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Tideland: Terry Gilliam rules TIFF

The greatest trick ever pulled in childrens' literature was by Lewis Carroll, who somehow managed to write (in Alice) a story that is fundamentally disturbing and obeys none of the traditional rules of storytelling, and yet is fully embraced by society as one of the great tracts of writing for the very young ever put to page. Was Alice ever really intended for children, given its inherent moral darkness and pre-Freudian subtexts? Who knows? Alice is such a genre-defining work that it, of course, slipped completely outside genre and became its own. Tideland is a film like that. I have never seen anything like it, and I doubt I ever will again. It is profoundly disturbing, upsetting, frightening, and wonderful. It is beyond itself: Tideland transcends.

Like Alice (and Tideland makes glances in her direction too numerous to count), this film essentially obeys none of the traditional rules of storytelling. There is no real "narrative" here, nor is there any ostensible sense of reality in the world we are visiting. We can catch glimpses towards the real world here and there; they are like distant anchors that, as an audience, we flail towards, in a desperate attempt to ground ourselves during Tideland's weird journey. If you are very lucky, at some point during the film you stop waiting for it to make some kind of conventional sense, and truly let yourself go inside. Then it all just washes over you, and you understand: you're in it, you're living it, it's real. You're in the flow of the water, and it is pulling you along. Or to use the touchstone yet again, the rabbit hole goes deep. And I'll say it one more time, because it is an important point: there has never been anything like this.

Tideland is horrible and wonderful and beautiful and upsetting and just so very unsettling. It tells of a young girl with the impossibly beautiful name of Jeliza-Rose, who is played by an impossibly beautiful young actress named Jodelle Ferland, with such complete ownership that, frankly, I never want to see Ferland appear in another movie for as long as she lives. She will be Jeliza-Rose for me for the rest of time. This is a performance by a child of ten that is beyond all acting, all performance craft. If everything else in Tideland is a stylized fantasy, Jeliza-Rose is unsettlingly real.

Jeliza-Rose's mother (Jennifer Tilly) dies in a paroxysm of alcoholic desperation at the beginning of the picture; ten minutes later, her father (Jeff Bridges) dies too, but only after having transplanted Jeliza-Rose to a farmhouse in the middle of a vast, deserted prairie. Now alone with a father she doesn't know has died, Jeliza-Rose proceeds to interpret the universe she has been dropped in. That is all that this picture is: two hours of a little girl interpreting the world she has been given, as only a little girl can. We never step out of Jeliza-Rose's worldview; we are never given cogent explanations for any of the things we see. After a point, director Terry Gilliam even stops explaining which things are really happening and which are out-and-out fantasies. Everything blends, because reality is no longer important. If it's real to the girl, it's real to us.

Like the best of childrens' literature, the ride is not pretty or even entertaining; it is in fact profoundly disturbing. The initial innocence of Jeliza-Rose's attempts to play house (albeit with the rotting, farting corpse of her father) eventually give way to greater and greater terrors. There's a local one-eyed crone, Dell, who roams the hills creating trouble; there's a neighbouring man with the intelligence of a 6-year-old, Dickens, who wants to destroy the train that occasionally passes through the prairie, believing it to be a shark. There's a fleet of dolls' heads that Jeliza-Rose plays with who slowly, unnervingly become real characters; Gilliam begins favouring them with close-ups and quietly stops showing Jeliza-Rose's lips moving while making them speak to her. Suddenly, the little girl's inner chorus is speaking for itself, and we are afraid. She's growing up, or going mad, or both.

The vaguest notions of sexuality are eventually introduced, and the film becomes even darker and angrier; sex is a witch's trick, as Jeliza-Rose discovers when she spies Dell fornicating grotesquely with the delivery boy to get a break on the fees. Jeliza-Rose and Dickens enter into a kind of romance that only children - or people with the mental capacity of children - can have, each of them vaguely aware of the greater significance of the sexuality they are playing around with, but unwilling to fully associate it with the world of adults. The overtones are ferociously complex, as the skies themselves darken and adulthood thunders along the horizon in the form of that shark-like train.

Finally, after two full hours of this stream-of-consciousness fable of darkness, Jeliza-Rose's world must destroy itself and order must be restored - an apocalypse of titanic fury that is so well-managed that it literally left me shaking as I was leaving the theatre. Terry Gilliam is rapidly becoming a rarity among filmmakers: a man with too many masterpieces. He's had at least three before, and he throws another onto the pile with Tideland. His command of visual craft is absolutely unparalleled in this outing; he has invented, and rendered, an entire fantasy universe that has never existed in this form before. He has made something that both filled me up with joy and ripped me apart with profound fear, because somehow, Tideland feels like a depiction of every dream and nightmare I have ever had, or might yet have. This is a film unlike any other I have ever seen, and I will never forget its blissful, terrifying spell. Tideland is real.


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