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Erica Abeel

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Art Meets Porn and Other High Points From Toronto

Posted: 09/14/2013 5:34 pm

Stranger by the Lake by Alain Guiraudie.
Before screening at Toronto this film already created a stir at Cannes, a fest not known for its prudery, with its naturalistic portrayal of sex at a male cruising spot along an edenic lake in France. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a charming guy with a swimmer's lithe body, is a regular there. He falls hard for newcomer Michel (Christophe Paou), a Tom Selleck lookalike with a 70's-style mustache. In keeping with the culture of this locale they quickly hook up. One evening Franck, hidden in the bushes, sees Michel drown his previous lover in the lake and casually wade to shore. Confounding expectations, Franck remains as enamored of Michel as ever. When a detective, adroitly etched by Jerome Chappatte, arrives on the scene to question the men, Franck feigns ignorance of Michel's crime.

In this riveting, suspenseful salute to Hitchcock, Guiraudie explores the intersection of death, danger and desire. How far will Franck go in pursuing his passion for a man he knows to be a murderer? Guiraudie ups the ante when it becomes apparent to Michel that Franck is on to him. Now Franck's life is on the line. The issues raised by the film resonate beyond an exploration of queer desire. How much are any of us willing to overlook and allow for when the heart wants what it wants? Guiraudie adopts an almost Aristotelian unity, returning each time to the identical parking lot, the nude men on the beach, the gorgeous blue water. And men coupling, the camera never blinking, in all its permutations.

I thought that viewing this at a public screening with retirees eating popcorn (versus a press screening with jaundiced critics) would be fairly excruciating. It wasn't. Toronto's cinephiles stand ready to embrace it all. Interestingly, the sex and nudity is so integral to the story it takes a back seat -- well, almost -- to the dizzying psychological abyss Guiraudie opens up. What's the deal with Franck? Why doesn't he cut and run?

Afterwards, the actor who plays Franck, came onstage to take questions. "You all saw me naked," he joked, "so now I'd like to see you -- well, not all of you." Body doubles were used, he said, for"everything below the waist; nothing was improvised, all the sex scenes were tightly choreographed. "Franck makes bad decisions because he's in love. In an alternate ending, he and Michel go off together." Whoa.


Night Moves by Kelly Reichardt.
I'm a fan of Reichardt's second feature Old Joy, though it's more a mood piece on the Oregon woods plus a meditation on male friendship teetering on the homoerotic than a full-fledged film. In Night Moves Reichardt takes a giant leap into genre with a hi-concept thriller about eco-terrorists. Jesse Eisenberg plays an activist working on a sustainable agriculture co-op. His cohorts include Dakota Fanning, a rich drop out, and Peter Sarsgaard, a former marine and recluse. The troika is committed to violent actions to protest the industrial forces despoiling the planet. At the film's start a plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam in Bend Oregon that's choking a stream and flooding old forests is well under way. But after an innocent is killed in the explosion, two of the characters unravel -- and with them the plot. The third act plays like a finger-wagging lecture: mayhem only begets more mayhem. I found the film's "moral" deflating and simplistic and wish Reichardt had taken the story down a different path.

However, before melodrama sets in her minimalist style is mesmerizing: the truncated dialog sounds hyper natural. DP Christopher Blauvelt paints an autumnal Oregon whose freshness you can practically smell, while hypnotic slow pans pointedly reveal a petrified forest. When the trio's mission in the boat to set the dynamite encounters a glitch, the suspense stretches the nerves.

And then there's the case of Jesse Eisenberg. Whatever the role, it feels like he's playing himself. A lack of range? Maybe. Yet he may be onto something. With his tense hunch, herky-jerky gait and nervous watchfulness he's a modern-day everyman who personifies and magnifies the anxiety all around, should you care to look.

Dom Hemingway by Richard Shepard.
Losing his gorgeousness has given Jude Law a second life and freed him as an actor. In Dom he's got a hairline going south, a gut and a Cockney accent you could eat with a spoon. Dom doesn't so much begin, as explode with Law's obscene aria about his manhood, almost Shakespearean in its word-smithery, with a generous dollop of Henry Miller. "Is my cock exquisite? It should hang at the Louvre, it's hard, it's titanium, it can stand all day my cheetah cock," etc. This goes on for about ten minutes before a cutaway to reveal the circumstances inspiring his rant. What could beat such an opening?

Using title cards such as "12 Years in Prison is a Long Time" and "Father of the Year" to mark scenes, Shepard then follows Dom, a master safe-cracker, as he's sprung from jail and sets out with sidekick Richard Curtis to settle accounts with a Rumanian playboy (Demian Bichir, a hoot) and claim the stash he was promised for not ratting him out. The décor of Bichir's country hideaway, both trendy and monstrous, is LOL funny.

From there it's a picaresque about Dom's rotten luck post prison -- much of it brought on by his hair-trigger temper; "I worked on my anger issues in prison" -- and his longing to be reconciled with the grown daughter (Emilia Clarke) he neglected for 12 years. The story is the least of this film -- really it's a rather insidery riff on the British gangster genre and an occasion for Law to run with an outrageous and hilarious mo fo in a genre not short on them. Fox Searchlight, with its good nose for off-beat fare, will open the film here in April.

 
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