NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2001 (PART I) Send This Review to a Friend
The 39th New York Film Festival was packed with superior films that showed good sense by the Festival's selection committee and provided audiences with a pre-release look at some excellent works that more than made up for the less auspicious ones. Even the shorts, in some years more of an annoyance than a boon, were on a higher level.
Some of the films are already in commercial release (Click on the film or search sections for reviews of "Va Savoir," "Fat Girl," "La Cienega" and, as of October 19, "Intimacy.") Others have been picked up by distributors for future showing, and some are still awaiting a deal. Festival audiences had an extensive choice. Some appraisals of films to be reviewed in greater detail upon their release follow.
One of the classiest films was veteran filmmaker Eric Rohmer's THE LADY AND THE DUKE, which sparkled with an impressive, award-caliber performance by Lucy Rusell as Grace Elliott, a British woman who lived in France at the time of the French revolution, held Royalist sympathies and found herself in trouble as heads rolled and retribution was demanded in an atmosphere of hysteria. Jean-Claude Dreyfus also excelled as her friend The Duke. The film, also shown at the Toronto Film Festival, was inspired by Elliott's memoirs. (I sat next to Russell at a luncheon in Toronto on September 11th and got a lift from her generous and heartfelt sympathy and anger at what Americans were going through on that awful day.)
Russell, who is British, was especially skillful in speaking French as a British woman of the time might have, getting the right accent and intonations, while delivering a complex emotional performance. Rohmer, 81, an icon of the French New Wave, imbued the film with a striking artistic conception, using painted sets and 18th century paintings as background instead of trying to recreate a realistic setting. The film is extremely conversational and presented with such clarity as to make following the dialogue fascinating.
Another veteran director of distinction, Manoel de Oliveira, 92, was represented by a strong Portuguese-French co-production, I'M GOING HOME, in French, featuring Michel Piccoli in a warm and touching performance as aging actor Gilbert Valence, who is trying to raise his grandson orphaned by an auto accident and pursue his acting career according to his life-long principles. This is very special filmmaking, as has long been the custom for Oliveira.
John Malkovich plays an American film director who casts Valence as Buck Mulligan in a film version of James Joyce's "Ulysses," and there are scenes both painful and amusing as the actor struggles with his lines and dialect. It is worth seeing the film for Piccoli's performance alone, but the director also brings to the material a wise reflection on life's values and challenges, with Piccoli his perfect interpreter.
Films from abroad included the exciting, new Mexican workY TU MAMA TAMBIEN, directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Brimming with energy as well as explicit sex and candid talk about it, the film follows two male teenage buddies and a woman on a trip in search of the beach she has always wanted to visit, and en route emotionally potent and revealing situations arise. The film is often very funny, although topped by a most serious outcome. The actors are excellent, including Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal as the friends and Maribel Verdu as the woman who travels with them. Bernal, a vibrant up-and-coming screen actor, played a major role in "Amores Perros."
The French had an especially strong presence at this year's festival. Laurent Cantet's TIME OUT compellingly explored what some find a dead end in devoting one's life to struggle in the world of business. When Aurelien Recoing as Vincent loses his job, he constructs a life of pretense. He doesn't tell his wife what has happened and fools acquaintances into thinking he is getting a new job. Events become increasingly complicated and menacing as suspense builds, although he film could be a bit shorter. Director Cantet had also directed "Human Resources," a film that dramatizes the plight of workers in the face of management and the disillusionment of a young man caught in the middle.
Nanni Moretti, who also plays the lead, directs a simply told but moving story about coping with grief in the Italian import THE SON'S ROOM. The terrible personal loss of their son in a scuba diving accident changes life for Moretti as a psychiatrist and for Laura Morante as the psychiatrist's wife. Tension builds at home and the doctor's practice becomes untenable. A letter from a young woman opens the door that will enable the couple and their grieving daughter to begin the healing process. This film is staggeringly timely in view of the September 11th tragedies in America, with thousands of families faced with the prospect of dealing with the grief they have. As director, Moretti makes one wise choice after another in the way he presents the situations, occasionally introduces wry humor and develops the incisive portraits of the characters.
The most bizarre film I saw was WARM WATER UNDER A RED BRIDGE, by the esteemed Japanese director Shohei Imamura. A young man who goes on a journey to find a reputed treasure encounters a young woman who fills up with water and releases it in geysers when she has sex. The man is willing to oblige on call every time the fluid builds up, and this is all very funny for a while, as well as explicit. But after a time the scenes are more ridiculous than humorous, and they certainly aren't stimulating, except for those who may have special tastes. The picture assumes a silliness that doesn't jibe with the considerable skills lavished on it by Imamura and by the appealing acting.
In the American film realm, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS presents a quirky portrait of a New York family once headed by Gene Hackman as Royal, the estranged father. Anjelica Huston plays Etheline, the resentful mother. They have three super-smart children, who as grownups are portrayed by Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow. Director Wes Anderson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Owen Wilson, gives the film a satirical edge from the outset and rarely lets up, even as he injects some emotional depth when the father attempts to get back into the family's good graces and displays jealousy of Etheline's new suitor, played by Danny Glover.
Hackman gives an extraordinary performance that veers between comedy and desperation. This is certainly an odd-ball film, which is irreverently entertaining and filled with strange situations and depictions that rakes family life over the coals. It has the advantage of originality and not pulling punches in its take on the Tenenbaums. It also happens to be a very good looking film.
If that film is satirical, it is cinema verite compared to what's delivered by writer-director Todd Solondz in STORYTELLING. His "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness" demonstrated his ability to shake up audiences. This one expands upon his impulses. The film is in two parts. The first focuses on an African-American college professor who runs a writing class, is merciless in treatment of students and is a sexual predator as well. Some of the dialogue is hilarious in its send-up of classes in which students discuss their writing to various malicious reactions. It also is daring in the way it treats a male student with cerebral palsy. An upsetting explicit sex scene between the professor and a female student has been blocked out by the director, but in an obvious way that elicits a laugh at the absurdity of censorship.
The second part of "Storytelling" deals with a would-be independent filmmaker and the family he films as part of a documentary about the high school students, their level of competence and their aspirations or lack of them. It is at once a wicked jibe at the making of independent documentaries and the insipidness of a family, undone by the revenge of a Latino housekeeper for the way she has been treated. The family is Jewish and objections to stereotyping may be raised. But Solondz is consistent in his determination to hold a mirror to things in life that he finds fodder for satire and he certainly does this in "Storytelling" with considerable humor and skill.
Among the shorts, one of my favorites was INBETWEENING AMERICA by Candy Kugel, who based her film on a New Yorker magazine cover by Saul Steinberg. Out of this idea came a delightful, impressionistic portrait of America told through animation that is both striking and amusing while doing the job of showing the variety of people and ideas that reflect the country. Kugel's creativity is admirable.
I also found the French short JUST LITTLE BIRDS impressive. Directed by Fred Louf, it examines innocence and sexuality converging in a harmless escapade by a 10-year-old boy and his precocious girl cousin in his room and the comical aftermath.