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.

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