[30 October 2013]
A dizzying panorama of international and American cinema, the 51st New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, ran 27 September through 13 October. The schedule included a little something for everyone interested in independent cinema, starting with Only Lovers Left Alive, a swirling mass of beautiful, indulgent nonsense directed by Jim Jarmusch.
There are worse things than watching Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston pose and preen as vampires, but that doesn’t stop you from wishing for more. Swinton is as entrancingly exotic as ever and Hiddleston smolders beneath a rock-star shock of hair, both taking turns at spouting ridiculous anecdotes about the Spanish Inquisition. It’s all in good, pretentious fun, a notion bolstered by Mia Wasikowska and Anton Yelchin, who leaven the occasionally soporific air with jolts of untamed feeling.
That contrast might be the point, but it still doesn’t quite justify the monotony of mood and plot, which is arch and highbrow to excess. At times, the film seems too sophisticated for its own good, or maybe it just dresses up pulp in a gloss of sophistication. The proceedings are further elevated by a delirious sense of time and place, Detroit and Tangiers each a gorgeously, messily enveloping. Eventually this exercise in fantasia goes out on a high, almost transcendent note, and really, when vampires have been done to death and back again, could you ask for more?
The gooey languor of Jarmusch’s movie contrasts with the exquisite precision of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. This nearly flawless film comes close to breaking the mold that Payne has set for himself, or at least expanding its boundaries. That might be because he’s working from somebody else’s script for the first time in years, the result a mix of his usual poignancy with something a little darker and more austere.
Filmed in frequently astonishing black and white, the South Dakotan and Nebraskan vistas that cycle in and out of view are stark and sublime. Payne exhibits a keenly American sensibility here, both in his choice of subject and in his compassion for it, a set of aggravating, winning people who are brutally honest. In nowhere is this idea more visible than in the performances Payne elicits from Bruce Dern and June Squibb (Will Forte handles himself admirably, but his is not the presence that lingers).
As Woody Grant, Dern is so authentic he is almost hard to watch, an old man so paradigmatic as to be both utterly recognizable and thoroughly unreal. Though Woody anchors the narrative, Squibb’s Kate runs away with it, the actor transforming her sturdy, sensible body into a force of Mephistophelean will, one that hurtles along until, suddenly, it is revealed as love in disguise. Pitch-perfect supporting performances expand this emotional landscape, with Kevin Kunkel and Devin Ratray as cousins and Angela McEwan as an old flame. It’s a story that feels all the bigger for its smallness.
A different sort of tight focus is offered in Claire Denis’ Bastards, a hypnotic, unsettling, acrid, rapturous piece whose refusal to resolve its many contradictions is at once its weakness and its greatest strength. Such irresolution keeps this revenge thriller from becoming trite and despicable, though it does not save it from being oblique. The film opens on a girl clad in heels and nothing else wandering through damp Paris streets, and concludes with similar potency and beauty, as a moody, perverse soundtrack accompanies selected angles on a flickering TV showing brutal images as seductive as only hell can be.
The denizens of this morally blasted cityscape are perverse reflections of ourselves. While protagonist Marco Silvestri is portrayed by Vincent Lindon to be alternately sexy, heroic, and despicably weak, the women around him are the subjects of this narrative in every sense: Chiara Mastroianni wields her face like a great, sad instrument, quietly gathering momentum. And Lola Créton finds a startling and disturbing nuance in blankness, as her Sandra confuses agency with helplessness. This is one movie that gets under your skin.
So does Blue is the Warmest Color (La vie d’Adèle: Chapitres 1 & 2), the talk of the town lately in ways both good and bad. Its display of lesbian sex is offered with remarkable anatomical verisimilitude and filmed as though it were ready to be shipped to classrooms all over the world, or French ones at least. This description might also apply to the rest of the film, which has a beautifully documentarian aspect that’s never especially affecting, even as every figure who passes through the frame is intimately recognizable.
The film features superlative technique, from the production design (blue, blue, and more blue) to the performances of Adèle Exarchopoulus and Léa Seydoux. In the press conference that followed the screening, Exarchopoulus was glamorous, charming, and wildly different from her character Adèle. In the movie, her scenes with Seydoux go on and on and on, the length monumentalizing this coming of age story.
Step back though, and all this monumentalizing results most obviously in a sense of self-importance. (The director’s cut is reportedly 40 minutes longer.) Aggrandizing aside, Blue is the Warmest Color‘s vicarious experience of exuberant awakening and subsequent sadness is heady and destabilizing, like an aroma that makes a powerful memory flash before your eyes. Is that feeling enough? It’s unclear, though in his discussions of the film, director Abdellatif Kechiche has placed himself at the nexus of that debate, inviting cinephiles to argue over that question, not to mention other viewers with an interest in girl-on-girl action. Well played, sir.
Another set of questions are raised by Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu). With a title taken from a verse by Paul Valéry, it’s just as charming and strange as you would hope. Like Miyazaki’s other films, this one is quirkily fantastic, but also gains some measure of reality in its story about Jiro, an aeronautics engineer in WWII-era Japan. That focus merits a double take, as he engages with crusty and benign cousins who are also Nazi engineers. Jiro is an endearing hero, honest, courageous, and prone to vivid dreams of airplanes that make for some thrilling flights of fantasy.
However, it’s his romance with Nahoko that grounds the film, delivering moments so achingly tender you wonder how these animated lines and colors are made to contain them. The two first meet during the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, an intertwining of the personal and historic that sets the pattern for the rest of the film. Years later, they resume their relationship with an accidental encounter that feels both inevitable and delightfully implausible. The romance turns elegiac even as it moves forward, a double motion that might also describe the film, at once a lament for a world that never quite existed and a profound expression of belief in the capabilities of the human spirit.
The Wind Rises was the first film that I saw at the Festival and a lovely note on which to close, creating the sense of wonder and excitement you want from such an intense agglomeration of cinema. Too often, that feeling is missed at a festival, as seeing so many films so quickly elides your anticipation and obliges a competitive, critical approach. The Wind Rises reminds you why you watch movies, that you pursue moments that stay with you, moments that rise into your consciousness weeks later, memories of beautiful and surprising emotions.