One of the great joys of covering film festivals is the discovery of talents, the sense of being struck by new, compelling voices. For whatever reason these films don’t always get to be seen much outside the festival bubble. In these cases I see it as the journalists’ job to help draw attention to the filmmakers, to get the word out.
As such, I would like to highlight the names of two emerging female filmmakers whose work impressed me in very different ways at TIFF this year. First case in point is Hungarian writer/director Lili Horvát, who put a Hitchcockian spin on the age-old psycho lady genre with her sophomore feature PREPARATIONS TO BE TOGETHER FOR AN UNKNOWN PERIOD OF TIME and created something wholly mysterious, captivating.
The story revolves around 40-year-old neurosurgeon Marta (Natasa Stork), who has recently returned to her hometown Budapest after spending two decades in the States. By her own account, she has given up a career in the US in order to be with Janos, another surgeon from Hungary whom she met at a conference and instantly recognized as the love of her life. It all sounds nice and romantic, until Janos sees Marta and insists that they have never met.
What happens next would seem familiar at first, as Marta cyber-stalks her supposed lover and spies on him both professionally and privately – tropes we’ve come to expect in female stalker thrillers. But then Marta gets an unwanted suitor of her own in the form of a patient’s infatuated son while we realize that the heroine might not be much of a reliable narrator at all, and things start to get really slippery.
From FATAL ATTRACTION on, films about obsessed, lovelorn women have been struggling to shake a common misogynistic undertone. The perceived hysteria of the female protagonist tends to overshadow all other character traits, which is why what Horvát does with Marta feels so refreshing. This film, despite its strong genre-centric pull, remains a riveting psychological profile of an intelligent, cool-headed woman who can perform open brain surgeries without batting an eyelash. The strange situation with the men in her life presents itself as a curiosity (which she may or may not have created herself) that could help us understand her, nothing more. I love how the screenplay drops all sorts of clues about a haunted, complicated mind, then stops just short of offering any easy conclusion.
Aided by Stork’s restrained, enigmatic performance, Horvát has crafted an atmospheric, well-paced mystery drama that defies expectations and thoroughly intrigues. The overall scope of the film might feel a bit limited, but within that scope it got just about everything right.
Next up is New York-based filmmaker Emma Seligman, whose feature debut SHIVA BABY is by some measure the funniest thing I’ve seen so far at TIFF. It’s a sharply observed relationship comedy that suggests remarkable directorial instincts. Producers and audiences alike should pay attention.
The film opens at the end of a hook-up where we meet goal-less Gen Z college student Danielle (Rachel Sennott), drifting toward graduation and making some cash on the side from dates with middle-aged dudes like Max (Danny Deferrari). Danielle takes off to join her parents for a funeral service and must face all kinds of blasts from the past seeing her childhood friend/one-time girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) and other members from their Jewish community. Just when she thinks things couldn’t get worse, who but Max shows up – with wife and kid in tow.
SHIVA BABY is expanded from Seligman’s own short of the same name and is stretched a bit thin even at a brisk 77-min runtime. That said, the setup of the film is smart and original, allowing layers of secrets and unresolved issues to bubble up in a comedically enhanced high-stress environment. The script impresses for the large group of characters it covers and how it shifts its focus between them in such rapid succession, giving rise to frictions and hilarious, very relatable anxieties. The cast is superb too. Considering the ensemble nature of the piece, it’s the chemistry and collective effort of all the actors that make it work. But Sennott, Gordon and particularly Polly Draper who plays Danielle’s fast-talking, overbearing mother, deserve to be singled out.
Above all else Seligman’s direction shines. Despite the logistic limitations of a film that’s set predominantly inside one house, she has found numerous, inspired ways to keep the crisis fresh and continue to raise the stakes. Watching the disastrous shiva unfold is to endure, with delirious anticipation, the tension that she keeps building and building. Her control of tone and pace is excellent all around.
So that’s a quick update from TIFF on two lower-profile delights. Hopefully more surprises await!