Telluride Film Fest 2008: Why We’ve Loved You For So Long

It must be in the zeitgeist. The 35th annual Telluride Film Festival was all about change we can believe in.

In film after film, we watched Everyman underdogs beat the odds and triumph over the rich and the powerful, all in the context of unvarnished reality.

A sneak peak world premiere, Danny Boyle’s “Slum Dog Millionaire,” was, hands down, our favorite of that genre.

Only a spoiler would have given a second thought to outsourcing or annoying customer service calls. But there were none in the house. Forget about the Full Maharani. There was no gauze, gaudy colors, bling, or long glance looks – well, a few of those – in this rags-to-riches fairytale about a streetwise orphan boy who becomesone of the new India’s 230 million or so arrivistes.

The only direct quote of Bollywood was a spoof: line dancing in the final credits.

Boyle was here at the world premiere of “Slumdog Millionaire” – Telluride is unique in insisting upon an artistic as well as screen presence – watching his movie for the first time before a lively audience. The balance he managed to strike between light and dark, head and heart, sandwiched between bravura visceral and kinetic effects was cinematic Bingo: “Slumdog Millionaire” was this year’s “Breaking Away” or “Strictly Ballroom.”

French novelist Phillipe Claudel’s “I’ve Love You for So Long” is another wonderful example of bravura storytelling and complex, fully realized characters combined with boffo production values. The net result is escapist entertainment that speaks to another Festival value: no pain, no gain.

The elfin actress Elsa Zylberstein was in town for the movie with her director and friend. The actress plays a successful bourgeois academic living a white picket fence life. Kristin Scott Thomas is her older sister Juliette, an ex-con who first appears as cold, gray and impenetrable as the walls she left behind. We know the 15 years in hoosegow took its toll because we are talking extreme close-ups, with no make-up and not a laser in the house. That’s reason enough in my book to hand the lady an Oscar.

Juliette’s slow, steady march from mope to hope ends with the line: “Je suis la” (I am here), a statement she repeats twice. The first time the words are a simple greeting spoken to a friend/suitor, likely Claudel’s surrogate, who has just entered her sister’s house. The second volley is different, triumphant: “I am here” marks a turning point, when the character begins to channel her inner winner.
(Sotto voce, the line might well be an affirmation of Claudel. He is here too, here to stay as a director, never ever to leave town again at 3 a.m.) You had to be there.

Before the screening before a SRO house, Zylberstein stood on the stage at the Palm with Claudel and proclaimed: “This is the greatest film festival in the world.”

She would get no argument from the media, critics, filmmakers and film buffs who return for an encore year after year. (My husband and I met at least three groups of people who have been coming to the Film Festival for 30 years or more, one of them claiming the movies got lighter after the Pences had their kids.)

“Sundance has swag. Cannes has yachts, Toronto has stars, Telluride has class,” raved the L.A. Times. Some things never change. In an increasingly populated festival landscape – there are about 2,500 similar events around the globe – Telluride is in a league of its own, loved by The Industry for its lack of pap, paparazzi and prizes and the un-hyped enthusiasm of the crowd.

A close friend who makes edgy documentaries praised the intelligent way in which “American Violet,” a true story, unfolds episodically, but he quibbled about the filmmaking, describing the production as “old-fashioned” and “manipulative.” I say that’s why Hallmark still sells its cards and mothers continue to bake apple pie. Feel good works.

“American Violet” is another variation on the theme of David and Goliath. The unlikely young warrior of this film is Dee Roberts, portrayed to perfection by newcomer Nicole Behaire, who is much more than a pretty face.

An unjust arrest forces Roberts to stand up against the bigoted, corrupt establishment in the name of change, and she winds up winning a definitive victory for women and blacks. (Dems take note.)

Writer/producer Bill Haney, director Tim Disney, Roberts and her girls, were in the audience to receive a group hug from a packed house gone warm and fuzzy.

Almost four decades have passed since Rita Tushingham delivered a dazzling, career-making performance as the child/woman Jo in “A Taste of Honey,” which nearly always ranks as one of the Top 20 films of all time. Sally Hawkins, also a jolie laide from across the pond, gives a similar breakout performance as another urban elf, this one named Poppy.
 
Like Boyle, Mike Leigh is an astute observer of eccentric subcultures and working class life, but both have a noir bias. Why the sudden switch to the sunny side of the street? Did someone spike their beer? Or were the movies clever responses to international headlines? Did these two very smart directors figure art imitating life would be too much for their audiences to stomach?

Whatever the reason, Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” is an unapologetically upbeat portrait of a young woman as a cockeyed optimist, out to save the world one smile at a time.

A straw poll indicated people either liked or disliked Poppy intensely. There was little or no middle ground in the debate. Personally, I agree with Chuck Jones’ daughter, Linda Clough Jones, who described the character as “highly evolved as a human being could be. Someone who took care of herself and others, while enjoying life as much as she could.” Like Jones, I found Poppy completely comfortable in her skin, and fearless standing up to conventions and the status quo every day in her high-heeled boots.

As a leitmotif of this year’s Festival, the triumph of the human spirit also played out in a silent film, a revival, and tribute.

In the dramatic conclusion of Josef von Sternberg’s masterpiece “The Last Command,” the expat director wins a battle with his inner demon and the old general finally wins his war.

Lola Montes takes her last dive without a safety net.

And Jean Simmons took her standing ovations in stride. Now 80 and as delicate as a wood sprite, the actress clearly has nothing left to prove. Disarmingly, utterly charming and unedited, she could (still) break your heart.

Even the Festival itself triumphed, making a change we could all believe in. In response to the hue and cry from last year’s many shutouts, the directors scheduled big movies against each other, dispersing the crowd around town. By adding more TBA slots, major sell-outs got repeated.
Willingness to fix what was wrong is one more reason we’ve loved you for so long.

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