Nothing unhinges the film critic more surely than a film festival, even the laid-back Canuck amiability of the Toronto international festival. It‘s not just that you have to see a minimum of three movies a day, up to eight if you’re nuts or feel compelled to pursue hot buzz by dropping in and out of screenings based on the advice of colleagues in varying degrees of jaded dyspepsia and hangover. Absent the props of your home routines, you can either plow inordinate amounts of energy and anxiety into plotting a social life that will last no more than a few days, or surrender to the insanity of having your emotional life defined by too many overheated movies. This can make for a pretty sick frame of mind, given the surfeit of gunfire and weird underage sex played for laughs that has passed for independent film in the last decade. Which may be why I have yet to set foot in a film festival where perfectly reasonable (or not) critics aren‘t reduced to whiny basket cases, lurching from one screening to the next while they bitch that the product is poor or that cinema is dead. Even Toronto, long celebrated as a haven for the art-house film, stands accused of degenerating into a meat market infested with predatory, cell-phone-toting distributors and peevish stars commandeering scarce hotel space for their armies of flunkies.

That I saw no masterpieces at Toronto is no reason to gripe: Genius is congenitally scarce. On the bright side, there were small but significant signs that the Tarantino effect may at last be wearing off. True, there were a few remnants by smug directors who believe that all they have to do to be “provocative” (the single most debased word in the film lexicon these days) is flash some hardware and kinky sex with a modicum of technical flair. Such a specimen was Les Amants Criminels, a sadistic, loathsomely misogynist little number by Francois Ozon (Sitcom) which I had the misfortune to see on my first day. Natacha Regnier, the young co-star of Erick Zonca’s The Dreamlife of Angels, squanders her talent as a slutty schoolgirl who talks her sexually confused boyfriend into murdering an Algerian fellow student. Ozon tries to cover his ass with some clumsy lunges into black comedy, none of which rescues the movie from its inconsequential nastiness.

Ozon might learn a thing or two about the sparing use of violence in its proper place from his compatriot Zonca, whose beautiful, elliptically intelligent Le Petit Voleur, about a restless baker‘s apprentice who gets in over his aimless head with a gang of young thieves, revisits the plight of disaffected French youth explored to such devastating effect in Dreamlife. At 65 minutes (it was made for television) and with no beautiful faces to catch a distributor’s eye, Le Petit Voleur may have a hard time getting a commercial release. Which would be a shame, for with a director of Zonca‘s courage and caliber, more of the same is always more. As it is with Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, whose new film, The Wind Will Carry Us, about four strangers with a secret agenda who land in a Kurdish village, breaks no ground in the way Taste of Cherry did. No matter: It’s enough that this funny, lyrical movie offers another alluring chapter in the director‘s wry examination of the way we hack away at life with our blueprints and our fierce motives, only to find ourselves caught up in the specific comic drama of the everyday, the stuff that matters.

Of the small number of buzzy movies I saw in five days at the festival, Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown, to be released in December, turned out to be a pleasing trifle starring a nicely lightened-up Sean Penn as a jazz guitarist who repeatedly invokes his art to excuse his pathetically caddish treatment of his very young girlfriend. Evidently Allen has cottoned to himself at last, but his insights are hardly news to the rest of us. The most genuinely transgressive of the talked-about movies was Dogma, Kevin Smith‘s bracing comic-book inquiry into the condition of the Catholic Church. A practicing Catholic, Smith wrote the script (and what a writer he is, this scabrous latter-day Dickens) during a spiritual crisis early on in his career. You’d never know: In its boisterously sacrilegious and perversely feminist way, this sexy, hilarious and finally touching movie has all the brassy nerve of the true believer testing the limits of his faith. Flannery O‘Connor must surely be smiling from whichever side of purgatory she’s parked, not only on Smith but on the folks at Lions Gate, who rushed in where Miramax, under the baleful eye of the Mighty Mouse, feared to tread. My 21-month-old daughter, who had remained her serenely unflappable self throughout the festival, got her revenge by throwing a fit at Miramax‘s annual festival reception. Released from her stroller, she hared off down the street with me and a burly waiter in hot pursuit. Talk about voting with your feet.

LA Weekly