The Notebook is covering TIFF with an on-going correspondence between critics Fernando F. Croce, Kelley Dong, and editor Daniel Kasman.
Dear Danny and Kelley,
I always love reading your reports on the experimental marvels at the Wavelengths program, a selection of works that thrive on a critic’s appreciation for pure form and sensory abstraction. It’s a corner of TIFF, and a corner of cinema, I frankly feel guilty for not being familiar with, and for not seeking it out—a deficient aspect of my cinephilia, to be sure, or perhaps it’s that I prefer to look for the experimental elements of narrative films. Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, for instance, has a soundscape that is unusually attentive and adventurous for a mainstream melodrama, ranging from high-decibel thrashing to painful-ethereal quietude. (Looking over my notes, I find a lot of descriptions of sounds: “Footsteps on boards. Distant cicadas. Applause and bells.”) Surrounded by his drums in a darkened stage, his tattooed torso tense as a heavy metal number is about to begin, Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is in his element. In the morning after the ear-splitting performance, he savors an old jazz record with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), who’s also the band’s singer. A content existence of tours and trailers, abruptly upended when he discovers that three-quarters of his hearing are irreparably gone. A former addict horrified at the prospect of losing his hard-won balance, Ruben reluctantly enlists in a deaf community run by an amiably no-nonsense vet (Paul Raci). Gradually, he realizes that his relationship with the world around him has not ended, but merely changed.
Marder has previously worked on Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines. Sound of Metal, a robust, absorbing first feature, shares that film’s fascination with combinations of the mundane and the monumental while thankfully avoiding its diffuse paternalism. Its best sequences involve calm and direct observation of quasi-documentary processes, of characters learning and adapting to new ways and being tempted by old ones. A joyous dinner conversation using sign language, a piano’s vibrations felt through splayed palms, the “moments of stillness” that both entrance and elude the restless protagonist. The later scenes of Ruben’s reunion with Lou at a party for her wealthy father (Mathieu Amalric) are more predictable, even as the hisses and distortions of his condition become more assaultive. (Is Amalric’s casting a nod to that other art-house staple of subjective struggle, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly?) Holding the film together is Ahmed’s performance, wiry, angry, anxious, cutting through potential mawkishness like a knife. Accepting his new place in life, his Ruben never loses his volatile edge, the awareness that every triumph can easily unravel at any instant. Like Abel Gance in Un grand amour de Beethoven, Marder and Ahmed posit deafness less as a disability than a turn in a musician’s essence, a different type melody he must listen to if he is to grasp it. From deep within the protagonist's headspace, Sound of Metal’s beautiful last scene speaks to that visceral new beginning.
No less immersive is Anne at 13,000 ft, the third (and, in some ways, strongest) feature by Canadian director Kazik Radwanski. Skydiving out of a plane during a friend’s bachelorette party, Anne (Deragh Campbell) faces the windy heights and smiles—this literal high might be the ecstasy Werner Herzog observed in his great 1974 documentary on Swiss ski-jumper Walter Steiner, the ephemeral rapture of weightlessness in a largely leaden material world. It’s a high that Anne, an increasingly erratic, twenty-something worker at a local daycare center for children, hopes to regain. Fluctuating from euphoria to gloom, she’s continuously on a different register than the people around her. Happy to roll on the floor during playtime with her young charges, she negotiates a strict colleague’s criticism over coffee at work by hurling an empty cup at her. At her friend’s wedding party, her rambling toast gets the attention of another guest, Matt (Matt Johnson), who is soon coming to her rescue in the restroom after one drink too many. Not much for order and routine, Anne jolts their “casual dating” by unexpectedly dropping her new beau smack in the middle of a family gathering, announcing marriage plans, and giggling as he squirms. “Jokes,” she frantically explains afterward. Relationships dissolve, the spiral accelerates.
As in his previous films, Tower (2012) and How Heavy the Hammer (2015), Radwanski keeps an unvarnished lens close to his arrested protagonist. The low-key naturalism of the scrutiny, with its grain-enhancing proximity and stinging little jump-cuts, paradoxically borders on the subjective: Swaying tipsily in close-up as the shallow focus turns party lights into bleary abstractions against the black background, Anne spins in an orbit of her own. In Campbell’s fierce performance, the self-destructive unpredictability of the heroine carries a feeling of unruly need that seems to burn right through her pale skin. Whether gazing at a playground from a rooftop or suddenly unfastening her seatbelt and opening the door of a moving car, Anne taunts the inquisitive camera with the mysteriousness of her cherry-bomb urges. Suffocatingly attuned to her chaos and terror, Anne at 13,000 ft can also be anxiously funny. The frustrations and tiny flares of passive-aggression turn the daycare scenes into prickly workplace comedy, while Anne’s small talk with a potential date (“Your shirt is very well-ironed”) distills the awkwardness of social interactions she stubbornly seeks to unsettle. Atrophy or a leap into the void—which is the more perilous path, the film wonders. And so it ends as it began, on the edge of the abyss and, as usual with Radwanski, a quietly shattering peek into the existential space within its lead.
From micro to momentous, to borrow the title of one of Danny’s earlier entries, onto Wasp Network. Covering numerous years and locations, this adaptation of Fernando Morais’ book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War finds the director, Olivier Assayas, back in sprawling Carlos (2010) mode. It’s the early 1990s and, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union leaving Cuba’s socialist government vulnerable, spies infiltrate the United States to thwart anti-Castro attempts. Rene (Edgar Ramirez) grudgingly leaves his wife (Penélope Cruz) and daughter in Havana for a new life and secret assignments in Miami, while Juan (Wagner Moura) swims to the new land to be rewarded with a Big Mac and a sexy divorcee (Ana De Armas). Gael García Bernal completes the trio of men shifting identities and navigating networks for “el movimiento,” while another strand is introduced in the young El Salvadorian bomber (Nolan Guerra Fernandez) with a miniature Battle of Algiers saga of his own. An agile problem-solver like Steven Soderbergh, Assayas is also a cine-sensualist à la Michael Mann: Linking his dot-like characters across continents, he luxuriates in vast swathes of sky and ocean and jets whooshing across the screen. Too often, however, Wasp Network feels diaphanous, incomplete, like a mini-series compressed into two hours. (There is an information-dump montage midway through, scored to “Wipeout” and pockmarked with freeze-frames, that in all honesty feels like the director stepped out for a smoke and handed the camera to the first person he bumped into.) As I write this, I learn that Assayas will be presenting a different edit of the film for its showing at the New York Film Festival. I’m very interested in the version—possibly tighter, possibly more elliptical—that will emerge.