such forms like The Office. Scandalous talk shows like Jerry Springer probably prepare us, with their serial confessionals and please for healing and redemption, for Kym's almost lost weekend.



Demme emphasized in interviews the long work-shopping with the cast, the emphasis on ensemble and the incorporation of a feeling of improvisation--all part of the European inspirations. However, Hathaway's lead performance dominates the film, the roving camera always finds and privileges her intense apologies, eruptions and confessions. Indeed, these moments of Acting punctuate and disrupt both the wedding as narrative and the blander, not very dramatic, documentary of this huge party, with family and guests eating, playing music, congratulating each other, being happy. Partly, this is a function of melodrama. While often a colloquial term, derisively posed against realism, melodrama has always been historically related to realism--think of Dickens, Flaubert or Balzac--and here the veracity of realist performance is organized and displayed by the high points of melodrama--sudden death, tortuous family rivalry and love, madness and disease, terrible coincidence and fateful repetition.

In Hollywood tradition, performances like Hathaway's are always connected to the Method--elaborate preparation, intense inhabitation of roles, heightened psychological posturing for both the actor and the character. Of course, this reigning 'serious' acting migrated from the avant-garde theatres of Moscow and Berlin to New York and on to Hollywood--the Group Theatre, the Actors' Studio. Again, even if changed and perhaps de-politicized, this is the complex interpenetration of Hollywood and European art.

It is also useful to observe how much realism is always about the representation of class. Here, in contrast to the 'lower' classes of classic social realism, we watch a class fraction--in the somewhat mystifying terminology of North American class discourse--the upper middle class of successful professionals, akin to the petit-bourgeoisie of European and Marxist nomenclature. This is, we should recognize, the most familiarly represented slice of American class reality--the affluent and attractive characters and homes of American television drama, sitcom and advertisements. This constant attention naturalizes the corresponding representational disappearance of the American working class from culture, observed by number-ous scholarly commentators, most notably Stanley Aronowitz and David James. It is the historical counter-attack to what cultural historian Michael Denning called the labouring of American culture, powered by the leftist Popular Front, that moved the representation of the ethnic American working class into the Hollywood mainstream in the thirties and forties. That was often associated with acting and eventually the Method, of course--from Garfield and Brando to Pacino and De Niro. Far from that explosive lineage, much of the visual pleasure of Demme's film is just from the exploration of the huge beautiful house, the choreographed movement of beautiful young people, strikingly, and unproblematically, multi-racial, with an unusual number of musicians practicing charmingly diverse kinds of music. As usual, the soft realism of Hollywood announces what is currently 'modern,' albeit in a superficial fashion. Hathaway/Kym's performance, and her life's misery and failure, intrudes into this class utopia, but is also framed and contained by it. While the film does not challenge the class nature of what is portrayed, it does eschew melodramatic resolution. No villains are vanquished, no good rewarded, the wedding weekend concludes with a sad measure of having gotten through, without redemption, just damaged endurance.


The vitality of social realism was evident in films from all over the world. The Dardennes brothers' Le silence de Lorna is discussed elsewhere in this section. Hooked, from the increasingly celebrated cohort of young Romanian filmmakers, offered a disturbing portrayal of a kind of triangle of two lovers and a prostitute. Three superb performances are organized by an almost painful hand-held camera, finally like another character; here we seem to be beyond realism, uncertain of just what is, or has, happened. Better Things, from the UK, explores a rural world of drugs, teen alienation and family anomie. Here, the overlapping narratives unfold with a distanced painterly composition that makes the sadness even greater. Gritty social realism remains the prevailing Canadian genre and there were numerous examples; Down to the Dirt from Newfoundland offered a literally dirty example. Organized by the "hero"/poet's annoying, aggrandizing narration, we follow a prototypical arc from the dismal outport to the despair of the big city.

And the venerable Mike Leigh premiered a new film. Leigh coined the term 'anti-miserabilist' for Happy-Go-Lucky and it does offer a comic alternative to all the grit and misery often associated with social realism. Sally Hawkins' Polly personifies this spirit. Leigh, like other British directors, is devoted to complex portrayals of the everyday life of the working classes. His characters are grounded in the mundane material quotidian, unlike Demme's golden TV people, but still strikingly individualistic; this is the social reality of jobs, relationships, daily problems, family, and disappointments. Far from melodrama, the film's events are casually everyday--the narrative spine is provided by a series of driving lessons. Again, we have the results of devotion to acting and preparation of an ensemble--indeed for Leigh, something of a repertory troupe across many films--and a feeling of improvisation in all the performances. The exhilarating Polly dominates the film, but the film jokes about her over-whelming character and the intense performances of secondary characters are strikingly memorable as well--the acting is part of the spectacle these working class characters can make of their everyday. Leigh is much more at home in this performance style than Demme--this world really feels lived. It is amazing how much suspense and anxiety we feel about a driving lesson and the unexpected anguish of the near-mad driving teacher!

Pedagogy runs through the film--Polly, exuberant, in her classroom of young children, offering life advice to her younger sister or refusing it from her older sister, in tango lessons with a memorably unhappy Spanish dancer, even the driving teacher's tortured memories of his miserable school days. If the film's everyday passage does not resolve much as dramatic structure, there is still something of a life lesson proposed. The 'pursuit of happiness' may have devolved from a once revolutionary demand to contemporary consumerist cant, but Polly's determination to live happily, to not be miserable, carries her through to a personal politics that is finally charmingly inspirational.

In contrast to the realism of these films, two films from the former communist nations of Eastern Europe were a fascinating delight. Here we see a multiple combination of genres, both within cinema history and beyond--fairy tales, folk myths, film noir, city films, socialist realism, the circus. The visual designs are fabulous and magical, not bound to the everyday at all; and the acting styles are far from naturalism, foregrounding the physical, theatrical, declamatory and self-conscious.

Tears for Sale, from Serbia in the former Yugoslavia, was a wondrous fairy tale. High in the mountains, all the men have died in World War One and two virgin sisters, perhaps witches, are dispatched to find a man for this forlorn village of widows. Their incredible journey crosses paths with a traveling circus strongman, a dance-hall fraudster and possibly true love! Fairy tale moments like the near burning at the stake, a mined vineyard where love is really tested and a visually amazing return of the dead for a final waltz are beautifully conjured. But, unexpectedly, the girls' quest discovers, not just men, sex and romance, but modernity itself. The film becomes both an allegorical fantasy of the violence and tragedy of this Balkan nation and the archetypal journey from the rural past to the modern city. We end in a fabulous modern Belgrade and the sisters decide to become 'modern 20th century girls'--certainly not bound by realism but still grounded in the familiar material social transformations of gender and family, industry and war, collectivity riven and remade, of modernity itself.

Zift, from Bulgaria, is almost as fantastic in its improbable narrative and its visual inventiveness. Director Javor Gardev, another young artist to follow, consciously plays off one powerful, if discredited, strand of the great realist tradition--the socialist realism of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. This official style of state cultural policy, widely condemned if little seen or analyzed outside those countries, is here invoked as sots-art, the term in Eastern Europe for a parodic invocation of the old art form of official culture. This is not so much the conventions associated with realism as the use of the melodramatic and propagandistic as the kitsch--in characterizations, songs, slogans, anthems, buildings, speech - of everyday popular living, both critique and nostalgia. In Zift, the organizing story is straight from Hollywood film noir--a doomed convict anti-hero, seeking the fortune supposedly due him after his release into sixties Sofia., lost in lies, flashbacks and hallucinations. This is another city film--a city of ponderous Stalinist architecture--and another tortured, probably failed, journey to modernity. But it is also the familiar 'night' of noir--betrayal among thieves, a chanteuse fatale, a voice over from the dead, corruption and evil behind official authority's facade--reset, for laughs, in this dark socialist city. This is blackly successful comedy, inventively re-styling Hollywood in Stalinist Sofia, and a long way from realism it seems. But we can also recall that these conventions and archetypes are direct from the gritty realism, Old Left anti-authoritarianism and refashioned European art of the twenties and thirties, that Hollywood artists, many emigres included, molded into film noir. This may be an unexpected artistic and political migration but it is a moment in the long inspiring relationship of Hollywood and European cinema; and here we see an invigorating example of the constant re-inventions of cinema and realism.

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Author:Forsyth, Scott
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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