Queerement Quebec: Young queer stories at Image+Nation

Concordia students were particularly well represented at Queerement Quebec

Queerement Quebec is always a favourite among the public of Image+Nation. The Montreal LGBTQ+ film festival has been organizing the Quebec short film night for 19 years now. This year’s edition was held at the Phi Centre, on Nov. 26.

Out of the eight filmmakers who presented their work that evening, six were Concordia students or alumnae.

“Thank you, Concordia,” said Charlie Boudreau, the director of the festival. “Every year this school produces great filmmakers who end up having a well-deserved place either here at Image+Nation, or in the wider Montreal festival circuit.”

Boudreau mentioned that Image+Nation received four times more submissions than the number of films they were able to show at Queerement Quebec. “This proves that Quebec cinema is very much alive, and that every year there are new queer voices which we try to put out there,” she said.

The last film of the evening, Delphine, by Chloé Robichaud, was probably the best directed. Ever since Robichaud graduated from Concordia 10 years ago in film production, she has become one of the most prominent queer directors in contemporary Quebec cinema, having directed two feature films and many television series episodes, in French and English.

Her last picture won the best short film prize at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) earlier this year. Inspired by the play Delphine de Ville Saint-Laurent, it tells the story of Delphine, a Lebanese immigrant who arrives in Quebec at 10 years old. She starts going to a Montreal elementary school, very shy, not knowing a word of French. Her difficulties are told through the narration of Nicole, a classmate, who seems more at ease with her environment. The last scenes of Robichaud’s short, situate her characters years later, in high school, where Delphine appears as a changed girl, fearless, almost aggressive, as she begins to have to embrace her homosexuality.

“It is one of those films which are queer and feel queer, but don’t explicitly mention their characters’ sexuality, and rather let them be,” said Robichaud. 

As the director stood on the Phi Centre stage to talk about her film, she also talked to Zachary Ayotte, who is currently studying at Concordia, and also presented a film that evening.

The two generations of Concordia filmmakers presented very different pictures. Mon père travaille de nuit is Ayotte’s very first film. He made it two years ago in a film production class. While it was not made to be a comedy, it was the funniest film of the selection. Depicting a teenage boy’s strange relationship with a fellow student whom he meets in swim practice, it was awkward yet very entertaining. Ayotte showed skillful cinematography, considering that it was his first attempt at filmmaking.

“I learned so much in the process of making this film,” said the young director. “I am also very moved by the reaction of the audience tonight, I never would have thought such a personal story could have an impact.” Ayotte said his main character’s experience of sexual discovery had been inspired by his own, a few years back.

While this year’s selection didn’t always showcase the best quality films, compared to last year, for example, it still felt important. Not only did it represent the first film festival experience to many of the feature filmmakers, it also gave the Montreal public the chance to see how the young are portraying queer issues and relationships on screen


When another’s success is your failure

Brad’s Status is a movie for those who wonder if they’ve chosen the right path

Directed and written by Mike White, Brad’s Status is a movie about a man reflecting on his life, and wondering how he got to where he is.

Brad’s (Ben Stiller) life is comfortable. He is happily married and the founder of a non-profit organization. His son, Troy (Austin Abrams) will soon be going off to college with the hopes of gaining admission to Harvard University.

Brad has a lot to be happy about. And yet, he is kept awake by his nightly reflections on his life. Is he enough? Has he fulfilled his potential? Did he peak early?

This feeling of having fallen short is exacerbated when he compares himself to his old college friends—a big shot Hollywood director, a hedge fund manager, a White House spokesperson and a retired tech guru. Brad’s feelings of mediocrity are enhanced while touring university campuses with his son, who allegedly has the grades to get into whichever school he wants, including Harvard.

Brad is haunted by what could have been. He has a hard time accepting his perceived mediocrity, so instead he blames his wife and external circumstances.

Interestingly enough, the film was shot at Concordia. If you watch closely, you’ll clearly see parts of the Hall building, the CJ building and the Loyola campus. During one scene in particular, you can even spot a few posters advertising Concordia’s strategic directions.

The film takes an introspective look at how Brad analyzes his life. To do so, it uses mostly voice-over, which both works and detracts from the film, as there is a lot of telling rather than showing. Though it makes for an easy watch, it also undermines the very real despair Brad feels. It’s a poignant film that takes an intrinsic look at the sense of lacking one feels not with their own achievements, but rather when faced with the success of one’s peers.


The race to light up the world

The Current War pits two electricity titans against each other in a fight of wit and ego

It is the age of darkness, and two bright minds compete to be the first to turn night into day.

The Current War depicts the intense competition between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), two brilliant American inventors whose respective patents saved lives and changed the world in their own right in the late 1880s.

Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, the film shines a light not only on the brilliance of the men at the forefront of science, but also on the egos that ruled their decisions, pitting sheer innovation against strategic political marketing. It pulls the curtain back from these historical miracles to highlight how sometimes the greater electrical system isn’t the one that is most efficient, but the one that is best marketed.

When Westinghouse finds a better, cheaper way to transport electricity over vast distances, he reaches out to collaborate with Edison, who scoffs at the thought of someone creating a better electrical invention than his own. But as more American cities subscribe to Westinghouse Electric, Edison uses dubious methods to ensure that his system is perceived as safer and better overall. As the 1893 Chicago World Fair approaches, Westinghouse and Edison wage a very public battle to secure the contract to light up the fair, thus ensuring their names be inscribed in the history books.

The film dabbles in the mudslinging used in the press, especially by Edison, who claimed his competitor’s system was dangerous. Fueled by the fear of having his ideas stolen from him, Edison uses all tactics possible to destroy Westinghouse’s reputation, preying on the fears the general public had of electricity.

The film idolizes neither inventor, instead portraying each as human. Despite their brilliance, both Edison and Westinghouse were ruled by their egos and were deeply flawed human beings. But this contributes to the film’s success as it shows that even the most brilliant and revered historical figures were human.


Festival flicks take viewers on journey of tragedy and suspense

Everything from the horror film mother! to the Darkest Hour drama graced the TIFF screens

Especially in its frenzied first days, the Toronto International Film Festival is a thing of beauty. There’s a sense that most of Hollywood—meaning the stars, directors, producers, publicists, critics, bloggers and even everyday Angelenos—migrates north of the border, at least for a time.

Lines regularly stretch across whole blocks as people gather in astonishing numbers. Sometimes, they spend hours waiting to see a movie that’s captured their attention, even when the odds of getting in are next to none.

With seemingly more people in attendance every year, you have to wonder how much a single festival can grow—especially one that’s based in the downtown of an already busy city. Logistical issues are to be expected—delays are the norm, and some screenings carry an air of unpredictability.

The first screening of Loveless on Sept. 7, for instance, was marked by an unusual occurrence. The Cannes-winning film, by Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, had to be restarted when organisers noticed there were no English subtitles. The audience was then made to rewatch the opening scenes—painfully slow-paced the second time around and, ironically, dialogue-free.

Luckily that took nothing away from the powerful film that followed. To call it a drama wouldn’t do it justice; it aspires for tragedy on an almost metaphysical level. Although the premise is fairly simple, the audience is made to feel like there’s more to the film than what they can grasp.

A man and his wife have fallen out of love and are going through a divorce. Neither seems overly excited about the prospect of caring for their 12-year-old son, who, in a nasty shouting match, is described as a burden. We observe the boy’s reaction as he overhears the exchange, his mouth widening in a silent scream. The next day, he eats his breakfast, exits the house and disappears.

The rest of the film follows the parents’ search for the boy, assisted by a group of dedicated volunteers. What may come as a surprise, if you’re familiar with Zvyagintsev’s previous works such as Elena and Leviathan, is the dark humour which carries the first part of the film. Perhaps it could be attributed to the attitude of the main characters, who remain oblivious to their son’s feelings until he decides to act on them. There’s a sense of pervading absence, an emptiness of feeling that renders the search grim and nearly hopeless. The director excels at creating ambiguity, leaving many open ends and a sense of dread that lingers long after the film ends.

The festival was studded with directors, fans and stars like Jake Gyllenhaal (pictured here). Photos by Elijah Bukreev.

Another fantastic picture screened at TIFF was Joe Wright’s eagerly awaited Darkest Hour. It is an examination of Winston Churchill’s first days as prime minister, in which he struggles with a choice between seeking peace with Germany or pursuing a potentially annihilating war.

The man is played by a fully transformed Gary Oldman, a performance that all representations of Churchill will now be measured against. Taking occasional liberties with the facts for dramatic purposes, the film reflects on an individual’s ability to shape history. It is infused with Churchill’s well-remembered wit and beautifully shot by Bruno Delbonnel.

Delbonnel’s style is often evocative of 18th-century painting, proving that he is a master of colour and lighting. It’s easy to imagine the film as a companion piece to Dunkirk, to which it will inevitably be compared. It is also something of a mirror image to Downfall, which depicted Hitler’s final days.

Wright had already created unforgettable Word War II scenes in Atonement, and here he draws the viewer into the conflict through the eyes of the British government. Churchill is strongly disliked at first, and the existential threat that the country faces does not impede any customary political games. He is evidently a figure of fascination for the director. The camera rarely leaves Churchill’s side, sometimes framing him as a man in complete isolation. This gives Darkest Hour an effective theatrical feel, and makes it a superb character study that reflects not only our evolving view of history, but also the current political anxieties which may colour your perception of the film.

If there is one final mention to make, it has to be mother!. The oddly titled new picture from the masterful Darren Aronofsky is a divisive film that has infuriated some and delighted others.

A much sharper and altogether more accomplished biblical allegory than the filmmaker’s heavy-handed Noah, mother! conveys the feeling of an extended fever dream, much like a nightmare scene from Black Swan extended to feature length.

Set in a secluded Victorian house, it follows an obsessive poet (Javier Bardem) and his young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) who must deal with the arrival of a number of unannounced guests with unexpected consequences.

The focus of the film is on Lawrence’s character, who is subjected to increasing tension. Rejecting any kind of realism, the film progresses like a raging wildfire, climaxing in a scene of utter destruction. Those hoping for conventional horror are bound for disappointment, as this is an artful mind game that defies traditional storytelling.

It is an experience both intensely creepy and thoroughly entertaining. The film unfolds with a dose of humour, taking great pleasure in creating multiple levels of meaning with every turn. Sure to provoke heated debates and fanatical analysis, mother! is an absolute success. A puzzling, unpredictable and uniquely cinematic treat.

While mother! is already out in theatres, most of the films screened at TIFF will take longer to get to you. When they do, you should also look out for Joachim Trier’s stunningly shot Thelma and Martin McDonagh’s gripping Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri.

Photo by Elijah Bukreev


Explosive, on and off the ice

I, Tonya recounts the true story of competitive ice skater Tonya Harding

Directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Steven Rogers, I, Tonya is a dark and dramatic comedy recounting of competitive ice skater Tonya Harding’s career. Starring Margot Robbie as Harding, the film portrays the foul-mouthed, powerful athlete’s rise to fame and subsequent fall from grace.

Thick-skinned, no-nonsense Harding refuses to adjust her image in order to please the uptight judges. She skates powerfully to upbeat disco songs while wearing low-quality, handmade costumes. Though her abilities are far superior to the competition, her status as an outlier in the skating community results in docked marks for presentation.

When she becomes the first American woman to land a triple-axle during a competition, her name is secured in the history of competitive figure skating. Yet, Harding’s success is jeopardized when her ex-husband and deranged friend hatch a plan to secure a spot for her on the 1994 Olympic team, resulting in an FBI investigation.

The film is shot documentary-style, including ‘interviews’ recounting past events from each character’s perspective. The dry comedic slap comes when the ‘true’ portrayal of events is shown, often contrasting with the story that is shown in the movie.

The film emphasizes Harding’s relationship with her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney) and her boyfriend-turned-husband-turned-ex-husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan). Both relationships were chaotic and violent, with both Jeff and LaVona claiming to care for Harding despite their actions showing otherwise.

Serious issues such as domestic and parental abuse, class struggle and the negative effects of fame are central to the film’s narrative. It presents Harding as a victim of circumstance, as well as a deeply flawed person who refuses to hold herself accountable for her mistakes. As a whole, this film is a worthwhile addition to the sports drama genre.


La La Land will make you dance in the clouds

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s chemistry will make you believe in the old magic of cinema again

Somewhere along the way, the film industry forgot how to inspire hope, or decided it was no longer necessary. It used to be that, as the world grew gloomier, the movies grew happier. This was a natural counterbalance to the uncertainty and unquietness of real life.

Today, as the world approaches pre-WW2 levels of tension and confusion, the big screen is not being a source of comfort—gritty is still the new cool, and some like to speculate that cinema is altogether dead, with Netflix offering the hip alternative. This present context is what makes Damien Chazelle’s La La Land all the more significant, meaningful and timeless. The film will not be released until December of this year, but it already has the feel of an established classic.

The mood is set with a virtuoso opening dance sequence that takes place on a Los Angeles highway. You watch as dozens of people are kept waiting in a traffic jam, when suddenly magic happens, and irresistible joy is breathed into the most ordinary of proceedings. It is during this opening dance sequence that a chance encounter occurs between Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling musician, and Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress.

They are two dreamers in a city that couldn’t care less about them, and yet it inspires in them visions of love and enchantment, of star-bathed backgrounds and lushly coloured skies. Life circumstances ensure that they continuously cross paths—they meet again and again. First they dislike each other, then like each other, and finally they fall in love. All that jazz. The duo have a chemistry so pure that you know it is fate that brings them together, and not a team of screenwriters.

Sebastian (Gosling) and Mia (Stone) are two happy-go-lucky dreamers in a world that forgot how to dream.

What a strange concept it is to make an old-school musical in our day and age—but it works, both as an ode to dreams and to the power of cinema. Gosling and Stone are not professional dancers or singers, but the film doesn’t require them to be. The music by Justin Hurwitz—a key collaborator of Chazelle’s—is out of this world, written to emphasize tenderness and melancholy over vocal prowess.

The film is made with such nostalgia, and Chazelle—known for the 2014 sensation Whiplash—has such love for the history of music and cinema, that you almost expect the characters to make a wrong turn and be transported a century back, like in Midnight in Paris (2011).

The way La La Land confronts cinema’s dying past in a largely indifferent present recalls Sylvain Chomet’s animated L’illusioniste (2010)—although the latter mourned the retirement of magic, while Chazelle’s film all but screams that magic is still possible, even though it may not always offer a path to happiness. La La Land packs in all the pleasures of a musical, while offering a depth of emotion and a richness of form. It is a triumphant, generous masterpiece that feels bound for serious Oscar glory. You are right to be excited for it. Until the next time I see it, my heart will beat to the tune of Hurwitz’ songs.


Big films make their big debut at TIFF

The Toronto International Film Festival screen is alive with foreign films this fall

As the mid-way point of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) draws near, the streets of the city get evermore crowded with journalists and visiting stars. For both obsessive and casual film lovers, here is a short report from the scene.

Korean master of film Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is, in my opinion, one of the best films of the festival and of the year. It is a tense and visually exquisite erotic thriller that starts as a gothic melodrama, and gradually descends into the hell of perversion and violence that you would expect from the man who directed Oldboy. It’s sure to be a special experience if you’ve never heard of Sarah Waters’ novel, Fingersmith, which the film is based on, but I won’t tell you why.  What I can tell you is that it will leave you with some added understanding of the long-standing Japanese tradition of tentacle porn.

Maintaining the same level of perversion, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is a shocking and darkly funny French thriller starring the excellent Isabelle Huppert. The film starts with a rape—careful, it has trigger warning written all over it. It is being promoted as a revenge story, but that’s not what it is, and even the ‘whodunit’ is not always central to the plot. Instead, it’s a surreal look at sexual passion and family dynamics, which are shown in an unconventional light. Although it sometimes feels a bit too cynical and calculated, the film is nonetheless a treat. A particularly memorable Christmas Eve dinner is one of its highlights.

No movie generated as much talk at this year’s Cannes festival as Toni Erdmann, but for all its strong qualities, it’s hard to understand what made it such a sensation. Its key concept is so exceedingly simple, perhaps it would have worked just as well as a short film, which is odd considering it clocks in at two hours and 42 minutes. What makes it worthwhile, is its touching depiction of a waning father-daughter relationship, the dullness of adult life, and the  magic of childhood—something that can never be truly reclaimed.

Finally, Kim Jee-woon’s The Age of Shadows is a thrilling action drama set, like The Handmaiden, in Japan-occupied Korea—which might give you some insight into current Japanese-Korean relations. Entertaining, brazenly patriotic and ultimately moving, the film was made with a great sense of scope on a remarkably small budget (IMDB estimates it at under $9 million). It’s not as bold as Jee-woon’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird, but features wonderful set pieces and a solid cast, led by Song Kang-ho who plays a man caught between resistance fighters and imperial police.

TIFF, sometimes referred to as “the Cannes of North America,” runs until Sept. 18.

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