In celebration of the 40th anniversary of TIFF, I will be revisiting one film from each year I attended the festival. Please be aware that these discussions may include SPOILERS.
My fifth year attending the Toronto International Film Festival was the first where I saw a decent number of films. In fact, many of the ten films that I saw that year I wouldn’t have minded rewatching for this series, including Stuart Gordon’s Midnight Madness selection Stuck, Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, the Houdini biopic Death Defining Acts, Gregg Araki’s Smiley Face, and Alan Ball’s Towelhead, then known as Nothing Is Private, which ended being the favourite film of the festival that year. Since I chose the films to rewatch based on ease of access, I ended up going with Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan homage I’m Not There., which is still an interesting film to talk about.
I’m Not There. can probably be best described as an anti-biopic. While the film is based on events in Bob Dylan’s life, the film is ultimately a semi-fictionalized story about six individuals based on “the many lives of Bob Dylan:” Christian Bale plays Jack Rollins, representative of Dylan’s early acoustic folk days, who later becomes the born-again Christian Father John; Heath Ledger, in one of his final film roles, plays actor Robbie Clark, who is representative of Dylan during his divorce and the recording of the “Blood on the Tracks” album; Ben Wishaw plays Arthur Rimbaud, representative of Dylan as a poet; Richard Gere plays outlaw Billy the Kid, representative of Dylan’s acting role in the 1973 western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid; Marcus Carl Franklin plays Woody, representative of Dylan’s youthful obsession with folk singer Woody Guthrie; Cate Blanchett, in the most infamous role of the film, plays Jude Quinn, who is representative of Dylan’s switch from acoustic folk to electric rock in the mid-1960s.
When I saw I’m Not There. at TIFF, I was not really familiar with the work of Todd Haynes, though I have since watched his 1995 film Safe. Haynes’ interpretation of the life of Bob Dylan as being represented by six different individuals is a very interesting premise to say the least. However, the style of the film is something that needs getting used to and those watching I’m Not There. are either going to love it or hate it. The film is in no way a cohesive biography of Bob Dylan, who isn’t even mentioned by name, other than during the opening credits. Instead I’m Not There. is more akin to an anthology film, with the film switching back and forth between the stories of these six Dylan-inspired individuals.
Without a doubt, the standout performance in the film is Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-nominated role as the androgynous rock star Jude Quinn. Jude’s sections of the film, shown in a very stark black and white, are the most compelling of the film and I’m Not There. is a film worth watching just to see Blanchett’s performance. The other actors also stand out in their own way, though there are some sections of the film that don’t really work. Particularly Richard Gere’s western side-story suffers from being a very vague interpretation of Dylan. Even the 11 year-old African American boy Woody is closer to Dylan than Gere’s Billy.
In a very sad realization, I’m Not There. was the final film to be released while Heath Ledger was still alive. I think next to Cate Blanchett, Ledger’s performance in the film is another standout and it is tragic that he died only four months after I saw the film at TIFF, which was the repeat screening, so I never saw him in person. It was interesting noticing Charlotte Gainsbourg, putting on a French accent, playing Ledger’s love interest Claire. I’m Not There. was made prior to Gainsbourg’s multiple collaborations with Lars von Trier, so I wouldn’t have recognized her at the time.
On this second viewing, I would say that I liked I’m Not There. no better or worse than the first time around. The film undoubtedly has an interesting concept, but the execution doesn’t always work. There are enough high points to keep my opinion generally positive, but altogether, I’m Not There. is merely just an OK film for me.