Montreal World Film Festival, 2000
Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman chose to hold their Under Suspicion press conference at 10 PM, at the exact same time that the film was being screened ("Oh, those American movie stars!" said an exasperated Quebec publicist).Chinese actress Gong Li almost missed a much-anticipated Gong tribute, arriving at the last minute because of visa problems. Film-star headaches aside, the 24th Montreal World Film Festival earlier this month was a rather decent one, including some important North American premieres.
For one: from Poland, The Big Animal, directed by and starring the late Krzysztof Kieslowski's friend and oft-used actor, Jerzy Stuhr (White), who adapted the story from an incomplete Kieslowski script. The Big Animal is a walking, talking James Thurber fantasy cartoon. A middle-aged couple look out their dining room window and see a camel on their front yard. The delighted man (Stuhr) adopts the camel, taking it for strolls as if it were a family dog. Soon, he runs into resistance from disapproving neighbors and the town bureaucracry, who want the benign camel to disappear. An allegory about conformity, about the rejection of The Other? Or simply a Kieslowski romp? Whatever, The Big Animal is an arthouse crowdpleaser, sure to get American distribution.
In Competition: Denis Villeneuve's Maelstrom, much applauded by a hometown Montreal audience, the first Quebec-produced film in years to create a genuine "buzz." It's a tale told by a talking fish (built by the Canadians who do David Cronenberg's surreal creations), about a life-screwed-up young Montrealer (dashing Marie-Josee Croze) who, after accidentally running over an old man, finds herself falling in love with the old guy's son, who has no idea she's the murderer. The romance is strangely winning, and the characters float in and out of water in an appealingly mythic way. Will we see Maelstrom in Boston? American distributors are loath to take on Canadian films, especially in French, but this one has "cult" trappings, and appeal to twenty-somethings.
The biggest disappointment for me: David Mamet's State and Main, an intentional throwback to Kauffman-Hart plays of the 1930s and 1940s, The Man Who Came to Dinner-type entertainment. This one's very thin, complacently acted by several of our best thespians (Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy), and underwritten by Mamet. There are too many one-liners that don't work, elaborate joke set-ups which aren't carried to punch-lines. The plot: a movie company takes over a New Hampshire town (actually, Manchester-by-the-Sea) after they've had to leave their previous place of shooting. The problem is that the leading man (a funny Alex Baldwin) has a propensity for under-aged girls. "Everybody's got a hobby," is how he rationalizes it.
Macy plays the film's director, Julia Stiles the new jailbait temptation for Baldwin, and Hoffman the screenwriter, who finds himself falling in love (a lack-of-chemistry coupling) with Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet's wife), the local bookseller.
I might mention that other American critics at Montreal thought that State and Main was dandy and extremely humorous. (Sigh!) Yet all agreed: Pidgeon's nice-girl part was much too much on screen.
My surprise pleasure at Montreal was the offputting-sounding The Lifestyle: Group Sex in the Suburbs, a documentary about committed swingers made by David Schisgall, a one-time undergraduate film student at Harvard University ("Alfred Guzzetti's intense, quiet devotion to the highest form of cinema, documentary, gave me my calling.").Then he put in crazy years of dues working in Cambridge as Errol Morris's assistant, including, he admitted to me, entering Fred Leuchter's house and coming away with the at-Auschwitz tape which is the horrendous centerpiece of Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
Shooting The Lifestyle, Shisgall, 32, said, "I was immediately engaged in an Oedipal struggle with Errol, attempting to make an X-rated Gates of Heaven." Schisgall's lower-middle-class, white-and-overaged swingers are not far afield from Gates of Heaven's blue-haired pet-cemetery people. "It's the same self-created utopian vision which, to outsiders seems, at best banal, but is beautiful from their prespective. Errol had fully covered death. I covered sex, what's left."
But group sex has kept The Lifestyle out of Boston, so far, though the film has had successful runs in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles. Schisgall said: "One Boston exhibitor said my film was 'disgusting.' It would be a great personal disaster not screening in Boston, but there's a 400-year-tradition of avoiding cutting-edge portraits of sex."
Meanwhile, Shisgall is getting married September 23 in Cambridge to Eugenia Peretz, a writer for Vanity Fair. His connubial thoughts: "My movie shows swingers who teach you that a good marriage shouldn't inhibit you, but open both people to new experiences and incredible adventures they could never have as individuals."