Given that there are only a handful of narrative archetypes—I used to be able to rattle them off, but college was a long time ago—it's not surprising that, watching two dozen features over six days at the Toronto film festival, I sometimes thought I was watching the same one over again. That's not necessarily a rap against any of the filmmakers, because the details are what make an old story come alive. But in at least two cases, the similarities helped me clarify what separates a good movie from an exceptional one.
One of the festival's biggest buzz movies was Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, which ended a distribution drought on Monday when Fox Searchlight picked up the U.S. rights for $4 million. Its main attraction is Mickey Rourke's unimpeachable performance as a washed-up wrestling star who's still riding on the fumes of his 80s glory when a coronary forces him into retirement for good. Rourke is one of those actors who's always working (since Diner made him a star in 1982, he's appeared in a whopping 50 features) but who's become such an industry punchline that any good role is inevitably heralded as a comeback. In The Wrestler he looks like a truck ran over him, but I can't think of many 52-year-old actors still ripped enough to get away with this role; the real subtext of The Wrestler is Rourke's indomitability, not the character's. The story is fairly sentimental—more Requiem for a Heavyweight than Requiem for a Dream—and the wrestler's relationships with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and a stripper with a heart of gold (Marisa Tomei, another jaw-dropping specimen at 43) are pretty familiar. But the grimy details of life at the bummed-out bottom of the wrestling circuit are so convincing that I was pulled into the story anyway.
The same tale unfolds with a lot more energy, wit, and meta-movie flash in JCVD, a French action flick starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. Writer-director Mabrouk el Mechri befriended the Muscles From Brussels and wrote him the comeback role of all time—as himself, a washed-up action hero whose early 90s stardom in movies like Timecop and Universal Soldier has deteriorated into a life churning out straight-to-video martial arts flicks. People badger him on the street for autographs, making embarrassing remarks about his fading career; in a child custody hearing, his daughter testifies on the stand that classmates make fun of her whenever daddy's movies come on TV. When Van Damme blunders into a hostage crisis in a post office, the hostages look expectantly to him for heroic action, while the bad guys try to exploit his fame in negotiating with the police, who've set up a command post in the video store across the street. JCVD functions perfectly well as an action vehicle, but it's also a funny and poignant look at a man who can no longer live up to the exploits of his youth.
Another French production screening at Toronto—and scheduled for the Chicago film festival in October—was I've Loved You So Long, the debut feature of novelist Philippe Claudel. As the film opens, a middle-aged woman (Kristin Scott Thomas) is waiting for her much younger sister (Elsa Zylberstein) to pick her up at the airport; the woman has just been paroled from prison after 15 years, and before long Claudel reveals that she was convicted of killing her six-year-old son. Claudel withholds the details of the crime until the very end—you'd think a novelist would know better than to play around like that—exploring instead whether the killer, who moves in with her sister's family for the time being, can ever be accepted again by them or the larger community. Thomas acquits herself admirably as the remote, hardened woman, but when the truth finally comes out, it's considerably less heinous than one might have imagined. I've Loved You So Long purports to be about living with guilt, but in the end Claudel seems more intent on ameliorating it.
Where Claudel promises, Jonathan Demme delivers. Rachel Getting Married begins with a young woman (Anne Hathaway in a decidedly unglamorous role) getting picked up from her drug-treatment facility so she can attend her sister's wedding. Like the Thomas character, she's treated with a mixture of anger and alarm by her sister, her milquetoast father, and the assorted relatives who've gathered for the nuptials, and the reason for this emerges soon enough: years earlier, as a drugged-out teen, Hathaway drove into a lake, drowning her preschool brother. In contrast to the well-mannered I've Loved You So Long, Rachel Getting Married gets messier as it goes along, ripping the scabs off the dysfunctional family. (Declan Quinn's handheld photography contributes to the sense of barely contained chaos.) I've Loved You So Long contrives to isolate and alleviate the heroine's responsibility for a child's death, but in Rachel Getting Married, the responsibility seeps slowly outward, staining everyone.