By Gary M. Kramer.
The 51st New York Film Festival opens September 27 with the World Premiere screening of Paul Greengrass’ dramatic thriller, Captain Phillips and closes three weeks later with the World Premiere of Spike Jonze’s Her. In between, there are Gala Tributes (Cate Blanchett, Ralph Fiennes), Views from the Avant-Garde screenings, and spotlights on Mexican filmmaker Fernando Eimbcke and British director Joanna Hogg, as well as a Jean-Luc Godard retrospective.
One of the films playing as part of the Godard program was Hail Mary (Godard, 1985), which was accompanied by The Book of Mary (Miéville, 1985). The short presents a domestic dispute between a couple (Bruno Cremer and Aurore Clément) while their daughter Marie (Rebecca Hampton) shuttles back and forth between them. She takes a bath with her mom, visits her father, and alone does a dance. A short with Godard entitled, “A Few Notes about the Film Hail Mary” also preceded the feature. In this video, the filmmaker announces, “People think [films] all come from the camera but there are other things.” He shows actress Myriem Roussel, who plays Marie in Hail Mary, rehearsing, and superimposes an image of Michelangelo’s Pieta over her face, adding a layer of meaning to the image. He instructs Roussel to study Giulietta Masina in Fellini’s La Strada to find the clownish side to Marie. There is music by Bach and scenes of Roussel ironing. Godard explains that his purpose in making Hail Mary was to create “a film people are not used to seeing.” Adding that “a couple like Joseph and Mary are an ideal couple.” The filmmaker then plays with a toy helicopter and asks for money.
But A Few Notes about the Film Hail Mary actually helps viewers who revisit Godard’s notorious classic. The relationship between Joseph (Thierry Rode), a taxi driver, and Marie, a teenage basketball player, is at the heart of this film. She mysteriously becomes pregnant and he doesn’t believe her. She develops a religious fervor. He wants to see her naked. (All he needs to do is watch this film; Godard shoots Roussel nude often, and frequently in close up). He tries to touch her belly and she shouts no. There are shots of the sea, the sun, the moon, and clouds. She has the baby. There is a baptism, and talk of sacrifice, taboo, the body, the soul, and pain. There is a nice match cut of a car horn and a train. Music swells. It’s fascinating, it’s frustrating, and folks may wonder why Hail Mary was picketed thirty years ago.
Here are reviews of four other films that played at this year’s New York Film Festival.
The Dog (Directed by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren): This remarkable documentary–one of the “motion portraits” in the New York Film Festival–tells the sensational, strange but true story of a Brooklyn man who robbed a bank to get money to pay for his lover’s sex change. But, as the film’s charismatic subject John Wojtowicz insists, “That’s the abbreviated version.” Wojtowicz–aka “The Dog”–seems thrilled to (finally) have the opportunity to tell his story, even calling “Action” and “Cut” and “Quiet on the Set,” as the editing of this fascinating documentary allows. The Dog features many candid interviews with Wojtowicz that reveal his sexually oriented nature, which includes multiple marriages–two of which were with men–along with the ordinary bank robbery that becomes a three-ring circus. He explains how he changed his socio-political views from being a Goldwater Republican to becoming a member of the Gay Activist Alliance after his experiences in Vietnam. And the film documents with fabulous archival footage and photographs, John’s wedding to Ernie (aka Liz Eden), the transgender wife for whom he robbed Chase Manhattan on Avenue P and East 3rd in Brooklyn. The inept bank robbery is only part of The Dog, and wisely the filmmakers, Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, show only snippets from the ads and trailer for Dog Day Afternoon, the film Wojtowicz’ actions inspired. Instead, there are interviews with John’s wife and mother, as well as a Daily News reporter who covered the case, plus comments from his lover whom he met in prison, and even a psychiatrist who evaluated John post-incarceration. The anecdotes help flesh out a man who was far more complex than the headlines about his crime suggest. The strength of The Dog is that the film shows both Wojtowicz’s humanity and his heart. He is sympathetic even when one of his hostages speaks out against him saying that what he did was no laughing matter. Yet The Dog is darkly funny throughout with riveting moments such as a fight between John and Liz on a TV interview, or when Wojtowicz tries to get a job post-prison as a security guard at the very bank he robbed. (He figured he could give folks autographs, too). Wojtowicz is an outsized personality for sure, and he is brilliantly captured in The Dog.
Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (Directed by Arnaud Desplechin): “This is a true story” reads the title card as Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P. opens in Browning, Montana, 1948. The title character (Benecio del Toro) is experiencing headaches and seeing flickers of light–traumas that may have resulted from a skull fracture he received while in the Army. Seeking help at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka Kansas, Jimmy is declared to be an “invalid in perfect health.” Enter a peculiar anthropologist Georges Devereux (Mathieu Amalric) who knows Indian culture enough to be hired for a one-shot consultation to possibly help Jimmy. Desplechin conveys the interest and excitement that develops between doctor and patient as Jimmy recounts stories from his past—shown in beautifully rendered vignettes—that may be the key to unlocking his psychic trauma. Discussion of castration anxiety and the meaning of dreams abound. While this leisurely paced and rather talky film is well acted by the leads, both of whom give appropriately mannered performances, Jimmy P. does not build to some great epiphany even as the characters experience breakthroughs. This is fine; the exchanges ultimately help both characters get what they want, but the film has a meandering, melancholic tone that is only intermittently interesting. The parts seem greater than the whole. As Jimmy P. chronicles two very different men finding a common ground, audiences may not have the same satisfaction the characters do by the time the film ends.
When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu):
The latest film from Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu, (Police, Adjective), concerns Paul (Bogdan Dumitrache), a filmmaker, and an actress Alina (Diana Avramut), who are mid-way through shooting a feature. Paul tells Alina, in the car one night that he is going to shoot her in a nude scene tomorrow. His long speech justifying bodies and nudity, reality and truth, comes into play repeatedly over the course of When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism. Porumboiu provides a series of artfully composed shots—such as a sex scene, which is overheard by viewers while the camera focuses on a slightly ajar door. And a scene of Alina nude does prompt a consideration of the director’s discussion with the actress about that scene. But such are the pleasurable digressions in store for viewers. When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism often features Paul and Alina arguing—about the nude scene, the sophistication of international cuisine, flirtations, and their affair among other things over the course of their relationship—which will end as soon as Alina finishes shooting her scenes. One discussion, in a car, is brilliantly punctuated by one character’s vibrating cell phone. (It is never answered). How Paul and Alina interact is what makes Porumboiu’s film so compelling. Body language is also key. A dinner sequence has him hunched over, quickly shoveling Chinese food into his mouth and drinking his beer in one gulp. In contrast, she just picks at her food, trying to ascertain its taste and value. Paul’s behavior may suggest why he has an ulcer and needs an endoscopy to treat his stomach pains in the film’s metaphorical subplot, which also gives the film half its title. When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism uses these elements to deftly examine what is real and what is fake. Is Paul faking his ulcer as his producer suspects? Do Paul and Alina really have feelings for one another, or are they just romantically linked during the course of their working together? And can anything the characters say be trusted? Porumboiu provides few answers, which is precisely why this film is so provocative.
Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Directed by Hong Sang-soo): The South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo can be accused of making variations on the same film: talky relationship driven dramas that explore emotions and desires as they unfold in real and imagined scenarios. His latest, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, is an engaging story about the title character, (Jeong Eunchae), a student whose mother (Kim Ja-ok) leaves her to move to Canada. The mother tells her daughter to “seize the day and do what you want,” even suggesting that Haewon enter a Miss Korea pageant at one point. There is also a fun dream sequence involving Haewon meeting actress Jane Birkin, complementing her on her English, and encouraging her to call her if she is ever in Paris for lunch. Birkin adds that the Korean beauty reminds her of her daughter. Yet these scenes are just a prologue for the film’s drama, which involves Haewon’s on-again/off-again relationship with married professor and filmmaker Seong-jun (Lee Sun-kyung). The lovers themselves, as well as other students, discuss the professor/student affair at length. This is contrasted with a lovely sequence in which Haewon meets a professor from San Diego (Kim Eui-sung), who flirts with her and identifies her qualities from being cold and self-centered on the outside to brave on the inside. He tells her to “know who you are,” and this advice may be what prompts her to make a decision about her relationship with Seong-jun. Such is the dramatic arc of Nobody’s Daughter Haewon. The film unfolds slowly, with the characters visiting the same locations–a park and Fort Namhan among them–as they work out their feelings about their relationships. It’s very formal, as per the auteur’s style; a discarded cigarette is seen three different times in the narrative, making it almost a character in the drama. If this minor chamber piece does not create huge emotional swells, it does have its poignant moments, and will satisfy the filmmaker’s fanbase.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the forthcoming Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.