Toronto: The Cinematic City

The most populous city in Canada has appeared on-screen in many different ways over the years.

Enemy (2013)

There are many ways in which cities are portrayed in cinema. Sometimes cities are anonymous and nameless, and sometimes cities become characters in the films they are portrayed in. Cities can be merely incidental settings, or the specific locations within a city can be incredibly important both narratively and visually. The people within a city tend to represent the place itself: how they act, how they dress, where they work, how they speak, and what they eat. All of these things can be related to the place they live. Cities are home to an infinite multitude of experiences – people from different places, with different families, different wants and desires and identities.

There are cities that are frequently remembered as being iconic within the world of cinema. Paris, Rome, New York, Venice, Chicago, and London have all received loving portraits in films such as Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Midnight in Paris, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, and Michelangelo Anotonioni’s Blow-Up. However, Canadian cities – specifically Toronto – are often disguised to look like other cities, rather than being portrayed for what they really are. Oftentimes, Toronto acts as a stand-in for other cities such as New York (or Midway City in the case of Suicide Squad), and in the process, its cultural and geographical specificities are ignored. The writers at NOW Toronto wrote that Toronto has a sense of “placelessness” that allows it to pass for other places. Of course, there is a treasure trove of hidden gems which explicitly take place in Toronto, and deal with Torontonian life, culture, and locations.

The Toronto-based website Torontoist publishes a series of articles called Reel Toronto, in which writer David Fleischer outlines each shooting location for films and television series set in Toronto. Toronto is an underappreciated cinematic city: it is filled with beautiful and interesting shooting locations, and its architecture is visually stunning. Toronto is a city full of music, food, cinema, art, literature, sports, and a huge variety of people with different cultural experiences. These different elements come together to make Toronto a rich city to explore through the lens of a camera. In this article, I will outline just a few of the many films which lovingly tell stories set inside The Six.

Enemy (2013), dir. Denis Villeneuve

At TIFF 2013, Denis Villeneuve premiered two films: Prisoners and Enemy, both starring Jake Gyllenhaal. While Prisoners received a wide theatrical release, Enemy got pushed aside and was not as widely seen. However, Enemy is a brilliant psychological tale about doubles, and the scarily supernatural things that can happen when one encounters their doppelgänger. The film is perfectly constructed, and features two brilliant performances from Jake Gyllenhaal as well as the eerie presences of Sarah Gadon, Isabella Rossellini, and Melanie Laurent. The film takes place in Toronto (and Mississauga), and while it is not explicitly mentioned by name, its presence is deeply felt. One of the most creepy and powerful shots of the film is a wide shot of the Toronto skyline (including the CN Tower) with a giant spider slowly moving across the city, its body looming over the skyscrapers around it. The film is a nightmarish version of Toronto where everything looks golden yellow and hazy. Villeneuve frames the streetcar wires as though they are part of the spider’s web. Enemy is one of the more dizzying and mysterious portrayals of Toronto in cinema.

Videodrome (1983), dir. David Cronenberg

In 2009, the Cinematheque Ontario (now known as TIFF Cinematheque) celebrated Toronto’s 175th birthday by hosting a series called Toronto on Film. Videodrome was the only David Cronenberg film included in the series, despite many of his films being shot in the city – such as The Fly, Dead Ringers, and Crash. Videodrome captures the strangeness and alienation of the city, while also making reference to CityTV, Toronto’s most prominent television news station. The NOW Toronto writers point out that the film uses the city as a stage for its action, capturing what it looks like while on the brink of social upheaval over graphic pornography being introduced onto the airwaves. In the film, the station is named CIVIC-TV, but refers to Moses Znaimer, the founder of CityTV, who at one point aired softcore “Baby Blue Movies” late at night on the station. Cronenberg takes it further with graphic violence and pornography which elicit intense visceral reactions in those who see it on the television, giving birth to the “New Flesh.” James Woods and Debbie Harry represent the cool, hip, innovative style of CityTV in the 1980s, with a violent Cronenberg touch. Cronenberg brilliantly uses the locations and the climate of the city to reference what were at the time recent and famous Toronto events.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), dir. Edgar Wright

Pizza Pizza and Honest Ed’s (and some romance in the middle).

Edgar Wright’s 2010 adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic book series is one of the most adorable and innovative portrayals of Toronto onscreen. Wright visited Toronto multiple times before he read O’Malley’s graphic novels, and lived in Toronto for a year before he shot the film, so he was familiar with all the locations O’Malley had drawn, and all of the shooting locations. Fleischer writes that this is not merely a Hollywood movie set in Toronto, but it recreates the comics exactly, even shooting in the most banal Toronto locations which O’Malley included in his novels. There is even a Google Maps page which lists all of the locations featured in the film. Wright notes that “…the apartments feel lived in, the neighbourhoods they’re living in feel appropriate to the characters…”

Sidenote: I bought all my David Bowie albums here.

Wright’s vision of Toronto is of an energetic, youthful place where young people fall in love and express themselves and have their hearts broken. NOW Toronto notes that the locations are vibrant and colorful, representing the energy of the characters. This is also exacerbated by the videogame and comic book aesthetics and sound effects that Wright brilliantly incorporates. Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) lives in Cabbagetown, on Carlton Street, Scott (Michael Cera) and Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) visit the old location of Sonic Boom records in the Bloor/Bathurst area and eat at the Pizza Pizza across from Honest Ed’s. The characters spend time in the Annex and at Polson Pier, and Wright captures the old mural outside of Lee’s Palace. At one point, the characters encounter a Hollywood crew filming an action picture at Casa Loma – a meta-cinematic moment, referencing the fact that lots of Hollywood films use Casa Loma as a shooting location (for example, The Pacifier), and sometimes when walking through Toronto (or fighting your new girlfriend’s evil exes), you will encounter film crews.

Lie with Me (2005), dir. Clément Virgo

Virgo’s 2005 feature portrays Toronto as a hot, sticky city where people struggle to connect with one another, both physically and emotionally. Leila (Lauren Lee Smith) begins a sexual relationship with David (Six Feet Under’s Eric Balfour), but the two often have trouble communicating their emotions to one another. They both care deeply about one another, but as Leila states at one point in the film – “I didn’t know how to love him.” This film is primarily shot in The Annex, specifically around Bloor Street. Leslie Felperin at Variety notes that “Barry Stone’s lensing, favoring a soft, Northern-climes afternoon light for the sex scenes in particular, looks dreamy throughout.” The way Lie with Me visually portrays Toronto is unique from the way it is typically shown on-screen. Felperin perfectly articulates how the film displays Toronto as a warm, dreamy place, rather than cold and alienating in the way Cronenberg usually shoots it. This is a movie about physical connection, and how a particularly intense sexual relationship can affect one’s life in strange and startling ways. It does focus on the common Torontonian themes of isolation and failure to communicate, but is filled with pleasure, sunshine, and soft breezes.

Take This Waltz (2011), dir. Sarah Polley

Similar to Lie with Me, Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz provides a warm and romantic vision of Toronto. The film is named after a song by iconic Canadian musician Leonard Cohen, and takes place in beautiful Torontonian locations from start to finish. Margot (Michelle Williams) and her husband Lou (Seth Rogen) live on a sunny street in Toronto’s Little Portugal neighborhood, she rides her bike to the Royal Cinema, walks through Kensington Market, rides the ferry and the scrambler at Centre Island, and has coffee with Daniel (Luke Kirby) at the Lakeview restaurant on Dundas and Ossington. Polley told NOW Toronto that:

“I wanted to make the most romantic sort of version of Toronto I could possibly think of… which meant playing with reality a little bit, right? Toronto’s not a perfect city, and it’s not always a beautiful city. There’s huge problems with it – and a lot of that is omitted from the film, for better or for worse. I wanted to fantasize about what the most idyllic Toronto would be, and represent how Toronto actually feels to me”

Summer dresses and Quebecois cinema! (Oh, and Seth Rogen)

Polley’s film is a love letter to Toronto, with each place lovingly framed as the backdrop for Margot’s tumultuous life. Polley casts everything in a bright orange glow, capturing the warmth of the summer in Toronto. As she points out, Toronto is not a perfect city – there is poverty, systemic racism, and gentrification, to name a few of its faults – but the medium of cinema allows her to shapeshift the city into what she wants it to be, and what it feels like to be there.

Sabah (2005), dir. Ruba Nadda

Sabah is an underseen gem from 2005. It tells the story of a Muslim woman from Syria and her family’s experience of living in Toronto. Specifically, Sabah (Arsinée Khanjian) falls in love with a non-Muslim white man, Stephen (Shawn Doyle), and spends most of the film living in fear of what her family will think. Muslim families make up about 3% of Toronto’s population, and approximately 46% of Toronto’s population is made up of immigrants. Sabah and her family are quite traditional, but her niece Souhaire (Fadia Nadda) encourages Sabah to express herself in any way she wants. Souhaire encourages Sabah to dance, to wear dresses and makeup, and to pursue a relationship with Stephen. Sabah’s family eventually have an honest conversation about how they feel about Stephen, and in the end they accept his relationship with Sabah. While it deals with serious familial issues, the film is quite lighthearted and sweet. Nadda’s film reflects experiences that are likely familiar to many Toronto residents. Toronto is a place where people strive to understand one another, even if it is difficult and doesn’t always work. Stephen cannot really understand Sabah’s experience as a Muslim woman, but he tries to connect with her and her family in the best way he can. Nadda beautifully frames both interiors and exteriors of the city, capturing the beauty of the city lights at night and the tranquility of a city swimming pool. Sabah is one of the most low key romantic films set in Toronto.

I have only outlined a few of the many films set in Toronto. There are so many forgotten masterworks set and shot in The Six which play an important role in Canadian cinema. Toronto (and Canada as a whole) is home to film directors from all different backgrounds and experiences, and their cinematic works reflect these varied experiences. Many directors reflect on issues and themes that are specific to Toronto (ie. Cronenberg’s CityTV references in Videodrome, Scott Pilgrim coming across a film crew at Casa Loma). The definitive text on Torontonian cinema is Toronto on Film, written by Geoff Pevere, Piers Handling, Matthew Hays, Wyndham Wise, Brenda Longfellow, Steve Gravestock, and Justin D. Edwards. The authors write in detail about Toronto’s cinematic history, common onscreen themes, and shooting locations and styles. Toronto is a perfect cinematic city in that it is filled with beautiful shooting locations, interesting people, rich history, and so many talented filmmakers.