TIFF Reviews: 'Backcountry', 'Ruth and Alex', 'The New Girlfriend'

Playing catch-up with capsule reviews. First up: three very different tales of love and marriage.

(Canada, 91 min.)
Written and directed by Adam McDonald
Starring: Missy Peregrym, Jeff Roop
Programme: Discovery (World Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.
Backcountry is essentially Open Water with a bear. That’s not a bad thing. This debut feature from Adam McDonald is a tense two-hander that uses the expansive Canadian wilderness to great effect. The woods are beautiful, especially in the multi-coloured palette of autumn in which McDonald sets the film, but they’re also threatening and menacing with their unknown elements and untameable forces. The woods are a lot like marriage: they’re beautiful to visit, but they devour you.

Backcountry simmers towards the fateful arrival of the bear as Jenn (Missy Peregrym) and Alex (Jeff Roop) enjoy a romantic camping getaway. McDonald uses the ominous setting effectively, doubling the fear of the threatening bear with the all-consuming chaos of a stifled relationship. Dizzying cinematography and gritty realism make the undefined limits of the woods far more terrifying than the snarling bear, while a great performance by Missy Peregym takes the viewer through a wrenching odyssey of loss and despair. Margaret Atwood, eat your heart out.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Ruth and Alex
(USA, 92 min.)
Dir. Richard Loncraine, Writ. Charlie Peters
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Diane Keaton, Cynthia Nixon
Programme: Galas (World Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.
The charming ditty Ruth and Alex is a warm and refreshing comedy. Spending ninety minutes with these two elderly lovebirds is a breeze, especially as played by the delightful duo of Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton. The two great actors are a perfect marriage for this fun and honest tale of a married couple coming to terms with the life they’ve built together as they spend two hectic days debating whether to sell the apartment that’s housed their marriage for forty years.

Freeman and Keaton are wonderful together and Ruth and Alex might have been as winning a golden-age comedy as, say, Hope Springs if the script by Charlie Peters kept the focus simply on the lovebirds, who still have the bubbliness of newlyweds. The film features an awkward subplot involving a bomb threat and a potential terror suspect, and the post-9/11 paranoia takes away from the beautiful simplicity of Freeman and Keaton’s dance. But they’re a lovely pair—as captivating and as funny as ever—so the magic of seeing Freeman and Keaton together makes for an amiable New York-set comedy. It’s probably a great film to enjoy with your mom.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

The New Girlfriend (Une nouvelle amie)
(France, 105 min.)
Written and directed by François Ozon
Starring: Romain Duris, Anaïs Demoustier, Raphaël Personnaz
Programme: Galas (World Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.
The intoxicating sexual escapades of François Ozon continue with The New Girlfriend. Ozon, the master behind films like In the House and Young & Beautiful, gives one of his sharpest films with the saucy black comedy The New Girlfriend. Ozon lets one key revelation drive a film when Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) drops in David (Romain Duris), the widower of her recently deceased best friend, and discovers an unexpected secret: David loves to dress in women’s clothes. Shock dissolves into pleasure, as it always does in an Ozon film, as Claire finds comfort in David’s cross-dressing as replaces the girlfriend she lost.

Ozon runs daringly with the premise and takes Claire’s new friendship with David, whom she dubs Virginia, into provocative corners of public attitudes and private desires. His consistently invigorating visual style is in top form here, as he steps away from the signature voyeurism of his films and takes this comical study of queer awakening right into the light. The New Girlfriend is as bright and wicked as a Pedro Almodóvar film, but it has a psychosexual edge that only Ozon could balance. It’s funny, but also bold in the way it confronts the confusion with which people approach subjects they’d rather keep in the closet. Brave performances and nuanced filmmaking make The New Girlfriend one of the most delicious offerings at TIFF this year.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Update: The New Girlfriend screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne at 6:45 on May 7 presented by Inside Out. And it's back in the house chez ByTowne starting Aug. 28.