From neighborhood festival to NYC player
There’s no denying the buzz of New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, a 12-day extravaganza spread out among 13 venues. Out in force at the multiplexes and in booths scattered throughout lower Manhattan, the TFF is the brashest of the New York movie fests. Unapologetically heavy corporate sponsorship, right down to its Tribeca team gear, and sheer volume — more than 160 films — make the TFF feel a little insistent, but in a city where attention can be grudging, it does manage to register on a grand scale. Screenings this year were at large movie houses and even the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Trinity Church, which is virtually down the street from the World Trade Center site, appropriate to the festival’s origins as a response to downtown New York’s post-9/11 body blow. But good intentions don’t necessarily make for great selections, and the standouts were few. However, with offbeat film programming a rarity in the city, TFF gets full marks for giving viewers the chance to ditch the couch and see something unexpected (even subtitled!) at their local multiplex.
Among the hardest films to get right are literary adaptations. The error is nearly always the same: weak-kneed piety in the face of a Great Work. Luckily, director Pascale Ferran and her excellent cast are the exception to this rule in their French interpretation of Lady Chatterley, taken from the second of D. H. Lawrence’s three versions. Ferran dispenses with much of the social history, taking as her focus the affair between Lady Constance Chatterley and gameskeeper Parkin. In the title role, Marina Hands achieves a stunning transformation, her sexual awakening the key to a far larger sense of the natural world. She seems more and more alive. As Clifford Chatterley, Hippolyte Girardot gets just right the frustrations of a man lamed by the exigencies of the British upper class, his moody tempests always well within the parameters of a teapot. But the revelation is Jean-Louis Coullo’ch as Parkin. Gruff and respectful, he never kowtows, displaying instead a rooted confidence that has nothing to do with his job or with the demonstrative favoritism Constance shows him. Though stocky and more rough hewn than conventionally handsome, Coullo’ch has something of Brando’s contained strength about him, and of his fragility. After the virtually scientific exploration of their initial sexual encounter, their love-making is a startling reminder of the cliché that mainstream sex scenes have become. In part this is because Ferran lingers on part of a leg or an arm, a back, and in part it’s because she photographs the natural world with the same sensuality she brings to the love scenes. Ferran relies on little dialogue, much of it lifted directly from the novel (one advantage of French: the hierarchy of vous and tu, with the lovers switching back and forth sometimes within a scene). Instead, she shows by implication, hinting at the world of industry and development that will overtake those like Parkin who live as part of nature rather than as lord over it. The costumes contribute significantly to this, with Parkin nearly blending into the woods, Constance’s exquisite paisleys and plaids a constant reminder that officially she belongs elsewhere. Small details such as unstraightened, unbleached teeth and dirty fingernails also add a grit nearly always missing from literary adaptations. Ferran never shies away from the slow, inevitable decay that nature forces us to accept; Lady Chatterley and Parkin are splendidly alive to their transitory situation, accepting of its limitations.
In some ways similarly freighted with expectation as Lady Chatterley, Napoleon Bonaparte fares a lot less well in Paolo Virzi’s Napoleon and Me. Set and shot on Elba, this mild-mannered tale of a gratingly rebellious teacher, Martino Papucci (Elio Germano), who becomes Napoleon’s librarian during his exile succumbs to its own bottomless whimsy. The film gets the period details right, conveying the hardship of running an unmoneyed household, but Virzi’s weakness for never missing a cute, slapstick moment trips up any possible engagement. Monica Bellucci supplies the va-va-voom, her Baronessa Emilia Speziali standard-issue spoiled aristocracy, eager to play librarian Papucci off against his boss. The unrelieved sweetness is spectacularly leavened by Daniel Auteuil’s Napoleon, more philosophical performing bear than deposed emperor. Though never updating to seem modern, he manages to suggest the fallible and even slightly sympathetic person that (might) underlie even the most celebrated personalities, his melancholic posture less resigned than gently amused. Even if only the Elbans bow and scrape, Napoleon remains Napoleon. Auteuil perfectly conveys the hard-core vanity that buoys Napoleon’s superficial come-down, spouting endless bons mots and never missing a chance to work in a meal. His performance is truly the diamond in a trove of zircon.
Composed of interviews with family, friends, co-stars, and snippets of Marlon Brando’s own remarks, Brando is an enjoyable, distinctly partisan documentary that only adds to the actor’s enigma. Brando quickly understood how to use fame he didn’t believe in for causes he did. At a time when many stars bore us with their sanctimony or, worse, their post-sinning sanctimony, Brando’s unapologetic mix of gluttony and integrity, his endless capacity, in younger years, for “going out to jiggle the molecules,” is refreshing as a breeze off Tahiti. His difficult childhood was paralleled by a complicated and often sad adulthood, the nadir his son’s shooting of his daughter’s boyfriend and her subsequent suicide. Many of the stories of his fireworks on set are repeated here, especially his frequent refusal to learn his lines. Among the unusual ruses he found to avoid learning the Last Tango in Paris script was to festoon the off-camera Maria Schneider in strips of paper, each an unfamiliar bit of intimate dialogue. Perhaps most telling is the backstory of the first tribute scene in The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola didn’t tell Brando he would have a cat on his lap, yet watching Don Corleone absent-mindedly do exactly what will please the cat tells more about his character than any of the dialogue. Brando loved playing the bongos, and hula hoops, knowing that even useless endeavors have their price, that pleasure has its consequences.
Before Tony Blair and Cool Britannia, the UK wallowed in the economic doldrums, fighting in the Falklands and registering the beginnings of an English identity still in the making. In This Is England, Shane Meadows explores the tensions of 1983 northern England, where punks, mods, and skinheads might end up in the same mosh pit but would certainly see each other at the dole. Twelve-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) has lost his father to the war, is a bit of a loner, and gets hassled at school for his outmoded flares. Unexpectedly, Woody (Joseph Gilgun), a local skinhead, stands up for him and Shaun begins to blossom. Though only a few years older, the gang adopt Shaun as a mascot, shaving his head and decking him out from Bovver boots to suspenders. (Uniformed, he actually resembles Oskar in The Tin Drum.) Though Shaun has a crush on one of the girls, the friendship with Woody is the real center to this film. Before things get too cozy, Combo (Stephen Graham), a former member, is released from prison and ready to work out his sexual frustrations on those he feels are stealing “his” England. In a sea of St. George flags, they go to hear one of the political speakers, a snake-oil salesman. Buffaloed by Combo’s swagger, Shaun is torn between the temptation of easy identification and Woody’s more complex ideas of inclusion and acceptance. Turgoose conveys the giddy mix, of novelty and fear, of spending time with these young adults who force him into the ambivalent loyalties that define a great deal of the grown-up world. What director Meadows gets just right is the intensity of this preteen and young adult relationship, the heady mix of privilege and responsibility that peer groups and family can’t supply.
Youth was the subject of another of the festival’s gems, Reha Erdem’s Times and Winds(above). Set in a Turkish village in mountains above the sea, the story is told through three preteen friends, two boys and a girl: the Imam’s son Omer (Ozkan Ozen), his best friend Yakup (Ali Bey Kayali), and Yildiz (Elit Iscan), whose dreams of studying are blighted by her demanding mother and the realities of her family. They’re only young in years, with lives inexorably shaped by the reality of merely surviving in a land where, as one adult reminds them, “life is a present offered to the Turkish nation.” Perched above the sea, they could be at the edge of the world — or at its end. Episodic, with a seasonal pace in keeping with the slow rhythms of village life, Times and Winds shows young people with a contemporary awareness of the rest of the planet who are all but shackled to the world of their village. Family life seems stuck in the 19th century, perhaps even earlier, with parents keen on getting their children to assume their hand-to-mouth struggle. A twentyish teacher at the local school — with whom Yakup is shyly infatuated — introduces the children to the concepts of astronomy and biology even as their parents reward her with home-baked bread and goats’ milk, almost as if to counteract her facts and information about something larger. Omer’s is the most developed story; the film in part is a chronicle of how he gave up magically wishing for his father’s early death and recognized he would have to change his own life. Vastly different in tone and setting, This Is England and Times and Winds both capture the setbacks of dissatisfied young life, when hours seem to go on for days, days for years, while life appears to be happening somewhere else.
The Premonition, directed by and starring Jean-Pierre Darroussin, details the sudden, unexplained abandonment by Charles Bénesteau, a well-heeled 50ish Parisian lawyer, of his work and the trappings of the luxe life in favor of a small walk-up in a working-class neighborhood across town. Bénesteau mostly keeps to himself, devoting most of his time to writing. Unlike his siblings, his ex-wife and his son, who are outraged, he has recognized his crisis as a liberation, elated to be involved in the mess of life. Undone by his veering off into areas of the city they would prefer not to know about, his family seem most upset by their lack of control over his Bartleby-like decision. When a neighbor beats his wife so badly she’s hospitalized, Bénesteau seeks out their prickly teenage daughter and installs her in his apartment, setting neighbors’ tongues wagging. He is actually only interested in what he can do to help her, even if it’s not what he thinks will help; rather than romantic love, his actions demonstrate unconditional acceptance with which the cinema rarely concerns itself. Too little-known on this side of the Atlantic, Darroussin has Jean-Louis Trintignant’s ability to hold the camera with a look, a contemplative incandescence that takes psychological stock of his characters without ever resorting to short-cuts. His Bénesteau is sympathetic and flawed, a treat for never trying to win us over.
Though not quite the overall stunner his 2004 film The World was, Jia Zhang-Ke’s Still Life also ranked as a TFF must-see. One of the highlights of the 2005 Berlin festival was Yifan Li’s Before the Flood (see my 2005 coverage of the Berlin Film Festival), the documentary on Fengjie, one of the towns slated for submersion by 2009. Zhang-Ke’s double tale of a man and woman searching to reconnect with their partners not only uses the same setting, but engages many of the same themes of decisions taken at a huge distance from the lives they permanently alter. Han Sanming (the character and actor share one name), a miner, and Shen Hong (Tao Zhao), a nurse, are at the center of the two parallel stories, their smallness emphasized by the Yangtze, lurking like a great green beast in much of the film. Each manages to find their long-lost partner: Sanming reaffirming his marriage despite the sixteen years he and his wife have been apart, Hong finally emotionally and physically leaving her own marriage behind. The effect of this dam hasn’t fully registered for outsiders, but both these films make clear that the people whose houses and entire towns will have to disappear understand they are no more than a bureaucratic headache for the authorities. Total disruption is the constant motif here. Interspersed with glimpses of the callousing pace of construction in China and the cobbled-together lives that will have to make way for modernity are the stunning compositions of people and landscape that have become hallmarks of Zhang-Ke’s films. In Still Life, the building of the dam itself looms so large it often overwhelms the stories he has surperimposed, but his startling images of people holding on despite massive upheaval tell a consistent and consistently disturbing story of a peacetime change that is nearly as ravaging as war.