It takes money, time and persistence to get a movie made in any country, but in Canada the task can feel like moving a mountain. I’m looking forward to the slate of Canadian films at the Toronto International Film Festival this year and in particular I am eager to see three titles with prolonged gestation periods. One was stuck in postproduction for many months; another is the culmination of a director’s life work and the third … well, you could say it’s a project forged over the centuries.
That last one is Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, a non-fiction film by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier arguing that we have entered a new geological epoch in which human activity is the main force shaping the planet. Massive-scale industrialization and development are now permanently changing the air, water and land.
As a photographer, Burtynsky is celebrated for his large-scale images documenting the grotesque beauty of industrial landscapes, and this latest film is the continuation of a project that began back in the early 2000s, when Baichwal followed him to China to make a documentary about the photographer shooting factories, dumps and dams.
Somewhere along the line, the two cameras have morphed into one as the collaboration between Burtynsky and Baichwal, and her partner de Pencier, grew, producing films that offer both the photographer’s stunning use of composition and scale, and the documentarians’ point-of-view approach. The 2006 China film, Manufactured Landscapes, was followed by Watermark in 2013, about the world’s most precious resource, and Anthropocene completes a trilogy that is becoming more overtly committed to advocacy over observation as it progresses.
The film is being commercially released at the end of September to coincide with companion exhibitions featuring Burtynsky’s photographs at both the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.
What drives us to despoil the planet anyway? Denys Arcand’s new film The Fall of the American Empire narrows the focus down to one flawed character – Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry), a dissatisfied, truck-driving PhD who finds two bags of cash in his delivery van – in a satirical drama about how money motivates.
Back in 1986, Arcand rocked audiences when he exposed sex as our greatest foible in The Decline of the American Empire, a riotous social satire about a gang of pampered Quebec intellectuals discussing their peripatetic love lives – and then followed it up with a sequel, 2003’s The Barbarian Invasions, which asked the same characters to confront their mortality. Now, he turns his attention to another deadly human weakness as Pierre-Paul finds himself loaded with cash and entangled with criminals.
The new film features entirely different characters than the first two, but the title suggests the culmination, three decades later, of a project that has succeeded in skewering human failings and defining the social moment because the director never loses his sense of humour. In the first films, Arcand proved a master at laughing with his characters, not at them, as he exposed their plight. And, as decline moves to fall, his original choice of title now seems positively prophetic.
Decline burst out of Quebec in that era between two referendums, when English Canadians were more heavily engaged in Quebec culture than they seem now – and when the global film industry still had some space for languages other than English.
Today, Quebec’s best directors inevitably turn to Hollywood, but Xavier Dolan has said that his latest film, the much-anticipated The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, does not mark a permanent linguistic shift for him. Instead, it was filmed in English because its subject, the price of celebrity, demanded it. Still, all eyes have been on the young director, darling of the Cannes Film Festival, as he makes his English-language debut. And that attention has proved bruising.
The film tells the story of a secret relationship between a TV star (Kit Harington of Game of Thrones in the title role) and the 11-year-old Rupert (Jacob Tremblay) who idolized him, told from the perspective of the now adult Rupert (Ben Schnetzer). It wrapped filming early in 2017 and a long editing process ensued, initially producing a four-hour rough cut. In February, Dolan announced on Instagram that he was, with great regret, cutting in its entirety the part of a villainous journalist played by Jessica Chastain. He argued her role no longer sat well with a narrative that seems to have become more about private life and less about public life than his initial descriptions suggested. Then Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux revealed that Dolan had declined an invitation to unveil the still-unready film at the May event in France.
There is still no shortage of stars in the film, which also features Natalie Portman, Susan Sarandon and Kathy Bates, but the tortured process suggests that Dolan – not yet 30 – is still finding his narrative craft. It’s what he does with actors that’s remarkable: 2016’s It’s Only the End of the World featured a script oddly adapted from an AIDS-era French play, but the performances of a cast that featured some of France’s best actors were outstanding. Similarly, Mommy in 2014 didn’t always make sense as a story but the principal performances were jaw-dropping. So, one of the most anticipated films at TIFF 2018 is partly a test of whether Dolan can translate the recipe for his secret sauce into the language of global Hollywood.