By William Wolf


The annual Toronto International Film Festival is an occasion for partying and celebrity watching, and both kept the crowds busy in the 2003 version as an added attraction to the plethora of films on view. Convincing celebrities to attend was a chore back at in the early days of the festival, but the event has reached such a level of prestige that a steady stream of stars and directors invade each year in connection with the promotion of their films.

The opening night festival party held at Exhibition Place had several thousand people there, with plenty of food and drink in numerous rooms and in a courtyard. One night Bloor Street was blocked off for a major sponsored party in a department store. It was fun to see how chic so many partygoers were dressed. The festival has become the most popular Toronto event of the year and a centerpiece of the city's social scene.

Although there was an effort to get celebrities to mingle, for the most part they had VIP reserved sections when they attended the parties. The press had access for special interviews and a main feature of the festival was the series of press conferences where accredited writers could pose questions that helped develop stories. Celebrities were also spotted in restaurants about town.

The most glamorous star to attend was Nicole Kidman, who was seen in "The Human Stain" and "Dogville." There were complaints that her security was extra tight, even for the press. But Kidman is in a class all her own. At her press conference she impressed critics and reporters with her charm and candor.

Meg Ryan was another addition to the glamour battalion in connection with "In the Cut," for which her co-star Mark Ruffalo also showed. Cate Blanchett of "Veronica Guerin" was on hand, as were Chloë Sevigny and Naomi Watts. Anthony Hopkins showed up and talked about his work opposite Kidman in "The Human Stain." Denzel Washington was there for "Out of Time." Handsome Benicio Del Toro came to promote "21 Grams," in which he has a leading role.

The French had a major presence, and Nathalie Bye charmed the press at a luncheon given by Unifrance. Director Jean-Paul Rappeneau was also on hand, as was his new film "Bon Voyage," which dealt with France in 1940 and explored responses by various characters to the Nazi invasion.

Talking with Rappeneau was instructive. The veteran director, who has such films as "Cyrano de Bergerac" and "That Man from Rio" to his credit, said he was six years old in 1940, the time frame for his latest, and the period has long interested him. He has many friends who lived through that time. While it is possible to think of individuals who come to mind as possible models for some characters, Rappeneau said he didn't try to tell the story of any one person. One of his leading characters is an actress who wants to go on working under the occupation and uses whomever is convenient. Rappeneau noted that during the war film production was under the control of German companies, and people who wanted to work found themselves under German producers.

Asked how his film was being received in France politically, he indicated it was mixed noting, "There is an uneasiness about the period. Nobody wants to be reminded of it." Rappeneau skillfully mixes romance and political undertone, often with a light touch, and yet serious points are made. Asked which scenes were the most difficult to film, he replied:

"Not a single scene was easy. Everything was difficult." He explained that were always many people in the background of the action, so attention had to be paid to each individual in the crowd as well as to the leading actors."

The press conferences at the festival not only afford critics and journalists a chance to ask questions, but give them a chance to be seen on camera, as the proceedings are carried by Rogers Television. The camera focuses on the questioner, and as one might expect, some in the room are as concerned with being seen as with what they think to ask.

Robert Altman had some pertinent things to say on the platform about "The Company" at the press conference which he and his colleagues held. He stressed that the film doesn't have a story as its main focus. There are hints at relationships, he noted, but the concentration was on capturing what working in the company (the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago) was like.

"No dancer got a script," he said. "I'd walk up to them and give them a line just when it was time to film." He said he couldn't hire actors to play dancers. "I didn't know what I would get. Then I realized that dancers spend their lives in front of an audience. They are not in the least bit shy. They are performers."

Denys Arcand, whose film "Invasion of the Barbarians" involves the subject of euthanasia, said he was "a great advocate of euthanasia" and predicted that "you will see it in Canada and it will be the next great human rights issue." Tracing the genesis of his screenplay, he said he had tried to write about a man facing his death, but found the subject "too gloomy." When he hit on the idea of following characters from his "The Decline of the American Empire," he said the script came easily.

Arcand is a director who takes things seriously even when applying a light touch. He noted: "We're being inundated by all sorts of things--epidemics like SARS, drugs, immigration of people from poor countries trying to get into richer countries; also dramatic actions of American power; we've been facing wars, Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf war, Afghanistan, the second Iraq war. Next? North K orea?"


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