My 9th day at TIFF brought two foreign directors with new English language films. Paolo Sorrentino, an Italian filmmaker behind the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty, has a movie already getting awards season buzz for Michael Caine. It’s really lame. However, Joachim Trier’s follow-up to his powerfully meditative Norwegian film, Oslo, August 31st, has been received with mixed reviews. I loved it.
Youth (5/10) is visually rapturous but boringly stoic. The storytelling is so loose it would make your pants fall if it were a belt. With pompous sequences that may as well yell, “metaphor alert,” the problem isn’t so much that Youth lacks subtlety but meaning. The film is artfully shot but dramatically it’s about as honest and clichéd as A Walk In The Woods, which startlingly, it shares many similarities.
Both are about two men blabbing while venturing on a journey to find purpose and inspiration. They talk about their uncertain future and their past escapades with women, but where A Walk In The Woods was about a travel writer and an on-the-run convict, Youth centers on a great director and a renowned British composer. Their dialogue is more poetic but their discussions are equally puerile.
Fred (an overrated Michael Caine) is a cynical and aging composer who spends most of his time lounging and talking: anything to accomplish nothing. A rocky relationship with his daughter and an unwillingness to compose or conduct again, Fred is in need of a new perspective and revitalization. In a stunningly situated resort for elite actors, businessmen and artists, Fred spends his time getting routine check-ups and having juvenile discussions with Mick (Harvey Keitel), who is an American filmmaker writing an ending for the screenplay that will be his final masterpiece.
If Sorrentino thought Youth was his, he’s greatly mistaken. Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), is going through a divorce with Mick’s son; a boy is being taught by Fred to play the violin; an actor (Paul Dano) famous for a phoned-in performance as a robot struggles to find purpose; a mountain climber pursues Lena: after two acts of relatively enjoyable middle-brow banter, the film struggles to come find an ending to tie all of its subplots together. Where the beginning revels in a loose comedic structure, the final act contrives a sappy ending where every character, every conflict and every theme is half-baked. If it were chicken, you’d vomit all its undercooked ingredients.
Emphasizing its art house influences, Joahim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs (9/10) is a familiar story told with surprising complexity and thoughtfulness. It’s the rare domestic drama with restraint and respect. Although its plotting may feel like it meanders, I’m not sure the film could be tighter thematically.
A few years after a war photographer’s death in a car crash, her husband, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), and two sons, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad, have to reopen old wounds when a retrospective of her work is being held at an art gallery. Jonah leaves his wife and new-born daughter to return home and sort through his mother’s leftover belongings while Gene frets over his younger son who spends a lot of time alone playing video games. Like Youth, Louder Than Bomb’s premise feels overly familiar, and yet there has never been a film quite like it.
Photography is used as a central metaphor for the film’s structure. Just like how a photographs meaning can be altered by framing and depth of field, so too can these three men’s memories and feelings offer a unique perspective on their wife or mother. A portrait of grief and memory from different perspectives, Louder Than Bombs is always on the verge of exploding. But with quiet complexity, Trier undercuts any melodramatic trappings, and instead, meticulously uses voiceover and flashbacks to tell us more about the individuals who are reminiscing, than the person who is being reminisced.
True to their foreign roots, both filmmakers have concocted Euro-American cocktails that mix conventions from mainstream Hollywood and their international art house roots. One packages Hollywood escapism in an arty aesthetic but the other subverts its formulaic set-up. True to their titles, one is juvenile while the other’s poignancy is as explosive as a bomb.
Tomorrow: Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, Mr. Right, Beasts Of No Nation