Report from Toronto International Film Festival - Day 7
6th Oct 08
Wednesday got off to a bad start - I overslept! Thus my ticket for the 9am public screening of Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker was wasted, a shame as her Iraq war actioner was getting a lot of positive buzz around the festival and had been the pick of the Screen International jury.
Yonge Street, Toronto
Just to compound matters further I didn't think to check the other morning screenings once I surfaced, thus missing a potential screening of Middle Of The Road, the new film from John Stockwell (Paradise Lost, Into The Blue). Instead I ended up doing a bit of sightseeing, ie. taking in some of the DVD shops along Yonge Street. On my morning travels I managed to pick up DVDís of The Babysitters (one of my favourites from last year's festival, still unreleased in the UK) plus secondhand copies of The Machine Girl and The Lost.
Vincent Cassel in Public Enemy Number One
So my first film of the day was not until early afternoon when Public Enemy Number One - Part One (aka Mesrine aka L'Instinct De Mort) was debuting. Having skipped the press screening of Sexykiller in order to see it, I just hoped that it was going to live up to my expectations - and thankfully I wasn't disappointed. Vincent Cassel plays notorious French gangster Jacques Mesrine whose criminal activities alleviated him to the status of 'public enemy number one' until he was gunned down in Paris in 1979.
Part One focuses on Mesrine's rise to power and his search for identity after a stint as a soldier in Algeria. Back in France he gets involved with ruthless crime boss Guido (Gerard Depardieu) and goes on the lam with Jeanne (Cecile de France - Switchblade Romance), his lover and partner in crime during his early years.
A hugely ambitious project from director Jean-Francois Richet (who gave us the Assault On Precinct 13 remake) with both parts filmed concurrently over a nine month shoot, it's no surprise to hear comparisons to Scarface and The Godfather being banded about. And rightly so; part biopic, part thriller, this is the best crime film I have seen in years, a supreme character piece with some stunning set pieces. Richet's direction is bold and assured with a great visual style, matched by performers acting at the top of their game. Cassel, always a huge presence on screen, really makes the role of Mesrine his own having gained 45 pounds for the part and he delivers a career defining performance here showing all the complexities of the character. Part Two which sees Mesrine cultivating his own legend cannot come soon enough.
A quick break and then I joined Todd for The Ghost, a Russian thriller starring Konstantin Khabensky who viewers will know as Anton from Timur Bekmambetov's films Night Watch and Day Watch. Khabensky plays another Anton here, a pulp crime novelist suffering from writer's block. Desperately seeking inspiration from somewhere he strikes up a tentative friendship with a hired assassin nicknamed The Ghost (Vladimir Mashkov) who agrees to advise the writer on how he'd prepare to make a hit on a target. Needless to say the hitman has an agenda of his own which soon places Anton right in the firing line...
My overriding reaction to The Ghost is that it would be perfect fodder for a Hollywood remake. That's meant as a backhanded compliment however, as it's exactly the kind of film that would join the ranks of such forgettable thrillers as Taking Lives or anything starring Ashley Judd - a solid enough idea but with no original twists along the way. What's most disappointing about the film however is its lack of any real drama or drive, it just feels flat and ponderous; considerably less than the advertised 144 minutes, it still felt bloated and overlong. Director Karen Oganesyan does a competent job but there's no flair to the visuals, and compared to the work of some of his peers I was left feeling underwhelmed.
With Morjana Alaoui at the Martyrs premiere
After a bite to eat and a little online work it was time to prepare for the evening's Midnight Madness presentation - Martyrs. I'd already seen Pascal Laugier's highly controversial French shocker at FrightFest the week before so I knew what to expect and I was looking forward to comparing the reactions from the Toronto audience. It was nice catching up with Pascal again outside the Ryerson and I was delighted to discover that both Morjana Alaoui and Mylene Jampanoi - the two leads in the film - were also in attendance for the premiere and subsequent Q&A, so I fully took the opportunity to get some snaps and congratulate both of them on their performances in the film.
Mylene Jampanoi in Martyrs
Martyrs opens with a shot of a very young girl, battered and near naked, running for her life. This is Lucie and we're told that was held captive for weeks in an old slaughterhouse although she can't say by whom or why. In hospital she befriends Anna, a victim of child abuse and the two become inseparable. Cut to fifteen years later and Lucie (Jampanoi) bursts into a family home, guns blazing, having supposedly recognised her captors from a newspaper article. Desperate and emotional she calls Anna (Alaoui) to the scene to help dispose of the bodies. But Lucie's ordeal is far from over as a mysterious naked ghoul lurks in the house stalking her every move.
The first half of Martyrs is all revenge flick, brutal, tense and incredibly violent. You'll work out the twist pretty quickly but then Laugier pulls the rug out from under your feet and the films shifts completely as the emphasis suddenly switches to Anna and her fate at the hands of some sinister new arrivals.
Pascal Laugier, Morjana Alaoui and Mylene Jampanoi at the Martyrs premiere
To say anymore about the film would ruin the surprise for those who haven't seen it, although I'm aware there's already much discussion of the film's raison d'etre on the internet. A film that largely focuses on violence towards young women, this is shocking - some would argue misogynistic - material, which can't fail to provoke a guttural reaction; indeed, at least one viewer lost their dinner during the more extreme scenes (lovingly caught on camera by Mitch) as also happened at the FrightFest screening. Yet Laugier offers a plausible reasoning for all of this in a stunning conclusion that lingers long in the memory.
Offering an alternative to just another serial-killer-of-the-week doesn't make Martyrs more 'worthy' or give it the moral high ground, but it does present something fresh and opens up the subject for discussion. Citing the film as the "anti-Funny Games", Martyrs has divided viewers right down the middle and generated much heated debate, some calling it one of the most important films of the decade, others branding it absolutely worthless. Having seen it twice now I'm firmly in the 'pro' camp; I think it's a bold, uncompromising, transgressive piece of cinema filled with beautiful haunting images that succeeds as a piece of pure horror but also engages the mind as well. With brave performances from Alaoui and Jampanoi plus nerve-shredding intensity from Laugier's direction, Martyrs is quite an experience - do see it for yourself if you get the chance and make up your own mind.
For more information on TIFF including the Midnight Madness blogs please visit www.tiff08.ca.