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Second Helping — week one of the NYFF

Jean-Pierre Bacri and Marilou Berry in Look at Me.
by Greg Muskewitz

The first taste that I got of a real film festival was back in 2001, the 39th New York Film Festival, which proceeded not even a full month after the attacks of September 11. It was a memorable showcase for me, and not only because David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive had been selected as the fest’s centerpiece. Despite all of the new things occurring at that moment not specifically elsewhere, but in New York, the world was well represented at the festival, very much in attendance, and the festivities were not to be hampered.

Second Helping
The very first time the camera puts attention on her group, she isn’t afraid for it to be her backside.

The first taste that I got of a real film festival was back in 2001, the 39th New York Film Festival, which proceeded not even a full month after the attacks of September 11. It was a memorable showcase for me, and not only because David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive had been selected as the fest’s centerpiece. Despite all of the new things occurring at that moment not specifically elsewhere, but in New York, the world was well represented at the festival, very much in attendance, and the festivities were not to be hampered.

And it’s with those fond memories that I have returned this year to the 42nd New York Film Festival, with promises of a new Rohmer, a new Godard, a new Leigh, a new Almodóvar, a (brand-spanking) new Zhang, a new Jia, a new Sembene, a new (and final) Bergman, a new Solondz, a new Hou, a new Payne, and of special interest to me — beyond the rest of the two dozen-plus features — a new Jaoui, perhaps not so coincidentally selected as the Opening Night film.

Look at Me. Agnès Jaoui’s second film as a director and co-author, is a comedy of manners, or moreover, bad manners and subhuman treatment to those one is closest to. As with her first feature The Taste of Others (also co-written and co-staring Jean-Pierre Bacri), it’s an ensemble piece, a cross-pollination of characters who all struggle with their own problems, while helping to give others the issues they battle. Like the prior effort, a theme Jaoui has adopted from her work with Alain Resnais, the characters are seen in different lights in different modes, each as they moonlight in a secondary activity. The main character thread is that of Lolita (Marilou Berry, the low-calorie version of a young Ricki Lake, circa Hairspray), the plump and frustrated 20-year-old daughter of famous author Etienne Cassard (“I had two good lines and then I realized I used them in another book”); often ignored by her father, any interest in her is derived from the connection to her dad, including the change-of-heart from her singing instructor Sylvia (Jaoui), long a fan of the author. Her own husband is a struggling, inexperienced writer looking to switch publishers, and who might benefit from a friendship with Cassard thanks to Lolita. And of course, there is the father (Bacri), middle-aged with a wife half his own, who, like everyone else, takes his crap out of the desire to please him. Very often, at least half of each pair is present in some capacity with the others, in the same space and time, even if their interactions are limited and strained. The opening of the film is the first time, and only for a while, that all of the main characters are assembled at the same location, an after-party for a bowdlerized film adaptation of a book by Cassard, though the gathering of all parties involved quickly frays in different directions. Jaoui and Bacri’s style of comedy is of a more gentle and subtle variety, heady and intellectual but not so highbrow that it becomes inaccessible; the humor is achieved not so much at the expense of the characters, but rather through their interpretation of events — even if it’s from their own dour dispositions. No doubt, the direction of the humor can be harsher depending on the level of cruelty of the character, but no one person is being made to look better than the next; the general feelings of who we see are a direct result of their actions towards others. (It’s the characters, not the humor that is cruel.) They all have a habit of biting their tongues when lashed out at by those they care most for, and letting their tempers rage at those perceived beneath them — the behavior of expressing anger is an action that trickles down the Totem Pole from person to person, and only the character at the very bottom, a maybe/maybe not boyfriend for Lolita, can speak his mind at any moment to any person. Part of the bargain in this view of humanity is the ability for some of the characters to recognize and correct their wrongs, as well as for the blinders to remain on others as they stay set in their ways. The viewer — for example, like Sylvia — feels bad for Lolita not only from their own attitude towards her, but by the realization of how others’ similar treatment affects her. The test is not only a change in their behavior (to her or others), but also in their ability to stand up for the next person instead of keeping silent. There’s a certain universality in the message of being stepped all over, and that of stepping on others, but Jaoui’s insight goes much deeper, far more involved on an individual basis, and on a level of many layers. (One being the cinematic redefinition of a new French Lolita, no accident or coincidence in the naming department.) As a sophomore effort, Jaoui displays none of the self-consciousness so prevalent in a follow up film; rather, she approaches it as an established director, calm, comfortable, exact. She persists in her classical and refined approach to filmmaking — another heavy influence from Resnais — both with the solid, well-lit image and proclivity for longer, more distant takes (by Stéphane Fontaine), and the choice of music that she and Berry perform (a treat in itself). Similar to The Taste of Others, another constant that Jaoui provides is the discovery of the lead actress (last time Anne Alvaro), here the euphonious Berry — cousin of Joséphine, niece of Richard — who takes what could be a very annoying and over-amplified role, and puts on a convincing, human face. Another pleasant surprise Jaoui drops from her sleeve (the first being her own singing voice), is the seeming expansion she has given herself in terms of a role, although she seeks in no way to present herself as any more glamorous than the next; as a matter of fact, the very first time the camera puts attention on her group, she isn’t afraid for it to be her backside. It’s hard to imagine a better Opening Night film could have been selected, but I worry if the Closing Night choice and everything in between will be unable to match it.

Triple Agent. The newest offering from Eric Rohmer, a talkfest of political alliances and allegiances between a White Russian general and his Greek wife, at the concluding stages of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 Paris. Rohmer, heavy in the application of dialogue, keeps the conversations to a back-and-forth nature predominantly between no more than two people at a particular moment. (The initial print shipped posed a large problem: the subtitles for the French and sometimes Russian dialogue were subtitled in German rather than English. Neither my French nor my German, together or separate, were enough to attain adept interpretation, so a secondary screening was required.) Accordingly, his camera cuts to and from the speakers (or, at a given moment, the listeners), closely focusing in on their faces and often lingering on it to observe the reactions. For all of the talk of political intrigue and wonderment of where the general’s affiliation resides, it is not until the end of the film, the final conversation between the strained wife and her husband, and then the obligatory neat wrapping up of explanations and so forth, that there is much to be compelled by. As a step up over his preceding film, The Lady and the Duke, Rohmer’s return to film over digital video is an enhancement of sorts, bringing out the rich, lush color that so easily drains from the latter form of cinematography, speaking nothing of the added — or recovered — dimension and depth. (However, in an overall sense of the experimental, the combination of digital video and painted backgrounds of Duke win out over the traditional use of film regardless of the vibrancy of lighting and brightness of colors.) Among the consistency of his strengths, not to be considered any less here, is the central female performance, with Agent’s by Katerina Didaskalou, a formidable, respectable presence as any other of Rohmer’s leading ladies, if she’s no less able to fade from memory eventually as the rest have.

Tropical Malady. San Diego has yet to see either of the previous two films from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the documentary Mysterious Object at Noon, and the fiction entry Blissfully Yours, which is just now playing in New York. This one, a two-part fiction piece in the wooded countryside, begins with the budding romance between a young soldier and a country boy. They’re followed to secluded points of rendez-vous, where they sit with only the sounds of nature and rest in one another’s lap, to expeditions of an underground temple, and a trip to a local vet to receive the dark diagnosis for the latter boy’s dog. The duo’s courtship is maturely handled, nary a mention of the word “gay” or “homosexual,” treated not as taboo subject matter, but instead with tenderness, care, appreciation. Weerasethakul takes delight in the presentation of daily life and the small-time, both of the locale in general (the employment of ice-cutting, to recreational activities akin to playing hacky-sack) to the little pumps of the heart from the boys’ acts of amour (the simplistic love note to the illiterate country boy, the thigh-rubbing at the movie theater, the fist-licking/kissing after a trip to the fair). A switch is made very abruptly to a completely different tone, not to mention story, when a singular soldier is on the search for a missing person in the wilds of the jungle. When the movie started, we are given something of a lesson in local lore, a preamble about all humans being an animal at heart with only the desire to tame and be tamed. And so, at present, the soldier is tracking a tiger believed to be a spirit inhabiting the body of another human. Dialogue ceases, as does any further attempt at a coherent narrative storyline (not that what came previously built up to much), traded in for the cautious and inexplicable turn for the metaphysical. While any interest in what’s going on begins to increasingly wan, there is not a similar drop off in the department of visuals, but that alone hardly constitutes a complete film, from start to finish, and everything in between. What is there, is the strong promise of a start that bridges to what could have been an equally developed middle, but veers off of the road for an uncharted journey into the wilds unknown, and unknowable.

Undertow. Apocryphal story from David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls), a change of pace from his typical start-nowhere/end-nowhere slow-moving character pieces, set in Drees County where a troubled teenager and his younger brother must escape the clutches of their evil uncle after he murders his brother — their father — in cold blood. Where Green remains true to his previous works is the aspect of small characters with bigger ideas, caught in a nowhere unable to get out. The dreams of the protagonist and his brother (Jamie Bell, of Billy Elliot, and Devon Alan) are less defined and explained, and their past is shrouded in an ambiguous mystery that never receives full disclosure, although begins to form something of a whole as it progresses in a forward direction. Not the first, but the biggest departure for Green, is the linear succession of an actual storyline; neither of his two films before this contained a story as much as they observed a slice of Southern life in the midst of happening, with much left to still happen after the cameras finished rolling. For all interests concerned, Undertow is a thriller in the vein of The Night of the Hunter, the chase of the predator following the prey. You wouldn’t know this from the opening scene, where a pimply Bell sits in a rowboat with Kristen Stewart as they make out and she asks to carve her name in his face. But the separations in content and style piles up from that point forward — rapid editing, freeze-framed images, POV shots, solarizations, discolorations, a score by Philip Glass, etc. Every once in a while, you will be reminded of the straight-faced quirkiness so present in Green’s others (Bell: “What are you doing?” Alan: “Organizing my books by the way they smell”), but once the murder is committed, and the fight leading up to it — a truly goosebump-inducing and tense series of images — any pleasantries of the memory are foregone after the search for survival has been instigated. To his credit, Green works well with an actual story at hand, better in my estimation than without. To be sure, he grapples with the new chore, and in the exchange, he loses grasp over his command of rounded characters, obscured by events, events that came before, are happening at present, and those to come in counting minutes. One does not really get a good idea of who these characters are behind their bigger, more prominent actions. Who are they really, and why does it seem like they’re even hiding things from themselves? Again, the advantage is that once the credits have rolled, the questions loom and persist afterwards, stubborn to come to a halt once the images already have. And despite the lack of definition in who these characters are, Green is not at odds to have strong personalities filled out by Bell (convincing with his Southern accent) and Alan, but he cannot prevent Josh Lucas from growing too big once he’s busted his britches.

Notre Musique. Dantean structured mediation on and about war, Godard style. The 2001 NYFF was my first experience with Godard as cinema and not text, and subsequently I have only brought myself around to see Breathless. This, a blend of documentary and fiction (more of the latter with snippets of the former), plays more like his last, In Praise of Love, stogy, bloated (at only 80 minutes), pedantic, boring. The three pieces it consists of, Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, are more a gimmick to purport this assumed theme. Both Hell and Paradise are mere bookends to Purgatory, lasting no more than ten minutes apiece; Hell a visual collage of video scenes of war, the occasional bit of a real news report, and Paradise a dialogueless segment about a suicide martyr finding peace and co-existing with what is supposed to be American soldiers guarding the perimeter. Betwixt this, in Purgatory, the story is split between two women, both Israeli Jews, but more clearly opposites — one light, one dark — who go about their being, despite similarities in their purposes, in opposite manners. What this does is it allows Godard to be his most pretentious as he examines the eternal motion of opposing forces as seen through the results of war. His thesis is upfront: “Shot: reverse shot; imaginary: certainty; reality: uncertainty,” and so forth, rife with the tricks associated with his name — random mutes, selective subtitling, over-tracked and multiple voices, etc. He, along with Mahmoud Darwich and Juan Goytisolo, appear randomly as themselves, meandering and muttering about, although Godard’s appearance is more planted, more purposeful, at least to be more self-deprecating as well. (He is also part of the only laugh in the movie, a question directed towards him at a lecture: “Monsieur Godard, can digital cameras save the state of cinema?” Anyone remember In Praise of Love? Anyone?)

In the Battlefields. Lebanese filmmaker Danielle Arbid takes us not to the battlefields of Beirut in the early Eighties that loom (and occasionally thud) in the distant background with war, but rather that of the domestic battlefields for an alienated 12-year-old girl. Between her self-absorbed mother and drunkenly violent father, the girl spends time with her aunt’s promiscuous and obstinate maid. (The girl spies lust in action, and gets her first kiss from an older man thanks to the household help; it’s like an evil and far less filling version of Zelly and Me.) The movie is a tad unsettling, but not for any of the reasons Arbid intended. Something doesn’t sit right with the use of Marianne Feghali as the girl and the way she’s filmed — from up close, the sight most often seen (the camera is often at her shoulder as in the Dardenne brothers’ The Son, but without purpose), Feghali looks considerably older, lessening the impact of events that befall her and her experiences. When viewed as a whole figure, from a distance, she looks almost to be another character entirely as the age intended. Any way you look at it, the movie is sloppily assembled, a mindless rotation of images that build to no particular purpose (not even a consistency towards vérité style, the most often relied on), lazily mixed with incompatible song. By the end, through all of the aimlessness, we’re left wondering if the point is that the domestic terrorism is just as unprovoked, unmotivated, and unnecessary as the real deal. But to get a deeper answer, you’d have to look to a deeper movie.

Tarnation. Digital and homemade moviemaking hits an all-time convenience with Jonathan Caouette’s solipsistic quasi-documentary about his life so far and dysfunctional family. A call about his mother’s health sends the 31-year-old from his current residence in New York back to Texas, where the movie shuttles backwards in time to the marriage of his grandparents and conception of his mother Renee, chronicling familial misfortune (temporary paralysis for his mother during her childhood, treated with shock therapy) before and involving himself. The low-low-low budget movie was made with the Mac program iMovies, opening the door for a new flurry of cheaply made and dispensable features by any person with a computer. To compensate for the chinsey image, the hasty camera set ups, the look of the movie is manipulated to the nth degree — saturation, desaturation, discoloration, split quadrants, kaleidoscopic montages, etc. There is no rhyme or rhythm to the appearance of the movie at any given moment, except over-dress and excess. The only line that can be drawn in comparison from Tarnation’s presentation to the content, is the state of chaos it’s in. But that isn’t to say there’s nothing below the surface; the depiction of the family herein, taken with a grain (or few) of salt, is a very sad state of affairs, and the free-running camera has time aplenty to capture many of those moments without the need for exaggeration, once you get past the Cliff’s Notes abridged explanations, Caouette’s hungriness for attention in front of the camera, the dramatizations and reenactments for events when and where a camera couldn’t be rolling. But in addition to the pertinent pieces that illustrate the dysfunction and travails of this family, Caouette, a masculine-looking version of Selma Blair, has included so much extraneous, manipulated footage. (His channeling of “Hillary,” while bewilderingly included for content, is a testament to the boy’s character and yearning to escape already at 11 years old.) My charge of Caouette’s manipulation of the content is very different than that of the image; for one thing, it is his life and his family’s that he is putting into a moving portrait. The idea of a documentary is to observe and report on reality in a more objective view than where opinion is relied on. And when a project of this scale is being made by the person that figures in as the main subject or subject matter, there’s a question of how close is too close for a balanced illustration. Can Caouette the filmmaker separate himself from Caouette the person and subject? Or are the two inextricably linked so that the reality and unreality of what’s being presented is too great to swallow as a whole? A clear example between the separation of the filmmaker and the subject, a film that allows the viewer to watch the showcase of facts without the influence of the filmmaker’s bias, is Capturing the Friedmans. One thing both documentaries do share in common is the abundance of homemade mixed media archive available — film, video, photographs, sound recordings. Capturing’s wealth is greater, far more encompassing, and over a longer period of time, which is why Tarnation so often resorts to flashing text across the screen, sentence in succession of sentence (“Renee and Jonathan connected like never before …”); so many gaps exist where footage or usable media do not, that the only way to fill them in is by taking the word of the filmmaker, who is also focus of all that. (Too often, when Caouette probes for direct answers, he’s met with resistance from the other subjects, leaving us with not much to go on other than the broached issue at hand.) In the end, this feels like more of a PowerPoint presentation than a movie. Tarnation’s biggest accomplishment could be the access it provides to the people within in it (Renee to her son: “I gotta go to the bathroom. You can’t film me going to the bathroom. That’d be pornography”), and as a source for a less subjective documenter to take a step back and provide a scouring with their own eyes. Still, Caouette has a lot of ideas, none of which are diminished by his amateur role as a director. (He gets automatic points for his high school musical production of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, sung to songs by Marianne Faithfull.) And the characters that he introduces to us out of his life are that, out of life and nowhere else.

Kings and Queen. The 150-minute running time is split into two chapters and an epilogue, the first (“Part 1 — Nora”) documenting the romantic history of 35-year-old Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), and the frantic position she’s put in as her father is diagnosed with a fast-moving cancer soon to claim him, at the same time as Nora’s second husband Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric) is admitted to a mental hospital seemingly more for quirkiness than instability. Over this first stretch of time (85 minutes, to be exact), while the trade-off in amount of time spent with either of the two leads varies, there is a regulated sense of structure building in and around those characters, with themselves and those they are populated by. (The details reach for the finer points: Nora’s battle to give her son the father’s last name after his death, while the court wants proof that the dead man is actually the boy’s father.) On one hand, we have calm composure in trying circumstances when thrown one of life’s many curveballs, and on the other hand, we have a flustered reaction to consequences not so distant from the actions that caused them. With either part, the juggle of preparing for the next step is what’s being reiterated. The second chapter (“Part 2 — Cruel Releases”) delves deeper into the moral quandaries the ex-couple have found themselves in, which will lead them to meet up at some point, still well on their own trajectories. (Nora approaches Ismaël about adopting her son after all the years he served as the father and created a connection, a connection her soon-to-be third husband does not have with the son.) And, as the chapter heading warns, there are some surprising revelations that come hard to hear for these two characters. Where a film of this kind can get lost both in the lengthy running time, and more particularly the weaving, soapy nature of its thematics, the characters are continually treated with such honesty by director and co-writer Arnaud Desplechin, and pumped full of life by the actors, that Kings and Queen is lent the weight similar movies demand without proper follow through. Even when things get foamy in the shuffle, the film gains a great deal through the quietly (and sometimes loudly) realistic portrayals. It’s anchored at either end, first by a very humane performance from Devos in the trickier role, and second by Amalric, who has the benefit of being funny in order to endear himself. Both, however, receive strong and well-rounded support from a sampling of generations, beginning (at the top) with Maurice Garrel, Catherine Deneuve (briefly), Magali Woch, and Valentin Lelong. Even when the viewer becomes slightly lost by the unexpected actions of the characters, there is still a warmth from them to draw one in.

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originally posted: 10/07/04 12:10:16
last updated: 03/11/05 12:53:15
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