Among the most anticipated titles at this year’s New York Film Festival were Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito), the French silent film The Artist, and Alexander Payne’s closing night feature, The Descendants. These were also among the most accessible films at the Festival, and as I enjoyed myself without feeling pushed by form and content, I had mixed feelings about what this said about the Festival as a whole.
Almodóvar tackles a psychological science fiction/horror story reminiscent of The Island of Dr. Moreau and Eyes Without A Face, using the classical Hitchcock framing he often favors, as well as the cool gray-blue color palette of North by Northwest and Vertigo (whose story is another reference point). Here the mad scientist is a suave surgeon, Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), working on an artificial skin that will be impervious to burns and insect bites. His primary test subject is Vera (Elena Anaya), whom he keeps locked in his villa outside Toledo, and who moves about in a series of sleek bodysuits (designed by Jean Paul Gaultier).
I haven’t always cared for Almodóvar’s thrillers, in particular his last movie Broken Embraces. Here he seems newly reenergized; the cold matter-of-factness of the storytelling is contrasted with the gradual psychological awakening of Vera and a surprisingly poignant ending. Almodóvar balances a knowing and entertaining grasp of genre with explorations of sexual, spiritual, and corporeal identities. I found myself admiring the darkness at the movie’s core and also Banderas simmering in a good role once again, Marisa Paredes as Ledgard’s protective housekeeper and Almodóvar’s always incredible cinematography and art direction.
The Artist also features fussy, detailed visual pleasures. It is a slight, mostly appealing movie that goes far on the performances of its lead actors. Michel Hazanavicius, a hitherto unknown director of broad French entertainments, has made a black and white silent comedy for an international market. In some ways it was a genius, if risky career move. The novelty of the concept attracts press, the silence makes it easily accessible to a global audience, who may appreciate the mix of American and French actors. The content also flatters film critics, appealing to their love of movies and their esoteric knowledge of old Hollywood with its layers of hidden references.
The movie shows admirable fidelity to his concept, presented in the square-ish aspect ratio of the silents and shooting at 22 frames per second, recreating their appearance of slightly sped up action. Hazanavicius says the story was partly inspired by the relationship between John Gilbert and Greta Garbo, but it’s really the oldest story in Hollywood: one star falls and another is born. In this case, it’s the dashing Douglas Fairbanks-like George Valentin (Jean Dugardin) who must make way for the introduction of sound and the romantic comedy star Peppy Miller (Bérénice Béjo).
In one of The Artist‘s most interesting and sometimes annoying conceits, the world of the movie that we are watching closely mirrors the types of movies the lead characters create. Each scene is constructed as a dramatic short with a clearly delineated beginning, middle, and end. Individuals dance and mug for each other. (One particularly great comic set-up has a young Peppy half-wearing Valentin’s coat and acting out a flirtation from both sides.) Valentin’s dog is just as trick-prone on screen as off, and rescues his master from a fire in a manner that recalls the movie, “A Russian Affair,” that opens this film. The tinkling musical accompaniment emulates the sort that would play in silent movie theaters. Hazanavicius uses the absence of all other sound to provoke moments of odd magic, as when a movie audience bursts into applause that we cannot hear, and to emphasize Valentin’s frustrating inability to express himself.
The movie offers an intriguing idea (but never fully explores it), that the characters are trapped in a kind of Toontown fantasy world of perpetual “Golden Age” Hollywood entertainment, fated to act out the demands of genre. At times Hazanavicius’ approach is too rinky-dink and strained to be charming. Oddly, the movie essentially pays homage to a silent classics here reduced to a second-rate knock-off of the most maudlin Chaplin comedy.
If The Artist embraces Hollywood’s love of the hoariest concepts. The Descendants shows how the hoariest of concepts can be renewed with a sensitive telling. Fifteen minutes into the movie, I wasn’t pleased to be certain that I knew where it was heading. I was right, but was also moved by how it got there. It opens with a brief shot of a woman standing in a boat, a smile on her face and the wind whipping her hair. We subsequently learn from Matt King (George Clooney), that woman’s husband, that she subsequently fell off the boat and is now deep in a coma.
King is a lawyer on the island of Oahu. He’s juggling the messy sale of a large tract of land owned by his family in Kauai and is an admittedly uninvolved father of two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller). In short order he learns that his wife is not coming out of the coma and they will need to unhook her life support, and also that she’s been having an affair with a local real estate agent (Matthew Lillard). King confronts his many problems and tries to reconcile with his daughters during the days leading to his wife’s death.
The Descendants refers directly to the, ahem, King family’s land dealing (their ancestors stretch back to a white settler and the last Hawaiian royalty), and Matt’s wrestling with his responsibilities towards their stewardship of their land. The many characters expand this idea of “descendants,” creating a complex Venn diagram of King’s community and a larger rumination on their interlocking pain, anger, and love. This is accomplished through a series of dramatic monologues worked into the story: they struck me at first as cloying, but they became more layered as they accumulated.
The Descendants is adapted from the same-titled book by Kaui Hart Hemming, and like Alexander Payne’s other adaptations, it constructs a low-key, yet deeply satisfying appeal, aimed at adults looking for an exploration of the problems they deal with every day, leavened with humor and a dash of sentimentality. He makes the most of a Hawaiian setting that mixes upper middle-class Americana with epic backdrops and a deceptively casual beach bum vibe. In his narration, King says he is annoyed at people who assume that living in Hawaii is nothing but good times, surfing, and luaus. He asks, “Are we immune to life?” As the movie poses that question, it also offers multiple answers.