Sep 30, 2008

NYFF Dispatch #1

Through the 1st weekend of the 46th New York Film Festival, an embarrassment of riches has been on display for serious filmgoers wanting to catch up on all the stuff they missed out on in Berlin, Cannes and Venice or, perhaps more realistically, much of the top shelf world cinema, by established auteurs and promising newcomers alike, that they are unlikely to see on silver screens for quite some time. Sure, the headline titles, like Laurent Cantet’s terrific opening night film The Class, Clint Eastwood centerpiece Changeling, Darren Aronofsky’s closer The Wrestler and the hottest ticket in town, Steven Soderbergh’s two part, four and a half hour Che, will wind their way to a theater near you pretty soon, but much of the work on display through October 12th will not. For the most part, the luckiest of the films on display are bound for a token two week run at IFC Center, seen increasingly as just a primer for the revenue from DVD and video on demand traffic and the engine for a late award season push for one to two lucky contestants or a fleeting, once daily for five or six consecutive days run at MoMA, a brief prelude in esoteria before struggling to find some rouge home video distributor to put out a disc on these misbegotten shores.

Among the films I’ve seen thus far are a pair of impressive debuts by first time filmmakers, one clearly a cinephile and one coming at cinema from an outsider’s perspective, while a pair of established French auteurs have returned to the NYFF with terrific new work, both turning to narratives of striking similarity are rendered in utterly different ways.

Both Olivier Assayas’ L’Heure d’Ete (Summer Hours) and Arnaud Desplechin’s Un conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale) deal with modern bourgeois French families facing the impending (the Desplechin) or sudden (the Assayas) death of their matriarch. Begging for comparision, they both yield terrific performances from a who’s who of French acting talent: Catherine Deneuve, Matthew Amalric, Emmanelle Devos and Chiara Mastroianni in the Desplechin, Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling in the Assayas, son Emile Berling in both. Yet tonally and stylistically, they couldn’t be further apart, each director reveling in their controlling occupations and using vastly different methods to virtuosic effects.

While Assayas returns to his slick but naturalistic Late August, Early September mode (reuniting with ace DP Eric Gautier and employing a slightly more polished look) to dwell on how globalization and a loosening of cultural standards are slowly pulling a well intentioned, inherently likable group of siblings away from their shared past (and each other) following their mother’s death, Desplechin uses every trick in the book, from animation, to third-person, omniscient narration, to look deeply into the past of a constantly feuding, imminently melodramatic but irresistibly amusing French family who come together for the Holidays as Deneuve’s Junon falls ill with cancer and desperately needs a bone marrow transplant, with only too possible donors at her disposal – her all too young grandson and the child she never loved, Amalric’s troubled but grumpily affable Henri.

You ought to see both as fast as you can. They’ll find their way to screens stateside via IFC, A Christmas Tale this fall, Summer Hours in the spring.

IFC will also release Steve McQueen’s Hunger sometime next spring and everybody I talk to these days seems to think they’re the natural fit for 24 year old Antonio Campos’ Afterschool, although rumor has it, like Lance Hammer with his self-distributed Sundance hit Ballast, he gave the ol’ stiff arm to the Werner/Bocco/Sehring cabal. Both films are fantastic, Campos’ a studied, deeply disturbing movie for long take festishists (think Michael Haneke meets the Van Sant of Elephant and you get the idea) about how the internet is forming a whole generation of young people’s sexual and moral identities in all sorts of twisted ways, while Hunger lingers over the build up to and the slow, mournful burn of IRA volunteer and UK Parliament member Bobby Sands 66 days of self inflicted death via hunger strike in a British prison as if it's inventing movies from the ground up. McQueen, who resembles some kind of brilliant cross between Mike Tyson and Andy Warhol gone all British and high art installation-y, is a celebrated fixture of the UK gallery scene. Here’s hoping he keeps making movies like this one.