If anyone captured the spirit of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, it was the codger who hoisted a placard that read: “The Toronto Film Festival is Satan’s Idea of Entertainment.” This middle-aged gentleman was part of a 150-person demonstration protesting the premiere screening of “Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat”. This ominous documentary by Montreal filmmaker Zev Asher relates, in sobering detail, the story of Toronto art student Jesse Power, who in 2001 enlisted two friends to help him videotape the murder of an innocent feline. Power’s repugnant act—which also involved cooking and eating the cat—scandalized Toronto and ultimately led to criminal charges.
The opening-night protest was not the first sign of opposition to the film. A week prior to the start of TIFF, one malcontent cat-lover threatened the life of festival programmer Sean Farnel, pledging to “skin him alive.” Other, less murderous objectors jammed up the festival phone lines. So inundated was the TIFF office with calls that co-director Noah Cowan released a statement, maintaining that, “Film festivals exist, in part, to generate intelligent, reasoned discussion, not stifle it.” The fact that none of the protesters had actually seen the film didn’t stop those outside the theatre from indicting “Casuistry” as a glorification of animal torture and implicating ticket-holders as brazen cat-haters. As for the doc itself, it is alternately creepy and boring—notable only for Power’s rationalizations. His “art” project was meant as a comment on society’s willingness to slaughter cows and pigs but protect domestic species. “He intended to make art and failed miserably,” averred Asher in an ensuing Q&A session.” Asked what he thought of his subject, Asher said, “I don’t think [Power] is a potential serial killer… but I’m not sure. Don’t quote me on that.”
“Casuistry” was the most politically charged film at TIFF this year, but it was hardly the most devilish. If the festival failed to produce any critical faves, it set new precedents for scandalous subject matter. Asher’s film may have been inspired by unconscionable evil, but nothing he put up on screen could compare with the depravity of “A Hole in My Heart”, the latest from Swedish auteur Lukas Moodysson. Shot in Moodysson’s typically bleak style, it’s a nasty anti-narrative about a reclusive teen who lives with his father, an amateur pornographer. It begins with subtle titillation and escalates into some of the most vicious and appalling sex ever filmed (the most indelible being a scene in which two characters vomit into each other’s mouths). Animal lovers came out in droves for “Casuistry”; where were the humanists for “A Hole in My Heart?” And who will patch up the suppurating hole in Moodysson’s heart? The moody Swede has long demonstrated a von Trier-like interest in putting his characters (and audiences) through exquisite agony, but he always manages to sound a note of redemption. After a string of tough but endearing films (“Show Me Love” , “Together”  and “Lilja 4-ever” ), “A Hole in My Heart” is a pointless exercise in brutality.
Another lurid after-image from this year‘s fest: a woman having a rake thrust up her vagina in “Anatomie de l’enfer” (Anatomy of Hell). “Like A Hole in My Heart”, the latest torment from Catherine Breillat [“Romance” (1999), “Fat Girl” (2001)] doesn’t feature a plot so much as a set of circumstances to maximize audience revulsion. The female in question (Amira Casar) asks a gay man (French porn-stud Rocco Siffredi) to observe her in the nude for five nights, in which time he is to tell her what he hates about the feminine physique. Not content to verbally degrade her, he begins to physically violate her with various implements. Casar’s performance can only be described as valiant—although she let a stunt double handle the more jagged scenes. Similar malice could be found in fellow Gallic director Christophe Honoré’s “Ma Mère“ (My Mom), in which Isabelle Huppert plays a woman who introduces her teenage son to the prickly pleasures of S&M, a task that falls outside the purview of most mothers. The point of it all? Not sure, though it probably has something to do with feminist theory. Breillat admitted to one local interviewer, “I find my own film hard to watch,” which suggests that she at least sympathizes with viewers. Both Breillat and Honore force us to confront our feelings about sex, but the only feeling I get is that they thoroughly abhor it.
Thankfully, there were films this year that made light of, and even celebrated sex—a rare thing in indie cinema, where self-loathing and negative body image enjoy so much currency. Critics await a new Todd Solondz pic the way a kid anticipates a birthday, and “Palindromes” proved every bit as rewarding. Audiences were already giggling before the opening credits, which are prefaced by a dedication to Dawn Wiener, whom fans will recognize as the beleaguered protagonist of Solondz’s debut, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” . “Palindromes” follows the exploits of Dawn’s cousin Aviva, a dotty twelve-year-old who is determined to have a baby. The film features a hilariously maudlin performance from Ellen Barkin and one clever stylistic conceit: the role of Aviva is played by no less than six different actresses. This being Solondz, the film remains cheerful in light of the underage sex, abortions and casual pedophilia. Even so, there were moments so unsettling that you couldn’t help but peer nervously at your neighbor to gauge his or her reaction.
Canadian director Bruce LaBruce has always made artful porn, but in terms of provocation he outdid himself with “The Raspberry Reich”. Shot in Berlin, LaBruce’s home away from home, this satire re-imagines the Baader-Meinhof Gang (a group of German terrorists who kidnapped various well-heeled aristocrats during the 70s) as a bunch of oversexed hooligans. German icon Suzanne Sachsse leads a group of licentious revolutionaries who see heterosexual monogamy as a tool of mass oppression, and try to subvert it with wanton gay intercourse. The fact that it is so badly acted only amplifies the hilarity. Ripe with 60s-style go-go action sequences, kitschy slogans (“The revolution is my boyfriend!”), copious fellatio and a bouncy electro soundtrack, it was the most unabashedly droll film in this year’s crop.
In fact, “The Raspberry Reich” harks back to the fruitful days of John Waters, whose latest film, “A Dirty Shame”, takes a lot of liberties for a major studio release. This unbridled sex romp presents Tracey Ullman as a staid housewife who one day discovers her enormous carnal appetite and a clique of freaky sex addicts willing to satisfy it. Most audacious incident: Ullman’s character masturbating with a water bottle. Since “Pink Flamingos” , Waters has done a lot to further the cause of obscenity, but at this stage of his career, you’d hope for something with a bit more heft.
The inexhaustible Michael Winterbottom showed 9 Songs, a quickie drama (65 minutes) that follows a fledgling couple as they attend nine different concerts (including Elbow, Super Furry Animals, and Primal Scream) and find at least as many ways to shag. The sex is raw, not a little clumsy, but undeniably tender. The worst you could do is write “9 Songs” off as shameless spectacle—it may not be profound, but it does capture the thrill of sexual exploration.
The festival’s major awards went to potent but decidedly un-sexy films. The Discovery Award went to Peter Travis’s “Omagh”, a heartrending depiction of the aftermath of the IRA bombing in Omagh, Northern Ireland, in 1998. The People’s Choice Award for best film was bestowed on “Hotel Rwanda”, Terry George’s mesmerizing fact-based drama about a Kigali hotel operator who saved the lives of 1,000 Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Nick Nolte plays a rugged colonel obviously modeled on General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian peacekeeper who alerted the West to the gruesome conflict. Dallaire himself happened to be in town promoting Peter Raymont’s wrenching documentary “Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire”. When a reporter at a party apprised the retired general that Nolte was playing him as a hard-drinking colonel, Dallaire quipped, “You’re shitting me.” Asked to elaborate, he said, “The artificiality of Hollywood knows no boundaries.”
If politics and prurience ruled the day, then the sexiest dead guy at this year’s festival had to be socialist poster boy Che Guevara. Che buttons and T-shirts seemed to be everywhere. The likely reason: the release of Walter Salles’s “The Motorcycle Diaries”, a picaresque portrait of the Argentine dissident (based on his book of the same name). Starring Mexican heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal as the pre-revolutionary Che, “The Motorcycle Diaries” is an immensely enjoyable biopic, free of both sentimentality and Marxist sermonizing.
Thanks to LaBruce, however, Guevara was also the subject of mockery. One of the more subversive (or would that be counter-subversive?) scenes in “The Raspberry Reich” features a character masturbating while leaning against a wall-sized likeness of Che—which can only prove Toronto’s willingness to rub audiences the wrong way.