After twenty-five years under the stewardship of Richard Peña, the New York Film Festival presented its 51st event with a new director, Kent Jones. The selection committee largely honoured NYFF’s model of showing the most noteworthy films from Cannes and other European festivals alongside a dose of commercial premiers. As such it is hard to say, when discussing the Main Slate selection, what was chosen in line with curatorial personality and what reflects the year’s broader trends.
With the inclusion of Richard Curtis’ About Time, Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and Steve Coogan’s uproarious Alain Partridge, the festival did seem to be opening itself to more mainstream comedy. And yet there was also a sense of diminished geographic range. The Main Slate featured a preponderance of Anglo-American and French films, a distinct Asian cluster, and only a handful of movies from everywhere else. What was also missing compared to last year were those films that experimented with the medium. (The two nautical films – Captain Phillips and All Is Lost – were both strong, but neither had the kind of aesthetic innovation found in last year’s Life of Pi or Leviathan.) Instead, the great films at this year’s NYFF – A Touch of Sin, The Immigrant, Blue is the Warmest Color, Her – were more novelistic in their concerns: exploring alienation, intimacy and the individual’s relation to an impersonal or unjust society. Likewise many other headliners – Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Gloria, Jealousy – displayed an often understated, literary interest in character and setting. If last year’s best films offered reflexive treatises on the medium itself, this year’s returned to the essentials of narrative: place, character and story.
Such a return may simply reflect the natural ebb and flow of cinema as it stakes a claim for itself in a new digital age. While Peña’s tenure was known for expanding NYFF beyond its eurocentrism to let in the world auteurs of the ‘90s, one wonders where cinema – and NYFF with it – will be going next. The question is still open. And yet one is also simply grateful that NYFF exists in the first place, and can bring together such a density of art and artists. For those New York cinephiles who are not full time surfers of “the circuit”, NYFF represents a 17-day stretch in October to come together and tank up on the cream of cinema’s yearly crop.
Of that crop, the Asian wing of the festival, despite its compactness, was the most aesthetically diverse and invigorating. Longstanding auteurs, each from a different country, presented their work. Hirokazu Kore-eda (Japan), Hong Sang-soo (South Korea), and Tsai Ming-liang (Taiwan) all had new films, but by far the most anticipated – alternately buzzed about and fretted over – was Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin.
Prompted in part by its salacious title and publicity hype that it was Jia’s first foray into genre, the great fear was that A Touch of Sin would in fact be a descent into kitsch: the film that marked his presumably inevitable transition from underground subversive to mainstream myth-maker. After 2004’s The World – a sombre hallmark of recent cinema but also Jia’s first production sanctioned by the P.R.C. government – the director was rumoured to be working with the scriptwriter of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on a Kung Fu epic. Many promising filmmakers from China’s “Fifth Generation” moved from realism to maximalism (and from a life of struggle to one of luxury), but for Jia to follow in their footsteps, given his roots and his vision, would have seemed like a betrayal.
Thankfully this was not so. A Touch of Sin maintains Jia’s trademark pessimistic realism while also pushing his style beyond the anhedonic tone and Antonioni-like pacing that kept his films at a remove from a more general public. It was not only the best film of the festival but also that rare occurrence for a mid-career artist: a new work that, measured against the previous work, is both revolutionary and consistent.
Like Rossellini’s Paisà, the film moves from province to metropole through a series of successive episodes – short films unto themselves. Each follows a worker at the bottom of the new Chinese economy, pushed to a breaking point: a provincial miner (Jiang Wu) outraged at the corrupt mendacity of the local bosses; a rogue thief (Wang Baoquiang) in a Chicago Bulls beanie, inured to violence; a beautiful, mistreated receptionist (Jia’s wife, Zhao Tao) in love with a married businessman; and ultimately, a lonely teenager (Luo Lanshan) who escapes the brute injustice of a sweatshop for more psychically insidious work at an exclusive pleasure palace.
While the narrative relation of these characters is subtle and intricate (and bears a second viewing to uncover) this is not one of those films with neatly converging story lines. Rather, as with Rossellini’s film, the momentum is thematic. Moving from indignation to anomie, desperation and finally to despair, each episode investigates powerlessness and its relation to violence. And while each climaxes in a murderous outburst, interspersed are quieter, interstitial vistas of contemporary China, full of Jia’s recognizable tropes: captive animals or beasts of burden set against a landscape of dams, bridges, mines, freeways, trains and the new anonymous architecture of Chinese prosperity. The counterpoint between the scenes of havoc and this more muted vision gives the film’s rage not only visceral but symbolic force. In this, A Touch of Sin ranks among the few recent films – alongside Haneke’s Caché and Loznitsa’s My Joy – to use violence not as a means of escape but as an avenue for critique.
Hong Sang-soo’s Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, by contrast, comes on like a hit of nitrous. At least at first. The film begins with a chance encounter between its hero, the exuberant and offbeat student Haewon (Jeong Eun-chae) and the real life Jane Birkin. Haewon asks for Birkin’s autograph and proceeds to have a laughing fit before the star. Although we soon discover she was dreaming, the purpose of the sequence is entirely tonal. For in the next scene – when Haewon bids farewell to her mother who is moving to Canada – the laughter continues. Mother and daughter trade optimistic well wishes and carpe-diem platitudes at what is in fact a scene of abandonment. The emotional strategy of the characters – of treating difficult situations with a deceptive light-heartedness – turns out to be that of the film as well.
Her mother gone, a lonely Haewon calls on her ex-boyfriend, now a married film professor beset by insecurity and vanity. The two take walks in the rain, around the city, or up to a scenic lookout. They run into old acquaintances, shoot the shit, and erupt into awkward giddiness whenever things get uncomfortable. But eventually, as the two exes try to reconnect, the awkwardness gets to soul-level. This is when the film expands into Rohmer territory: moving from romantic self-pity to flights of fanciful exuberance and back again into depression. By staying true to the mercurial emotions of its characters while also noticing the places and seasons through which they meander, Nobody’s Daughter captures an unhurried if confusing time of life: when romance is still unsettled and everything seems both youthful and wistful in equal measure.
If Nobody’s Daughter excelled in its tonal mélange, Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs banished all emotion except one: abjection. This is the auteur’s specialty, his bread and butter, and Tsai is now taking abjection to such hyperbolic extremes as to verge on parody. Likewise his austere, I-don’t-care-if-you’re-bored long takes. The film moves through a series of multi-minute tableaux vivants – barely vivants – that limn the wretched routine of a homeless father (Lee Kang-sheng) and his two children. There is the makeshift shelter where they sleep beneath an overpass (ten minute shot); the intersection where the father works as a human billboard (another ten minute shot); the delta where they walk at sundown; and so on. Only in the fluorescent supermarket where the children play does an inkling of levity appear – as well as the faint glimmer of plot. There, one of the store’s employee (Chen Shiang-chyi) shows a maternal interest in the children and rescues them into her home. But even her apartment, with its abstract patterns of decay, looks barely better than the underpass and more like an intergalactic halfway house.
It’s unclear with what size grain of salt Tsai Ming-liang wants us to take the film’s sets, its people, or its wild self-pity. One memorable scene shows the father finding a head of cabbage his children have used as a toy, devouring half of it, then crying, hugging it, and finally ripping the rest to shreds. There’s an element of dare, no doubt, to these provocations. The penultimate shot goes on for so long it would have been impossible to film when film canisters (much to Tarkovsky’s famous frustration) could only roll for ten or twelve minutes. But Tarkovsky’s long takes induce a trance-like realm of almost histrionic perception. Here, the stillness feels like a punishment – for what, we don’t quite know, just as we never learn what so ails the father.
While Stray Dogs was arduous to sit through it nevertheless remains vivid and unique in my memory. At the other extreme is Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips. I recall being gripped from start to finish and yet I don’t remember much about the film itself. I recollect vaguely that it had Tom Hanks and Somali pirates, that the latter take the former hostage, and that there are many plot points handled skillfully before the final resolution – which involves Navy Seals and comes like a three-point shot at the buzzer. But in the weeks that followed it has all blended into the same helter-skelter, shaky-cam blur. (What would have been truly delectable, I now realise, is to have Paul Greengrass direct Stray Dogs and Tsai Ming-liang direct Captain Phillips – now that would make a fantastic experiment.)
Captain Phillips illustrates that Greengrass, even when at the top of his game, has become a victim of his own influence. If David Fincher’s clinically storyboarded camera was the dominant look of the ‘90s, Greengrass’s precarious, world-in-action style has been the most influential – and now presiding – look for post-9/11 Hollywood. Almost to the point where one can speak of “The Greengrass Effect”, which proceeds as follows: Re-enact a scene of chaos (where emergency has upended protocol); film the scene with shaky cameras; edit spasmodically. Except, of course, it’s not so simple. Greengrass’s talent has been in calibrating the feel of chaos with the precision of storytelling. Underneath the frenetic surface is a great deal of control – both for narrative suspense and spatial coherence. This is no easy task.
The British director has also been instrumental in shedding the political thriller of tedious subplots and needless (sometimes offensive) pscyhologising. But the rise of the docu-fictional thriller – the film that prides itself on the surface accuracy of its reconstructions – comes with certain drawbacks. For one, there is the natural Hollywood rinse cycle. Any new look slowly fades – and doubly so for one that’s meant to connote freshness. But the other more difficult question regards the politics of the fly-on-the-wall narrative stance. Is neutrality possible? Those films that reenact violent crises – I’m thinking also of Kathryn Bigelow’s recent work – most often provoke a response of shock and confusion: “Whoa – that’s so fucked up!” (Or else a secondary reaction, among adolescent males, of “Whoa – that’s so cool!”) We may be fast approaching the point where stoic (but entertaining) reconstructions of state violence stunt, rather than stimulate, political thought.
Two other highly anticipated American films at NYFF lacked any violence whatsoever but were full of emotional bleakness: Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. The Coens and Payne are among America’s most beloved auteurs; both practice their own form of dark comedy; and both thrive on downtrodden regionalism. But while the Coens tend toward theatricality, violence, and slapstick (heirs to the Flannery O’Connor lineage of the grotesque), Payne’s aesthetic has been more naturalistic – relying on a shifting ratio between sweet and sour. Unfortunately for us, neither of their new films ranks among their best.
Inside Llewyn Davis begins with a folk number – and the supple beauty of the film’s music can overshadow the human drama behind it, which feels arch and stiff by comparison. Part of this may in fact be the Coens’ point. In the great blues tradition, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a down n’ out singer who turns his suffering into his art; but that suffering (the endless couch-surfing and the same pair of cold, wet socks) has started to wear thin. Everywhere Llewyn is a guest – whether with cloying sociology professors in the Upper West Side or with a couple (played by Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake) starting to think of their future (they would be moving to Park Slope if it were set in the present day) – becomes a dark mirror through which to view his own sorry prospects.
The difficulty with Llewyn Davis – and with Nebraska too for that matter – is the imitative fallacy. How to depict tedium without becoming tedious? How to depict stillness without becoming stuck? The way out for the Coens is both song and humour – but the latter isn’t working as well as it did in their great films where caricature and character more fruitfully coexisted. The one exception here is Coens’ loyal muse John Goodman who hams it up with bitter poignancy as a washed up Jazz junkie. The road-trip through Edward Hopper America, in which he figures, is the film’s best stretch; when Llewyn is in New York it’s stuck uncomfortably between drama and farce.
Payne’s Nebraska broaches similar themes on its own road trip through Americana. Shot in gorgeous black and white, the film follows a shy, well-meaning son (Will Forte) who drives his numb and alcoholic father, Woody (Bruce Dern), from Billings to Omaha, where Woody’s convinced a sweepstakes will be waiting for him. On the way the duo get held up in the recession-struck town of Woody’s childhood – and after Woody leads the townspeople to believe he’s hit the jackpot, old family feuds and community dramas come back out of the woodwork.
Although Nebraska wants to say something trenchant about family, community and forlorn America, it comes into fullest life in the moments of crudest comic relief – when it’s basically making fun of hicks. As with Llewyn Davis the uncertainty besetting the film is whether to play the joke or the drama. Payne has made a career making such a distinction meaningless, but in Nebraska the moments of tenderness (as when Woody confesses the human motives for his quixotic actions) feel like scripted cues: emotional destinations at which the film hopes to arrive but fails to reach.
The one Latin American film in the Main Slate was the Chilean Gloria, directed by Sebastián Lelio and co-produced by Pablo Larraín. Reminiscent of Diane Keaton in glasses, Gloria (Paulina García) is a middle-aged divorcée who still retains much of youth’s whimsy, but feels torn between the lonely calm of senior living and the storms of a second adolescence. Gloria’s ups and downs – her make ups and break ups with a sensitive older gentleman – make for vivid, truthful cinema. (The film was a hit in Chile – lending a name to a generation of women at a particular stage in life who saw themselves in the character.) But unlike last year’s No, which established rich and often brilliant connections across aesthetic, political and personal layers, Gloria works almost exclusively on the level of character – as a paean to its actress Paulina García. The film hints at a larger context: there are scenes of street protests on the film’s periphery and incidental dinner conversations about the fate of the Pinochet generation; but these political moments feel more like garnish than concerns Gloria wishes seriously to explore.
For Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar, another film named after its protagonist, politics is all. Set in a riven Palestine – the first shot is of Omar (Adam Bakri) scaling the infamous Israel-West Bank barrier by rope – the film turns the complex tensions of occupation (and the taboo of collaboration) into a highly plotted espionage thriller. As with the hero of Abu-Assad’s 2005 Paradise Now, Omar is by nature laid-back, charming and in love (this time with a childhood friend’s sister). But after being implicated in an attack, he is arrested, enlisted as a spy for the Israelis (Waleed Zuaiter gives a wonderful performance as his handler, ironically the most compelling character in the film) and sent back into a paranoid reality of shifting allegiances.
There’s something allegorical about Omar’s duplicitous tightrope walk: as if the film is walking its own careful balance between genre and realism – or genre and politics. Most of the time it works. The steadicam chase scenes, for example, that follow Omar through the warrens of Ramallah, helicopters whizzing overhead, not only raise tension but also convey a very real sense of panic and enclosure. And even if neither the political nor narrative calculus of the film’s successive twists fully square, Omar still makes for riveting viewing.
The French, behind the Americans, had the biggest showing at NYFF and at times the festival felt like the Rendezvous with French Cinema – also held at Lincoln Center, but in March. Even the wonderfully buoyant and winning English film, Le Week-End, about an aging couple revisiting Paris for the first time since their honeymoon, could be said to be part Gallic – and not only in its setting. The film (written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Roger Michell) pays light-hearted homage to Godard in a number of ways: in its title and the visual quotations from Bande à part, to a cut where it slowly dawns on us that the couple’s breathless panting (they are literally à bout de souffle) comes not from sex but from their haggard way up Montmartre. Lindsay Duncan is fabulous as a still-sexual still-free spirit but Jim Broadbent is even better as her doting husband, a professor with a repressed creative side who takes the tapered idealism of his generation personally. Jeff Goldblum rounds out the trio of performances as an American writer (like much of NYFF’s audience: both an Upper West Sider and a Francophile) who has decamped to Paris. While Le Week-End may not have been the most serious film at NYFF, it was likely the most genuine.
And then there were the big name French auteurs.
Claire Denis’s Bastards failed as an experiment at disjunctive narrative but soared as an exercise in atmosphere: the rain, the retro-noir lighting, the heat-of-the-night steam and smoke, the ‘80s synth soundtrack by Tindersticks. Once I stopped caring about the story (which revolved around rich neighbours and a dangerous family secret) I was able to enjoy the film for what it is: pure texture. As with David Lynch, even the plot and mystery (or rather the hint of plot and mystery) are used to further atmosphere: plot as colour, plot as music.
Something similar was at play in Philippe Garrel’s Jealousy – although it was less about atmosphere than mood. Shot in quiet black and white and clocking in at 77 minutes, the film offers an unassuming yet mournful meditation on the bitterness that can encroach on bohemia past a certain age. The film begins by drifting through the perspectives of a nuclear family as it unravels – settling on the young but melancholic father (played by Garrel’s son Louis) after he moves in with his new girlfriend (Anna Mouglalis), an actress whose career has stalled and now expects material comfort if not artistic success. The doomed fate of the romance is predictable enough – one wonders what he saw in this woman – but the film’s pathos lies less in the failure of passion than in the bonds that linger past separation. And so ironically Jealousy works most poignantly when it’s least invidious: as a portrait of confused adults and the children whom they love and care for, and whose love helps heal the heart.
The whims, needs and sorrows of the human heart – and ultimately, from these, its education – form the substance of Blue is the Warmest Color. Causing a stir for its lesbian sex scenes (the film is banned in Idaho, so the IFC in New York is currently offering free admission to anyone from Idaho), the film seemed to mildly scandalise some old-school aesthetes at NYFF – not because of its graphic sex, but because they were apparently expecting something grander and more groundbreaking from this year’s winner of the Palme d’Or. Haneke’s Amour had satisfied that desire last year and Blue felt to some a small, relatively conventional story despite its three-hour run-time.
But the three hours pass as swiftly as if it were television – which may in fact be a better rubric with which to appreciate the languorous interest Blue takes in the gradual maturation of its heroine Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos). The length derives not from epic ambition but from an intimacy that dissuades rushing. In its faithfulness to the everyday rhythms of life (the schools, bars, parents, kebabs) as well as to life’s moments of passion, Blue provides one of the fullest recent chronicles not only of a young woman but of contemporary European youth. And while the class asymmetry between Lea Seydoux’s character (a bobo painter with blue hair who comes from a family that eats oysters) and the younger Adèle (a lycée teacher who would never dare to publish her own writing) is made explicit enough, it also serves another, almost allegorical, function. In one of their first rendezvous beside a river Seydoux tells Adèle about the theories of Sartre – to which she responds that they remind her of Bob Marley. It’s in the coupling and coexistence of these two cultural worlds – the France of high-theory and the France of Manu Chao – that the film can be both about and for young people.
Joaquin Phoenix deserves a category unto himself for it was his unmistakable presence that made two of the best American films on the bill so good – and whose recalcitrant, almost theatrical, apathy in person paradoxically livened up the otherwise lackluster Q&A sessions. That one actor had more films at NYFF than entire continents – well, stranger things have happened.
One of the films that most divided critics was James Gray’s The Immigrant, a heavy-hearted melodrama about Ewa (Marion Cotillard), a young Polish woman newly arrived in 1920s Manhattan. For me it was a ravishing tour-de-force, a near-perfect film. James Gray spoke of finding inspiration in opera’s unashamed emotion and the film works similarly: where the scarcity of the lamp-lit lower east side only heightens the infinite longings trapped inside the souls of its frugal inhabitants. As a burlesque hustler, Phoenix carries an aura of moral sacrifice and self-loathing so palpable it makes the film’s hushed climax between him and Ewa, for whom he has been a guardian (if only for selfish reasons), at once devastating and redemptive. And yet unlike Wagner, the film feels personal and familial – and indeed was based partly on the stories Gray had heard from his grandparents. As a consummate period melodrama, The Immigrant is bound to last – and confirms that Gray is one of America’s most exciting and uncompromising directors.
Spike Jonze, unlike James Gray, almost needs no further introduction or encomium. His work – both his music videos and his early film collaborations with Charlie Kaufman – near single-handedly defined the indie aesthetic for a generation. His new film, Her, screened as NYFF’s closing night premier, marks a tremendous leap forward in his cinema – extending his inventive talents as a visual and conceptual stylist to the era of digital loneliness and addressing more complex emotional themes without sacrificing the youthful flair that defined Jonze’s early work. As with The Immigrant, Her also depends upon Joaquin Phoenix’s beguiling combination of allure and angst. As Theodore, Phoenix plays a heartbroken creative professional in a near-future LA (in a brilliant move, filmed partly in Shanghai) whose day-job is to write letters for other people’s loved ones. At night he plays video games or surfs the web – living in a holographic cocoon of technology – and eventually purchases a new operating system that is less like a tool than an ever-present life companion: replete with voice, personality and even a name, Samantha. While the obvious point of reference is Apple’s Siri, Jonze’s interest seems to lie less in mind-bending thought experiments about technology (although there are some rather ingenious set-pieces along these lines) than in the felt experience, not unfamiliar to the present, of a digital balm for isolation. Theodore begins taking Samantha, as an earpiece, with him everywhere he goes; slowly his heartache lightens and he falls in love.
As I watched this virtual romance develop – over the phone, as it were – it gradually dawned on me that Her is perhaps the only, and certainly the best, film about what it feels like to be in a long distance relationship: the constant phone-calls to check in, the detailing of one’s routines for an absent-presence, the living at a remove from the friends around you. Jonze seems to be saying that neither digital nor long distance love (and the latter is increasingly intertwined with the former) can substitute for simple human touch and proximity. Her was the perfect film – almost allegorical of film binging itself – from which to emerge from NYFF into the Manhattan autumn sun, both chastened and renewed.
The New York Film Festival
27 September – 13 October 2013
Festival website: http://www.filmlinc.com/nyff2013