NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL
2004 – 42nd Festival
The just concluded 2004 NYFF was simply the best I can remember: it seemed like one film after another was terrific and beautiful and exciting, and that there was an unending parade of films that turned out to be surprisingly wonderful. The incredible joy of the NYFF is always that it provides the opportunity to view films you know absolutely nothing about and to have the excitement of discovering amazing films you had to no reason to expect would even be good. This year’s Festival was a truly magnificent example of this tradition, in that it was full of surprises and great films from all over the globe . This year’s selections were particularly rich. complex, and powerful. Whereas the 2003 NYFF had been noteworthy for how unremittingly dark and angry its films were, the closest thing to a unifying theme in this year’s selections was that the dark sides of human nature that were portrayed seemed invariably to be treated with a level of psychological complexity and emotional nuance, and a sensitivity to the humanity of the characters and situations that at times verged on the tender, but usually seemed at least to be understanding in some deeply empathic way.
Before the 2004 NYFF began, the New York Times ran and article singing the praises of the NYFF, calling it, “a New York cultural institution.” Of the incredible diversity of the 25 feature films in the NYFF, the Times writes, “What you see may not be to your taste, but it also may change your taste and with it your idea of what movies can do.” (I include here a link to that piece for your edification and enjoyment.) I also thought I might mention, for those of you who may never have been to a NYFF screening, that the main features at the Festival are screened in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall—which has to be one of the most comfortable places imaginable to see a film. (The only exceptions to this are Opening and Closing Nights, which are screened in Avery Fisher Hall, which is almost as wonderful, and far grander.) So, not only are the films great, the physical experience of viewing them is marvelous. Finally, an added treat of most screenings is the presence of the directors from the films, and often the actors as well, who then stay after the screening for Question and Answer sessions. This year, directors Agnès Jaoui, Mike Leigh, Pedro Almodóvar, Ousmane Sembene, Lucretia Martel, Todd Solondz, Hong Sangsoo—only to mention some of the ones I was most interested in—were in attendance. (No, Eric Rohmer was not there—but we knew that wouldn’t happen.)
I once again strongly urge all of you in the NYC area to join the Film Society of Lincoln Center and attend the NYFF next Fall. As noted in the Times article mentioned above, and, as some of you may know from personal experience, getting tickets for this incredibly popular NYC event can be extremely difficult—and, once one has realized how wonderful the Festival is, it can be extremely frustrating not be able to obtain tickets . I have, therefore, put together a short Primer on Membership in the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Obtaining Tickets for the New York Film Festival that discusses strategies of how successfully to get tickets for the NYFF. Naturally, the best answer is to become a member if the Film Society of Lincoln Center—and this Primer describes the best ways to do that to meet you needs and desires in relation to getting tickets.
We only saw 15 of the 25 feature presentations, and those are the ones reviewed below. For those who are interested, the entire 2004 NYFF program and the Film Society descriptions of each film can be found at http://www.filmlinc.com/nyff/nyfffilm2004.htm. My reviews of past years of the NYFF can be found at http://www.rlrubens.com/nyff.html .
[For film whose release dates have been set, the dates are given underlined and in bold after identifying information.]
THE FEATURE FILMS IN THE FESTIVAL
Bad Education (La Mala Educacíon Centerpiece. Spain, 2004, Sony Pictures Classics, to be released November 19) My vote for the best film in this year’s NYFF, this new movie from Pedro Almodóvar is a complete masterpiece! Essentially a film noir—with suspense and crime and intrigue and evil, and with nods and references to some of the great past examples of that genre—Bad Education represents a major departure for Almodóvar, yet it retains much of the underlying sensibility that wonderfully characterizes his past works. The film centers on two young men who as children were in a passionate, pre-adolescent, loving relationship in the Catholic boys school they attended together. The film opens with Enrique, a rising film director played by Fele Martinez (who had a supporting role in Almodóvar’s marvelous last film, Talk to Her), receiving an unannounced visit from an unsuccessful actor, played by Gael Garcia Bernal (new to Almodóvar’s films, but a veteran of Y Tu Mamá Tambíen and Iñárritu’s Amores Perros), who announces that he is Ignacio, his former schoolmate. He is looking for work, and he also leaves Enrique, who is looking for ideas for a new film, with the copy of a story he has written. In one of many flashbacks, we learn that both of the boys were mistreated at the school by Father Manolo (played by Daniel Giménez-Cacho)— Ignacio in a way that, while loving and adoring, was sexually abusive; and Enrique in a jealous fashion that was both cruel and aggressive. The short story turns out to be about their childhood experiences together and their effects on Ignacio. In addition to the historical flashbacks, we are also shown scenes which turn out to be from Ignacio’s story, including scenes of how he had become a transsexual carbaret performer and had decided to blackmail the priest to pay for further cosmetic surgery. But the story has layer upon layer, and the unfolding reality and the passions contained within it make for a riveting and totally engaging film. Moreover, in true Almodóvar fashion, even the blackest of the dark souls that populate this film is treated with a loving sensitivity. These are not one-dimensional caricatures, but rather complex human beings whose love is just as important to the story as is their hatred, avarice, and conniving. The directing is perfection, the cinematography is exquisite, the music by Alberto Iglesias is totally effective in a true film noir way, and the acting is superb (including a marvelous brief supporting appearance by Almodóvar regular Javier Cámara). This one is an absolute must see!
Sideways (Closing Night. USA, 2004, Fox Seachlight, to be released October 20) Another extraordinarily successful film, this new movie from Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor (the team did About Schmidt, Opening Night of 2002 NYFF) was something of an anomaly in this year’s NYFF: it is a wildly funny comedy. Starring the extremely talented and versatile Paul Giamatti as Miles, the depressed, divorced, dysphoric, oenophile (I was going to go for continuing the alliteration and write “drunk,” but that word, while also true, would not have captured the more specifically defining character of Miles) and Thomas Hayden Church as Jack, his womanizing, uncultured, plodding friend, Sideways is essentially a very sophisticated version of an old fashioned buddy picture. Jack is a minimally employed actor (in the past had a role on a soap opera and is getting the occasional voice-over ad) who is getting married in a week; and Miles, a middle school English teacher who is trying to get a novel published, is taking Jack on a week-long trip through California wine country for a great time together before Jack’s weeding. Miles, who is obsessed with wine—and wines made from pinot noir, in particular (although the only great wine that is drunk during the film is a Bordeaux, and definitely French), views the trip as wine drinking extravaganza; Jack views it as a last minute fling and an opportunity to get both of them laid. In the process, they end up spending time with two friends—Jack with a woman who works in a winery (Sandra Oh), and Miles with a waitress who loves wine (Virginia Madsen). This film is an absolute joy: the beauty of the California wine country and the way it has been filmed, the wit and laugh-out-loud humor of the script, the emotional complexity of what might have been stock characters and situations, the excellent direction, and the great acting all combine to make this a terrific two hours of movie going. Perhaps the strongest endorsement I can give it is that somewhere fairly early on I ceased to be bothered by the fact that the wines they were drinking and talking incessantly about were California pinot noirs—which is quite a indication (for those of you who know my distaste for all California red wines—and my absolute abhorrence of their pinot noirs in particular) of how successful and absorbing this film is! (FYI: the two good wines that appear in the film are a bottle of Cheval Blanc ’61 and a bottle of Sassicaia’88, the former of which is drunk in the film, the latter only mentioned.)
The Holy Girl (La Niña Santa, Argentina, 2004) Had I noticed in advance that the executive producers of The Holy Girl were Pedro Almodóvar, his brother Augustín, Ester García, and Almodóvar’s production company El Deseo (the same team that produced Pedro’s Bad Education), I would have been somewhat more prepared for how wonderful and unusual this film is. I don’t know whether Pedro had a big hand in making this film, or whether it is just that he chose its talented director and writer Lucretia Martel because her aesthetic and worldview is so similar to his own; but, one way or the other, The Holy Girl has a beauty, a sensitivity, and a subtlety of vision that cannot help but remind one of the master himself. The difficult subject matter involves an adolescent girl, Amalia (played incredibly by the lovely and expressive María Alche), who is living in a hotel with her mother Helena (Mercedes Morán) and Helena’s brother, and who we see in religion class with her girlfriends—who are being indoctrinated in Catholic theory in a manner that is too simple-minded and naïve for them to swallow, particularly the notion that they will receive a “call” from God about what is to be their “vocation.” Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), a married physician attending a medical convention being held at the hotel, sees Amalia in a group of people listening to music on the street, positions himself directly behind her in the crowd, and then proceeds to press himself against her. While the two stand there without moving, we are presented with an incredibly complex series of emotions that play across Amalia’s face—from distress and shock, through awakening and arousal, and ending in wonderment and religious rapture. The doctor runs off, leaving the bewildered child. We later see Amalia watching Dr. Jano in the hotel pool, obsessively reciting religious passages; and eventually she reveals that she has received her “calling” and found her “vocation”: it is this doctor. The plot thickens as many of the characters develop and/or reveal the strange and twisted relationships they have with each other; but, in true Almodóvar fashion, the film allows us to feel the love and tenderness in situations of which it and we cannot approve, and understand the complexity of motivations for which it and we can not find justification. The tensions and pace mount, but, in a wonderfully fulfilling way, there is no simple answer on either a moral or plot development level. That Lucretia Martel was able to treats these issues and emotions with such complexity, subtlety, and power while simultaneously creating a visual experience that is so beautiful and engaging suggests that she is an amazingly talented and accomplished artist—and The Holy Girl is an unbelievably good film.
Vera Drake (UK, 2000, Fine Line, released October 10) Having given us his unusual and fascinating Topsy-Turvy in the 1999 NYFF, Mike Leigh returns this year with an even more generally successful and truly fine film, Vera Drake. The title role, played to perfection by Imelda Staunton (among whose credits is the role of Nurse White in wonderful the BBC television production of Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective), is a loving wife, an encouraging and supportively devoted mother, and generally a completely up-beat human being who has a smile and a pleasant greeting for all whom she meets. Vera is an incredibly stoic, hard working cleaning woman in the houses of wealthy Londoners. She and her husband and their two adult children live in a carefully well-maintained but incredibly poor flat; but the home she creates there is happy and joyous. She cares for her aging mother, her ailing neighbor, and invites lonely people into her home for dinner and refreshment of soul—and, oh yes, she also helps out young women who are “in trouble.” Set in the early 50s, this paragon of virtue and empathy is—for those same reasons—performing illegal abortions on women too poor to have the resources and connections necessary to circumvent the system and obtain them from the medical establishment. Predictably, she runs afoul of the law at the most inopportune possible time for her family. Although this film treads dangerously close to the line of becoming melodrama (for which I have zero tolerance), it never actually crosses it. Perhaps only a great filmmaker like Mike Leigh could tell such a story without crossing that line, but the fact that he manages is essential to what gives this film its great power and makes it as totally absorbing as it is: where it could have been a simplistic morality play, it instead has moral complexity; where it could have been sickeningly full of pathos, it is imbued with tension and tenderness; where it could have been self-indulgent melodrama, it demonstrates subtly, control, and realism.
Triple Agent (France, 2004) “A thriller,” “a spy story,” “a psychological period-piece mystery” –this is a film by Eric Rohmer? One wouldn’t believe it, except that by the end one can feel the Nouvelle Vague master’s sensibility very much in evidence in the nuances and intricacies of the personal interactions. Triple Agent is, indeed, all the aforementioned things. Set in Paris in the period from 1936-40, the story revolves around Fiodor, a White Russian general, in exile in Paris, ably played by Serge Renko. Using newsreel clips from the period, Rohmer masterfully sets his story against the complex backdrop of various political worlds that were intersecting at that time: the internal politics of France; those of the various Russian factions—White and Red, in Russia and in exile, the various communist factions, and those opposed to it altogether; and the larger European political context—including the rise of Nazi Germany, and the Spanish Civil War. Fiodor is clearly involved in the major intrigues of all these arenas, but at what level and in what capacity is powerfully and importantly unclear. Of equal importance in the film is Fiodor’s wife, Arsinoë, and in many ways, the complexity of how he represents himself to her is every bit as convoluted and ambiguous as how he represents himself to the outside world. Ultimately this excellent and riveting film turns out to be as much an exploration of relationship and self-representation as it does to be a mystery—and a quite elegant and effective one at that.
Saraband (Sweden, 2004) This excellent film is virtually certain to be Igmar Bergman’s last, as the 86 year old master has left Stockholm and retired to an isolated island retreat. In Saraband, the 63 year old Marianne (Liv Ullmann, who, herself at 66, retains all of the beauty of soul and much of the physical beauty for which she has always been famous) returns after a 30 year absence to visit her 86 year old ex husband Johan (Erland Josephson, who remains an actor of such skill and intensity that he can capture the nuances in the soul of even the darkest character in a way that cannot fail to elicit our empathy), who, like Bergman himself, has retired to a sylvan isolation. Marianne, who in the opening sequence of the film is reminiscing to the audience about what is to come in the body of the film, decides with much hesitation and ambivalence to visit Johan; she later in the film says to him that he “had not reacted enthusiastically to the proposal,” to which he replies, “‘Enthusiastically’? You asked if you could come, and I said no!” The stormy and troubled relationship between these two was the subject of Bergman’s 1973 Scenes from a Marriage, and these two Bergman regulars play their current roles with the same incredible emotional intensity, subtlety, and success that they did then. They interact with Henrik (extremely well-played by Börje Ahistedt), Johan’s son from one of his other marriages, and Karin (wonderfully portrayed by Julia Dufvenius), the beautiful daughter of Henrik and the lovely Anna—who, although she has been dead for two years and never actually appears in the film, is an intense presence throughout. Johan and Marianne attempt to realize the elements of intense emotions that still connect them in the face of all that has always pushed them apart, while Henrik and Karin attempt to achieve a rudimentary separation in the face of all that seems inextricably to lock them together; and, as always in Bergman, while there is love (of some form) on every side, whatever redemptive tenderness there is resides in the women. The relationships, though at times tender, are not pretty; and the infantile elements of the men’s personalities in particular lead them to be needy and narcissistic while rejecting and cruel, and inappropriate in ways it is hard to know the limit of. (When father and son interact, there is no one who can provide even the most distant hint of tenderness, and things become particularly ugly.) Henrik and Karin both play the cello (in the roles of teacher and student), and the film’s title refers to the sarabands from the “Unaccomppanied Cello Suites” by Bach—which provide a musical background that is subtly beautiful but mournful, with a structural level of internal separateness and integrated interaction that both reflects the emotional tenor of the action and stands for what is missing from it. (The score for the film is, in general, exceptionally beautiful and powerfully effective.) The film was shot on video (for a 2003 television version), and Bergman’s dislike for the quality of video to film transfer had made him reluctant to release this as a film. Fortunately, he has relented, and the film will be released at some future date. The film, in fact, is exceptionally beautiful in its cinematography, and this beauty adds a marvelous sort of counterpoint to the darkness of much of what is transpiring. The acting is superb throughout, the insight into the intensity and depth of human emotion is vintage Bergman, the film is visually stunning, and the fact that Bergman has been able to make it all work as a movie means that he has created a late-life masterpiece that is truly extraordinary.
Moolaade (Senegal/France, 2004, New Yorker Films, released Oct. 15 – Lincoln Plaza & Cinema Village) Ousmane Sembene been called the best African filmmaker of all time; and, if Moolaade is any indication, he certainly has earned that title. The 81 year old writer-director from Senegal not only presents important social ideas in a powerful and compelling way, he also tells stories in an emotionally engaging and intellectually riveting fashion. Moreover, he creates visual images that are as rich and absorbing as his ideas and stories. In Moolaade, four young girls run away from their “purification” ceremony (genital mutilation) and come to Collé—a woman they know years earlier had refused to have her own daughter “cut”—for protection. And that is what “moolaade” means—“protection.” It is a religiously enforced notion of “sanctuary” that even the outraged elders of this completely male-dominated society fear to transgress, though they try desperately to circumvent it. The story involves the playing out of this one woman’s defiance of this traditional practice, and her resistance against priestesses who perform this ritual and the male village authorities who support it (and who generally seek to control the lives and minds of the women in their society), within the extended family structure of her compound and the larger society of her village. What ensues is at times painful and at times funny, at times shameful and at times heroic, but ultimately transformative. To say that Sembene has created a powerfully effective indictment of the practice of female genital mutilation is at once an understatement and at the same time totally misleading: he has created a human drama rooted in a terribly real issue and concerning enormously important structural societal problems, that is emotionally transfixing, unbelievably entertaining, and ultimately uplifting. Many of those I spoke with about going to see this film were hesitant because of the content, and I encourage you not to make the same mistake: this is a film you will enjoy seeing—and see it you should! It was not perfect—there were some simplistic elements woven into the generally sophisticated complexity of the film—nevertheless, I thought Moolaade was terrific.
Palindromes (USA, 2004) Now here was a surprise: I am someone who has never really liked the films of Todd Solondz, and I hated Happiness (1998 NYFF); Palindromes is a film that has received scathingly negative reviews in the press; but I loved it! It is funny, satirical, interesting, absorbing, distinctive, and bizarre in a way that really worked for me. Admittedly, the content is difficult: Palindromes is the story of a twelve year old girl, from an upper middle class New Jersey Jewish family, who decides she wants to get pregnant and does so. (The film actually begins with a funeral following the suicide of “Dawn Wiener,” the central character in Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), and this film is “dedicated to the memory of Dawn Wiener”; and the main character in Palindromes is Dawn’s cousin.) And every other part of the plot—from the reactions of her parents (Ellen Barkin and Stephen Adly Guirgis), through the themes relating to abortion— is similarly presented without a reductivist recourse to simple answers and therefore difficult to be at peace with. But there is a successful texture to all this that has more sense of potential and possibility than is typical of his films: Happiness, for example, presented us with an unremittingly negative succession of unsympathetic characters and events that left me with a feeling of emptiness and despair; Palindromes, while certainly not presenting us with anyone with whom positively to identify, still conveys some sense of humanity and the world as a whole that does not feel so nihilistic—and, while it may not be directly be contained within the characters and actions themselves, there is nothing that, as in Happiness, undercuts the possibility that something positive may exist in the world and that growth and change may be possible. (I am tempted to write a separate essay on all this, and I may; but suffice it for the moment to say that, from what he said in the Q&A after the film, Solondz apparently believes in a kind of genetically mandated determinism that means people cannot change. I suspect that this is precisely what has left me cold about his other movies. I believe that in Palindromes, he has created something that is quite different—although he does not understand or acknowledge it! I know how presumptuous this claim is, but it does often happen that artists do not fully intellectually comprehend their own artistic creations.) An interesting and ultimately very success conceit that Solondz uses (I suppose its really a technique, but if feels to be much more than that) is to use an entire series of several different actors to play to lead role of the young girl, each of whom takes over in the role multiple times as the plot progresses. One of the results of this is to lend a sense of universality to the character—which at one and the same time deepens our reactions and, perhaps, allows us not to be too upset by what is happening to an actual, specific12 year old. The title of the film most directly refers to the fact that the young girl’s name, Aviva, is a palindrome (i.e., it reads the same in either direction)—but there is definitely also something “palindromic” about the fact that different actors are playing the same person from different directions, and that issues and people can be understood in differing directions, and, perhaps, too, that things can move similarly into the same center from opposite directions. There is also something “palindromic” in the structure of the film that is like the pediment of a Greek Temple, building from the one side into the peak of the central apex, then diminishing again to the other side (with some end-to-end reflection of themes in the sculptural progression)—and this is enhanced by the fact that the film begins and ends with the same, littlest Aviva. The acting is very good, the directing excellent, and the end result is a very good movie.
Look at Me (Comme une Image Opening Night. , France, 2004, Sony Pictures Classics, to be released February 2005) Like Agnès Jaoui’s directorial debut, A Taste of Others (Le Gout des Autres, shown at the 2000 NYFF), Look at Me is a wonderfully entertaining movie. It is not a perfect film, nor even an excellent one; but it is very well made and has a style that is quite distinctive. The excellent screenplay is by Jaoui and her writing partner Jean-Pierre Bacri (who co-wrote the screenplays for both of her films, as well as co-writing with Jaoui the marvelous homage to Dennis Potter directed by the masterful Alain Renais, The Same old Song [(On Connait le Chanson). The plot line of the film—not its strongest asset— centers on an awkward, overweight young woman (wonderfully acted by Marylou Berry) and her attempts to make a singing career and to have a romantic relationship; but the meat of the film is found in the witty and sarcastic repartee (hey...this is definitely a French movie!) between the various people in her life—principally her voice coach (played by the incredibly lovely and expressive Jaoui) and her family and acquaintances, and her self-absorbed, novelist father (Bacri—whose performance rather steals the show in a completely unlikable way). With the exception of the too-simplistic denouement, the character of the young woman contains some rather appropriately believable complexity. The film is a comic look at the intricacies and hypocrisies of this segment of the French artistic community; and what is so unusual is that the film succeeds in making it truly laughable, but in a way that manages to maintain some feeling of warmth and tenderness towards these figures who are all so obviously flawed and unlikable.
Woman is the Future of Man (South Korea/France, 2004) Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo, who brought his interesting Turning Gate to the 2002 NYFF, has written and directed a truly wonderful and multi-layered film in this latest effort. At times funny and at times disturbing, and absorbing and thought-provoking throughout, Woman is the Future of Man is the story of two men—Hunjoon, a filmmaker who has returned from years of studying in the United States, and Munho, his former college buddy, who is now a professor, living with his wife (whom neither we nor Hunjoon are ever privileged to meet) in an impressive house high on a hilltop overlooking the town—who meet in Seoul. They spar, they connect, they give each other a hard time—all for no apparent reason. Eventually, while they are eating and drinking at a local restaurant, each goes into a reverie in which we get to see a flashback from his past. Each reverie begins the same way: in the present moment, the one about to have the reverie gazes across the street at the same attractive woman; and each reverie contains a similar content from their college days: each of them had exploitative sexual relationship with the same woman—Sunhwa, who was originally Hunjoon’s girlfriend—only abruptly to abandon her afterwards. In their drunkenness, they decide to go off to visit her together. What ensues is an exploration of yearning, selfishness, cruelty, and self-deception. The woman involved is ultimately far from innocent in all this: right from the beginning, when we see Sunhwa decide to go off in a cab with a former boyfriend who is being bizarrely abusive, a theme is sounded about women obeying the demands put upon them by men, in a way that is powerfully reprised much later by students of Munho. There are very complex themes here about the roles men and women play with each other, particularly in their sexual interactions, and about the confusion and self-thwarting behavior that is so common in all their strivings. And the subtlety of the character studies contributes to making Woman is the Future of Man the unusually interesting film that it is.
Notre Musique (France/Switzerland, 2004, Wellspring, to be released November 24 – Film Forum) This new film from Jean-Luc Godard is really quite excellent—and a big improvement over his Eloge d’Amour (In Praise of Love), which was part of the 2001 NYFF. Notre Musique is divided into three labeled “kingdoms”: “Hell” is a roiling caldron of violent emotions, depicted in a montage of actual news clips and created sequences of war and destruction, their stark imagery often distorted into beautifully enhanced and weirdly unrealistic colors; “Purgatory” (clearly the realm we all currently inhabit) is a highly intellectualized presentation of the some of the forces that lie behind wars, and some that seek to oppose them—the venue being a literary conference in Sarajevo, and the themes being the juxtaposition of conqueror and conquered, aggressor and victim, often in terms of the Middle East, with Godard himself on screen providing some thoughts on the sameness of the two ends of these apparent polarities while presenting photographs to the conference; and finally, “Paradise” is a bucolic setting in which a woman martyred in the earlier sequence (while trying to make some bridge in the Israel/Palestine tensions) walks in the sunlight in a realm guarded by US servicemen. As always, Godard’s visual imagery is astounding, powerful, and evocative. The intellectualizations actually work more effectively in Notre Musique than in many of his works, although ultimately the philosophical point behind the third “kingdom”—assuming we know what it is—is far less compelling. Setting “Purgatory” in the calm of post-war Sarajevo—but with all of the carnage that is implicitly evoked by that location— is a brilliantly powerful stroke of cinematic genius: like the genteel and at times even affectionate intellectual interchange in the conference, it calmly and peacefully alludes to all the terrible acts that mankind can be guilty of. It is, however, one of my ongoing dissatisfactions with Godard that he takes himself more seriously as a philosophical thinker than he should—and than I thinks he deserves to: he is an exquisite filmmaker, and only an mediocre philosopher, I’m afraid.
Café Lumière (Kohi Jikou, Japan/Taiwan, 2004) Written and directed by the great Taiwanese filmmaker, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Café Lumière is dedicated to the centennial last year of the birth of legendary Japanese filmmaker, Yasujiro Ozu, and it picks up on many of Ozu’s traditional themes, particularly the effects of modernization on Japanese society and family relationships. Café Lumière opens with a shot of a light rail train going over a bridge, and it is in general the industrial forms of modern life—and specifically trains and everything having to do with them—that embody all the life and energy in the world that Hou is examining. In contrast the lives and interactions of the main characters are so emotionally controlled and contained that they seem almost energy-less and plain compared to the vitality and beauty of the trains. There is one often-repeated scene of several different train lines crossing and intersecting on various levels—some entering tunnels, others crossing bridges—outside some major Tokyo station that is one of the most gorgeous and interactive of the film’s images; and the only out-and-out joy that is expressed by any of the characters concerns the two main characters’ love for the trains. The characters themselves, meanwhile, have a multitude of intense issues with each other—all of them implicit, potential, covert, or only expressed totally devoid of emotional content. The long, sustained shots Hou loves, combined with the sharply limited dialogue and action and the lack of emotional interaction, create a feeling of isolation and constriction that is almost soporific. The main character, Yoko, is a young woman who lives alone in a cramped apartment in Tokyo and who seems to drift dreamily through her life.. We learn she is pregnant by a man in Taiwan, whom she has no intention of marrying. Her aging parents are distressed by this and the general state of her life, but can not bring themselves to say anything (although much is expressed in the tenseness of the silences). It seems her main relationship—not acknowledged by either party as romantic in any way—is with a young man, Hajime, who runs a bookstore, but who is engaged in a computer graphics project about trains. They search together for a café in Tokyo that decades ago was frequented by a Taiwanese composer. The meet on trains and in train stations (intentionally and by chance); they even end up on separate trains with the audience seeing what they do not know—that they are literally as well as figuratively on parallel courses that do not actually touch and interact; and they ultimately end up together for a extended period of time while Hajime records train noises for his project without any interaction or words spoken between them. It is a beautifully and richly photographed film, which is all the more amazing since there is almost no natural beauty depicted—save for a couple of gorgeous landscapes in the countryside, which stand in sharp contradistinction to the fact that within the city there is almost no plant life seen, except for one beautiful willow tree by a train station, and a small flowering tree outside Yoko’s apartment building.
The 10th District Court: Moments of Trial (10e chambre - Instants d'audience, France, 2004) This film had to be one of the most pleasant surprises of this year’s NYFF. A documentary from Raymond Depardon, The 10th District Court is comprised of a series of actual brief court appearances and subsequent judgments before Judge Michèle Bernard-Requin, in what must be the French equivalent of night court. The formidable judge hears pleadings from an array of defendants—from various walks of life and various social and ethnic groups; and the interactions are as amusing as they are revealing. The film would have profited had15 minutes been edited out, reducing it to only 90 minutes. Nevertheless, it is still an entertaining and successful piece.
Tropical Malady (Thailand/France, 2004, Strand Releasing, to be released Spring 2005) This was a most unusual film: at the outset, it is a tender and touching story of two young men, a soldier and a man from the countryside, falling in love and dealing with the upsurge of their erotic passions toward each other—that is abruptly interrupted just short of consummation, as the one fades away into the night; but then the film virtually starts over in the realm of myth, wherein a soldier and a mystical man-beast stalk each other in the forest; and, all throughout it is an absolute delight of cinematographic beauty—with breathtakingly gorgeous scenes of the countryside that have an almost unearthly aesthetic. The film is too long, and the talented director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, has a tendency to hold shots too long for either comfort or effectiveness (except the aforementioned landscape shots, that support their own length by their sublime beauty), but it is still a treat to see and well-worth watching. My biggest complaint is that I simply don’t accept the philosophical stance that underlies the film in a very heavy-handed way right from the opening sequence: we are explicitly told that man is essentially a beast, and they we all need to become “trainers” to harness and control the beastly forces that exist within us. In many wonderful ways the mythical tale recapitulates (and, at worst, potentially explains some of the details of) the original real-world one, in that they both involve two beings looking to express their inner nature to each other in a way that will profoundly alter each other—or perhaps devour and destroy each other. (And there is even another sense in which the mystical version can be interpreted realistically; but this is not really an asset.) The richness of this is stunning; but the specifics are hard to for me comfortably to accept.
Or (My Treasure) (Or (Mon Trésor), Israel, 2004) Keren Yedaya’s interesting first feature concerns an 18 tear old girl, Or (sympathetically portrayed by Dana Ivgy), and her mother, Ruthie (Ronit Elkabetz), a Tel Aviv street walker. Or is an unbelievably earnest and likable young woman—attending school during the day, working long hours as a dish washer after school, and waking up early in the morning to collect empty bottles on the beach to return for extra money—who is trying desperately to keep her mother off the street: she tries everything from getting her mother a job as a cleaning woman, through begging her and crying hysterically, up to and including locking her mother into their apartment when Or leaves for the day. In what is potentially the most interesting level of the film, it slowly is revealed that there is an unfortunate but believably dark complexity to Or’s character, which tragically becomes more pronounced as her mother slips more irretrievably into her degrading existence. Sadly, the film itself is not able to sustain the intense emotions of the situations it is exploring without going way over the edge into melodrama—and the overall experience of the film suffers accordingly.
On 7 October 2004, as part of the NYFF, there was a special evening in Alice Tully Hall entitled Viva Pedro! It was a tribute to Pedro Almodóvar, the amazing Spanish director who has long been a NYFF favorite. Clips were shown from many of his magnificent films; and Javier Cámara, Fele Martinez, and Gael Garcia Bernal gave brief tributes to the master whose films they have acted in. Pedro then gave a brief speech and then entered into a conversation with Richard Peña, Program Director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and head of the Selection Committee for the NYFF. He then fielded questions from the audience. It was a joyous and truly spectacular event.