Animals may only occupy the frame for a few moments at at time, but their presence can define an entire character and slant audience reaction in subconscious ways. Critic Katherine Monk does a head count of the creatures great and small appearing at TIFF19.
The Toronto International Film Festival
September 5 -15
By Katherine Monk
TORONTO — I’d say TIFF is going to the dogs, but that wouldn’t be quite accurate. According to my latest count, the animal kingdom is represented by a variety of species at the Toronto International Film Festival: A long-eared white rabbit, and a long-eared brown one. Three orange tabbies. Two chihuahuas, a maltese, a Russian wolfhound and an aging pug. And, let’s not forget that immortal goldfinch.
Maybe it’s because I’m an animal lover that I notice all the fauna on film. But it seems I’ve seen an animal in every other movie I’ve watched here over the past 72 hours-or-so of full film immersion. Moreover, they’ve been some of the most interesting and commanding presences to hit the screen. Put a furry creature in the frame, and I’m hypnotized.
Part of my fascination is the level of awareness of the performance itself. Has that cat been trained to hit its mark? Does that pug know it’s playing sick? Why is that chihuahua always looking slightly out of frame at its trainer? Can’t it just sit in the fancy purse and keep a cute blank stare into the middle-distance, the way ‘normal purse dogs’ do? Does it understand the transaction at play, and if so, wouldn’t that make the animal performer the most honest of all actors?
Do the trick, get a treat. Get a pet. Get some love. Do another trick. Get more love. Ego doesn’t enter the picture. They aren’t seeking an identity in the big world, but a stroke and a cookie in the moment. Humans seem incapable of existing so immediately, which is no doubt why we need pets in our lives, as well as in our movies. They help us come back to the present, the authentic and what inevitably matters most: unconditional love.
Without language, animals help us articulate what makes us human, which is the other part of my enchantment with the pets I’ve watched on screen. They bring unspoken, subconscious values to the characters they’re attached to.
That long-eared white rabbit, for instance. The bunny is a central part of Atom Egoyan’s new movie Guest of Honour, a family drama revolving around a father-daughter relationship that’s deeply broken. The rabbit is a reminder of happier times, of family love, and parental responsibility. But the rabbit is also completely passive — a creature completely reliant on a benevolent keeper.
Egoyan dissects this dynamic, at times, in literal terms, breaking it all down to various parts – which may account for the film’s hostile reception in Venice. People can sit through all kinds of horrors involving humans, but show a severed rabbit’s foot, and we get squirmy.
Taika Waititi used the same horror to predictable effect in his Hitler satire of questionable taste, Jojo Rabbit. In the film, a young fan of the Führer comes face to face with the inhumanity of Nazism when his troop leader commands him to kill the hapless little brown hare he’s pulled out of the woods. When the kid tries to set the rabbit free, we know he’s got a shot a redemption. Meanwhile, the men in uniform who twist the rabbit’s neck with a smile become comic-book villains. Animals give us a shortcut to gauge moral worth because we see ourselves as their shepherds.
The tabbies push a different door. Cats embody a sense of autonomy as well as the mystical. So the fact Proxima, a space movie starring Eva Green as a female astronaut, features a cat named Laika should come as no real surprise. The orange tabby (the same kind of cat seen in Alien) belongs to the astronaut’s daughter, a little girl who feels emotionally betrayed by her mom’s desire to reach for the stars, instead of her hand. When the girl is forced to move in with her dad for the duration of her mother’s training and mission, she tries to get out of the move by saying the cat won’t like it. For the next two scenes featuring the cat in the new apartment, I kept waiting for something awful to happen as the disoriented cat peered over the balcony.
My anxiety was misplaced. Nothing bad happened, but animals always raise the suspense value because they are so perfectly vulnerable. In Seberg, the biopic about actress and activist Jean Seberg starring Kristen Stewart, the starlet has a family, but it’s her aging chihuahua that she takes with her everywhere. The dog is constantly at her side, barking appropriately at strangers, articulating the ingenue’s silenced alarm. Sadly, harm comes to this dog, and it makes us despise the perpetrator — a representative of the federal government and its authority.
Given the movie is about the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and Seberg’s support for the so-called radicals, it’s notable that the injustice suffered by the dog cuts through all the rhetoric and defines the true villains in a way that marches, speeches and endemic human injustice can’t. We get sidetracked by words and thrown into our political sub-routines. Yet, when the dog is harmed, the moral vacancy of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, who believed taping Seberg’s bedroom ecstasy was part of a proper investigation, we’re truly outraged. So is the moral FBI agent, who flies into a fit of outrage, and starts questioning the inherent hypocrisy of his mission.
Bad things are also in store for the fat pug in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s (Blackfish) latest feature, The Friend, featuring Casey Affleck, Jason Segel and Dakota Johnson. The film revolves around a young mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis, and how the family adapts to the long goodbye. The dog foreshadows the illness, and puts titular friend (Jason Segel) in warm-up mode for what’s to come. “I don’t want the girls to get confused between the dog’s cancer and their mother’s,” says an exhausted Affleck, desperate to stave off the mountain of hurt headed their way. But he can’t. The dog signals the undeniable.
The emotional stakes are always cranked up a notch once an animal enters the frame. They become symbols of responsibility, kindness, and somewhat ironically, our own humanity. They can also be symbols of control — which is where the leashed wolfhound came in handy in a movie called Beanpole, a Russian film that follows the plight of two women at the end of the Second World War. Poor and hungry, Eastern front veteran Masha decides to cozy up to the spoiled son of a wealthy family for security, but the mother is having none of it. We see her walk her wolfhound on a short leash in the blinding white snow shortly before she kiboshes the engagement. The very breed is a sign she’s monied, believes in tradition, and likes the hunt. This woman is in charge of all animal tendencies, and she’s fully conscious of her power.
The emotional stakes are always cranked up a notch once an animal enters the frame. They become symbols of responsibility, kindness, and somewhat ironically, our own humanity.
Then there’s the goldfinch, perhaps the only animal to score a title in this TIFF lineup. Donna Tartt’s novel uses Carel Fabritius famed 1654 painting as the symbolic heart of the book. The famed masterpiece depicts a tiny tethered bird, and survived a tragic explosion shortly after it was painted. It is both a symbol of imprisonment and survival — a testament to the random nature of tragedy, as well as the abstract power of love and our desire to hold on to it forever.
Everyone in The Goldfinch is desperate to hold on to something they do not possess. It’s a pathetic pursuit because it proves how humans so often miss the point. Animals force us into recognizing how strange our world truly is because it’s built on intangibles such as money and future possibility — things that are entirely absent in an animal consciousness. So we look to the animals to ground us, to remind us of what’s essential to our physical, as well as spiritual survival.
The Goldfinch director John Crowley reaffirms this theme with the inclusion of Popper, the vulnerable white maltese who is “rescued” by the central character, Theo. He also underscores Tartt’s big message with the recurring image of a hand-carved, antique toy. It’s an old, much loved piece of folk art depicting the story of Noah’s ark. The toy appears in the background of the benevolent mentor, Hobie’s (Jeffrey Wright), work shop. Sitting in half-shadow, and slightly out of focus, the ark signals Theo’s hope for rescue and companionship as the flood of emotions constantly threatens to pull him under.
Counting the animals at a film festival has offered me a similar vessel of survival. It pulls me out of my critical habits, forces me to into different headspace and jolts me back into the moment. I’m awash in compassion and animal love — until the next hors d’oeuvres tray passes by with free, fresh charcuterie, and I’m forced to swallow my own of hypocrisy with every greasy slice.
THE EX-PRESS, September 10, 2019