All That Counts Is Getting to a Normal World
The New York Film Festival, 2016
The New York Film Festival, 2016.
Author’s Note: I wrote this piece before the US presidential election on November 8th. I knew the election would be over before the piece appeared, but I have left it as it was when I signed off on it. The New York Film Festival press-screens movies in September and October, before the festival begins and after it has started. I thought it would be best to preserve a record of these films as I saw them, not one revised with the knowledge of who our President-elect would be, and that we face a future that looks to combine The Sorrow and the Pity with Plan 9 from Outer Space, one of tragedy and corruption laced with absurdity and cheese. —A.S.H.
In his 1987 film Soigne ta droite, Jean-Luc Godard explained that the hardest thing about the movie business was carrying around film cans. In the digital age, that problem has been solved, for better or worse: films are now portable media packages. It’s the audience, not filmmakers, who face cinema’s big challenge: figuring out where to see movies. If you are lucky or foolish enough to live in New York City, you can turn to ScreenSlate.com and always find a movie worth leaving the house for. If you live anywhere else in the US, it’s not as easy. This is where film festivals come in. The big film festivals in North America, unlike those in Europe and Asia, bring masses of people to places most of them would not otherwise visit: Telluride, Colorado; Columbia, Missouri; Toronto. Film festivals, as much as music festivals, have led the way in the professionalization of experience into creative-class gatherings and industry conferences. Before there were TED Talks and South by Southwest, before there was Coachella, there was Sundance.
The New York Film Festival has always been a little different. Since 1963 it has been the premier yearly showcase in the US for serious cinema of all kinds. Held at Lincoln Center over two and a half weeks in late September and early October, the festival concentrates on a smaller slate than other festivals but is nonetheless huge. It is divided into somewhat blurry categories: twenty-five Main Slate features, fifteen documentary features (although some Main Slate features are docs), eleven additional Explorations and Special Event features, about twenty revivals of older films, thirty shorts, more than forty Projections films representing the nonnarrative avant-garde, and a section of virtual-reality items called Convergence. There are also, of course, parties, Q&As with filmmakers and actors, and “An Evening with . . . ” events. This year’s were with actors: Kristen Stewart, who appears in three films in the festival, and Adam Driver, star of Jim Jarmusch’s new film, Paterson.
Many of the films have already shown in festivals around the world, and some go into general release soon after they screen. The New York Film Festival serves as their official introduction to the US, in which the tony setting of Lincoln Center confers on them the status of worthy and serious works. The Main Slate films represent a set of features not just for cinephiles but for any cultured person keeping up with the movies — anyone who is interested in film as an art form that will survive the big-studio superhero infestation and the burden of quality TV.
Before and during the festival, about fifty films are screened during the day for the press. I saw forty of them. I missed one because of a therapy appointment. (Even though I am a film critic, I hope to be able to have normal relationships someday.) I missed another because I had a hangover and couldn’t face the hour-long trip to Lincoln Center from my apartment in Brooklyn. Two I paid to see, and went on Sunday afternoons after buying tickets using the festival’s complicated and anxiety-inducing website, with its countdown clock.
The press screenings began as President Obama arrived in town for his last visit to the UN General Assembly the Monday after a bomb went off near Chelsea. It was mid-September and New York was a humid mess, with extra police presence, traffic jams, spottier-than-usual subway service, and the lurking shadow of a possible Trump presidency making everybody nervous. None of that stopped film critics from arriving at Lincoln Center an hour before showtimes to make sure they got good seats in the Walter Reade Theater.
Standing in line at Lincoln Center with other journalists at 9 AM brings into stark relief the difference between artists and critics. Because Juilliard is at Lincoln Center, each morning dozens of young drama students pass by the festival press line on their way to class. An inordinate number of film critics are men, and young men are especially overrepresented. The drama students, among whom young women seem to be equally overrepresented, pass by in a parade of youthful vigor, unaware they are strolling by their future judges. This daily nonmeeting of the two groups made me want to donate money to a feminist film critics’ organization.
Some people will do anything to avoid writing.Tweet
Sitting in the auditorium, I learned that some of the young critics were Airbnb’ing from out of town to attend these screenings, while others were commuting daily from other states. Seated in front of them, a line of elderly Lincoln Center patrons occupied the extra-leg-room row, dressed like they had just arrived from Martha’s Vineyard to see the new Almodóvar or Lonergan. (Their wardrobes improved as summer turned to fall.) Among them was Howard Stern, wearing enviably fashionable sneakers. Whether he was there as a member of the press or as a patron I never knew, but I was surprised to learn he was a fan of contemporary art-house cinema. Maybe next time he has Donald Trump on his radio show, they’ll discuss Paul Verhoeven’s Elle.
This year’s festival opened with a documentary, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, about the racist legacy of the clause in the Thirteenth Amendment allowing involuntary servitude as punishment for crime. 13th was made for Netflix, where it debuted a week later. Not only was this the first time in its history that the New York Film Festival opened with a documentary, it was the first time it opened with a movie that was essentially made for TV. When Quentin Tarantino said, without having seen it, that DuVernay’s Selma was more like a TV movie that would have been made in the 1970s than an actual work of cinema, he could not have predicted how DuVernay would turn the opportunity to make a movie for Netflix into an act of defiance.
DuVernay cites Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) as the original sin in American filmmaking, contrasting its violent racism with the power digital media has to expose police brutality and other state crimes directed at people of color. Smartphone video cameras and streaming media, in 13th, are explicitly positioned against the cinema, which, starting with Griffith’s white-supremacist epic, encouraged the racism that continues to echo in Hollywood a hundred years after his film. The radicalism of opening a film festival with this message (while also ceding the streaming future by handing Netflix this honor) was acknowledged by DuVernay, if no one else. In her press conference following the screening, she was frank about it. If digital media can keep the police from killing innocent people, it can also make Hollywood rethink the entrenched racism of the film industry, which has made money for decades by depicting people of color as less worthy than white people.
Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV exemplified a different kind of cinema. Serra’s film was designed as a performance piece for a museum. The French monarch is bedridden, almost immobile, occasionally wheeled about — a near mummy. Jean-Pierre Léaud, adolescent face of the French New Wave, now 72 years old, plays the king. (Coincidentally, seventy-two years is how long Louis XIV reigned as king of France.) Noble, sick, pampered, and weird, Louis, as played by Léaud, becomes a stand-in (more of a sit-in) for the European art cinema of the second half of the 20th century. The film’s majesty and stateliness are undercut at all times by illness — deathbed scenes turn a museum into a hospice.
Serra self-consciously removes his film from the assaultive world of media. Its slow pace and dark, lush setting require attention but also a forgetting or abandonment of the world outside. Incompetent doctors minister to the king, watching over the decline of this body politic, offering many theories and no solutions. In their desperation to keep Louis alive, they resort to quack remedies sold to them by charlatans. Léaud’s presence brings with it our collective memory of his former glory. We watch with these doctors as it fades out of existence.
Léaud, who is not known for his warmth or for setting foot in the US, appeared in person with Serra after the screening. His presence was a thrill — something I realized I had been waiting for since I was a teenager and saw Léaud in Godard and Truffaut films at the university near where I grew up. During the Q&A, he quoted Cocteau, one of his early mentors at the time of The 400 Blows and the birth of the French New Wave: The cinema is the only medium that shows death at work. Léaud gave the impression of understanding that quite well. The guy sitting next to me, not so much. He checked sports scores on his phone while Léaud and Serra talked, staving off death one ballgame result at a time.
Like Serra, Eugène Green is a foreigner working in French cinema, an American who added a grave accent to his name and makes films more French than the French do. Son of Joseph, about an abandoned son (Victor Ezenfis) planning an elaborate revenge on his father (Mathieu Amalric), takes place in a literary milieu and in churches that hark back to Christianity’s formative years. Vincent’s father, Oscar, is editor in chief at a publishing house and a mean-spirited philanderer. His office is in an underfurnished 19th-century hotel suite, where, when he is not editing manuscripts or trying to find France’s next top novelist, he can be found on a couch with his executive assistant, a leggy bondage enthusiast. If it weren’t so cartoonish, this setup could be the envy of cube-bound male book editors everywhere. The literary setting points to a recurring theme of the festival, one that competes with smartphoning-it-in and museumification as a trend in the postdigital cinema: the merging of movies with literary fiction.
Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta is based on three interrelated Alice Munro stories, which the screenwriter-director moves from Canada to Spain. The film takes place over three periods in the life of its protagonist (Adriana Ugarte as young Julieta, Emma Suárez when she’s older), a classicist and translator. The moody plot traces her guilt and depression through her relationship with her lover, Xoan, his death at sea, and her estrangement from their daughter.
The first part of the film, with Ugarte as a 1980s New Wave Julieta during her grad-student days, is mysterious, colorful, and exciting. The Suárez sections, while typically stylish, are at odds with the usual Almodóvarian melodrama and drain the film of emotion until it abruptly ends before the moment of reconciliation. The ending, though Hitchcockian in its unexpected cutoff and mountain-road setting, still belongs more to literature than the movies. Almodóvar plants a foot on each side of the gap between the two, which is fine, but the film, like Julieta herself, seems lost on the road.
Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, as its title’s pun suggests, does not have that problem. This adaptation of three loosely related stories by Maile Meloy surefootedly treads its Montana landscape even when it seems to be meandering or concentrating on emptiness. Its sparse dialogue and observational style erase its literary origins the same way Antonioni erased Cortázar’s in Blowup. The film takes place indoors as much as out, even in the middle of nowhere. Laura Dern’s lawyer character deals with childish men in offices, in a motel room, across conference tables, and in prison, while Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone meet in a classroom at night or across a table in a diner. Gladstone’s young ranch hand, the Native American in this western, pitchforks hay in a barn before dawn and drives her truck to town at the same hour of morning, with little landscape visible through the windows.
The ground here is frozen and hard. Stewart and Gladstone’s brief semi-encounter takes place in public but away from men, while Dern has to deal in private with an uncommunicative married lover, an “authentic” type (James Le Gros). As one of Dern’s clients, Jared Harris commits to a disturbing performance of confusion and longing that underscores the film’s cold rage and loneliness. He’s a woodworker with brain trauma who takes a hostage in an office building, an act he can barely commit to before running away. Everything in Certain Women is carefully constructed and potentially deadly, but Reichardt rejects the spectacle of violence associated with the American West, replacing it with silence and dark pity.
Cynthia Nixon, as Emily Dickinson in Terence Davies’s biopic, A Quiet Passion, is paradoxically louder and more insistent than Dern, Michelle Williams, Stewart, and Gladstone in Certain Women. Davies creates a full society around Dickinson, in great detail, making her housebound nonconformism hard to understand. One by one, her friends and family drop away, through marriage and death, leaving Dickinson nothing but her visions and her poetry. It is tragic but not romantic. Dickinson stiff-arms everybody, and Davies refuses to sentimentalize her as the Belle of Amherst, making her off-putting every chance he gets.
Nixon’s performance is a self-conscious tour de force of buried fury. Dickinson’s essential attitude, as Nixon and Davies take pains to point out, is bitterness (“not despair”), and at the end of her life, as she lies on her deathbed aware of her obscurity and her sacrifice, she asks why the world has become so ugly. The only cinematic comparison is another masterpiece, Mikio Naruse’s 1962 film A Wanderer’s Notebook, about the life and struggle of Fumiko Hayashi, a Japanese writer who, like Dickinson, died in middle-age.
Naruse’s film is considered minor among his works, but it looms over Jarmusch’s Paterson, too. All three films present poetry as text over images. Paterson, the least of them, is A Quiet Passion in reverse: the happy story of an obscure young man, a bus driver played by Adam Driver, who is named Paterson and lives in Paterson, New Jersey. This double cuteness is spread all over the film, like the frosting patterns Paterson’s girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), carefully applies to the cupcakes she sells at the farmers’ market the film unfortunately never visits. It would be good to see a Jarmuschian farmers’ market, or maybe a flea market — then Jarmusch could catalog all the knickknacks he loves without the encumbrance of a plot. It’s a saccharine film, sometimes relieved during Paterson’s walks through town on the way to the bar he visits every night while walking his cute dog.
Like the shrine to writers and hepcats in Only Lovers Left Alive, the tribute nook to Patersonians behind the bar reveals Jarmusch as a talent obsessed with explaining what’s cool. This has marred his work. He sneaks in Iggy Pop, a non-Patersonian, via faded newspaper clipping, a digression that’s a shill for Gimme Danger, Jarmusch’s documentary about the Stooges singer that also played in the festival. That film, too, descends into a treatise on cool. We learn that the proof of cool — and its endpoint — is Sonic Youth covering a Stooges song. Jarmusch doesn’t mention cool’s decay, its half-life: Iggy’s “Search and Destroy” is now heard in a commercial for Audi on TV.
Pablo Larraín, the Chilean director, had two films in the festival. I saw them in the order they were made. Neruda transforms four years in the life of the Nobel Laureate and communist into detective fiction. Luis Gnecco, the star of the Chilean version of the TV show The Office, portrays Neruda as a friend of the workers, an enemy of the police, and a habitué of an urban demimonde where his poetry stirs lost souls, prostitutes, and drag queens. A police detective (Gael García Bernal) and his squad spy on Neruda, then track him through snowy mountains as he makes his escape into Argentina. Bernal, swallowed by his fedora and his 1940s suit, becomes a character written by Neruda in this magical-realist fable reminiscent of the weirder, less accommodating films of Raúl Ruiz. Sometimes Neruda beautifies fascism in a nostalgic glow of tertiary color the way The Conformist did, sometimes it uglifies it along the lines of Cronenberg’s version of Naked Lunch. It brings to the cinema the kind of literary biography that traces only a short period in its subject’s life.
Larraín’s Jackie does the same, but concentrates on four days, not four years. Larraín follows Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) from her husband’s assassination in Dallas through his funeral and a subsequent interview with a reporter (Billy Crudup) on Cape Cod. Portman’s performance and Larraín’s flowing camera overcome a screenplay that too often seems like a one-act play. Larraín and Portman do more than just move a play outdoors. They explode it into lush, grand visions of American history and chaos. Portman, in Jackie’s blood-spattered pink Chanel suit, glides through a pinpoint re-creation of the 1963 White House interior, right down to the George Catlin paintings of buffalo on the walls. Drinking vodka, taking pills, listening to the sound track album from Camelot, she considers or ignores instructions from Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), her secretary (Greta Gerwig), a priest (John Hurt), Jack Valenti (Max Casella), the Johnsons (John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant), each whisked through by Larraín so Jackie can cool them with icy disdain and quiet lisping. Portman’s performance is one for the ages because, in its fabulous poise, it is camp. She surpasses Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford and Glenn Close as Sunny von Bülow because the woman she plays is sympathetic. Jackie is nicer than Crawford and more iconic, and, unlike von Bülow, not in a coma.
Jackie was not on the festival press-screening schedule, but I managed to see it one night at the Fox building on Sixth Avenue. As I left, passing giant posters of Bill O’Reilly and Brit Hume in the halls, the last presidential debate was about to start, the one in which Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton, a former first lady like Jackie, a “nasty woman.” No doubt he will see that moment re-created in a film someday. Midtown was quiet as the screens in the Fox windows and the ticker on the building showed pre-debate Trump news, delivering his crude messages onto empty sidewalks. Larraín’s film wants us to believe that maybe there really was an American Camelot once upon a time. The blue and red glow from the Fox News building made Jackie’s conclusion mournful, and in comparison not tacky at all.
Alison Maclean’s The Rehearsal, based on the novel Eleanor Catton wrote before The Luminaries, is, like Certain Women, an unliterary literary adaptation. It offers serious counterpoint to college musical dramas and pop spectacle like Pitch Perfect. In Maclean’s film, a group of acting students at “the Institute,” a drama school in New Zealand, secretly put on a play based on a teacher-student sex scandal in the local news. A movie of negotiated betrayal among millennials and their Gen X mentors (like Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America), The Rehearsal relies on squirm, eventually letting its characters off the hook by forcing them to solve their problems on their own. Reflecting on the suicide of one of their fellow students, a wealthy member of their acting class who couldn’t hack it, they realize his internet obsession can be applied to the theater and their audience.
The film is defined by odd, unexpected touches. The tennis instructor looks like an evil cowboy and too closely resembles the teenage girl he’s had the affair with. Kerry Fox, as the Institute’s director and main instructor, is harsh and preoccupied, but not a Whiplash monster. Maclean and Fox present her as a realistic intellectual who leads her own life away from her charges. Ella Edward’s performance as the sister of the girl in the scandal is maybe the oddest thing in the film. Not quite the star in this ensemble cast, her out-of-it, distracted manner shows star quality and places her above the older students, who all want to be actors and are therefore very present. They flit through The Rehearsal like the Juilliard students at Lincoln Center, their eyes on something outside their immediate surroundings.
The title of Alain Guiraudie’s new film, Staying Vertical, is a pun that might work in French but in English translates as “audience indifference.” That’s too bad, because this wild, original film deserves to be seen. A gay screenwriter, Léo (Damien Bonnard), blocked in his writing, travels the Pyrenees, where he meets a farm girl and a country hustler who live with an elderly Pink Floyd fan, a ranter Léo assists in his suicide by fucking him on his deathbed. Scandal, woodland homeopathy, and homelessness follow, until Léo reemerges as a hermit. Employed by his baby mama’s brutal gay-farmer dad, who looks like John C. Reilly in a nightmare, the two face down wolves in the mountains, united by their mutual obsession with these predators who kill their sheep and to whom they offer Lèo’s baby as bait. Some people will do anything to avoid writing.
Nearby, but in a different movie, a hunky scientist (Paul Hamy) studies black storks through binoculars from his kayak. Later in João Pedro Rodrigues’s The Ornithologist, this title character turns into a different person Lost Highway–style, played by Rodrigues himself. The film obscurely recasts the life of St. Anthony of Padua for modern times.
After rapids wash his kayak away, a pair of Chinese girls, Christian tourist-pilgrims lost in the woods on their way to the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, kidnap the ornithologist and tie him up in his underwear. Like the pixie-fairies from Mothra, they are delightful yet sinister and portend worse to come. The ornithologist escapes them, then has sex with a mute gay shepherd whom he kills for stealing his hoodie, and for possibly belonging to a sect of pagan vandals in red costumes who speak an obscure language and seem to be hunting him. By the time a gang led by a topless blond huntress appears, the film has begun to exhaust itself and the audience. These women on horseback bring it back to life as the ornithologist lies dying.
This same fallen world and potential homotopia exist in Dane Komljen’s All the Cities of the North, a Serbian film set in the woods at an abandoned vacation resort. This postcommunist landscape, with its Brutalist concrete architecture giving way to nature, is populated by male lovers and homeless men who rearrange bed mats, wash themselves with buckets of water, and slice apples with large heavy scissors. We see the film’s crew at work once in a while, and passages from Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace and Godard’s screenplay for Passion are read on the sound track. I hoped for a scene in which one of the normcore vagrants placed a chip on another’s shoulder while a third, offscreen, read from Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
The film’s slowness seems rote at this late point in the history of slow cinema. All the Cities of the North solidified for me, after Guiraudie’s and Rodrigues’s movies, that these films are part of a genre, and some genre directors are better than others. The self-conscious, desultory feel of this one underscored the power of the other two.
Willful boredom smothers Natalia Almada’s Everything Else, the story of Doña Flor (Adriana Barraza), a Mexican bureaucrat nearing retirement who spends her days nitpicking paperwork handed to her by a random assortment of Mexico City residents. Her repetitive job, nightly routine, and hapless attempts to work up the courage to dive into a swimming pool compose the bulk of this film, a Jeanne Dielman in miniature. The severe vision of lower-class anomie in Akerman’s film is leavened in Everything Else by a touch of connection from an obese woman in a gym shower room, another invisible woman in a teeming city. Almada spares Doña Flor a tragic end in a moment of potential violence, involving a fire-eating con man who pours lighter fluid on his victims.
After Doña Flor’s cat dies, she leaves it wrapped in a towel on her bed all day while she goes to work in her office. When she gets home, she dumps it in a trash can. This cat is one link between Everything Else and Things to Come, Mia Hansen-Løve’s film about a philosophy professor (Isabelle Huppert) who loses everything in middle age, including the antisocial cat her batty mother left behind after her death.
Huppert’s Nathalie leads a decent life with her husband, Heinz, also a philosophy professor. They have two kids and a seaside vacation house; he reads Karl Kraus while she reads Minima Moralia. Arguments with her publisher about book-cover design reflect the changing world of the late ’00s, in which marketing, it seems, came to dominate German-philosophy-textbook publishing in France. Nathalie’s favorite student, a bearded Marxist radical named Fabien who wears ripped jeans and wants to live in the woods, ingratiates himself into her life to get published. A normalien in Paris at the time of Occupy Wall Street, he’s supposed to be likable, committed, searching. After Heinz leaves Nathalie and she starts hanging out with Fabien and his adjunct pals in the French equivalent of upstate New York, I began to worry. Was Isabelle Huppert really going to sleep with this jive turkey? But it’s the film’s strategy to deny her comfort. When she goes to a movie theater to see Certified Copy, she’s chased into the street by a lecher.
Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius, from Brazil, is less eventful than Things to Come. Sonia Braga plays a woman not unlike Huppert’s philosophy professor, a serious, slightly older music critic past retirement age. Clara is the last resident of her apartment building on the beach in Recife, and developers, eager to turn it into condos, have begun the nasty process of making life too unpleasant for her to stay. Aquarius is forty-five minutes longer than Things to Come, partly because it stops to show how annoying it is when the sound of construction makes thinking impossible. This rare flattering portrait of a critic as an aging, still-glamorous woman does not settle for the reheated comfort of nuclear family like Things to Come does. Clara turns the people around her into activists instead of hanging out with the already radicalized. The film’s revelation of termite infestation, a metaphor for the crumbling infrastructure of capitalist development everywhere, is more direct and obvious than anything in Things to Come, more Zavattinian than the Rossellinian vision of a woman alone in Hansen-Løve’s character study.
Matías Piñeiro’s Hermia & Helena presents a potential future-Clara or future-Nathalie in Camila (Agustina Muñoz), a young Argentinian translator on a fellowship in Manhattan. She’s working on a translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a theater company in Buenos Aires — we see the play’s lines as text on the screen — but she also has a secret mission the film waits most of its short running time to reveal. Traveling upstate through bright snow under blue skies, she meets an older man played by the New York filmmaker Dan Sallitt, who is reserved but appealing in this role. He’s an agreeable version of the patriarchy, a millennial girl’s dream of a lost good dad — the opposite of the demanding, threatening father in Shakespeare’s play.
Representatives of the patriarchy are more manipulative and aggressive in Hong Sang-soo’s quiet, equally short Yourself and Yours, which makes for a wittier, stranger, more hard-assed film. Min-jung (Lee You-young), the object of desire here, may be two women. Clueless, drunken men argue over the “good” Min-jung and castigate the “bad” one in her absence and to her face. The good one is a faithful girlfriend who has promised to cut back on her drinking. The bad one gets plastered in public and makes out with strange men in bars.
Set, like Hermia & Helena, in a sealed urban world of young artists and writers who only talk to one another (and, here, bartenders), Yourself and Yours depicts rising female fury as it confronts passive, confused men. An older filmmaker, a stand-in for Hong, proves himself to be as boozy and dopey as Min-jung’s younger boyfriends. The film’s signature line of dialogue could also be the tag line on its poster: “Drink up, you pathetic men!”
A bolder cat than the one she inherited in Things to Come looks on placidly in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle as Isabelle Huppert is raped on her dining-room floor — a scene the film replays more than once. Michèle’s nonreaction to this attack is as dissociated as the cat’s. She looks at herself from outside, a spectator to her violation like the audience watching the film, the actress observing her role as she plays it. She cleans up this crime scene and goes to her office, where she runs a video-game company specializing in perverted fantasy and violence. At a fast-food restaurant, a woman dumps her tray on Michèle on purpose. Strange, since Michèle’s father, a mass murderer who dragged her to his homicides, killed people for being rude.
Elle is startling and precise, an arrow to the skull. Mordant wit and twisted joy come with Verhoeven’s level of control. In a Parisian gun shop decorated with American flags, Huppert picks up an ax and eyes it coolly before rejecting it in favor of a plain-old handgun. Verhoeven has been hackish in the past. Not this time. So much slow cinema in one festival starts to seem conservative, making a film with a killer screenplay like David Birke’s, where everything is in place, look as backward-glancing and futuristic as Total Recall.
The festival’s other insane crowd-pleaser was Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, which also deals with a daughter (Sandra Hüller) and the resentment she feels for her father (Peter Simonischek). When we first meet him, it’s clear Winfried is a tad sinister, a prankster-retiree who likes to greet the UPS guy with fake teeth in his mouth while wearing a wig. But he’s a sad clown, and soon enough his dog dies. While Ade makes Winfried pathetic, she really stacks the deck against Ines, a self-involved lean-in-type who wears gray suits, speaks in business English, and works as a consultant downsizing industrial labor. She and the other middle-management Germans she works with are unhappy in Bucharest, hoping for appointments in other, better cities. “I like countries with a middle class,” one says. Bucharest, we learn, features “Europe’s largest mall and no one with money to buy anything.”
It wears you down, seeing forty films in three weeks: sitting day after day in the dark, exposed to all that emotion and all those troubled souls.Tweet
Winfried shows up in Bucharest for a visit with his daughter, interfering with Ines’s work schedule and ruining her weekend. Then he tries to make things right by giving her a cheese grater, that most anxiety-inducing of kitchen tools. At this point in the film, or maybe the next morning, right after Ines accidently slices open her toe before a big meeting (not with the cheese grater), something about Toni Erdmann became clear: no scene could be predicted from the one that came before it.
Toni Erdmann, the title character, is not a real person. He is a persona Winfried adopts to nudge Ines toward becoming what he wants her to be: nice, caring, human. Donning a lame disguise that makes him look like the son of Neil Young and Austin Powers, Winfried shows up at Ines’s work events and pretends to be a leadership consultant, embarrassing his daughter into silence about his true identity as she squirms and pretends she doesn’t know him. His idea that she just needs a little Merry Prankster in her soul crumbles as the pair tour an industrial excavation site in the Romanian steppe, a second-world wasteland of global capital.
The film is resolutely new and unexpected, yet somehow classical, echoing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor, Renoir’s Boudu and Dr. Cordelier, and any movie in which someone dons a gorilla suit. The gorilla suit here — a folkloric Hungarian tree-creature getup — contrasts with the thin robe concealing Ines’s nudity as she chases Winfried’s final alter ego out of a naked work party she’s hosting in her apartment. Winfried is a beast who hides, Ines a beauty who learns to bare her soul. The film’s moment of apotheosis, a scene in which Ines is forced to belt out the Whitney Houston song “The Greatest Love of All” as Winfried/Toni plinks out the tune on a Casio, is a slow-boil demonstration of comedy’s limit.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl takes place in the same despondent Belgium as their other films. More than those, it has a murky New Romanian Cinema feel. Often the Dardennes shoot the film’s protagonist, a young doctor (Adèle Haenel), so we can’t see her face. They shoot the townspeople the same way, hiding them in murk. This is a town populated by people who don’t want to be seen or to look at others. Dr. Davin takes a technocratic view of her patients’ plight in this dreary place where people live in shadows and no one gets excited about anything, ever: “If a patient’s suffering moves you, you make a bad diagnosis.”
One night she fails to answer the doorbell in her clinic, refusing to admit a young woman pleading outside. When the woman, an African immigrant, turns up dead, the doctor realizes she could have saved her. Far from being a lesser Dardenne effort, this dour semigenre film about obdurate, callous people with something to hide is one of their best. The film’s genre trappings as dead-girl mystery have led the Dardennes to bore deeper into their milieu. Dr. Davin does not appear to have friends or family. People in the film isolate themselves in phone booths in a cybercafé. Nobody likes to talk, and when they do, it’s to make threats.
Haenel’s self-effacing performance in The Unknown Girl is the opposite of Kristen Stewart’s star turn in Personal Shopper, even though Stewart’s Maureen is supposed to be an introvert more attuned to the spirit world than to this one. Also a semigenre film, albeit a far more glamorous one, Olivier Assayas’s deconstructed Parisian giallo fails to make sense, as gialli often do. Hounded by the most unwitty barrage of sexts in the short history of texting, Maureen moves through a disconnected contemporary world in which communication is ghostly, identity slippery, and S&M meets SMS. Every moment of the film’s plot is predictable. As Stewart browses racks of clothes to try on in her employer’s apartment, the film’s big mystery becomes: how long before she masturbates?
In his press conference with Stewart after the screening, Assayas mentioned that he is interested in radical collage. “Of course Personal Shopper is not a genre movie,” he explained. Furthermore, things have changed in the world of image-making, he said, since he made demonlover in the early 2000s. Back then he still had opinions about digital technology and the future. Now he’s just a haunted man trying to survive in a world inundated with constant disposable images. Personal Shopper is interesting in that it gives so much screen time to Stewart, letting her sit in cafés and flip through art books on Hilma af Klint. She makes the movie work for her. All the other Americans in it seem like extras on Silicon Valley, and the Europeans merely members of the international creative class, stylish people with enough time on their hands to have affairs, but not enough to do their own shopping or chase their own ghosts.
Covering a film festival is like watching movies on an airplane. You start in one place and end up in another. It wears you down, seeing forty films in three weeks: sitting day after day in the dark, exposed to all that emotion and all those troubled souls. Everyone has their breaking point. Mine came during Mike Mills’s 20th Century Women, with Annette Bening.
The film begins in 1979, that fateful last year before Ronald Reagan ganked Gen X. Dorothea (Bening) is a single mom raising a son (Lucas Jade Zumann) in Santa Barbara, California, in a house she owns and shares with Jamie and two boarders, a New Wave wannabe artist named Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and an ex-hippie carpenter-mechanic who’s drifting through life (Billy Crudup). The film opens with songs by Talking Heads and the Clash, and by the time Abbie and Jamie attempt to explain the appeal of the Raincoats’ “Fairytale in the Supermarket” to Dorothea — in some pleasing, clunky dialogue that replicates how people really did talk about new music then — I felt like I’d been mugged. I felt embarrassed, as victims of muggings sometimes do, that I wasn’t better prepared. I’d let down my guard. I told myself it wasn’t my fault; there was no way I could have known Mills and I had the same adolescence and the same mother.
Here are some facts about my mother, which also describe Dorothea in this film. My mother was an ex–graphic designer who divorced my father when I was very young. She owned a Volkswagen Beetle. She smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, and they killed her in her sixties. She would listen to my records when I wasn’t around, trying to figure out what I liked about them. She preferred Talking Heads to Black Flag. She was lonely, never meeting any interesting men in our small town, and she was always reading a book from the library. Interested in progress and concerned about the future, she tried to teach me to be decent and kind while the Dead Kennedys and Joy Division were teaching me to be insolent and moody. I, in turn, spent time at a nearby university meeting hip older girls, like Gerwig’s Abbie, who worshipped David Bowie, and sneaking out to music shows in bars where they’d let in teenagers with IDs so fake they wouldn’t have fooled a blind man.
Like that paragraph, the movie ends up being more about the son than the mother. The easy generational politics of music and T-shirt choice in 20th Century Women define life in Southern California at the end of the ’70s as much as they did present-day California in The Kids Are All Right (also with Bening). Mills holds down the keys on these signifiers to sound deep notes of melancholy. His film, in its second half, opens up cultural influence to feminist literature, using passages from Sisterhood Is Powerful and other Second Wave writing on the sound track and on-screen. The film’s built-in sentimentality put me in the same position as the masses of women who embraced Beaches in 1988 or Stepmom in 1998. Cinematic melodrama is no longer as mass, and to be taken seriously it has become artier. As melodrama for men, 20th Century Women reminds the middle-aged that they once evolved, and introduces younger men to feminism at mom’s knee. “Forsake not the way of salvation, my boy,” sang the Carter Family, “that you learned from your mother at home.”
By now, dozens of articles praising Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight will have appeared, conferring on it the definite status of New American Classic. Groundbreaking in subject matter and an obvious artistic achievement, Moonlight tracks the early years of a man’s life over three decades, from childhood, as Little, to adolescence under his real name, Chiron, to young adulthood, in which he’s known as Black. Played in turn by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, he goes from Charlie Brown–ish to gawky but tough, finally emerging as musclebound and stoic, a closeted gay drug dealer who has survived teenage beat-downs and juvenile detention.
The film is contemplative and rejects tragedy. A film about a shy person set in a milieu usually defined by ego and confrontation, Moonlight exposes violent male competition as sublimated, psychologically wounding, and pointless but survivable. The film’s great strength is the way it confronts reality head-on, with cinematic beauty but no mythmaking. Palpably indebted to films by Hou Hsiao-hsien and Terrence Malick, Jenkins and his cinematographer, James Laxton, nonetheless invent a Miami photography all their own, dark blue, yellow, and pink — then orange and brown when the film moves to Atlanta.
Chiron, like Jamie in 20th Century Women, is raised by a single mother (Naomie Harris), here addicted to crack instead of menthols. Jamie had no male role model; Chiron at least has Juan (Mahershala Ali), a crack dealer with a poetic soul who has learned to hide that side of himself the same way Chiron learns to hide his sexuality. Ali’s performance in the “Little” section of the film seems effortless, yet it’s so commanding it almost overwhelms the movie. When Juan disappears, something important goes with him.
The immediate, massive, and overwhelming adulation that greeted Moonlight, praising it just for existing, left me a little skeptical. Then I spoke with the Oscarologist. I was sitting with a publicist during the festival, chatting about the movie, when he broke in from the other end of the bench. An obese older white man with a cane, he told us he was gay and worked for a website that tracks Oscar predictions. “I’m an Oscarologist,” he announced, and then he informed us that Moonlight was not going to win any Academy awards. “It’s bad for gays, it’s bad for blacks, it perpetuates stereotypes with negative role models.” The publicist, a young woman, and I countered that Oscars were no measure of a film’s quality. “In my business they are! In the film industry they are!” he shouted, adding that Moonlight “would not be influential.” Right then the film leaped in my estimation. If Moonlight was that upsetting to this guy, it had to be a masterpiece.
Up the coast from Miami, in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, Casey Affleck plays Lee, “a janitor in Quincy,” calm and patient on the outside, who drinks too much, then gets into bar fights in places with names like Fibber McGee’s. After his older brother dies, Lee reluctantly becomes his teenage nephew’s official guardian. Lonergan’s new film raises Masshole tragedy above the level of fuckin’ tragedy at which it usually gets stuck. Despite the film’s elaborate flashback structure, it does not get bogged down in plot. It reveals each character in his or her own time, meandering into scenes a conventional writer-director would cut. Lee and his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), spend what seems like twenty wasted minutes (theirs, not ours) looking for Lee’s car after they leave a funeral home and can’t remember where they parked.
The frozen landscape of Manchester by the Sea contrasts with the deadly fire in the scenes of Lee’s days with his wife (Michelle Williams) and children. Lonergan gives him Freud’s “father, don’t you see I’m burning?” dream before allowing Lee to understand he has to get it together enough to be a substitute father to his nephew. The film is deeply melancholy, broken, and painful, as disarming as 20th Century Women but with fewer gimmicks. Like Moonlight, it’s a New American Classic, a film bringing movie drama to a high level that quality TV will never reach.
One day during the festival I was sitting in Union Square eating my lunch and reading an email announcement on my phone about a lecture the film theorist Laurence Rickels was giving in New York. There was a photo of Rickels in the email, and when I looked up from my phone I saw a man go by who looked exactly like Rickels: bald, modish eyeglass frames, stocky, well dressed. I got up and stopped him to ask if he was Rickels. “No,” he answered. “I am Gianfranco Rosi, the Italian filmmaker.”
Rosi’s documentary Fire at Sea takes place on Lampedusa, an eight-square-mile island in the Mediterranean Sea between Sicily and Tunisia that, according to the explanatory opening title, four hundred thousand migrants have passed through over the past twenty years in order to get to Europe. Fifteen thousand have died on their way, through dehydration and starvation, drowned or lost at sea.
The sea is as important as the island in this elemental film. The fishermen on Lampedusa, fishers of men, rescue migrants from inhumane conditions on crammed boats. Many of the migrants are burned from the diesel fuel that mixes with seawater in the leaky holds. The rescuers wear white hazmat suits, white face masks, and white latex gloves while they work, covering the migrants in gold metallic marathon blankets that glow in the night.
When characters in European films listen to classical music while driving, it’s always a bad sign.Tweet
Rosi explains nothing except through images. Half the film is made up of scenes from the life of a boy on the island, Samuele, a native Lampedusan we meet as the platonic ideal of a boy, making slingshots with a friend to hunt birds. As the film progresses, Samuele weakens. He is diagnosed with a lazy eye and has to learn to see all over again and how to row a boat with his eye patch on. He begins to have anxiety attacks. Rosi does not draw a direct line between Samuele and the migrant crisis. The film ends with Samuele alone, making gun-shooting motions with his hands and mouthing bang-bang noises on a dock at twilight.
A crap Koyaanisqatsi befitting our time, Eduardo Williams’s The Human Surge, an experimental documentary from Argentina that takes place there, in Mozambique, and in the Philippines, follows disparate young workers, singly and in groups, in their downtime or engaged in the casual labor of sex work on the Internet, in supermarket checkout lines or stocking warehouses. As with Fire at Sea, there is no narration in The Human Surge, no voice-over, no explanatory titles. Filmed, I think, with an iPhone, in floating-eyeball style, it follows ordinary people on long treks down flooded streets, into bedrooms, through cane fields, and swimming in quarries. The film all of a sudden looks better when it gets to the Philippines, as if Williams upgraded to a newer iPhone at the Manila airport.
I could not discern a reason The Human Surge ended one sequence and began another, but I’m confident there is one. As two men trekked through a field in Mozambique, I left the theater for a minute and came back to close-ups of ants on the screen, a sequence that went on and on and could have been even longer. The film ends in a computer factory, where workers obey the command of a robot voice repeating “OK . . . OK . . . OK” as they complete their tasks. This is post-Costa cinema, slow but chopped to average feature length, puzzling, engrossing, and alienating.
Sieranevada begins with an argument about a Disney princess costume. A neurologist named Lary (Mimi Brănescu) and his wife (Cătălina Moga) snipe at each other while looking for a parking space. Cristi Puiu, the film’s director, uses this discussion of blockbuster entertainment to move the film into a single apartment in Bucharest, where Sieranevada, despite its mountain-vista title, will spend the better part of three hours. Lary’s family gathers for a memorial service for his father, awaiting a priest as they argue about 9/11 conspiracy theories, life under the communists in the old days, and the adulterous behavior of various relatives. As each new quarrel swirls around another, a growing sense of disorder and patriarchal breakdown overtakes the ritual they are there to perform. Lary’s niece brings a drunk friend to the service, who spends the rest of the film puking and half-conscious while the family argues about whether she’s a prostitute and drug addict or just a drug addict. When Lary needs fresh air, he and his wife escape back into the street, where more arguing about parking ensues, the New Romanian Cinema’s version of breaking the tension.
Romanian cinema has the special power of finding the murkiest, most desultory way to film petty squabbles and bureaucratic nightmares, to find the worst angles for actors without distorting them and making them inhuman. All the doctor (Adrian Titieni) in Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation wants to do is make sure his daughter passes her exams so she can accept a scholarship to college in London. After she’s attacked in the street, she struggles to concentrate on her schoolwork, so the doctor pulls some strings to make sure she’ll pass. His one corrupt act sets in motion a downward spiral in his life. “All that counts,” Romeo tells his daughter, “is getting to a normal world.” Graduation shambles through the same European night as the Dardennes’ Unknown Girl, shoved along to the sound of barking dogs, breaking glass, and the classical music Romeo listens to in his car. When characters in European films listen to classical music while driving, it’s always a bad sign.
The first movie screened for the press before the festival began was I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s nonmurky exposé of bureaucracy in England. Daniel (Dave Johns), a widowed carpenter recovering from a heart attack in Newcastle, negotiates health-care and unemployment systems while trying to help a jobless new neighbor (Hayley Squires) and her two children, relocated to his town by social services. The film is didactic and focused, placing its most harrowing scene, at a food bank, within a larger context of destructive policies designed by the British government to make life impossible for the poor by robbing them of their dignity one step at a time. There is something thrilling about Loach’s dedication to exposing the horror and mind-numbing pointlessness of bureaucracy with as little drama as possible. Audiences are supposedly always looking for something relatable. Loach has identified the last universal subject: filling out forms online. The anger the film generates shuts off delight in entertainment, an exemplary side effect of the film’s agenda.
The expectation that the cinema will delight us with grand adventure while retaining a touch of the metaphysical hobbled The Lost City of Z, an epic of Amazonian exploration James Gray adapted from David Grann’s book. Gray’s admirable sensitivity to the exploitative aspects of colonialist enterprise has produced the first Amazonian epic of British imperialism in which cannibals and piranhas are too respected to be terrifying. A loss of belief defines this film, and in the end, this journey to a destination that probably doesn’t exist becomes all plot. The film jumps from one place to the next and one thing happens after another, necessitating supertitles reading “The Atlantic Ocean” so we know where we are.
Gray is also admirably committed to classical storytelling, and The Lost City of Z feels out of place among all the festival movies that go out of their way to subvert plot. Charlie Hunnam’s Colonel Fawcett is hard to remember after the film, a ghost man as lost in the jungle as he is at home in England. Robert Pattinson’s movie-star-erasure of a performance as his sidekick is more interesting, and called to mind Arthur Hunnicutt’s performance in Hawks’s The Big Sky (1952), a better movie about river exploration than this one, made in a less enlightened time.
The Lost City of Z closed the festival and was the last film screened for critics. The press conference after the screening, with Gray and much of his cast, was entertaining. Gray, a supremely witty man, narrated the difficulties a Jewish guy from Brooklyn faces shooting on location in the Amazon. As he put it, he was genetically designed to be an accountant in a Polish shtetl in winter, not somebody yelling “Action!” in a humid South American jungle during crocodile season. I wish some of his verve had been present in his film. Going into the jungle to find truth and beauty is harder than doing it at an uptown film festival, but in both cases you’ve got to capture that elusive joie de vivre and bring it back alive.