TIFF16 Movie Review: The Empty Box (Claudia Sainte-Luce, 2016)

Excitement is in the increasingly crisp air. Line-ups form at every street corner. Pearson Airport is flooded with arrivals. Despite the general chaos, everyone is smiling. It’s the most wonderful time of the year…

I’m talking about TIFF of course!

Without a doubt, the 10 days in September of the annual Toronto International Film Festival is the best time to be in Toronto. The city lights up with the magic of the movies, the people who create them, and the people who love them.

I always try to see a film on the first Friday night of the festival. As I raced to leave work at a reasonable time on Friday, September 9, I planned to go straight to the TIFF BellLightbox and pick up tickets to a film with tickets still available.

(TIFF PRO TIP: The best way to do any film festival is to go in and experience films spontaneously. You uncover hidden gems and see miraculous films that you may not get the opportunity to see otherwise. Most of the big gala premiere films have already secured distributors…some even have mainstream release dates already. Watch AT LEAST ONE film that you had not heard about/looked into/had any idea about at a festival. I promise that you will have some of the most moving cinematic experiences doing this. I certainly have.)

(TIFF PRO TIP Part Deux: if you want to see a film spontaneously like that during TIFF, hit up the TIFF Bell Lightbox or Scotiabank. They have the most screens of all TIFF cinema venues, thus they are more likely to have available same-day tickets. If you want to Rush, head to Ryerson, Roy Thomson Hall, or Bloor Hot Docs – those venues seat lots of people, thus you have more chances of getting that coveted Rush ticket.) (If you’re a fellow pro TIFF-er share your TIFF Pro Tips below in the comments!)

As I made my way to the TIFF BellLightbox I read up on the films playing that evening. I read about THE EMPTY BOX (LA CAJA VACIA) and decided that this was my film of choice. Lo and behold, when I arrived at TBLB they still had a few tickets left!

A young woman and her father sit in the back of a car. The young woman hugs herself, leans forward and looks out the window, there is tension in her face. Her father looks ahead, gripping his cane in one hand, he also looks concerned.
The Empty Box (La Caja Vacia) by Claudia Sainte-Luce

While having my ticket scanned before entering the cinema, I noticed a strikingly beautiful woman at the doors. Her and her crew all wore TIFF badges so I knew they must have something to do with the film. This meant there would be a Q&A! Oh, and it just so happened to be THE EMPTY BOX’s World Premiere! Yes!

When the programmer introduced the film, I soon realized that the strikingly beautiful woman I saw outside the cinema was actually Claudia Sainte-Luce: the director, writer, and star of the film! Talk about a triple threat!

I was so happy that director Claudia Sainte-Luce was hear to discuss the film. Reason 1) I had heard a lot of buzz about her debut feature film THE AMAZING CATFISH (which I still want to see and even more so after seeing THE EMPTY BOX). Reason 2) I imagined the film must have been an extremely personal labour of love. Not only is this Sainte-Luce’s sophomore feature film, but the film was inspired by Sainte-Luce’s own experiences caring for her father who was diagnosed with vascular dementia.

As the Programmer welcomed Sainte-Luce, Jimmy Jean-Louis (portraying Toussaint, Jazmin’s estranged father), and Pablo Sigal (portraying Manu, Jazmin’s persistent suitor), Sainte-Luce gestured toward the dashing Jimmy Jean-Louis and said “You wouldn’t expect him to play my father, would you?” – the crowd laughed, but possibly also out of shock…let’s just say, by appearances, you wouldn’t peg the devastatingly handsome Jean-Louis as a 60-something father.

THE EMPTY BOX begins focused on Jazmin, a beautiful and wary young woman living in Mexico. Jazmin works hard to make ends meet, but there is a sharpness to her. A jagged edged exterior that hints at a deep-seated loneliness, a self-imposed exile, lingering beneath the surface.

A young woman in a red shirt and grey sweatpants sits on a bed, alone in the darkness, and looks out the window wistfully
Claudia Sainte-Luce wrote, directed, and stars as Jazmin in THE EMPTY BOX

One night Jazmin is contacted out of the blue – her estranged father has been hospitalized. Jazmin’s father, Toussaint, is little more than a stranger to her. Initially reluctant to even visit Toussaint, when Jazmin witnesses the squalor and isolation in which Toussaint lives, she takes him into her home to heal – temporarily, she nervously reminds him.

As Toussaint’s condition presents new symptoms, he is diagnosed with vascular dementia. Jazmin is tasked with caring for the father that she hardly knows.

A man looks at himself in the mirror, his right hand index finger pointing at his nose, he has a bandage that is soiled by a bloody gash above his left eye and his left arm is in a sling. Beside him, looking at him in the mirror, is his daughter, a skinny young woman with voluminous curly hair. She looks at him intensely. She wears a grey sweater with pink sleeves and silver necklaces.
Toussaint (Jimmy Jean-Louis) and Jazmin (Claudia Sainte-Luce) in THE EMPTY BOX

As the film progresses, we shift from strictly Jazmin’s POV and we see the events unfold from both Jazmin and Toussaint’s perspectives. As Toussaint plunges deeper into his memories, Jazmin reaches out from her self-protective shell.

Jazmin and Toussaint stand beside each other on a bus. Toussaint faces toward us, leaning over as if in pain, his head bowed. Jazmin, faces outside the window, her hand still holding onto the window, looks back and leans toward Toussaint, she is concerned.
Jazmin and Toussaint learn to accept each other.

Sainte-Luce demonstrates her keen awareness of human relationships as she finds creative and sensitive ways to bring us up-close and personal with Jazmin and Toussaint. We get to see their private, individual moments artfully articulated by Sainte-Luce. Even though they exist as very separate people, entwined by their own demons, we watch Jazmin and Toussaint ease into each other.

As the film progresses, so does Toussaint’s experience of vascular dementia. Sainte-Luce chooses to use dementia, which can cause much pain to those experiencing it and their families, to reclaim and underline Toussaint’s humanity and experiences. Sainte-Luce weaves Toussaint’s memories, dream-like, into his present reality. Through Toussaint’s memories, we experience pivotal moments in his life that have led him here: School days as a young boy in Haiti. His deep love for his mother. His abandonment by his father. His sister’s watchful eye. The trauma and violence he experienced leaving Haiti. His move to America. His tumultuous romantic relationships. As Toussaint’s mind descends deeper into his memories, the more his humanity is revealed to us. As his present reality becomes increasingly out of focus, Sainte-Luce brings his humanity into sharper focus.

Claudia Sainte-Luce delivers a performance brimming with energy and tension. Sainte-Luce’s Jazmin radiates strength, loneliness, and an unconscious vulnerability. Jimmy Jean-Louis brings a knowing humanity to Toussaint. He treats the character with care and understanding. And this shows.

After the film, Claudia Sainte-Luce, Jimmy Jean-Louis, and Pablo Sigal held a Q&A. The film must have been an intensely personal creation for Sainte-Luce. Her own father is Haitian, was diagnosed with vascular dementia, and she now cares for him. Sainte-Luce discussed how she has learned to take on a parental role with her own father. She has learned that to take a leadership role is to show love and care for someone with vascular dementia.

Toussaint is diagnosed with vascular dementia in THE EMPTY BOX

For a film that focuses on the living, breathing relationship between a daughter and her father, I was curious as to how Sainte-Luce cast the role of Toussaint. Sainte-Luce divulged that she met Jean-Louis over Skype. Jean-Louis, who is Haitian, mentioned to Sainte-Luce that he was going to Haiti and asked if she would like to come. Sainte-Luce stepped away from Skype for 30 seconds, checked with her husband, and responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

Jean-Louis laughed: “I didn’t think she’d say yes!”

Pablo Sigal (Jazmin’s persistent suitor) became involved in the project after Sainte-Luce had seen a number of his films and admired his acting. She reached out to see if he was interested. He was.

An audience member asked a question I was curious about as well, pertaining to the daughter/father relationship. The audience member stated that Jazmin shows so much patience and care with her father, Toussaint, even though they have a strained relationship. She asked if that mirrored Sainte-Luce’s own relationship with her father, or if it was a characterization. Sainte-Luce was quick to state that Jazmin and Toussaint’s relationship was a characterization. Sainte-Luce said that Jazmin is a person that “needs love”. Sainte-Luce joked that she is a very loving, happy person – she does not feel as lost as Jazmin.

A gentleman in the audience mentioned that many people named in the credits (which are also visually stunning. If you don’t believe that credits can be visually stunning, just watch this film) were women.

“I noticed that many names in the credits are women. So – thank you!” (Note: This was probably my favourite question/statement of TIFF16)

Claudia was delighted that he made that comment and was enthused to say that she loves working with women. She said that women are more intuitive, understanding, and sensitive which allows for beautiful things to happen when working on a creative project, despite the fact that sometimes women can be “bitches to each other”. I don’t agree with making generalized prescriptions based on gender, but I do love that she loves working with women (as do I).

The visual beauty of this film cannot be ignored. The scenes in which we exist in Toussaint’s memories are painterly; they had an almost visceral texture. Also, the lighting in one symbolic scene which takes place in Toussaint’s present-day apartment, completely enriched the symbolism of the scene. Sainte-Luce is adept at utilizing visuals to illustrate the soul of a scene. One of the Q&A-ers mentioned the stunning visuals in the Q&A. Claudia gave all of the accolades to the Director of Photography, Maria Secco.

A man sits alone in a darkened apartment. His head is bow as he sits in an arm chair.
Toussaint struggles with retreating lucidity in THE EMPTY BOX

THE EMPTY BOX is an evocative, honest, and sensitive portrait of a daughter and father, wounded and adrift, who struggle to accept each other. Claudia Sainte-Luce has positioned herself as a very bright talent to watch. She has an astute eye for telling refreshingly honest, human stories. She finds electricity in the moments we often overlook in real life.

NOTE: All photos used in this post are used with permission by the wonderful, Alina Uribe (producer of THE EMPTY BOX).

Did you see THE EMPTY BOX (LA CAJA VACIA)? Let’s talk about it here!




3 thoughts on “TIFF16 Movie Review: The Empty Box (Claudia Sainte-Luce, 2016)

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