It was the fifth day of the Toronto International Film Festival, just before a 3 p.m. screening of a new Johnnie To movie, when the stranger stopped dead in front of me. Having returned to the darkened theater, where the lights were too low to read by and almost to see, he had entered the wrong row. “I can’t take it anymore,” he declared morosely, shaking his head. “This festival is killing my love of cinema.”
I felt for my befuddled stranger, lost in the dark and clutching a cup of megaplex coffee. It’s hard to know what and how to love when there are so many suitors. Now in its 32nd year, the Toronto festival has grown into an immense industrial happening, with 349 films from 55 countries. You may have already heard about some of these titles — “Atonement,” “Rendition,” “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” “Reservation Road” — the ones with the supernova stars and name directors who pop up in the next day’s news and then, in the months leading up to the Academy Awards, every media outlet imaginable. For many of these movies, Toronto is just the beginning of the end, the launch site for the seasonal red carpet bombing.
The movie that the lost man and I had come to see, “Mad Detective,” directed by Wai Ka- fai and the astonishingly prolific Mr. To, may not have restored anyone’s love of cinema, but it sent a jolt of energy through the audience, which laughed and twitched throughout this daft genre exercise. Even the credit sequence has its pleasures: to conjure up the mind-set of a murderer, the madman of the title repeatedly stabs a pig’s carcass, and then has himself zipped into a cloth suitcase and tossed down one flight of stairs after another. The ice cream man done it, he announces on tumbling free. Bullets, elegant mayhem and a homage to Orson Welles’s “Lady From Shanghai” follow amid circling cameras; bodies in fast, furious motion; and shattered film space.
“Mad Detective” isn’t Mr. To’s finest hour and a half; it just reaffirms his status as an action master. It’s also precisely the kind of movie that’s guaranteed to play at Toronto, which has long been a showcase for global genre cinema alongside rarefied art-house fare and prestige Hollywood product. Nothing if not democratic, the festival has now become big enough to be all things to all movie people. Here, jostling side by side with industry executives and nonprofessional enthusiasts, aesthetes and fan boys, journeymen journalists and bloggers, long- and short-lead critics can each carve out a festival to their own choosing, finding the movies that matter, if only for 89 minutes and their next column.
Among the films that made my festival were some that will open within the month, like Todd Haynes’s imaginative tour de force “I’m Not There,” a multiple-personality portrait of the artist formerly known as Bobby Zimmerman, as well as as a folkie, a sellout, a has-been and a born-again Christian. Other films, like “Happiness,” a touching South Korean melodrama from Hur Jin-ho about two lovers who meet at a hospice, may never make it into American theaters because it may not seem aesthetically daring or novel enough to warrant the risk. Non-martial arts Asian films generally don’t fare well at the American box office, even those that come with glowing reviews and that, like “Happiness,” cause an entire audience to break down audibly weeping.
Because the Toronto is so large and functions both as a preview for the fall studio season and as an international bazaar, with goods from Germany, Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia (the multinational provenance for the period epic “Mongol”), it affords an instructive view of the state of the American art and industry. More than any other major festival, Toronto makes clear the divide between those movies that matter aesthetically and intellectually — think the work of Hou Hsiao-hsien, the Dardenne brothers and Gus Van Sant — and those movies that matter largely because of their awards potential and the presumed interest to what remains of the discriminating, adult audience. Think “The Queen,” “Good Night, and Good Luck” and any number of films nominated for best picture in recent years.
These two subsets — the art cinema of Mr. Hou and the quality studio cinema of George Clooney, in Toronto with “Michael Clayton” — are dwarfed by big-studio trash like “Pirates of the Caribbean,” of course. But that’s another story. The story here, one as complex if more urgent, involves radical shifts in distribution and exhibition; the ever-escalating numbers of movies pouring into (and quickly out of) theaters; and the demise of the sort of movie love that once inspired cartoons in The New Yorker. This isn’t a story about the death of cinema or even of movie love, which is alive and excitably well at a blog near you. It’s about how the films that once thrilled a segment of the audience — Bergman, Antonioni — have become marginalia, increasingly obscure objects of cinephilic desire.
The truth is that if Antonioni were directing features today, there’s a good chance that his films would not be picked up for distribution in the United States. He would play the festival circuit. And, if he were lucky, he might sign a deal with IFC Films, which this year snapped up some of the best films at Cannes, some of which were also at Toronto and will also be in the New York Film Festival later this month, including Mr. Hou’s “Flight of the Red Balloon,” Mr. Van Sant’s “Paranoid Park” and Catherine Breillat’s “Vieille Maîtresse.” One of the best films I saw at Toronto — which showed in Berlin and is inexplicably missing from New York — is Jacques Rivette’s eccentric romance “Ne Touchez Pas la Hache” based on Balzac’s “Duchesse de Langeais.”
The marvelous (if distractingly thin) Jeanne Balibar, all sharp angles and shuttling eyeballs, plays a married noblewoman whose flirtation with a Napoleonic-era general, played by an equally idiosyncratic Guillaume Depardieu, leads to tragedy. Love blooms, as do betrayal, confession and sacrifice.
MANOHLA DARGIS, NYT
Mr. Rivette’s superb camera moves through the period spaces and around the performers fluidly, surprisingly; at times, the director disappears behind the two lovers; at other moments, he takes care to remind us of the performative aspect of their mutual seduction. The tilt of the duchess’s head suggests a thousand and one nightly intrigues; the ravaged contours of the general’s face invoke other, more distant torments, while Mr. Rivette’s direction affirms that he remains at the height of his artistic powers.
“Ne Touchez Pas la Hache” isn’t a difficult film. It isn’t slow, oblique or exotic, though neither is it fully transparent. The complexities of Mr. Rivette’s direction and of the performances, which embrace both emotional realism and near-theatrical artifice, prod you to think about what you’re feeling, intuiting, while you’re watching the screen.
I expect that the film will offer up more of its secrets the second time I see it, along with beauty, grace and form, as will “Flight of the Red Balloon” and “Paranoid Park.” What remains uncertain, now far more than when Mr. Rivette was first making his name in an earlier era, is whether movie lovers who complain that there’s nothing to see will seek it out. The audience, I fear, does not always listen.