Film Scouts Diaries

1998 Toronto Film Festival Diaries
Day 1

by Henri Béhar

TORONTO - Thursday, September 10

The local scribes are lucky: press screenings started a couple of weeks ago. I decide to join them, stick to press and industry screenings throughout the Festival, with the occasional foray into public screenings. Since we've already covered Nanni Moretti's "April" in Cannes, I drop everything to go and see the Festival opener, François Girard's hugely anticipated film "Red Violin", which stars Samuel L. Jackson, Greta Scacchi and Chinese icon Sylvia Chang. The timing is exquisite (I'm sure it won't last): I can see John Waters' "Pecker" in the morning, "The Red Violin" in the afternoon, check out the pre-gala cocktail reception at the Rosewater Supper Club at 5 p.m, maybe catch a glimpse of "A Minute of Silence", a French film by Florent Emilio Siri (all to be discussed when they're shown to the public), have a quick bite with friends (whom I know I won't see again till the end of the festival), go to the press screening of Tom Cruise-produced, Robert Towne-directed "Without Limits", then head for the opening night party at the Harbourfront. The main question, of course, is: to which after-hours bar will we insomniacs go after the party?

Later... Missed the French movie, will catch up with it later. John Waters' "Pecker", great fun, with Edward ("Terminator 2") Furlong playing a kid from Baltmore who photographs everything and everyone with his two-bit Minolta and gets caught in the whirlwind of New York's art world. Wait until you see Patricia Hearst strip on the counter of a bar...

Produced by Niv Fichman, directed by François Girard, co-written by Girard and Don McKellar, "The Red Violin" is brought to you by the same creative team that came up a few years ago with that art-house hit "32 Short Films About Glenn Gould". It may officially have a dual nationality - Canadian-Italian - but that's essentially from a financing point of view. At heart, "The Red Violin", which stars Samuel L. Jackson (from the US), Colm Feore (Canada), Greta Scacchi (England, basically), Jean-Luc Bideau (France-Switzerland) and Sylvia Chang (China), is the perfect example of an international - make that supra-national - film. The settings and the plot demand it. Using an age-old device - following a particular object through the hands of its various owners over the years - the film takes you on a journey in both time and space. It begins in Italy's Cremona in the 17th century, takes you to Vienna, Austria, a hundred years later, then onto Oxford, England, in the 1800s, to Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution, all the way to today's Montreal (the whole film was shot on location, - - and sumptuously at that - and in several languages.)

It also is a perfect example of how to weave what could be construed as five stories into one. In 17th-century Italy, the violin is being crafted by a master artisan whose wife is pregnant (how it will get its unique red color is a mystery you'll discover only at the end). Religious, yet superstitious, the wife consults a fortune teller and as she turns the tarot cards one by one, the old woman foresees the entire itinerary of... both the child and the violin. Cut to today's Montreal where the violin - the last one made by the artisan Brusatti - is being auctionned (by Colm Feore) after being examined by appraisal expert Samuel Jackson and computer whiz Don McKellar. The tarot reading and the auction are the ties that bind the film together, we often return to them, thus unveiling bit by bit the mysteries of the violin. After the baby's born (and the mother dies in childbirth), the violin moves on to an Austrian child prodigy blessed with the touch of an angel and cursed with a weak heart, then to a British virtuoso as flamboyant, swaggering (and as sexy) as a young Mick Jagger at his horniest, it lands in the attic of a Chinese musician victimized by the Cultural Revolution, then leads to its final fate at the auction house, where many works of art die in the hands of insensitive buyers - or do they?

As is the case with any episodic movie, each filmgoer will have its favorite and its least favorite segments. But at that high level of quality, it doesn't really matter. The use of music is absolutely splendid, as is the score written by John Corigliano to fit the various styles without losing its unifying theme.

Later still... Produced by Tom Cruise, "Without Limits" is director Robert Towne's new foray into the world of sports or more precisely running - Towne's directorial debut, the vastly underrated "Personal Best", which starred Mariel Hemingway, explored some of the same themes). This time, Towne focuses on Steve Prefontaine, a runner who kept pushing the envelope - and then pushed some more. It's a remarkably energetic and incisive portrayal (what else would you expect from the man who wrote "Chinatown"?) There's a stellar performance by Billy Crudup as Prefontaine and, as Pre's coach, Donald Sutherland gives his best work since, perhaps "Ordinary People". The film is being simultaneously released in a theatre near you - so check with your favorite critic. Tom Cruise is rumored to have just arrived in town, but they're already swooning all the way from Yorkville to the Harbourfront.

Ah, yes, the opening night party at the Harbourfront. Gigantic venue, huge tent on the lawn overlooking Lake Ontario. A violinist performs from stage to stage in the various areas (nice touch). But it's so crowded that after mucho air-kissing (it's called networking), a whole bunch of us go to the Rosewater Supper Club, then to the Bistrot 990, suddenly it's 4 AM. Why do bars close so early in this town?

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