Brian’s Diary—Telluride 2021: Spencer and The Power of the Dog Dominate the Discourse

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Festiville correspondent Brian Formo rides the gondola down to the North American premieres for the new films from Pablo Larraín, Jane Campion, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Céline Sciamma and Paul Schrader. 

This is my third Telluride Film Festival but it’s the first time I’ve stayed up in Mountain Village. For the unfamiliar, Telluride is the town in the valley. All but one of the festival’s theaters is in the town, along with the cocktail hours and private dinners. There is one theater halfway up the mountain, named after the Looney Tunes animator, Chuck Jones. This is where most of the ski resort lodging is. Beyond Chuck Jones is Mountain Village. 

All of this is accessible via a twelve minute gondola ride, traversing 5,500 feet. It’s an interesting ride, historically; the whole region was a part of the late 19th Century Colorado silver boom, and Telluride distinguished itself as the town with the most brothels and saloons in the entire state. Many of those establishments of historical ill repute are now the local markets, restaurants, fire stations, and libraries. The San Miguel Valley Bank, still in town but now a Wells Fargo, was the first joint robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Telluride has come a long, long way from its infamous roots. The locals have changed (even Oprah and Obama have vacation homes here now), but, arguably, it’s still all about the silver—the silver screen.

The best place to catch festival buzz (outside of the Twitter bubble) is on the gondola ride and in the lines to get into movies. The film festival itself generally has a higher attendance of vacationing non-industry types than other festivals. You’ll meet people who’ve been coming for years in a row from small towns in Michigan, Kansas, and Missouri, and from cities in Texas and Arizona. Because it’s a cross section of vacationers and cinephiles, the buzz is quite different from other festivals. For instance, there are very few walkouts at this festival (it’s far too polite a place) but 2019 notoriously had numerous walkouts from theaters showing Uncut Gems, with complaints of the movie being “too loud.” 

This year, the culprit was Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, for being “too sexy”. For the tight-collared and older crowd, Belfast, The Duke, and King Richard were routinely brought up as 2021 favorites. But the movies that really seemed to hit both the young and old cinephile crowds were two titles fresh off their Venice premieres: Spencer and The Power of the Dog. 

So let’s get to it. My earlier Telluride dispatch covered the world premieres at Telluride; this instalment looks at the North American premieres of films that debuted at Venice, and in the case of Petite Maman, Berlin.

Spencer

Pablo Larraín’s Spencer was the hottest ticket in Telluride. Capacity for passes was greatly reduced this year due to Covid-19, and volunteer staffing was also down, which meant that most screenings were easy to get into minutes before a showing started. Not Spencer, however. 100+ people were turned away from multiple screenings. So those lucky enough to see the film, starring Kristen Stewart as Diana, Princess of Wales, were treated to an unusual chamber play covering three days in Princess Diana’s life—Christmas Eve through Boxing Day—as she unravels due to pressures from the Crown and awareness of her husband’s infidelity. 

When introducing the film, NEON head Tom Quinn described it as a “ghost story.” I compared it to Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays. What did the rest of Letterboxd find? Smbhalla put Spencer in a niche genre, writing that it “extracts horror from meticulous acts of food preparation and getting dressed” which is her new “favorite genre.” Bruce Tetsuya caught Spencer twice during Telluride and wrote, “the first screening, I was in awe of the visuals and (Stewart’s) performance. This time, the floodgates opened, and I felt way more—heard the music (by Jonny Greenwood) more fully as well… It's clear that having a woman DP (Claire Mathon) was essential in creating these more emotional and intimate moments.” 

WeirdWill7 says that Spencer “really doesn't hold back from the gritty details. Kristen Stewart gives hands down the best performance I've seen all year and maybe in a few years tbh.” And Peyton is succinct, simply saying, “HOLY SHIT IT’S SO GOOD.” More reviews will funnel in when it plays at TIFF. Spencer will be released in theaters this November.

The Power of the Dog

After two seasons of Top of the Lake, Jane Campion’s first feature-length film since 2009’s Bright Star has finally been seen. The Power of the Dog is an adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, and the first of her feature films to focus on a man as the main character. And that man, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), can spot a weakness and will poke at it until it snaps. It’s set in 1925 on a ranch in Montana and Phil’s controlling sights are set on his brother’s (Jesse Plemons) new wife (Kirsten Dunst) and her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

While reviews from Venice skewed a little more mixed-positive, the reception in Telluride was more rapturous. Perhaps the Western setting landed with more familiarity here, along with the types of manhood Campion uses for a power struggle. Preppygoth declared it “the best psychological Western I’ve ever seen.” Alex described it as “sickly and seductive and endlessly depressed. [Yet] also, life-affirming in its exploration of how we find kinship, how poetry and transformation is our natural response to nature, the bleakness of it all validating its power.” Hannah said she was “blown away” and that “I don’t know that I’ve ever been so engaged in a film ever.” And finally, NextBestPicture’s Matt Neglia praises both the “methodical, unnerving & deeply complex” story, and Cumberbatch and Dunst’s performances.

The Power of the Dog is the only film this year that’s playing every major fall film festival, from Venice to Telluride to TIFF to NYFF, so it will be fascinating to see if the immense goodwill continues from the Rocky Mountains to the East Coast. Netflix will release the Dog in select theaters November 17 and onto their streaming platform December 1.

The Lost Daughter

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel, The Lost Daughter. The story follows a vacationing woman (Olivia Colman) who becomes embroiled in the drama of another family, chiefly the young mother (Dakota Johnson) and her cantankerous child, whose doll goes missing on the beach. Jessie Buckley plays Colman at a younger age with an unruly daughter of her own. The Lost Daughter is a new entry into the “fuck them kids” cinematic canon.

On Letterboxd, Cody Dericks describes The Lost Daughter as “one of those movies about casual, everyday conflict that’s somehow more stressful than a war movie.” David Ehrlich calls it “a killer debut” for Gyllenhaal. DianeFKNKeaton said she “was so pleasantly surprised that this didn’t turn out to be some twisty thriller. It’s about the struggle of parenting.” Netflix will release The Lost Daughter in select theaters on December 17 and onto their streaming platform December 31.

The Card Counter

Paul Schrader’s follow-up to First Reformed centers on Oscar Isaac as a former prisoner who’s seeking redemption on the professional poker circuit, backed by Tiffany Haddish’s sponsorship wrangler. Tye Sheridan is a young man who shares a dark connection with Isaac’s past.

Like all of the films listed above, The Card Counter first played at Venice, however it made its way to Telluride as a “secret” special screening—a hot commodity for the last day of the festival. Lance St. Laurent labels it “a fine little neo-noir. To steal an observation from a friend, almost plays like Schrader’s Color of Money. Paul’s on a hot streak, folks.” Steph Greene agrees, calling it “top-tier Schrader: beautiful, textured, anguished, sexy cinema.” Josh alludes to the story beyond the card table by writing (in his diary) that “Paul Schrader is determined to make us remember the unpunished corruption our country’s vast criminal torture enterprise, even if it means wrapping in a macho gambling movie powered by the odd chemistry of Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish.”

Unlike the rest of the films in the Telluride diaries, however, you can watch The Card Counter yourself this week! It hits theaters in the USA! USA!, this Friday, September 10, and VOD a few weeks later.

Petite Maman

I am closing my writeup with my ‘Best in Show’ pick: Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman. Her follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire is more similar to earlier work like Tomboy, as it centers on a young girl figuring out her world. There are fantasy elements at play, but they are always tethered to objective reality. To say what the fantasy is would be an immense disservice so instead I’ll say it’s well under 90 minutes, and the last fifteen will knock you flat as Sciamma explores grief, acceptance, saying goodbye, and saying ‘I love you’ in multiple timelines of the heart. 

It was my favorite film of the fest, and I’ll close with a couple of reactions from two of the best minds on modern filmmaking, both of whom I had the pleasure of meeting in the mountains. First, Robert Daniels is 100% correct in noting that “Céline Sciamma does more in 72 minutes than most directors do in three hours. Petite Maman is a compact, intimate tale about processing grief and abandonment that totally captivated me. Great, naturalistic child performances. By far the best movie I’ve seen at Telluride.” And Barry Jenkins, who curated retrospectives for the festival, tweeted: “I loved Céline Sciamma’s big ass heart and the way it’s soaked through the 72 minutes of Petite Maman. Restrained. Austere yet warm. Moving.”


I’ve been in the media side of the industry for a decade now, and Telluride is the only fest that doesn’t make me grapple with imposter syndrome. You’re in this tiny, beautiful town and every person—from an Oscar winner, to the best critic writing today, to talented people working for Kodak or Criterion, to college kids visiting from Texas—is approachable, ready to talk about films they love because, unlike other festivals in big cities, we know we’re all there for the same magical thing. And you can dress casually for it, too. To bring it full circle, because that’s what I do, it’s got that history of inviting strangers to come on down the mountain.

The parting shot, or rather gift, comes from Letterboxd HQ who wanted me to highlight an observation from Daniels, via a tweet, that film festival hype is only one part of the journey. “Just a note,” he cautions, “weeks or months from now, when the exuberant sheen on these festival films inevitably diminish[es], it’s not a ‘backlash’ happening. It’s the larger critical community finally being able to see and discuss a film that was only available to a few. (That doesn’t diminish anyone's present love of these films. It just means that it’s not possible for an individual opinion to make a consensus.)”

He’s right. A film’s reception is earned not in the earliest days of awards season but once all of you beautiful people get to watch what you’re most looking forward to. The audience is the equalizer.

Follow Brian on Letterboxd.