October 1–17, 2004
The venerable, 42 year-old New York Film Festival is no longer the only game in town, with the Tribeca Film Festival stealing some of its spotlight and, more importantly, growing, maturing, and threatening, perhaps, to become a rival not only in terms of glamour and prestige, but of quality as well. For now though, that threat is a purely potential one – Tribeca’s programming improved immensely last year but was still scattershot and uneven. And, without betraying any sense of defensiveness or desperation in the face of competition, the New York Film Festival offered up one of the best line-ups it has mustered in several years. Although, as usual, the selectiveness of the festival left relatively limited room for unknown quantities, most of the films by the known quantities, whether long-established war-horses of world cinema (Godard, Almodovar, Rohmer, Mike Leigh, Zhang Yimou, Sembene, and Bergman), or those relatively obscure artists who are household names only to those whose homes boast more DVDs than silverware (filmmakers such as Hou Hsiao-hsien, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Arnaud Desplechin, Hong Sang-soo, Raymond Depardon, Lucrecia Martel, and Jia Zhangke), more than justified their inclusion in the program.
Of the 18 films I saw (out of 25), only one (Pablo Trapero’s singularly drab and inconsequential Rolling Family ) struck me as being wholly without interest, and only a couple more as generally forgettable. In the space of just a few days, I saw Godard’s Notre Musique (2004), Rohmer’s Triple Agent (2004) (twice actually, once in a German-subtitled print – happily, a crucial scene plays out in Russian, meaning that even the French in the audience were screwed), “Joe” Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (2004), and Desplechin’s Kings and Queen (2004), each of which, strictly speaking, should have been seen several times, with a week’s isolation, to fully process and appreciate (especially Notre Musique, which, after a single screening at ten in the morning, I don’t feel qualified to comment on in any depth).
These four, along with Sembene’s Moolaadé (2004), Depardon’s 10th District Court (2004), Jia’s The World (2004), and Hou’s Café Lumière (2004) (not to mention the expanded version of Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One [1980/2004]), constituted an embarrassment of riches, a procession of greatness that set the bar ridiculously high and created a dangerously unrealistic expectation of quality that did no favours to the lesser films in the festival (such as In the Battlefields [Danielle Arbid, 2004] and Or (My Treasure) [Keren Yedaya, 2004], two perfectly decent, sensitive films whose sensibilities were simply too prosaic and pedestrian to make much of an impression in the midst of such company), much less the conventional filmic diet that awaited us all post-festival. It was also something of a mystery why, with such a strong over-all line-up, the Opening Night, Centerpiece, and Closing Night films (Look at Me [Agnès Jaoui, 2004], Bad Education [Pedro Almodovar, 2004], and Sideways [Alexander Payne, 2004]) were such uniformly unadventurous choices. No matter: for the general public, these were the more expensive tickets – perhaps this was a subversive strategy of taking (money) from the rich to give (spectators) to the poor?
As far-fetched as that logic may be, it was hard to argue with a festival that could find room for two movies as challenging, puzzling, and demanding (not so much of patience, as of suspension of judgment) as Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Café Lumière. Not that these are audience unfriendly films, assuming an audience that is sensitive and open-minded. Café Lumière is, in its profoundly quiet, recessive way, a deeply sensual film, and Tropical Malady is, in part, a gentle, exquisite love-story. But in their approach to narrative, characterisation, and even (in the case of Tropical Malady) an easily accessible logic, both films risk a dismissive, if not hostile, reception – I overheard one critic contemptuously describing Tropical Malady as “disgusting” (a particularly creepy reaction, given that it’s difficult to imagine what could be construed as disgusting in the film, unless it’s the spectacle of a beautifully portrayed, sensitively acted homosexual romance).
Weerasethakul (who, happily, often goes by the more manageable nickname, “Joe”), is the younger and less established of the two filmmakers, with only two previous features to his credit (besides the collaborative and little-seen Adventures of Iron Pussy ): the quasi-documentary Exquisite-Corpse experiment Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), and 2002′s Blissfully Yours, one of the most singular and beautiful movies of recent memory. Tropical Malady is, if possible, an even more unusual film, a relatively straightforward love-story that transforms itself, midway through, into something much stranger, darker, and more uncategorisable, a mythic, supernatural fable whose connections to the earlier part of the film are ambiguous and slippery. Tropical Malady is, strictly speaking, two different films, each with their own credit sequence, narrative, and style. The first has its own strengths and pleasures, not to mention its own mysterious and foreboding quality. But it’s the second that plunges us into a world entirely its own, expanding the medium in ways that very few films, particularly outside of the avant-garde tradition, have attempted.
Cafe Lumière confounds expectations almost as stubbornly, but in a far less spectacular manner. Hou’s films have always been marked by their slow, languorous, even rhythms, and by the detachment with which he views his characters. But here that approach is taken to an extreme – Café Lumière is a movie whose narrative, thematic, and structural qualities are muted almost to the point of invisibility. Unusual compared even to films like Jeanne Dielman (Chantal Akerman, 1975), Satantango (Béla Tarr, 1994), or, for that matter, Blissfully Yours, films which reject false narrative structures in order to concentrate on those long stretches in our lives in which nothing in particular happens, but whose formal qualities are explicit and unmistakable, Cafe Lumière appears, for much of its length, to be both dramatically and formally shapeless. More than any other film in the festival (more than any other film that comes to mind, in fact), Café Lumière demands patience, not to mention a measure of faith that those without a prior acquaintance with Hou’s films may not be willing to extend. When you do finally begin to perceive what Hou is up to, though, the exquisite and quite unique beauty of the film blossoms. For this is more or less explicitly a film about the fullness of empty moments and places, about the sounds and spaces which surround our lives. Café Lumière is a profoundly delicate, meditative film, with a tone and mood entirely its own.
Both Hong Song-soo’s Woman is the Future of Man (2004) and Jia Zhangke’s The World approach a similar extreme of recessiveness, a willful refusal to lead us by the hand or artificially emphasise the moments of “significance.” These are films in which a sense of distance operates on multiple levels – the distance between the characters within the film, the distance from which the filmmaker observes his protagonists, and the distance between the filmmaker and the viewer. Woman is the Future of Man is the first film I’ve seen of Hong’s, and I found it somewhat baffling and difficult to engage with, though intriguing for precisely that reason. Hong’s three protagonists, two old friends and the woman who was the past lover of each, lead lives of quiet desperation, their interactions driven by neediness, envy, and regret. It’s a familiar enough dynamic, but Hong’s film is distinctive for its disinclination to ask us to embrace these people – their unhappiness inspires some measure of sympathy, but Hong undercuts easy identification by making his protagonists prickly, cold, and petty.
Desperation and disconnectedness are persistent themes in Jia Zhangke’s work as well, from Xiao Wu (1997), through his masterpiece Platform (2000), to Unknown Pleasures (2002). And The World is no great departure. What sets it apart from the earlier films is its setting, a sprawling, surreal theme park which features miniature replicas of many of the earth’s great structures – the pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the World Trade Center (in one of the most memorable moments a park worker boasts proudly, “Ours are still standing”), and others. Because of its location in this bizarre, ersatz environment, The World plays out in a dramatically different register than the earlier films, despite being otherwise quite similar. Some, understandably enough, have criticised the film for being over-explicit and obvious in its reliance on this ready-made, grotesque example of superficial interconnectedness, globalisation, and commercialisation. Maybe. But this observation strikes me as, itself, somewhat obvious – I think it’s a bold decision on Jia’s part to risk such criticism, and I think the setting works, precisely because this theme park does in fact exist (I believe Jia may be combining several locations into one, but if he is manipulating reality he is not inventing it). There’s a documentary-like charge to his contemplation of this bizarre phenomenon, and the dynamic between the surreal, absurd, futuristic surface of the film (not only the theme park, but the cell-phone inspired animated interludes which punctuate the story) and the banal, anti-dramatic lives of the characters is a complex and exciting one. This feels like a step forward, compared to Unknown Pleasures, which was a fine film but, following on from Platform, something of a sideways step.
In stark contrast, three of the festival’s films lay at the opposite end of the spectrum from these quiet, doggedly low-key, and restrained films, instead embracing the conventions of melodrama. Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers (2004), Zhang Yimou’s second homage to the wuxia genre, is an often stunning action film, boasting several exhilarating and beautiful set pieces, though it grows increasingly wearying and commercial-minded. Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake (2004) is an equally well-crafted and far more personal film. But it is disappointingly simplistic, its heroine beautifully drawn but too purely good for the film to achieve any depth (for a fascinating contrast, compare Chabrol’s Story of Women , a much more complicated, challenging film, whose greedy, small-minded, selfish heroine never inspires the kind of admiration we feel for Vera, while still allowing Chabrol to raise the same questions about abortion, the condition of working class women, and the brutality of institutional justice).
Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen, on the other hand, is a film which embraces the conventions of melodrama, only to use them to create something completely unique and inspired. Kings and Queen is a sprawling, flamboyant film of high drama and low comedy, of clashing tones and styles and performances. Postmodern in the best sense of the word, this is a film of multiple, and often incompatible, realities. It is the story of two characters – Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), an affluent, well-situated single mother with a dark past and a dying father, and Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), her unstable but sensitive ex-husband who is struggling to find a place for himself in the world – whose lives touch but remain largely separate from each other. Each half of the film, and to some degree each scene, has its own distinctive mood and style. Desplechin is a profoundly generous artist, and his generosity extends equally to his characters and to his audience. He is always subtle and perceptive, but his work seems animated by a nagging fear of inflicting on his actors and his viewers material that is pedestrian, perfunctory, or measured. He is intent on making every character and every moment vivid and memorable, and the result is a movie bursting at the seams.
Kings and Queen stubbornly calls attention to its own status as fiction, but does so ecstatically, joyfully, and never at the expense of its characters. Desplechin’s love for his protagonists is palpable, and his flights of fancy, his wanderings across the spectrum of fictional modes, always come to rest in them. In so many ways, Kings and Queen exults in its own artificiality, but we never feel that Nora, Ismael, or the others are artificial or weightless. This is largely thanks to the actors, of course, but it has a great deal to do with the fact that Desplechin’s cinema, like Cassavetes’, Pialat’s, and Techiné’s, is founded on human behaviour, on the formless, illogical flow of his characters’ emotions.
Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé could certainly be seen as melodramatic as well, although Sembene has long since perfected a style of filmmaking that balances accessibility and a near-Brechtian distancing. Like so many of Sembene’s films, Moolaadé centres on a communal crisis which plays out over the course of a day or so in a small village. Here the crisis arises when four young girls refuse to undergo the female circumcision ritual, escaping from the clutches of the village elders and seeking protection from Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly), a middle-aged woman who believes the circumcision ritual to be a destructive one. The movie develops into a stand-off between the village elders, who demand that the girls relent, and Colle, who refuses to give in and invokes moolaadé, the traditional and inviolable principle of protection. As usual in Sembene’s cinema, this stand-off provides the movie with a palpable tension and suspense, while the unity of time and location create a quality of stasis. Sembene’s movies, especially Emitai (1971), Ceddo (1977), Camp de Thiaroye (1987) and Guelwaar (1992), consist largely of debate, negotiation, and the attempt to maintain order within a community. Moolaadé is distinctive primarily for being, more explicitly than in the past, directed towards an audience of Africans of all nations (the village is not identified as belonging to any specific country), and for expressing a relative optimism, a conviction that change is possible, that suffering is not in vain. Sembene is far too sophisticated to make a purely crowd-pleasing, inspiring movie – he portrays the strength of the opposition with too much clarity for that – but Moolaadé is a surprisingly affirmative and rousing call to action.
Eric Rohmer’s Triple Agent is the fourth period piece of his long and prolific career. He is well known for working in series – the Six Moral Tales, the Comedies and Proverbs, and, most recently, the four seasonal Tales – but if it is tempting to group together the period pieces (The Marquise of O  and Perceval , which separated the Moral Tales and the Comedies and Proverbs, and his last film, The Lady and the Duke ), to do so would be to ignore the fact that these films are as distinctive from each other as they are from the rest of his oeuvre. Triple Agent is set in Paris in the 1930s and focuses on two characters, Fyodor (Serge Renko), a White Russian general who has fled to France, and his adoring Greek wife Arsinoe (Katerina Didaskalu). True to form, Triple Agent is almost all talk. But (and this also is true of all Rohmer’s films), the words are not important in themselves – Rohmer’s subject has always been how we use language to mask our thoughts and feelings, to disguise our inner lives. Words in his films are a form of distraction, misdirection, a way of keeping the world at arm’s length. Triple Agent is, however unconventionally, a spy film, a mystery. This may seem like an odd choice for Rohmer, who is certainly not thought of as a genre filmmaker, but if you reflect on his obsession with the way in which people hide behind words, creating complex personas to hide their true motives (especially from themselves), it seems remarkable that it has taken so long for him to take on such a project.
The mystery of the film is the nature of Fyodor’s true allegiance (to the Whites, the Reds, the Nazis, or none of the above) and convictions (if he in fact has any), a truth Arsinoe struggles to discover but which proves impossible to grasp. Rohmer is an unparalleled master at charting the most minute fluctuations of the human personality, and Triple Agent is, above all, a fascinating double character-study. Fyodor is charming, confident, and outgoing, but devious to the core, to such an extent that it seems to be less a choice than a fact of his being. Arsinoe loves him helplessly but the nature of such a love becomes increasingly questionable as it becomes apparent that she knows nothing of her husband or his convictions. It’s easy not to notice, because they are often so charming and appealing, and because Rohmer seems himself to withhold judgment entirely, but his protagonists are almost always more or less difficult to embrace – sometimes merely insufferably pretentious or needy (My Night at Maud’s , A Good Marriage , The Green Ray ); sometimes highly questionable morally or politically (Claire’s Knee , The Marquise of O, The Lady and the Duke). Triple Agent is no different – both Fyodor and Arsinoe, the one deeply deceptive, the other seemingly without any convictions of her own, besides her devotion to her husband, ought to repel us. But Rohmer brings them to life so fully that we are drawn to them in spite of ourselves. Rohmer’s films boast a remarkable dialectic between naturalism and stylisation (they are stylised precisely because they concentrate so exclusively on the moments in their characters’ lives in which they are conversing with each other), and between feelings of affection and repulsion towards the characters.
Lucrecia Martel’s The Holy Girl is similarly free of easily embraceable protagonists and even more explicitly concerned with moral ambiguity. Set at a hotel during a medical convention, its two protagonists are Amalia (Maria Alche), a far-from-innocent young girl, preoccupied equally with the trappings of religious faith and with the stirrings of her sexuality, and the middle-aged Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), attending the conference, who sets in motion a chain of events that spiral out of his control when he purposely brushes against Amalia in a crowd. Martel, whose first film, La Ciénaga (2001), was equally memorable, has an amazing talent for creating a heightened and uncanny atmosphere, without resorting to obvious stylistic effects. And Amalia is a truly unique creation, a stubbornly unknowable young girl, as creepy as she is sympathetic.
The one documentary in the festival’s main program, Raymond Depardon’s 10th District Court is almost absurdly entertaining and fascinating – I found myself wishing it were twice as long. Depardon secured permission to film the proceedings in a particular Parisian courtroom, and the film consists simply of a series of cases, many concerning relatively minor infractions (drunk driving, insulting a police officer, etc.), overseen by a single judge. As in several similar films by Frederick Wiseman (especially Juvenile Court  and Domestic Violence 2 ), it is revelatory how engrossing and hypnotic the banal workings of a judicial system are. For the most part, 10th District Court presents us with nothing more than the spectacle of men and women, occupying different positions in relation to the institution they find themselves a part of, talking to one another. Though there is more at stake in some of the cases than in others (the defendants are highly diverse, both in terms of race, nationality, and class, and several of the cases concern immigrants whose continued habitation in France is threatened), all of the cases illustrate the fact that a judicial system, however impersonal and arbitrary it may seem, is in fact a confrontation between laws and regulations on the one hand, and on the other, human interaction and individual personality. There is a great deal of comedy in 10th District Court, most of it resulting from the particular attitude of the defendants, so many of whom seem to fail to grasp the fundamental fact that this judge, who for the most part comes off as fair-minded and tolerant, is in a position of power, and that it would behoove them to take a polite attitude towards her, or at least to refrain from insulting her. One after the other of the defendants adopt attitudes that seem obviously to harm their cause, saying the wrong things, talking way too much, providing unnecessarily incriminating information (at one point the judge speaks for all of us watching when she says to one defendant, “It’s true, when you talk you aggravate your case”). The subject of 10th District Court is essentially the absurdity of human behaviour, and not only on the part of the defendants – the judge proves herself to be fallibly human as well when her grasp of the law is challenged, seemingly with reason, by one defendant, and she reacts by becoming angry and defensive. 10th District Court, like Wiseman’s movies, appears unspectacular and plain at first glance, but if you engage with it, it proves endlessly rewarding.
Besides missing Almodovar’s Bad Education, David Gordon Green’s Undertow (2004), Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane (2004), and, most painfully, Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband (2004), I saw very little of the several sidebar programs surrounding the main program. The annual Views from the Avant-Garde weekend included programs of new work by Ernie Gehr, Michele Smith, Lewis Klahr, and Nina Fonoroff, as well as an hilarious program of early 8 mm films by George and Mike Kuchar, recently preserved by Anthology Film Archives, and the first new film in more than 26 years by the great Peter Kubelka, Truth and Poetry, a found-footage film made from rushes of Austrian advertisements. There were special programs which included a screening of the seminal Cinema Novo film Macunaíma (Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, 1969), the film of Miles Davis’ performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, Miles Electric (Murray Lerner, 2004), and Ken Burns’ new film on Jack Johnson, Unforgivable Blackness (2004) (reportedly a very strong work, even according to those who generally have misgivings about Burns), as well as a sidebar retrospective of films produced by the Shaw Brothers. And, most intriguingly, the festival included a series of programs devoted to the hundreds of films made all over Europe under the auspices of the Marshall Plan, as part of the US government’s attempt to encourage European economic recovery after WWII.
Having seen only a small part of these special programs, I can’t speak to the breadth that they almost certainly bestowed on the festival as a whole. But I can testify to the depth of the main program, which also included the newly expanded version of Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One, a true gift to the committed cinephile and a movie that would have overwhelmed a lesser group of films – instead it was an added pleasure in a festival that set a standard hopefully destined to be equalled next year.