YORK FILM FESTIVAL
2005 – 43rd Festival
The just-concluded 2005 NYFF was of extremely high quality: there were some thoroughly wonderful films, some very good films, and, even the film we liked the least was not bad. (Of course, we knew not to go to Lars von Trier’s new film, Manderlay, as I have vowed never again to see any of his films—but I hear that even many of his fans did not like this newest effort.) As always, the incredible joy of the NYFF is always that it provides the opportunity to view films you know absolutely nothing about and to have the excitement of discovering amazing films you had no reason to expect would even be good. This year’s Festival was no exception in this regard. The NYFF is unique among film festivals in that it is not a commercial or industry event: there are no prizes except the honor of being selected to be part of the Festival; and it is not a marketplace for selling films, so there is no requirement that films screened in it have any particular commercial potential—although some of the films do find distributors after having been screened in the Festival. Consequently, there are films in the Festival that you will see nowhere else: films like Hong Sang-soo’s oddly complex Tale of Cinema, or Hou Hsiao-hsien’s languorously beautiful Three Times. There are also films that one hopes will be enormous commercially successful, like George Clooney’s opening night excellent and politically important Good Night and Good Luck—which is one I feel it is actually important for everyone to see, as well as one everyone will enjoy.
Before the 2004 NYFF began, the New York Times ran an article singing the praises of the NYFF, calling it “a New York cultural institution.” Of the incredible diversity of the 25 feature films in the NYFF, the Times writes, “What you see may not be to your taste, but it also may change your taste and with it your idea of what movies can do.” (I include here a link to that piece for your edification and enjoyment.) I also thought I might mention, for those of you who may never have been to a NYFF screening, that the main features at the Festival are screened in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall—which has to be one of the most comfortable places imaginable to see a film. (The only exceptions to this are Opening and Closing Nights, which are screened in Avery Fisher Hall, which is almost as wonderful, and far grander.) So, not only are the films great, the physical experience of viewing them is marvelous. Finally, an added treat of most screenings is the presence of the directors from the films, and often the actors as well, who then stay after the screening for question-and-answer sessions.
I once again strongly urge all of you in the NYC area to join the Film Society of Lincoln Center and attend the NYFF next fall. As some of you may know from personal experience, getting tickets for this incredibly popular NYC event can be extremely difficult—and, once one has realized how wonderful the Festival is, it can be extremely frustrating not be able to obtain tickets. I have therefore put together a short Primer on Membership in the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Obtaining Tickets for the New York Film Festival that discusses strategies of how successfully to get tickets for the NYFF. The short story is this: you either take your chances on being able to get scalped tickets (often available during the NYFF from people selling them outside Alice Tully Hall) or returned tickets (at the Alice Tully Box office) at the last minute, or you improve your chances by becoming a member of the Film Society. But N.B.: membership only gives one a relative advantage (in that you get to put in your requests before it is opened to the general public—which means you are likely but not guaranteed to be able to get tickets to all but the most sought-after films); the only way to guarantee you will get tickets to all of the films you want—particularly immensely popular ones like this year’s Opening Night—is to become a donor. Being a member does not guarantee anything! Naturally, the best answer is to become a member of the Film Society of Lincoln Center—and this Primer describes the best ways to do that to meet your needs and desires in relation to getting tickets.
We saw 15 of the 25 feature presentations, and those are the ones reviewed below. For those who are interested, the entire 2005 NYFF program and the Film Society descriptions of each film can be found at www.filmlinc.com/nyff/nyff.htm. My reviews of past years of the NYFF can be found at www.rlrubens.com/nyff.html .
[For films whose release dates have been set, the dates are given underlined and in bold after identifying information.]
THE FEATURE FILMS IN THE FESTIVAL
Good Night and Good Luck (Opening Night. USA, Warner Independent Pictures, 2005, released in NYC and LA on 7 October, with an increasingly broad general release to follow) George Clooney has co-written (with Grant Heslov) and directed a film that not only is well made, powerful, entertaining, but also politically important. Set in the ‘50s, it tells the story of Edward R. Murrow’s decision to take a stand against the abuses being perpetrated by Joe McCarthy and against the political intimidation of the American public in general and of the media in particular. The acting is superb: David Strathairn gives a riveting performance, convincingly and powerfully recreating the unique character of Ed Murrow—and if it is not in Oscar contention, I shall attribute it to the cowardice of the Academy, rather even than to its lack of taste; Clooney gives an superb portrayal of Murrow’s partner and producer, Fred Friendly; Frank Langella very powerfully plays the role of William Paley, the highly conflicted president of CBS; and the supporting cast—including the likes of Robert Downey, Jr., Patricia Clarkson, and Jeff Daniels—all deliver solid and effective performances. The role of Joe McCarthy is wonderfully provided by the Senator himself, via Clooney’s decision to use actual newsreel footage of him instead of having an actor play him. The stark, gritty black-and-white cinematography of Robert Elswit (Boogie Night, Magnolia) visually contributes enormous strength and impact to the emotional experience. The film accurately recreates the tension and flavor of a real news room, which provides the perfect backdrop for the tension of the struggles going on within CBS, within the media in general, and ultimately the within the country at large—all replete with the agonizing personal struggles of those deciding to risk going against the tide of the governmental pressures of repression. While the film is totally effective in recreating the issues and struggles—personal as well as societal—facing the country in the early 50s, its real importance lies in the issues it raises about the current situation in our country: it examines the need for a free press and reporters and organizations courageous enough to question government policies and actions—often in the face of overwhelmingly repressive forces, societal and commercial, as well as governmental. It deals with the tendency of many in power to capitalize on people’s fears and insecurities in order to manipulate them for their own ends, and the essential role the fourth estate potentially can play in counterbalancing these forces—when it does not succumb to its own lack of courage to do so. At the Opening Night Party, I said to George Clooney’s father, Nick (who had a career as a TV news anchorman and was part of the inspiration in George’s decision to make this movie), that I believe this is a film everyone in the country should see; and he replied that he especially hoped every journalist and every journalism student in the country sees it—and I concur. It is a must-see for many reasons, but not least among them that it is a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable viewing experience.
A side note: Opening Night was a particularly joyful and electrifying experience this year, largely due to the personality and style of George Clooney himself. While it did not hurt that the film itself was so powerful and enjoyable an experience, the warmth, intelligence, humor, and approachability of Clooney set an excitingly positive tone for the evening. It even included a performance by Diane Reeves, whose singing provides much of the score for the film. It was the best Opening Night in my recent memory.
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (UK, Picture House, 2005, to be released in November 2005) For those not already familiar with Laurence Sterne’s amazing novel, let me begin by explaining that it is a post-modern masterpiece: narrated by the main character, Tristram Shandy—who is describing the process of writing the book we are reading—the book is famous for its extensive, far-ranging tangents of association and flights of ideas, its speaking directly to the reader on a meta-level [e.g., its chapter in which Tristram offers to sell the dedication of future editions of the book to the highest bidder; the ten missing pages Tristram tells us he removed because they were so well-written that he feared they would make the writing in the rest of the book seem bad by comparison], its blank pages, its two completely black pages, its bawdy licentiousness mixed with philosophical erudition, its page and a half left blank so we can follow Tristram’s instructions to write in our own fantasized description of the Widow Wadman, “as like your mistress as you can ---- as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you.” The strangest part is that Sterne wrote it in the mid-18th Century! In Michael Winterbottom’s rollicking adaptation of it to the screen, the cast is making a movie about making a movie about Tristram Shandy’s writing a book about writing a book. Steve Coogan is rather perfect in the roles of both Tristram and Tristram’s father, and Rob Brydon does a wonderful job portraying Tristram’s Uncle Toby—although both men spend the greater proportion of their time on screen playing themselves, often engaged with each other in very funny verbal sparring. It is a hilarious endeavor, which succeeds in capturing some of the wild flavor of the book—with Tristram speaking directly to the audience as well as participating in the ongoing story—which, as in the book, is broken up and discontinuous, moving forward and backward in time; and the in-character parts are interspersed with the goings on of the cast in their interactions around making the film. It must be said, however, that it will be something of a disappointment for those who love Sterne’s masterpiece: not because it is such a loose and freewheeling takeoff—which is something one easily could imagine Sterne having loved; nor because it spends more time in off beat tangents totally outside of the narrative flow than in the actual development of the plot—as that is very much what Sterne himself did; nor because it is at times silly, lewd, and even slapstick—since that is consistent with the wildness of Sterne’s own writing; but rather because the humor and the antics of the characters takes place against a backdrop that lacks all of the literary excellence, philosophical sophistication, and general erudition of Sterne’s novel—even given that some of those things are being parodied or falsified in the novel. The movie, despite its being quite successful in its basic undertaking of adapting what could easily be adjudged one of the most unfilmable novels of all time and its being a thoroughly enjoyable film experience, missed many opportunities to be a far more elegant and humorous version of what it is. Nevertheless, it is totally worth seeing, as it is an excellent, funny, and deeply enjoyable movie. I only hope it will encourage people to take the next step and read the book itself, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.
The Squid and the Whale (USA, Samuel Goldwyn Films/Sony Pictures Entertainment, 2005, limited release in NYC [Angelika and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas] on 5 October, with a broader general release hopefully to follow) This film is about a horrible divorce in which two completely pathological and quite unlikable parents split up in a way that is terrible for their two teenage sons, who themselves are enormously screwed up and not altogether that sympathetic. Would you believe that it is a wonderfully funny, engaging, and appealing film? Well, that most certainly is the case!...and that is enormously to the credit of the rather strange but wonderful sense of humor and view of human interactions of Noah Baumbach, who wrote and directed this fabulous film. (Baumbach co-wrote The Life Aquatic with Wes Anderson, who is one of the producers of this film—and this fact may provide you with some hint as to the flavor of its special qualities.) It is brilliantly done and masterfully acted. The main characters are played to perfection: Jeff Daniels creates a totally unlikable father, Bernard, who is a pompous, self-righteous author whose earlier success seems to be diminishing as time goes on—and it is incredible how one can find his incessantly given, haughty literary opinions so distasteful to hear, even when one realizes that one actually agrees with them; Laura Linney does a terrific job as the increasingly successful but unremittingly flaky mother, Joan, who seems in some ways more sympathetic due to the presence in her of at least some emotional availability, but who ultimately remains deeply self-centered and twisted; Jesse Eisenberg completely convincingly plays the 16 year old son, Walt, as he wrestles with his identification with his father—with all of its distressing distastefulness—and eventually rediscovers the importance of aspects of his emotional connection to his mother; and Owen Kline (son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) does a very impressive job of acting the complicated younger son, Frank, who in his youth is the most emotionally present and real of any of them, yet who therefore is also experiencing the most disorienting effects of the trauma that is occurring. The cast also includes Anna Paquin, William Baldwin, and Halley Feiffer. Baumbach presents his characters in a way that is on the one hand caricatured and satirical and on the other deeply insightful. While the film is essentially comic, it explores and reveals through its humor a deep and complex understanding of the humanity of the characters which only slowly unfolds as the viewer integrates his own reaction to what has gone on in what he has seen. As became clear in the conversation with Baumbach moderated by Phillip Lopate, this is a quirky, exciting film that could only have been made utilizing the freedom that comes from being a low-budget production, made outside of the control of the studio system. It also was made clear that this film is heavily autobiographical, which may account for why it is able to be loving in a way that one would not immediately expect from so otherwise acerbic a presentation of a family’s pathological dynamics. This was undoubtedly one of the finest films of this year’s Festival, and well-worth seeing. I only hope its title (a reference to something that is probably familiar to any New Yorker who has raised a young boy in the City) is not too misleadingly off-putting to the general public. (I have never been able to shake my conviction that it was the title of the Shawshank Redemption that limited its commercial success.)
The Passenger (Italy/USA/France, 1973, Sony Pictures Classics, to be re-released on 28 October) Unavailable for many years, this beautiful and gripping film by Michelangelo Antonioni is being re-released by Sony Pictures classics this month. It stars Jack Nicholson at a time in his career when he was at the peak of his young, powerful, handsome and sexy presence—and before his ferocious anger became his dominant onscreen emotion. He plays David Locke, a world weary reporter on assignment in the desert of North Africa, who is presented with the death of a man named Robertson whom he has met there in his run down motel. In a decision which is not explained at all at the time, and we never fully understand at any point, Locke decides to set it up to appear that it had be he who died and to take on the identity of the dead man—who we eventually learn was an illegal arms dealer supplying weapons to the rebels that Locke was doing a story about. In his travels as Robertson, he moves through London to Spain, and eventually hooks up with a young woman played by Maria Schneider at the height of her sultry sexual beauty. Their relationship is unclear, and they exchange extremely little information. (She asks him well into their travels, “Who are you?” and he tells he only, “I used to be someone else, but I traded him in.”) Like Antonioni’s 1966 Blow-Up, The Passenger approaches in ways being a gripping thriller; but it is at the same time a leisurely artistic journey through magnificent visual vistas of Antonio’s cinematographic vision. With a pacing more like Antoniono’s 1964 The Red Desert, The Passenger is a lusciously rich visual experience, with marvelous panoramas of the North African desert and the Spanish countryside. But as a thriller it is more of an avant-garde existential statement on the ambiguity of finding meaning in life, and as an art film it has far more of an emotionally engaging, psychologically provocative storyline than one would expect. It is a wonderful film—albeit a perplexing one; and you definitely should see it if you have the opportunity.
Paradise Now (Netherlands/Germany/France, 2005, Warner Independent Pictures, to be released on a limited basis in NY [Lincoln Plaza and Landmark Sunshine] and LA [Sunset and New Wilshire] on 28 October and we should sincerely hope it gets a wider general release thereafter) This was definitely one of the major positive surprises of the Festival—even though we were alerted by our friend at Human Rights Watch to expect it to be wonderful. Director and co-writer Hany Abu-Assad’s film tells the story of two suicide bombers and the mission they are sent off on. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting, but a sensitive, intelligent, balanced, insightful, and sympathetic exploration was more than I was willing to hope for—but it was what we got! The film is not overly politicized; it is not overly simplistic; it is not even too one-sided. It in no way romanticizes or justifies suicide bombings, but it also does not attempt a reductivist dismissal of the personal psychology of those who decide to engage in it. The story is about 48 hours in the lives of two young Palestinian friends, Khaled (Ali Suiman) and Said (Kais Nashef), who are notified by their handlers that the time has come to put into action the pair’s decision to become martyrs together. Their handlers take them, bombs irrevocably attached to their bodies, to their insertion point for their suicide bombing raid on Tel Aviv. It is only after their entry into Tel Aviv goes awry, and the two are separated, that we begin to learn about the personal histories of each man. As they become more differentiated in our knowledge of them as individuals, their struggles, their motivations, and their actions begin to become more understandable. The film is a masterpiece of filmmaking, psychological exploration, and political wisdom, and I recommend most highly that you find a way to see it—it is a wonderful and profoundly important film.
Three Times (Zuihaode shiguang, Taiwan, 2005) Hou Hsiao-hsien, who brought the beautiful Café Lumière to the 2004 NYFF, has with this new film written and directed one of the most beautiful cinematographic experiences I have ever seen. The structure of Three Times consists of three love stories, each set in a different time and place: the first in a pool hall in 1966, the second in an elegant brothel in 1911, and the third in urban Taipei in 2005. The two lead characters in each piece are played by the same actors, Chang Chen and the beautiful Shu Qi.. In the first segment, Chang falls in love with Shu and goes to great lengths to pursue a connection with her; and Shu eventually reciprocates, if only barely. In the second, Shu loves Chang, and there is a muted but intense connection between them, although Chang is unable to reciprocate it in any caring or authentic way. In the third, there is intense sexual passion in both directions, but little connection, and no love. But the real movement of the film is not in its plot so much as it is in the characters’ repeated movement back and forth across water—directly on boats in the first, implicitly in Chang’s unseen travel back and forth to Japan in the second, and on a motorcycle over bridges in the third—and in and out of connection in their personal relationships. The film is a languorously beautiful work, full of Hou’s signature long, sustained shots, each of which is crafted like a painting developing in time—with there being more development in the changes of the nuance of the lighting than in the plot, and more expression in the faces of the actors than in the dialogue It is not a movie for everyone, and, unfortunately, it does not yet have distribution; but it is a thing of beauty, and I loved it.
Tale of Cinema (Keuk Jang Jeon, S. Korea/France, 2005) This is Hong Song-soo’s third NYFF film (Turning Gate in the 2002 NYFF, and Woman is the Future of Man in last year’s Festival). I have liked all three, but Tale of Cinema is by far the best. It is a complex, multi-layered, embedded story about sex, competition, relationships, and desires that engages, confuses, misleads, and turns repeatedly back on itself, and which only has its full impact long after viewing it. It is full of repetitions, recreations, inversions—all in a story that keeps turning recursively back on itself in ever increasing complexity, and with ever expanding levels of meaning. I cannot think how more fully to describe this most unique piece of filmmaking without giving away more of the plot than I am comfortable doing, so I’ll just have to hope it finds distribution so that you’ll be able to see it for yourself. While it is a not an easy film experience, it is a deeply rewarding and unusually thought-provoking one.
Capote (USA, Sony Pictures Classics, 2005, released 30 September) Bennett Miller has masterfully directed Dan Futterman’s compellingly written script and created a beautifully visual, dramatically powerful work about Truman Capote and the researching and writing of his incredibly successful book, In Cold Blood. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives what is probably the best performance of his already amazingly accomplished acting career—and one that ought to provide the leading competition to David Strathairn’s Best Actor Oscar possibilities, assuming the world—and the Academy—is a more rational place than we have any right to assume it is; and Catherine Keener gives a totally convincing performance as Capote’s childhood friend, assistant, and “bodyguard,” (Nellie) Harper Lee, who eventually wrote To Kill A Mockingbird—particularly impressive since the lovely Ms. Keener succeeds in acting the role of a less than attractive, older-looking woman. All the acting (including Bob Balaban as William Shawn) is marvelous. So here we have an exquisitely done, beautifully photographed, incredibly well-acted, riveting film about Truman Capote, an unsettlingly weird writer who chooses to research and write a book about two weird criminals who wantonly and psychopathically commit ruthless, meaningless murders. We learn that in the process he identifies with one of the killers, befriends him—and perhaps even falls in love with him—misleads and lies to him, uses his emotional connection to him to get him to reveal the details of his story, and ultimately abandons him, unable to contain his eagerness for the pair to be executed because their appeals have been delaying the completion and publication of his book. The twisted parallels are obvious. My problem is that I am not really interested in these people—neither in the killers nor in Capote; nor I am I particularly interested in the twisted realities of either of their stories. I was not interested in reading In Cold Blood—regardless of how well-written it may have been; and I ultimately was not really interested in seeing Capote—regardless of how wonderfully done the film was. I was completely entranced while watching the film, but I felt almost dirty and used when it was over. You may disagree: many people thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed In Cold Blood, too. The movie may turn out to be a major success, and it is unarguably excellently done. Chacun à son goût.
Bubble (USA, Magnolia Pictures, 2005, to be released in January 2006) I loved Steven Soderergh’s new low-budget film—right up to, but definitely not including, its end, which I rather disliked. Using non-professional actors, Soderbergh gives us an intense, penetrating look into the lives of three limited and—to varying degrees—unappealing people working in a doll factory in a small town in Ohio. Kyle (Dustin James Ashley) is an earnest young man who lives with his mother, diligently working hard at this job at the doll factory as well as other jobs. Although the only character in the film to be identified as having a psychological disorder, he is the one who is clearly the healthiest—and perhaps therefore the saddest. Martha (Debbie Doebrereiner, a real-life cashier), plays an older, unattractive woman who is obviously interested in Kyle, in an extremely aim-inhibited way, and who goes out of her way to do favors for him, spend time with him at work, and take care of him. The pathology of the twisted selflessness and its underlying unacknowledged anger resounds throughout the fabric of the film. Kyle is clearly responsive to the nurturing aspects of Martha’s attention and reciprocates her friendship. Enter the attractive, young woman, Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), whose interest in Kyle is as obvious as is her willingness to take advantage of Martha’s tendency to be unreasonably giving. Rose is the anti-Martha: her unreflective selfishness and entitlement seems to parallel Martha’s sick martyr complex. The plot thickens as Martha clearly becomes jealous of Kyle’s markedly un-Platonic interest in Rose. The interactions of the three of them—with the intensities and limitations of their aspirations and desires—create the fabric of a small-town tragedy that plays out very successfully in extremely comic as well as dramatic ways. That Soderbergh manages to get such excellent performances out of non-professional actors is truly amazing. For me, however, the story takes two very unfortunate turns: first in becoming a kind of mystery rather than a drama, and then, more importantly, in becoming rather trite in its finale. Nevertheless, it is still well worth your seeing.
Breakfast on Pluto (Centerpiece, Ireland, Sony Classics Pictures, 2005, to be released 18 November) Neil Jordan (who wrote and directed The Crying Game), who directed this film, also wrote the screenplay with Patrick McCabe (who wrote the novel on which the movie is based; this is the same combination that did The Butcher Boy). Set in the 60s and 70s, Breakfast on Pluto is the story of a beautiful boy with a well-established feminine identification growing up in a small town in Ireland. Named Patrick Braden, and wonderfully portrayed by Cillian Murphy, the boy takes the name Kitten and determinedly sets out to live his chosen identity. Kitten eventually moves from the stodgy provincialism of his home town to the swinging urban existence of London, where his life continues in a way not totally unlike the struggle it was back home. His obsessively optimistic and incessantly innocent self-assertion—which is sometimes met with understanding, but most often met with of varying levels of rejection and abuse, which also at times develops into positive and even loving engagement—creates a series of interactions that at times are extremely funny, at times are painfully and sometimes frighteningly sad, and at some times are even uplifting and transformative. In typical Neil Jordan fashion, the personal struggles of the film all take place against the backdrop of the madness of the political tensions of Irish society and its violent struggles. The acting is extremely well-done, and the cast includes the magnificent Liam Neeson, Jordan regular Stephen Rea, and Irish rock musician Gavin Friday. The film is very unusual, extraordinary at moments, but ultimately fairly uneven—and not as profound as Jordan would want it to be.
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Chin-Jeol-Han Geum-Ja-Ssi, S. Korea, Tartan Films, 2005, to be released early in 2006) I have not seen either of the two reportedly wonderful earlier films (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy) in this trilogy by director Park Chanwook, because I knew to expect that they would be too violent for my tastes. In Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, however, the violence, while extensive, is not overwhelming—and it has a quality that renders is emotionally productive within the fabric of the film in a way I could tolerate. It reminded me of the way the violence in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was more acceptable to me than that of most movies. Park has been compared to Tarantino, and there is an almost comic book, stylized format to parts of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance that has been compared to the exuberance of Tarantino’s Kill Bill; but I do not think that is what I am referring to here, as I was totally unable to integrate and accept the violence in Kill Bill. The main character, Geum-ja, or “Lady Vengeance,” is played by the beautiful Lee Yeong-ae. She is being released from prison fourteen years after having been convicted of the kidnapping and murder of a young boy when she was nineteen. The Park’s incredible style of storytelling totally engages the viewer, despite the difficult nature of much of the content—and some of the content is unbelievably hard to bear, by the way, especially when it concerns the young children—and carries him through the enormous emotional progression of the exploration of revenge on multiple levels. The ending, while uncomfortably dissonant for me in terms of its underlying philosophy and assumptions about revenge, is rather incredible. This is a very difficult film, but one that is enormously well-done. It is interesting that while it is much more overtly difficult than Capote, and while it is certainly more violent, and arguably more depraved, I found it ultimately less objectionable.
Caché (Hidden, Closing Night, France, 2005, Sony Pictures Classics, to be released in 23 December) Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher) wrote and directed this well-made, engrossing, and incredibly disturbing movie about a sophisticated couple living in Paris who begin to receive anonymous surveillance video tapes of their everyday lives. They are unsettled and frightened by the intrusion into their rather humdrum lives of this increasingly ominous mystery which they do not understand and the meaning and implications of which they cannot comprehend—and, on another level, the audience is similarly anxiously unsettled for the very same reasons. This disturbing tension rises and falls but generally increases throughout the entire experience of the film. It is well-acted: Daniel Auteil plays George, the husband; Juliette Binoche plays Anne, the wife. It is powerfully done. It is a most unusual film, right from its opening credits to its closing scene. The film feels mostly like a straightforward mystery—but is it? There is a disconcertingly unclear mixture of plot developments, flashbacks, and dream sequences that add to the air of uncertainty. But, in the end, I remain unconvinced about whether there is anything within the film that justifies the incredible intensity and emotion it creates: I am afraid that I feel that it was essentially manipulative and unfulfilling—the ambiguities artificial, the plot confusions red-herrings, the philosophical questions vapid, and the meaning shallow. And, while it was still an interesting experience, I do not think it was a significant or good enough film to be the choice for Closing Night.
L’Enfant (The Child, Belgium/France, Sony Pictures Classics, 2005, to be released early in 2006) It was only in the wonderful conversation with Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (masterfully conducted by the Film Society’s Kent Jones) that I finally realized what it is that the Dardenne brothers do so effectively in their films—and what it is that I find so unsatisfying about their films. They are complete masters of presenting a phenomenological presence of the personhood of the characters in their films (“personne” as opposed to “personnage,” as they would put it), captured in the raw but complex context of the moment: the effective naturalism of their visual presentation, the fact that they primarily use location sound and never musical background, and even the fact that they film the scenes and takes in chronological order, all combine to create an intense, deep, and powerful immediacy of experience, almost unparalleled in filmmaking. On the other hand, they openly state their disinterest in the more philosophical movement of story and character development; and this actually becomes a repeated weak point in their films. L’Enfant is the story of a small-time crook, Bruno (played by Jérémie Renier), whose lack of moral fiber, self-reflection, and empathic understanding leads him at a moment of financial pressure to sell for adoption a newborn baby he with his young girlfriend, Sonia (Deborah Françoise). He does it without telling her (much as he earlier had sublet out her apartment without her knowledge); and, when she is distraught to learn he has done it, he tries to comfort her by telling her they can have another. The Dardennes succeed in providing a riveting and deep portrayal of these two unappealing characters in the intensity of their incredibly immature interactions; but they are painfully unconvincing in their presentation of the supposed transformation that Bruno undergoes at the end. It is totally unbelievable, although it is clear that the filmmakers themselves believe it—and perhaps that is precisely the kind of weakness that has bothered me about all of their previous films (and certainly in Le Fils, their film in the 2002 NYFF). It says something interestingly positive, however, that, probably due to the excellence and success of their phenomenological creation of the personhood of the characters in the film, I feel I have the right to disagree with them about the character’s possibilities.
The President’s Last Bang (Geuddae Geu Saramdeul, S. Korea, 2005, Kino International, to be released in Fall 2005) Im Sang-soo’s film about the assassination in 1979 of South Korea’s president, General Park Chung-hee, who had a repressive reign for two decades as the dictatorial—and womanizing—leader of the country, is a mad, wild, black comedy. The movie keeps one constantly off balance, and it is impossible to know what to expect: it is basically dark, and ominous, but it is interspersed with everything from scenes at the beginning of the movie of bare-breasted young women frolicking in the President’s pool, to the farcical treatment of the assassination itself, in which the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency runs out of bullets in the midst of shooting General Park and proceeds to run around the courtyard of the building screaming “I need a gun! Can’t somebody lend me a gun?” It is a particularly bizarre touch when one of South Korea’s cabinet ministers, when they have solemnly assembled around the naked body of General Park on a slab at the morgue to ascertain that the president is in fact dead, places a military hat over the naked president’s genitals. It is a raucous, funny, and exceedingly strange film about a rather serious moment in the history of South Korea; but it works in all of its irreverent splendor.
Who’s Camus Anyway (Camus nante shiranai, Japan, 2005) Written and directed by Mitsuo Yanagimachi, this was the film in this year’s festival I liked the least—it was not a bad movie, just not a particularly good one. A story about a group of young, student filmmakers doing a film about a senseless murder, it riffs on their obsession with the details of film history, their shallow understanding of philosophy, the cruelty and immaturity of their interpersonal relationships, and the sterile, inhibited longings of their film professor—a former filmmaker who no longer makes films, but only teaches. Perhaps the wittiest moment in the film is when the professor, who is referred to among the students as “Aschenbach,” shows up for a dinner that has been arranged for him with a female student he has been leering at on campus dressed in a white three-piece suit—à la Death in Venice. While the film attempts to be clever and innovative, it actually ends up being rather shallow and unsophisticated—as if it actually had been made by unseasoned film students rather than by an established hand like Yanagimachi.