Cool, 'Clean' Air Up North

Dispatches from the Toronto International Film Festival: No. 1

I always look forward to going up to Toronto in early September for the Toronto International Film Festival. It's the biggest and most prestigious film festival on this continent, featuring films from around the world. An additional treat if you're heading up there from Austin is the prospect of cool weather after the sweltering hot Texas summer. However, this summer in Austin has been unusually non-sweltering (tolerable, but still hardly my idea of cool), so the novelty of wearing a jacket or sweater outdoors holds less attraction for me this year. The festival is something of a busman's holiday for me, leaving the busy world of Austin film openings to take in what I can of the presentations in Toronto.

This year, there are a total of 328 features and shorts playing in the festival, so even if one were to keep to a schedule of five features a day (the max my brain can generally handle before turning to complete mush), at the end of the 10 days only a fraction of the offerings will have been seen and any generalizations about them will be just that: generalizations. A good number of the films are from studios that use Toronto as a launch pad for their prestige pictures of the fall and holiday season. The gathering of the world press and buyers for markets around the world makes the festival a good place to lay the groundwork for marketing and awards-season campaigns, and the bevy of journalists and the good Toronto hospitality make the festival an attractive stop for stars promoting films. While standing in the customs line at Toronto's Pearson airport upon my arrival, I took it as a good sign seeing Roger Ebert, the world's most recognizable film critic, standing in line at another counter. My flight from Austin connected at Chicago's O'Hare, where I must have boarded the same plane as Ebert: a sign that I was indeed heading to the right place.

But my next omen took a turn for the worse and arrived after standing in my next line of the festival: the line at the Press Office to get my credentials. Somehow the required photos I sent had been lost and a new badge had to be made, throwing off my schedule and causing me to miss the first film I had planned to see (Touch the Sound, the story of a deaf percussionist that also is said to prompt a deeper exploration of human sensation and communication). Yet all was hardly lost. That's the delight of a film festival: With so much going on, there is almost always a suitable plan B. Instead, I saw another movie I had hoped to catch: Clean by Olivier Assayas, the director of demonlover and Irma Vep. The film stars Maggie Cheung, who is amazing, and Nick Nolte in a story about the possibility of new beginnings and reconciliation. It's set in a rock & roll world, where Cheung plays a dedicated heroin junkie who lives with a musician whose star has faded. He overdoses while she continues her dead-end lifestyle, and only the possibility of once again seeing her long abandoned son causes her to attempt to change her life. Whether such a thing is even possible or whether it's already too late is given credence not often seen in movies about drug intake. With amazing camerawork and editing that pulls the viewer into the narrative flow, Clean is already one of the best (despite being the only one) films I have seen here so far.

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Toronto International Film Festival, Clean, Olivier Assayas

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