I watched (almost) all the queer films at TIFF this year and here's what I learned
Murderous French twinks? Incestuous identical twins? Mark Wahlberg, for some reason? This was queer TIFF 2020
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
The Toronto International Film Festival concludes its largely virtual 2020 edition this weekend — something that in itself is pretty miraculous given all the circumstances. And while the festival absolutely did its best to offer the most exceptional experience safely available to its patrons, it was difficult to shake off a nostalgia for what once was (and will hopefully be again) as I spent the past week celebrating TIFF from my living room.
I've attended TIFF every year since 2003. It's where I started building a career as a film journalist, and where I found a community of like-minded folks from all around the world who I'd end up spending a sizeable portion of my time with on the film festival circuit. Every September, TIFF would come to feel like a homecoming. It was my time to play host, whether literally to an American journalist on my couch or at a big gay party I'd throw every year that tried to make Toronto seem fun. And then, of course, there were the movies: often 3 or 4 a day where you'd run into folks afterward to chat about what you liked or didn't like or what has all the Oscar buzz. We'd also often complain about how tired we all were, and while it was ultimately exhausting (a fetal position was assumed for most of the following week), it always felt worth it. In retrospect now, it definitely always felt like it was worth it.
Obviously, this was not the narrative of this year's festival. The closest thing I had to throwing a big gay party was watching François Ozon's Summer of 85 on my laptop while taking a bubble bath. And if I'm assuming a fetal position for most of next week, it's likely to fend off the anxiety of a mounting second wave of COVID-19. But while in many ways this year's TIFF felt like an extension of how almost everything feels in 2020 (an imitation of our former existence that seems just barely better than nothing), there was one thing that made it all worthwhile: the movies. And as hard it was to not have colleagues to discuss them with in cinema lobbies afterward, I definitely took solace in the gratitude I had to just watch them.
The pared-down selection of 50 films versus the 7 million or so the festival usually programs made it pretty easy to catch everything you wanted at this year's TIFF. For the purposes of this column, I set out to watch all the queer offerings, which from my count totalled 7. One of them — arguably the most anticipated — was not made available through the digital press screening portal: Francis Lee's Ammonite. Only select critics got to watch Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan find love while talking a lot about fossils and sadness (and their reviews are all over the place, for what it's worth). So instead, here is what I learned from watching the other six.
We missed out on having a real summer, but at least that saved us from potentially falling in love with psychopaths or our identical twins.
Longtime masters of sexy queer cinema François Ozon and Bruce LaBruce brought their latest respective offerings to TIFF: Summer of '85 and Saint-Narcisse. The former is set during that titular summer, and follows two impossibly attractive young men hilariously named Alexis and David (maybe Ozon is a Schitt's Creek fan?) as they fall into a steamy romance. Except one of these boys is obsessed with death and might be a murderous psychopath, leading to Call Me By Your Name and The Talented Mr. Ripley essentially meeting cute on a French beach. This is by no means a complaint, as Summer of 85 is a thoroughly enjoyable (if a little slight) film that also serves as a welcome reminder that maybe our lack of summer romances this year was for the best.
This is doubled down in LaBruce's Saint-Narcisse — unless, of course, your ultimate sexual partner is...yourself. Anchored in the Greek myth of Narcissus, the darkly comic film is set in 1970s Quebec and follows two more impossibly attractive young men (this time both played by the same actor, Félix-Antoine Duval) who also are probably identical twins separated at birth. One is in the midst of getting to know his long-lost mother, the other is trapped in an abusive gay convent, and when they finally meet, self-obsessed sparks fly! Enjoyably quite silly, it all makes for a pretty fun ride that is actually, despite its content, one of LaBruce's more mainstream offerings.
Contemporary queer social life is stressful and complicated and maybe we shouldn't miss existing in it!
Canadian filmmaker Emma Seligman makes her feature debut in Shiva Baby, a comedy suggestively set in an era that now feels pretty much as foreign as the summer of 1985: last year. The film follows bisexual Jewish 20-something Danielle (Rachel Sennott) as she spends an afternoon at a secret-exposing shiva. With her overbearing parents in tow, Danielle's world is thrown into chaos by the attendance of both her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) and Max (Danny Defarri), an older man she's been having sex with for money. Various extremely uncomfortable revelations unfold, and while the film marks a self-assured, well-acted and occasionally quite funny debut from Seligman, it also refreshingly does not make us yearn for the complicated social lives we might have had in the before times.
The straights are still doing the same well-intentioned-ish shit to atone their homophobia or get Oscars or whatever.
Some things never change. From Dallas Buyers Club to The Imitation Game, some of my least favourite TIFF experiences have been witnessing the premieres of Oscar-baiting films entirely conceived by straight people that tackle "gay issues." Two new examples were front and centre this year: Viggo Mortensen's directorial debut Fallling and Reinaldo Marcus Green's Good Joe Bell, which was written by the screenwriters of Brokeback Mountain.
Falling is by far the less questionable of the pair. A devastating portrayal of a gay man (Mortensen) caring for his ailing, homophobic father (an incredible Lance Henriksen), it's a sensitive and moving film that shows that Mortensen is more than capable as a writer-director. It's just so curious why he chose to make that mark by writing and directing this particular film to make that mark (I had similar questions about why Joel Egerton decided to do the same with Boy Erased). Either way, no harm is really done — it's just sort of unclear why it exists.
More clear is why Good Joe Bell was made. Featuring Mark Wahlberg as a father who walks across America to raise awareness for the homophobic bullying that led to his gay son's suicide, the film seems to be working as both a cinematic atonement for Wahlberg's past public homophobia and to get him an Oscar nomination. But what good is it doing? Will Middle America watch Good Joe Bell and question their own homophobia because Mark Wahlberg told them to? It's possible, but they'll do so via a movie that feels desperate to prove itself. Wahlberg's fine, but Good Joe Bell feels like little more than an incredibly well-shot Lifetime movie.
Trans representation matters, and there's still a lot of work to be done.
On a serious note, the best LGBTQ film at TIFF hands down (and my second favourite of the festival overall, after the astounding, surely Oscar-bound Nomadland) was one that represents both significant progress and the need for more of it when it comes to cisgender people's understanding of the trans experience. Directed by Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt, on the surface No Ordinary Man is a documentary about the legacy of Billy Tipton, a 20th-century American jazz musician and trans icon. But Chin-Yee and Joynt utilize Tipton's story to discuss transmaculinity with a diverse group of contemporary trans artists, and the result is an extraordinary conversation about much more than Tipton.
The musician — who gained fame in the 1940s and '50s — was not publicly noted as trans until after his death in 1989. But the way this legacy has been handled speaks volumes to how the media and cis members of the LGBTQ community continue to treat transmasculinity. A very thoughtful continuation of discussions started in this summer's Netflix documentary Disclosure, No Ordinary Man is a groundbreaking exploration of one man's story...and everything it represents. It made me yearn for that post screening in-person discussion more than anything else I saw at TIFF — but at least it led me to start a dialogue with myself.
The Toronto International Film Festival continues through this weekend. Look out for its films via virtual releases or whenever it's safe for us all to go back to movie theatres.