In addition to the movie Murray made me see this weekend (review to be published tomorrow), I saw two other films that I actually wanted to see: Repo! The Genetic Opera, and Passchendaele.
I had heard that Passchendaele had gotten mixed reviews when it opened the Toronto International Film Festival, so I was a little reticent about going to see it. What if I didn't like it, but then started to wonder if I was being overly critical because it was a Canadian film? What if I did like it, but then started to wonder if I just liked it because it was a major Canadian film with a lot riding on its success and I wanted to like it?
Does anyone in any other country on the planet go through this kind of angst over their own movies?
In the end, I decided to rely on my gut, and on the reality check question I always ask myself the day after seeing a movie: do I want to go see it again?
The answer in this case is most definitely: yes.
Passchendaele is a romance sandwiched in the middle of a war movie. The romance is intensely passionate, especially given the historical setting, but Gross doesn't take his lovers in any of the expected directions. Instead, he builds their relationship slowly, adding layers of complexity as they learn more about one another. Confronting each others demons only draws them closer.
The war begins and ends the film, and from the first sequence you feel that yes, this is what it must have been like. Brutal. Filthy. Surreal. In an interview, I heard Paul Gross say that his grandfather (on whose experience the movie was based) had told him that he could rarely see or even be aware of what was happening more than fifty feet away from him, so that's the way Gross chose to shoot it. The result is an almost claustrophobic intensity, with only the occasional boom shot to give us an overview of the carnage.
Paul Gross learned well from his grandfather. There is one remarkable scene where Gross' character goes to considerable lengths to explain to a superior officer the importance of dry matches to a soldier in the field. In another, reference is made to the widespread but probably mythical story of a Canadian soldier crucified on a barn door by German soldiers - a story which takes on some significance later.
Details like that add a richness and authenticity that I appreciate both as a history buff and a movie goer.
Passchendaele is not without its flaws. Sometimes the details get a little too detailed, to the point where it seems like Gross is trying to cram everything he knows about his subject into the film. The transition from the intense opening battle sequence is a bit abrupt and it takes a while to adjust to the more languid pace of the Calgary scenes. And there are moments - not many - where Gross indulges in a bit of Mel Gibson-like self-directed vanity. Then again, he is Paul Gross. Who can blame him for letting the camera linger on that face a little longer than necessary?
Of course, all of these points only occurred to me long after I walked sobbing out of the theatre, as I sat trying to think of some way to sound like a dispassionate film critic and not a total sap.
In amidst the drama and romance of Passchendaele, there was one particular moment that made me laugh out loud. Gross' love interest in the film has a neighbour across the street from her house in Calgary, and at one point he reveals himself to be a bigoted brute of a man who inevitably gets his comeuppance in the form of a forehead to the nose.
The character's name is 'Mr. Harper'.
I'll bet Paul enjoyed that scene immensely.