Mark Peranson (left) with fellow El Cant Des Ocells actor Lluis Serrat Batlle
Today has been one of the strangest days of my life.
At 5 pm local time, I attended the premiere of Albert Serra’s El Cant Des Ocells, a minimalist, largely silent black-and-white interpretation of the journey of the three wise men to Bethlehem to meet baby Jesus and his parents.
That was weird enough, but weirder still was learning how to say “I’m with Jesus’ dad” in French for the after-party.
Here’s the thing: Jesus’ pops, Joseph, is played in the film by Mark Peranson, a polymath of Canadian cinema who’s the editor of the internationally respected Cinema Scope magazine, a programmer at the Vancouver International Film Festival, and a former film reviewer for NOW.
Full disclosure: He’s also my first cousin.
So you can imagine that seeing him projected up on the screen – as a Biblical figure in a droll retelling of the Nativity story, no less – was a little jarring. But he pulled it off; he even delivered all of his (improvised) dialogue in Hebrew, rather than the Catalan dialect used by the rest of the cast. The reason Joseph doesn’t respond to Mary’s request that he bring her some water, he told me after the screening, was that he didn’t understand a word the actress was saying.
Mark is also finishing up a documentary about the shoot, Waiting For Sancho. If TIFF’s programmers are on the fence about booking Serra’s film – which they shouldn’t be, as it’s exactly the sort of weird, distinct vision any film festival should be proud to include – I’d suggest they run the two together as a special presentation, and give our audiences something to talk about for hours after the lights come up.
Scheduling quirks – a meeting here, some interviews there – have made today’s screening load a little lighter than usual: In addition to El Cant Des Ocells, I saw just two other films.
First up was Clint Eastwood’s The Exchange, which was known by the inappropriate title Changeling up until a couple of days ago; the print screened for the press bore only the French title, L’Exchange. It’s a fact-based period drama starring Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins, a Los Angeles single mother whose young son Walter disappeared one Saturday afternoon in 1928; five months later, the LAPD announced the boy had been found in Illinois, and returned him to Collins – who immediately realized that they’d made a mistake and given her someone else’s kid.
It wasn’t hard to figure out; the boy she lost was about three inches taller than the boy she got back – and he wasn’t circumcised, either.
Instead of admitting their error and reopening the search for her son, the image-conscious LAPD decided to dismiss Collins’ concerns as typical female hysteria and cover up the mistake, starting a campaign to discredit Collins that landed her in a mental institution for six days before a radio preacher campaigned to set her free – and that’s just the first 90 minutes of Eastwood’s stolid, edge-free production, which goes on to fold in two courtroom showdowns and a weirdly artificial coda that’s supposed to provide uplift but instead falls entirely flat.
J. Michael Straczynski’s insistent script, which plays like a particularly ambitious TV movie, pushing Jolie through one confrontation with an unsympathetic authority figure after another until she finally gets to remind us how powerful an actress she can be. But when she really lets loose, it’s a moment that doesn’t belong in the misty past; it’s an Oscar clip straight out of the present day.
That said, The Exchange looks like the work of an old master next to Lucrecia Martel’s La Mujer Sin Cabeza, translated on-screen as “The Headless Woman”. (The literal translation, “The Woman Without A Head”, more appropriately captures the sense of disconnection so central to the film.)
Martel’s previous film, The Holy Girl, was an exceptional drama about a teenage girl obsessed with a much older doctor. This one’s also about obsession, sort of, following the middle-aged Veronica (María Onetto) who hits a dog with her car while driving alongside a canal, sustains a head injury in the collision, and spends the rest of the film wandering around in a vaguely hallucinatory daze, eventually becoming convinced she killed a human being in the accident.
Except that she didn’t – we saw the dog on the road behind her at the beginning of the film. But where were the three boys who were walking along the canal with it in the pre-title sequence? What’s this about a drowned child being found near the canal? What’s with all the weird stuff Veronica is doing and seeing? And why was I constantly flashing on some old Tim Robbins thriller while watching this film?
Even if it didn’t owe such an obvious debt to that ladder movie with that Jacob guy, La Mujer Sin Cabeza would be a dull, pretentious slog through some very familiar territory, and the crowd at the Salle Debussy had no trouble booing loudly over the end credits. This was the first time I’d heard that kind of reaction at a screening, which I think means this year’s festival has been above average.
Cannes fun fact: Two members of the Toronto Film Critics Association turn up on festival screens this year. In addition to Mark’s co-starring role in El Cant Des Ocells, Montage’s Mark Glassman turns up as one of a dozen web-chat participants in Atom Egoyan’s Adoration. Beat that, Los Angeles Critics Circle! And documentaries don’t count.