Sep 28, 2009

NYFF09 - Dispatch #1: On Wild Grass and many others

In these uncertain times, it’s impossible to talk about this year’s New York Film Festival in a vacuum that only considers its usual lineup of stalwart international auteurs. While the forty-seventh annual fest, one which has the reputation as the most self-aggrandizing, high falutin’ (and yet well respected) film event on New York’s cinema calendar, kicked off with octogenarian Alain Resnais delightfully absurd Wild Grass and a party in the renovated Alice Tully Hall’s brand new reception space (one which was much harder to penetrate uninvited than the opening night party’s previous home at Tavern on the Green), the doomsday predictions continued as insiders fret endlessly about the health of the independent film industry here in the States. As Scott Macaulay reported over at Filmmaker Magazine's blog, an unprecedented gathering of the indie film establishment’s most vaunted names took place at MoMA to discuss the problem on Friday. With everyone all gussied up for the veritable specialty film prom that is the NYFF’s opening night party, what better time to ruminate on the bad news that their standard of living, if not indie cinema itself, might be unsustainable.

Mr. Resnais probably couldn’t care less. His films are paid for in large part with government subsidies in European countries that prioritize cinema far more than we do in the States. His producers will happily take a low-ball offer from IFC; the US is just another territory to them. Fortunately for filmgoers, his new film is a definite improvement over his last outing with favorite late career star Andre Dussollier, the dreadfully baroque, slackly paced Private Fears in Public Places. He’s not growing any more refined as a filmmaker at 87, but he’s shirked off his trademark austerity for an accessible, vividly expressive melodramatic cinema that doesn’t take itself seriously at all and is, as Resnais’ films have always been, delirious with the possibilities of the medium to suggest varied states of consciousness.

As fun as it is, with a resolution largely borrowed from Jules et Jim and sizzling, colorful work from France’s greatest DP Eric Gautier, Wild Grass’ curiously familiar roster of French stars (Emmanuelle Devos, Matthew Amalric and Anne Consigny) and mad cap sensibility is Resnais’ attempt not to bite Trauffaut so much as it is to bite Desplechin, who he named checked in a stellar post screening Q&A. Of course Desplechin is often biting techniques and brash tonal changes from Trauffaut’s bag of tricks, albeit with panache that makes it all his own. Still, employing half the cast of A Christmas Tale, as fun as they are, only makes sense if you’re going to give them roles that satisfy our desire for their company. Amalric and Devos are largely on the sidelines, while Consigny’s character doesn’t have an emotional logic that makes a thread of sense. Dussollier and co-star Sabine Azema do their best with characters that feel half thought through.

Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere finds the talented Italian director, long overshadowed by his countrymen Bertolucci, Olmi and Moretti, in solid if unremarkable form. Recounting in a slightly overstuffed yet tremendously acted biopic how Mussolini’s seduction and post World War I abandonment of his first wife mirrored the fascist dictators’ love affair and betrayal of his homeland, Bellocchio tells the story too briskly, undercutting the emotional weigh of the narrative, and relies too much on stock archival footage that contrasts the real Mussolini with the both more and less remarkable fictional incarnation.

Encompassing over twenty-years of fairly complicated history in a two hour, twenty-minute movie is tricky and Vincere clearly suffers from trying to cover so much ground that the elements which would have allowed the story to register as tragedy just don’t congeal in the rush to explore all the story threads. With an at times needlessly elliptical editing style, Bellocchio so quickly stages the courtship, sex life and marriage of Mussolini and Ida Dalser (played by the luminous Italian actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno), that we don’t get settled in our protagonist’s affection and trust of the man. Why was Dalser, whom Mussolini impregnated before leaving for war, willing to subject herself and her child to such abuse and torture from a man she still claimed to love after he abandoned and imprisoned her? Why Il Duce’s wartime love affair and subsequent marriage to the woman who nursed him back to health not given some dramatic heft and allowed to play more fully into a dramatized decision making process? Suddenly he just hates Dalser and decides to jettison her. There isn’t enough pre War set up for us to see Mussolini as a genuinely tragic figure. Likewise, its impossible to grasp their relationship as something that she would be so willing to fight for and metaphorically as symbolic of Mussolini’s betrayal of Italy. Bellocchio's gifts seems to work better in kammerspiel pieces like Good Morning, Night than on epic canvasses such as this.

Bruno Dumont was a middle-aged man when he began to make films, but given that Hadewijch is just his fifth film, he still feels like something of a l’enfant terrible. He certainly styles himelf as one, doing his best to infuriate audiences at every turn. His most confounding effort yet, Hadewijch centers on a wealthy French girl named Celine, who when we meet her is living in a convent and starving herself because of her unquenchable love of the lord. Kicked out of the convent by a duo of concerned Nuns who think her faith needs to be tested in the real world, she’s distraught to return to her government minister father’s Parisian palace. Placed within this spiritual void, she spends her days praying and rebuffing the advances of boys. Ultimately however, if we are to belive the incredible cynical logic of this exercise in nihilism, her love for Jesus is so profound that she chooses (spoiler ahead) to join a pair of dusky Muslim who live in the Parisian slums on a suicide bombing of the Parisian subway system complete with bad CGI.

Huh? Wha? Really? French Catholic Girls for Jihad! I can see the t-shirts now. To say that Dumont doesn’t earn this plot twist through the emotional mechanics of his characterizations is an understatement. Handsomely mounted, with the director’s trademark hints of lyricism, his heady mix of the profane and the profound, his subversion of Robert Bresson’s career project continues unabated and unchallenged. Dumont’s is a spiritual cinema that is so divorced from the actual practices of rank and file religious people that when he finally attempts to depict one, he has no idea what to do with her. After a marvelous first hour, Dumont’s misbegotten instincts ruin what could have developed into classic.

Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist is a film that I admire more than I like. It doesn’t really want to be liked. I’m rooting for it in a way. I think people should see it, if just so witness how terrific an actress Charlotte Gainsbourg is Yes, it’s a despairing as Roger Ebert has claimed, although it’s not quite riveting enough for over two-thirds of its running time to truly be midnight movie material. It’s basically Von Trier deciding to make a Takashi Miike film. That’s fine. I still don’t know what all the fuss is about. Yes, Charlotte drills a hole through Bill Dafoe’s leg and attaches what looks to be a weight set to it. Yes, there is an explicitly glimpsed female castration late in the third act. So what? This film feels like a throwaway for its immensely talented director, as he’s readily admitted in several interviews. The notoriously travel averse auteur won’t be journeying to Lincoln Center, so you’ll just have to catch him on Skype (live, from his basement, in his underwear, Lars!) or check out the next issue of Filmmaker if you’re looking for some sort of explanation.

The most satisfying film of the festival thus far has to be Cornelieu Poromboiu’s absurd anti-policier Police, Adjective. This droll and highly comic movie, centering on a cop charged with the thankless task of doing surveillance on high school kids smoking pot near a local kindergarten, it slows the dynamics of the Police Procedural to a crawl, showing how such a small and pointless task can grow into an administrative nightmare in which local law enforcement will ruin lives just to save face. A worthy follow up to his equally troubling and amusing 12:08 East of Bucharest, it continues Romania’s rapid emergence on the world cinema scene. Just as capable of being infuriating as it is laugh out loud funny, it suggests the ways Totalitarianism is an ethic informed mainly by an abuse of language and procedure.