TIFF 2021: 'Encounter', 'The Mad Women's Ball' | Riz Ahmed, Mélanie Laurent | Capsule Reviews
Movie logic is a funny thing in that when a parent wakes up their kids in the middle of the night for a ''road trip'', you can forget cliches and normalcy if there are enough things to distract you meanwhile. This happens in director-writer Michael Pierce's Encounter, co-written with Joe Barton, which is a sort of sci-fi-action-thriller-drama mashup. Riz Ahmed plays Malik who is a marine soldier and somewhat absent father to his two boys, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada), taking them on to that road trip after he's alarmed by an invasion led by alien parasites that has begun on Earth. Three of them are heading to a military base while the boys' mother (Janina Gavankar), federal officers and Malik's acquaintance (played by Octavia Spencer) try to reach them.
Encounter's acts are gradually changing the genres (mainly from sci-fi to thriller and finally to drama) which can often irk people just by design but when it's done as well as it's done here, it can really shine a light on character growth. All that growth is channelled through exceptional performances, notably Ahmed's who continues his stellar year here as he balances fear, confusion and even humour, and also through Chauhan's work as the older son of two; it's impressive how he is able to go head-to-head with Ahmed several times while still keeping that childish naivete.
The main three acting efforts come together with Spencer's in the film's tragically touching but exhilarating finale as they are combined with precise cuts and understanding of characters. Technically the movie isn't lacking either as especially the sound design is truly unnerving when tension or swift location changes are needed, eerie score by Jed Kurzel helps accentuate that as well. There's a small voice behind Encounter saying that maybe it could've reached even higher if it had kept up the mystery longer than it did but otherwise it's certainly executing the mission.
Smileys: Riz Ahmed, Lucian-River Chauhan, sound design
Frowneys: Nothing too awful
THE MAD WOMEN'S BALL
Back with her fifth feature in the big seat, Mélanie Laurent directs, co-writes (with Chris Deslandes) and co-stars in The Mad Women's Ball (Le bal des folles in French), the film adaptation of similarly titled novel by Victoria Mas. Our leading woman of the ball is Lou de Laâge who plays Eugénie, a young woman in 19th-century France who has found herself hearing voices from dead people and their spirits, often freezing her in place and making her hyperventilate. Her family ends up sending her to Salpêtrière, a mental institute that revered Dr. Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet) runs and where Laurent's character Geneviève works. Conditions at the institute are difficult and methods used there are questionable, so Eugénie is planning to escape after the patriarchal system pushes her to a breaking point.
Not too often you get to say that in a film where the director is also one of the leading actors, the vision is rather clear and stylish. Presumably Laurent's previous directorial experience is behind this, perhaps best shown in scenes where Geneviève is surrounded by other characters and every performance has something distinct going on still. Things don't go awry with Eugénie's journey either as de Laâge gets a great chance to display range, from the easygoing introduction to the devastation Eugénie ends up seeing. De Laâge's eyes particularly often portray everything needed by themselves, giving DoP Nicolas Karakatsanis endless opportunities for effective close-ups.
''Ball'' has several attention grabbing sequences in the beginning but the movie loses itself a little between 40 and 80 minutes as the rhythm just isn't quite there. Cuts get messier, the score starts to become overbearing, line deliveries are noticeably slower and scenes have some extra fat to them, dragging down the intensity that the opening promises. On the other hand, Laurent and her team end on a high note as the last 30 minutes are absolutely riveting stuff; the cast is giving their all, Asaf Avidan's mournful cello pieces reach their peak and costumes as well as the moody lighting set up a satisfyingly melancholic closure for the story.
Smileys: Ending, Lou de Laâge