The (almost entirely) digital edition of the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma runs through Oct. 31. See our FNC 2020 program highlights here.
Much of the first half of Topside takes place in New York City’s subway tunnels. In a makeshift encampment, Nikki (Celine Held) and her daughter Little (Zhaila Farmer) live and survive in the tunnel. At first, the film’s Hollywood glow feels off-putting. Yet, ironically, this technique ends up working remarkably well. Gradually, we come to glean that Topside is not a romantic portrayal of underground life but a stark and dark one. The artifice of its presentation brings us into the perspective of five-year-old Little, who only feels beauty and wonderment and love in this underworld kingdom. After a forced eviction, though, mother and daughter are forced upside on a cold winter’s day. The open world, filled with uncertainty and danger, portends doom and an end to mother and daughter’s close relationship.
Topside achieves its success by offering an empathetic and non-judgmental view of living on the streets. Despite its rosy glow, especially early on, the film’s world is populated by characters whose motives are ambiguous. Little, who remains innocent, sees the world as full of potential and kindness. Nikki, hardened and paranoid, sees the dark edge of every motivated action and reaction. This tension in points of view lends the film a deep sense of dread and only drives home the central relationship’s closeness. It’s a ruthless and often difficult to watch film, which keeps its more vulnerable moments off-screen. All around, the film is rooted deeply in naturalistic powerhouse performances from the entire cast. (Justine Smith)
Though ostensibly a sequel to 2014’s The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq (in which the famed French author plays himself as — you guessed it — the hapless target of a kidnapping), Guillaume Nicloux’s Thalasso is very much in the tradition of much of Nicloux’s work: conceptually daring, narratively poky and heavily inside-jokey, which is likely a turn-off for many. Houellebecq returns as himself, a chain-smoking, wine-swilling author with skeletal features and a perpetually dazed outlook on life. For reasons that aren’t too clear, Houellebecq signs himself into a luxury spa for treatment, a practice that he seems to openly despise (doubly so when the maitre’d explains to him that he cannot have his customary bottle of wine with each meal). Soon after his arrival, Houellebecq stumbles upon Gérard Depardieu, a spa fanatic who nevertheless shares Houellebecq’s distaste for the rules and has stashed rillettes and several bottles of wine in his room.
If there’s a narrative throughline to Thalasso, it’s that the mother of one of Houellebecq’s kidnappers has gone missing, and he and his buddies must track down Houellebecq to see if he has any information on her whereabouts. Most of Thalasso, however, is just these two ageing, out-of-shape Frenchmen (some of the Frenchest Frenchmen that have ever frenched, in fact) sitting around in bathrobes complaining, pontificating and talking about their dicks. Perhaps surprisingly, their peculiar charisma and the film’s quasi-lethargic rhythm manages to squeeze out quite a few laughs. As always with Nicloux’s work, it presents an irresistible premise that is, over time, revealed to be not quite enough to hang an entire movie on successfully, but I sure am glad that this exists anyway. (Alex Rose)
While running at nearly two and a half hours, Dau.Natasha is just one part of a much larger series. For the past 15 years, directors Ilya Khrzhanovskiy and Jekaterina Oertel have been working on the multidisciplinary Dau project, which was first released last year. More than just a film project, it became a 24/7 experience where artists, scientists, hairdressers, etc. lived on Europe’s largest film set, recreating the experience of living and working in 1950s Soviet Russia, in particular, a secret government project intended to create the perfect human and perfect society.
Dau.Natasha is one of 14 films to come from the project, and it is focused on an unmarried woman working at the facility’s canteen. Set over just a few days, much of the film is devoted to her drunken escapades, particularly with her younger assistant. After hours, the pair gets drunk and gets into arguments as they discuss romantic aspirations and the hopelessness of their situation. One night, though, Natasha hooks up with a scientist who has recently arrived from France. The film operates in intimate long-shots, most of which are shot with a surveilling hand-held camera that follows its performers around the space. Natasha then deals with the horrific consequences of being accused of colluding with a foreign agent. She is subjected to horrific torture that is difficult to watch for its brutality and mundane aura.
Even as a standalone film, Dau.Natasha borders on being a masterpiece, so it will be interesting to see how it works as a part of the larger project as the other films and series have yet to be shown in and around Montreal. (JS)
Sin la Habana
There are very few universal experiences, but you would be forgiven for thinking that “lying and seducing someone in order to obtain a green card for you and your partner” is something that happens to most immigrants if you attend a lot of film festivals. It’s not Montreal director Kaveh Nabatian’s fault that the story his film tells is so familiar — it is something that happens a lot, after all, and there’s something automatically compelling about the tragic nature of such an arrangement — but I’ve seen variations on this for what feels like every year since I’ve been doing this job.
Leonardo (Yonah Acosta) is a young Cuban ballet dancer whose tempestuous personality has made it hard for him to progress in the (rather limited, it seems) Cuban ballet world; his girlfriend Sara (Evelyn O’Farrill) is a lawyer who hopes that she could get out of Cuba to really spread her professional wings. Together, the lovers devise a plan: Leonardo is going to seduce a North American woman, follow her back home, put his roots down in North American society and bring Sara over. Leonardo sets his sights on Nasim (Aki Yaghoubi), a Iranian Montrealer who soon makes him a part of her life. As Leonardo struggles to acclimate to Montreal, a love triangle grows unbeknownst to Nasim, who has her own ideas about how to spin this particular twist in her life.
Nabatian shoots with a lot of fire and passion, a film in which the characters seem to be sealed in deliberate hermetic bubbles (there are, in fact, no white people with dialogue — not a single one — in the entire film) that nevertheless conveys a wealth of emotions under surface appearances. Unfortunately, it’s such an endlessly familiar story that it’s impossible to truly be engrossed in what the characters are living. We’ve seen it so often that we can’t help but see every development coming. (AR)
For the complete FNC 2020 program, please visit the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma website.
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