By Julie Gordon
TORONTO (Reuters) - Controversial Canadian director Paul Haggis is back in Toronto with his latest feature, which may end up being even more divisive than "Crash," his 2004 story of racism, love and interlinking lives that won the Oscar for best picture.
In "Third Person," which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, Haggis again creates a multi-character drama, this time exploring the themes of love, trust and guilt.
"This is an incredibly personal story, the way 'Crash' was an incredibly personal story," Haggis told reporters after the film's premiere. "I posed several questions to myself, as I was going along, and they were all about being in love with someone who is impossible."
While audiences in Toronto responded well to the structurally complex film, which tells three distinct stories spanning across Rome, Paris and New York, the critics have been harshly divided.
Variety called the picture Haggis' "most robust to date," while the Guardian reviled it as "a work of staggering trash."
The film marks his first major press push since the director's high-profile split with the Church of Scientology in 2009, a rare defection among the church's celebrity circle that includes actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
Haggis, 60, has been a polarizing figure since "Crash," an ensemble drama about racial and social tensions in Los Angeles, which upset critically acclaimed gay cowboy drama "Brokeback Mountain" to win the best picture Academy Award.
The film received mainly positive reviews and was a box-office success, but was also criticized for being overly sentimental and simplistic in its treatment of racial inequalities in America.
At the center of "Third Person" is Michael, played by Liam Neeson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author haunted by expectations as he struggles to finish his latest book.
The parallels of Michael to Haggis, who won a best writing Oscar for "Crash" and was nominated for the screenplays for "Letters from Iwo Jima" and "Million Dollar Baby," are obvious, although Haggis said he put a bit of himself in all of the characters.
Neeson, who has spent the past few years doing action films like the "Taken" series and "The Dark Knight Rises," said he jumped at the chance to play a vulnerable and guilt-ridden man.
"I said, 'Look, I don't want to mess around with an accent and perform a character,'" said Neeson. "I just wanted to be as vulnerable, and as open a Liam Neeson, as I could be - but still acting."
Joining Michael in Paris is his much younger lover, Anna, a cold and sometimes downright nasty character, played by Olivia Wilde. Best known for "Tron: Legacy" and the TV series "House," Wilde was praised by The Hollywood Reporter for her performance, and in particular a memorable streaking scene.
Also receiving a thumbs up is Mila Kunis, who plays a New York mother fighting to regain custody of her young son from her ex, played by James Franco.
Rounding out the cast is Adrien Brody, as an American in Rome to steal designs to make knock-off suits, and Israeli actress Moran Atias, as a Roma immigrant who is trying to free her young daughter from human traffickers.
CREATING A PUZZLE
The theme of parents and children is pervasive throughout the film, with the central characters all struggling to deal with damaged family relationships.
Fans of Haggis' interlocking story-telling style will be happy when the strings finally come together, although the film's ending does leave viewers with questions - an ambiguity the Ontario-bred director aspired to.
"I think we should be making more movies for an intelligent audience, because I think people want intelligent movies," he said. "What I wanted to do is a puzzle. I was really influenced by the great European directors."
"Third Person" was produced by Belgium studio Corsan and is Haggis' third film to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival - where he launched "Crash" in 2004 and "In the Valley of Elah" in 2007. It will be distributed in Canada by D Films Corp, but does not yet have a U.S. distributor.
(Editing by Mary Milliken; Editing by Peter Cooney)