The Burden of Anticipation

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“It would have been appreciated a lot more had it not won the Palme d’Or” is a phrase I found my saying a lot when talking about Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last week. Audiard’s film works well for the small character study it is, unfortunately many people I spoke to, including my own wife, expected more. After all this was the film that took the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year over more highly publicized titles such as Son of Saul and The Assassin. The backlash towards the film had little to do with its quality, but rather that it did not scale the Everest size mountain of expectation placed on it.

Though Audiard was not the one responsible for setting such lofty anticipations, his film ultimately bore the brunt of the fallout. The enormity of the expectation that is being placed on the cinematic art form has been on my mind a lot this year. We are living in an age where constant film news and viral marketing has made the anticipation, regardless if the film is a blockbuster or smaller fare, more prominent than the final product. The actual work itself has become the pin that deflates the balloon of excitement.

During my time at the film lover’s haven that is TIFF, I could not help but find myself engaged in several conversations regarding expectation and the upcoming award season race. Similar to trying to navigate around the city without running into a Tim Horton’s coffee shop, it is nearly impossible to avoid such discourse at the festival. Standing in long lines for hours at a time, part of the fun was comparing viewing notes with both friends and the numerous people you randomly meet. Plus, it is no secret that TIFF has evolved over the years into a major player when it comes to solidifying potential award contenders.

TIFF’s coveted People’s Choice Award no longer carries the distinction of simply being the voice of the festival’s cinema literate audience. Gone are the days when previous winners such as The Big Chill, The Princess Bride and Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown took solace in the fact that their artistic craft connected with audiences in the way they hoped. While Shine’s win in 1996 sparked an impressive run in which four of the five People’s Choice winners (Life is Beautiful, American Beauty, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) went on to nab Best Picture nominations at the Academy Awards, it is in the last seven years where TIFF’s Oscar presence has truly dominated the conversation.

Similar to American Beauty’s Best Picture win years earlier, the surprise rise of Slumdog Millionaire, from People’s Choice Award winner to Oscar glory, solidified the festival as an important starting block for the 100-meter dash that is award season. Five of the past six winner’s of TIFF’s top prize (Precious, The King’s Speech, Silver Linings Playbook, 12 Years a Slave, and The Imitation Game) all went on to score a Best Picture nomination. The question on everyone’s lips was will this year’s surprise winner, Room, follow suit?

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Knocking out much-hyped front-runners such as The Danish Girl, a well-received film that seems to check all of the usual Oscar boxes, Room’s victory catapulted its profile to the point where even non-film lovers, such as my dear mother, were talking about the film. While I greatly enjoyed Room, though it was not my personal favourite of the festival, I cannot help but fear for the unfair amount of expectation that the film is now burdened with.

People will no longer discover the film based on the same word-of-mouth buzz that caught my attention. Nor will the go simply because the film resonated on such an emotional level that, at least in my screening, it brought many of the stone cold critics to tears. Instead many will go into Room with the “all right let’s see what all the fuss is about” type of mentality, an attitude that is guaranteed to foster backlash towards the film rather than anything else. One need look no further than the flurry of activity on social media that occurred after it was announced Room was victorious. Some hailed it as a lock for an Oscar nomination, others declared it a long shot, some thought it was a poor choice, and there were even those, who had not seen the film, that started bashing it for beating “higher quality” works.

Having spent a good portion of the year revisiting past Oscar winners thanks to The Dew Over podcast, I have become more aware of the unhealthy expectation that comes with viewing a film through “award lenses.” While I will defend the overall craft of 12 Years a Slave until my dying breath, I know many who would argue that is simply a standard Oscar-bait type of film. Conversely when viewing a film like Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), after it first nabbed its Best Picture nomination, I could not help but feel underwhelmed by the production. The technical aspects where fantastic, but the overall story did not stick in my mind the way my vision of a Best Picture should.

Of course the fact Birdman’s nomination had raised my expectations disproportionately was not lost on me either. As the once wide open race begins to narrow with the start of award season quickly approaching, it will be interesting to see which film not only crosses the finish line first, but also survives the crown of disappointed thorns that it will ultimately be saddled with.