Much to admire, little to love
Swank and stately, New York’s gala is like the grande dame of film festivals. Absent the frantic pace of Berlin, Cannes, or Toronto, New York focuses on delivering a not-too-startling selection, with the occasional knockout. In addition to the twenty-four features, “Views from the Avant-Garde” sampled from more experimental fare and “The Beauty of the Everyday” feted the Shochiku Company’s 100th year, treating viewers to rare screenings of Japanese mavericks Yasujiro Shimazu, Hiroshi Shimizu, and Yoshitaro Nomura, among others. There were conversations with a few directors about their festival films and a special program on “Greeneland,” Graham Greene’s engagement with cinema. This included a screening of the fairly flightless Green Cockatoo, for which Greene had a story-by credit. Given the expanded world of aliases the virtual world has made possible in the thirty years since its release, a special showing of Michelangelo Antonioni’s preferred cut of The Passenger was especially welcome and acute. We may be able to better assume a cover, but when the time come around, mortality still can’t be ducked.
And mortality was at the center of one of the festival stunners, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. Directed by Cristi Puiu and set in low-rent Bucharest, it’s a nearly real-time chronicle of the last hours of Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu). Puiu succeeds beautifully at showing the extraordinary event that death is even as Lazarescu is shunted from one overcrowded emergency room to the next (the clogged hopelessness of the wards will be familiar to anyone who’s lately been to a Stateside city ER), his gradual leave-taking a constant problem for the self-absorbed neighbors, distant family, overworked EMS workers, and hospital staffs. The latter are especially irked by his lifelong drinking, their commonsense lectures both rote and harsh. Around Lazarescu, people complain, flirt, drink coffee, and wonder what they’ve done with their lives, with most of the conversation in snatches, like the bits and pieces you hear when you’re about to fall asleep. Lazarescu is both character and prism on Bucharest, which is seen nearly always from the inside out, from the cramped apartment he shares with three snoozing cats to the ambulance that ferries him to the various stations of the cross he has to complete on his last night. This is a birth in reverse. The script — by Puiu and Razvan Radulescu — brings a cool intimacy to the characters, their exchanges an accretion of apparently insignificant details that add up to a devastating ordinariness. “You’re on your own” has become the catchphrase of Hurricane Katrina; in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Puiu shows that, for those at the mercy of public services, this applies globally.
When a visit to the police offers no solace, Georges (Daniel Auteuil), the protagonist of Michael Haneke’s virtuoso Caché actually says those very words. Plagued by a series of uncredited videotapes that appear on their doorstep, the contents being hours of surveillance of their domestic comings and goings, well-heeled Parisians Georges and Anne (Juliette Binoche) quickly understand that this is their own personal terror, that the state will do nothing to help them. It’s merely one of the several sharply observed details in Haneke’s merciless examination of the assumptions that underlie comfortable Western lives. Racism, class, aging, success, and failure all play their part, with a particular reference to the Algerian war. Most refreshing is Haneke’s assumption of an intelligent audience, of film not so much as spectacle but provocative inquiry. The essentially bland tapes become sinister as the couple and their teenage son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky) respond to the tension they create, blurting resentments and secrets that can no longer remain hidden. Haneke has a keen sense of how much we take for granted and how creepy even the most normal situation appears when paid full attention. This is a movie that amply rewards careful viewing, with scenes seemingly about nothing often seminal and revelations suggestive rather than pat. Perhaps most exhilarating is Haneke’s use of film technology itself to pose questions rather than answer them. Truly a film for grown-ups.
A similar sense of fatal flaws in apparently perfect lives runs through Gabrielle, Patrice Chéreau’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Return. Set in 1911, Gabrielle has none of the life-was-simpler-then reassurances often endemic to costume dramas. Instead, the perfect interiors (production designers Antoine Garceau and Suzanne Durrenberger get full marks) and perfect costumes (Caroline de Vivaise) serve as extensions of the perfectly stifling marriage between upper-crust Parisians Jean (Pascal Greggory) and Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert). When she deposits a short note in his coffined dressing-room to say she’s leaving their ten-year union, Gabrielle throws their well-tempered life into chaos. Worse still is her change of mind a few hours later, her return yet more unsettling to her marmoreal husband. Adept at steeliness, Huppert shades this character with melancholy, with the recognition that coming into her own means little more than recognizing the bars on her gilded cage. Greggory marshals his somewhat louche features to convey the messy emotions Jean simply will not allow himself to feel, his tantrums equal parts nursery and nursing home. Instead of the tone of reverence period pieces often adopt, Chéreau uses the historically accurate details to show a couple straight out of Edward Albee or even Harold Pinter: Gabrielle and Jean being dressed by their servants for their weekly “at home” is like two knights being prepared for jousting. And their “friends” are as stony and ungiving as the sculptures that dot the enormous and sepulchral townhouse in which Gabrielle and Jean are fated to rattle, like two angry beads.
Drawing historical parallels to our time is something of an obsession these days, though not always with the verve of Chéreau. Two rather bloated entries in this category were Good Night, and Good Luck and Capote. Despite its obviously noble intentions and an able star turn by David Straithairn as Edward R. Murrow, George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck wants so much to be taken seriously it’s like a pre-schooler in Daddy’s dress shirt and tie. Set in the late 1950s, it details the fireworks Murrow set off when he dared to take Senator Joseph McCarthy to task for his smear campaign. Despite its meticulous period accuracy — everyone gets everything right these days, down to carbon paper and ringtones — Good Night, and Good Luck stumbles on its own post-Watergate assumptions. From the safety of today, lambasting McCarthy — known in this film almost exclusively as “the junior senator from Wisconsin” and seen exclusively in archival footage — is no big trick. In Clooney’s interpretation, he’s not so much menace as a kind of evil wizard that Murrow and his crew will slay with goodness. This distorts the enormous power he had at the time and the inherent respect that public figures still enjoyed. There’s no risk in Good Night, and Good Luck. We know already to root for the newsteam, but in case we forget, Clooney, who plays Murrow’s producer Fred Friendly, positions them like superheroes. There’s an irritating adolescence to this film and its cartoony structure. At times it even reminded me of a musical, the characters rollercoasting from one to another close call with the Bad Guy, soothing each bout with aren’t-we-naughty-but-it’s-part-of-the-era Scotch and smokes. Shot in unpersuasive black-and-white, the film has the burnished duotone palette of a diamond commercial, eager for “tour-de-force” accolades it hadn’t in the last earned.
Similarly fussy in its period details was Bennett Miller’s Capote, a nearly moment-by-moment narrative of how Truman Capote researched and wrote In Cold Blood. No argument that that story merited its kudos, as a book and a film, but Capote‘s first misstep is to assume its audience wants to watch the mostly quite dull process of putting a book together, let alone the histrionic fits of its namesake. Doing his star turn and overt Oscar bid, Philip Seymour Hoffman impersonates admirably, but this is in the style of many other movie-star impersonations of the past: Elizabeth Taylor deigning to do Cleopatra, Kirk Douglas suffering for his art as Vincent Van Gogh. Sitting through Capote was like having a cruise ship trying to berth in my lap: extremely discomforting. Especially annoying, in the way of Good Night, and Good Luck, is Capote‘s insistence on its own edginess, particularly in its “Do I dare?” acknowledgments of the homoerotic tension between Capote and one of the killers, Perry Smith (Clifton Colllins, Jr.). Hoffman goes out of his way to show that under the Bergdorf-Goodman-clad teddy bear exterior is one vicious grizzly. The question is why this needs to be said. Writers play for keeps and, as Joan Didion memorably pegged it, are “always selling someone out”; surely we don’t need this self-important film to tell us such very old news. Absolutely correct in its details, Capote amounts merely to lifeless re-enactment.
Putting on the ritz for real was Beyond the Rocks. This was the only film Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson co-captained, and it’s been beautifully restored by the Dutch Film Museum. Directed in 1922 by Sam Wood, only a tiny fragment of Beyond the Rocks appeared to have survived. Then in 2000, the Museum discovered a print among a donated trove. They’ve added appropriate sound effects, none of them overdone, often the mere squeak of a gate or a dog’s whimper to give the action a bit more atmosphere. The undeniable melodrama is tempered by the oddly perfect score (it sounds a little like a collaboration between Miles Davis and Chet Baker). Swanson plays a young woman who marries money to please her father even though her heart already belongs to the aristocratic (but presumably not quite as well-feathered) Valentino. The trials they must endure encompass nearly all the certifiably romantic spots on the globe: the “snow-clad” Alps (where Swanson dangerously dangles until Valentino can save her); Paris; various yachts and country houses and the Sahara. Undeniably stylized, Beyond the Rocks does show Valentino to have been timeless in his gestures: even in heavy make-up, his moves look modern (occasionally bearing a striking resemblance to Ewan MacGregor). There are wonderful touches: Swanson’s affable but too old and unpassionate husband’s feet don’t even reach the floor at his own breakfast table; Swanson’s mummified wedding dress; and scenes that feel charmingly choreographed as when Swanson and Valentino, barely keeping their hands off each other in Versailles, imagine themselves in flashback as members of the Sun King’s court. The story is full of sacrifices in the name of honor and loyalty. Wood was especially good at capturing the expressiveness of hands and gestures, nude or gloved; surely Martin Scorsese took a few cues for the erotically charged scenes between Daniel Day-Lewis and the gloved Michelle Pfeiffer in The Age of Innocence.
Gesture and formality figured also in Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Sun, an interpretation of the last days in Emperor Hirohito’s reign, when he took the two momentous decisions to surrender and to shed his divine status. An avid marine biologist, Hirohito was at the end confined to his freestanding laboratory. Sokurov takes his time establishing the life of unending protocol that was the Emperor’s everyday, with servants both docile and frustrated to attend to his every need. Issey Ogata adeptly captures the puny emperor’s delicate, mechanically graceful movements, often moving his mouth as though to speak. Hirohito is the absolute fish out of water. In one of the loveliest horrible images I’ve seen in a long time, Sokurov conflates the firebombings of Japan with the supposedly soothing images of swimming koi, a reminder that, even at supposed rest, nature is itself in a constant state of war and struggle. This is soundtracked with bits of GI chatter, bravado about hitting targets and such. Especially affecting are recreations of the awkward and humiliating conversations the Emperor had with General MacArthur, the decision to surrender effectively saving millions of lives even as the Emperor and Japan inarguably lost face. There are exquisite details throughout: the Emperor’s collection of movie-star photos and his thrill when American press photographers note his resemblance to Charlie Chaplin; the busts on his desk that include Lincoln, Darwin and Napoleon, the latter eventually deposed to a drawer; his ultimate meeting with the Empress to tell her he will no longer be divine and their almost childish glee at the momentous simplicity of his gesture. By the end, Sokurov’s portrait shows Hirohito virtually as formaldehyded as his beloved sea creature specimens.
Glee infuses another semi-period piece, Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. Setting himself the challenge to film the unfilmable, Winterbottom and his screenwriter Martin Hardy chose to suggest rather than adapt the story, essentially focusing on three actual snippets from the 18th-century novel, the rest of the film being about the set and the actors, sometimes even their dreams. Mining vanity’s endless motherlode, the film posits a bickering rivalry between Steve Coogan (who plays Tristram, his father and Walter and “Steve Coogan”) and Rob Brydon (Tristram’s Uncle Toby and “Rob Brydon”), slyly reflecting the novel’s themes while making them completely contemporary. The actors, for example, are not just concerned about screentime, but when they will need chin tucks, the exact color of their teeth (“Tuscan sunset” is one option), who does a better impression of Al Pacino, and how to maintain a steady real-world main squeeze without passing up the undeniably tempting on-set options. Kelly MacDonald and especially Shirley Henderson, actors far too little recognized Stateside, make delightful contributions to the perfectly timed mayhem, both of them bringing a great deal of tenderness to largely small and ancillary parts. And Elizabeth Berrington perfectly conveys the Sisyphean task of head costumer. Winterbottom pays wonderful homage to Federico Fellini, who played around with many of the same themes of actors on- and off-screen. Tristram Shandy‘s score even occasionally quotes from Nino Rota’s work. There’s an antic whiff of Monty Python as the crew watch the rushes, narrating the clunky, maladroit re-creations of the Battle of Namur in Mystery Science Theater style. Winterbottom even manages to work in reports on the war in Iraq, to give the sense of the unreal world a set plunges you into. This note didn’t at all seem false; as in Caché, which also makes reference to televised Iraq battles, it’s a reminder that in the privileged world away from the action, combat images are largely no more than moving wallpaper.
Quite the opposite, of course, to be in the midst of these scenes as Paradise Now and Avenge But One of My Two Eyes made clear. Paradise Now screened in Berlin and you’ll find my review in that coverage. Directed by Avi Mograbi, Avenge But One of My Two Eyes drew parallels between Israeli legends of the Masada and the often similarly oppressive techniques used by Israelis against the Palestinians. The film is punctuated with documentary footage of Mograbi in extended phone conversations with a Palestinian friend, an acknowledgment that the only means to end this conflict is for more such discussions to take place, for each side to recognize how ruinous the pattern is. Like Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, Avenge But One of My Two Eyes centers largely on checkpoints, the little fiefdoms that exert enormous control over people’s lives. A Palestinian man notes that there is no other subject than this one, morning, noon, and night. Pettiness is the rule in these situations because it’s the one way everyone who feels powerless — and this includes the soldiers in charge — can take out their aggression. This is a world composed of permits granted and permits denied, of arbitrary rules subject to last-minute change. Discussing a hastily erected checkpoint, someone in the waiting crowd notes that it might come down in a day, a few weeks, or maybe never. In such moments, Avenge But One of My Two Eyes conveys the bleak stop-time of such appalling limbo.
Keeping in the documentary theme, Michel Negroponte’s Methadonia took a long look at the culture of methadone, known among its users as “liquid handcuffs.” Instead of the more conventional look at the young, Negroponte highlighted middle-aged addicts. Methadone has been around since the Second World War, but came into more regular use about 30 years ago. If they live long enough, there will soon be a generation of senior citizen methadone addicts. Nick Pappas’ straightforward script fills in details, with the rest of the film a series of character studies. The addicts make a persuasive case for the apparent delights of “straightland,” an oasis that often eludes them completely. Each addict has a desperate story to tell, and though every one is distinct, the drug’s addling effects are similar: a certain worn-down quality, a disorientation and a struggle just to function normally that should serve as the most dire warning to anyone who thinks this way lies glamour. Negroponte takes a kind of guerrilla approach to documentary, letting his subjects sometimes weave in and out of the frame and getting to the essence in what can often be a repetitive narrative. An animated sequence, in which photographs curl and fade against the burned-out interior that two addicts shared, worked too hard for poignancy, and the feel-good-Gospel theme sounded therapist-written. But these are minor gripes in a film that broaches subjects rarely addressed in the mainstream: how are we to accommodate those who no longer know what to do with the time they used to use to get high? How can we help them to make their lives about more than mere survival? Like the rest of us, these people have to assume personal responsibility, but at what level do we as a society have a part to play?
Society’s margins is where Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne direct their attention. Working again with Jérémie Rénier, who appeared in La Promesse, their latest film,The Child, centers on Bruno (Rénier), whose girlfriend Sonia (Déborah François) has just returned from the hospital with their new infant son. They live on Sonia’s unemployment and Bruno’s small-time heists and schemes. At their best, Sonia and Bruno tussle with each other like puppies, occasionally erupting into a food fight. The Dardennes’ usual director of photography Alan Marcoen gives the film a relentless immediacy, the camera a prying presence and a merciless chronicler of the soul-killing industrial landscape around Seraing, Belgium, the steel town in which this is set. It has a rest-stop look even though it’s a city. Traffic never stops and the characters often cross amidst the cars and trucks with a lack of attention common to people who don’t care about living and dying. The movie belongs to Rénier, who’s the real child of the title. In many ways, it’s as if Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Breathless character had become a father. Rather than a simple portrait of good and evil, the Dardennes give us a view of insidious neglect. Though we only see Bruno’s mother once, it’s enough to get the idea of what his life has been. Rénier has a boyish face, his hair constantly mussed in a way that suggests a young rooster, a sly smile always about to break on his lips. He’s careless and thoughtless and utterly neglectful, but this isn’t calculated evil: he has the short attention span of a stunted four-year-old. His main concern is with making money but just enough to get through another day. There’s something lizardly about his look, his brain fixed on fighting, fleeing, feeding, and fucking. When he decides to sell their child, it’s just another windfall, like having a plasma TV to shift. Rénier is especially effective when Bruno gives up Jimmy, the scene shot against the faded wallpaper of an empty flat, his part of the deal being to wait in a separate room from where the baby is — that wallpaper suggestive of all the domesticity and care his life so obviously lacks. He’s completely unprepared for Sonia’s horror and distress, assuring her “we’ll have another.” With his pocked face and dirty hands, he’s believable as someone casually desperate, so focused on the next hour that he can’t see past next week. Bruno has to lie about everything just to keep himself alive. Sonia is an even harder part to play, since she is merely reactive, but François makes a convincing transition from teenager-with-child to full-fledged mother. What the Dardennes capture heartbreakingly is the lack of any fixed point in these people’s lives. They ricochet like pinballs with no machine.
A different kind of horror was on offer inHaze, directed by Shinya Tsukamoto. From the first scene, there’s no escape: a black-and-white shot of an eye opening as if someone is trying to wake up. There’s the sense of a consciousness just reviving. Then to color and more of the face. A thirtyish Asian man, nearly pinned between concrete slabs. He’s suddenly dragged — by what we don’t know and neither does he — his heels painfully across the concrete. The film is 49 minutes of unremitting distress. There’s an adage about how much scarier a monster is if you can’t see it — one character describes their hell as perpetrated by a “big and dark thing,” possibly human. Tsukamoto knows not only to offer no explanation but even to show just parts of a face, or just feet to amplify the dread and terror. The film has little gore, but it does have Road Warrior‘s nonstop intensity and the ruthlessness of In My Skin. Splendidly manipulating angles, lighting, and color (even that tried-and-true horror-tone red looks more ominous in this setting), Tsukamoto poses questions for the viewer to answer. Haze wasted no moment, yet its end is both delicate and unresolved. And plumbing pipes will never look the same to you.
Things get slightly differently out of hand in Who’s Camus Anyway?, but the film also invokes Asian horror movies (along with lots of movies made in the last 50 or so years). Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s film opens with a charming homage to the crackerjack editing of Geraldine Peroni in The Player. Set on a college campus, the film details the inevitable endless crises that precede the making of a student film. The influence of movies spares no one, including their professor/mentor Nakajo (Hirotaro Honda), whom they nickname Aschenbach and who, in a goofy but somehow credible scene, takes the Teutonic romantic’s identity on full force. Similarly, the director’s girlfriend, Yukori (Hinano Yoshikawa), not even in the film, adopts all the dedicated mania of Adele H. as she pursues the believably opportunistic and distracted Matsukawa (Shuji Kashiwabara), who just wants to get his movie made. Yanagimachi captures the carny (and of course carnal) atmosphere of even the lowest-budget set, incorporating along the way references to Les Enfants du Paradis, Fahrenheit 451 and Camus’ The Stranger, to name only a few. Art imitates life — or is it the other way around? Definitely a film for cineastes, despite very good acting and refreshingly quirky ideas,Who’s Camus Anyway? made a too evanescent impression, the fizz gone by the time the last credits.
But sometimes when the lights went down it was just an invitation to disappointment. Director Dorota Kedzierzawska proved with I Am that Americans have not cornered the market on corniness. Though in color, this had some of the advertising wanna-be look of Good Night, and Good Luck. Apparently based on a real story, a young boy nicknamed Mongrel (Piotr Jagielski) slips amazingly easily out of an orphanage in present-day Poland, returning like an unwanted boomerang to the mother who had him placed there. The rest of the small town has just as little use for him, and so he winds up on a barge conveniently empty and conveniently docked near the only stand-alone, satellite-dished house for miles, whose residents include two girls conveniently around his age. Not a single cliché was missed as Mongrel finds his way to some kind of identity. A gooey mess; though one doesn’t want to be cynical about the NYFF selection criteria, this sentimental piffle could not possibly be the best Poland has to offer.
Equally dismal was Steven Soderbergh’s attempt to understand what’s left of the working-class in this country, Bubble. Though this is sympathetic slumming, it’s slumming nonetheless. Using nonprofessional actors — real working people, you can almost hear him say, see ’em up close — he tells an absolutely unbelievable story of aggression and revenge. Shot in the passport-photo-as-art look more popular on gallery walls than in films (so far), the story centers on Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), a twentyish local who works with frumpy, early middle-aged Martha (Debbie Doebereiner) at a Midwest doll factory. When slim, young single mother Rose (Misty Dawn Hawkins) joins them and makes a move on Kyle, things go awry. The “mystery” is as weak as the culprit’s excuses, and the rest of the dialogue consists of issue-speak, quotations on health insurance, and unemployment statistics with the Dick-and-Jane simplicity of USA Today. The characters are lifeless as the dolls, a strained and overworked metaphor that allows Soderbergh to show “eww, weird” shots of a tray of doll legs or heads being popped from their molds. It’s a flaccid bid for class-consciousness, with the only salient element the exterior shots, the locations convincing (a direct lift from Stephen Shore’s work). There’s just nothing going on inside.
Not quite as dismal, but not as good as it could have been either, was Something Like Happiness, directed by Bohdan Sláma. Set in a block of state housing flats in Czechoslovakia, Something Like Happiness concerns a group of neighbors, many of them part of the thwarted generation of middle-agers whose lives were tightly bound by Communism only to be unraveled by the insecurities of post-Velvet Revolution consumerism. In an early scene, Monika (Tatiana Vilhelmová) bids farewell to her America-bound boyfriend while her childhood pal Toník (Pavel Liska) looks on adoringly. Though it’s clear they belong together, the way there is circuitous and obstacled with another neighbor Dasha (Ana Geislerová), a skittish, resentful mother of two pre-schoolers who’s involved with a married man. These are circumstances Kieslowski used beautifully in several of his Decalogue films, remaining true to the grim realities while according those living in them a level of dignity. Sláma’s film goes soft and doughy, too eager by half to portray the saintly Monika as the antithesis to the abusive Dasha. Toník, meanwhile, toils to keep a family house from being razed, fruitlessly repairing what can’t be saved and pining for Monika. The two of them rescue the children when Dasha winds up in a mental ward, Monika and Toník surrogate parenting in a preview of what’s surely to come. It felt managed and predetermined in the worst way The film fails because Sláma is soppily enamored of his characters, each one remaining true to their good or bad mold.
Though flawed itself, The President’s Last Bang, directed by Im Sangsoo, gave a lot more pleasure. Clearly, political hijinks and deep vanity have no borders. As a tango wafts over the soundtrack, the film traces the dictatorial succession of South Korea through 1979, by which time Gen. Park Chuunghee (Song Jaeho) had been calling the shots for 18 unpleasant years. Fed up, the head of secret service, Director Kim (Baik Yoonshik), decides it’s time to take the general out. Though definitely aimed at those in the know, The President’s Last Bang has the trappings of power, including garish interiors, fetching young girls, and rampant backstabbing familiar to anyone anywhere. The Director’s excuse that he’s doing this for the sake of democracy is bound to ring a few bells — poor democracy has had an awful lot perpetrated in its name these days. The film has the cheesy look of a B-spy picture, with officials whose only competence lies in bungling. There are all kinds of funny details — the final assassination conference takes place in a drained swimming pool, and even with no water three principals appear to be going under; a quick close-up of a large hole in the sock of the director, like the Achilles heel of all his bluster; the president’s completely nude corpse isn’t too much of a shock to his intimates that they don’t have time to put his general’s cap over his penis; and a world-weary butler who takes advantage of his master’s permanent absence to finally have some supper.
Maybe because there are just more serious films made, festivals tend to be light on comedies. But it’s a relief to find something to laugh about, and aside from the fun of Tristram Shandy, NYFF offered the very different but utterly enjoyable Breakfast on Pluto and The Squid and the Whale.
In Breakfast on Pluto, Neil Jordan dares to show Ireland of the 1970s for the crazy mix it was of somber, sunglassed, paramilitary Republicans and everyone else who was just trying to get by. Based on Patrick McCabe’s novel of the same name (and scripted by Jordan with McCabe), Breakfast on Pluto has a picaresque structure. It’s the life story of Patrick “Kitten” Braden (played to absolute perfection by Cillian Murphy), whose illegitimacy is the least of his worries in the tiny hamlet in Ireland where he’s born. A transvestite from his schooldays, Kitten makes her way to London in search of the mother who abandoned her. Though it verges on a potentially lethal whimsicality — picture-book colors, subtitled robins providing commentary, separate vignettes announced in on-screen “chapter titles,” Breakfast on Pluto, like Kitten herself, has enough endearing moxie to avoid mawkishness. True, there were serious, somber revolutionaries who spent every waking moment plotting and sometimes killing to get what they wanted, but there were also young people eager to take part in the social looseness so tantalizingly on offer in nearby London. Jordan sets a perfect tone by swooping down, like a bird, to start the series of flashbacks that lead to the opening scene in which Kitten wields a pram through the late 1970s London streets. Kitten herself is an amalgam of local influences and 40s and 50s movies, Murphy’s body language and easy glamour a perfect evocation of the fun it could be just being a girl. As in his other films, Jordan shows a deft affinity for the music of the period, his feel as astute — though quite different — as Scorsese’s for rock and pop. Though probably not a direct influence, there are traces of Dennis Potter in Jordan’s use of period music. No one lip-synchs but like Potter, Jordan perfectly understands that these songs are for many of us the most succinct, appealing and catchy expressions of the yearnings that never disappear, even as their fulfillment becomes more remote. He’s assisted in this by delightful performances — Liam Neeson as a bewildered priest; Stephen Rea in one of the more fanciful and less believable portions of the film, his performance nonetheless compelling for its originality and the way it suggests Dirk Bogarde and Alan Bates as similarly rueful nancy boy-men. As well, the costumes deserve special mention, with Kitten’s snakeskin trenchcoat a stand-out. Whether you were in Ireland or anywhere else in the Western world, you knew the odd juxtapositions of a period that included “Last Tango in Paris” (whose poster serves as backdrop for a few scenes) and “Windmills of Your Mind” (which plays more than once in the film), not to mention “Honey,” Bobby Goldsboro’s viscid paean to after-life love, which becomes a kind of anthem for Kitten. But Jordan also makes perfect use of Van Morrison’s classic “Madame George” and Haendel’s “Zadok the Priest,” to mention only two of his inspired choices. There’s an assumption that Irish life was all doom and gloom, that the church controlled everything the state hadn’t. What Breakfast on Pluto shows is that nothing was that straightforward, that all sorts of lives went on despite the official stances and that the strife and trouble, though painful, were only a part of life at the time.
How romantic it all sounds: you grow up surrounded by books, privy to the banter of two writers in the pre-real-estate-besotted Brooklyn of the late 1980s. Until, that is your parents decide to call it quits and turn their children out of the family harbor right into the choppy deep blue sea. In The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach mines his own background for a story that rings emotionally true, the perspective more backseat of the car than anywhere else, the tone close to a French or Italian film from the 1960s or ’70s. In an interview Baumbach cites Murmur of the Heart as an influence and certainly there’s also evidence of John Cassavetes and the New Wave, especially Truffaut (the youngest boy could almost be one of Truffaut’s gamins). The smart script uses the language of these bright characters to show how they see the world — and all that they miss. Jeff Daniels plays Bernard Berkman, a writer of dwindling repute whose best days seem behind him, not least because the wife who’s left him (Joan played by Laura Linney) has just sold her novel and is being congratulated for an appearance in the New Yorker.The sons, teenage Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and pre-teen Frank (Owen Kline) are left to make what they can of the mess. There’s an immediacy right from the start, the opening a family tennis game that functions as an overture for the piece. What is especially good as well is the matter-of-factness at work here. Baumbach puts you right into the family without any preliminaries. This is how they live, this is how they talk to each other. He has an eye for details as when the father gives his son a first edition of his tellingly titled first novel Under Water inscribed “Best Wishes Bernard Berkman (Dad)” and that they drive a Peugeot 504 and have a poster for The Mother and the Whore, very funny references to Breathless and Blue Velvet (you even wonder if the younger son was named Frank to make this work). Like razing a building, divorce puts all the guts on display and generally finds a few rats fleeing the premises. Baumbach doesn’t miss out on the ways the experience has become part of the vernacular, as eldest son Walt, to whom the film belongs more than anyone else, is told by his friend that “joint custody blows.” He lets his characters act out in ways that are rare as ambiguity in American films these days, their actions not made reasonable but left raw. Shot on 16mm, the film has an almost home movie feel; none of that oldey-timey saturated color look, but the sense of a documentary about what happens when a very bright and insightful but selectively aware family goes kablooey. Editor Tom Streeto deserves special mention, the editing sure and clever. The story is told in snatches, which makes perfect sense in the context of their chaos; it doesn’t all add up except to the fact that life for these four people will never be the same again.
Emotion recollected in tranquility could be the watchword of Regular Lovers, Philippe Garrel’s valentine to Paris in 1968 and 1969. Opening on a group of Pasolini-worthy friends as they climb to an apartment to smoke hash and discuss the street actions, Regular Lovers unfolds slowly, in a black and white rich with detail and insight. At just under three hours it’s a very thorough examination of a brief moment when it seemed artists and workers would actually topple the government in France. All of this against, of course, the backdrop of everything else in 1968, from Prague to VietNam. Shot with almost no music and relatively little dialogue, Regular Lovers builds slowly, accreting details as one does in actual lived life. Even in the headiest times, most people’s lives are composed not of dramatic moments but mundane hours and days. What Garrel nails is the way this time connected to the past — not just to 1789, which he invokes by occasionally costuming his characters, a device that quickly becomes completely natural — but to the suffering of World War II. As the world has tried to emulate American ways, there’s been more and more lost of specific connections to the customs and styles of each country. Dressed in the jeans that would become the uniform for any hipster, Garrel’s young men provide a tremendous sense of the specifics of that time rather than the Gapified version that’s been handed down. Organizing is for sheep — I’m an anarchist,” declares one of the young protesters. There are touches of Andrei Tarkovsky and Jean Renoir in the film. The street fighting scenes had a Brechtian staginess — they’re shot as isolated moments of hiding behind a car — and there are painterly elements, painting still one of the key visual reference at the time, far more than movies or television. His rebels operate within an assumption of civility and good behavior — it wasn’t so hard to dismantle then since no one expected bad behavior. Garrel also gets the banalities of seduction right: once it was so easy, it could all be summed up in the sound of zipper closing at end of tryst and the blunt negotiations with your usual lover about sleeping with someone “interesting” once. Banalities of seduction. 1969. Dancing. Regular Lovers works like the recollections of an individual, with all the specifics and the idiosyncrasies. And all at once it falls apart as people make their choices. America, Morocco, oblivion. Garrel leaves you feeling these are almost memories of your own.
Three different periods — 1966, 1911 and 2005 — make for three stunningly beautiful short films by Hou Hsia Hsien about love affairs with the umbrella title Three Times. Shu Qi and Chang Chen play the lovers in each episode, both of them easy on the eyes whatever their costumes. The first and strongest is set in a 1966 pool-hall, its first two scenes utterly without dialogue yet absolutely clear in intention and meaning. A young man en route to military service falls for one of the “pool girls,” their attraction played out to the sound of kissing billiard balls. Hou makes especially good use of music, using some songs more than once, coloring the scene with a sense of the life-altering feelings that the characters experience. He shows how love songs both shape and define real attachments, despite or perhaps because of their simple, repetitive lyrics that tap into something universal. The couple actually have nothing to say to each other but the attraction is huge. Like Wong-Kar Wai’s “Hand” episode in Eros, Hsien makes fantastic use of hands to show this, particularly in the final moments, strongly suggestive of Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the end of the affair already evident as it begins. The 1911 sequence is soundtracked but the dialogue appears on intertitles, the actors silently speaking to each other. When a courtesan becomes pregnant, the father-to-be can’t afford to buy out her contract. A fellow patron of the house, a journalist (Chang) eager to see Taiwan out from under Japanese rule, offers to intercede. His usual courtesan (Shu) hopes this means he might buy her contract as well but he continues to talk of revolution and a more universal future rather than her particular fate. You can almost smell the perfumed interiors, everything splendidly presented, the inner lives a mess. Both actors rise to the silent film challenge, imbuing their gestures with subtle exaggerations and formalities. The traditional Taiwanese music fits perfectly, like the lovely song of a caged bird. In the last episode, an epileptic singer gets involved with an aspiring photographer, despite the lovers already installed in both their lives. Hou makes great use of the techno sounds that define our world, the beeps and bells we hardly notice, let alone the constant drone of traffic. As Shu observes, there’s no past and no future, just the moment. The two actors have a few erotically charged scenes that seem to draw energy from all the pent-up feelings in the first and second episodes, drawing subtle parallels among all three. Throughout all the segments, the color is wonderfully painterly, but especially blues and greens. In every episode, Hou insightfully examines the idea of reticence and at a time when it seems everyone wants to talk and share and confess.
Overall, a festival with some real delights. The disappointments, as in years past, are often very mainstream films that don’t need the NYFF clout to find an audience. It’s a shame that ticket sales clearly have some bearing on what makes its way into this selective roster.