The Girls' Night Out

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Festival 2000 also offered a reminder of one reason people used to go to art films: for the sex. A few years ago, European and Asian directors noticed that Hollywood had forgotten about sex, except to snigger at it. Finally, the world culturati got down and dirty — in an aesthetic way, of course. Audiences like those in Toronto (whose province still has a board of censors, though the festival is allowed to show whatever it chooses) can now see smutty movies in the guise of subsidizing film art. So can critics.

We all flocked to The Isle, Kim Kiduk's solemn, intermittently beguiling parable about a Korean woman who mutely provides bait and sexual services to fishermen in floating shacks on a lake. The sexual scenes are harsh and perfunctory; the real news is in what the woman, and a man she falls in love with, do with fishhooks. Both try to commit suicide by ingesting them — he in his mouth, she in a more delicate area. The hook-removal scenes caused many a squirm and giggle.

Recently, France has evolved a subgenre of dramas (Pola X, I Stand Alone, Le Secret) that include scenes of hot and cold running passion. The form's patron saint is Catherine Breillat, whose Romance caused a ruckus last year with its near hard-core interludes. This year Breillat released a film she made in 1976, Une vrai jeune fille (A Real Young Lady), which has many of the naughty bits in Romance but without that film's intellectual posing.

This one is a simple story of a horny 17-year-old (Charlotte Alexandra) on the cusp of horny womanhood. She toys with herself, puts spoons in odd dark places, fantasizes about the hunky young man at the mill cutting up worms and letting them wriggle on her private parts. (Honestly — the French!) For all the movie's kinky pleasures, it is filmed in the spare, uninflected style of master minimalist Robert Bresson. Call this one Diary of a Country Slut.

Baise-moi — directed by another novelist, Virginie Despentes, and Coralie Trinh Thi, who has worked in the French porn industry — employs real hard-core scenes, many of them brutal, to illustrate a Thelma & Louise tale of two gals on the run. Manu (Raffaëla Anderson) is a porn star, Nadine (Karen Bach) a hooker with a short fuse. Both think of their work as a tough, impersonal factory job. They let men inside them but remain untouched. Manu compares her vagina to a car you clean out before parking it in a rough neighborhood, "so people have nothing to steal. I leave nothing precious inside for these jerks." Each woman kills a man, and the two go on a shooting and screwing spree across the arid French landscape. They climax it by firing a gun into one man's ... well, where the sun don't shine.

A feminist writer from the U.S. was thrilled by this art-house sperm-and-splatter movie. She said, "It could have gone on forever." Others thought the movie only felt as if it did. But most agreed that it is serious and original, starkly portraying a desperation born of disgust, and then an exultation at lurching into a brief, sociopathic freedom. Baise-moi (the directors couldn't decide whether it should be translated as F___ Me or Rape Me) has something else: a charismatic performance from Anderson. With her seraphic face and sewer mouth, she could have a blooming movie career, and not just on her knees.

Some women don't choose to be criminals; they have it thrust upon them, especially in a theocratic society like Iran's. Jafar Panahi's The Circle (which won the top prizes at the Venice and Montreal fests) is a bold, sensitive view of women ex-convicts in the Islamic Republic. Over one long evening we follow half a dozen women, each of whom has been imprisoned, or may soon be, for such "crimes" as riding in a car with a man not her husband. Panahi's previous films, The White Balloon and The Mirror, were sunnier fables of little girls bereft on the streets of Tehran. Now he reveals, with unflinching sympathy, how a female of any age can be lost in a man's world. That the authorities allowed Panahi to make this film may testify to the nation's budding progressivism, but it has yet to be shown in Iran.

At the Toronto festival, anything can be shown. Canadian films too. And the two most prominent were about women: Denys Arcand's Stardom, an O.K. faux-documentary satire about the rise of a supermodel, and Ginger Snaps, a smart horror comedy written by Karen Walton and directed by John Fawcett. Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and her sister Brigitte (Emily Perkins) are 15-year-old freaks in a pretty Ontario town. They both hate high school ("I'd rather wait it out in my room," Brigitte sulks), and the feeling is mutual. One night Ginger is bitten by a strange beast — a werewolf, of course — and grows more empowered and bristly with each rising of the moon. The film is sharpest in its first reels, when it busts clichés about school bullies and prisses, less so when the gore scenes kick in. But savor those fiercely acted scenes of sororal love and adolescent loathing; they're worth comparing to the all-time teen anxiety comedy, Heathers.

Twenty-five years ago, before the festival made Canada famous as a film showcase, the country was known mainly as a producer of high-quality short films, through its National Film Board. For its silver-anniversary edition, the festival commissioned short films from 10 noted Canadian directors and presented the works as Preludes before most of the features. Some were exemplary: David Cronenberg's meditation on the rapaciousness of human decay (The Fly, sort of, without the special effects); Rozema's pert film-within-a-film starring Canadian golden girl Polley; and Michael Snow's elegant jape on the subject of movie sensation (nudity! violence! mystification...).

Best of all was Guy Maddin's The Heart of the World, a Soviet-style silent epic about a blond heroine entranced — or is it ravaged? — by three archetypal men. In four minutes the film encapsulated political, social and art history, with a little sex. It proves that men, at least those as inspired as Maddin, may still have a place in movies: behind the camera.

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