New York Film Festival 2011: ‘Melancholia’ + ‘Carnage’ + ‘The Loneliest Planet’

[3 October 2011]

By Michael Buening


The biggest changes to the New York Film Festival this year are the dramatic renovations at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which hosts the event. In June, the new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center opened, adding two movie theaters, an amphitheater, and a café. Using these new theaters (along with the old Walter Reade theater and Alice Tully Hall for the big event screenings), the Festival has greatly expanded the number of films and events.

This even as organizers have thankfully maintained the limited number of films on the Main Slate (21 this year), preserving NYFF’s identity as an “elite” festival. The increase comes in other sections, including “Views From the Avante-Garde,” “Masterworks,” and “Special Events,” which this year includes concert films, social documentaries, a panel discussion on Pauline Kael, the addition of two gala screenings (David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method and Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In), and a 10th anniversary screening with cast and crew reunion of The Royal Tenenbaums. The 37-film retrospective of Japan’s Nikkatsu Studios is, frankly, awesome. Unfortunately, all of this activity has been accompanied by a sharp increase in ticket prices. One has to wonder who would pay $24 to see Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison documentary the night before it premieres on HBO.

My reviews will focus on the Festival’s Main Slate. This year’s line-up contains a healthy mixture of festival mainstays (Lars von Trier, Béla Tarr, Wim Wenders, the Dardenne brothers) and up-and-comers like Julia Loktev and Steve McQueen. There is still a paucity of movies directed by women (three), and more from the Middle East, two from Israel, two from Iran, and one from Turkey. Shamefully, there are no films from anywhere in Asia or Africa. Besides one film each from Mexico, Argentina, and Hungary, the rest of the films are from the United States or Western Europe. Even if the wealthiest countries have the most sizable film industries, this lop-sidedness suggests a troubling elitism. I find it particularly hard to believe that the Festival judges did not find any notable films from the active filmmaking communities in Japan, South Korea, and China.

My favorite film so far is Melancholia, undoubtedly Lars von Trier’s most accessible movie. Peppered with humor, it’s framed as a disaster movie, and only mildly provocative compared to other von Trier films. This is not to say that even close to mainstream. The movie is broken up into two parts. The first follows Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a young bride, as she has a breakdown during the lavish wedding reception held at the estate of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her wealthy husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). The second part is focused on Claire in the five days leading up to the destruction of the earth by a planet called Melancholia (von Trier has not forsaken his grand gestures). Justine returns to the estate, and becomes eerily calm as the planet approaches, while Claire falls apart. Both Dunst and Gainsbourg are incredible.

Melancholia is an exploration of depression; Justine’s diagnosed condition is presented as stressful for her family, as they can’t understand it. Claire’s seems plainly motivated, as she and her family face an inevitable and horrific end. Von Trier has struggled with depression, and was rather frank about it during the Q&A following the press screening of Antichrist at last year’s Festival. The new film is frank and compassionate, a welcome change from the sense of the giggling schoolboy in some of his earlier films, coy and masochistic.

Speaking of controversial directors, the Festival’s opening night presentation was Carnage, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage. It reminded me of Mike Nichols’ film of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: I was perfectly aware that the movie was originally conceived as a play without being bothered by it. But while Woolf also featured incredible performances by big name actors playing two couples cooped up together in one location, the similarities end there.

The film opens at a brisk pace, sketching out the central premise—Brooklyn parents meet to discuss a fight between their two boys—before it begins to reveal the layers behind their carefully cultivated upper middle-class fronts. It manages to be enormously funny while seriously touching, as the couples communicate and conflict with each other in both concrete and abstract terms. Polanski has long been a master at arranging characters in the frame to indicate shifting power dynamics, and here it’s a pleasure to watch his work with four great actors (Kate Winslet, Christopher Waltz, John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster). To my mind, the faults of the film come from its script, by Reza and Polanski. A recurring joke has one couple perpetually on the verge of leaving the apartment before being roped back inside, and the story similarly begins to spin in place as it heads into the final act. The final dramatic device—someone gets drunk and reveals secrets—feels shopworn. 

The Loneliest Planet

The Loneliest Planet

Julia Loktev’s new film is more unusual. In The Loneliest Planet, she uses a faux real-time frame, much as she did in Day Night Day Night. We gradually figure out that Nica (Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael García Bernal) are an engaged couple and experienced backpackers, hiking through the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia with local guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze). Their personalities are revealed through long observational studies as they walk through fields, stop for food, ford rivers, and sit around the campfire at night. Though they are fully formed, they also seem like “types,” standing in for a parable of the roles that men and women play in relation to each other.

The central dramatic elements, where sudden, violent events threaten to sunder relationships, are balanced with less literal explorations of the vagaries of communication, notably a comic scene where Nica and Alex throw a ball back and forth over a wall to unseen persons on the other side. Bernal and Furstenberg sometimes struggle to convey complicated characters with little dialogue and Loktev’s minimalist style sometimes goes too far in its subtlety. The couple doesn’t speak much to one another as they march through the mountains with a baffling obliviousness to the epic beauty that surrounds them. But Loktev shows again that she is able to attack complicated material with unusual visual devices, creating a background buzz of uncertainty that shifts from levity to menace, punctuated with quietly potent drama.



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