I hate to say it, I really do — but this festival is the world capital of dead-child movies. I mean, all major film festivals could claim the title, but Toronto usually has the starriest dead-child movies. Those in need of a trigger warning only need to look at a still from the film they’re about to see. If Nicole Kidman or Jessica Chastain or Cate Blanchett or Sandra Bullock or Naomi Watts or Julianne Moore or [insert other A-list actress here] is looking forlorn and appears not to be wearing any makeup, the odds are excellent that you’ve got a ticket to sit through A Parent’s Worse Nightmare.
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In Toronto, being born to well-to-do white parents is basically a death sentence. This isn’t the same nightmare that Halle Berry goes through in Monster’s Ball, or Viola Davis endures in The Help, or Octavia Spencer suffers in Fruitvale Station. The unspoken tragedy here is that this isn’t supposed to happen to us. These movies tend to fetishize the grieving process. They turn it into porn.
Now Jennifer Aniston joins the list of miserable mommies. In Cake, she plays Claire, a spiky Los Angeles woman in chronic physical pain. There’s a support group for that, but she’s so flagrant and droll that the membership votes her out. Claire eats painkillers the way I eat Skittles. When she runs out of approved options to refill prescriptions, she has her housekeeper, Silvana (Adriana Barraza), drive her to Tijuana. Claire can barely sit up. She can barely walk, barely sleep, and barely speak to her husband (Chris Messina), who’s moved out. (Husbands grieve in dead-child movies, but even when half the film is painstakingly, handsomely devoted to him, it always feels like a one-woman show.)
Somehow, sex manages to remain a part of Claire’s life (thanks to her sexy gardener or pool guy or whatever occupation his penis is attached to). Otherwise, she dreams of suicide — of the suicide a friend recently committed or of committing her own. She bickers with Silvana, curses her physical therapist (Mamie Gummer), argues with her dead friend’s ghost (Anna Kendrick), and pays a creepy visit to the friend’s husband (Sam Worthington) to commiserate over their respective losses. Please, don’t ask about the ghost.
It takes the entire movie to explain why she has gashes on her legs, chest, and face, and why her heart and mind are so deeply wounded. But you’d have to be from outer space not to understand what’s going on here. These movies always treat the deaths of the children at their centers as spoilers, as if there’s another loss powerful enough to make a woman this sick with sadness in films like these. What’s really going on is that Aniston needs to be part of someone’s Oscar conversation, and there’s almost no better way to achieve that than starring in something bitterly called Cake.
But a good dead-child movie commands you to table cynicism and admire the emotional seasons that come and go on the actress’s face. Aniston isn’t going for actressy. She puts her wryness in a particularly foul mood, with a restricted range of motion. Cake is mostly a comedy, which suit her gifts. If you care at all about this woman and have wondered how much longer until someone gave her something funny and adult to do, this is it. The screenplay, by Patrick Tobin, afflicts Claire with so many quirks that they contradict each other, but Aniston makes all of them make sense. She’s a depressed, drug-addicted bully with a penchant for good deeds. The movie is actually smart about the seriousness of grief without being oppressive itself. And her performance is equally intelligent.
Still, you’re nervous that the stuff with Kendrick’s ghost is going to hog most of the movie. Because Barraza is giving such a soft, engaged performance, you’re mad that the filmmakers don’t know how good she is. Barraza was the nanny in another dead-child movie — Babel — in which she almost killed two other children. Here, she’s asked to grieve alongside Aniston in a way that’s less appalling that you’d expect. The movie understands the class divide between them. “It’s life,” Silvana says. But she spits on the wallowing at the core of these kinds of movies and on the treatment of women like her at the hands of women like Claire. She rants in Spanish, and you wonder if these movies will ever heed her. But we understand: Get over yourself.
When you pass a long line at the multiplex that holds many of the screenings and see friends, you wonder what they’re doing. Are you about to miss something? Sometimes you keep walking. Other times you join your friends. That’s how I wound up at Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy, which is the first film I’ve seen here this year by a director in complete artistic control.
Two women (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna) do some role-play that involves some kind of librarian–grad student dominatrix fantasy. Wigs are worn, sheets are grabbed. There are bugs and butterflies and a big black box into which one of the women climbs and is locked up while whispering to be let out. A colleague labeled this a class movie: Who but the gentry can spend whole days looking at bug books and dressing up in corsets and capes and having sex this sensual? He’s right, but that’s not what struck me. The Duke of Burgundy is both a vertiginously styled relationship movie and an erotic fable about being in a relationship (the fear of routine, of boredom, of limits). Strickland keeps pushing the tight quarters further and further so that the fantasy starts to grow domestic wrinkles. One of the women actually complains to her lover about the costumes she asked to wear. The other complains about how not-hot her pajamas are.
No one’s tried a film like this in a long, long time: an airless love story between women imagined by a man. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, from 1972, is the most obvious thing that comes to mind. But so does Victor Erice’s very different The Spirit of the Beehive from ’76, in which two little girls fall into an obsession with Frankenstein. The psychological complexity of Fassbinder’s cold, neurotic movie and the strange warmth and entomology of Erice’s are made formally complex with Strickland. (The movie shares its title with a species of butterfly.)
I also thought about Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, in which cinematic fashion is used to explore femininity. But that film is as much about men looking at women as it about being a woman. Amazingly, the subjectivity in The Duke of Burgundy doesn’t feel male, per se. There’s nothing voyeuristic about it. Strickland feels like a conduit for the women to play their game. The movie could almost have been made by Jane Campion, if Campion were more a nerd than a feminist. Strickland’s previous movie, Berberian Sound Studio, was, in part, an eerie re-creation of baroque Italian horror. This feels no less old-school Italian: weird, intriguing, baffling. Often, you don’t know what’s going on. The obscurity can be tedious. But I found that I’d given myself over to this movie, to its style. The opening titles telegraph the sensual chicness to come. The frame freezes on one of the women riding her bicycle through the forest and becomes more tinted with each name. There’s a credit for “dresses and lingerie” — and one for perfume. That’s funny, but it also makes good on the gag. The movie leaves you with its scent.