A characteristically masterful welter of bad vibrations, Atom Egoyan’s Adoration finds the director back in Canadian Traumaland after his Hollywood sojourn in Where the Truth Lies. Keyed to the characters’ sense of lingering grief, the narrative unfurls as a time-hopping maze of action and consequence—its deftness and delicacy shame Arriaga’s tawdry temporal gymnastics in The Burning Plain. A button-pushing essay by a high-schooler (Devon Bostick) gives the absence-riddled film its center: Turning an article about a failed terrorist plot into a faux-eulogy to his dead parents, the boy uncorks a reservoir of sorrow that brings together his uncle (a surprisingly excellent Scott Speedman), teacher (Egoyan axiom Arsinée Kanjian), and other members of the community. “Innocence is something hard to describe, like a scent that some of us carry,” Bostick reads before his drama class, and much of the characters’ dialogue carries the same unfortunate sophomore-composition tenor. Moody, gliding filmmaking and ripples of quizzical humor save it from being a lugubrious game of therapeutic musical chairs.
Four Nights with Anna is another answers-first-questions-later exercise, this time from long-absent Polish master Jerzy Skolimowski. No autumnal serenity for the septuagenarian auteur: The Poland he comes back to is a muddy patch of land churning with cigarette butts, severed hands and queasy pathos. The largely silent story follows the voyeuristic meanderings of a burly, stammering ex con (Artur Steranko) who takes to spying on the blond nurse (Kinga Preis) living across from his courtyard. When the woman passes out from the sleeping pills the protagonist has sneaked into her sugar cup, he enters her bedroom to paint her toenails, tidy up after a birthday bash, or clammily (if sexlessly) behold her spoilable paleness. Despite sardonic bits (“Just as you wanted, I’m seeing a woman,” Steranko tersely tells his grandmother’s grave), this is unrelieved dreariness that lacks the rounded shifts of Skolimowski’s splendid Deep End, a far richer work about a man’s obsession with a woman’s perceived purity.
To go from Four Nights with Anna to Agnès Varda’s The Beaches of Agnès is to emerge from a hothouse into fresh air. Basically a set of eccentric cine-installations, it reveals the veteran French New Waver as the youngest 80-year-old to ever unpack her life’s sundry mementos on the screen. The beaches of her childhood are Varda’s point of departure, though nostalgia is largely absent from her restless gaze; rather than lamenting times gone by, this likeably rambling essay celebrates their cumulative effect on a woman’s life and art. Photos, movie clips and assorted encounters are woven together, and by the end you’re faced with a world spacious enough to accommodate a hilariously camouflaged Chris Marker as well as Red Shoe Diaries maestro Zalman King. Playful and lucid, the film gives the heartening impression of endless hunger for people, experiences and images, of the camera’s privileged ability to capture lived life. Let Varda have the last word: “My mise-en-scène is my way of sharing my gratitude.”
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 4—September 13.