Baumbach’s Black and White: A Toronto Treat

in 37th Toronto International Film Festival

by Jon Asp

Archive footage, newsreels, authentic and fake home movies. Silent films, monochrome images, and the ubiquitous ambition to revive history. Whether in old formats or merely based on historical events, the film industry does whatever it takes to make it real, both in Hollywood and on the festival circuit. The same pattern is also strikingly noticeable at the 37th Toronto International Film Festival, which in the heart of the city’s soulless skyline combines European auteurs with Oscar contenders, and a wide range of less established film-makers.

In some films the archive footage comes out as the only merit, as in Margarethe von Trotta’s poorly staged Hannah Arendt, where the steadfast philosopher is depicted in the wake of the appalling, if fascinating, Eichmann trial in Tel Aviv in 1961. The same era is invigorated in the dramatized documentary Love Marilyn, by Liz Garbus. After the few indifferent treatments of Monroe’s life that have hit the screen recently, now audiences are served an authentic story, which here means unique documents and images from the life of the 20th century’s biggest icon. Her significance has been increasing steadily, all the more so after the release of Fragments, Monroe’s collected poems, notes and letters, which are heavily showcased in the film.

But also regular fictional movies, set in contemporary milieus, make use of archive footage to substantiate the proper story. At Any Price is just one example. Writer-director Ramin Bahrani anchors another American dream chronicle – there are many at Toronto – by including old-fashioned home movies during the title sequences, showing a young family happy and harmonious some decades earlier, before the problems started.

Ben Affleck’s Argo tells the story of how a CIA agent helped smuggle six U.S. embassy employees out of Iran in 1980 by passing them off as a Canadian film crew. Affleck neither stints on the caricatures (especially not those of Hollywood moguls) nor the costumes (what Hollywood often likes). Coincidentally premiering at the same time as four American diplomats were killed in Libya after an American, anti-Muslim amateur film had been spread on YouTube, Affleck’s patriotic period piece functions as a reminder of cinema’s impact on world politics – for better or worse.

In the wake of the May ’68 movement, Olivier Assayas’s autobiographical Something in the Air (Après mai) depicts a group of young Paris revolutionaries and their growing disillusionments during the 1970s, in parts reminiscent of Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers (Les amants réguliers, 2006). With an equally unsentimental and seamless lyricism, the French director scrutinizes a geopolitical time in which his characters must opt for political dogmatism or the influence of art – but hardly anything in between.

Another strong achievement at the festival – together with François Ozon’s playful psychosocial drama In the House (Dans la maison) – is Noah Baumbach’s seventh feature, Frances Ha, his first in black and white. Greta Gerwig, also co-writer, plays the title heroine, a modern dancer and almost-adult whose ambitions do not quite match her actual existence, a personification of the over-educated, underemployed generation of today. 

Those who pitied Gerwig for her recent roles as various female stereotypes – in Baumbach’s previous film Greenberg playing Ben Stiller’s adjustable girlfriend; in Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love playing Jesse Eisenberg’s even more pliable fiancée – should find way more substance in Frances Ha, which surely marks Gerwig’s big moment. True, here she is also trying to get along with everyone, constantly twisting the truth to make things look better: from early in the movie, after being dumped by her best friend, and later while visiting some hipster acquaintances’ apartment (a flat described as “very aware of itself”), and then while on a brief sleep-over vacation in Paris. As a neurotic Woody Allen character with an inferiority complex, Frances struggles hard to cope with daily life when she seems better suited for an itinerant nouvelle vague film. 

She is Frances Ha ha, the person whom people laugh at, or sometimes with. Drawn to her craziness, directness and her predictable unpredictability, it is as if people take pity on her, and feel a little superior to her. Set against a Bourdieu backdrop of social and cultural capital, she wants to improve her rank, hopelessly repressed by her Sacramento working class roots, and often left alone and desolate, with no capital at all. There are many things in Baumbach’s film to laugh about, but not for Frances Ha, a Zelig for the 21st century.

Edited by Peter Keough