If it’s true, as his famous poet son once wrote, that E.E. Cummings’ father indeed walked through dooms of love, the same could be said for a lot of us, either in the romantic form, lurching and lunging from one person to another; or with our children, all of whom people who can make us, at last, feel whole, and not so much the magnetic part stuck without a corresponding piece of metal to attract.
Fortunately for filmmakers, love, in all its forms, is a principal driving force behind an enormous amount of what we do and whom we do it for, as varied as bits and pieces of shells washed up on some remote, white-sanded beach, untouched and unseen.
This year’s Toronoto International Film Festival, with its studied approach to inclusion and representation, offers a more broad swatch of variants, but as the great Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi once said to me (to paraphrase), love is the great universal in that we are all searching for it, and zealous to keep it safe once found.
In Park Chan-wook’s “Decision to Leave,” the great South Korean filmmaker manages to find the sensual elements threaded between a romantic obsession and an ongoing murder case, serving as a rumination on love via the misty vagaries of human emotion.
Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) is a meticulous Busan-based detective, married to a sweet woman (Jung Yi-seo), who lives and works in a smaller city some distance away. While working on a case involving a wealthy rock-climber who fell to his death in what is either a suicide or a murder, Hae-jun becomes mixed up with the dead man’s striking Chinese wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a caregiver for the elderly who herself has something of a suspicious past. As the detective becomes more and more entranced by her, he rejects the notion of her being the culprit, despite various bits of evidence that might suggest otherwise.
It might sound like a hard-boiled procedural, but the ever-dexterous Park is after something far more elusive and beguiling: The dissection of a love story through the prism of a crime investigation. Time and again, Hae-jun re-creates various moments and scenes in his mind, placing him directly next to Seo-rae, and later on, she with him, making observations based on their loving insight into each other, even as their relationship becomes increasingly complicated.
Being a native Chinese speaker, Seo-rae’s hesitant Korean is often translated back and forth between them (and us), so even the act of basic communication comes via a filtered source. As their relationship gets more hazy, the lines blurred between roles, it’s very much as if they lose themselves completely to each other, helpless to avoid catastrophe, even as they attempt to stave it off.
It’s a slower-moving film than some of Park’s more high-octane stuff, but its determined deliberateness eventually yields up some third-act treasures that seem very much worth it. Park’s sense of texture — both emotional and visceral — is such that you can never quite turn away or stop paying attention. Much like the pair of doomed lovers themselves, we’re bound to stick around until the bitter end.
There is no such acidity in Nicholas Stoller’s “Bros,” as co-written by star Billy Eichner, it’s a fairly standard sort of rom-com, at least in plot conveyance, it just happens to be about a pair of men who fall in love. Eichner, whose fame more or less revolves around his ability to yell fast-paced pop culture references at confused passers’ by in his often hilarious “Billy on the Street” show on HBO, has crafted a screenplay, along with Stoller, that captures much of his particular comedic aesthetic.
Following many of the standard sorts of rom-com hurdles — two busy NYC men who pride themselves on not getting emotionally involved with their partners find each other, lose each other, and find each other again — it plays along predictably well-worn grooves. But it also has many clever satiric touches (a Hallmark stand-in called “HallHeart” that tries to get hip with seasonal titles such as “Christmas With Either,” and “A Holly Polly Christmas”), and enough of Eichner’s clever pop-culture gags (“We had AIDS,” his character, an outspoken podcast host says of the current generation, “they had ‘Glee’!”), to keep the engine humming, even as the film pauses at times for Eichner to deliver various preachy polemics about the mostly ignored history of gay people.
There are enough of these moments — Eichner practically takes off his glasses and says “But if I could be serious for a moment…” before launching into a diatribe — that the film has a kind of sputtering start/stop dynamic that draws attention to itself. On the other hand, you can imagine how he must have felt: Who knows when Eichner, or any other LGBT filmmakers, will get another chance to make a major studio release starring a largely gay cast?
The film also doesn’t hold back on its ‘R’ rating, including several scenes of passionate (though non-graphic) lovemaking, a boisterous affirmation of queer sexuality. If there seem to be a few too many moments designed to pump up Eichner’s ego (at various times, characters tell him how attractive he truly is), then so be it. It’s not a crime to have a film celebrate a character’s self-worth, even if it can feel a bit self-serving in the process.
It is the utter lack of self-worth that’s at the heart of Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale,” which concerns the anguish of a 600-lb. online English teacher named Charlie, whose partner killed himself a couple of years before, and whose teenage daughter wants nothing to do with him. The hype out of Venice about the lead performance of Brendan Fraser (where he was regaled with a six-minute standing ovation) is absolutely deserved. Set entirely within a dumpy Idaho apartment, he is the anchor, so to speak, of the film’s emotional core.
The screenplay, adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his own play, retains much of the type of uber-emotional bloodletting that tends to play better on the heightened intensity of a live stage than on a movie screen. This includes Ellie (Sadie Sink), the angry, unbridled 16-year-old daughter of Charlie, who arrives in his apartment for the first time since he left her and her mother for one of his male students eight years before, and comes across as a fierce, white-hot playwright device (“How much will you pay me?” she demands when she first shows up), and not much more.
Fortunately, these melodramatics don’t seem to infect Fraser, whose performance is so understated and unblemished you care like hell for his character despite the script’s verbal contortions. When we first see him, Aronofsky (a director not averse to putting his characters through the wringer, physically and otherwise) has positioned him in the worst possible light: Sitting on his ratty couch, pleasuring himself to gay porn, and nearly killing himself in the process.
Interrupted by a kindly missionary (Ty Simpkins), who wants to win his soul over to the Lord, we begin to take in a more complete idea of the character: For all his impossible girth, and despair, he turns out not to be voracious only for the buckets of chicken and meatball subs with extra cheese hand delivered to him by his friend, Liz (Hong Chau), he’s voracious for everything, including literature, and other peoples’ stories.
He’s an exceedingly kind and compassionate man — to everyone, it would seem, other than himself, whom he punishes with great masses of unhealthy food and pitiless self-hatred — which makes his plight that much more sympathetic. Aronofsky starts off the film by daring us to look — by the end, it’s very difficult to look away.
A different father/daughter dynamic is at play in Charlotte Wells’ devastatingly brilliant debut feature, “Aftersun,” where she crafts snippets of memory and metaphor and stitches them into an informal collage of grief. Primarily, the film’s narrative is centered on a holiday trip to a Greek resort in the mid-’90s, taken by a young father, Calum (Paul Mescal), and his 11-year-old daughter, Sophie (Francesca Corio), as partially relayed by the home movies they both shot on Calum’s video recorder.
In those, grainy, hand-held shots, the camera swoops around, capturing the loose mood of the pair, as they go about the business of their end-of-summer holiday. There is also the sense of these old tapes being edited as we watch — the images suddenly freezing, as if paused, stuttering forward and back — before we plunge back into the regular scene work that fleshes out their experience.
Spending time at the pool, or diving off a boat, having their meals at outdoor tables, wandering around the grounds of the resort, playing pool, and goofing on each other, information about their circumstances comes in small, tiny bits — we learn Calum’s dream of opening a cafe has been deferred; that he has taken up Tai Chi, and that, despite her mom splitting from him for another woman, he’s still enthusiastic about her happiness, and so on, but in more subtle ways, we begin to grasp the circumstances of this particular trip, why it would stand out to the adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) the way it does.
We only see her in fleeting glimpses, and mostly in flash-strobed moments in a darkened nightclub, Wells’ (incredibly adept) metaphor for the obscured flashes of memory we get to hang onto in our lives. Wells’ extraordinary film shows just enough without telling us anything directly, an incredibly potent way to register grief and loss, and to display how much we will still never know about the people we love dearest. “You can tell me anything,” Callum says to Sophie at one point, as they sit on a diving platform off a Mediterranean beach, but as we all know, it’s the things remaining inexpressible that will go on to devastate us the most.