TIFF: ‘The Wave’ thrills, ‘The Paradise Suite’ underwhelms

On Day 5 of TIFF 2015, I was able to catch up with two more Foreign Oscar submissions. The first was Norway’s entry The Wave and the other was the Dutch submission The Paradise Suite. Here’s what I thought of both films:

bc3b8lgenposterOne of the best things about the Toronto International Film Festival is that it provides the usually rare opportunity to see foreign language titles on the big screen. Regardless of quality, the niche arthouse style and/or cultural specificity often limits the potential audience that will justify US distribution. There are exceptions however, including the new Norwegian film The Wave, from director Roar Uthaug. If you changed its language to English, this heartpounding disaster epic could easily pass for Hollywood-produced spectacle.

The Wave takes place in a small waterfront town in Norway called Geiranger. Surrounded by mountains overlooking a tranquil fjord in the center, it paints an idyllic picture. But for the town’s inhabitants, those majestic mountains represent a looming threat, due to a history of rockslides which once claimed many lives some years prior. To prevent such devastation from repeating itself, geologist Kristian Eikfjord (Kristoffer Joner) monitors the rock activity alongside a team of experts. If anything suspicious occurs, they have a warning system in place to allow for early evacuation of all the residents. But their science is no match for Mother Nature, as the mountain unexpectedly comes crashing down one day, unleashing another tsunami to pummel the village. With the lives of his family and others at stake, Kristian must summon up the courage to save as many as he can before it’s too late.

The Wave is a film of two distinct sections, both in style and impact. Like the calm before the storm, the plot begins with low-key drama that sets up the various characters, an obvious investment for the later emotional pay-off. Indeed, it’s easy to recognize some of the stock characters – the central male hero, the laid-back teen and the cute little girl who becomes the heart of the plot. Perhaps the only character you couldn’t predict ahead of the time is the resourceful wife/mother, who breaks the mold of the “damsel in distress”. But even our introduction to her character – fixing a leaky pipe to show her grit while her befuddled husband looks on – reflects the film’s unfortunate efforts at manipulation. The obvious foreshadowing is egregious, like when characters state how they love their home because the village is safe and their house has “soul”. As a result, the lack of subtlety hinders the emotional effect when the characters are eventually in peril, in spite of the compelling performances given.

But there’s one character that really makes its presence felt, the titular wave. A behemoth of visual effects and artistic vision, it inspires awe and terror in equal measure. As it rumbles towards the terrified citizenry, Uthaug shows off his considerable directing chops as the film shifts gears to become a thrilling disaster epic. Having previously dabbled in action (Escape), fantasy (Magic Silver) and horror (Cold Prey), Uthaugh confirms his status as one of Scandinavia’s most significant genre filmmakers. Featuring a pulsating score, jaw-dropping imagery and an engaging plot, he orchestrates a gripping spectacle with palpably high stakes.

There are few suprises in store in The Wave, but this film is a veritable crowd-pleaser. Norway certainly chose well with this Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film. It gave me one of the most satisfying theatrical experiences at TIFF 2015.

GRADE: (★★★)

TheParadiseSuite_Poster_NL_sRGB_72DPI-210x300Maybe it’s just the after-effect of Crash, but it seems like multi-narrative dramas have been becoming much more common as of late. The appeal is obvious, since they can wield formidable dramatic power when done right (like previous Foreign Language Oscar nominees Ajami and Amores Perros). Unfortunately, in the case of Joost van Ginkel’s The Paradise Suite, the concept falls flat without a compelling overarching narrative to guide it.

The film follows the lives of strangers living in Amsterdam, all expats from other countries. One is a young Bulgarian model (Anjela Nedyalkova), tricked into becoming a sex worker in the red light district by another important character named Ivica (Boris Isakovic). Another is an illegal African immigrant (Issaka Sawadogo) forced to accept unsavory work to make ends meet. There’s also Lukas (Erik Adelöw), a young Swedish boy who is constantly bullied at school and put under constant pressure to emulate his highly regarded conductor father (Magnus Krepper). Finally, there’s Seka (Jasna Djuricic), a Bosnian woman who is haunted by her past and is determined to inflict revenge on the people who wronged her. These characters share nothing in common except the uniformly tragic nature of their circumstances, but by the end of the film they will have impacted each other’s lives forever.

The Paradise Suite is the type of film that erroneously conflates human suffering with compelling drama. Taking a bleak approach from the outset, it takes us on a tour through the melting pot of Amsterdam and shines a light on some of its worst people. The men rape, the kids are mean and the prostitutes steal. But whereas other films would use these harrowing ordeals to examine the nuances of good and evil, this screenplay only seems concerned with exploring the characters’ unhappiness. Furthermore, the cinematography and direction is bland, except for the scene from which the film gets its name, giving a memorable image of one of the characters bathed in blue light in an angel-like pose. For the most part however, the film has an off-putting cynicism, in spite of the ensemble’s deeply felt performances.

Admittedly, the film does wrap up nicely with a suitably emotional conclusion, finally making good on its promise of interlocking narratives. But sadly, it comes too late to alleviate the general feeling of “so what?” that pervades throughout. The Paradise Suite is a symphony of misery played in an oppressively melancholic minor key.

GRADE: (★★½)