Besides offering a smackdown of corporate culture, this year's Toronto Film Festival also offers an impressive number of films by women. A partial list includes Bright Star by Jane Campion, An Education by Lone Scherfig, Vision by Margarethe von Trotta, The Vintner's Luck by Niki Caro, and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee by Rebecca Miller. Already, there's Oscar buzz surrounding Campion's film, as well as Education star Carey Mulligan.
My favorite from women filmmakers so far is Campion's Bright Star, a cinematic tone poem about the love between poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and girl next door Fanny Brawne (Abby Cornish). The film's visuals and sensibility are so exquisite, they flirt with the sublime. And though a period piece, Star bears no trace of Merchant Ivory or Masterpiece Theater. Campion has conceived the film as a series of stanzas in a poem, separated by fades to black. There's little plot beyond the couple's escalating intimacy, though Fanny has more of an arc, evolving from flirtatious minx, as Keats calls her, to a woman whose passion for the poet embraces his work.
To judge by all the figures bathed from the left in a light source, Campion has looked at a lot of Vermeer. In fact, the film is light-besotted, conveying a couple's longing through the whites of winter, the pales of morning, doomy dusks, the tender glow of spring. Campion has chosen a risky path here and largely succeeded, in a film that is decidedly feminine in its delicate power.
As luck would have it, at the screening I attended the film unspooled upside down at the climactic moment, the actors speaking in what sounded like Icelandic. The folks behind the projector must have been texting or something and only the hoots from the audience halted the screening. I'll happily see the film again. I hear the ending is the loveliest part of all.
At the start of Vision, a bio pic about a medieval German nun by feminist auteur Margarethe von Trotta, the guys sitting to either side of me dove into their BlackBerries. I myself was not too thrilled to spend two hours in the Dark Ages, but I was quickly grabbed by the remarkable story of Benedictine Hildegarde von Bingen (the great Barbara Sukowa), a scientist, healer, author and visionary who was a Renaissance woman before the Renaissance.
Insisting she has a direct line to God, Hildegarde risks incurring the dangerous anger of church elders, who think of her as the tool of the devil and excellent tinder for the stake. The more her enemies attempt to thwart her plans to establish her own cloister, the more radical she becomes, Sukowa's sapphire eyes sparkling with mischief and defiance. Reversing the stereotype of the female disciple, Hildegarde's sidekick is a loyal monk. Though von Trotta focuses on a medieval cloister, her film speaks to communities of women everywhere.
Another gift brought by this year's crop of women-centered films is the expanded notion of feminine beauty. Close-ups of the youthful perfection of Carey Mulligan in Education and Abby Cornish in Star contrast with the more seasoned beauty of Barbara Sukowa in Vision. I know, it's politically correct to say middle-aged Sukowa's face has more character. But in fact, she is also, quite simply, more radiantly beautiful than the others.