Wednesday, October 14, 2009

47th New York Film Festival, Part 1

The 47th New York Film Festival was a reunion of sorts for those directors, festival veterans all, who returned with new films. There were old friends like Alain Resnais who, at age 88, unveiled his newest film, Wild Grass, on Opening Night; and Pedro Almodovar, whose Broken Embraces was the Closing Night film (and his seventh NYFF entry!). Several other familiar names—notably Bruno Dumont, Jacques Rivette, Catherine Breillat, Lars von Trier, Manoel de Oliviera, Todd Solondz, Michael Haneke, Andrzej Wajda and Marco Bellocchio—were represented by new films, some worthwhile, others not.

The opener, Resnais’ Wild Grass, was a crushing disappointment and did not bode well for the festival. The new film’s failure is especially saddening because this still-vigorous artist has had an incredible final act of his cinematic career, from 1993’s Smoking and No Smoking to its peak of Coeurs at the 2006 NYFF. Those films were classically elegant, daringly simple, and proudly anti-realistic. Although Wild Grass is based on Christian Gailly’s novel in which the main characters are relentlessly illogical, what might work on the page (I haven’t read the book) fails completely onscreen. Two possibly insane people dance around each other for the entire movie before finally—or is that maybe?—finding each other, but it’s all for naught because Resnais is all about style at the expense of sense or substance. The first 15 minutes would actually make a good short about fetishism—the heroine buys shoes, is robbed, and the hero finds her wallet—but the director strings things out to an unfortunate and fey 105 minutes. Andre Dussolier at least reins in his performance, while Sabine Azema hams mightily from the outset.

A much more satisfying film by another master director enjoying a late-career renaissance is Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere. After being virtually invisible since the mid-‘80s (his two masterworks from this decade, 2002’s My Mother’s Smile and 2004’s Good Morning, Night, were both shown at the NYFF), Bellocchio returns with another stunning reexamination of Italian history. The true story of Ida Dalser—who was Mussolini’s lover and bore him a son before he became Il Duce, only to see herself and the boy literally erased from history—is riveting and thought-provoking from the start. In his usual expressionistic mode, Bellocchio intercuts actual newsreel footage of Mussolini alongside his heroine fighting for her and her son’s lives. Accompanied by Carlo Crivelli’s rousing music, Bellocchio transforms historical events into symphonic movements, making demands on viewers by jumbling chronology and not spelling out characters and situations. But it works marvelously, thanks to Bellocchio’s invaluable casting of that fabulous actress, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, to lead us through this woman’s tragic tale. Mezzogiorno’s face, illuminated by the most dazzling pair of hazel eyes, is the prime focus of Bellocchio’s often acrobatic camera.

Several French directors, no strangers to the festival, returned with sometimes provocative, sometimes dull new works. Hadewijch is another of Bruno Dumont’s explorations of the gulf between the spiritual and the base in today’s troubled world. His protagonist is a young woman whose love for God causes her to find no solace among other people, including her ultra-rich Parisian parents or the young Muslim who charms her. Instead, she gravitates to his learned older brother, who teaches her the true meaning of having faith in the invisible—with explosive results on the streets of Paris. Dumont follows this young woman with no condescension and, helped by Julie Sokolowski’s extraordinarily controlled performance, creates a credible portrait of a modern-day mystic (the film’s title comes from an actual mystic from the Middle Ages). Dumont then throws his film out of whack by taking the short route from religious fervor to terrorism without any preparation, as if a reel or two is missing. When our heroine is finally saved by a lowly laborer whose story has paralleled hers, Dumont leaves them—and us—dangling.

Claire Denis’ White Material throws us immediately into the turmoil of an unnamed African country’s revolution. Denis initially keeps the tension level high by dramatizing the confusion that ordinary people—blacks and whites alike—feel, so it’s too bad that she never probes any further into the unavoidable dovetailing of the political and the personal. Instead, all is kept deliberately vague, in the vain hope that profundity will eventually result, but like the provocative title (which refers to how the colonials are perceived by the natives), interesting ideas and themes pop up and slink away without deeper examination.

At age 81, Jacques Rivette has made what may be the most monumentally inconsequential film in a mostly irrelevant career: Around a Small Mountain is an 84-minute divertissement chronicling a traveling circus and the mysterious Italian who enters their world (an embarrassed-looking Sergio Castellitto), his presence making things difficult for Kate (a sleepwalking Jane Birkin), daughter of the circus’s deceased founder. Rivette continually crosscuts between the routine circus acts—the clowns are particularly hammy and unoriginal—and the people’s meager offstage lives, all to delight Rivette fans who find in his films an exploration of theater and theatricality. Prettily photographed by Irina Lubtchansky, 36 Vues du Pic Saint-Loup (to at least give the film the dignity of its French title) evaporates in a haze as soon as it ends, with a lovely nocturnal shot of a hazy moon.

Bluebeard, Catherine Breillat’s chamber film, adapts and comments on Charles Perrault’s short story about the infamous murderer of several wives. By showing two young sisters reading the tale while discussing fear, marriage and other things little girls might talk about, Breillat gives the material a modern spin without needlessly updating the story. Indeed, the enacted scenes from Perrault’s tale are done in a minimalist fashion, a la Rohmer or Bresson. But Breillat has a trick up her sleeve by equating Bluebeard’s death—he’s outfoxed by his latest young wife—with another, surprising death that puts both plot strands in a new light. Acted by a mostly inexpressive costumed cast, Bluebeard comes to life whenever the young girls are onscreen, the saving grace of a willfully offbeat treatment of a classic.

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s aborted 1964 thriller, Inferno, is the focus of a fascinating documentary by Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea, who work with footage Clouzot originally shot with Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani as the film’s protagonists: an intensely jealous husband whose irrational behavior stems from his believing that his wife is unfaithful. Clouzot seemed similarly affected to the point where he was unable to finish his film. What we see is often uncompromising and experimental, with garish color sequences that visualize the husband’s increasingly feverish mental state. Interviews with crew members and Jacques Gamblin and Berenice Bejo acting out several unshot scenes from Clouzot’s script give a sense of what might have been.

Germany present and past are the settings for two Festival entries, one from a newcomer, the other an old hand. In Everyone Else, a dreary, uninvolving portrait of a relationship on the proverbial rocks, sophomore writer-director Maren Ade can’t drum up any sympathy for her cardboard characters thanks to her inability to provide insights into their behavior. Her young couple tries salvaging things by vacationing in Sardinia, where they fight, reconcile, contemplate cheating and make each other jealous. In addition to scarce dramatic and psychological credibility, Ade can’t even do anything with the Sardinian splendors, where contrasting the landscapes with these meanderings would provide facile ironies. The cast—led by an apparently able Austrian stage actress, Birgit Minichmayr, as the heroine—is left adrift by Ade’s sophomoric writing and direction.

The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke’s 145-minute melodrama about the roots of fascism is, like all his films, meticulously composed and edited and impeccably acted: it’s also written and directed by a world-class sadist. That’s not necessarily a criticism: one of today’s most talented provocateurs, Haneke makes intelligently disturbing movies. The White Ribbon is of a piece with his earlier work, showing (in immaculate black and white) how a German village on the eve of World War I becomes prey to unexplainable atrocities, from injuring the local doctor (and killing his horse) to blinding a retarded boy. As usual, Haneke explains nothing, which makes the film drag on far too long; the sadism is primarily psychological, which is quite horrific, but from the director of Benny’s Video, Funny Games, and Cache, you expect that. A spellbinding allegory about instilling the roots of Hitler’s Third Reich in the children who would grow up to yell, “Heil Hitler!”, the film is also too smugly pleased with itself.

Freely combining animation, archival footage and surrealist and scripted sequences—often in the same shot, to superb effect—director Andrey Khrzhanovsky’s A Room and a Half dazzles as a look at the life and times of poet Josef Brodsky, one of post-World War II Soviet Russia’s cultural emissaries. For those unfamiliar with Russian culture during the second half of the 20th century (literature, music, painting, film), the film might seem a mere jumble of disconnected, lecturing scenes; yet Khrzhanovsky’s imagination takes flight so often that his film soars as an exhilarating visual essay doubling as a primer of and commentary on a complex individual and era.

This year’s Closing Night selection, Broken Embraces, is Pedro Almodovar’s latest melodrama that’s tailor-made for festival audiences. Although ostensibly about Harry Caine, a director blinded years earlier by a car accident in which his then-lover, actress Lena, was killed, it’s really a movie made by a buff for the delight of other buffs. The plot strains to be Hitchcockian with its clumsy attempts at suspense, there’s Rossellini’s little-seen classic Voyage in Italy on TV, and there are many filmmaking in-jokes, i.e., a lengthy scene from a fictional movie reminiscent of Almodovar’s own early, anarchic comedies. The problem is that none of this jells into either coherence or plausibility, since Almodovar would rather show off his cleverness—which he has in spades—than fleshing out his characters and their stories. The actors, led by Penelope Cruz and Lluis Homar, are quite good considering what they have to work with, and Almodovar the director’s pacing, framing and editing are second to none. But Almodovar the scriptwriter drags Broken Embraces down into the wallows of mediocrity.
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