TORONTO — In my dream film festival, I would program Lucrecia Martel’s historical fiction “Zama” on a double bill with Louis C.K.’s contemporary comedy, “I Love You, Daddy.” Ms. Martel is an Argentine director best known on the festival circuit; Louis C.K., of course, is the American standup behind the televisionshow “Louie” and the web series “Horace and Pete.” Shortly after “Zama” opens, a man spies on a group of naked women enjoying some kind of 18th-century spa day. When the women catch him, they shout, “Voyeur, voyeur!” And when one grabs him, he slaps her, which made the whole scene read like a metaphor for our gendered movie moment.
“Zama” and “I Love You, Daddy” are two of the best movies I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival, which ends Sunday, and they could not be more different or more unwittingly in sync. Based on the novel by Antonio Di Benedetto, “Zama” tells of one Don Diego de Zama (a soulful, funny Daniel Giménez Cacho), an administrator for the Spanish empire who’s stationed in a remote Argentine outpost and gradually losing his grip. Beautiful, hypnotic, mysterious and elliptical, “Zama” is a story about a man at odds with a world that he struggles to dominate, which becomes a lacerating, often surprisingly comic evisceration of colonialism and patriarchy.
Put differently, “Zama” is about male power in crisis, which works as an apt description for “I Love You, Daddy.” A big-screen provocation that was made relatively quietly, the film had its world premiere at Toronto and very rapidly became yet another flash point in the larger fractious discussion about men and women. A brutally and often uncomfortably funny comedy, it dances around female victimization and male exploitation, and plays with the ostensibly blurry line between the personal and the public. That makes it feel like a near-documentary about the entertainment industry, as well as a kick-me sign pinned squarely on its creator’s white, male, middle-aged posterior.
The laugh is on him, though this being Louis C.K., it’s also on us. The story involves a wildly successful television writer-producer, Glen, whose cosseted life and sense of self goes sideways when his 17-year-old daughter, China (Chloë Grace Moretz), becomes involved in a vaguely intimate relationship with Leslie (John Malkovich, never better), a celebrated auteur and notorious predator four times her age. If that doesn’t trigger you, the old-fashioned big-band score and richly textured black-and-white cinematography will. (It was shot on 35-millimeter film.) The reference to Woody Allen by way of his putative classic “Manhattan” is entirely intentional.
Much of the narrative tension in “I Love You, Daddy” involves not just the parameters of China and Leslie’s icky relationship, but also how Glen navigates that ick in view of his own longstanding adoration of the other man’s work. At heart, the film is a multipronged debate that circles, again and again, around the question of whether it is possible, permissible and morally justifiable to love the art and loathe the artist. Yes, no, maybe so.
If Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” is this year’s defining American movie on race, “I Love You, Daddy” may prove its corollary on sexual politics, a bountiful and oh-so-topical Trump-era piñata waiting to be whacked open. That Louis C.K. has been accused of sexual misconduct only makes “I Love You, Daddy” more intriguing. Is it a debate, a confession or perhaps something along the tricky lines of “Stardust Memories,” yet another black-and-white Woody Allen film? “You can’t control life, it doesn’t wind up perfectly,” Mr. Allen’s unhappy film director says in that great self-pity party. “Only, only art you can control – art and masturbation, two areas in which I am an absolute expert.”