If this were the 50th edition of the New York Film Festival – and the year in which programming director Richard Peña hands over the reins of the Film Society of Lincoln Center after 25 years in command – then the shape of the changes to come might have appeared more distinctly. As it is, with the end of an era looming, we would do better to look back to the origins, to see just what sort of strands were twisted into the NYFF DNA, and how they have manifested themselves until now.

In 1982, on the eve of the Festival’s 20th anniversary, Amos Vogel, its co-founder and a pioneering programmer of experimental cinema, sent an op-ed to The New York Times – titled ruefully “The Unfulfilled Promise of Film at Lincoln Center”. In it he narrated the propitious birth of the NYFF as a premier American arbiter of new talent and radical new trends in high cinema. For Vogel, the advent of Film at Lincoln Center – on equal footing with the New York Philharmonic, The Metropolitan Opera and the New York Ballet – was a gloriously subversive act per se.

Five years in, a corporate takeover of the Festival in the face of financial trouble and cultural backlash had led to his ouster, and by the time of his 1982 article Vogel saw his creation as long succumbed to its environment and its own prestige: “Lincoln Center is Official Culture, and the New York Film Festival is part of the package. The fact of its location, financing sources and governance defines its limits.”

It seems to me that under Mr Peña’s stewardship some of the problems cited by Vogel have certainly been redressed and others perhaps exacerbated. In general, the Festival appears to have struck a delicate and precarious balance between its radical roots and conservative circumstances.

On one side of the ledger, at the current rate of $24 per ticket (approximately double what most major US festivals are charging), the NYFF seems to be offering itself primarily to the well-heeled audience that regularly comes to Lincoln Center for a helping of “official culture”.

Moreover, films assigned pride of place – Opening Night, Closing Night and Centerpiece, augmented this year by two mid-week Gala screenings, all with red-carpet appearances and proportionate surcharges – are resolutely middle-brow (“accessible”, in  programmers’ parlance).

Finally, the main slate is to a large extent a showcase of films that have won top prizes – and/or generated top buzz – at the major competitive international festivals (Cannes, Berlin, Telluride, etc.). An overwhelming majority of these films have already picked up US distribution (which means they will be opening in NYC within months – sometimes days – of their festival appearance) and to an untrained eye the NYFF may look like a promotional tool in the hands of distributors, a glorified “sneak preview”.

On the other side of the ledger, the now venerable institution, founded in the early sixties by Vogel and Richard Roud – a one-time associate of Cahiers du cinéma, copain of Rivette and Godard – still feels itself beholden to the tradition of the auteurist/modernist cinema of its youth, and the programming committee keeps a watchful eye out for the worn-heeled cinephile. Although favouritism of any sort is vigorously denied by Mr Peña, the NYFF continues to champion what it considers to be the film world’s leading auteurs – young and old – and works diligently to build and maintain their audiences. That New Yorkers line up for hours to hear a half-hour talk by Béla Tarr or buy out all showings of the latest Nuri Bilge Ceylan film is a testament to the tireless promotional and educational efforts that extend beyond the Festival into the Film Society’s year-round program of thematic series and retrospectives.

Even more importantly, the Festival’s main slate of twenty-odd films does at times present itself – to those who can afford it – as a unified, coherent text, full of rich and complex patterns – a certain vision rather than a compromise. Intentionally or not, films call out to and echo one another at various levels – and in what follows I will attempt to connect some of the dots into a constellation.

In the recent years the NYFF has also swelled with a number of sidebars – a mixed blessing that blurs somewhat the boundaries between the festival and the steady stream of thematic programs put on by the Film Society of Lincoln Center year round. Alongside the Main Slate there is now something called rather non-committally Special Events (this year a mixture of mostly music-themed documentaries and frankly promotional activities), a Masterworks series (a retrospective of films from the Nikkatsu Studio of Japan, plus Ben Hur in HD), and the Views from the Avant-Garde program, now in its fourteenth year, which for a single weekend draws to the Palace an “Occupy Lincoln Center” audience one is more likely to encounter at “underground” Brooklyn venues, and which perhaps most closely resembles Amos Vogel’s original vision of the Festival.

Anyone clever enough to finagle a pass is in line on “opening night” (that is 10am, Tuesday for the Press & Industry hordes) for Roman Polanski’s Carnage. Behind me a woman shouts into her phone some last-minute instructions pertaining to a Puff Daddy video shoot; a huddle of veteran programmers of itinerant microcinemas smirk and shake their heads. Horrendous dentures, paid for by the likes of Variety, and skeletal young men in horn-rimmed glasses, whose badges indicate the most arcane of publications (a Lithuanian blog, Carnage, the magazine) are all here, fretting about their prospects of getting in, and talking shop. Inside, aisle seats are at a premium: real critics are poised to jump ship at a moment’s notice; all “Lithuanian bloggers” luxuriate in the middle seats, with mounds of free bagels on their armrests, vats of coffee in the lobby, and three press screenings a day.

These screenings – pace Mr Peña – are typically grouped according to some undisclosed, but readily apparent principle. Béla Tarr’s starkly apocalyptic parable The Turin Horse is shown alongside Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth and Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea (the latter, coming off the Avant-Garde slate, is a post-apocalyptic vision of a hermit’s silent retreat in the desolate snow-bound mountains). These thematic groupings do not play out to everyone’s advantage: next to Tarr’s paradoxical exercise in lush minimalism, Ferrara’s rambling vision of the end of days – caused by global warming (!) – appears trite and cheap. At the Q&A it is revealed that his lead-cum-lover read a lot of Joseph Campbell and practiced yoga to prepare for the role. Just why the world is slated to end at precisely 4:44 am in an explosion of media frenzy and variously amusing, Skype-facilitated farewell video conferences is never made clear. 4:44 is also an unfortunate turn for its male lead, Willem Dafoe, whose erstwhile co-star Charlotte Gainsbourg continues on her glorious collaborative path with Lars von Trier in Melancholia – yet another vision of the apocalypse on this year’s program.

As one takes in film after film, a far more pervasive pattern emerges: many turn out to be “chamber dramas”, some limited to a very narrow family circle, often confined to a single house, even to a single room. Three films are overtly about captivity, several others figuratively so.

Polanski’s adaptation of French-Iranian playwright Yasmina Reza’s “Le dieu du carnage” was written while the filmmaker abided house arrest in a Swiss chalet, awaiting a decision on his extradition to America. Carnage stays essentially in a single room for its snappy 78 minutes, with a solitary excursion to the bathroom and several aborted exits that barely reach the elevator. These give some hint of the original play’s pedigree – as all attempts to escape a patently implausible “Brooklyn apartment” are thwarted by equally implausible stratagems (in one of the better incidents a neighbour-ex-machina peeks angrily into the hallway, sending the bickering quartet scrambling back to their huis clos – and one is very briefly reminded that this is a Polanski film).

If it is entirely an accident that Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel played somewhat simultaneously in an obscure corner of the Masterworks sidebar, it was a very happy accident, indeed. The god of carnage invoked rather clumsily in Polanski’s film and that particular angel are not entirely unrelated divinities. Gradually coming to the realisation that they are held captive – presumably by an insidious web of social, emotional and economic dependencies – two couples (lawyer, financier, hardware salesman and (pseudo-)intellectual – a micro-class-society), whose off-screen children had gotten into a minor scuffle, proceed to tear off one another’s “civilisation masks” in a desperate attempt to break free and assert their sovereignty.

The Turin Horse, Melancholia and my personal favourite film of this year’s NYFF – Ulrich Köhler’s Sleeping Sickness – all make use of the same conceit: there is a moment in each film when the characters realise what the audience has long suspected: they cannot leave the premises, though just what holds them back is never made explicit.

Melancholia is cut in two very different halves, named after its two sister-heroines: Justine, also called Steelbreaker, perhaps a dispenser of divine justice, and Claire, also called Clay, perhaps its earthly recipient. In Part I Clay has prepared a wedding feast for her divine sister: she is marrying what looks very much like a mere mortal, and that (as we know from Joseph Campbell) is not likely to end well. Confined to a decidedly old-world manor house with an adjoining and oft-touted 18-hole golf course (von Trier’s indelible Americana), the party gradually unravels, masks slip and tumble, hastily plastered fissures widen into gaping wounds, until at last all bonds – financial, marital, filial and even sisterly – appear to be dissolved.

So far it is a classic recipe: take a group of (superficially) civilised people, hold them hostage in a sufficiently uncomfortable environment, and watch them tear each other to bits. When at the very start of the film Justine and her freshly-minted husband Michael arrive for their reception dinner quite late – and are told that the guests have been waiting for hours! – the stage appears to be well set.

In the second half of the film, however, the terms of confinement are altered, or perhaps clarified. With only the family unit remaining on premises, and the titular exterminating planet looming, it is gradually revealed that the incongruous retreat we have never left is held under a wicked spell. Servants vanish, cars will not start, golf carts and horses peter out at the edge of a rather innocuous-looking footbridge. If Melancholia hits, announces Claire’s small son, there is nothing to do, nowhere to hide anymore. By this time we can hardly believe that there is in fact anything at all on the other side of that footbridge. Ingeniously, paradoxically, the heroines plot to escape by staging a ritualistic confinement in an absolutely porous shelter. (Because total annihilation is wrought by a suggestively named planet, some have read the film as an allegory for depression – which is rather like reading The Birds as an allegory for a serious bird problem.)

In The Turin Horse the theme of confinement assumes a form that is particularly stark and eloquent at once. The hapless carriage driver Ohlsdorfer returns home (directly following his apocryphal encounter with the philosopher Nietzsche – or some millions of years later) to find the world shutting down rapidly around his desolate hovel, buffeted by a fierce and unceasing wind. He cannot go to town, because his horse appears to suffer from debilitating melancholia, and anyway, the town has been “blown away”. Woodworms have fallen silent, a prophet of doom arrives, preaching the death of god, a band of gypsies passes the house in flight to America. When on “Day 4” of this “un-creation” their well is discovered to be dry, Ohlsdorfer and his daughter resolve to leave. We watch them pack, load a handcart and disappear over the hill – only to reappear in the same place a minute later (a minute held in real-time, of course), as though they had come against the very limits of the universe just on the other side.

It seems that Tarr’s and von Trier’s visions of the end of days are intimately linked with confinement, claustrophobia, a world closing in on itself. Perhaps underpinning this shared sentiment is anxiety over a rapidly “globalising” world, in which there is nowhere to run anymore, because every place is accessible. That certainly seems to be part of the problem in Sleeping Sickness: a marvellously elliptical tale of a German “doctor without borders”, who has escaped into the African jungle, and cannot seem to escape any farther afield, because there is no place left to go.

In a recent interview Tarr volunteered that his film deals with “the heaviness of human existence.” This recalled to me an essay of Susan Sontag on the films of Robert Bresson, in which she notes that all of Bresson’s films “have to do with incarceration and its sequel.” The essay is dated in 1964 – I have no doubt that Sontag wrote it not long after she had sat through the full slate of the first NYFF (September 1963), which included The Exterminating Angel, Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (a film set entirely in a prison house) and – incidentally – Polanski’s first feature Knife in the Water (another “No Exit” transposed onto a sailboat). Sontag concludes that for Bresson the real prison is not “other people” but “one’s heaviness, one’s gravity”; and the sequel – liberation, redemption – is a victory over oneself, over one’s inertia, despair.

One could argue that Clay and Steelbreaker manage at last to attain some kind of grace, i.e. to overcome their own fatal gravity even as they are annihilated by it. Ohlsdorfer and his daughter are swallowed mercilessly into the black hole of their wretched existence. In Sleeping Sickness the doctor Ebbo Velten performs a mysterious vanishing act by pulling into his orbit and evidently trading places with a double, doomed to repeat his fate – i.e. he escapes, but his role persists.

Indeed, of all the “prison” films on the slate – including This is Not a Film, a day in the life of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, awaiting unpromising results of an appeal of his 6-year prison sentence – Carnage (a misnomer) is the only one that offers neither escape nor annihilation. “They do not move” might very well have been the final script direction of this vaguely existentialist sitcom, jazzed up with projectile vomiting and “you-killed-the-hamster!” kind of humour.

Panahi does manage to escape in the most extraordinary (and perhaps most Bressonian) ways the very real gravity of his situation. At the start of the film we see him puttering about a rather comfortable home – which, we quickly surmise, he is unable to leave – at once bored and desperate: a filmmaker forbidden to film and a condemned man searching for an escape route.

At last, he finds a single solution to both predicaments. Reasoning that his twenty-year ban on filmmaking does not preclude acting, Panahi proceeds to act out for the camera an unrealised script. It is a story of a young woman, placed under house arrest by conservative parents, after she tries to enroll at a university. To represent the girl’s narrow quarters, the director marks off with masking tape a small section of his sumptuous living-room rug. Paradoxically, in this prison within a prison Panahi can recover himself – however briefly – as a filmmaker: and he conjures up his film, shot by shot, from miserable scraps (a chair, a cushion, a few location photos and headshots) with astonishing facility and conviction – until despair overtakes him, and he is forced to abandon the project.

The film ends with another remarkably ambiguous escape. Late in the evening, Panahi, camera in hand, hesitantly follows a young man, who has come to collect his trash, first out onto the landing and then into a very narrow elevator, already occupied by an outsized trash container. Protected by the lack of space – almost literally smuggled out with the trash – he descends floor by floor, as the young man continues his rounds, until both emerge into a dark courtyard. It is “Fireworks Wednesday”, and though celebrations have recently been proscribed by the religious authorities, the crackle of rockets could be heard escalating menacingly throughout the day. And now a great bonfire rages just beyond the bars of the iron gate: Panahi’s ingenious escape becomes a descent into the Inferno. “They will see you with a camera,” cautions the young man, without specifying which party is in greater danger of discovery.

Finally, two films take up the theme of the paradoxical, fraught bond between captive and captor. Pedro Almodóvar’s gala-fêted The Skin I Live In is an obsession-revenge drama that reads at times like a slapstick transsexual comedy with a serious narrative flaw. In the first half of the film the primary narrative engine is a scientist’s quest for a tough skin impervious to fire damage. Dr Ledgard’s research is driven by private grief and scientific ambition – a combination that can only lead into murky ethical territory. Sure enough: it seems he is holding prisoner a human guinea pig, and – to ratchet up moral ambiguity – this involuntary test subject is the alleged rapist of Ledgard’s daughter (a psychotic, who kills herself in the aftermath of the rape).

However, once it is revealed that the captive beauty is a boy, punished with a sex change for a rape that never was, the “tough skin” element is abruptly discarded. Instead, it seems Ledgard is gradually transforming his daughter’s non-rapist into a duplicate of his dead wife. Although the film takes its time getting there, it is ultimately a Pygmalion (not Frankenstein) update: Ledgard’s mad and seemingly incongruous project has little to do with the desire to resurrect a lost love in an imperishable body; rather it is an allegory of the perverse intimacy that inevitably develops between master and slave, jailer and captive, creator and creation. Ledgard comes to see his long-time (male!) victim as a lover, fatally misinterpreting their intimacy. The victim – characteristically far less susceptible to romantic fantasies – exploits this error to destroy him and set himself (or herself) free.

In Ruben Östlund’s Play (a title that speaks volumes of the film’s apparent debt to Michael Haneke) this relationship is given an extra perverse dimension, since both parties are made up of children, aged about 10 to 14. A group of black immigrant children abduct two native boys and their “good immigrant” Chinese friend and march them in a convoy beyond city limits for what will surely be an execution. The black captors use no force and make no threats: nothing seems to restrain their victims except baffling timidity and appalling defeatism.

Östlund seems to have mastered Haneke’s strategy of audience complicity, yanking the chains of righteous indignation, liberal guilt, thirst for violent retribution, etc., with enviable adroitness. The Holocaust parable makes an unexpected turn when the abductors and their victims must band together to escape a common enemy. This time it is not one of the parties but the viewer, who is poised to misinterpret the intimacy: we might expect the combination of prolonged exposure, sudden solidarity, and perhaps childhood innocence to break the spell and transform the relationship. Needless to say, this expectation is handily frustrated: in this world the blacks can never forget that they are the masters, and the whites can never forget that they are sheep, led to the slaughter.

Play suffers from a bewildering ending – an absurdly effete squabble between a gay couple and a lesbian couple (!) – and an even more unfortunate running gag: throughout the film conductors on a commuter train cannot locate the owner of an illegally stowed cradle, but lack the resolve to discard it. Both incidents seem to suggest a chauvinistic reading: the trouble with today’s (Swedish?) society is that emasculated liberals have tied their own hands behind their backs, while ruthless and virile immigrants (the cradle belongs to a large black family) are exploiting their weakness.

I would like to think that the inter- and intra-festival patterns and echoes sketched out above are not merely a cinephile’s paranoia. The fact that through the next September the Film Society of Lincoln Center will be holding weekly screenings of Opening Night films from the past 49 years; that Richard Roud and Richard Peña stayed at the helm for twenty-five years apiece; that certain filmmakers reappear in the lineup again and again – all these suggest to me that the NYFF is especially concerned with its own continuity. This given, one would expect the Festival to stick to its guns and its patterns in the coming years. But such predictions will be better made next year, when an era comes to a close and the new programming director (and perhaps a new selection committee) is announced.

New York Film Festival
30 September – 16 October 2011
website: http://www.filmlinc.com/pages/new-york-film-festival