TIFF Reviews: An abandoned Montreal hospital, the real Agnès Varda, the Australian Outback & more

Our final dispatch from TIFF features reviews of Denis Côté’s Mademoiselle Kenopsia, Viva Varda!, Limbo and He Thought He Died.

The 2023 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival ran from Sept. 7 to 17.

Viva Varda!

Viva Varda! TIFF review
Viva Varda!

Agnès Varda is ever-present in her films, but now, in the absence of Varda, who died of breast cancer in 2019 at the age of 90, director Pierre-Henri Gibert gives us Viva Varda!, a portrait of the filmmaker through a collage of her own films and interviews, as well as interviews with her children and collaborators.

I was not expecting to be as moved as I was by the depiction of her romance with fellow filmmaker Jacques Demy, nor by her children’s incredible compassion and love for her, much as everyone finds their own way of saying she was a “control freak.”

We often talk about Varda the director, but interestingly, Gibert’s film focuses on Varda as a producer and marketer as well: Varda on the phone, hustling for money with a baby on her lap. He depicts Varda as more vulnerable than she allowed herself to be seen, and as a little meaner. The film is, if anything, a reminder of how many lifetimes she seemed to squeeze into one, how totally indefatigable she was.

The runtime is surprisingly short (67 minutes), considering the ground covered, but it’s worth noting that this was the only press screening I attended in which the crowd was moved to applaud. Maybe it was the mysteriously cheesy 30-second interlude that closed Viva Varda! but considering Varda’s own strange interludes, her ability to experiment, be sentimental and be strange, perhaps that wasn’t totally out of line. (Nora Rosenthal)

Viva Varda! does not currently have a release date.


Limbo TIFF review

Limbo by Ivan Sen plunges us into a place where the land seems suspended between day and night. The eternal wait for answers dives us deep into the scorched heart of the Australian Outback, particularly Coober Pedy, where an unrelenting sense of timelessness reflects the stagnation of justice for Indigenous communities.

Detective Travis Hurley, brought to life by a remarkably transformed Simon Baker (known from his portrait of Patrick Jane on The Mentalist) is a heroin-burdened tattooed cop who clearly mirrors an angel on Earth, sent to the fictional deserted mining town of Limbo to solve the case of a murdered Indigenous girl named Charlotte — two decades after her death. Hurley’s monotone presence stirs hope and doubt in her surviving family members, Emma and Charlie. Natasha Wanganeen and Rob Collins deliver poignant performances, embodying the enduring pain of a community abandoned by the system.

Sen’s masterful cinematography, drenched in stark black and white, almost invokes an auteur graphic novel or comic book style of framing and composition, transforming the Coober Pedy landscapes into a hauntingly beautiful yet desolate wasteland. Limbo is an immersive experience that underscores the film’s core theme: the failures of colonial law enforcement and the judicial system in serving Indigenous people. While excelling in creating an evocative atmosphere, it falters in pacing and conciseness, leaving viewers yearning for a quicker unravelling of the messy plot. The film’s themes of injustice, generational trauma and the redemptive power of human connection are at times obscured by a weak narrative that meanders like the arid plains it portrays. Sen doesn’t offer easy, if any, resolutions or tidy endings; instead, he challenges the audience to confront the wounds of history, the stagnation of the present and the lack of practical solutions for a potential future, leaving the audience in limbo.

This evocative outback noir crafts a bleak yet sometimes monotonous commentary on the enduring struggles of Indigenous communities and the weight of a history filled with problems, but still lacking solutions. (Chico Peres Smith)

Limbo does not currently have a release date.

Mademoiselle Kenopsia 

Mademoiselle Kenopsia TIFF review
Mademoiselle Kenopsia

Before the screening of Denis Côté’s latest film, Mademoiselle Kenopsia, the audience was presented with a short video message from the director. He’s recovering from a kidney transplant and sitting on a roof in Montreal. He points to the abandoned old Royal Victoria Hospital, where part of the film was shot. As Côté’s filmmaking varies from more experimental to more linear, this film reunites him with the brilliant Larissa Corriveau, who falls into the abstract. Corriveau plays the mysterious titular character who stands guard over an expansive space, the carefully stitched-together sum of several different institutional locations. We’re not sure why she’s there or cannot quite leave. She spends most of her time on the phone; she may or may not be speaking to someone on the other side.

The video of Côté explaining why he couldn’t attend the festival added a layer of understanding to the film’s hyper-focus on liminal spaces. It’s a long time before we see any human being. The camera is placed in empty spaces that, even occupied, represent in-between spaces. The passage of time, acutely felt in many of Côté’s films, including this one, takes on a different resonance when framed within the concept of waiting. Enduring this time spent also comes with a fear that you will transcend this process. Anxiety grows as the walls around you feel more claustrophobic. In a transformative emotional twist, the beguiling Mademoiselle Kenopsia doesn’t seem to mind her isolation. Though the presence of other human life in her liminal space excites her, she’s strangely upbeat despite her melancholy. The film leans into the transformative power of the in-between, offering a strangely hopeful, if not guarded, tone. (Justine Smith)

Mademoiselle Kenopsia will premiere in Montreal this fall at the RIDM festival.

He Thought He Died

He Thought He Died TIFF review
He Thought He Died

True to form, Isiah Medina’s latest film He Thought He Died can hardly be digested after just one viewing. Shot in Montreal, Toronto and Kingston, ON — primarily the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, which commissioned the film — He Thought He Died explores the nature of art and capital in the modern world. Medina’s experimental style favours repetition and a vague circular logic. Described as a heist, in the film, we watch as an artist paints his work and eventually tries to steal it back. The film, however, is not linear. It’s frequently interrupted by discussions about the nature of art itself. They are elliptical and heavy on theory, particularly the interaction of economics and artistic expression. It’s difficult not to make allusions to the fact that a gallery at least partially bankrolled this film. The film feels ripe with the tension that this is little more than an ad rather than a passion project.

The overall tone of He Thought He Died is resentment. The economy of the arts demands the artist part with their work, a process that robs it of its magic and mystery. Many of the most exciting discussions involve beauty’s importance (or lack thereof) and context. Does great art need context to be understood and appreciated? What about bad art, junk? One gets the sense that the filmmaker sees this particular work as being more junk than great: it’s rough around the edges aesthetically, and rather than see the world as full of potential, it seems to view the world (and itself) as vacuous and empty as it asks whether the artist has the right to destroy their work — one almost wonders if this movie has a built-in self-destruct button. It is a fascinating, if messy film that feels like an essential work within Medina’s filmmaking journey. (Justine Smith)

He Thought He Died does not currently have a release date.

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