Toronto International Film Festival 2012: The Master, Frances Ha
Finally, after almost unbearable anticipation and nearly an hour past the scheduled start time, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master unspooled last night at the Toronto International Film Festival. And I mean "unspooled" in a literal sense: All of the screenings here at TIFF—indeed, all public screenings anywhere in the world until the film opens in wide release September 21—are being presented in Anderson's intended 70mm format.
The director briefly introduced the film and praised the Princess of Wales Theatre as a beautiful space—but nothing in the ornate venue could compare to the splendor of what was onscreen. In a festival that's now given over almost entirely to digital projection, there was something pure and exhilarating about seeing a film that invites you to luxuriate in every frame.
The otherworldly imagery is crucial: As WWII vet–turned-photographer-turned-drifter Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is taken into the fold of a cult known only as the Cause, it's important that the group's interactions seem as disorienting and utopian for us as they are for him. Indeed, The Master should be seen in 70mm or not at all. If you missed last month's surprise screening in Chicago (as I did), you may have to wait a while: The Music Box, the only venue in the city that can present the format, won't be able to give the film an encore engagement until it finishes its ordinary run. That may be well after Oscar season.
That said, The Master made for one of the most baffling moviegoing experiences I've had; among 2012 premieres, only Carlos Reygadas's Post Tenebras Lux comes as close to throwing out the rulebook of conventional filmmaking grammar and structure. The basic premise is quite obviously inspired by the origins of Scientology. (The "processing" interrogations by cult leader Lancaster Dodd—played by Philip Seymour Hoffman with circus-huckster showmanship—seem to mirror Scientologists' "auditing" sessions.) But Anderson is as sparing with his exposition as he is grandiose with his mise-en-scène. The movie thrusts us headlong into a world of codes and private rituals, which even Dodd's son fears his father is making up as he goes along. Phoenix's reptilian Navy man is given snippets of backstory, but not much—and the origins of Dodd's delusions are even more mysterious.
One sees clear parallels with Anderson's other films: fathers struggling to maintain control of wayward-child figures; the thirst for power; a sense of a moment in American history where an institution or industry—in this case, a new religion—is at a crossroads. Yet this may be the richest film Anderson has made, inviting you to scrutinize every quote and facial expression as a clue. The theme of the returning veteran is one of the great motifs of film noir, but trying to categorize The Master in a genre is useless. Masterpiece or madness, it's a film without precedent. It's hard to imagine anything here will live up to it.
The audience sat waiting patiently for a Q&A that never came. I'll have more to say in a forthcoming review. In the meantime, here's my colleague A.A. Dowd's brilliant take from the morning after the Music Box screening.
As modest as The Master is gigantic, Noah Baumbach's 86-minute, black-and-white Frances Ha is a scattered but winning new effort that some have described as a feminine counterpart to his great Greenberg (2010). Baumbach wrote the movie with one of that film's leads, Greta Gerwig, who stars as a 27-year-old aspiring dancer drifting apart from her college best friend (Mickey Sumner) and stubbornly resisting the onset of adult responsibility. Gerwig is great at creating a character whose wild demonstrations and need for attention conceal an aggravated loneliness. If the film has cutesier touches—such as an impromptu trip to Paris—that Baumbach's best films (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg) clearly have no use for, it's also frequently hilarious in ways that will appeal to the original Kicking and Screaming crowd.