Restless: “Been to any good funerals lately?” Youth, beauty, and death have long been Gus Van Sant’s recurring motifs, but in this terminally whimsical tale of romance between morbid cuties, the elements don’t so much flow together into a stirring whole as coagulate into fatuous prettiness. A dreamy orphan (Henry Hopper, channeling Papa Dennis’s brooding ’50s period) and an ailing gamine (Mia Wasikowska, taking the obligatory spin in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl carousel) are the teens flirting with the Reaper, meeting cute at a funeral and cementing their love by visiting morgues, drawing critters at the cemetery, and laying down on chalk outlines. Along for the ride is the affable ghost of a WWII Japanese kamikaze pilot (Ryô Kase), always ready to drop earnest bromides (“Death is easy. Love is hard”) while on the soundtrack Danny Elfman unloads music box after music box of goo. Working with a warm if pasteurized visual palette, Van Sant gives free rein to his Romantic side, lending the characters an anachronistically intense yearning that hints that they’re in limbo not just between spiritual states, but between centuries. The results are not without drifting specks of poetry, but mostly suggest a fuzzy remake of Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer starring the cast of Twilight.
This Is Not a Film: Talking on the phone in between bites at breakfast, Jafar Panahi in the opening scene nonchalantly refers to his situation—a director waiting at home for news of his upcoming prison sentence and ban from filmmaking—as being “stuck in a problem.” The wry understatement of the moment is typical of the impassioned fortitude, rich humor, and deceptive simplicity of this one-of-a-kind work, filmed with a digital video camera and a cellphone by the Iranian auteur—with the help of documentarian friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb—and famously sneaked out of the country hidden inside a cake. As Panahi paces around his Tehran home, feeds his daughter’s pet iguana, analyzes DVDs of his films, and reads from—and acts all the parts of—his last screenplay, the film grows from a mere first-person diary into a portrait of absences gradually filled, a Kafkaesque comedy of anxiety, a procession of unstressed yet sublime visual metaphors, and a master class on the relationship between subject and camera lens. Displaying a profound understanding of off-screen space and real time, this micro-scaled masterpiece tempers its despair with an unwavering sense of hope (optimism, even) that makes Panahi’s artistry all the more heartening and his imprisonment all the more infuriating.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8—18.