Toronto: Oksana Akinshina and Sylvie Testud, two knockout performances

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Even if a movie isn't 100 percent successful, an individual performance can keep me rapt. That's been the case with two Toronto films starring my favorite actors working today. Neither is a Hollywood star (so unfair), but each consistently roundhouses her onscreen competition. If mainstream viewers know Russia's Oksana Akinshina (left) at all, it's as the scared girl who holds up her end of a tense conversation with Matt Damon at the conclusion of The Bourne Supremacy. She also gave what I think is the performance of the decade in Lukas Moodysson's harrowing Lilya 4-Ever (2002), a female tragedy on a par with Mouchette. Other high-profile roles haven't been forthcoming; while capable of beautiful blondness, Akinshina is picky and seems to have a taste for serious acting. Laziness is beyond her. So there was simply no way I was going to miss Hipsters, title be damned.

RECOMMENDED: Full coverage of the Toronto Film Festival

Hipsters is a musical set in mid-1950s Moscow about the Soviet Union's growing underclass of jazz-obsessed youth. They walk around in colorful zoot suits and poodle dresses, and seem to have an endless supply of hair gel. In the gray universe of the film's visual scheme, they stick out profoundly—very much the point. And while I can dig on musicals, there's no denying the forced dorkiness of this one. But Akinshina, as the alpha-female libertine of the gang, is riveting. You enter into her eyes; she's not just singing and dancing. In the film's emotional highlight, a villainous Communist youth leader hacks off her locks with a scissors. Squirming, Akinshina rages and yells, thanking them for the haircut, then crumples into a prolonged wail. It's ten different feelings at once. We have to find more parts for this gifted player.

Lourdes, meanwhile, is growing into my film of the fest. Like the Coens' A Serious Man, it presents a spiritual tale about matters of fate and faith, but one shot through a secular viewpoint. Modestly, it follows a paralyzed woman who, along with other "pilgrims," is taken to the Pyrenees' religious site of Lourdes to pray for a miracle. Christine, a cynic, would rather hit other "cultural" destinations, so when a miracle actually does happen, her worthiness is subtly scrutinized. Sylvie Testud, 38, the French Meryl Streep (even better?), commits fully to Christine's internal process, a performance of enormous physical control and economy. To her credit, Testud doesn't have Christine grapple with a religious awakening, but rather, plays the role to its opposite, suggestive strength: hauteur and exhilaration. The writer-director is Austria's Jessica Hausner, who's never impressed me. Here, though, she gets out of the way of her star and the churning music of Bach, and the results are exquisite yet accessible. I could totally see Lourdes, if properly marketed, becoming another Doubt. Audiences would be richer.


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