Everyone ElseAs always, but this year perhaps more than usual, the unveiling of a new New York Film Festival slate was greeted with accusations that the festival was doing… well, exactly what it’s supposed to be doing: presenting a highly selective summing-up of What’s Happening In World Cinema, Arthouse Division. For some of the NYFF’s critics, the festival’s very mandate is the problem: too elitist, too highbrow, too distant from popular tastes. For others, it’s a matter of nitpicking over which films made the cut, and which didn’t. (This time around, Jacques Audiard’s Un Prophet [A Prophet] and the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man drew the most missing-in-action complaints.)

Neither of these criticisms ever carried much weight with me. To take the second one first: there will always be disagreements over individual selections, especially with such a relatively small number of films screened (30 features in 2009, plus various sidebars and special events). As for the faux-populist argument: when, exactly, did New York City become a place where mainstream moviegoers were left out in the cold, forced to live off scraps from Netflix? I can’t quite see why it’s cause for grumbling that the city’s highest-profile film festival is unabashedly devoted to the ideal of cinema as art, equally as deserving of cultural prestige (and deep-pocket funding) as classical music, say, or modern painting. Really, the filthy rich could be doing much worse things with their tax deductions.

So: to the movies. For me, the standout film of this year’s festival was Alle Anderen (Everyone Else), the second feature by the young German writer/director Maren Ade. Chris (Lars Eidinger), a gifted but floundering architect, is given to passivity and mood swings, whereas his girlfriend Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) is more aggressive, outgoing and upbeat. Both seem content with the fact that they don’t fit traditional gender roles or live by bourgeois notions of advancement and achievement — they’re proud, perhaps to a fault, of not being like everyone else. But when they go on vacation to Sardinia, an encounter with another couple makes them begin to question the way they define themselves, individually and together: Chris takes on more alpha-male characteristics, while Gitti hits the kitchen, the dress shop, the makeup counter… In bare outline, Everyone Else may sound like a neat and cleverly symmetrical construction, but moment to moment it unfolds in the most unclassifiable, unpredictable and miraculously organic manner. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the film had a special impact on viewers Chris and Gitti’s age (30s). Quite a few people I spoke to shared my feeling that Ade and her two amazingly resourceful actors had somehow nailed us, in ways both discomfiting and terrifically exciting. Can this movie possibly be as strong on second viewing? Friends assure me it is — I can’t wait to find out for myself.

Everyone Else came early in the round of press screenings, and cast many otherwise admirable works in the shade of its freshness of vision. Suddenly, “good” or even “very good” wasn’t quite good enough. Case in point: England’s Channel 4-produced Red Riding trilogy, three feature-length films by three different directors (Julian Jarrold’s 1974, James Marsh’s 1980, and Anand Tucker’s 1983), all adapted by screenwriter Tony Grisoni from David Peace’s loosely fact-based novels about a series of brutal killings in Yorkshire in the 1970s and ’80s. The trilogy is for the most part intelligently written, consistently well acted, and unflinching in its hard look at some seriously dark subject matter. Yet there’s something second-hand, and strangely unearned, in its depiction of the evil wrought by powerful men. For all its laudable ambition, Red Riding never approaches the heights of its obvious models: Chinatown, The Wire, the novels of James Ellroy.

Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere proved once again that the former enfant terrible of Italian cinema isn’t turning soft or stale as he approaches elder-statesman status. Bellocchio uses the story of Ida Dalser — Mussolini’s first wife, and the mother of his son, both cruelly discarded by Il Duce — as a microcosm for an entire country’s descent into a fascist nightmare. He digs into his material with gusto, and his energy level is remarkable: the movie is swift, sharp and overflowing with visual felicities. But I couldn’t help thinking that Bellocchio the director was more on his game than Bellocchio the screenwriter (working with Daniela Ceselli). As scene after scene raced by, I increasingly felt I was watching a brilliantly executed highlight reel, rather than a deep exploration of character and situation. However, as Dalser, Giovanna Mezzogiorno gives a faultless performance.

White Material, Claire Denis’s latest, is set in an unidentified West African country paralysed by civil war. Isabelle Huppert plays Maria Vial, a coffee-plantation owner and a holdover from the years of French colonialism who refuses to face up to the changing reality of her adopted homeland. Granted that Huppert is a star, and an actress of proven brilliance and daring, but Maria is like an uninspired miniature portrait set against a more vividly painted large-scale canvas; she’s the centre of the story, yet is ultimately less interesting then many of the people and events swirling around her. Still, Denis is probably incapable of filming an indifferent or graceless scene, and in White Material her impressively sustained tone of impending disaster and marvelously tactile sense of space and place make for memorable viewing.

The White RibbonMichael Haneke’s Das weisse Band (The White Ribbon), a story of sinister doings in a Protestant farming village during the years before World War One, received mostly grudging praise — masterfully directed, but so…? The consensus seemed to be that, with Haneke, we’ve already been here and done this. Yes, went the chorus, we get the idea: the film’s brutally repressed schoolchildren will grow up to join the Nazi Party, the seeds of adult evil are planted in childhood, the nature of humankind beneath the veneer of civilisation is very beastly, and where do you guys want to go for drinks…? Well, it worked for me. Haneke may be single-mindedly obsessed with the theme of cruelty, but there’s nothing by-rote about his delineation of its effects; the villagers’ increasing helplessness and despair as fear spreads through the town generates considerable pathos. The narrative’s smoothly oiled forward motion is perfectly gauged throughout, and the odd interplay between the horrific on-screen events and the detached, many-years-later voiceover narration by one of the central characters kept my head whirring and spinning.

Though several years younger than Haneke, Lars von Trier wore out his welcome with large numbers of viewers several years earlier — but even on his worst day, von Trier’s films remain a lot more interesting than the weary, knee-jerk dismissals of them. It’s starting to seem as if critics think they’re doing him a favour by putting up with him. Antichrist is neither his best nor his worst film, though at various points it almost fits either description. What begins as an intimate psychological drama about a married couple in deep distress gradually degenerates into a merely above-average horror flick, albeit one graced with a few wonderfully strange and startling images. However, by the time things started to go south, I felt I’d already been treated, if that’s the word, to a serious and worthy film. If you took Von Trier’s name off the credits (hard to do, admittedly, when the main title card reads “LARS VON TRIER ANTICHRIST“), and promoted it as the work of an unknown director, I’d bet that some of the same people rolling their eyes and holding their noses would be cheering the arrival of a bold, fiercely talented new voice.

This year’s Centerpiece Presentation was Lee Daniels’ Precious: From the Novel “Push” by Sapphire. Like Antichrist, Precious proved to be an all-over-the-place mess of a movie, both rousingly good and head-shakingly bad in parts. Daniels tries for maximum impact at nearly every moment, and if this makes him seem like a demented salesman who refuses to quit your doorstep, there are times when he achieves a grimly powerful pop poetry: Precious’ self-loathing fantasy of being a slim blond white girl, a montage sequence in which she discovers the power of book learning, a scalding monologue by her monstrous mother. Some knocked the film for leaning too hard on the social-uplift preaching as it moves toward the finish line, but considering how heavy Daniels’ hand is for much of the movie, the conclusion is gratifyingly restrained and open-ended.

What unites the films by Haneke, von Trier and Daniels, for all that they’re clearly intended as provocations, is that the directors never seem to be standing outside or above the stories they’re telling, the characters they’re bringing to life, or the audiences they’re addressing. It’s a terribly subjective business, and many will disagree with me, perhaps especially regarding Haneke and von Trier, yet there it is: if they’re saying the world is shit, at least they’re in there (or so I felt), waist-deep and reeking with the rest of us. By contrast, Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch strikes me as having been made at arm’s length, so to speak, and at something less than room temperature. This isn’t entirely a bad thing. While watching this subdued drama about a teenage Parisian girl whose devotion to Christ borders on the fundamentalist, I was first impressed by Dumont’s skillful aping of Bressonian austerity, then put off by a third-act twist that I didn’t buy in the slightest — “provocative”, yes, but in an entirely calculated way. However, with the benefit of hindsight, not to mention time spent soaking in the more sympathetic and considered opinions of intelligent friends and critics, I can see how Dumont was leading us there all along.

Completely brushing aside all questions of authorial emotional investment as it’s usually understood is Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers, which aspires to the condition of a found object. Said object being, specifically, an old VHS tape. Trash Humpers takes the form of a home movie (jerky start-and-stop rhythms, lo-fi visual hiss, wax-eared audio), except that the “home” in this case is a series of parking lots, backyards, kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms, in some semi-rural, semi-suburban Nowheresville of the American South, and the “moviemaker” is one of a small band of crazed faux-elderly vandals who wander the streets and back alleys bumping and grinding against dumpsters, trees and the sides of houses, howling and hamming it up for the camera. The movie’s ugliness is beautifully controlled, its apparent artlessness artfully rendered. It’s also maddeningly, intentionally repetitious, hammering on a single screechy note for its entire running time (except for a slight but crucial hiccup of a story arc toward the end). But those who thought it a fake were right only in the most superficial sense.

IndependenciaAnother young filmmaker making imaginative use of an old aesthetic was Filipino director Raya Martin, whose Independencia is the second installment, following the misleadingly titled 2005 feature A Short Film about the Indio Nacional (Or The Prolonged Sorrow of the Filipinos), of a planned trilogy dealing with his country’s colonisation by foreign powers. Each film is made in a style that reflects the time in which it’s set — thus, Indio Nacional, about the revolt against Spanish rule in 1898, imitates the look of early cinema, while Independencia, taking place against the backdrop of the US occupation, is done up like an early-’30s Hollywood studio flick, complete with monochrome film stock, painted exterior backdrops, and pop-eyed, arm-waving performances. Independencia is a fable-like tale about a mother and son who flee to the jungle when the Americans invade; the mother grows old and dies, the son grows up, marries and has a child of his own — but just as the pastoral simplicity the son seeks to preserve forever is shattered by incursions from the outside world, Martin disrupts the seemingly innocent surface of his story with rude reminders of modernity.

Trash Humpers and Independencia both displayed a commendable commitment to their own self-imposed formal limits. What I liked the most about Alain Resnais’ festival opener Les Herbes folles (Wild Grass) was, conversely, the impression it gave that Resnais, in his late eighties, had discarded the strictures of form, and was operating by gut feeling, instinct and whim. And how appropriate for this particular story (adapted from a novel by Christian Gailly), which is all about uncontrollable eruptions of emotion. A married man in late middle age finds the wallet of an attractive redheaded dentist, and falls madly in love with her, first from afar, then — after some desperate and shameless stalking — up close. At times it feels as if Sirk had directed a scenario dreamed up by Buñuel: the characters behave in irrational, even hateful ways, but Resnais and the great cinematographer Eric Gautier bathe them in shimmering, rainbow-kissed light.

For sheer eye candy, perhaps the only rival to the Resnais was the work of another Frenchman, though one who died over thirty years ago. L’Enfer de Henri-Georges Clouzot (Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno), co-directed by the film archivist Serge Bromberg and the documentarian Ruxandra Medrea, recounts the making of Clouzot’s mad never-completed1964 folly L’Enfer (Inferno). Bromberg and Medrea’s documentary is informative, if pedestrian in execution. The newly unearthed footage from Inferno, however, is stunning — nothing more than fragments, which may not have worked as a unified whole had Clouzot managed to complete the film, but even as fragments they’re wild and gorgeous. Clouzot had set out to create one of the most visually inventive movies ever made, and he and his team of artists, designers and technicians came up with dozens of dazzling effects — many of which seem to have involved placing the breathtakingly luscious Romy Schneider under a battery of psychedelic lights and having her wiggle and coo for the camera (as of this writing, you can find a short clip on YouTube by searching for “Clouzot L’Enfer”).

But enough about sensory overload, you may be asking: what did the NYFF have to offer in the way of sensory deprivation? Of stillness, slowness, spareness? What about the seeming default device of global art cinema over the last several years: what about the stationary long take? Poking along just fine, judging by a trio of films that showed the unblinking camera gaze still has some lizard-like life in it yet. All three demand patience and watchfulness, and all of them repay those qualities, each in its own way:

Chinese independent filmmaker Zhao Dayong — in this context, “independent” means non-state-approved, which is to say, illegal — had one of the surprise discoveries of this year’s festival with his nearly three-hour documentary Ghost Town, a vérité portrait of a remote mountain village whose residents have been left behind by the country’s economic boom. Zhao’s meditative, reserved style of observation immerses us in the flow of the villagers’ day-to-day existence. There’s no narrator, no clear timeline, no easily legible chain of cause and effect — it’s as if we’re ghostly visitors drifting through the town, bearing witness to the images that pass before us: a prayer service in a dilapidated church; a group of men attempting to neuter a bull; a runaway boy setting bird-traps for food; a heartsick, exhausted middle-aged man negotiating his divorce settlement with his ex-wife. Perhaps the most affecting moments come when the villagers are alone with Zhao’s camera and speak openly of their dashed dreams and their hopes for something better.

Politist, adj. (Police, Adjective), the Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s sophomore feature, puts the “procedure” back into “police procedural”. Instead of the usual dramatic conventions of the genre, we get real-time stakeouts, endless negotiations over paperwork, everyday workplace squabbles and shit-shooting. Porumboiu does bring in one familiar genre element, the old theme of the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law, but even that gets a devastatingly original twist in the film’s instant-classic climactic scene. Police, Adjective is at once an ingenious formal experiment masquerading as a naturalistic docudrama, a quietly hilarious deadpan comedy and, of all things, a thought-provoking rumination on language.

Portugal’s Pedro Costa made his long-overdue NYFF debut with Ne Change Rien, a documentary starring French pop singer and actress Jeanne Balibar. Costa concentrates only on Balibar’s work as a chanteuse — occasionally performing onstage, but mostly rehearsing and recording with her band, taking voice lessons, tuning up, winding down. The director’s sole concern here is capturing the minute details of the musicians’ process, and though I won’t be rushing out to buy one of Balibar’s CDs anytime soon, I was entranced by what Costa made me see, and how he made me see it — his camera locked down at unorthodox, but infallibly interesting and revelatory, angles, his gleaming high-contrast black-and-white look lending a lovely monumentality to this study of the most mundane aspects of artistic creation.

MotherThere was much more to see this year. I thrilled to the plot twists and bravura shot choices and scene-making of Bong Joon-ho’s suspense drama Madeo (Mother); I was delighted by Catherine Breillat’s fairy-tale revamp Barbe Bleu (Bluebeard), disappointed by Souleymane Cissé’s promising but over-long and under-shaped melodrama Dis-moi qui tu es (Min Yè… (Tell Me Who You Are)). I regret missing new films by Almodóvar, Oliveira, Rivette, and Wajda, and the entire “Views from the Avant-Garde” program, which featured work from Peggy Ahwesh, Harun Farocki, Ernie Gehr, Ken Jacobs, Leslie Thornton, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, among many others. And I didn’t see a single film from either of the “Masterworks” sidebars: the first US retrospective of India’s Guru Dutt, and “(Re)Inventing China: A New Cinema for a New Society, 1949-1966”, a selection of titles from the so-called Seventeen Years, the period between the establishment of the People’s Republic and the Cultural Revolution. Happily, I was able to see the sole screening of the recently restored 1934 silent film Crossroads of Youth — the oldest surviving Korean movie, directed by An Jong-hwa. The film itself seemed fairly generic, but what made this an extraordinary event was the live accompaniment by a byeonsa, or narrator. I’d read about these narrators (called benshi in Japan and benzi in Taiwan, where they were also hugely popular) in the history books, but nothing prepared me for the experience of witnessing one at work, explaining the plot, doing all the characters’ voices, making sound effects, breaking the fourth wall by cracking jokes to the audience. It seemed oddly fitting that one of the last films I caught at NYFF, where I go to discover the present and possible future of cinema, made me see its past in a new light.

New York Film Festival
25 September – 11 October 2009
website: http://filmlinc.com/nyff/nyff.html