With the quasi-comic horror trifle Twixt, Francis Ford Coppola joins the long list of narrative-conjurers to (mis)appropriate Edgar Allan Poe as a sober maestro of spook. A pallid, somber fictionalization of the author, played by Ben Chaplin, becomes Virgil to the Dante of Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer, looking likeably portly), a bargain-basement witch novelist who gets fittingly embroiled in a small-town murder mystery. Poe counsels Baltimore in the crisp, ghostly digital dream world he plummets into whenever slumbering or getting knocked out, reciting passages from “The Philosophy of Composition” with a syrupy colonial accent, and seeming perpetually ready to stare down an owl. We read this off-kilter avuncular-ness, which is so at odds with Poe’s legacy (would the man who wrote “The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq.” be so devoid of humor?) as a nod to Coppola’s own mentor, Roger Corman. And extrapolating on Corman’s own fondness for Poe’s thin macabre, we might understand Twixt as an awkward paean to hackwork, from “The Raven” to Spy Kids 3-D Game Over. (The film’s own 3D segment, to which we’re alerted by a monstrous pair of CGI glasses that non-diagetically enter the frame, is an easily collapsible parody).
Twixt is Coppola in grindhouse mode, from Bruce Dern’s cud-chewy performance as a possibly corrupt sheriff to the teen goth vampires, and proudly (anti-)sex symbols, that “threaten” the town from across a misty lake overtaken with fog (to riff on Baltimore’s wooden parlance). But the goofiness notwithstanding (Baltimore’s free-associative impressions while attempting to write an outline for a new novel are show-stoppingly impish), the fictive universe feels claustrophobic to the point of incestuous. The young dead girl that also lends Baltimore an oneiric hand in solving the whodunit makes one wonder whether Coppola wasn’t the sweaty one to explain the birds and the bees to Sofia with obligatorily cinematic metaphors, and the Napa Valley winery where the film was shot offers the cinematography the impression, if not the concrete recognition, of branding. I’m encouraged that auteur indulgence can be as diverse as that of the last three films Coppola has made. But where Youth Without Youth was an argument against has-beenism and Tetro a treatise defending an artist’s right to pretension, Twixt is an all-out affront to competency. Everyone forgets that Poe’s legacy has persevered because he was fun to read; hackwork is by definition contrivance, yes, but tightly wound contrivance.
Poe’s taste for fixing dramatic objects in set pieces, if not his garish thrills, is more ponderously approximated in the first great movie I’ve seen in Toronto: The Cat Vanishes. Directed by Argentine Carlos Sorin, a previous indexer of poetically foible-riddled humility, the film observes the slowly intensifying squirming of an academic’s wife. Beatriz (Beatriz Spelzini) is re-adjusting to “normal” life after her husband Luis’s (Luis Luque) professional jealousy-oriented mental breakdown, hospitalization, and subsequent recovery, but the subtly out of place quickly becomes reason for alarm; during Luis’s first day home, their typically loyal cat Donatello (black, of course) goes missing, and guests later remark that Luis has shed a great deal of his characteristic sarcasm through his cranial convalescence. From then on we inhabit Beatriz’s downward-spiraling perspective a la Gaslight or Safe, and watch domestic comforts convert to eerie threats in her eyes. (Luis slices salmon for sushi with steely, vacant determination, rearranges his disrupted library with herky-jerky violence, and carries to the curb oddly lumpy garbage bags.) The film’s ambiguity eventually and icily topples over into a definitive reference point of danger, but the action is ruthlessly internalized within Beatriz’s shadow of a doubt throughout the most nail-biting sequences. (Sorin, whose characters in The Window were painfully introspective, skillfully maximizes those few seconds between frisson and our subsequent questioning of why/how such innocuous sights and sounds can trigger fear.) Bearing in mind the brutal experience Beatriz undergoes before the film’s timeline even begins, The Cat Vanishes is an uncommonly post-traumatic thriller; what we’re witnessing are the fitful after-tremors of abuse that might be dismantling one woman’s self-calming mechanism for good.
Finally, “witnessing” somewhat describes our relationship to the on-screen interpersonal flailing of Lou Ye’s Love and Bruises, which depicts an acidic romance between Hua (Corinne Yam), a brainy Chinese ex-pat with a mottled past, and Mathieu (Tahar Rahim), a darkly brutish French man with a bad habit of testing his female counterparts’ desire to abandon him. The movie opens with two acts of violence from which it never quite regains composure: Hua gets bonked on the head by a bundle of steel girders Mathieu is carrying, then is violated by him—or, more accurately, given opportunity to fetish her powerlessness against his agency—after being taken out to an apology dinner. They hump throughout the implied, fissured storyline at a frequency that brings to mind Oshima and Bertolucci, but after the initial shock of the coitus’ frankness there’s nothing experimental here; their love-making gradually loses intimacy and expressiveness until, in la dernier fuck, Mathieu fumbles with his pants and loses his erection. (The handheld camera work likewise steadies itself from the opening, seasick churning into languid, occasionally even slow-motion, observance.) What we learn when the two aren’t carnally acquainting themselves with one another is by contrast intriguingly jagged: While a handful of weirdly abrupt, diversionary flashbacks suggest the depth of Mathieu’s self-esteem and Hua’s confused social priorities, other subplots occasionally bob to the surface with their own cheerfully incongruent clichés. (Mathieu, for example, does intermittent work for antique thieves, and Hua has an irascible Asian friend with a vague impotence.) But this array of premorse devices ultimately serves the central relationship’s unsustainability more expediently than a linear story, and the murmurs of ethnic identity crisis are too readily interpretable to weigh the film down with allegory. I might currently be the white, comparatively numb-skulled male counterpart in an interracial couple, but Love and Bruises riled from within me the desire to be embraced by my girlfriend’s womanhood rather than her east Asian-ness. Ye’s nimble non-profiling endows the “occidental rape of the east” trope with an achy-breaky universality.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8—18.