The Toronto International Film Festival is not afraid of pain. Considering the number of films occupied with death, mourning and excruciating loss at this year's festival, one might even be tempted to say it loves it. From Jean-Marc Vallée's festival-opening Demolition to Josh Mond's fantastic James White to Malgorzata Szumowska's Body, TIFF has reached peak grief.
What this pattern of pain got me wondering was not whether all filmmakers (or festivals) are sadistic – turning their lenses to open wounds for kicks – but rather if the medium of film is particularly suited to the work of mourning. Maybe film is a form of therapy – a proverbial analyst's couch upon which we stretch out, while watching characters air their most intimate, fantastical and repulsive fears. Just a little schadenfreude to get us through the day, you know?
Take Wim Wenders's 3-D drama Every Thing Will Be Fine, which suggests grief can be resolved and absolved by film's new, extra dimensions. Or find yourself compelled by a smaller, more experimental reflection on grief that also debuted at this year's festival: Laurie Anderson's excellent personal documentary Heart of a Dog.
With Wenders's feature, we follow grief as it slow-claps behind its mourners for years. In the film's opening act, Tomas (a brooding James Franco) accidentally strikes and kills a young boy as he drives the snowy back roads of Oka, Que., on his way home to girlfriend Sara (Rachel McAdams). The heart of the film is not with Franco, though: It belongs to Charlotte Gainsbourg, who is the grieving mother left to raise her remaining son as the other's ghost lingers on the edges of their lives (the film's use of 3-D is worthwhile if only to see her performance in an added dimension). The landscape, too, shows more emotional range than Franco – as if the Québécois countryside is a supporting character whose long grasses, tall snowbanks and changing tree line also betray the lingering pain of the fateful accident.
Wenders first used 3-D to tremendous effect in his dance documentary Pina, but Every Thing Will Be Fine has been lauded as the first drama to be shot with this technology. It's clear that when the window curtain catches a breeze in Gainsbourg's kitchen, Wenders wants to draw us even further into the reality of her empty house and aching heart.
In that moment, the edges of the screen did blur with my body in the theatre, and I nearly thought I could feel the same draft. While that instance certainly achieved its intended effect – I was there with her and inside the mind of a grief-stricken mother – the thing about grief is that it looks and feels differently for everyone: It is beautifully and also inconveniently unique to each person. So to cast some moments as hefty, multidimensional markers of mourning, as Wenders does with his mostly sporadic use of 3-D, is to try to pin down loss in order to have it make some sense. Grief rarely, if ever, makes sense.
The title Every Thing Will Be Fine is not a promise the film is interested in making – if anything, it is a cruel joke played on Tomas who repeats it like a catechism – but with the story's tidy ending, it is a promise of comfort that Wenders's feature ultimately wants to keep.
In refreshing contrast, Anderson's Heart of a Dog makes no promises and offers little solace. This lyrical elegy of a film delves into the filmmaker's personal losses – the death of her husband, her dog, her friend, her mother – and the more collective loss that she experienced alongside her fellow New Yorkers on 9/11. Heart of a Dog blends 8 mm film with video surveillance footage and long shots of the open California sky where Anderson took her rat terrier Lolabelle after the towers fell in order to escape the ash and increasing militarization of her city.
Anderson's film reminded me of another New Yorker's account of mourning. "Grief is different. Grief has no distance," writes Joan Didion, "grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be."
Didion's book The Year of Magical Thinking has become a sort of grief urtext, cited with more and more frequency – not because writers are unoriginal, but because there are so few personal or scholarly accounts to draw on. In some ways, death is the most mundane and unsurprising thing that will happen to us, and yet, apart from self-help advice, not much has been written. Perhaps this is where literature and film reveal their different stripes as media: Does cinema, with its potential to reframe memories, to recast our visual and interior worlds before our eyes, lend itself particularly well to putting loss into narrative?
When I spoke to Anderson about Heart of a Dog, she admitted "it's a very demanding film. I'm asking people to look through the eyes of a dog, then through the lens of a surveillance camera," and then to fly through a limbo space called the bardo. Then, accidentally giving an almost perfect review of Wenders's Every Thing Will Be Fine, Anderson continued: "It's not like a film where you can go, 'That guy's having some problems, life is hard for him,' and then the film is over!'" Instead, Heart of a Dog "asks you to imagine a lot of things that are never shown to you, they're just talked about a little bit, and then you see some telephone poles."
One of the things that is "never shown" to the viewer is a visual representation of her husband's death. Musician Lou Reed famously died on a Sunday morning in October, 2013, gracefully moving his hands through the motions of tai chi as he slowly passed into oblivion – which sounds literally like the most Zen way to go. But we don't learn this from the film, and Reed's death is referenced in Anderson's personal essay by way of sound rather than sight. His voice singing Turning Time Around is heard during the end credits, a ghost's epilogue.
I asked Anderson if this film is a therapeutic attempt, a summoning of her losses into the same space for the sake of working through her grief. "It's not therapy, no," said a resolute Anderson. "As an artist I like to make things, I feel better if I make things and that is a kind of therapy, but in my mind therapy is connected to comforting yourself, and this is not about that. It's not about finding comfort, it's about trying to see things as they are. I would use the word honesty instead of therapy."
Anderson's memoir is honest precisely because it doesn't seek the comfort that a film such as Every Thing Will Be Fine so longs for. It intuits the conflicting and untidy emotions that death brings without forcing them to make sense. "The purpose of death is to release love," narrates Anderson in the film, to which she added during our interview, "Even when you think you can't feel anything, you still do."
Heart of a Dog's final TIFF screening is Sept. 20 at 10:15 a.m., Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. Every Thing Will Be Fine has finished its TIFF run (tiff.net).