Funny you mention Casanova and Dracula, because that could easily be one way to describe the legitimately uncanny Under the Skin. Another would be Species directed by the Antonioni of Red Desert. From the opening shots—a staring retina emerges from a wandering dark orb, the cosmic unto the visceral—there’s a sense of ineffable dread making the images vibrate. It’s an otherworldly film, but the locations are scraggly, overcast, wintry, a Scotland very much like that of Ken Loach. Against this naturalism lies the most extreme stylization, patches of abstract blackness literally swallowing up young men as they march towards the beckoning heroine, a body-harvesting creature that happens to look exactly like Scarlett Johansson. Just as a human body can be evacuated of everything but its skin (one of several remarkable visions), so is an alien skin gradually filled with… what? Horror? Longing? Compassion? The film’s sustained feeling of discovery derives greatly from the way new, maybe unnamed emotions seem to be churning inside Johansson’s curvaceous visitor as she cuts a swath through Glasgow, whether she’s trying to keep a slice of chocolate cake down or finally contemplating her own tear-away visage. Danny, this is as strange as anything in the Wavelengths program. Who the hell is Jonathan Glazer? Commercials, a gangster thriller in Sexy Beast, a surreal drama in Birth, then poof! And now, almost a decade later, this. As a portrait of consumption in inner and outer spaces, Under the Skin is simultaneously direct in its metaphoric implications and as crazily prismatic as Holy Motors. It can be as trying as it is striking, but I don’t plan on forgetting it any time soon.
The Unknown Known has another slippery figure under the camera’s microscope. Errol Morris spent some 30 hours interviewing Donald Rumsfeld, and the former U.S. Secretary of Defense faces the veteran documentarian’s Interrotron like a most artful dodger, thin smirk always at the ready. “I’m cool and measured,” he says early, dismissing the interviewer’s insistence on his “obsession.” Newsreel footage charts his trajectory through crises in Vietnam, Beirut, Iraq and Afghanistan. Pearl Harbor is described as “a failure of imagination,” one of the countless times Rumsfeld reaches for the definitions and metrics of the Pentagon Dictionary. The memos he’s dictated—about 20 thousand of them just during the Bush years—overflow with them, from “absence of evidence” to “enhanced interrogation.” A sea of words, including redacted ones blown up on the screen like sinister slashes, yet the man at the center isn’t drowning. Morris sometimes lets out an exasperated “Really?!” from behind the lenses, but Rumsfeld keeps up an unruffled bureaucratic front in the face of accusatory data and lies caught, a weathered player blandly hitting every shuttlecock tossed his way. When he does trip over his own convoluted terminology, it’s less a chink in the armor than a chance for joking smarminess: Rumsfeld’s dogged belief in his own reality brings him closer to Tabloid’s madcap Joyce McKinney than to The Fog of War’s unsettled Robert McNamara. Packed with blatant illustrations (swamps! snow globes!) and insistent Danny Elfman chorales, it’s nevertheless the kind of meeting where an unilluminating outcome speaks volumes about the subject.
What a pleasure it is to check in with Hong Sang-soo—I’ve only seen a few of his films, and yet every time it feels like running into an old friend. Our Sunhi, the Korean filmmaker’s latest exercise in intimate wryness, kicks off with a daisy-chain of encounters that exemplifies his deceptively simple style. Newly graduated from film school, the titular heroine (Jung Yu-Mi) seeks a letter of recommendation from her professor (Kim Sang-joong), scolds a colleague for a mild prank, and runs into a former beau turned director (Lee Sun-kyun) at a restaurant. In the midst of this briskly sketched welter of run-ins, a splendid little Hong joke: Told that she can only have beer if she orders some chicken, the seemingly determined Sunhi lets out a quietly resigned “Okay, then.” The introduction of another young filmmaker pining for Sunhi (Jung Jae-young) cements the three-men-around-one-woman structure so beloved by Renoir in The Golden Coach and Elena and Her Men, developed by Hong in his customary long, fixed, sun-dappled takes. Alcohol lubricates the characters’ confessional sides, romantic declarations emanate from jukeboxes, epiphanies and new boundaries flower in piles of empty bottles. “Dig deeper,” the people on screen keep telling each other and themselves, sound advice also for those of us who may, after so many variations on Hong’s favorite themes, take this sly director’s airy strengths for granted.
I hope you catch Our Sunhi during your stay, Danny, and also the funny and poignant We Are the Best! Both struck me as much-needed refreshments against festival fatigue; if Hong’s film is a tall glass of shimmering soju, then Lukas Moodysson’s hymn to early-teen punkdom is a tutti-frutti shake spiked with vodka. It’s 1982 in Stockholm; bored at gym class, two cheerfully antisocial seventh graders (Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosnin) start brainstorming the lyrics to a tune against sports. Smacking drums and mauling guitars with zero rhythm but boundless zest, they capture something of the anarchic thrust of the punk movement… until one of their parents wanders in with a clarinet, eager to join them. The girls bring in a more musically gifted fellow misfit (Liv Lemoyne), but, to the film’s credit, they never accrue enough polish to sand off their scrappy edges, which are what Moodysson—in his most brisk, generous film in years—loves most about them. By the end, it’s easy to see the band’s jubilant thrashing as a stand-in for the Swedish director’s own approach to cinema, a rough-and-tumble jam session revealing every character via a whirl of expressive energy. May he never let this spiky-tomboy side fade.
I think I’m growing a bit melancholy as TIFF winds down, my friend. Hopefully we still have time for a few more finds.