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TIFF Update - Day 6: Friends from France and Under the Skin
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Scarlett Johannson in Under the Skin

Editor's Note: We can't all make it to the Toronto International Film Festival (which is too bad, since it's where some of the best films of the next year will be shown). But CT has the next best thing: daily updates during the Festival from our critic Ken Morefield. Stay tuned for the next week for capsule reviews and reflections on some of the world's most important movies.

Friends from France, directed by Phillipe Kotlarski and Anne Weil
Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer

I may well be the only person in North America who walked into Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin stone cold, but I think I will be the better for it in the long run. In these days of advance screenings and preproduction gossip, I hardly know what constitutes a plot spoiler any more—particularly when dealing with actors or directors who have an enthusiastic fan base.

Under the Skin was one of those films that I hated through all 108 minutes only to walk out of the theater entertaining the notion that I had totally misjudged it. Scarlett Johansson plays Laura, who spends most of the film hunting for men and finding them surprisingly easy prey. What happens when she gets the men back to her place is . . . not entirely clear. It involves a lot of nudity (mostly male), and some of the most impressionistic use of sound and silhouette you are likely to see in a commercial film. Glazer said of his process in adapting Michael Faber's novel that he sought a "language [that] communicates visually how [Laura] feels."

That explanation makes a lot more sense at the end of the film than it does at the beginning, but whether the average viewer wants to sit through a film twice to preserve the value of allowing a story to reveal itself only gradually is an open question. The way in which Under the Skin riffs subverts its genre conventions—by presenting us with scene after scene that is both utterly familiar and (because of the gender reversals) strangely alien—is also thought-provoking.

Glazer also had some interesting comments about the way the film was shot, particularly in the unconventional placement of cameras and apparent openness to some improvisation to give the pick-up scenes a naturalistic feel. I think it is a film that will be discussed for a long while and could become a fan-favorite . . . at least among those who make it all the way through.

If Under the Skin started slow and finished strong, Friends from France had the opposite problem. The first hour of the historical drama about French cousins in Odessa trying to help repressed Jews at the height of the cold war reels viewers in with a deft portrait of a moment in time and then collapses into a conventional and somewhat trite love triangle.

The film is filled with smart touches and psychological nuance at the start, particularly in the way that it delineates the complex motivations of Carole and Jérôme. They are motivated in part by idealism, but like much of the idealism of the young, it is tempered with strains of longing to look, feel, and be publicly perceived as righteous. Each suffers from middle-class, first world guilt, which is especially complicated when one's group status is determined by how much one has been persecuted. Does Carole want to help fellow Jews, or does she want a story she can publish? Will Jérôme risk his own safety when asked by a refusenik to go beyond smuggling chocolate and razors and receive a manuscript that could land him in jail?

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TIFF Update - Day 6: Friends from France and Under the Skin