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Family Dramas: The 45th Annual New York Film Festival, Part 1

Michael Buening
The Flight of the Red Balloon

The most noticeable feature of this year's New York Film Festival is the preponderance of American pictures.

The most noticeable feature of this year's New York Film Festival is the preponderance of American pictures. Of the 28 features, 11 were produced in the U.S. and one was a French/American co-production. In addition, 11 films are French productions or co-productions, and most of the movies I've seen thus far have not offered any "breakthrough" moments.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (dir. Julian Schnabel)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is Julian Schnabel's third feature and his third biography about an artist who died young. Each of his films is better than the one before in melding an original visual style to match the subject and story. This film's first act is told primarily from the point of view of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), a superficial editor from French Elle who was paralyzed from head to toe after a stroke at age 43 and diagnosed with "locked-in" syndrome. With the help of two cute nurses (Marie-Jose Croze and Olatz Lopez Garmendia), the mother of his children (Emmanuelle Seigner), and a transcriptionist (Anne Consigny), he takes refuge in his imagination and memory, his "butterfly," and learns to communicate by blinking out "yes" or "no" as they read the alphabet to him. With painstaking patience, he writes the book on which the movie is based.

Schnabel and DP Janusz Kaminski use a swing and tilt lens, combined with fading and focus techniques enhanced by digital effects, to approximate the searching and swirling effect of seeing out of his one good eye, as he is trapped within his solitary diving bell. The camera shows "longing" by lingering on the inside of a woman's leg, protruding wide angles suggest annoyance, and a soft watercolor palate depression.

Schnabel's movies tend to fall short of the excellence they promise early on. In certain respects this is an advantage to The Diving Bell, tempering the story's inherent pathos and respecting Bauby's unsentimental view of his condition. However, the film also creates a schism between audience identification with Baudy and his portrayal from without that is never resolved, even as he's dying. Lacking this conceptual oomph, the film is a familiar awards season saga of redemption graced with arty presentation.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (dir. Sidney Lumet)

Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is one of the Festival's several unremarkable but not terrible efforts by notable American directors. This thriller could have been a lithe heist-gone-bad flick, but it's both too harebrained. Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an aggressively smarmy real estate broker, convinces his aimless little brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to help him rob their parents' jewelry store. The narrative is needlessly nonlinear, following Andy, Hank, and their father (Albert Finney) through the robbery and its aftermath (punctuated by freeze frames flipping back and forth in an effect cribbed from '70s TV). As the brothers' errors pile up, the film lapses into tortured logic, stylistic misjudgments, and comically overbearing theme music. Quirky characters like a louche gay drug dealer in Chinese silk robes and a thug who insists on calling Hank "Chico" are not helped by the film's long takes, which have the improvisatory feel of an acting class exercise.

Though the film maintains a primal intensity, drawn fro Cain and Abel and Oedipus, this is squandered in tragic clichés. Hoffman, with help from Finney, mines the vein deeply, burrowing past all the plot holes, exposing Andy's spiritual drift and underlining the destructive competition between father and sons. A two-second close-up before Andy shoots a random man shows a shifting expression, as he realizes his victim looks like him, he's going to have to kill him, and that he is a hollow dead shell -- it was so horrifying, I heard audience members gasp before the gun went off.

The Darjeeling Limited (dir. Wes Anderson)

Sibling rivalry is also explored in The Darjeeling Limited. The three pajama-clad Whitman brothers, led by Francis (Owen Wilson), take a train trip through India in search of spiritual and familial enlightenment. They are the typical monstrously self-centered, overeducated, moody boy-men of Anderson's previous films. Middle brother Peter (Adrien Brody) has abandoned his wife six weeks before she's scheduled to give birth, without telling her where he's going. Jack (Jason Schwartzman) is pouty and selfish, demonstrated in the prequel short, "Hotel Chevalier" (withdrawn from theatrical release but available for free download on iTunes), when his ex (Natalie Portman) pleads, "If we fuck, I'm going to feel like shit tomorrow." His reply: "That's okay."

Jack manipulates the world to suit his emotions through reading, positioning his iPod portable speakers, and reshaping his past as short stories. ("It's fiction!" he insists.) Francis forces life to into elaborate day-to-day itineraries and plays father to his brothers. Virtually abandoned by their parents and drowning in jet-set materialism, all three look for comfort in exotic Hindu rituals.

In Jack's artfully arranged hotel room, Bruce Chatwin features prominently, and Anderson similarly distorts his travelogue scenery for his own purposes. For the first hour, the brothers' interrelationships are funny and believable, the visual ostentation is motivated by the characters, and Anderson has a talent for male vulnerability, no matter how exasperating. But after a crucial funeral scene and the flashback within it, the film veers off. The atrociously literal shedding of the brothers' baggage appears to signal a rebirth, but they seem locked in their delusions, just the same.

Married Life (dir. Ira Sachs)

Married Life

The well-acted but slight Married Life appears to be an excuse for lousy marriage jokes. Harry (Chris Cooper) tries poisoning his sex-hungry wife Pat (Patricia Clarkson) so he can marry his girlfriend Kay (Rachel McAdams). The film is set in 1949, with Plymouths, Doris Day songs, and McAdams' Kim Novak-like platinum helmet, as well as a noirish tone laid over the melodrama. Director Ira Sachs' previous film, Forty Shades of Blue, was a finely wrought character study. Married Life is too, but this strength is overshadowed by a hokey plot and a labored attention to period artifice. Pierce Brosnan tries to sort this stylistic puzzle, narrating while playing Harry's playboy friend Richard. He navigates his scenes with a breezy confidence the other performers lack. Richard wonders whether we build our happiness on the misery of others, and the film hints that the ideal married couple is as self-centered as any scheming bachelor. I'm not sure if Married Life is supposed to be a nasty joke or a sweet one.

The Flight of the Red Balloon (dir. Hou Hsiao Hsien)

In The Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou Hsiao Hsien expands on the themes of companionship, longing, and loss that suffused the classic children's short, The Red Balloon. Young Simon (Simon Iteanu) idles around Paris, accompanied by his Chinese nanny Song (Song Fang), a film student who is also making an updated version of Albert Lamorisse's movie starring the boy. The red balloon comes to represent everyday heartache, captured like "spirit photography" in the dramas enacted by Simon and his frazzled mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) in their cramped apartment. The movie ponders the melancholy nature of our loves, for people, homes, and cultures. If the story is simple, it is extraordinarily well told. Hou's interior scenes, shot in his signature style -- from a fixed point and largely improvised by the actors -- are infused with "bleeding" light sources. They have the exquisite emotional precision of the classical piano music on the soundtrack. And the film is wholly worthy of the Festival's tradition of quality and innovation. At last.

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