TIFF Platform 2021: Drunken Birds Flies High

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Surveying the festival's competition for auteur cinema

The TIFF Platform programme returned after a one-year hiatus. The Toronto International Film Festival’s competitive spotlight devoted to auteur cinema offered a fair snapshot of the festival programming overall. 2021 is, artistically, one of the best years for Toronto in recent memory. Even the one film in TIFF Platform that I outright hate has a clear place in the festival. These films try something new and they capture the pulse of a world in change. Migration stories, tales of grief, and underrepresented voices cracking through the cinematic glass ceiling span the scope of Platform and TIFF overall. Platform was, however, a three-horse race this year despite eight jockeys. But when one sidebar delivers three of the best films at the festival, that still makes it an arena to watch.
 

Earwig

The TIFF Platform films again featured one or two films that just didn’t seem to fit elsewhere. Earwig, arguably the biggest misfire of the programme and the worst film at the festival overall, seemed in competition by default. Too slow for Midnight Madness, too narrative-driven for Wavelengths, but too weird to put anywhere else, Earwig would have played brilliantly in TIFF’s now-defunct Vanguard programme that inspired audiences to embrace the strange. Directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović, the Belgium/France/UK co-production is certainly the work of a distinct voice. However, the lethargic pacing and overall pointlessness make Earwig an impenetrable film. It’s one of the most arduous films I’ve ever seen at TIFF.

Earwig is a nightmarish reverie about a young woman with ice dentures and a mad doctor who tends to her care. Told with barely a word of dialogue—the first twenty minutes of Earwig have nary a whisper—Hadžihalilović employs a distinct visual language to unfold the tale. However, Earwig attempts chiaroscuro compositions of painterly shadow and light ballets, but they ultimately materialise as drab, sombre, and dull paintings waiting to dry. Lethargic pacing doesn’t help matters, either, and the film is an exercise in patience. Or, more aptly, a cure for insomnia.
 

Mlungu Wam (Good Madam)

More successful, but still somewhat missing the mark, was Jenna Cato Bass’s Mlungu Wam (Good Madam)This horror story about a life sentence of servitude comments upon the ghosts of South African apartheid. However, many horror fans will inevitably read Mlungu Wam as a lesser redux of Get Out. Jordan Peele’s influence lingers all over Bass’s film, straight down to the teacups that play pivotal roles about internalised racism, even if their colonial symbolism resonates strongly. However, nobody in Mlungu Wam wields a spoon and saucer like Catherine Keener does.

Bass creates some moments of genuine terror as she and eleven (!) screenwriters explore the generational struggle to break free from colonial power dynamics. As Mlungu Wam slowly unfolds, characters explain everything that is already apparent in the carefully decorated house. The one-the-nose dialogue inevitable cuts the tension as the camera observes tribal art that adorns the walls of a home inhabited by unseen white people. The evil madam mostly appears as a photograph on the wall. Her spectre haunts the film and one wishes Bass let her cinematic eye guide the script. There are some fine images in Mlungu Wam—entranced servants scrubbing floors in one scene and forcefully brushing their teeth in the text—but the intermittent moments of greatness don’t quite come together overall.
 

Palme d’Oh! (aka Arthur Rambo)

Alternatively, the biggest head-scratcher in the TIFF Platform bunch was Arthur Rambo from The Class’s Laurent Cantet. For one, it’s odd to put a director who’s received the highest honour on the film festival circuit alongside a class of mostly newcomers. That’s either unfair to the filmmakers looking to prove themselves, or a backhanded compliment to Cantet. This critic votes for the latter after seeing Arthur Rambo, though. It’s less the work of a Palme d’Or-winning director and more a product of an artist who doesn’t understand the world on which he comments.

Arthur Rambo dramatizes the story of an Algerian-born author Karim (The Class’s Rabah Nait Oufella), who is the toast of Paris’s literary scene for a memoir about the immigrant experience. However, Karim’s fame barely lasts fifteen minutes when a Twitter user discovers that he’s behind an account responsible for years’ worth of racist, sexist, homophobic, fatphobic, and anti-Semitic tweets. Fellow Twitters turn on Karim and denounce him for the horrible things he filtered through his alias, Arthur Rambo.

Karim struggles to articulate his need for provocation, not that any explanation justifies such words, just as the moral of the story eludes the director. The film’s abrupt ending lets both the protagonist and the filmmaker off the hook from opening the conversation responsibly. As Cantet observes Karim’s meteoric fall, moreover, it’s unclear what he wants to say through Arthur Rambo. The film tries to have it both ways by finding sympathy for Karim, while also noting that words have power, especially in the age when any idiot can fire missives and stoke prejudice with a few tweets. However, Cantet’s delivery ultimately plays as an anti-Cancel Culture screed. Like most raving white guys who denounce Cancel Culture, however, Cantet’s message fails to grasp the necessary distinction between holding someone accountable for his actions and cancelling him for sport. For a festival that prides itself for tackling the conversations invited by vitriolic social media storms, the prominence of this ambivalent, apathetic film is surprising.

Head here for Pat Mullen's look at the rest of this year's Platform programme, including Montana Story, Drunken Birds, Huda's Salon, Silent Land, Yuni: thatshelf.com/tiff-platform-2021-drunken-birds-flies-high/