The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

September 23–October 9, 2005

I would be remiss if this year’s recap of the New York Film Festival neglected a tip of the hat to my predecessor, Jared Rapfogel, whose astute and exhaustive coverage of the last five cinematic forays at Alice Tully Hall can be found in the archives of this website. Now that I have buttered Jed up, I shall venture a bone of contention with a complaint he issued repeatedly in his NYFF reports. With less that 25 programmed features (compared to 200 in Toronto), the NYFF gives the aura of being an exclusive venue that cherry-picks the finest films from other top-tier festivals for their US premiere. Jed finds such a narrow concentration of titles to be stingy, elitist and grossly misrepresentative of the plenitude of cinematic experiences to be had among the thousands of features issued globally each year. As a fellow advocate of cinematic art in all of its infinite splendour, I take an opposing view: I find it quite refreshing, among all the heavily programmed festivals that leave viewers reeling in their minds trying to recall the five features they saw in a given day, to have a concentrated selection of films, better enabling a concentrated response. Sometimes it’s not about how many films you can see, but how much you can see in them. And if the Festival does exude an aura of presumptuousness in their limited selections, presenting them as the Best of the Fests and therefore the Best of Contemporary Cinema, all the better for me to engage that assertion, slouching in my chair with a hard stare and shouting back, “Oh, really?” and learn something from the argument.

However, the cost of that chair constitutes my own grievance with the Festival. The first time I attended NYFF five years ago, tickets started at $10; this year it was $17. As a neophyte to world cinema five years ago, I doubt I would have paid that much to try out the revelatory experiences offered by the Festival, which means that I would have missed out on my first encounter with Platform (Jia Zhangke, 2000), the first NYFF film I ever saw and one of my all-time favourite films. I find the prohibitive costs of attending the Festival far more upsettingly elitist than its programming, and quite antithetical to a noble mission that I hope the Festival espouses: to promote world cinema for all people willing to experience it, not just those who can afford a ticket that costs more than most people’s daily meals.

Of the 19 features I saw, the one most worthy of a $17 admission was Christi Puiu’s second feature Moartea domnului Lazarescu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) (2005). It is the first Romanian film I’ve ever seen, and for all the abundant sociological detail it offers of its country, it also makes for an unforgettable universal statement on how humans collectively deal with death and dying. The film begins unassumingly, as the camera just sits with Mr Lazarescu, an alcoholic retiree, nursing another hangover with more booze, only to double in pain. He asks his upstairs neighbours for painkillers, and after an extended back-and-forth they call an ambulance. This interaction takes close to an hour to unfold within the confines of Lazarescu’s shabby apartment and the stairwell outside, which may try the patience of viewers wanting action – but there’s an insistence here that we experience these moments under Mr Lazarescu’s sluggish rhythm, that we really stick with this sloppy, silly, somewhat unlikeable drunk. This ball-and-chain relationship with the lead character proves to be a vital set-up, for once the paramedics arrive the narrative transforms into a whirlwind journey through an endless night of hospitals and red tape. A harried ensemble of nightshift nurses and doctors alternate between weary, sardonic wisecracks and outbursts of Hippocratic compassion, as they process Lazarescu like a moaning piece of rotting meat through waiting and examination rooms. Every performance in the extensive ensemble rings with authenticity: Ion Fiscuteanu as Mr Lazarescu, his neighbours, the matronly paramedic who escorts him throughout the night, and all the doctors, nurses and patients in each of four hospitals. Collectively they bristle, bicker and prattle over Mr Lazarescu’s fate as if it were the fate of their society (and in many ways it is). Shot with documentary objectivity yet choreographed like an elaborate death ritual, the film plays like the best episode of ER ever made, as if directed by Frederick Wiseman or Robert Altman on a good day.

My second favourite experience was À travers la forêt (Through the Forest) (2005), an hour-long, deliriously romantic tour de force, shot on a shoestring budget whose limited means enables its cinematic brilliance to blossom. Director Jean-Paul Civeyrac takes a simple, B-movie premise of Armelle, a young girl haunted by her lover’s death, and winds it into ten of the most stunningly choreographed long takes executed in recent memory. Through a series of mostly interior sets, the camera’s gaze stays invariably tight, whether poring over Armelle’s mournful expressions or exploring every floridly coloured inch of the interiors – combined with the subtle, supernatural shifts in lighting and tone, each scene seems to unfold into two or three. Perhaps the dizzying aestheticism of the film diverts attention from the film-schoolish treatment of death and grieving – Civeyrac, a film school teacher, is over 40, but the film feels like it was injected with the hormones of an unstable adolescent, tapped directly into a range of uncluttered emotions, whether the thrill of lust or the chill of death (it’s been a while since my palms sweated like a nervous prom date while watching a movie). Much of that effect is due to the key cast member, a hereto-unknown named Camille Berthomier, who also writes and sings a couple goofy songs à la Jacques Demy. Under Civeyrac’s infatuated direction, this first time actress is rendered emotionally and physically naked – not even Anna Karina had to go through so much under Godard. But I’ll be damned if she doesn’t come out of this as one of the hottest actresses in all of Europe.

Les Amants reguliers

A less immediately gratifying film, but one that lingers with uncommon persistence, is Les Amants reguliers (The Regular Lovers) (2005), the latest by Phillippe Garrel, a director who confounds me like few working today. The only other film I’ve seen of his, J’entends plus la guitare (I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar) (1991), was so determinedly fixed on close-ups of his characters doing nothing in particular as their lives fell apart, that I couldn’t stand watching it even as I registered shocks of recognition with my own life. Garrel starts his new three-hour opus by doing something similar, yet in such an explosive context – the May ‘68 Paris revolt – that it can’t help but be riveting. In many ways the riots that open the film invite comparison to Spielberg’s handling of D-Day in Saving Private Ryan, but only to underscore the gaping difference between Spielberg’s craft and Garrel’s art. Garrel’s fixed-camera long takes linger with uncommon concentration on the violence, as if to dip it in amber and preserve it for infinite reflection – each shot is a nostalgic recollection of images that burn forever in one’s mind, but chastened with an endless wondering of how it happened and what became of all this revolutionary fervour. It is simply one of the greatest film sequences I have ever seen, probably the best hour of cinema I witnessed at this festival. The rest of the film isn’t as easy to champion – it morphs into a very, very long pas de deux between one of the radicals (Louis Garrel) and a sculptress (Clotilde Hesme), in the midst of a lot of nothing going on. It may well be that once the riots died down, these kids had no real sense of purpose other than to fend for themselves emotionally or otherwise – and with that goes the narrative. That doesn’t make for easy viewing, but there is something here that is determined to rekindle the spirit of the French New Wave, that insists that it didn’t die with La maman et la putaine (The Mother and the Whore) (1973) even as it treads dangerously towards mimicking Jean Eustache’s restless downward spiral of inquiry. Slowly I’m being convinced that Garrel is the closest thing we have today to Carl Dreyer, in terms of how doggedly he chases after a moment and tries to immortalise and interrogate it beyond all reason.

These three films alone demonstrate that European cinema, which I once found stagnant beyond recovery, is very much alive and kicking – though other films, such as Dorota Kedzierzawska’s Jestem (I Am) (2005), aka “Mouchette for Dummies”, or Patrice Chéreau’s restless and emotionally brittle Gabrielle (2005), attest to the perseverance of the bland and the bad. Teetering in between is the latest by the Dardenne Brothers, the Palme d’Or-winning L’Enfant (2005). Over a decade of high-profile, legislation-turning work, the Dardennes have fused Marxist social theory, Christian spirituality and old-school melodrama into a winning formula that would make Pasolini green with either envy or nausea. The new film works like a summation of everything the Dardennes have tried in their previous work. The title may refer to the baby born to an unwed teenage couple, but it’s more likely to refer to the impulsively immature father (Jérémie Renier, perhaps a shade too old to play adolescence convincingly), a small-time hood who sells the baby to the black market for some easy euros. After the mother collapses in a hysterical fit, he decides to get the baby back – if it were only that easy. The Dardennes set up the father’s downfall masterfully in the first act by alternating scenes of his illicit dealings with moments of lyrical whimsy between him and his girl, as they play childish pranks on each other and roll around a lot. The two worlds inevitably collide such that he can no longer thrive in either, leading to a series of desperate acts culminating in a bravado action sequence, perhaps the most masterful cinema the Dardennes have ever filmed (and the most commercial). L’Enfant is as “perfect” a film as one could ask for in terms of construction and execution, and the finale delivers genuine emotional power even as it rips off Bresson wholesale. But I am anxious that the Dardenne formula has become so streamlined as to risk becoming cliché.

The American contingent showed encouraging signs of revitalising or else repackaging its own clichés of sex and violence, oppressors and underdogs, and generally fucked up families (i.e. Noah Baumbach’s affecting but overworked The Squid and the Whale). Bubble (2005), the first of several low-budget digital video productions promised by Indiewood icon Steven Soderbergh, is an intriguing though not entirely successful foray into realist filmmaking in a uniquely American idiom. Soderbergh uses three non-professionals, each with remarkable screen presence and roughhewn beauty, to enact an unlikely love triangle/sociological study. Soderbergh’s camera treats the terrain of post-industrial Ohio and its sub-living wage inhabitants like a gothic alien planet à la Antonioni – shadows are long, spaces are barren, and everything looks spiritually bankrupt except for the genuine looks on people’s faces. If he really sticks to these lo-fi productions and doesn’t grow bored with portraying the salt of the earth, maybe he will get somewhere.

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), George Clooney’s second feature, is nothing short of a clarion call for journalistic fearlessness in the face of the evil axis – secretive government, crass commercialism and mindless celebrity culture – that threatens to compromise the integrity and substance of the news media. The film’s use of luminous black and white (shot more in the sterile modernist style of ‘60s Godard and Pennebaker than lush ‘50s noir) is a brilliant stroke – it creates a seductive, nostalgic texture to indulge the viewer while making the original black and white TV footage of witch hunt senator Joseph McCarthy feel chillingly contemporary. Apart from those virtues and a first-rate cast led by David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow, what we have is a glossy, self-enclosed and claustrophobic celebration of how We (the Left) defeated Them (the Right) 50 years ago and how We can do it again, with about as much feel-good subtlety as a campus rally.


Less hagiographical but no less solipsistic, Bennett Miller’s Capote (2005) is an absorbing account of how Truman Capote wrote his most famous book, In Cold Blood, and exercised questionable ethics as both a journalist and human being in doing so. Philip Seymour Hoffman runs the show as Capote – it must be an actor’s wet dream to play an egomaniac – showcasing a wide range of emotions behind a rigid veneer of gay chic and squeaky voice. The film comes across as a devastating portrait of a man whose powers to charm and manipulate were so formidable that he essentially manipulated himself and others into a moral quagmire where none could reach him. Such a condemnation amounts to a cruel irony in light of viewers who will walk away from this film still captivated by Hoffman’s evocation of the Capote mystique.

Astoundingly, documentaries, perhaps the most vital genre of the moment, made a lacklustre showing, represented only by the perfunctorily executed, cable-ready Methadonia (Michel Negroponte, 2005) and the unabashedly partisan Nekam Achat Mishtey Eyna (Avenge But One of My Two Eyes) (Avi Mograbi, 2005), a structurally intriguing documentary that tries to fathom the Israeli soul and its longstanding hatred of its enemies – who, the movie seems to argue, exist out of the Israeli mindset’s need for them more than anything else. Mograbi offers a number of fresh views on his nation’s longstanding culture of enmity, and though I welcome his righteous indignation at his fellow Israelis, I can’t help wishing it would do more than point out the error of his own people’s ways. On the other side of the checkpoint, Paradise Now (2005), a high profile feature by Hany Abu-Assad, one of Palestine’s most prominent directors, chronicles the final days of two suicide bombers, as they leave their hapless auto mechanic jobs in search of glory as terrorist martyrs, only to have their plans go awry in execution. I am a big fan of Abu-Assad’s documentary Ford Transit (2002), an irreverent and surprisingly artful look at Palestinian bus drivers, full of black humour and self-reflexive asides about life in the Occupied Zone. Sadly, little of that film’s real-life spark can be found in this fiction feature, which falters from the onset by failing to set up the inner life of these suicide bombers in terms other than the familiar. The plot, with its love interest, action twists and declamatory dialogue driving home the standard social arguments against oppression, feels mechanically commercial. The result is a film that seems ripe to win awards for its social importance regardless of its cinematic qualities.

The festival’s many sidebar presentations included the restoration of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passsenger (1975), and the long-lost silent Beyond the Rocks (Sam Wood, 1922), notable for being the only onscreen pairing of Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino. Among the two avant-garde programs I attended, my favourite film was the latest by Peter Tscherkassky, Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005). The only other film I’ve seen of his is Outer Space (1999), an avant-garde horror movie that takes footage from the cheesy ‘80s supernatural rape flick The Haunting and transforms it into something truly chilling by literally taking the celluloid upon which the film is printed and tearing it to shreds, as if to get at the material heart of cinematic horror. He attempts something similar here with the Western ethos of wilderness and violence, using no less iconic a source material than Sergio Leone’s Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) (1966). Tscherkassky focuses his found footage more on Eli Wallach than on Eastwood, probably because he likes how Wallach resembles a cockroach, as the image of his face crawls through a ragged, scraped, bleached black and white revision of Leone’s Western apocalypse, reduced to glinty stares, gunfights and graveyards.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

Though none of them ranked among my very favourite films at the Festival, the selections from Asia were quite strong; combined with the massive Shochiku studios retrospective running as a Festival sidebar, Asia – especially Japan – had a formidable presence at this year’s event. South Korea made an impression with three films, the most vigorous being Chinjeolhan geumjass (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) (Park Chan-wook, 2005). From the graceful yet ominous credit sequence, Park’s imagination is even more agile than in Oldboy (2003), as he takes the viewer through an elaborate series of flashbacks that draw us closer-by-the-inch to the mysterious machinations of Lee Geum-ja, who proves to be one mother of an avenging angel. Played by Lee Yeoung-ae, in a role most actresses would kill for, Geum-ja manages to be both a sweet-faced servant of compassion and a ruthless ass-kicking bitch, sometimes simultaneously – this character’s morality has more sinuous curves than a hypothetical love scene between Angelina Jolie and Scarlett Johansson. The same can be said for Park’s handling of story and mood, which, while at times dubious in the way he treats themes of rape, child abuse and capital punishment with more flippancy than anyone else could (or should) get away with, is never predictable in the least. He ranges from crude comic relief to gory slapstick to heart-rending pathos to all of the above. This is the work of a major filmmaker churning fearlessly through uncharted waters.

Less substantial in comparison, despite its incendiary subject matter, is Im Sang-soo’s Geuddae geusaramdeul (The President’s Last Bang) (2005). This film stirred up scandalous publicity in South Korea by depicting the 1979 assassination of Prime Minister Park Chung-hee as a bloody comic farce, the PM a womanising old fogey in search of skinny young broads and beef testicles. Plotting his assassination is the head of the Korean CIA, and while we follow his organisation and execution step-by-step, we never really get a sense of his motivation for such a drastic course of action. It could be that those explanatory sequences were excised following the libel suit raised by Park’s surviving family. I don’t totally trust Im Sang-soo’s approach to the material, whether he’s really trying to get at the bottom of what happened or if he just wants to mock everyone and everything as ridiculous, and the way he treats the shootouts seems so stylised to the point of revelling in the re-enactments, which strikes me as nihilistic and juvenile. But maybe that kind of instability of tone is what it takes when dealing with subject matter that’s so loaded and any kind of “authoritative” account must come into question.

The two Hong Sang-soo films I’ve seen, Oh! Soo-jung (Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors) (2000) and his new film Geuk jang jeon (A Tale of Cinema) (2005), have much in common: a rhyming two-part narrative structure and a lot of foolhardy male ego exacted on women-as-vessels of sexual fulfillment and shame. Having said that, I much prefer the new film, because it seems far more stylistically audacious, employing a vibrant colour palette, confident and purposeful use of cheesy ‘70s-era zooms, and most startling of all, a film-within-a-film structure that took me a long time to figure out. I’ll keep my comments at a minimum to resist spoiling the structural blindside that occurs in the middle of the narrative, but I will say that it gave a fun and refreshing twist on Hong’s cinematic fixations on male ego (I still wonder just how preferable he is to Kim Ki-duk, even if he happens to be more self-critical). With multiple layers of irony, it’s a fascinating entry into the eternal theme of life imitating art imitating life.

Three Times

The film I had the most difficulty coming to terms with was the latest by one of my favourites, Hou Hsiao-hsien. Zui hao de shi guang (Three Times) examines the possibilities of life and love within three distinct periods of Taiwanese history – 1911, 1966 and 2005 – and comes across as both a bold formal experiment and a repackaging of familiar Hou elements. Shu Qi and Chang Chen play the lovers in all three episodes. The title of the 1966 segment, “A Time for Love”, sounds like a Wong Kar-wai movie, and it plays like a Wong–Hou hybrid. A series of long, attentive shots of the pool hall, where she works and he marks time before returning to his military stint, evolves into a road movie of missed encounters and burgeoning desire as the two try to reconnect weeks later. Of the three episodes, this is the most accomplished in terms of rhythm, emotional buildup, and attentiveness to the setting it has constructed – perhaps because the period depicted is that of Hou’s own youth. The 1911 segment, “A Time for Freedom”, is archer in mood and meaning, as a teahouse girl’s bid to be bought out of bondage contrasts with her patron’s participation in the Taiwanese democracy movement. The deliberate pacing may reflect the rigid lifestyle represented, but it seems like little of an advance from Hou’s masterpiece Flowers of Shanghai (1998). Hou tries to add something new in shooting this segment as a silent film with intertitles – though his given rationale was as much out of respect for cultural authenticity (the characters are supposed to speak a Taiwanese dialect that no longer exists) as for cinematic homage. The final segment, “A Time for Youth” goes deeper into the darkness of contemporary Taipei youth Hou essayed in Qianxi manbo (Millennium Mambo) (2001), with Shu Qi as a goth rock singer involved in a meaningless tryst with Chen as a photographer. Much is made of the way people see each other almost exclusively as images, whether through the photographs they hang on their walls, the tattoos and expressive clothing they wear, or the text they read from each other on their cell phones and computers. It’s nice to see Hou carrying Antonioni’s torch into the 21st century, but Hou, not unlike recent Jia Zhangke, seems a bit too focused on the emptiness of these people’s lives to achieve true empathy with them, and the results risk being as empty as their objects of regard are made out to be. Still, the level of Hou’s craftsmanship, his camera’s ability to transform human activity into the pure play of light and movement (especially in the first section where the movement of pool balls becomes an expression of love, youth and freedom) is at an all time high, and makes this self-contained trilogy well worth watching.

Japan was amply represented by Aleksandr Sokurov’s Solntse (The Sun) (2005), an uneven but graceful depiction of Emperor Hirohito’s acceptance of Japan’s World War Two defeat and his own humanity; Shinya Tsukamoto’s unspeakably awful Haze (2005); and Kamyu nante shiranai (Who’s Camus Anyway?) (2005), a lovingly playful fresco of life in Japanese film school by long-absent director Mitsuo Yanagimachi. But the 43-film Shochiku retrospective took the cake. Ranging from one of Japan’s earliest great works, the silent Rojo no Reikon (Souls on the Road) (Minoru Morata, 1921), to affable octagenarian Yôji Yamada’s latest, Kakushi-ken: oni no tsume (The Hidden Blade) (2004), this sidebar contained enough great cinema on display to fill two or more years’ worth of New York Film Festivals. It would take an entire article to do justice to the retrospective and all the historical and aesthetic developments it encompassed, from Ozu to Mizoguchi to Kobayashi to Kitano.


I chose to hone in on the films of Hiroshi Shimizu, whose masterpiece Utajo oboegaki (Notes of an Itinerant Performer) (1941) startled me a year ago in Berlin. It was a joy to become more familiar to his distinctively lithe handling of rhythm and staging, in (Minato no nihon musume) Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933), Hanagata senshu (The Star Athlete) (1937) and, most breathtaking of all, Kanzashi (Ornamental Hairpin), featuring Kinuyo Tanaka and Chishu Ryu falling in love in a charmed mountain spa. Shimizu enjoyed a retrospective at Hong Kong last year, one that, judging from the few films that reached New York, needs to be duplicated elsewhere. One could probably say the same for many of the other directors who were showcased, such as Yasujiro Shimazu, whose Tonari no Yae-chan (Our Neighbor Miss Yae) (1934) is a masterful transformation of situational comedy into societal inquiry. Best of all, these films, screened at the smaller Walter Reade Theater, cost only $10, though they were no less of a discovery than their overpriced counterparts playing in the main venue. And with so many diverse and wonderful selections to choose from, the Shochiku sidebar may very well have represented Jed Rapfogel’s idea of what an ideal New York Film Festival might look like.