TIFF 2021 Faves: 'Electrical Life of Louis Wain' + 'The Odd-Job Men'
by Alex Billington
October 5, 2021
"I feel electricity." Two more favorite films from the 2021 Toronto Film Festival that deserve extra attention. While this year's festival has already wrapped up, both of these have remained on my mind throughout the last few weeks. The Odd-Job Men is a Spanish indie dramedy film made by filmmaker Neus Ballús, set in Barcelona following three handymen working various jobs around town. It premiered at the Locarno Film Festival, and is also playing at the Busan, London, and Chicago Film Festivals this fall. I'm glad I took the time to catch up with it at TIFF, it's a worthwhile discovery. The other is The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, from filmmaker Will Sharpe, an unconventional biopic about painter Louis Wain. It premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, and is also playing at the Zurich, Vancouver, and Woodstock Film Festivals this fall. It mind end up being one of my Top 10 films of the year, as I can't stop thinking about how wonderful it is.
I wanted to take the time to write about both of these films at the same time, because there's a bit of an odd connection between them. They are both about people who observe the world carefully, who have a special sense of what's going on all around, and pick up on all the details and things happening that others usually see as normal or ignore. Each film offers unique & vibrant observations and captures these details so nicely.
One of my top favorite from TIFF 2021 is The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, directed by Will Sharpe, from a screenplay written by Simon Stephenson and Will Sharpe. It's a surprisingly sweet, tender film about a kooky, misunderstand artist. An utterly unconventional biopic with creative flourishes as unique as Louis Wain's art with dynamic shots galore. Maybe it's because of the "electrical" title or the fact it's a historical biopic, but THIS is what I wanted out of that funky Tesla biopic with Ethan Hawke (that didn't turn out that great in the end). This Louis Wain film has charming style and cleverness that works so well to tell his story and pull you into his beautiful world. Benedict Cumberbatch at his best (along with his performance in Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog - also out this year) with distinct mannerisms and awkward quirks that made me forget I was even watching Cumberbatch. He's playing a real person, of course, but adding his own details that make him unique for this particular film, and I was completely smitten by his performance.
Most of all, I absolutely loveeeeee the way director Will Sharpe and his DP Erik Wilson use light and color in this film! It's gorgeous, utterly gorgeous. And I think it really captures the way Louis Wain saw the world, always dazzling no matter where you look. This is ultimately what the film is really about – how this quirky person was able to see and capture this electrical magnificence in the world through drawing and painting. And if you haven't seen his cat paintings, you have to see them. And he painted these at the end of the 19th century, and beginning of the 20th century! Long before any other artwork really looked like this. There's a scene in the film that moved me to tears. And there's a few shots, one involving light changing into a prism of color refracting through a glass window, that I can't stop thinking about. It's a lovely tribute to Louis, and to the delightful charm of cats, and to the elegance of light, and everything else beautiful about life on Earth.
The Odd-Job Men, also known as Sis Dies Corrents (which translates to Six Current Days in Catalan), is directed by Neus Ballús, and co-written by Neus Ballús and Margarita Melgar. The title refers to the week-long trial period for a new hire named Mohamed, who gets a job working for a local handyman / repair company in Barcelona. All three of the stars of the film are actually real handymen that the filmmaker met and sent to acting classes so they could work on their performances for the film. They even use their real names in the film: Pep played by Pep Sarrà, Valero played by Valero Escolar, and Mohamed played by Mohamed Mellali. Moha is an immigrant from Morocco trying to do his best to work and make a living and establish his new life in Spain. Director Neus Ballús noticed there were always interesting interactions & amusing moments whenever they went to work in a home, and that's what she wanted to show in this film.
With a run time of only 85 minutes, The Odd-Job Men is a thoroughly charming, honest look at the different lives people live. I was always intrigued the thought-provoking commentary from Moha throughout, as he talks about what he observes in each of these places: his feelings about different cultures, how people live and why, what matters to them and what doesn't matter. The film feels a bit light overall, but I enjoyed so much of it anyway, and the more I think back on it, the more I admire how simplistic yet captivating it is. Who makes a film about handymen and actually makes it entertaining? Not only does Ballús know how to cut around the boring parts of their job, but also knows how to keep in the best moments, and the scenes where we learn about humanity. It was a heartfelt opportunity to point a camera at people who are usually never shown in cinema, and make their stories compelling. If you have a chance to see this one, it's worth it.