The Girls' Night Out

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Richard Gere and Robert de Niro stopped by. Al Pacino, Cuba Gooding Jr. and, now and then, a few Canadians stood in the spotlight's glare and the audience's glow to introduce their new films. But some of the heartiest applause at the 25th Toronto International Film Festival greeted a man whose name none of the public knew. He was a fellow who had the plebeian task of removing the microphone from center stage at the Elgin Theatre after the celebs had spoken and just before the film was to begin. A dapper, sepulchral gent — William Burroughs, say, with a lighter step — he'd pause briefly to doff his fedora before lifting the mike and exiting stage left. He did it with such dour flair that each time the crowd gave him a rapt ovation. And so, for a Toronto moment, a star was born: the Phantom of the Elgin.

Yet for all the male glamour on display, Toronto filled the prime maxim of modern cinema: Hollywood movies are about men (or overgrown boys); independent films, and most serious films from just about everywhere else, are about women. In a festival that shows 264 features, only a fraction of which any one person can see in 10 days — and where this critic's favorite film was not a film at all, but a video documentary, Mark Lewis' weird and delectable The Natural History of the Chicken — it is risky to generalize about the program. But we'll do it anyway. The subject of this Toronto festival was women's problems and glories, their frequent superiority to men and their occasional itch to be as beastly and vengeful as the hairier sex.

And where were the guys? Oh, they had their little niche. De Niro and Gooding paired for the military drama Men of Honor. Pacino had made a film of the play Chinese Coffee. For Brother, Japan's Takeshi Kitano relocated to Los Angeles to play out his crimson yakuza fantasies on a new continent. A quartet of decent scientists (led by Sam Neill) helped nasa track Apollo 11's trip to the moon in The Dish, a warm Australian comedy by the team that made The Castle. Ed Harris, as star and director, poured heroic energy into his biography of Jackson Pollock — a portrait so alert to the painter's flaws of alcoholism, morosity and mental abuse that it became a tedious pain for all those but lovers of self-flagellatingly honest acting. For the rest, sitting through Pollock was like watching paint dry.

In Dr. T & the Women, the paint is on fingernails, which are perfectly color coordinated with frock, pumps and hair. Robert Altman's derisive comedy stars Richard Gere as a Dallas gynecologist, and virtually every actress in the film as a pampered idiot. Dr. T's wife (Farrah Fawcett) goes nuts and naked in a mall fountain; his assistant (Shelley Long) is a dipsomaniac with designs on her boss; his clients, to a woman, are idle and self-absorbed. To Altman and scriptwriter Anne Rapp, women's problems are the result of their having way too much time on their manicured hands. At the end, when (in a graphic sequence) the doctor delivers a baby, he triumphantly announces, "It's a boy!" Isn't that nice? Boys don't have silly problems; they cause catastrophic ones.

In many of the Toronto films, men were convenient shills or villains. Or women in men's bodies, like the flamboyantly gay volleyball players in the Thai crowd pleaser The Iron Ladies. Or hardly present at all, like Willie (Richard Johnston), the nearly mute, almost never seen partner to the garrulous Winnie (transcendent Irish actress Rosaleen Linehan) in Patricia Rozema's spotty but devoted film of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days. "Now go back into your little hole," Winnie says commandingly and indulgently, urging Willie out of the broiling sun. "You've exposed yourself enough."

In Toronto it was the woman's turn to expose herself, body and soul, in all varieties of vulnerability. She could be a figure of mystery and threat, perhaps a killer — like Isabelle Huppert in Claude Chabrol's Merci pour le chocolat (Nightcap); Sarah Polley in Kathryn Bigelow's The Weight of Water (which featured a quartet of troubled stunners); or Shim Eunha in Tell Me Something, a terrific last-suspect-standing mystery thriller by Korean director Chang Younhyun — and still hold an audience's sympathy or, better yet, its fascination.

She could be a victim turned revenger, like the abused child in a woman's body played by Rose Byrne (best actress at the recent Venice Film Festival) in Clara Law's lucidly gaudy The Goddess of 1967. She might be an Old New York vixen — poignantly incarnated by Gillian Anderson in Terence Davies' handsome, thoughtful version of the Edith Wharton novel The House of Mirth — who is reduced to poverty by an upper class tired of her coquetry and unaware of her special heroism in refusing to destroy a rival. She might be an old-fashioned heroine — a politician with scruples, like the steel-spined one Joan Allen plays, almost persuasively, in Rod Lurie's liberal fantasy The Contender. She might even play that hoary stereotype of melodrama, the nice girl who falls for the dishy bad guy, and emerge with dignity intact, as Premsinee Ratanasopha does in Bangkok Dangerous, a high-octane exercise in style by Hong Kong's twin-brother tandem, Oxide and Danny Pang.

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 (Raffaλla 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 cliches 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.