One of the most chattered-about entries at the Telluride Film Festival was the late-bowing “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which stars festival tributee Tilda Swinton as the beleaguered mother of a teenaged boy who commits a Columbine-style massacre.
The undercurrent of the talk on the streets, of course, had to do with another troublesome male figure: We need to talk about Oscar.
Among the English-language films receiving their world or U.S. premieres at the Colorado festival, a common thread emerged: great performances in lesser-loved or dark, difficult movies that it may be hard to get art-house audiences to spend $12 on ... or to get Academy members to watch for free.
These worries particularly applied to the two buzz films that dominated the second half of the four-day festival, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and “Shame,” both of which didn’t start unspooling for patrons until Sunday, and left some tired attendees shaking their heads at the grueling contents therein -- even as they added, “Wasn’t he/she great?”
Some of these sentiments also applied to the Glenn Close project “Albert Nobbs” and David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” though audiences weren’t wildly polarized over these so much as lukewarm (with certain exceptions, like A.O. Scott, who raved about American movies, only runaway favorite “The Descendants” walked away with a widespread love for the film to equal the adoration for its actors.
Nothing looks to be a tougher sell than “Shame,” director Steve McQueen’s decidedly NC-17 portrayal of soul-crippling sexual addiction. The first 10 minutes are front-loaded with full-frontal shots of leading man Michael Fassbender, and the action gets more graphic in the last act. But how do you push as "sexy" a movie that means to point out how unsexy extreme erotic compulsiveness can be?
Hearing that I had a “Shame” screening scheduled for later in the day Monday, two New York women down the row had some words of wisdom. “You’ll need to take a shower afterward,” said one. The woman next to her offered even stronger, and more amusing, counsel. “Make sure to have sex beforehand,” she advised me, “because you’ll be off it after.”
Fassbender -- who also appeared, pants mostly on, as Carl Jung in “A Dangerous Method” -- is frankly amazing in “Shame,” all the way to the remarkable scene near the end when he simulates graphic intercourse while wearing one of the most anguished expressions in the history of cinema. It's a good thing McQueen lays off the casual frontal nudity after the first reel, so we can rightfully claim we couldn't take our eyes off Fassbender's face.
Dyed-blonde Carey Mulligan, meanwhile, may not be having anyone calling her “Audrey Hepburn-esque” anymore after her role as Fassbender’s similarly degraded sister, although she gets off kind of light on the nudity front. The one non-sex scene that’s going to prompt considerable polarization is a jazz club sequence where a not entirely on-pitch Mulligan sings a radically slowed down rendition of “New York, New York” that goes on for so many minutes, it almost starts to qualify as torture porn.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin,” based on a popular British novel, is an exceptionally well-mounted portrait of a serial killer’s mother, and would seem like a shoo-in to usher Swinton toward award consideration -- if not for the fact that literally every single one of its 112 minutes is grim and filled with overwhelming dread. The back-and-forth flashback structure telegraphs all the atrocities to come, leaving the audience with nothing to hang on but the sight of Swinton’s once-vibrant character being increasingly overwhelmed by her son’s implicit menace and her spouse’s aggravating naïveté. For fans of great acting, that’s almost enough.
As the husband, John C. Reilly so overplays the ineffectual card, you hardly believe he could get a job or a wife, much less share a huge Connecticut house with a character as sharp and accomplished as Swinton’s. But the two kids who play Kevin as a toddler and teenager make such deeply convincing and disturbing sociopaths that someone should make use of them by quickly mounting a “Bad Seed” remake or “Omen” sequel. Come to think of it, maybe that’s what “Kevin,” in its own smart, arty way, already basically is, since the film ultimately doesn't seem to have much more to impart than ... Evil Happens.
That these entries didn’t inspire across-the-board accolades doesn’t mean nothing at Telluride did, just that unanimity was largely reserved for a handful of international entries.
Unofficial polling on the streets and on the gondola showed four clear favorites. One was Alexander Payne’s George Clooney vehicle “The Descendants,” which enjoyed an overwhelmingly successful world-premiere engagement at Telluride on its way to Toronto. The other three arrived in the U.S. via earlier stops at Cannes.
Attendees weren’t shy about calling the Iranian film “A Separation” a masterpiece, and it won’t be any surprise to see this riveting morality tale topping year-end critics’ polls.
Agnieska Holland’s equally dazzling but less intrinsically inviting “Into Darkness” won raves from everyone who had the moxie to submit to a two-and-a-half-hour Holocaust drama. “Holocaust suspense picture” might be a better way of selling the film, with its brilliantly directed action setpieces -- which, just to make things difficult, take place in nearly pitch-black Polish sewers.
But if anything equaled “The Descendants” as a popular favorite, it was the French-made, American-set “The Artist,” a bona-fide black-and-white silent movie that left most of the passholders who caught it in a state of delirium that could only partly be attributed to the altitude. In something close to a repeat of the feel-good bliss surrounding "Slumdog Millionaire's" debut at Telluride three years ago, predictions ran rampant that “Artist” could cross over to mainstream audiences and even, conceivably, get a nod for the Academy’s top honor -- the kind of soothsaying you could blame on the lack of local oxygen, incredible foresight, or both.