A Look at Telluride Film Festival #48

Benedict Cumberbatch

The second installment of Paul O’Rourke’s three-part review of this year’s films.

By Paul O’Rourke

Wes Anderson made it to Telluride, after all. Well, he didn’t make it (he videoed in from Spain), but there had been a sneaking suspicion that The French Dispatch would be screened at TFF #48, and so it was. And for whatever good reason, the screening wasn’t officially announced until Day Two. The film was, as expected, replete with star power, and at least, for me, in the fashion of (and pardon the comparison to) Robert Altman, with such notable names as: Adrian Brody, Timothée Chalamet, Willem Dafoe, Benicio Del Toro, Frances McDormand, Elisabeth Moss, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, and the Fonz.

The French Dispatch is a fictional magazine, and as it is with all real magazines, there are articles, features, exposés, and editorials, and writers who pen those pieces. The French Dispatch, in perhaps a tip of the cinematic cap to the New Yorker, is a chapter-by-chapter story, kind of like several movies in a movie. Each episode, expertly constructed, was separately shot; the several casts showed up, did their scenes, and then moved on. While the segmenting made each chapter distinct, the sense and feel and even the look of each tied them together in fine literary fashion.

Comparisons to The Grand Budapest Hotel are unavoidable. The French Dispatch is intellectual and witty, deadpan and sardonic, literary (of course) and, at times, a little condescending—in an amusing way. The film is entertaining at its core. If you’re a fan of Wes Anderson—and there are legions—and even if you’re not, you will have some fun viewing The French Dispatch.

                                                                               ***

The Lost Daughter is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut; but it is Olivia Colman’s film. Colman, as Leda, is on holiday when we first meet her. On her first day at a Greek seaside resort, Leda, a middle-aged English literature professor, happily stakes out her spot on the nearly deserted beach. When Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her suspect husband and their equally suspect American family arrive and disrupt Leda’s tranquility, a little electricity shows up with them. After Leda finds and returns Nina’s infant daughter, Elena, who’s wandered off after her mother and father had a verbal altercation on the beach, a bond between the two women is formed. But the incident, innocent at first, has deeper significance and implications for the two of them and the film.

The Lost Daughter is Colman’s to make or break, thanks to Gyllenhaal’s conviction, if not intelligence, to let Leda be Leda, a decision perhaps inspired by Elena Ferrante (author of the novel of the same name) and her faith in Gyllenhaal’s screen adaptation. Of Colman, Maggie told Rachel Kushner, “I’m a great admirer of Olivia as an actress. She’s so brilliant.” And as we learn more about Leda, we wonder where she’s headed, emotionally and psychologically. Gyllenhaal goes on with Kushner, “It’s very important that this woman is not crazy.” The director made good her pledge and, in the end, made a very, very good film with a very, very good actor. Go see The Lost Daughter.

                                                                             ***

Benedict Cumberbatch had two films at TFF #48. I viewed The Electrical Life of Louis Wain first (on Friday), and I reasoned then, I’d combine reviews after I saw the second, The Power of the Dog. First off, both are excellent films, superb in many respects. But the only other thing the two have in common is Cumberbatch, and when appraising his two roles, it’s very obvious, indeed, the actor’s range and talent are wide and deep. But that said, I’ll not commit the unforgiveable and review the two films in the same space; they’re just too good and too different to lump them together.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a true story; at least that’s what we’re informed of as the film begins. If so—and we have no reason to believe otherwise—this is one of those instances where fact is stranger than fiction. And the nice thing about actually viewing Louis Wain’s life is that we meet him when he’s probably in his twenties and we get to stay with him, well, all the way through.

Louis, in his younger years, is an illustrator; a very good one. His quirky temperament and obsessive artistic compulsions, however, render him rather inept in the realm of finance, a trait that has his sister—they live together with her children and their governess in the family’s London home—constantly on his case. Even after Louis and the governess (Claire Foy) take up housekeeping on their own and Louis becomes famous for his wildly popular cat pictures and cat books, he still has financial issues, among others of a more psychological nature.

Without giving too much away, let’s just say this is a wonderfully directed (Will Sharpe) film about commitment, about perseverance, about beauty and, above all, about deep and abiding love. Benedict Cumberbatch made possible another wet mask. I couldn’t recommend The Electrical Life of Louis Wain more highly.

                                                                              ***

The Power of the Dog is set in rural and rugged big sky Montana and its protagonists are male; the two statements may seem a bit incongruous, considering they describe features of a Jane Campion film. Campion is a visionary, an icon. She was the first female filmmaker to win the Palm D’Or at Cannes in 1993 for The Piano. And her adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel is, some say, the gender-themed bookend to that award winning film.

The cinematography captures the geographic grandeur of the landscape, and the closeups seem to heighten the tense drama that unfolds onscreen between two brothers, one mean (Cumberbatch) and the other modest (Jesse Plemons), a widowed innkeeper (Kirsten Dunst), and her vulnerable son (Kodi-Smit McPhee).

The film gets its title from the King James Bible: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” And that title alone should tell us there will be some serious struggles between the characters in the film; the tension begins, well, at the beginning and only amplifies with each succeeding scene. Some suggest The Power of the Dog is a modern-day (the film was set in 1925) Greek tragedy. Thus, we understand something bad will happen and something redeeming will take place. We just don’t know in what forms they will be revealed. And that’s the wonder and genius of Jane Campion. She knows just how, when, and where to provide us a definitive—and final and redemptive—answer to the film’s evocative conundrum.

If I’ve not given enough background as to what The Power of the Dog is all about, good. Go see it for yourself. I believe you’ll be glad you did.

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