So many films—regardless of their genre or origin—deal with the psychology of interpersonal discord that it’s scarcely worth mentioning them as some kind of classifiable phenomenon. But when you watch a variety of films that have little to do with each other—from every country, genre and sensibility possible—it’s hard not to see patterns, and so I’ve been thinking about fictional human relationships a fair bit since TIFF 2014 started. The most salient and interesting movies—or parts of movies, in some cases—deal precisely and sometimes insightfully with the intricacies of human relations.
Bennett Miller’s latest sports dramatization Foxcatcher is one such example—about Olympic gold-medal-winning wrestler brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), and their tragic relationship with benefactor John du Pont (Steve Carell, in a rare dramatic role and prosthetic bird-like nose). Based on the unfortunately true account of du Pont’s megalomaniac dream to live vicariously through the Schultz’s athletic achievements, the film works best when it explores the codependent, homoerotic relationship between Mark and John. Their chemistry, tension and eventual “break-up” surfaces gradually and elegiacally, as John turns from championing Mark as an individual who doesn’t have to live in his brother’s shadow, to corrupting Mark’s sense of self, introducing him to drugs and tactlessly bringing David onto the Foxcatcher team, thus emasculating Mark and undermining his control. Visual foreshadowing for tragic narrative turns are so pointed in this film that more often then not, it feels like a calculated articulation of what a serious prestige picture should like instead of an organic and rewarding drama.
Clouds of Sils Maria also explores an interesting a charged, homoerotic relationship—between Maria, a prestigious veteran actress (Juliette Binoche, playing something like herself) and her ever-reliable personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart, whose performance is genuinely a career-changing move, unlike Carell’s impression of Montgomery Burns). That is where the films’ similarities end, however. Olivier Assayas’ latest is a subtle but penetrating exploration into female relationships and celebrity culture. It’s also about Maria coming to terms with the fact that she’s an aging actress, though the film doesn’t even come close to resembling a cliché on that front. Asked to take on the older female role in a play she did 20 years ago (playing the younger female role), Maria comes to question the merits of both the character she’s been cast as—particularly her weaknesses and vulnerability—and how this may reflect on her own personality. Valentine is her rock, scheduling and managing Maria’s professional life and also playing her bestie who doesn’t hold back from challenging her interpretation of the play. It’s a genuine pleasure watching these two talented actresses engage on everything from boy troubles to the aesthetic considerations of superhero movies.
Maps to the Stars also pairs an aging actress character Havana (Julianne Moore) with a young female personal assistant Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) with far less satisfactory results. Cronenberg’s latest is a sprawling psycho-sexual cosmic mystery that mimics Richard Kelly (but even he wouldn’t be able to explain this mess). Agatha, who magically appears in L.A. covered in mysterious burns and full-sleeve leather gloves, is a creepy, sweet girl whose celebrity family wants nothing to do with her (they’re terrified she’s been released from an asylum). This includes her Justin Bieber-type brother (Evan Bird), neurotic mother (Olivia Williams, and control freak father, who is basically a white Deepak Chopra (John Cusack). Characters repeat poetry about liberty as if they’re chanting spells, explore their traumatic, incest-filled childhoods, carelessly stop taking their meds and make snarky, occasionally hilarious comments about the biz. But while Cronenberg’s dry wit is on partial display here, the satirical tone feels off-key and the narrative is disappointingly disjointed but seemingly aware of it, as if it’s playfully reveling in its lack of cinematic coherence. One: small consolation: watching an underused and magnetic Robert Pattinson work as a limo driver.