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TIFF’s Wavelengths program goes beyond ‘avant-garde’

The Death of Louis XIV, starring Jean-Pierre Léaud as the dying Sun King.

Courtesy of TIFF

The Wavelengths program of the Toronto International Film Festival has, of course, grown in myriad ways since its inauguration in the fateful fall of 2001. Yet through all the changes – one being the gradual decline in using the term "avant-garde" to describe its wares, another being its 2012 absorption of the Visions program ("filmmakers who challenge our notions of mainstream cinema") – it's remained true to its original mission.

Which would be showcasing work by artists, mature and young (and not just professional filmmakers), dedicated to finding new, little-used or heretofore largely ignored ways to explore film's "unique temporal, tactile and aural qualities." Sort of like what Canada's multidisciplinary maestro Michael Snow did in 1967 with his epochal Wavelength, from which the TIFF program takes its name. (Snow, fittingly, participated in Wavelengths' premiere edition, playing live piano accompaniment for six silent films, the oldest from 1890, the newest from 1912).

Andréa Picard has been Wavelengths' lead curator for the past 10 years, her passion pretty much as high as it's ever been. "I feel like I'm still learning each year because the conditions are always different and the filmmakers and the artists are tackling new issues and exploring film and its various incarnations in different ways each year," she said recently. "It's not like I feel I'm in a groove and things are coming easy. I'm certainly still discovering."

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This year, Picard has assembled an eclectic, international feast of shorts and features, plus the presentation of four installations, including Albert Serra's audacious five-screen film Singularity (at 99 Sudbury St.) and an exhibition of six restored films and 15 photographs by the late Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta (at Contact Gallery, 80 Spadina Ave.). As ever, there's a judicious mix of work by veterans (Douglas Gordon's tribute to Jonas Mekas, I Had Nowhere to Go; Wang Bing's Ta'ang; Pere Portabella's General Report II. The New Abduction of Europe) and rising talents (most notably perhaps The Human Surge, a feature debut by Argentina's Eduardo Williams).

Herewith short reviews (by James Adams) of three of the 14 features in Wavelengths 2016:

The Death of Louis XIV (dir: Albert Serra) A masterpiece. Admittedly, callow viewers may have difficulty getting past the cumulously bewigged Jean-Pierre Léaud's uncanny resemblance to Phil Spector circa 2008. The rest of us will be entranced, almost voyeuristically so, by Serra's measured, methodical depiction of the Sun King's slow but inexorable expiration from gangrene. Virtually all the action takes place in one place, the king's bedchamber, where his candle-lit decline is watched over, commented on and occasionally ameliorated by sundry "physicians," quacks, servants and courtiers. The 18th century has never seemed so close and yet so other. Heightening the poignancy is Serra's casting of Léaud as Louis. As Picard notes: "We've watched Léaud grow up [especially in the films of Truffaut and Godard] and here he is, at 72, embodying a dying king. There are these layers of cinema and life here that are confounded in a way." Contemplative cinema at its best.

The Dreamed Path (dir: Angela Schanelec) Another slow, quiet film of watching and waiting and discreet gestures, although much more elliptical than Serra's. The first part takes place in Greece and England in the mid-1980s, with Schanelec following the doomed romance of a young couple, Theres (Miriam Jakob) and Kenneth (Thorbjorn Bjornsson). The second part, set in Berlin 30 years later, deals primarily with the comfortable but crumbling marriage of a middle-aged actress (Maren Eggert) and her anthropologist husband (Phil Hayes). Over all, rigorously composed and beautifully shot – but North American audiences likely will be put off by Path's dry tone, the numb faces and general existential mopeyness. It's the sort of film where questions such as "Where are you?" or "Are you there?" are damnably difficult to answer.

The Ornithologist (dir: Joao Pedro Rodrigues) Likely the loopiest movie in the entirety of TIFF 2016. Just listing some of its elements – a gay ornithologist paddling his kayak down a fjord-like river valley in northeastern Portugal; two sadistic female Chinese Catholic pilgrims who truss said ornithologist like Saint Sebastian in a Calvin Klein undies ad; a forest of taxidermied animals; a rampaging band of male caretos, dressed like Ewoks on acid; a skinny-dipping deaf goat-herder named Jesus – probably will be sufficient to hex the film for some. What such an itemization doesn't capture is the sheer fun and flow and plasticity of Rodrigues's creation as he transmogrifies Christian hagiography, pantheistic themes and cowboy tropes into something wholly his own. The movie's also a cinematographic rhapsody, as beautiful as anything lensed by Terrence Malick, with superior sound design.

Picard also has good things to say about The Dreamed Ones by Austria's Ruth Beckermann (about the tentative "dance of desire" between two young actors as they read and record the text of the passionate letters exchanged between two real-life [and doomed] lovers, poets Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann) as well as Douglas Gordon's I Had Nowhere to Go, a 100-minute tribute from the creator of 24 Hour Psycho to the 93-year-old "godfather of American avant-garde cinema."

The Death of Louis XIV screens Sept. 10, 6:30 p.m., Lightbox and Sept. 12, 12 noon, Lightbox. The Dreamed Path: Sept. 12, 9:45 p.m., Lightbox and Sept. 14, 4:30 p.m., Jackman. The Ornithologist: Sept. 9, 10 p.m., Jackman; Sept. 10, 2:15 p.m., Jackman; Sept. 18, 9:15 p.m., Jackman. The Dreamed Ones: Sept. 12, 3:15 p.m., Lightbox and Sept. 18, 8:15 p.m., Lightbox. I Had Nowhere to Go: Sept. 11, 4:30 p.m., Jackman and Sept. 13, 6:30 p.m., Lightbox.

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