Potiche: More like Pastiche. Back in kitschy-feminist 8 Women mode, François Ozon channels Jacques Demy (pink umbrellas and all) for this plush hymn to the fabulosity of all things Catherine Deneuve. The campy tone is set in the opening sequence, as French cinema’s knowing empress is introduced in a jogging tracksuit and tasteful curlers, cooing at fawns and winking at squirrels. It’s 1977 and she plays the docile wife of a right-wing, openly unfaithful industrialist (Fabrice Luchini). When her husband is hospitalized after a clash with striking workers, she dons her best pearls and furs and heads out to run the factory with her adult children, reactionary Papa’s girl Judith Godrèche and queer-eyed artist Jeremy Renier. Though larded with lines like “Paternalism is dead” and “The personal is political,” Ozon’s romp is less interested in charting a bourgeois wife’s private revolution than in doting on feathery coifs, split-screens, and geometric wallpaper. Deneuve does plenty of elegantly funny swanning, and works up iconic poignancy with Gérard Depardieu (as her unionist-turned-mayor ex-lover). It feels churlish to carp when a star is having so much fun, though I wish the material didn’t play like a Gallic remake of Mamma Mia!
Essential Killing: Continuing his overdue return to filmmaking after a 20-year hiatus, Jerzy Skolimowski follows Four Nights with Anna with this relentless art-house actioner. Eyes flashing from behind matted hair and beard, Vincent Gallo is first spotted as a creature trembling in the shadows, a Taliban fighter who turns his rocket launcher on the U.S. Army wisecrackers who’ve unwittingly cornered him in the desert. Caught, shorn, waterboarded, and shackled, he’s taken from unspecified Middle Eastern rocky crevasses to unspecified European gelid expanses, where an accident leaves him lost in the wilderness, haunted by visions and determined to survive at all costs. Employing Olympian helicopter shots as much as grueling, near-subjective close-ups, Skolimowski crafts an indelible sense of dislocation and inhospitable terrain (trees crush, chainsaws scream, traps snap from beneath the soft snow); denied his trademark whine in an entirely wordless role, Gallo gives a purely physical performance that, in the picture’s pockmarks of baleful humor, has something of a silent clown’s wariness. Arguably the most abstract chase film since Joseph Losey’s Figures in the Landscape, this is a furious, pared-down parable enriched by the Polish director’s sardonic understanding of man’s desperation forever alternating between prey and predator.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams: Only Werner Herzog would have thought of applying 3D technology to ancient rock walls, and, furthermore, made them more beguiling than all the galaxy’s giant blue felines. Located in southern France and estimated to be more than 30,000 years old, the Chauvet Cave is, in the words of the German cine-explorer, “a frozen flash of a moment of time,” and possibly the cradle of “humanness.” As Herzog and his small crew follow a group of scientists inside, their cameras catch glimpses of vast crystal formations, sloping passageways, and miraculously pristine wall paintings, preserved like Paleolithic stained glass. Back on the surface, the director talks with an archeologist who’s digitally recreating the cave and its dwellers in his computer, and asks: “But do we know if they dream? Whether they cry at night?” The title might apply to that other sacred altar, the movie theater, and, indeed, Herzog works in a reference to the “proto-cinema” of the ancient drawings of overlapping bison, suggesting the earliest roots of the art of figures moving on blank screens. Rhapsodic, eye-filling, a bit overlong but with a grand punchline involving radioactive albino crocodiles.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9—19.