The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: Bound to get the lion’s share of media attention, Heath Ledger in his final (uncompleted) role is actually just one of the copious phantasmagoric elements in Terry Gilliam’s impassioned farrago. Troubled productions are nothing new to the director, but Gilliam forges ahead and gets his Fellini freak on as soon as a rickety caravan of saltimbanques materializes to regale modern-day night clubbers. A millenniums-old fabulist cursed by immortality, Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is not only the new incarnation of Gilliam’s obsession with addled visionaries, but also his most personal examination of artistic endurance, from the Faustian deals struck for survival to the melancholy of spinning yarns to increasingly jaded audiences. A character’s carny pitch (“Do you dream?”) becomes the director’s inquiry, ringing throughout as both question and invitation. Cluttered with shifting CG canvases, Monty Pythonish revues, and cameos patching up Ledger’s absence, the film’s sideshow illusionism is often ungainly but rarely less than deeply felt.
Face: Following in the footsteps of Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon, Tsai Ming-liang comes to Paris and makes it his. Like Doctor Parnassus, it’s a memory film largely composed of mementos—pet themes and images—from the auteur’s past, fragmented and bluntly personal. The crux is the filming of the Salome story presided over by a Truffaut-worshipping director (Lee Kang-sheng), overseen by a frazzled producer (Fanny Ardant), and starring a befuddled old-timer (Jean-Pierre Léaud). A matriarch expires in an apartment flooded by a wayward faucet, an actor falls asleep and the snowy set is suddenly stacked with mirrors and chorines, the starlet (Laetitia Costa) who had previously stared sullenly at the camera winks and bobs and lip-synchs to a sugary Chinese song. Filming in the Louvre, Tsai finds a haunted house: People appear as reflections on glass panes or encircled by darkness, Truffaut’s muses (Ardant, Jeanne Moreau, Nathalie Baye) are like visiting apparitions. Nothing connects, but much of it ravishes.
Police, Adjective: Leave it for the Romanian New Wavers to turn the act of leafing through a dictionary into one of the year’s most riveting cinematic moments. Corneliu Porumboiu’s great moral inquiry (disguised as a dreary police procedural) swiftly and unobtrusively sketches a Kafkaesque cosmos by simply following its protagonist, a young cop (Dragos Bucur), from the overcast streets of Bucharest to the phosphorescent greens of his cramped office. Investigating a minor case of pot-smoking high schoolers with increasing reluctance, the drudging hero gradually grows engaged in the interpretation of the moral signs and meanings around him, whether irritably debating a song’s symbolism with his girlfriend, scrambling to rush a computer report from an uncooperative co-worker, or humoring a petty tyrant of a police captain’s impromptu semantics lesson. Not just a wry portrait of the clash between changing attitudes and rigid laws, but also a call for active consciousness in life and in cinema.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 10—19.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.