CIFF 2015: Closet Monster & Dheephan

Days 1 and 2 of the Calgary International Film Festival has wrapped. Really, it’s Day 3 and 4, but I’m a bit of a Marxist when it comes to film festival chronology; if the masses can’t afford to buy a ticket (à la I Saw the Light or Hyena Road), it’s not really a festival “day” is it? But I digress.
At Eau Claire, at least, the festival seems to have kicked off on a roaring note. The line for the Lobster certainly reminded me of my Mommy (experience) from last year, and I’m certainly eager to hear what other people have to say about that film. I, on the other hand, went to a slightly different opening-day film, the St. John’s, Newfoundland set coming-out/-of-age film Closet Monster, which recently won the Best Canadian Feature award at TIFF.
Closet Monster
Some notes on its story: Oscar (Connor Jessup), an aspiring make-up/prosthetic artist nearing high school graduation begins to find it harder and harder to hide his homosexuality. This is further complicated by his father’s (Aaron Abrams) homophobia and still-frigid relationship towards his divorced ex (Joanne Kelly). Plus there’s a talking hamster, voiced by Isabella Rossellini.
Running through the film is a sprinkling of the fantastic (hence Rosselini’s first hamster role, or at least, I would assume), giving a bit of an escape from Oscar’s dreary small-city existence, but the tone of the fantastical elements didn’t really mesh with the style or drama of the film’s central story. And, I can’t say I fully dug the talking hamster, but hey, the audience seemed to enjoy it!
The handling of the queer subject matter, on the whole, was well done, if not a little too clear-cut and neatly resolved. Slightly more questionable is a scene of great trauma at the beginning, which seems to hammer home the dangers of being “out” a bit too bluntly. Although it sets up some crucially visceral symbolic imagery later on (rebar has never looked so inherently horrifying), the situation itself is a bit contrived and too clearly rooted in being a character-development point for Oscar than in reflecting the trauma of homophobic violence.
Visually, the film is generally utilitarian with some slight flourishes, maybe a snap-focus here, a blue-tinted flashback there. The one exception is a gorgeously-shot and edited rave/costume party sequence midway through which builds to a crescendo of colours, pulsating electronic music, and light. It’s no surprise then, that this sequence is the only one in which the electro-pop soundtrack really seems to mesh well with the image. Otherwise, the film’s music seems too different; nothing about the characters, situations, or settings seem to fit the trance-like, ecstatic sounds of the music.
It seems like Closet Monster won the top prize for Canadian films at TIFF more for its narrative audacity and idiosycracies than anything. While it is by no means a bad film, and in many respects is quite admirable in its intentions, it can’t help but be a little disappointing. Perhaps my expectations were a little too high going in. Regardless, see Closet Monster if you are into electro-pop soundtracks or solid but slightly plain coming-of-age stories.
Winning the Palme D’or, this year, Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan came with, again, inflated expectations. I must say, I’m glad I’m getting my inflated expectations out of the way.
Dheepan’s beauty stems from actor Antonythasan Jesuthaasan’s subdued, intense performance as the titular militia-leader turned immigrant. Antonythan’s Dheepan emigrates from Sri Lanka, with fake wife Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and fake child Illayaal (Cladine Vinasithamby), to a suburban French housing project. Trading the war zone for occupied gang-land territory, Dheepan and his surrogate family try to make a respectable life, but are repeatedly beset by the realities of French suburban (and impoverished) life.
Dheepan is solidly immersive throughout, showing the gritty details of the French immigrant experience. What sets Dheepan apart from other immigrant films is that the main character isn’t a blank slate, but has his own set of traumas and demons which he is bringing over. Immigrating isn’t ever a clear-cut break from the past, but one which haunts all three of the main characters. Notably, Jesuthasan’s own biography as a former Tamil Tiger soldier adds an element of extra realism to the film.
Audiard also gets great performances out of his other leads. Srinivasan, in particular, plays the role of newly-designated wife and mother very well. She is neither wifely nor motherly, having to pull double duty pretending to be a woman pretending to have a family, and pulls it off effectively. Vinasithamby, too, is great as the daughter, and she projects an air of wisdom which we get the sense stems from tragic experience.
The camerawork and editing in Dheepan is subtly effective. In particular, Audiard uses black screens and long, slow, fades to great effect, slowly steeping in the tragedies and victories of each sequence. And, of course, there’s the operatic conclusion, slow-motion but utterly chilling, a catharsis if there ever was one.
Many others have noted how jarring the final scenes of Dheepan are, and I would have to agree. While it is a beautifully executed sequence, the ending at once feels too fantastically ideal and tonally incongruous that it feels out-of-place. Despite that, Dheepan is still worth a watch, if only to be able to make the inevitable comparisons between it and Son of Saul (something which I will be guilty of doing as well).
Look out for notes on Elder in the MakingSummer of Sangaile, and the Alberta Spirit Gala, among others.
By Kevin Dong

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