The New York Film Festival is a shamelessly elitist institution. But in an increasingly overstuffed festival schedule, it’s nice to have a line-up devoted to high artistic standards. The main program is basically a best-of compilation culled from Cannes, Venice, and Toronto and a prelude to the awards season. Still, elitism has its drawbacks: old favorites and gabbed-abouts like Almodóvar and Sofia Coppola are shoo-ins, and other selections tend to favor art over topicality. Roughly half the avant garde program consists of pre-2000 films (as in this year’s sidebar event, “50 Years of Janus Films”: nearly all are staples of revival houses, not needing “special tribute”). But these are quibbles that pale next to the overall quality of what I saw during the Festival’s first week.
The loudest mixed reception greeted one of my favorites, David Lynch’s first digital video feature, Inland Empire. A seeming sequel to Mulholland Drive, it includes the first movie’s highlights: blond/black-haired doppelgangers, a distraught actress, and a screw-with-your-mind plot development about halfway through. If Mulholland Drive runs through the heart of a dreamland, the Inland Empire (the name for the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles), is the desert at that dream’s edge. Nikki (Laura Dern) is cast in a melodrama about an extramarital affair gone awry, and finds out that the leads of a previous incarnation were murdered. Her life starts mimicking the screenplay when she begins an affair with costar Devon (Justin Theroux).
Dern also plays Sue, a housewife, who blurs with her other roles. The film maps Dern character’s fragmenting psyche, littered with indecipherable symbology, unnamable horrors, twisting hallways, temporal distortions, and leaps in logic and tone. Its randomness can be goofy (as when group of Sunset Strip prostitutes breaks into a “Locomotion” dance routine), but Inland Empire is slightly less difficult than Mulholland, with an extraordinarily moving redemptive ending.
Guillermo del Toro also builds on a previous film, The Devil’s Backbone, with Pan’s Labyrinth [trailer], a grander childhood fantasy also set during the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) travels with her ailing pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to a fort where her sadistic stepfather Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) is trying to ferret out and kill Communist rebels hiding in the mountains. One dark night, she meets a faun (Doug Jones), who tells her she is a princess who must perform three tasks in order to be accepted to a magical kingdom. Rendered with a balance of storybook precociousness and nightmarish terror by production designer Eugenio Caballero and DP Guillermo Navarro, the scenes create a Spielbergian tension.
Her tasks coincide with events at the fort, where a doctor (Alex Angulo) and servant (Mercedes Verdu) are secretly assisting the rebels and the Captain is interested in preserving the life of his unborn son over his wife Carmen. This is a fairy tale in the Grimm tradition, blunt and bloody, with a hard-earned moral about navigating life’s ugly truths. However, del Toro runs into problems justifying the wicked stepfather-style trope, as it doesn’t quite fit into an adult world. Is the rebels’ violence more justifiable than that of the Nationals? Is loneliness sufficient motivation for Carmen to marry the Captain? Such questions don’t affect the tender central story, wherein Ofelia learns the importance of courage and sacrifice. But the film remains partially stymied by its inability either to heighten or resolve its inherent contradictions.
Marie Antoinette [trailers] is also full of unresolved contradictions. The credits roll with the clanging post-punk chords of Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not In It” (“The problem of leisure, what to do for pleasure”). Kirsten Dunst, as the queen, lounges on a divan, drags her finger through the pink and blue icing on a cake, and looks into the camera with a wicked, knowing smile. According to Sofia Coppola’s film, the problem of leisure is apparently solved by burying your face in it. The outfits and the décor are a sugar rush of pastel, gold, and diamond-encrusted overabundance, with pastries overcrowding every table at Versailles. Like her previous two films, this one is visually accomplished but wildly inconsistent, at times approximating the heady allure of obscenely rich royals on shopping sprees, at other times, showing Antoinette’s many roles, as an anti-punk punk (as in the opening), a good-hearted but ignorant socialite, and a resolute outsider in the French court who asserted her individuality under impossible circumstances.
The film’s most buzzed-about biopic flourish is its mixing of eras: early ‘80s ambient pop music and current slang are layered into the period spectacle. When it leans clearly in one direction, either costume drama or a Cocteau Twins video, Marie Antoinette is engaging, but for the most part, it looks like two films that never meet. Dunst’s flat American accent conveys the distance of an Austrian in the French court, but sounds ridiculous exhaled from her silken finery. (Other performers—Jason Schwartzman as Louis XVI, Judy Davis as La Comtesse de Noailles, and Shirley Henderson as Aunt Sophie—create modern sensibilities without sounding like they just popped out of Bill and Ted’s phone booth.) The narrative is mostly murky, and when the sans culottes start beating down the gates, Antoinette suddenly achieves a mature understanding of her situation that seems unmotivated. Coppola never does solve the problem of leisure, but the film succeeds as a slightly experimental reverie on Antoinette’s occasionally bored, always overstuffed isolation.
A much more convincing depiction of royal life appears in The Queen. Combining the tones of a Shakespearean history play and television docudrama, it uses the royal response to the death of Princess Diana to examine the curious situation of a stateless monarchy that is outdated, irrelevant, and yet somehow essential to British life. It begins with the election of Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and his first visit to Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren). The scene reveals the ludicrousness of royal protocol (Blair’s bum can’t at any point face the H.R.H) and offers insider jokes, often from the mouth of the surprisingly sarcastic Queen. “Children can be such a pleasure,” she sighs, without looking Blair in the eyes.
After Diana dies, Elizabeth, Philip (a very funny James Cromwell), and the Queen Mum (Sylvia Syms), sequestered at their Balmoral Scottish summer estate, are clueless at to how to handle the outpouring of grief. They view her funeral as a private matter, since she is no longer royalty. “This is a family funeral, not a fairground attraction,” the Queen Mother fumes. Blair tries to coax Elizabeth out of her “duty first, self second” decorum to address the nation. Though initially flabbergasted (“Will someone please save these people from themselves?”), he comes to understand the Queen’s dated point of view. The film skillfully juggles various tones—light satire, drama, and symbolism—to complicate the royals’ usual position as tabloid fodder.
With Falling (Fallen), Austrian director Barbara Albert brings the theme of isolation to the class reunion film, a genre best known for sentimentalism, hackneyed characters, and nostalgic soundtracks. Albert dumps us in the middle of a funeral for a beloved teacher, attended by five girlhood friends. They leave together and begin a journey that mimics the missed stages of their early adulthood: after wandering around the school, they stop at a wedding party in a field, then get trashed at a club called Brooklyn. The inevitable flashbacks are handled with poetic grace, as mnemonic devices spark cuts to fleeting images—yearning for an old kiss or a sprint near the school grounds. Unfortunately, the movie starts explaining the women’s unexplained grievances and hang-ups. They’re defined by what they do or what’s happened to them: one is on leave from jail, one is a well-known actress, and another is pregnant out of wedlock.
Their different problems eventually coalesce around a single theme (and a reunion film cliché): mourning the loss of youthful idealism and liberal activism. Albert offers a ham-fisted message about the women being trapped by corporate capitalism. While this may be sad, I don’t think it’s surprising that a 35-year-old isn’t as naïve as a teenager. It’s called growing up and developing a nuanced view of life. The friends frequently repeat an old school mantra, “Long live freedom.” Falling is most compelling when they consider their uncertainty as to what “freedom” means.