Read all our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival here.
The woman adjacent to me at the premiere of Jonathan Teplitzky’s “Burning Man” wanted to sit next to the aisle, informing her significant other that she’d want to leave early if the film was a sad one. She’d read nothing about it beforehand, which was probably a good thing since if she had, she would’ve learned the plot revolves around a chef who starts to lead a life of hedonism after his wife dies of cancer. However, my seatmate didn’t leave until “Instant Karma” began to play over the end credits, a testament to the extraordinary tapestry the Aussie writer/director put together to reflect the fractured mind of its lead and the reckless behavior that he indulges in to recover.
You’d think the plentiful nude women and an enjoyably cocky Matthew Goode to seduce them would be the most risqué aspect of “Burning Man,” but it’s actually the film’s structure that’s most audacious. Like Goode’s Tom, you’re dazed in the film’s opening frames by a flood of images, all disorienting as a parade of Australia’s finest actresses (including Rachel Griffiths, Kate Beahan and Kerry Fox) in various states of undress emotionally and physically flitter in and out of scenes corroborating Tom’s descent, culminating in a car crash that leaves Tom bloodied in an upended VW Bug. Yet it isn’t his potential death the film’s concerned with.
Instead, it takes nearly 45 minutes to discover the real tragedy that’s occurred to Tom and in that time, you learn that he has a son, he’s become more temperamental and all the bad instincts he tamped down while in the company of his wife are creeping back out. Through the film’s brilliantly Cuisinarted chronology, you get to meet him as you would a real stranger in the street, unaware of his history, but gradually getting to know his experiences as he’s ready to tell them with most scenes lasting no longer than 20-30 seconds. Since at this point, Tom’s essentially a stranger to himself, meeting the missus in the middle freshens up the film just when it’s about to get tedious as the cycle of casual sex means less to him (and the audience) and he’s able to start embracing the things that once kept his life balanced. Those quiet moments with the wife (Bojana Novakovic) and kid literally start to take on longer intervals as the things he’s trying to forget wash away.
I’m not certain if “Burning Man” had unfurled in traditional fashion, it would’ve been as distinctive or as compelling, though Goode turns in a performance that’s admirably unvarnished and undoubtedly pulls everything together, which is no small feat. Teplitzky invites criticism from the film’s first scene, literally starting the movie with a wank as Tom tries to get it up in front of a prostitute. But filmmaking favors the bold and “Burning Man” backs up its bravado, or at least Tom’s, with acute filmmaking skill. The style of the film, which resembles a movie trailer at times with the its quick cuts and its often stunning cinematography, may confuse some viewers at first, but as it seeps into the subconscious, an eloquence emerges that demonstrates something film can do that no other medium could, ending on a note that’s deeply satisfying as a narrative and a technical marvel.
During the Q & A that followed the film, Teplitzky told the audience, “I didn’t want to make a film that was sentimental” after explaining that he hadn’t seen anyone else make film about losing a loved one that had “taken on the exhilaration and momentum of life.” He's right. Films as lively as “Burning Man” don’t come around all that often, especially when they deal with death.
"Burning Man" currently does not have U.S. distribution. It will play Toronto twice more on September 12th and 17th at the Scotiabank Theatre 2.