By Gary M. Kramer.
The 52nd New York Film Festival (September 25-October 12) showcased 30 features, 15 documentary spotlights, and two shorts programs along with revivals, avant-garde films, and other special events. Here is a rundown of some highlights from the fest.
Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language assaults viewers with words, images, text and music. Filmed in 3D (Note: this review is of the 2D version—which is still a heady and sensory experience), literature, film, music, politics, religion, history, technology and nature all overlap in this cinematic essay on the death of communication. Godard’s visual style is exciting: images are superimposed and repeated, and scenes are filmed upside-down or in disorienting perspectives. This pulls the viewer in as much as it distances them. There is a riot of bright, oversaturated colors, and, of course, the filmmaker’s trademark use of chapters, elliptical sound, and jump cut editing. There is no real plot per se, just vignettes including a nude couple talking; a dog (Godard’s) wandering around, most pleasurably in the snow; and an appearance by a gunman. As connections are made to television being invented and Hitler being elected, Solzhenitsyn and cell phones, or a conversation held about gender equality and toilets, viewers can piece together the images and text for meaning. Or they can just let the hypnotic experience that is Goodbye to Language wash over them.
Bruno Dumont’s Li’l Quinquin was a special event at the New York Film Festival. The 4-part, 200-minute TV series is an intriguing comedy-mystery set in a rural French town. A woman’s body has been cut up into pieces and found inside a cow. In a subsequent episode, the man she was having an affair with is found dismembered inside a cow on the beach. What is going on here? And who is responsible? The devil, probably. Li’l Quinquin features quirky characters like the police Captain Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost), who blinks his eyes frequently and favors the refrain, “Let’s roll!” The mischievous title character (Alane Delhaye) is partial to lighting firecrackers to distract folks and find his way out of trouble. As the series unfolds, there are episodes of xenophobia and racism, family secrets and affairs come to light, and there are scenes ranging from a Bastille Day celebration and a neighborhood kid playing “Speedyman” (Spiderman), to an irreverent church service and a very disruptive lunch. Dumont’s motives are less concerned about solving the crime (which may irk some viewers) and more focused on the portrayal of the humanity and depravity of the characters. He raises probing questions about faith, madness, and good and evil.
Viewers unfamiliar with director Pedro Costa’s work may find his new film Horse Money inscrutable, but it continues to feature the Ventura, from the Fontainhas slum in Lisbon, who appeared in Costa’s celebrated Colossal Youth. Here, the septuagenarian protagonist is in a psychiatric hospital, where he is suffering from a nervous disease. Unfolding as a series of tableaus that reveal various stories—of escape, military conduct, and even a musical number—the film eschews plot for visual and emotional power. The images are all gorgeous: stark, artfully framed, sepia tinted, or in silhouette. The dialogue, unscripted, reveals narratives of the past, or that may be dream. Viewers who do not have the patience to piece the stories together can just appreciate the arresting images and Ventura’s performance. But for those attuned to Costa’s style, Horse Money will be immensely satisfying.
Martín Rejtman’s latest film, Two Shots Fired, opens hypnotically with Mariano (Rafael Federman) dancing at a club, going home, taking a swim and then, after finding a gun, shooting himself twice—once in the head and once in the stomach. He claims he committed the act on an impulse; it was the hottest day of the year. Mariano does not suffer any major injuries, but a bullet does remain lodged in his body. This causes him to set off metal detectors and to produce two discordant notes while playing his flute (recorder). But the film is less about Mariano than it is about how this incident affects his other family members. His mother Susana (Susana Pampin) hides the kitchen knives and asks him to go live with his brother, Ezequiel (Benjamin Coehlo). She believes he should not be alone. Ezequiel begins a possible romance with Ana (Camila Fabri), who claims she is leaving her boyfriend. Meanwhile, Susana takes a trip to the beach with some friends. This provides comic digressions, as when Liliana (Daniela Pal) wants to use an occupied bathroom. Two Shots Fired meanders too much at times as it tells its various stories, but Rejtman has affection for his characters who slowly reveal their obsessions and impulses as they become more aware of themselves. Some viewers may feel the film goes nowhere slowly—and it does—but Rejtman’s goal is to communicate emotions that cannot be easily put into words. His film certainly scores on that count.
Hong Sang-soo’s Hill of Freedom is a modest, enjoyable piffle. Mori (Ryo Kase), a Japanese man, sends letters to his girlfriend Kwon (Young-haw Seo) in Korea. As the film opens, he has returned to Seoul hoping to reconnect with his beloved. However, Kwon drops his letters, mixing up their order, protracting her efforts to find him. Hill of Freedom depicts, through various episodes, the contents of the letters in their new, disassembled order. Scenes show Mori meeting a series of strangers. These include Youngsun (So-ri Moon) who works in the title cafe and flirts with him and Sangwon (Eui-sung Kim), a broke man who befriends Mori. The film uses the device of time—past, present, and future—to make observations on the changing nature of relationships and emotions. There is also interesting deadpan conversations about the Japanese stereotypes between Mori, who does not speak Korean, and Juok (Yeo-Jong Yoon), the proprietor at the guesthouse. Hill of Freedom features Sang-soo’s typical zooms and pans as the characters interact. Kase gives a very delicate performance, and a lovely scene has him talking about flowers calming his fears. Kim provides comic relief most notably when Sangwon has an argument with a young woman staying at the guesthouse. In support, Moon’s character displays an energetic romantic affection. Hill of Freedom is a slight film, but it could have been quite static.
Two documentaries were particularly worthwhile portraits of American poverty. Tales from the Grim Sleeper is Nick Broomfield’s probing investigation into the character of Lonnie Franklin, an African American man in South Central, LA who has been arrested and charged with ten counts of murder and one count attempted murder. Franklin is thought to have been responsible for the deaths of 100 women over a 25-year period ranging from 1985-2010. When neighbors and friends first react to his arrest, they claim, “He was a nice guy.” But as Broomfield inquires deeper, friends, acquaintances, and prostitutes soon admit, “He wasn’t normal.” Tales from the Grim Sleeper is a fascinating look at a community that has been damaged by poverty and drugs. Many of the interviews are shot literally on the street, as the speaker leans into Broomfield’s car window to provide anecdotes and observations about Franklin. As his encounters with women/potential victims are described, they include erotic photographs and/or sexual transactions, while others report of him carrying a fully loaded gun or having bloody female clothing in his car. The documentary further drives home its sad facts as Nana, an especially savvy member of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, explains that calling the police about a crime isn’t an option because of a lack of concern for poor and minority victims. If all this sounds, well, grim, Broomfield wisely includes very entertaining scenes featuring local denizen Pam Brooks, who provides a guided tour of South Central’s alley and its prostitutes—one of whom, she exclaims in infectious delight, isn’t wearing pants.
Debra Granik’s features (Down to the Bone, Winter’s Bone) have portrayed people living in the margins, near the poverty line. Her first documentary feature, Stray Dog, continues this trend, focusing on Ron Hall, a Vietnam Vet and “grumpy old biker bastard” who lives in Missouri with his Mexican wife, Alicia. Granik films Ron in an observational style, showing snippets of his life, from his attending POW-MIA services to his work managing a trailer park and even learning Spanish. The scenes are edited together without a narrative arc; they simply show Ron and his friends and family as they are. Granik’s non-judgmental approach allows viewers to get a strong sense of Ron and his life. Stray Dog includes many telling moments, from Ron’s visits to a therapist, who helps him with his PTSD, to checking in on his daughter, who is expecting her first child, and helping out a buddy with a trip to the dentist. These scenes showcase Ron’s humanity, and provide a glimpse into the life of a man most people might stereotype. Yet this is what Granik obviously finds so fascinating about Ron. When he arranges for Alicia’s twin sons to join them in Missouri, the film invites another perspective on what Ron’s life looks like to an outsider. Stray Dog does tend to go a bit long—although the film ends almost abruptly—but viewers charmed by the goodhearted Ron will find him an endearing individual to get to know through this fine film.
There were also two fine shorts programs on offer at this year’s New York Film Festival. Shorts Program 1 included seven international films—all but one was available for preview—that dealt with various power struggles between two or three individuals as well as variations on the theme of loss. The France-German co-production Ophelia has Vera (Hanna Schygulla), an older, lonely woman missing her son. She watches home movies to remember him, but it slowly becomes clear over the course of the short that her memory is slipping. Writer/director Sergei Rostropovich’s film is layered and textured both in terms of its plot and its visual style, and it includes a lovely performance by the magnificent Schygulla.
In August also from France has six year-old Margaux (Clarissa Moussa) watching with her father (David Lemoîne) intently. He packs the car, and then later come inside to shave. But she fights with him when he asks her to shower. Margaux sprays him with water, which irritates him, but afterwards, he lets her take a ride on his lap in the car, honking the horn and steering. The film, which reveals its narrative hook at its midpoint becomes a poignant snapshot of the father-daughter relationship as depicted in its nine-minute running time, and the performances by Moussa and Lemoîne are terrific.
Young Lions of Gypsy (A Ciambra) by Jonas Carpignano, is a raw short, about Pio (Pio Amato), a young Roma in Southern Italy who worships his older brother Cosimo (Cosimo Amato). The early scenes have the brothers roughhousing a bit until the plot kicks in and Pio heads out in search of his brother who is planning a robbery. Pio turns up at the scene of the crime—a dark and slightly confusing sequence—before a chase ensues. Young Lions of Gypsy could have ended after this episode ends, but Carpignano includes a curious scene (that should not be revealed) involving Pio that is surprising. However, it makes considerable sense after the film’s final twist. What is exciting about this short is not only the documentary feel of the film and the natural performances by the brothers, but the insightful glimpse into the life of the Roma youth.
Humor was a five-minute short from Israel consists of various characters giving “silent screams”—opening their moths without omitting a sound. The expressions range from pain and fear to orgasm, and while Tai Zagreba’s short is well made, it does not really carry real weight or emotion. Arguably the best film in Shorts Program 1 was Wu Gui (Turtle), by Jordan Schiele. A simple two-hander, the story begins when a construction worker (Kampot Zahi) offers a turtle to a female artist (Dan Wen) who is driving past him. Negotiating over the price, she asks him to get in the car, which he does. She then proposes than in addition to buying the turtle, he pose for her in his studio in exchange for more money. He agrees, leading to more negotiations: she wants him to pose with “his personal expression of pain” and remove his clothing. What transpires between the artist and her unexpected model climaxes in a powerful, quietly shocking finale. Wu Gui is extremely well filmed by Schiele (who did the cinematography), and he captures the balance of power between the characters perfectly. The tension builds almost inexorably between the artist and model, and as things progress, and the story could go any number of directions. Where it does go—and what the turtle of the title represents—is absolutely appropriate. This short is a knockout.
Rounding out the program is The Girl and the Dogs, a Danish film about a trio of teenagers headed off to a party, only to encounter two dead dogs on the beach. When Mette (Filippa Coster Waldau) tells a strange story, her friends respond to it in different ways. The Girl and the Dogs may be too slight, or subtle a film, to make an impact, but like Mette’s story, it is engaging.
Shorts Program 2 featured six international shorts, all but one deal with some facet of crime. Crooked Candy by Andrew Rogers is a terrific documentary about a Bulgarian man who illegally imports Kinder Eggs into America. His face is never shown, but the hundreds of toys he has collected make an impressive display and his voice-over comments about his obsession are fascinating and amusing. La Estancia by Federico Adorno, is a dialogue-free film in which various members of a Latin American community grapple with the aftereffects of a massacre. They move dead bodies, search for lost objects, and try to keep themselves safe. It’s a powerful short.
Hepburn consists of some beautifully composed gray scenes in New York, but this too short film only suggests a plot involving a hit and the character assigned to do the job. Hepburn is interesting, but it almost feels like a trailer for a better, longer film. One of the best films in Shorts Program 2 is Marcelo Grabowsky’s remarkable debut, Chlorine, from Brazil. Shot entirely in and around a wealthy Brazilian family’s pool, the film looks gorgeous, with reflections contributing to the themes addressed in the drama. The images—of detritus after a party, or a sexual dalliance in the water, or even a body floating face down—are striking. Moreover, as the story unfolds and a crime is revealed, the family undergoes a crushing transformation. This short is riveting.
The Return, by French filmmaker Yohann Kouam, is also highly worthwhile. Theo (Yann Gaël) returns home after a long absence. His brother Willy (Procida Amada) is initially happy to see him, until he makes a discovery about Theo that ultimately prompts Willy to react in a criminal fashion. The Return may wear its psychology on its sleeve, but the film is compelling because Kouam makes the characters’ behavior credible. The film also benefits from two strong lead performances by Gaël and Amada, as well as its revealing portrait of African community in France.
The program’s outlier is The Kármán Line the longest (24 minutes) and arguably weakest entry. A one-joke film about Sarah (Olivia Coleman), a woman who slowly, inexplicably rises off the ground into space, towards the Karman Line, the boundary between air and space. The film provides a metaphor for life slowly slipping away, and it’s a clever message. The film’s accomplished set design nicely captures the offbeat quality of the situation—creating holes in ceilings, etc.—but the short seems overworked, and the performances seem overwrought, which make this film less effective than it might have been.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the recently published Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.