This year’s fest features a wealth of winners and a few flops
Lively and surprising are not terms often associated with the well-established New York Film Festival, but in its 42nd edition it served up many more beauts than duds. Though the selection committee deserves credit, the quality of the 25 features appeared to indicate a generally better crop from which to choose (any film not covered was not seen). Special events included a celebration of Pedro Almodóvar, several of whose films had their US premieres at NYFF; a tribute to Hong Kong cinema pioneers the Shaw Brothers studios; marathon screenings of the complete Infernal Affairs trilogy; and Ken Burns’s Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. This year’s edition of “Views from the Avant-Garde” paid tribute to the manic, musical-gone-wrong films of the George and Mike Kuchar. A restored Macunaíma, the 1969 Brazilian hit directed by Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, provided rare insight into that society’s tangle of race, religion, and folktale. Murray Lerner’s superb Miles Electric:A Different Kind of Blue offered equally rare jazz insights, his deep understanding of Davis, his music, and musicians in general is evident in every frame. This documentary would have stood out in any year, but it was particularly welcome amidst a disappointing selection of new American films. The festival organizers deserve high marks for offering the first stateside opportunity to see “Selling Democracy: Films of the Marshall Plan, 1947-1953.” Due to 1948 legislation banning the propagandization of Americans by projects made with their own tax money, these films were not even accessible until 1990. The festival line-up (screened at the Berlinale earlier this year) showed how eager Marshall Planners were not only to keep the Commies out but to ensure free Europeans mimicked their ceaselessly productive, hard-consuming, and immoderately cheerful American cousins. At a time when our version of democracy demands serious scrutiny, the Marshall Plan films showed clearly that cultural perspective has never been America’s strongest suit.
Writer/director Agnès Jaoui had full honors this year, with Look at Me the festival opener. Set in Paris, Look at Me details the fraught and frustrating situation between novelist/publisher Etienne Cassard (Jean-Pierre Bacri, who co-wrote the script) and his 20-year-old daughter Lolita (Marilou Berry). Heavier than the ideal, Lolita has turned from acting to singing, as eager to establish herself in the world as with her father (Jaoui is her singing teacher). Bacri creates a Brobdingnagian narcissist whose family (he’s remarried to the blonde ideal Lolita so vehemently is not, and they have a little girl) registers even less than his furniture. An especially nice touch is Vincent, played by Gregoire Oestermann, Etienne’s sidekick and assistant. “Kick-me” personalities gravitate to ego of that proportion and Oestermann gets every fawning move right. (Particular note must be made of Jackie Budin’s costume design for Vincent: not since Abigail’s Party has a choker conveyed so much about a character.) Singing, metaphoric and actual, lies at the center of this film. The sensitive and merciless script perfectly incorporates Monteverdi and Schubert, to name only the two most important composers to the story, capturing, against all expectation, something of the collaborative experience that is listening to a live music performance. So closely do the world’s middle classes resemble each other these days that any viewer who’s spent time in an urban environment will have no trouble recognizing these types: no nationality has cornered the market on ambition, much less vanity.
The festival closed with Alexander Payne’s Sideways, a bittersweet tribute to bad-boyism and good wine based on Rex Pickett’s novel. Set in the Santa Ynez Valley, it follows the week-long exploits of fortyish college buddies Miles (Paul Giamatti), an eighth-grade English teacher and yet-to-emerge novelist, and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a pretty-boy actor who’s probably peaked, on their celebratory wine tasting before Jack’s imminent wedding. Co-writers Payne and longtime collaborator Jim Taylor have the admirable and lofty ideal of reviving the verve of ’70s films and of addressing class in American society. Sideways achieves this best in the location choices of Payne and production designer Jane Ann Stewart. They capture perfectly what Philip Guston called “American crapola,” the neon, wires, and plain streetside junk that often demarcates colonized areas from rural or wilderness. Stewart and Payne understand the grim architecture that dots most of our landscape, from the faux chateau of Jack’s bride-to-be to the differently located but near-identical apartment bungalows in which both Miles and his mother (Marylouise Burke) live. Miles and Jack visit her en route, an opportunity for Miles to help himself to several hundred-dollar bills from her false-bottomed Ajax container while she sadly flirts with Jack. Though a tiny portion of this mostly romantic comedy, the scene gave a real sense of Miles’s underlying cruelty. This never much surfaces again. Miles remains sour and angry with Jack’s predictable sexual exploits, but he goes along with all of it. Sideways is larded with a boys-will-be-boys sentimentality that reassuringly cushions the social commentary. Unlike, say, Five Easy Pieces or Who’s That Knocking on My Door?, two films from the ’70s that dealt with the American class system, Sideways does so only in small asides. When, for example, Miles resists getting involved with dishy Maya (Virginia Madsen) because she’s just “a waitress,” only to clearly shift his thinking when he finds out she’s getting a master’s in horticulture. Or when Miles tries to dissuade Jack from an affair with Stephanie (Sandra Oh) because she’s just “a wine pourer.” Even when class tensions come up, the stakes never feel high enough. By the end, Jack and Miles are presented as flawed but nice guys, and it’s this insistence on likability that sets Sideways apart from the risky films it seeks to invoke. Instead of questioning and provoking, Sideways features a little acting-out and a lot of consolation.
Of the new American entries, however, Sideways was the most watchable. In Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane, the eponymous protagonist (Damian Lewis) searches in and around New York City’s Port Authority bus terminal for his eight-year-old daughter, who may have been snatched from him months before. An intense case history of a film, Keane‘s atmosphere is at once violent, frantic, and claustrophobic, the camera most often tight in on Lewis’s face and head. Like Payne, Kerrigan and his production designer, Petra Barchi, succeed best with locations, making marvelous use of the huge and creepily warrened terminal, the Stalker-like industrial cityscape on which it sits, and the Ed Kienholz-style hotel where Keane lives. Lewis goes flat-out and the initial scenes of his in-public nervous breakdown are far better than the later scenes, when, against all credibility, he befriends a woman and her young daughter at his hotel. By the end, Keane feels forced, its early frenzy tamed and its resolution so gelded that even Lewis looks unmanned.
At least, though, Damian Lewis can act. In the opening scenes of Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette’s kitchen-sink-sundae docudrama, Caouette and his lover, David Sanin Paz, tritely re-enact Caouette’s understandable distress over news that his mother has overdosed on Lithium. The crisis is only the most recent in a series of hospitalizations Renee, his mother, has undergone since her parents (who, for a while, were Caouette’s guardians) made the decision to have her committed and, eventually, to undergo shock therapy. Caouette was shunted from his grandparents to foster parents and sometimes to Renee in a childhood and youth of obvious and horrific anguish and pain. He turned early to film, and included in Tarnation, along with family photos and footage shot expressly for the film, are excerpts from his early efforts. Rather than adding to the film, this collaging has the effect of someone else’s remote-control surfing. Reminiscent of Rodney Bingenheimer in The Mayor of Sunset Strip (see NYFF 2003) and emulative of Andy Warhol, Tarnation presents an anamnesis of disassociation, its reverberations blunted by the director’s pat and therapized interpretations (narrative titles throughout the film display the same corny melodrama of the acted sequences and his youthful thespianism). Though Caouette never stints on exhibitionism and sensationalism, he substitutes exploitation for observation, too eager by half to be the hero of his own film.
Even Tarnation, though, has some pretty people. That much can’t really be said for Todd Solondz’s Palindromes, yet another visit to the beleaguered ‘burbs of New Jersey. Addressing the nearly equally beleaguered idea of motherhood, Solondz traces the path of Aviva, who’s played by eight actresses who have in common only that they’re female. Not only does Solondz mix things up racially — the most potentially interesting twist — but the women are of different sizes and ages, often unconnected to the chronology of Aviva’s life. This challenge to conventional casting simply doesn’t work and is exacerbated by the overriding impression that it’s being done just to be contrary. Soundtracked with what sounds like a cross between Tele-Tubbies and Karen Carpenter, the film is a bizarre Bildungsroman about Aviva’s desire for a baby, her single interest from childhood forward. Along the way she unwillingly submits to a teenage abortion, runs away from home, lands among fervent Evangelicals who’ve made a family composed of variously handicapped children, and — of course — are developing them into a Christian showbiz act. The film’s unappealing grainy look perfectly matches its unappealing premise and unappealing gimmick: how many times does Solondz need to find out that the suburbs of Jersey — and suburbs everywhere — contain aberrant and peculiar people?
Though birth and abortion are also central to Vera Drake, MikeLeigh‘s virtuoso film is simply light years from the artless and joyless Palindromes. A modest, working-class housewife in 1950 London, Vera Drake (splendidly and sensitively played by Imdelda Staunton) provides succor to her small family and the marginalized of her community, including young women who find themselves “in trouble.” She accepts no payment, her cleaning-solvent-induced abortions an extension of a wartime affinity and sense of connectedness. Wartime, which “weren’t cozy for nobody,” looms large, with black marketeers still active and rationing a given. Though it gets all the period details meticulously right, it is particularly by conveying this mustn’t-grumble, all-in-the-same-boat attitude that Vera Drake triumphs. Despite their cramped quarters, the Drakes have a contented home life, predicated on their satisfactions from unspectacular yet dignified and useful work. Leigh establishes this hardscrabble but accepting atmosphere only to let us watch it unravel as the Drakes cope with trying to align the wife and mum with the woman arrested for more than a decade as an abortionist. Leigh’s careful scene-setting drains the sensationalism from this loaded subject, forcing his actors (who were not aware of the full story while shooting) and his audience to actively toe their own moral line.
Teenage sexuality also informs The Holy Girl, a second feature by Lucrecia Martel. The inclusion of a theremin generally bodes nothing good for a movie, and The Holy Girl is no exception. Sex is much on the minds of Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg) and Amalia (Maria Alche), middle-class girls who live in La Cienaga, Argentina. A visiting doctor finds his way to the theremin player and, mingling with the crowd, rubs himself up against Amalia. She becomes obsessed with him though he’s got a wife, 30 years on Amalia, and eyes only for her mother. Despite a very good establishment of place (La Cienaga, literally “the swamp,” an almost David-Lynchian small-town), this ostensible examination of the bad consequences of good intentions felt too much like the repetitive, insular equivalent of a teenager’s diary.
Similarly leaden was In the Battlefields, a first feature by Danielle Arbid. In the midst of the 1983 civil war in Beirut, 12-year-old Lina (Marianne Feghali) spends most of her time on her own or with Siham (ferociously played by Rawia Elchab), an 18-year-old Syrian maid to Lina’s haughty reptilian aunt (Laudi Arbid, the filmmaker’s real-life aunt) who lives upstairs. Visits to the bomb shelter punctuate everyday life. As Lina watches the adults around her succumb to more and more corruption, she decides to take out her frustrations by betraying Siham’s plan to run away with her boyfriend. This Arabic update on the servant/child relationship of The Fallen Idol falls apart after this wrenching turn, and the end result was an unsatisfying soup. Arbid does, however, convey a horrific sense of modern wartorn cities, and the final shots of Beirut’s many bullet-ridden walls, the sense of a city put asunder by violence, nearly redeem a story she allowed to peter out.
More unexploited potential marks Rolling Family, Pablo Trapero’s crazy-family-on-the-road story. When Argentine matriarch Emilia (Graciana Chironi) is invited to be matron of honor at a great-niece’s wedding, she insists her entire extended family — middle-aged daughters, their pituitary-driven teenagers, similarly out-of-control husbands, and even her infant great-grandchild — accompany her. More dutiful than enthusiastic, they pile into a rackety Chevrolet trailer and head off across the Pampas. Despite an excellent soundtrack and a laudable intent, Rolling Family had all the appeal of a home-movie, with characters too flat to make this the wild ride it should be.
10th District Court: Moments of Trial is Raymond Depardon’s documentary based on a few weeks in a Parisian courtroom. Out of nearly 200 cases, Depardon focused on 25, ranging from DWI to deportation. What emerges from this bare-bones, talking-heads documentary is a portrait of the society that shows the flipside of the well-heeled and indulged set in Look at Me. Parisians of every possible description funnel through Judge Michèle Bernard-Requin’s jury-less court. Wry, not a little jaded, and more conservative than liberal, Bernard-Requin listens surprisingly attentively to each tale as it’s spun for her. Though slight, the film offers a telling glimpse of Parisian diversity and, naturally, the dissembling common to people everywhere around the globe.
From the opening shots of Tropical Malady, when a platoon in the field pose with a dead body, the film appears to set out on an unsettling and beguiling course. The ensuing romance between soldier Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) and civilian Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) is portrayed in a slow-moving, indirect style that parallels (purposely) the course of memory. About halfway through, writer and director Apichatpong Weerasethakul virtually brings this story to a stop to shift to the tale of a legendary shape-shifter, purported to transform from human into wild animal. The result is a frustrating mix of near-misses. For example, a highly charged scene in which smell is used as erotically as Scorsese used Countess Olenska’s glove in The Age of Innocence seems neither to come out of what preceded it nor to attach to anything that follows. To disrupt and thwart narrative is fine, but Tropical Malady lacks the truly compelling camerawork or the gripping, if non-sequitur, scenes to work as the unconventional feature it aims to be.
Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers takes a rather straightforward two-men-smitten-with-one-woman formula and turns it into a spectacle of color, costume, and special effects — not to mention ravishing actors on whom even bonnet-style headgear looks fetching. Set in the Tang Dynasty (859 A.D.), the story follows Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind member of the rebel House of Flying Daggers who is captured, only to be allowed to escape in the company of double-agent Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who vies for her heart with Leo (Andy Lau). Plenty of gravity-resistant fighting and dazzling effects dramatize every moment that they’re on the lam. Despite the best efforts of the actors and director, who incorporates nature in wonderful ways, using it to counteract the sheer technology, ultimately it’s the acrobatics and CGI techniques that dominate. By the last scenes, when the nearly tactile blues and greens dissolve into a purely white, snowcovered landscape, House of Flying Daggers feels like a fever dream: intense, somewhat exhausting, and with little staying power.
Yousry Nasrallah’s Gate of the Sun is a long-winded adaptation of Elias Khoury’s novel tracing Palestinian displacement, resistance, and exile, particularly in Lebanon. Gate of the Sun is a family-centered epic in the old-fashioned sense and a succinct history of events not familiar to many Americans. But though comprehensive, especially in the first half, Gate of the Sun remains hostage to its historical events, the characters always in service to the larger story that surrounds them.
In Saraband, IngmarBergman revisits Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson), the couple from Scenes from a Marriage, making the elegant point that no matter how thoroughly divorce may separate legally, emotional roots continue. The film starts and stops with a wonderful shot of Ullmann sitting at a dining table thick with photographs — a perfect symbol of modern life. Who doesn’t possess such a collection? Photographs always suggest absence, even if the picture is of someone still living since no one can match the time-stopped likeness. And a particular photograph haunts this film: Johan, his miserable, 60ish son Henrk (Börje Ahlstedt), and granddaughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius) all dwell on the portrait of Henrik’s wife, Anna, dead just over two years. In a dreamlike touch, Bergman includes this image among the photos that Ullmann examines at the end, even though Marianne didn’t know Anna. The ten vignettes of Saraband are like short movements in a piece of music, emphasizing the strong links between music and memory. Watching the film brought to mind a favorite quotation from Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer: “What needs to be discharged is the intolerable tenderness of the past, the past gone and grieved over and never made sense of. Music ransoms us from the past, declares an amnesty, brackets and sets aside the old puzzles.” Autumnal and pitiless, Saraband shows each character for the sympathetic and pathetic creatures they are, a refreshing reminder of Bergman’s deft skill at keen analysis and forgiving humanism.
Using the traditions of parable and folktale, Ousmane Sembene makes important points about Africa’s troubled relationship to the world in Moolaadé. The central problem — the tradition of female genital mutilation — is dramatized when one woman, Collé Ardo Gallo Sy (charismatically portrayed by Fatoumata Coulibaly) resists by protecting several young girls whose time has come. The story has the stark drama of a Greek play. Sembene elegantly and engagingly conveys the difficulties of modern Africa (AIDS prevention posters figure several times, radios blast Radio France, the BBC equivalent of the Francosphere). The title refers to a spell cast by Collé to protect the girls, its symbol a simple rope tied across the threshold to Collé’s compound of mud huts. Even animals hesitate before crossing it. And yet for all the spell-casting, Collé is as attached as the other townswomen to her radio and distraught when the men punish the women’s solidarity by confiscating their boomboxes. Unlike the men who govern, Collé uses one tradition to combat another, her object redemption rather than punishment, a view with which Sembene clearly sympathizes. Moolaadé was the most foreign of the offerings. In exchange for being open to a different form of storytelling than the Western or even Asian pattern, Moolaadé offered a thoughtful parable both distinctly African and universal.
Finally restored to its intended complexity and full length, SamuelFuller‘s The Big Red One was a reminder of what World War II looked like before its participants found their marketing niche as the “greatest generation.” Full of bravado and the kind of slang and showboating that’s nearly disappeared from American movies (often replaced by the drab retooling of advertising slogans), The Big Red One has a larger-than-life Lee Marvin as the sergeant whose four protégés (Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco, Kelly Ward and, as Fuller’s alter ego, Robert Carradine) manage to survive from North Africa to the death camps (their platoon insignia is the number 1, large and red). Unlike the triumphalist action pics to which we’ve become accustomed, The Big Red One taps into the misery, tedium, and craziness of war. A labor of love on Fuller’s part, The Big Red One joins the ranks of other combat films whose anti-war message is loud and clear.
War is much on the mind of Eric Rohmer; his Triple Agent uses an actual mystery of 1930s Paris to show how little any of us know of one another. Amidst the elegant White Russian emigrés, Fyodor (Serge Renko) is a dapper star, a young man on the make. Triple Agent is not least about the seduction of style, the ways in which we so willingly believe what appears right without investigating further. As his wife, Arsinoé, Katerina Didaskalou makes a stunning partner and supposed confidante. But even she can’t say who calls the shots: the Nazis? the White Russians? the Communists? a Soviet agent? Meshing newsreels with careful period detail, Rohmer conveys marvelous period accuracy with a contemporary sensibility: though the particulars of this historical period are different, taking sides is still required. Of all Rohmer’s films, it seemed oddly like a reversal of My Night at Maud’s, in which everyone except Jean-Louis Trintignant knew what was going on. In Triple Agent, neither the other characters nor the viewers can be quite sure, and Rohmer manages to leave Fyodor’s enigmatic nature intact, the film all the better for it.
Café Lumiere is Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s tribute to YasujiroOzu, an unabashed variation on themes suggested by Tokyo Story. The families of Ozu’s films all had a place and knew where things stood, but in Hou’s film, everything is in flux. It opens as Yoko (Yo Hitoto) has just returned to Tokyo from Taiwan. She visits her friend Hajime (Tadanou Asano), a bookstore clerk who’s crazy about her. But Yoko, pregnant by her boyfriend in Taiwan and willing only to have the baby but not marry, seems all but oblivious. She pays nearly equal attention to his dog as to Hajime. Actually, this connection to animals rather than people remains a kind of leitmotif for Yoko: when she later visits her parents in the country, she asks after the train station cat, and at her family house she is most at ease with their aloof black kitty. Hajime gives Yoko a copy of Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There, highlighting Hou’s theme of the constant sense in consumer societies that the really exciting life is elsewhere. Throughout Hou uses the criss-crossing subways that trace parallel but unmeeting lines through the city as a mechanical metaphor for the increasingly alienated people inside them. Café Lumiere has a melancholy muted look, the sadness never overt but pervasive, the characters perplexing and indelible.
Pedro Almodóvar has clearly exorcised some personal demons with Bad Education (the title a pun meaning both literally miseducation and ill-mannered). Though not his most completely realized project, Bad Education is more clearly autobiographical than even previous work and definitely shows his cinematic sophistication to full effect. Pivoting on two school friends who meet later in life, Juan and Enrique (Gael Garcia Bernal and Fele Martinez) and their memories of Father Manolo (Daniel Gimenez-Cacho), whose desires were a bit more inclusive than strict service to the Lord, Bad Education is set in the 1970s and ’80s, Spain’s most repressive years. As always, Almodóvar honors all cinema, especially the exaggerations and extremes of filmnoir (including a beaded gown fit for MarleneDietrich, except that its design is an anatomically correct female, right down to a sequined, brown triangular crotch, the slinky creation draped on Bernal, whose drag persona Zahara bears an uncanny resemblance to Juliette Lewis). Music, especially singing, plays a crucial part as in all Almodóvar films. The best scene (evocative of Casino‘s “back home” gangsters) is when the young Juan has to sing at a dinner honoring the dishonorable Father Manolo. Positioned in front of their richly laid table, Juan looks helpless as a bird in a cage of hungry tigers. Complex and engaging to watch, Bad Education never quite pulled together into the walloping statement it could have, but as always, Almodóvar elicits terrific performances and is never boring.
Kings and Queen, Arnaud Desplechin’s complicated double-protagonist film of Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric) and Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), former lovers whose lives intersect, has a plot so improbable and melodramatic that only seeing the film will dispel a kind of knee-jerk cynicism. Both characters are volatile, devious survivors who elicit complicated emotions that make them seem not only like real people, but actually of one’s acquaintance. Central to the story is Ismaël’s relationship to Nora’s young son, Elias (Valentin Lelong), who was an infant when Nora began living with Ismael (his father died before Elias was born). Despite his instability — Ismaël is a gifted but very difficult viola player recently dismissed from his string quartet and subsequently committed to a mental hospital by his family — Nora knows he must remain in Elias’s life. In the meanwhile, she prepares to marry well, if not passionately, and tends to her gravely ill father, a novelist played to absolute perfection by Maurice Garrell. What she discovers has some of the devastation of the final scenes of Celebration, and yet Desplechin also writes scenes of real joy and hilarity. The exchanges, for example, between Ismaël and his psychiatrist, are played with dry-Martini perfection by Catherine Deneuve, at the end of which he tells her she’s beautiful and she says, yes, you’re not the first to say so. The stories of Ismaël and Nora occur nearly simultaneously, with frequent references visual and verbal to Greek myths (Leda and the Swan in particular). There’s a brash quality to Kings and Queen that allows Desplechin to strain credibility and make it feel like real life — aided and abetted, of course, by his first-rate cast.
Jia Zhang-Ke dazzled with The World. Set in a Beijing amusement park that promises to give you “the world in exchange for just one day,” it follows the lives of the young people who work there. Costuming themselves for “Japan” or “India,” or somewhere else in the “world,” they put on elaborate floor shows, their real lives played out in the tawdry changing rooms (the opening sequence, in which protagonist Tao, played by Zhao Tao, wanders from room to room in search of a band-aid rivals the opening of I Vitelloni for elegant introductions) or the even more tawdry Spinal-Tap-Stonehenge-sized monuments of the park, which features such overseen sights as the Pisa’s Leaning and Paris’s Eiffel towers, the Vatican, and the Taj Mahal, all small enough to still look real in a snapshot. (In a nod to Roman Holiday, Jia even includes a mini Boca della Verita.) The first outdoor scene shows water bottles being delivered, as if this weren’t really earth but a kind of second planet. Music is expectedly canned with the “Moonlight Sonata” a favorite. In short, Jia shows us a world quite like the one in which we live, where travel has become nearly actuarial in its predictability. Throughout, Jia includes shots of such breathtaking composition that they work equally well as stills; one example is an early scene at the train station, where Tao’s old boyfriend who’s appeared suddenly is given a rather definitive send-off by her new companion. The three young people stand against a background of multiple-screened fashion images, and when Tao’s boyfriend leaves, Jia opens up to show the huge hall, bisected by an elevator and a lone figure amidst the crowds, capturing the very different anomies of Wim Wenders, Chantal Akerman, and Edward Hopper. Throughout, Jia has a Hopperesque sense of space, a loneliness and uncertainty that knows no borders. All the young people who work at The World have in common a shopper’s interest in possibly doing better, professionally, for sure, but romantically too. There’s a constant sense of the pressures of incipient consumption. Near the end, one desperate boyfriend takes an action so unexpected and yet so believable that it underlines the incredible desperation at center of the terrifying, it’s-a-small-world-after-all jollity that taints the very air and water of Jia’s remarkable and chilling “world.” In a year of consequential, memorable films, The World proved itself most exceptional of all.