New York Film Festival 2001 reviews

LA CIENAGA (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina) **

The cinema of alienation marches on. While the NYFF program notes compare LA CIENAGA to Buñuel and Harold Pinter, I was reminded me more of a bad Taiwanese art film or even a particularly disjointed and witless episode of SIX FEET UNDER. Just like Alan Ball, writer/director Martel's talent is obvious, but like him, she wastes most of it on glib potshots at dysfunctional families. Set in a rural getaway during Argentina's winter (whose weather corresponds to North America's summer), it concentrates on two families: one led by an alcoholic matriarch who injures her breast in the film's first few minutes, another led by her cousin. To be fair, LA CIENAGA never again matches the cheap irony of its beginning, which cross-cuts a drunken poolside party with teenagers hunting a bull. But it never amounts to much of anything. The narrative is a series of disconnected  fragments in which kids  run wild while their parents get drunk and dye their hair: inevitably, one of these fragments ends very badly. I can't fault LA CIENAGA stylistically - MartelÕs abrasive use of direct sound, which continues even under the closing credits, is particularly effective - but  it feels like  secondhand goods.

Distributed by Cowboy Booking
Opening Oct. 3rd

INTIMACY (Patrice Chéreau, France/UK) ***1/4

The most surprising thing about  INTIMACY is that the title isn't a cheap joke, even though it focuses on loveless, no-strings-attached sex. Jay (Mark Rylance) is a bartender who abandoned his wife and two sons six years ago, while  Claire (Kelly Fox) is a married actress: the two meet to fuck in his apartment every Wednesday afternoon.  Very few English-language films are as  explicit as INTIMACY, which includes the beginnings of genuine hand- and blow-jobs. The sex isn't devoid of eroticism, but it's not glamorized.  Rylance and Fox have the sags, wrinkles and bald spots of real people, rather than typical movie or porn stars. Perhaps such a mix of Anglo kitchen-sink realism and French l'amour fou could only be made by a French filmmaker, adapting (with co-screenwriter Anne -Louise Trividic) a  novel and short story by British writer Hanif Kurieshi. On the surface, the film is naturalist - all edgy hand-held camerawork- but its style becomes calmer and more classical as Jay and Clare's relationship grows more complex. In the past, as in his 1999 film THOSE WHO LOVE ME CAN TAKE THE TRAIN, Chéreau's style has tended towards operatic melodrama. While he sticks by the genre, INTIMACY offers a bruisingly physical version: the argument scenes are  more voyeuristic than the sex. It's a paradoxical triumph: melodrama reduced to the portions of a miniature without losing any of its power.

Distributed by Empire Pictures
Opening Oct. 19th

VA SAVOIR (Jacques Rivette, France) **1/2

As with Alain Resnais' past few films, there's nothing particularly wrong with VA SAVOIR, but I'm a little baffled by the acclaim it's received - not to mention its NYFF opening slot and acquisition by Sony Classics. (I can't imagine its lengthy Pirandello interpolations going over well at the UA multiplex where it's now playing!) The story and its treatment are vintage Rivette, using an Italian theater troupe's Paris performance as a launching pad for the film's own exploration of the intersections between theater and life. However, Rivette has been treating  the same subject all his career, expressing the same  view of Paris as a matrix of entanglements and conspiracies. This repetition isn't necessarily a minus: he covered much the same ground brilliantly a few years back in HAUT BAS FRAGILE. However, that film's leaps into the unknown - especially its mix of the thriller and musical genres with reflections on everyday life - were genuinely daring, witty and cathartic. In VA SAVOIR, the characters seem thinner, the chances Rivette takes correspondingly safer. Its best scene - a drunken duel that turns out to be less hazardous than it initially appears - makes a good metaphor for the film itself.

Opening Sept. 29th

WARM WATER UNDER A RED BRIDGE (Shohei Imamura, Japan) ***1/4

Three years ago, Imamura declared that DR. AKAGI would be his final film. Although he's now 75, his retirement didn't last long. WARM WATER UNDER A RED BRIDGE may be his most mature work yet: a relaxed portrait of a small town that still finds room for sexual perversity - the title refers to heroine Saeko (Misa Shimizu)'s tendency to gush water during sex - and quirky humor. Yosuke (the ubiquitous Koji Yakusho) is an unemployed salaryman who decides to visit the fishing village where she lives after a friend tells him that he hid a stolen gold statue there. Once in town, he becomes attracted to Saeko, whom he spots shoplifting in a supermarket, and takes a job as a fisherman. Much of this ground was already covered by Imamura in THE EEL, yet the films' central focus is different: that one revolved around a man's attempts to redeem his violent acts, this one around a woman's struggle to overcome self-loathing. None of the director's previous films have seemed so gentle: WARM WATER UNDER A RED BRIDGE lacks the anarchic energy of his 60s work, the fatalism of THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA and BLACK RAIN and only includes a single eruption of the violence that punctuated THE EEL and DR. AKAGI. Similarly, his direction is relatively restrained, rather than letting action pour over the frame's boundaries. His whimsy sometimes gets the better of him, as in the treatment of an African runner's interactions with the racist fishermen, but all in all, this is as good as late Imamura gets.

Distributed by Cowboy Booking
Opening spring 2002

FAT GIRL (Catherine Breillat, France) ***1/4

FAT GIRL is the kind of film it's almost impossible to discuss seriously, even in a 200-word review, without giving away spoilers. The final five minutes, and the final few lines of dialogue and closing freeze-frame in particular, completely change one's view of what came before. Much of the time (this film, 36 FILLETTE, her novel A MAN FOR THE ASKING), Breillat's work combines two impulses: sexual provocation and a desire to chronicle teenage girls' coming of age. The latter is hardly a unique preoccupation, especially in French cinema, but it's rarely grouped so troublingly with the former. If the final twists of FAT GIRL descend into cheap shock value, Breillat preceeds them with a compelling depiction of two sisters' love/hate relationship. Anais (Anais Reboux) is a chunky 12-year-old who channels her budding libido into incessant snacking - especially on phallic candy - while her 15-year-old sister Elena (Roxane Mesquida) is thinner, prettier and has more luck with the boys. (In an excruciatingly long, intense centerpiece, Anais witnesses Elena's boyfriend deflower her anally.) FAT GIRL grounds itself in interesting characters and a believable view of girls' sexual tentativeness and boys' predatory tendencies, gradually building up to a tense final reel on the road. However, its ending raises all sort of troubling questions, best asked after all my readers have seen the film. I'll just say that, like PARFAIT AMOUR! and ROMANCE, it suggests a Dworkinesque view of rape and violence as part of a continuum with everyday heterosexual behavior, and that this seems disappointingly facile considering what a good job Breillat did of depicting male piggishness earlier on. Am I being a wimp to think that her film would actually be a stronger feminist statement without the sensationalism?

Distributed by Cowboy Booking
Opens October 10th

I'M GOING HOME (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/France) ***

As befits a 92-year-old, Oliveira has already made several films about aging: VOYAGE TO THE BEGINNING OF THE WORLD and INQUIETUDE. At first, I'M GOING HOME, which opens in the middle of an Ionesco performance, seems like kin to INQUIETUDE. However, Oliveira treats the subject of mortality here with a surprisingly light touch. After getting offstage, elderly actor Gilbert Valence (Michel Piccoli) discovers that his wife, daughter and son-in-law have just died in a car accident.  Several months pass, but his life seems to be progressing normally. In fact, it's noticeable that Valance avoids showing outward signs of stress and grief, even taking a syringe-point mugging in stride. Oliveira includes several extended scenes of theater and film performances, but rather than distancing devices, they seem intended to show Valance at work. However, when his vulnerability finally intrudes upon that work, it seems like too little, too late. Additionally, the subplot involving his participation in a French-American co-production of ULYSSES goes nowhere. I'M GOING HOME represents Oliveira at his most immediately likeable, but also at this slightest.

No American distributor.

ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU (Shunji Iwai, Japan) **1/2

The opening minutes of ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU, which combine lovely, Kiarostamiesque images of a boy listening to his Discman in the countryside with BBS text intertitles, suggest a promise the rest of the film never lives up to. Iwai's a talented imagemaker throughout, with a keen eye and ear for the way teenagers find solace in music (although I found the titular singer, a Debussy-inspired waif whose music is connected to musings about "the Ehter," a complete bore), but not much of a storyteller. As a Canadian bud has suggested, Iwai piles on subplots and characters largely to add phony significance and ambition. At times, ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU tries to take on the whole of Japanese youth culture - viewed as a succession of dull schoolwork and petty-to-fatal crime - plus the Internet. Even at almost 2 and 1/2 hours, it collapses under the strain. No matter how much the characters prattle on about Lily and the Ether, their chatter never rises above vague mysticism, while the teens-in-trouble scenes feel rather generic. Perhaps some of the film's awkwardness stems from its genesis as an abandoned novel that Iwai turned into a website, with the final screenplay incorporating readers and participants' messages. As with TIME CODE, the idea of interactive art is usually better than the reality.

No American distributor.

LA LIBERTAD (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina) **1/2
THAT OLD DREAM THAT MOVES (Alain Guiraudie, France) ***

This double bill of two medium-length films, which the NYFF has lumped together as MEN AT WORK raises an odd paradox: LA LIBERTAD is the more interesting of the two, but THAT OLD DREAM THAT MOVES the better, if the more prosaic. On paper, LA LIBERTAD's ultra-minimal view of a dy in the life of a woodcutter (played by real-life woodcutter Misael Saavedra) sounded like my cup of tea. Like many James Benning films, it rests in the intersection of documentary, fiction and the avant-garde, having as much in common with landscape painting as with conventional narrative. Alonso has a real gift for framing and good timing. Around the time I looked at my watch, he began introducing story elements: the woodcutter's trip to sell the posts he cut earlier in the day, his slaughter of an armadillo for dinner. Still, there's not a whole lot to the film. Its beauty is rather conventional, and unlike other obsessive films about work (JEANNE DIELMAN, BEAU TRAVAIL, even Alexander Sokurov's 5-hour video CONFESSION), no larger points seem to be at stake. There may be something implicitly political in focusing so closely and bluntly on rural working-class life, but it's hard to get any sense of the context of Misael's world. When has to take less money than he wants for his pine posts, is he getting ripped off? What exactly does the title mean, given Misael's isolation?

THAT OLD DREAM THAT MOVES seems like a promising launching pad for Guiraudie, who has made three other shorts and recnelty completed his first feature-length screenplay. French social realism may be a well-worn genre, but Guiraudie makes effective use of static camera set-ups and adds a new twist to it by paralleling unemployment - it's set in the final week of a factory's existence, as its machines are being dismantled - and gay sexual frustration. His film is quite enjoyable, but not the kind that incites me to paroxysms of praise. Jean-Luc Godard, who isn't exactly fond of most contemporary cinema,  disagrees.

No American distributors. 

TIME OUT (Laurent Cantet, France) ***1/2

Like Cantet's first feature, HUMAN RESOURCES, TIME OUT takes unemployment  - and father/son relations - as its subject, but it doesn't  address it  via  social realism. Rather than a social or political problem in and of itself, it's a symptom of a larger nihilism: a sterile, alienating world where work only covers up the cracks of a man's crumbling psyche. Rather than naturalism, TIME OUT offers a glacial, tres European variation on the con scheme and road movie genres. (Wim Wenders' THE AMERICAN FRIEND comes to mind.) Telling the story of Vincent (Aurélien Recoing), a man who establishes a fake job to swindle his friends by pretending to organize investments in a UN-coordinated effort to aid African business, it traces his attempts to escape  into something more rewarding, while still keeping his family at arms' length. Cantet establishes a detached feel, filling the frame with  glass, mist and snow, but contrasts this look with a moody, string-laden score. The story is less overtly political than one might expect, although it gets a few digs in at the UN, but it grasps at a very real problem: the inability to find satisfying work. (Vincent probably spends far more time establishing a fake identity, including constant road trips, than it would take to find another job.) Unemployment isn't the villain here; in fact, it may be the spur that  gets Vincent to realize how unhappy he is. Cantet eschews psychology, which may frustrate some spectators, especially in the overly ambiguous final scene, but for the most part, his bet pays off.

No American distributor.

Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN (Alfonso Cuaron, Mexico) ***1/2

A few years ago, a friend told me that she'd like to see Godard direct Howard Stern's PRIVATE PARTS. Well, Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN suggests AMERICAN PIE as directed by Truffaut. It's a raunchy teen sex comedy, full of jokes about cum and farting, but one with real  perspective, political acumen and an underlying melancholy. Its two main characters are Tenoch (Diego Luna), a wealthy politican's son, and his friend Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal), who go on a road trip towards an apocryphal beach with Luisa (Maribel Verdu), a beautiful Spaniard along for the ride. Cuaron's quite sympathetic to Tenoch and Julio, even though they can't see beyond their preoccupations with sex, beer and pot to the world around them. Most American films - and almost all Hollywood ones - would be equally blinkered, but Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN makes the Brechtian decision to curt the sound at certain key points in order to supply background information on the characters, their futures and the places they visit. Similarly, he sometimes begins scenes with a handheld camera close to the actors and gradually pulls further away. This formal manuevering doesn't exactly distance the spectator from the comedy, but they make one realize  how much youth and privilege sustain Tenoch and Julio's antics. Eventually, the story takes several surprising twists, none of which feel contrived.  A return to Mexico for Cuaron after a period in Hollywood (where he's now developing a project for Miramax), Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN became the highest-grossing Mexican film of all time. I'm not surprised: lately, pop cinema hasn't gotten much better than this.

Distributed by IFC Films
Opens spring 2002.

SILENCE...WE'RE ROLLING (Youssef Chahine, Egypt) ***

Chahine has worked in a broad range of styles, but right now the melodrama - especially with a few musical numbers thrown in - seems to be his chosen ground. While his last film, THE OTHER, was grating and overblown, SILENCE...WE'RE ROLLING manages to remain enjoyably over-the-top. Although it includes a fairly large cast of characters, it avoids his 1978 masterpiece ALEXANDRIA WHY?'S proto-SHORT CUT panorama, centering on the love lives of famous singer/actress Malak (Latifa) and her daughter, both of whom arew wooed by the slim  Lamei (Ahmed Wafik). A doctor who wants to become an actor, Lamei intends to use Malak's money and fame as a means to live out his own dreams at her exense. Chahine delivers a rousing, colorful crowd-pleaser, although his ultra-low budget special effects set pieces look pretty ridiculous: he's better off sticking to song and dance.

No American distributor.

MULHOLLAND DRIVE (David Lynch) ***1/2

After I was  disappointed by both LOST HIGHWAY and THE STRAIGHT STORY, MULHOLLAND DRIVE makes a welcome comeback for Lynch, modulating the former's weirdness and obsession with doppelgangers  with the maturity of the latter. It's a formalist's delight, as well as a surprisingly warm film - I never thought I'd use the words "heartfelt lesbian love story" and "David Lynch" in the same sentence. The helter-skeleter reverie of the final 45 minutes demands multiple viewings, although I think I've figured out a reading of the plot that more or less makes narrative sense.  A mystery about identity and disappearance that works on several levels, a cautionary tale about L.A. and a truly imaginative re-working of noir conventions (including the concept of the femme fatale), it's like BLUE VELVET told from a young woman's point of view, with Naomi Watts, who plays an innocent Canadian  would-be actress, channeling Laura Dern. (Her sweetness is convincing enough to make the film's twists all the more surprising.) Instead of finding film roles, she meets a woman suffering from amnesia (Laura Harring) who decides to call herself Rita after seeing a poster of Rita Hayworth in GILDA, and the two decide to investigate what happened to her. Rita only remembers that she survived a car accident on Mulholland Drive.  Eventually, the two fall in love, and at that point, the film goes into a chaotic spiral that's likely to produce as many interpretations as there are spectators. (Lynch juggles  ideas about character and acting the way a DJ plays with the basic tracks he's remixing.)  However, even when I was baffled by what was going on, I was always engaged by MULHOLLAND DRIVE.

Distributed by Universal Focus
Opens October 12th