Past trumps present in this unremarkable fest
If, as proclaimed by its director Richard Peña, the New York Film Festival is a “kind of report on the state of cinema,” the patient needs oxygen. Unlike Cannes, Berlin, Venice, or Toronto, New York’s fest is less about business — most films have distribution, several are set for release shortly after their NYFF screening — than about selectivity. It’s a key part of the festival’s message that merely to appear in it is to be honored. Yet too many of this year’s 28 features felt like minor players, their chief recommendation an established director, already part of the deservedly admired NYFF pantheon, or an established star. Despite its laudable effort to set this festival apart from the commercial fray, it was hard not to feel that the committee was often motivated by convenience rather than conviction.
For the tenth year, the festival included “Views from the Avant-Garde,” the experimental film sidebar that featured masterworks by Ernie Gehr, Kenneth Anger, Saul Levine, and Paolo Gioli, in addition to new work by Guy Maddin and others. Warren Beatty’s 25-year-old Reds was given a special screening, and restorations of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo and The Holy Mountain were on offer. Most delightfully, the festival honored “50 Years of Janus Films,” with new prints of great films that were once accessible at repertory houses but now can be nearly impossible to see. True, many are available on tape or DVD, though as Jean-Luc Godard pointed out, the screen makes you raise your eyes; in front of the television, you lower them. To see The Rules of the Game, Knife in the Water, La Strada, or The Seventh Seal on a big screen and in the public privacy of the theater is to be reminded that for all its drawbacks, the 20th century did produce a lot of great cinema. The NYFF made a generous choice to honor this essential canon.
Asked in 1915 what the British stood to gain by casting off royalty, the Spanish princess Eulalia is reported to have said: “They would gain as little as if, by popular uprising, the citizens of London killed the lions in their zoo. There may have been a time when lions were dangerous in England, but the sight of them in their cages now can only give a pleasurable holiday-shudder of awe — of which, I think, the nation will not easily deprive itself.” Stephen Frears aims to get at this ambivalent relationship many subjects have to the House of Windsor but The Queen winds up seeming peculiarly royalist and greatly unnecessary. He and scriptwriter Peter Morgan appear awed, even cowed by their protagonist. Though they avoid the easy potshots of parody, they do little more than document this odd event. Lurking in every frame is Princess Diana. As the film opens, she’s in her last months of life, dead when it really gets underway. In the meantime, the new prime minister, Tony Blair (played with a credible touch of obsequiousness by Michael Sheen), grasps immediately the implications of the death of the “people’s princess.” Born and bred to an untherapized world in which feelings were controlled and emotions inhibited, Queen Elizabeth (completely captured and held tight by Helen Mirren) treats the matter as private. Though there’s never any fear of outright rebellion, what’s at stake is the Windsor brand.
It’s in this conflict between the public and private, the public made private, that the film seeks to comment. Though clearly some expression of grief is for most people preferable to none — and certainly the palace wouldn’t want to publicize Prince Philip’s (nicely underplayed by James Cromwell) insistence on taking his grandsons stalking as “it’s a good idea to go off and shoot something when things have gone wrong” — the film’s weakness is that it seems to come down squarely on the side of Diana. Adam Curtis, a documentary director and here credited as archive consultant, made fastidious and apt choices among the mass of Diana images. Other than Mirren’s bracing performance, they are the best part of the film, especially when allowed to blur and become almost surreal. Admittedly, this was a complex cultural moment in the UK and was a compelling reason, surely, for Frears to make this film. But finally, it felt like a lot of talent had been marshaled in the service of a glorified television docudrama.
What nearly saves the film is Mirren’s performance, which never loses respect for the person of Queen Elizabeth. Mirren subsumes her own vanity completely, avoiding the pitfalls of impersonation and mimickry that so often pass for animating a historical figure. Even if Queen Elizabeth finds herself in the touchy-feely 21st century, dignity is her defining quality and it’s this essential sense of self-respect — as opposed to Diana’s quest for self-esteem — that Mirren so beautifully conveys.
Quite the opposite is true of Kirsten Dunst, who giggles, sighs, and hugs her way through Marie Antoinette as if she were at an extended spa-stay. Sofia Coppola’s frothy film doesn’t even have the heft of a nonfat smoothie, surely the favored quaff of the audience Marie Antoinette spends all its time flattering. Opening with Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not in It,” Coppola gives us a Marie Antoinette not just modernized (the spirit of Princess Diana also haunts this film), but iPoded. Delivered at 14 to her slightly older intended, Louis XVI (sleepily played by Jason Schwartzman), Marie Antoinette’s sole purpose was to provide an heir as quickly as possible. In sharp contrast to the thoughtful monarch of The Queen, Marie Antoinette & company have none of the body language or even the posture of royalty. They pile in and out of carriages as if boarding SUVs, sloping and slouching in finery that never seems more than a get-up. Gaggled together, she and her girlfriends seem freshly arrived from Rodeo Drive. There’s a great deal of hugging, smiling, and applauding, as if Marie Antoinette brought something of Oprah and Dr. Phil to the court of Louis XVI. The real queen of France may very well not have said let them eat cake, but this one would suggest they shop for it. The facts, such as they are laid out here, revolve primarily around whether Marie Antoinette will ever have good sex (it took her husband seven years to understand the full trajectory; Coppola slams the point home by having the at-a-loss Marie Antoinette nibble chocolate in bed), the achievement of which leads not only to children but to a speedy maturity. Given carte blanche to film in Versailles, Coppola shoots uncritically, even touristically, taking it not only at face, but retail, value. When Louis XVI grants Marie Antoinette’s wish to make her own rustic paradise of Hameau on the Versailles grounds, the bucolic set becomes yet another place to shop, with one of her girlfriends commenting on the porcelain and the queen extolling the virtues of fresh milk like an urbanite fresh from the greenmarket. Until the last part of the film, there’s no sense of the kingdom over which they rule; then suddenly, Louis XVI approves money for the American Revolution, putting a strain on an economy already listing. And soon the people are rising up against him, pinning a great deal of their hatred on his wife and her spendthrift ways, the complications rendered in Cliffs Notes pace and style. As with her music choices, Coppola aims to please her generation, not to bother with the fusty complications providing a real context for a historical figure, but to give her audience an avatar for them to play with.
More misinterpreted women were to be found in Volver, Pedro Almodovar’s self-described tribute to characters defined by actresses such as Anna Magnani and Sophia Loren in Italian films of the 1950s and ’60s. At the center is Raimunda, played with all her might by Penelope Cruz. Cruz has her own balletic toughness but Maganani or Loren she’s not, and it’s exhausting to watch her work so hard. Carmen Maura appears as her mother, dead in a fire but back to haunt Raimunda and her other daughter, Sole (Lola Dueñas), and Raimunda’s daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo). The women shuttle between an ungentrified neighborhood in Madrid and La Mancha, uncovering secrets of the living and the dead. The lush colors of the film echo the passion and vibrancy the story tells us the characters should have, but of which they never quite convince. Like Bad Education, Volver is a personal film, drawing on aspects of Almodovar’s youth, but unlike the earlier film it details the lives of women whom he could only observe, not know. The resolution of the story feels rushed, a kind of devil ex machina for which there’s been virtually no preparation. Almodovar’s sources are as usual impeccable: it’s just disappointing to see a clip from Bellissima and wish you were watching that instead.
Unfortunately, Almodovar is one among several estimable directors not represented by their best work. This didn’t reflect on them as much as beg the question — repeatedly — of what exactly the committee saw and rejected to give these films a berth.
Though there were expected treats with Manoel de Olivieira’s Belle Toujours, it didn’t add up to more than a nifty idea elegantly executed. A tribute to Louis Buñuel and his scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, Belle Toujours brings their original Belle de Jour into the present. Reprising his role as Henri Husson, Michel Piccoli is convincingly smarmy and smug; though she’s physically believable in the part, it’s hard to get around the fact that Bulle Ogier (as Severine/Belle) isn’t Catherine Deneuve, especially when Deneuve is such a frequent presence in films. As the frigid wife of a respected Paris surgeon, Severine/Belle had, in Belle de Jour, a secret life in an exclusive brothel, a day-job that allows her to live out the sexual fantasies she knows her husband would not understand, let alone indulge. Husson is a client and furious when Belle refuses to have sex with him. He threatens her with disclosure. Shortly after this, one of her clients shoots her husband in a fit of jealousy, leaving him mute and paralytic. A final visit with Husson has left Severine always wondering if he gave her away to her husband. Buñuel left this purposely unanswered, and de Olivieira’s film turns on this tension. Widowed, Severine is spotted by Husson at a concert. She avoids him but finally gives in, agreeing to have dinner. De Oliviera brings out exactly the savages we remain no matter how nicely dressed, with both Ogier and Piccoli wily and cunning enough to make their characters convincing. The result, though, feels less like a film than an open love letter.
Otar Iosellani’s Gardens in Autumn felt similarly slight, a shaggy-dog story of the toy poodle variety. Ousted from his position by rioters, Vincent (Séverin Blanchet), a French minister, loses not only his swanky office, chauffeured car, and official residence, but his slinky partner. Far from upset, he seems relieved to have his life so immediately simplified. Even the immigrant squatters who have taken over his family apartment in Paris trouble him only slightly. Old girlfriends rally around and he spends his days seeking out former pals, demonstrating that life outside the rat race is definitely the way to go. The protagonist was no more than a collection of appetites, the main motivation whimsy. He rather unconvincingly responds to every crisis by standing on his head. The only real lifeblood in the film is Michel Piccoli, in drag as Vincent’s mother. Not since Mrs. Bates has a mother so completely stolen the show.
Sadly, Alain Resnais’s second collaboration with Alan Ayckburn had none of the pizazz of their earlier On Connait la Chanson. Set in a snowstormed Paris, Private Fears in Public Places revolves around six unhappy characters whom, directly or a bit circuitously, real estate brings together. The snowstorm goes on throughout, though no one ever comments except to say it’s cold and everything seems to take place in one of those glass snowballs so beloved of collectors, the atmosphere cloying and sweet. Though these are all middle-aged people, their attitudes and solutions are determinedly adolescent. What could have been a real look at the compromises and deals for which young adulthood is often no preparation devolves into a maudlin mess. Instead of a thoughtful melancholy, the film has a twee sentimentality that keeps it earthbound when it should be soaring.
All three of the above films had a whimsical quality that felt out of place in a festival that’s supposedly the best of the best. Their insouciance came through as a kind of willful turning away from the world at large, which seemed an especially discouraging element at one of America’s eminent festivals. World cinema choices in other years have reflected far better the realities that surround us; insularity was an unwelcome undercurrent to this year’s edition.
This expressed itself in other odd choices, such as Tian Zhuandzhuang’s Go Master. Stunningly beautiful, this is a glacier-paced biography of Wu Qingyuan (meticulously played by Chang Chen), a Chinese go prodigy born in 1914 whose playing supported his family. They emigrated to Japan, where Wu Qingyuan rose quickly through the go ranks, even authoring new strategies in a best-selling book, no small feat in a game so precise and ritualized there’s even a method for putting the pieces away. A newfound spiritualism leads Wu to join the Akamanji sect but also coincides with the first of several bouts with tuberculosis. Running throughout the film is the question of faith, with go as the operative metaphor; a game that inspires such devotion that the 1945 championship in Hiroshima, which dovetailed with the dropping of the atom-bomb, is only briefly interrupted, despite even the death of Wu’s mentor’s son. The infrequent action is broken up by on-screen paragraphs, the effect more scholarly than explanatory. Though the art direction and cinematography are elaborate, even the wartime interiors and garb and the sanitarium are distractingly perfect, effectively draining all sense of urgency and, unless you were familiar with this historical figure, interest. It’s not that such a film doesn’t deserve an international audience, but it’s difficult to understand its role in a supposedly representative line-up.
The Journals of Knud Rasmussen prompted the same question: why this film this year? Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn set out to show key turning points in 1922 that led the Inuit of Arctic Canada away from Shamanism and into Christianity — the result to alter life for the tribe beyond recognition. An adventurer and explorer, Rasmussen, a Dane, visited the tribe to listen to and record the stories of Avva, the tribe elder (Pakak Innukshuk), and his wife Orulu (Neeve Irngaut Uttak). Avva stresses that ancestral rules and taboos came out of their life and were turned toward life, protecting the members of the tribe. Filmed among Inuits, the film has an authentic feel, accurate but not fussy. Though the story deserves to be told and the film has the documentary feel of daily life observed, the pace of the Journals of Knud Rasmussen was so slow that the film more than once stalled almost to a halt. The point that the community depended on one another and was riven by Caucasians is made clearly and often, which makes the film feel longer than its nearly two hours. Some of the best scenes are of children playing in the snow, their toys and games reflective of the harsh life they lead; their surprise at a record player; and sexual scenes that border on the surreal, both aurally and visually. Though of a more general interest than The Go Master, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen also seemed quite specialized as an example of what current cinema has to offer.
Michael Apted reappeared with his Up series for the first time in 21 years. The Up documentaries began as a one-off for the UK television program World in Action in 1964, when the subjects of 49 Up were seven years old. Cutting among earlier editions and even back to the original World in Action special that set the series in motion, 49 Up becomes a portrait not only of subjects but of Britain itself. Children and grandchildren take center stage for most of them, and illness plays a larger part than earlier, with many of the participants complaining about chronic ailments like rheumatoid arthritis. Apted has rightly resisted the urge to give news-of-the-day bulletins in between, allowing for a certain universality to the losses and joys of middle-age. Neither does he flinch from including moments when the subjects nip at him, expressing anger at some of his questions and especially at his editorial choices. Few of us are burdened with such a merciless record of what we thought and said at a particular time — and the bit of celebrity that comes with it (one scientist says he still hopes to be more famous for his work than for taking part in the series). Despite its deep Britishness, the Up series belongs to world cinema as a startling record of several quite universal experiences in the industrialized world.
Much of the best of 49 Up is what’s said, but in Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread, the lack of talk makes the most stunning statement. Setting his camera amidst the machine-driven world of agribusiness, Geyrhalter presents the factually horrifying system that supplies us with food. Sterility rather than gore is the key here — though scenes of livestock, poultry, and fish evisceration are, of course, inevitable. There is no narration, no music, the only sound is ambient, often deafening and never pleasant, whether it’s the whine of the machines or the nervous snorting of pigs or the frantic clucking of chickens. Strangest of all are the exchanges among the workers (about taxes, lunch, and the like) in this netherworld of cleaning, sorting, and slaughter. The animals look like animatrons. Chicks, for example, are shot out in batches to meet crate-quotas. Later, they’re raised in huge barns, crammed on top of each other only to be culled by the revolving rubberized graspers of a machine that relentlessly sweeps the “yard,” whirling them towards their death. Even more disturbing than the carcasses are the semi-automaton humans who guide the various machines and do the delicate jobs — vacuuming the insides of pigs, tidying up headless chickens. When the workers stop to snack, sometimes in blood-splattered coveralls, simply eating in front of the camera becomes nearly surreal. One woman sits at the center of a carousel to which cows are admitted one by one, where she attaches the milking machines to their artificially bloated udders; even this is less distressing than scenes of torturous artificial insemination. The animals they produce look dead on arrival. Even the greenhouses resemble experimental biospheres, as though they’re cloning rather than growing. Everything is efficient, clockworked to meet a quota and a shipment. And yet for all the placidity, it’s like watching a cancerous warfare waged on nature, a warfare that has no center and perhaps no end.
Though it’s a fictional film, Jafar Panahi’s Offside felt a bit like a documentary, or an after-school special. Another instance of an interesting but ultimately slight film that was engaging but not particularly startling. Barred from the soccer stadium in Tehran, young girls cross-dress and attach themselves to groups of boys, hoping to sneak in. Largely handheld camerawork gives the film an immediacy that sometimes feels like one of the girls is getting this on her cell phone. Nearly all are caught and kept in a pen out of view but within earshot of the playing field, as frustrating to the girls as to the soldiers who guard them. Everyone would rather be enjoying the game. Offside takes place in the lead-up game to the World Cup, the championships a rare time for countries to unite behind the nationals rather than root for their local team. Mark Cousins has talked of Iranian films as “works of optimism,” and even in this ridiculous situation it’s clear that eventually the girls will win out. Panahi conveys the sense of youth, of a culture in transition. Though the men defend the stag stadiums by praising soccer because “you can curse everything and everyone and no one bothers you,” most of the younger men and boys either sympathize or don’t care if the girls join in. Throughout the film, the important is set aside for the trivial, in particular principles and customs that have lost their value (one of the soldiers is from the country, a source of constant amusement to his colleagues). In a culture this controlled, eyes and faces have special resonance and the actors give real expression to the dilemma in which they find themselves using a limited range of motion. The cheering resolution confirms Cousins’ notion of an underlying optimism, as well as his contention that Iranian cinema sets itself apart from many others with its belief that life itself is meaningful, even rapturous.
Rapturousness is no doubt one of the feelings Inland Empire will provoke in fans of David Lynch and, perhaps even more so, of Laura Dern. The title comes from the area just east of Los Angeles, composed of the oldest communities in the area. Coming in just under three hours, Inland Empire may portend what the digital revolution will inspire in others: rambling surreal sojourns. Though often compared to Buñuel (and insistent that he is unfamiliar with his work), Lynch differs hugely in his attitude towards women. Specifically, here, to Dern, who plays an actress whose new part is either the imagined or the real manifestation of some big-ticket problems. Whereas Buñuel took sexuality for granted, Lynch always seems to be discovering it. Inland Empire grew out of a 14-page single-spaced monologue that appears intermittently throughout the vignettes that compose this film. It’s less a center than a jumping-off point. The sound design often eclipses even the striking images of Lynch’s own through-the-looking-glass world (Dern always looks 12 feet high), with the sounds of insects and machines used especially well and at one point something that sounded like the finale-first start of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” As often in Lynch’s world, characters speak in non-sequiturs; a recurring image of a rabbit-suited family appears in a theatrical and vaguely funereal set, their conversation trawling the edges of sense and never quite getting inside. There are the expectedly low-lit motel rooms where it seems one could be murdered or merely die of boredom. There are hookers, of course, none of them named until the final credits: all their names ending in a (presumably daisy-dotted) i. Poland and Polish actors figure for reasons that seem merely coincidental: in the three years it took to make the film, Lynch became friendly with a group of Polish film people. Lynch differs most from earlier surrealists in his to-the-marrow Americanness. Whether using Sinatra-style finger-snapping or the viciousness of girl-talk, Lynch understands the crazy rage that is the motherlode of our pop culture, especially movies. Lynch asks nothing but that you surrender yourself to his colors, forms, sounds, and images. The reward: a final dance number whose effect of putting it all in perspective is as powerful as the end of Beau Travail.
In a different way, Apichatpong Weerasethakul asks for a kind of surrender with Syndromes and a Century. Divided into two halves, the film takes place at a clinic in the present and about 30 years ago. Loosely based on the director’s parents,Syndromes and a Century centers on the time before they were involved, when they were both working at a small-town hospital. The first part of the film belongs to Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul), the second to Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram). Weerasethakul has nothing as direct as narrative; the film is organized like a personal memory, or a conversation with someone who shares the same memory. There are repetitions, different versions of events, references to the way Thailand is modernizing, but what comes through is an acute observation of human behavior. People talk at each other, not listening; they cultivate interests because of an attraction; no action is of itself terribly important yet taken together, they keep circling back to the same search for love, the need for love, the centrality of love even if it’s never mentioned. Weerasethakul uses landscapes like minor characters; this is the only film I know of in which that much-maligned middle-distance of literature is actually shown, early on, as characters off-screen discuss introductions. He manages to convey the sense of seminal events that happen in the most ordinary surroundings and of the ways our memory makes of those surroundings something spectacular. Part of this is what he shows and much of it is how; the colors in Syndromes and a Century are often bled dry like carefully preserved postcards, yet there’s no preciousness.
The same kind of color appeared in Johnny To’s Triad Election, admittedly the only aspect the two films shared. To’s Hong Kong is a convoluted mess of legit and illegit business, Chinese government hands just as blood-covered (if not literally) as the gangsters on whom they rely to help keep order. Jimmy (Louis Koo, sometimes a momentary double for young Marcello Mastroianni) wants to go straight, in the manner of Michael Corleone in the Godfather films, and he is similarly brought up short by the ways in which apparently different worlds overlap and even merge. But his godfather, Lok (Simon Yam), the current Triad organized crime chairman, has other plans, pitting his various godsons one against the other to choose his successor. Though all the business is done American-corporate style and the soundtrack includes credible nightclub versions of “La Bamba,” “Amazing Grace” and “The Rising Sun,” and though they’re reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Italian-American hoods, To’s gangsters are traditionalists at heart. Sending a disobedient foot soldier to his death, Jimmy suggests “try to wise up in your next life.” The breakneck pace only slows somewhat for a difficult interrogation scene, complete with angry dogs, blood-spattered money, and meat-grinders, the final scene preparing us for the sequel already in the works.
Power plays of a different sort (but no less ruthless) take place in Sang Soo Hong’s Woman on the Beach. Triangulation takes on new meaning in this film, in which no sooner does a group of three form than it begins to dissolve. The film is a constant play of yellow and blue and green, and, mostly, of two men and one woman. Film director Kim (Seungwoo Kim) presses his production designer friend Won Chang-wook (Taewoo Kim) to accompany him to Shinduri, an out-of-season resort on Korea’s west coast, where he plans to write a treatment for his next film. Married Won brings along his girlfriend, Kim Mun-suk (Hyun-jun Go), a struggling music composer. In no time, “Director Kim” as she calls him has wheedled out of Mun-suk that she prefers him to Won. Things work and then they don’t and the director takes up with another woman he meets at the beach, because she reminds him of Mun-suk. His dialogue has the lightness of flotsam, like bits of things overheard; he’s adept at the non-sequiturs that make up a great deal of what passes for conversation, especially when sex is the real objective. As Mun-suk says to the director, “You’re different from your films; you’re just a regular Korean man.” Though watching Hong’s characters ping and ricochet like atoms has its appeal, they finally remain more theoretical than credible.
Dissatisfaction and shopping around are at the center of Little Children, an adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel by Todd Field. Graduate school leaver Sarah (Kate Winslett) finds herself suburbaned and saddled with a preschooler, her marriage at a dead end. Her bleak days of fending off the other playground mothers come to a happy halt when stay-at-home dad Brad (Patrick Wilson) shows up and they fall into an affair. Meanwhile, their neighborhood quakes at the news that a convicted pedophile has moved back, his mother their neighbor. Though he’s a collection of clichés and thumpingly obvious as a metaphor for the general fear of terrorism, this pariah is responsible for the one surprising scene in the film, when his presence empties a pool faster than even the great white in Jaws. But, like the rest of the film, the scene has none of the tension it should and begs a lot of questions about how, given that his mugshot has been posted everywhere and local television has covered his return to the area, he wouldn’t have been spotted until he was in among the kiddies. It’s just one of many nuts-and-bolts questions that Little Children is too busy telling you about itself to bother with — why, for example, Sarah married her husband in the first place and how he manages to so conveniently drop out of nearly the entire movie? Or why Brad’s son never mentions that along with the daily playground or pool visit, he’s catching his naps at Sarah’s house, conveniently absent so the adults can have sex in the laundry room. Parts of the story are told in a Rod Serling-style voice-over that is sometimes sympathetic and other times not. Like Sofia Coppola, Field puts a great deal of effort into keeping his audience feeling smart and, even if sympathetic, ultimately superior to his characters. The tale is told in the language of therapized journalism, with the two protagonists justified by their potential: Sarah could have finished her English Ph.D. and Brad might still pass the bar exam. The rest of the story feels like an excuse to focus on their affair, the secondary characters too meager to register, the script far too besotted with its own cleverness. Like so many apparently serious contemporary American films set in the suburbs, Little Children is shocked, shocked! to find out that even in a pre-war house and down the leafy drives and lanes, humans are just as petty and brutal as they are anywhere else.
Guillermo del Toro has no trouble believing humans can be cruel, though Pan’s Labyrinth has its own problems with undeveloped characters. Filled with admirable ideas, especially to show how a child’s imagination protects her from reality, Pan’s Labyrinth sinks under the weight of its special effects. In 1944, bookish and dreamy Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) travels with her pregnant mother to the Spanish countryside headquarters of Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), her mother’s new husband. A dedicated and enthusiastic fascist, the captain spends his days combing the hillsides, eager to decimate the tenacious resistance fighters, disgusted that “these people have the idea we’re all the same.” Working for the captain is Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), a spy for the group, whose leader is her brother. She befriends Ofelia and does what she can to protect her, discouraging her from exploring the labyrinth, which is of course straight where Ofelia makes for. In its sweep and reach, the film is reminiscent of 1900; where it bogs down is in its conception of the little girl, its insistence on her purity and the evilness around her. There’s none of the chill of Night of the Hunter, a similar conflict of innocence and evil, but one in which Robert Mitchum has occasionally to charm and the children to scheme. Ofelia lives most of the time in her imaginary world, its terrors and beauties an odd echo of what surrounds her. In charge is the Faun (Doug Jones), a figure sometimes comforting and occasionally menacing; there’s just a dollop too much of the mime in him. He’s more compelling, though, than Captain Vidal, who, despite Lopez’s excellent acting, is evil incarnate. It’s not that there aren’t people like this, but to think her mother would have chosen him is as difficult to believe as that he wouldn’t have used his connections to shunt Ofelia off somewhere.
The Spirit of the Beehive hovers over Pan’s Labyrinth, which loses in the comparison. Too much of Ofelia’s world is what an adult imagines a child feels; unlike Ana Torrent, Ivana Baquero has the open-mouthed, lower-lip-biting look of knowing innocence so common to child actors these days. She seems always to be trying very hard rather than just being Ofelia. The highly detailed but sentimental art direction puts the lie to the deprivations the characters are suffering. Though Toro deserves praise for showing that, in a corrupt system, disobedience is the only way to truth and for taking on the generally unfamiliar history of the Spanish Civil War’s real dimensions, he has no faith that the audience will understand without being spoon-fed.
A far more satisfying monster slimes its way through The Host, Joon-ho Bong’s inside-out version of the standard monster flick. Based on a real incident in 2000, when an American civilian employee of a U.S. military facility in central Seoul ignored the objections of a Korean subordinate and dumped formaldehyde into the sewer system leading to the Han River, The Host imagines what such a brew might produce. The only unsurprising aspect is that once on land the creature is, of course, hopping mad. Pitted against it are a family so maladapted they seem like Korean cousins to several Mike Leigh characters. The father, Hie-bong Park (Hie-bong Byeon), runs a concession stand at the river’s edge, sluggishly assisted by his grown son, Kang-do (Kang-ho Song), incredibly a father himself to preteen Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko). Bong shows these scenes in washed-out colors, emphasizing the recreation-for-the-masses aspect of the Han riverfront. The slick, black creature is like the Loch Ness Monster as conceived by Hokusai, but the best aspect is the way it moves. This monster doesn’t just swim and rampage, it swings acrobatically from pillar to post like a cat, swiping at its victims with a distinctly feline accuracy. It’s also unpredictable, sometimes swallowing its victims only to spew them out alive for later munching, other times vomiting nothing but bones. When it swipes Hyun-seo, the Park family — which also includes two other grown siblings, Nam-il (Hae-il Park) and Nam-ju (Du-na Bae) — possessed of seemingly useless but ultimately handy talents for electrical outages and archery, moves, in fits and starts, into action. What they quickly discover is that the world at large is far more hostile and even more unpredictable than the creature itself, especially when officials see this as a good opportunity to pin a virus on the creature, one for which they just happen to have a drug awaiting testing. Not since The Third Man have sewers been used so well, with Seoul effectively split into two cities, above and below. As in Blade Runner, Bong’s rainy scenes make stopping the creature all the more difficult and creepier. Where The Host succeeds best is in its characters, recognizable, flawed, frustrating, and unsentimental; unlike Ivana Baquero, Ah-sung Ko has an unforced naturalness, reminiscent not only of Ana Torrent but of Zazie‘s Catherine Demongeot.
A different kind of monster wreaks destruction in Emmanuel Bourdieu’s Poison Friends. Set among a group of modern-day Sorbonne friends, the film centers on André Morney (Thibault Vinçon), a literary bright light, anointed by his professor for an international academic career. In complete thrall to him are Alexandre (Alexandre Steiger), Edouard (Thomas Blanchard), and Eloi (Malik Zidi), in many ways André’s alter ego. They are sequentially involved with Marguerite (Natacha Régnier), whose subtle, nuanced performance gives voice to a character best at observing rather than commenting. Equally intelligent as he is self-destructive, André does good and harm to his friends (he advises them — well — on what direction to take in life; he also plays them off against each other, jeopardizing their romances and ensuring that his friendship with them has a short life). André’s decisions are sometimes arbitrary — whether he drinks his coffee sugared or not — but he makes every declaration seem like the ultimate truth. Only reality weakens him, his powers diminished as his friends cope far better than he can with the real world. Poison Friends not only assumes an informed audience (one familiar with Racine and Karl Kraus, not to mention James Ellroy), but presents a writer manqué who uses real people for his fictions. Bourdieu’s film is shot slightly off-kilter, the camera both intimate and intrusive. André is always in motion and, as befits a character only happy in extremes, often at the edge of the frame. His ability to believe his own fiction rivals the protagonist of Time Out, with a similar insistence on self-sabotage by the most tortuous and convoluted means.
Another highlight was Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates. It opens on literal ruins (Kas, a town on the Mediterranean), where a troubled couple, Isa (played by the director) and Bahar (his real wife, Ebru Ceylan), are taking a break from their creatively successful lives in Istanbul. The film is a trajectory from heat to cold, ending in the snow-covered extremeties of eastern Turkey. He’s a professor, she’s an art director, both of them educated enough to know they’re unhappy but not what to do about it. There are several almost monstrous close-ups as Isa and Bahar contemplate each other on their soured beach holiday. Michelangelo Antonioni is the most obvious influence here, especially as the story moves indoors, with architecture echoing the emotional obstacles faced by Isa and Bahar, who seem unable to be in the same room, let alone at the same table together. Ceylan is adept at showing sheer ruthlessness at work, the ruthlessness of allegedly civilized couples who need say nothing to each other, destroying their mate with a look. Interiority plays out beautifully, the landscape often looked to by the characters for solace and completely lacking, of course, in any kind of salvation. Ceylan makes full, superb use of high-definition film particularly to convey the harsh beauty of the Turkish coastline and mountains. Climates is a complicated, in many ways heartbreaking film about the mess that most of adulthood is — at least for the many who don’t find their ideal mate. For these people, sex offers no relief, merely another contest, especially when Isa tries to assuage his pain by taking up again with Serap (Nazan Kirilmis), an earlier fling who’s now involved with his friend. Barking dogs can be heard at several key scenes, and I was reminded of a passage in The Dean’s December by Saul Bellow. Hearing a dog in a barking frenzy, the central character figures this is his protest against the limitations of dog experience. “For God’s sake,” the dog is saying, “open the universe a little more.” Ceylan’s characters are hoping for the same. Scenes of Isa on his own, especially at a pokey hotel, have the feel of Edward Hopper, and there’s a sense of lethargy when the couple are together that’s very hard to show on film. These characters bear a resemblance to Ingmar Bergman’s trapped men and women, so often confusing control for love, and Ceylan has a parallel respect for his viewer, assuming they want to think about matters to which there are no happily-ever-after answers.
These were the best of the contemporary films. The festival showstopper, though, was Mafioso, Alberto Lattuada’s 1962 summation of the economic miracle as both anomaly and Italian business as usual. Like Ermanno Olmi, Lattuada paid attention to industrial details, the ways in which this new world swallowed the workers whole. Alberto Sordi is Antonio Baldamenti, a Sicilian in middle-management at Fiat, with a blonde wife and towheaded children. Sordi is here in top form, of the caliber of Peter Sellers in his ability to be both funny and melancholic, sometimes in the same frame. The film opens as Antonio emerges from the bowels of the factory, en route to a vacation back in Sicily; his life completely changed, he returns to the factory at the end of the film, disappearing into its depths. Though it’s been said before, the differences between the rest of Italy and Sicily still obtain, but were especially sharp in the economic-miracle period, when Italy seemed to leave Sicily even further behind. As she looks longingly from the ferry railing, Antonio’s wife Marta (Norma Bengell) tells him she’s watching Italy disappear. They’re met by his clan, the women in the black mourning that once defined Italian dress for virtually every other middle-aged woman. They’re suspicious of all that light hair but generous, moving themselves out of their own room to give the successful family the best. Naturally, they eat. And eat. Charged with a small delivery from his boss to the local capo, Don Vicenzo (Ugo Attanaiso), and eager anyway to pay his respects since he owes the don his job, Antonio gets more than he bargained for, forcing him to choose among the several loyalties he now juggles: to his home, to his wife, to his job, to the powerful who have helped him. Scenes that seemed to have originated with Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese can be seen in their original versions here. These days, when Italy has become for many people little more than Venice, Florence, and Rome, Mafioso goes a long way toward unwrapping the complexities and contradictions that make up real Italian society. That it does so with such pure delight, sympathy, and humor is an unexpected bonus. In an otherwise unspectacular year, the New York Film Festival got this one just right.