Female Directors at TIFF 2011 Roundup: Lynn Shelton Prevails While Madonna, Julia Leigh, and Mary Harron Falter

Female Directors at TIFF 2011 Roundup: Lynn Shelton Prevails While Madonna, Julia Leigh, and Mary Harron Falter

Sep 19, 2011

This roundup is in addition to full TIFF 2011 reviews of Tanya Wexler's Hysteria, Jennifer Westfeldt's Friends with Kids, Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights, Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz, and discussion of Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk about Kevin in Girls on Film.

Emily Blunt and Rosmarie DeWitt in Your Sister's Sister

Your Sister's Sister

Your Sister's Sister is simple, but not in any reductive way. Much like her breakout hit Humpday, director Lynn Shelton takes a wacky premise and infuses it with so much warm reality that it becomes real and everyday, simple and heartfelt. This is the sort of film that a summary can never properly capture, where the magic comes from how characters play off each other rather than any intricacies of plot.

Jack (Mark Duplass) is in a bad place. His brother died a year ago and he can't get over it -- he can't interact with his friends without unleashing a torrent of jerky snark, and he's jobless, unable to properly focus and move on with his life. In an attempt to help out, his best friend Iris (Emily Blunt) sends him to her family's cottage to unwind, regroup, and give himself a mental tidy. But she doesn't realize that her sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) is already there, hiding out after leaving her long-term girlfriend. Both Jack and Hannah are feeling melancholic, which leads them to drink too much, make some bad choices, and then try to hide them in the morning when Iris drives up.

Largely improvised, Your Sister's Sister thrives because it never feels scripted and always feels 100% human -- both in sadness and laughter. These aren't the super-stylized and charismatically catchy characters from other films. Jack, Iris, and Hannah are treated as real people who find themselves in a crazy scenario and do their best to deal with it in an authentic and genuine way. The actors pluck real reactions out of each other – an embarrassed blush or a bubbling laugh – and the interplay between them is presented with intimate close-ups without the Hollywood sheen. It's mumblecore verite -- you're not escaping to another world; you're walking straight into the cabin and watching the events unfold.

Shelton doesn't try to display the gorgeous landscape with some kind of untouchable beauty. Instead, she just lets the beauty of the moments speak for themselves – the flannel intimacy of two people drinking while alone in the woods, the crisp morning on a quiet lake, or the ups and downs of communal cooking. It's a perfect example of the vivaciousness that can live in real humor and real moments. It's sweet, but it's also as damn funny as it would be in real life.

still from W.E.


Madonna doesn't want us to think about her celebrity when we watch and discuss W.E., but it's impossible to do so. From the first moments of the film (let alone the title itself), it's obvious that Madonna feels a certain familiarity and kinship with her subjects, struggling to relay a sense of isolation and sadness. Unfortunately, she has no idea how to pull it off.

W.E. juxtaposes reality and fiction to tell two stories – the real world of Wallis Simpson as King Edward VIII fell madly in love with her and gave up the throne to be with her, and the fictional world of Wally, a young woman named after Ms. Simpson, who is utterly obsessed with her namesake's life and love. We see how the real Wally soon grew tired of her second husband and was pulled to the future king, just as we see the fictional Wally desperately trying to have a child with her cold and heartless husband. As Wally 1's world becomes increasingly problematic under the scrutiny of the entire world, Wally 2 finds herself spending every day at a display for an upcoming auction of Wally and Edward's belongings, daydreaming about Wally 1's life, and becoming increasingly drawn to an intelligent security guard watching the auction house.

The film is a litany of slick camera shots meant to be evocative and repetitively mundane and quiet moments meant to be contemplative, but none ever connect with the viewer. We never feel the passion Madonna has for Wally's story. It's just a bunch of rich people contemplating the turmoil of their lives and never really doing a damn thing to change any of it.

Emily Browning in Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty

Julia Leigh’s directorial debut starts off well. A meeting in a stark white laboratory offers a beautiful, thought-provoking metaphor for the sexual themes that litter the film. With each initial step, it seems as if Leigh will investigate how there can be danger and evil in socially accepted norms and some semblance of comfort or care in the unaccepted fringe. Medical research battles with sex work, roommate drama battles with high-class pimps. But these intriguing interpersonal dynamics and possible complexities soon fade away into a film without focus, as if an intriguingly acidic and thoughtful premise was nullified with a base of cinematic listlessness.

Emily Browning stars as Lucy, a seemingly schizophrenic woman who fills her days working every job from research guinea pig to copy girl to escort to student, but doesn’t seem to care any of it. Her family life is problematic at best and her only friend seems to be an agoraphobic alcoholic. Her white skin and demeanor soon land her a job with a posh, manners-laden madam, and the rest of her life becomes second-fiddle as she works her way up the “company” ladder. First it’s silver service with a naked, sadist twist – women acting as servers, sculptures, artwork, and tittilaters to older, rich men and women. Soon, she’s promoted and becomes a modern sleeping beauty, drugged and lying in wait for men to do things to her without ever knowing who they are or what they do. Her only comfort – there should be no scarring or penetration because her “vagina is a temple.”

The film both holds back and tells too much and ultimately rests as a problematic treatment of the theme, much like Browning’s last film, the uber-flawed Sucker Punch. Browning, once again, does what she can with the material but is limited by both films’ problematic storytelling and stunted characterizations, where ego trumps connection. It's beautiful, but lacking.

Note: This is Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties (also made into an American play and 2006 film), where old men “who could no longer use women as women” come to lie and rest next to sleeping girls, but is now told from the Beauty’s perspective. Strangely, however, there’s no credit given to Kawabata’s short story though the similarities are striking.

Sarah Bolger in The Moth Diaries

The Moth Diaries

As much as we're experiencing vampire burn-out, the thought of Mary Harron tackling the topic at an all-girl boarding school seems like a sweet treat. This is the woman who made sense of madness, who gave new life to a Huey Lewis-loving serial killer, and gave context to Bettie Page. But for her fourth feature, Harron loses it. Completely.

The film stars Sarah Bolger as Rebecca, a girl mourning the loss of her poet father. Her only comfort and source of hope is the presence of her best friend (Torontonian actress Sarah Gadon, also in A Dangerous Method). Lucie means everything to Rebecca, so naturally, the girl's entire world begins to crumble when Lucie befriends the mysterious new girl Ernessa (Lily Cole). Rebecca is jealous and wary of the new competition, and her snarky comments about Ernessa creates a distance between herself and Lucie, which she can't seem to repair.

We might care about Rebecca's plight -- some of her friends are dying and Ernessa acts quite strangely -- but Harron doesn't seem to want the audience to feel for her. At every turn, Rebecca is griping in loneliness. She fills her diary with rants about Ernessa, she complains to friends and teachers, and she does so with nothing more than vague hunches -- it seems much more likely that the sinister happenings are imagined by her own inner turmoil. She's so self-absorbed and clingy that when Ernessa's actions really become problematic, Rebecca is already set up as the unlikable villain.

What is fascinating, however, is how much it mirrors Twilight -- not as its antithesis, but as its awkward partner. The all-girl boarding school removes the overt romantic triangle, but it's replaced with a pile of lesbian subtext and overtly triangular dynamics. In both films the girls head to school and say goodbye to their off-kilter moms, they live against the lush landscape of nature, they speak in awkward voice-overs, and become dangerously emotional when faced with loss. In fact, as much as Rebecca acts out against Ernessa, Bella starts to seem like the real heroine. One faces the darkness and makes the value call, while the other just wishes for the demise of the girl who stole her best friend. And ultimately, both lather in adolescent angst more than two girls ever should.

Between moth and vampire diaries and blunt-toothed bloodsuckers, it's time to give the vampires a break and let them regroup after all this teenaged turmoil.

Categories: Reviews, Film Festivals
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