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I realized something today. I know that I’ve just walked into a really French film when (a) I’m the only one with a smart phone or ipod in the room and (b) the median audience age has ten years on me, at least. Happened twice today, once for Claude Chabrol and once for Hou Hsiao-hsien. Yeah, Hsiao-hsien isn’t the most French guy around, but his new movie takes The Red Balloon as a jumping off point for exploring Paris, so it counts. I’ll get to it.

I spent a lot of the evening hanging out with Troy Nixey, the gent behind Latchkey’s Lament. He’s a smart, fun guy and I had a good time hanging out. Got to introduce him to a handful of American and international festival programmers, so hopefully that will help Latchkey in the coming months. The short is screening tomorrow and Thursday, so if you’re in Toronto grab a ticket for the shorts program number three.

This is my favorite part of the festival. People are comfortable with being here again and are also a little bit tired, so you have a lot more impromptu conversations and film debates. Had a good time talking to a chap from Chicago Public Radio about No Country For Old Men, Redacted ( we agreed on one — take a guess which) and a lot of other films.

As a writer, the unsung brilliance of the festival is the wealth of civilized, informed arguments you can have with people who turn out to be good writers and reporters themselves. Yeah, it’s obvious, but so what?

And yes, Redacted is definitely one of the crucibles this year. I truly hope to have more on that in my review tomorrow.

 First this morning was The Tracey Fragments. It would also be decisive, if more people ever see it. The brainchild of Bruce McDonald (director of my 1991 totally non-guilty pleasure Highway 61) is based on a novel by Maureen ‘I don’t sleep with Michael’ Medved and concerns a runaway girl and her increasingly fragmented mind and memory. The screen is blasted with divided images and endless overlays of video, like an editing bay trying to log dozens of clips at once. Ellen Page is Tracey in step two of Ellen Page’s Plan To Dominate America, and she’s generally good, though not as much so as in Juno. When the movie works, it spikes into core experiences and truths about being a teenager. The scenes that don’t work feel like just another cheap movie.

 But the bulk of the day was French. So very, very French. Claude Chabrol was up first with A Girl Cut In Two. It’s less lurid than the title implies (though it is somewhat lurid) and generally turns into a solid mid-period sort of Chabrol. A gorgeous young woman who’s a rising star on her TV station in Lyon begins relationships with two men at once: an older, acclaimed author and a brash young pharmaceutical heir. The parallel entanglements come together in a brutal act that trails off into a coda with one rich final image. It’s not a particularly significant or impressive film, but is crafted with the sort of rich, comfortable ease that makes it very difficult to stop watching, even when the situations veer into stock territory.

 The Journey Of The Red Balloon is anything but stock. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films are measured and rich, and this exploration of everyday life in Paris is no different. While the movie takes The Red Balloon as a jumping off point — and does follow a red balloon through Paris at times — it delves more specifically into one family’s life. Juliette Binoche is more exceptional than usual as a frazzled single mom; she hires a Taiwanese student named Song to nanny her young son Simon, and the film follows their excursions through the city with a deliberate eye. Cut Binoche out of the film and you’d still have a gorgeous document of the city; with her, however, it reaches another level.

 I actually saw this last film right after The Tracey Fragments, but I wanted to save the high note for last. I was afraid that even with Fragments’ short running time of 77 minutes I’d be shut out of the line for Todd Haynes’ exploitation/exploration of Bob Dylan. But I got right into I’m Not There despite a long line. And I liked it. A lot. Haynes lets the action meander, especially when Richard Gere is onscreen as Billy The Kid — slice 20 minutes of Gere out and this is almost a great movie. But it’s still a very good one, and Cate Blanchett absolutely owns it. I could watch 135 minutes of her playing Dylan with none of Haynes’ other embellishments. She’s simply brilliant, and the movie earns none of the disappoinment I had with Velvet Goldmine. Score another one for Haynes — that’s two in a row, five years between them notwithstanding.

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