New York City — The second part of the New York Film Festival has been rich in offerings. Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda has made some great and deeply memorable films over a long career. I first encountered his power with “Maborosi” — dark, death-drenched and stunning. The next time he knocked me over was with “Still Walking,” a very different, quiet film about a man returning with his own family to his parents’ home, which catches — Chekhov- and Ozu-like — the subtlest interactions, often wounding, that families inflict on one another. Since then, his films have returned repeatedly to families and to children, with greater or lesser success. “Shoplifters,” his current film at the festival, won Cannes’ highest award this year, the Palme d’Or, so he’s finally getting the full recognition he deserves. “Shoplifters” focuses on a group of marginal people who live together, have bad jobs that get worse — the woman’s industrial laundry work gets cut in half by “workshare,” the man’s construction job terminates with an accident for which there is, of course, no workman’s compensation. The “grandma” of this “family” in which no one is linked by blood contributes pension and cooking; a pretty young woman “daughter” is a sort of sex worker; then there’s a boy just entering puberty; and the addition of a new little girl, who they save from what their so attentive and compassionate eyes quickly recognize as serious parental abuse. They shoplift in petty ways through the film, pretty much for survival — but much more important to us watching is the care with which each person listens and deals with another, each senses when things have not gone well for the other, notices the boy’s new sexual awareness and delicately talks to it — a delicacy that is also totally believable in this somewhat raffish world. An odd but attractive assemblage of wounded people held together not by family ties but by love, yet amazingly without any sentimentality.
Directed by Christian Petzold, known for such excellent films as “Barbara,” “Transit” begins with an exciting authoritative fluid tracking camera following a man on the run in Paris at the beginning of Nazi occupation. He is offered an escape route that involves delivering a visa and papers for transport by boat from Marseille to Mexico, to a famous writer and his wife. The plans go awry, he experiences near captures and, when he gets to Marseille, the scene he encounters there is very well-invoked: people everywhere waiting, in lines at the consulate, in cafes and rooming houses, hoping, despairing, trying to find a way out, some committing suicide in their hopelessness. Although the novel “Transit” (1942), from which the film was adapted, was written by a German Jewish writer, Anna Seghers, and although this film’s protagonist has already fled two concentration camps before we meet him, he is not identified as Jewish. Probably the camps were for political activists—Seghers herself was very much a Communist—but many if not most of the people caught in that actual situation no doubt were Jews seeking flight, though only one or two are so designated in the film. The director vividly conveys the atmosphere without trying to reconstruct the look of the time, the clothing, etc.—aiming less for a historical reconstruction than a touch of a universal fable—and he adds a more contemporary Maghreb migrant story that the protagonist involves himself in, as well. The actor at the film’s center has a riveting presence, and we see him almost casually take on the identity and papers of the famous writer (who can no longer use them)—and also try to save the writer’s wife while seeming to fall for her himself. So the film becomes a love story, with a female lead who is great to look at but is barely characterized (whereas Petzold’s usual actress, Nina Hoss, was always able to convey great complexity and internality). We become increasingly conscious of Petzold’s use of voiceover, adding something a bit syrupy and shallow about the romance.
But the Marseille scenes are powerful, perhaps because Seghers the novelist herself lived them. Having settled in France, she was forced to flee with husband and children by sailing from Marseille to Mexico on a ship that included among its other passengers Victor Serge, Andre Breton and Claude Levi-Strauss — they and she aided by the heroic Varian Fry. Fry’s story seems to me one of the truly wondrous ones. A New Yorker from a wealthy Protestant family who went to Hotchkiss (which he left early because he didn’t like the hazing practices!) — then Harvard to be a journalist. A trip to Berlin in the late 1930s revealed to him what the Nazis were doing to Jews and, in August 1940, he picked up and went to Marseille, one of the last places escape was possible from France, from Europe, and, as a founding member of the Emergency Rescue Committee, he helped get large numbers of artists in particular (Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler) — and Jews — out, at considerable risk to himself. He only left when forced to return by both the Vichy government and our own U.S. State Department (!!), which objected to his work. Once home, he wrote an article titled “The Massacre of Jews in Europe” for the New Republicin 1942, stating with total clear-eyed accuracy the horrors happening to Jews in Nazi Europe and pleading for asylum and the removal of bureaucratic delays that condemned many to death. Apparently no one heeded him. He ended up teaching high school Latin and living with what looks like the wreckage of his personal life, seemingly from the trauma of his experience. He died in obscurity, his achievement recognized only after his death. His spirit seems to me to hover over this film (even though he is never mentioned) and, though “Transit” is a good film, it would have been wonderful to have a really great film working with this material.
The opening night film choice was the flamboyant, enjoyable “The Favourite,” an English-speaking film with three terrific actresses at its core, which takes its lead from British royal history — a real Queen Anne (1702–07), plagued with illnesses and close to Sarah Churchill (played here with great loony authority by Rachel Weisz), only to be nudged aside by Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone). The director Yorgos Lanthimos, known for in-your-face nasty, funny, puerile films that take wild formal risks, here has an apt vehicle, the British upper class, which he portrays as totally farcical — grotesque looking courtiers in exaggerated caricatures of wigs, doing hilarious takeoffs on 18th-century formal dance and spoofing British sport through an absurd duck race. The two women vie for the queen’s favors sexually as well as for the role of her political advisor, but this monarch (well-played by Olivia Colman) is a total mess, Sarah distracts her from her tantrums by the most childish games, the queen orders war on and off on a whim, the fate of millions resting on idiots, in effect — all of which feels, alas, very much of our time. The witty production design and the costumes are great fun, and I would think Peter Greenaway’s terrific films decades ago contributed something to that.
Much more serious politically is “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes,” an excellent and troubling documentary directed by Alexis Bloom, the woman who, last year, gave us another terrific documentary, “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.” This is a beautifully put-together portrait of the man probably most influential in the ascent and the shaping of the Right. Off-Broadway actor-director Austin Pendleton, of all unlikely people, remembers their early Ohio boyhood school years together and how compelling and enormously persuasive young Ailes was. We watch Ailes climb from the Mike Douglas show to convincing Nixon he needed a media advisor before anyone knew what that was to doing the same for the first Bush, helping Reagan with down and dirty ads (Willie Horton), even remaking a remarkably raw-looking Mitch McConnell, who put himself totally in Ailes’ hands and won his Senate seat a month later. Then Ailes had the idea of a talk network that would reach working people without the intermediary filters of newspapers. From his sense of how his perfect white Midwestern town Warren, Ohio, lost its industries and got destroyed, he wanted to represent those people. But more, he was brilliant at getting the largest audiences and riling them up by rousing rancor and resentment. Our goal was to “rile up the crazies,” an ex-host of Fox News says.
Though a hemophiliac, Ailes operated fearlessly, he trusted no one, he thought the worst of people and smeared people no holds barred—or found other ways to destroy them without a qualm, he always thought someone was out to get him, he worked in an office with bulletproof glass and carried guns. And he knew how to manipulate people’s fear and paranoia, with the kind of total disregard for truth and decency we have all become very familiar with. He liked to pick on the vulnerable, especially women, and much of the later part of the film concerns his sexualizing the women on Fox News by required dress, positioning, lighting. He was finally forced out of the empire he created by reports of rampant, outrageous sexual harassment, destroying the careers of women who refused him. There’s a really repellent moment with Rupert Murdoch, the big boss, totally dismissive of the issue of Ailes’ behavior with women. But most disturbingly, when Glenn Beck asks Ailes why he doesn’t retire, he says he has one more president to create, meaning the current White House inhabitant. And indeed much of what we now agonize over would appear to be Roger Ailes’ legacy. The film offers a few small glimmers from his childhood, suggestions of disturbing moments related to his parents, to help us understand his enormous anger and the lengths he was willing to go. But whatever the reasons, his was genius used to terrible ends. This is a distressing but very important documentary to see just now.
“A Family Tour,” directed by Ying Liang, is another kind of political film and just as chilling. This director’s last film, “When Night Falls” (2012), boldly critiqued the Chinese government and resulted in Liang’s exile from the mainland to Hong Kong. This year’s film gives us as central character what feels believably like a genuine artist of a woman director, suggestions of interesting tensions, strength, willfulness, resistance. She has come with her husband and child to Taiwan for a film festival but is really there to see her aging and ill mother. The mother is facing a serious operation but cannot leave China, as the director cannot return. They can only meet on this kind of holiday tour, so they all pretend under the continually prying eye of the tour guide. The relationship between the two women is done well but what makes this film especially strong is how it conveys what it feels like to have your every move surveyed, warned about, your every life choice directed, the quotidian chill of living like that with the threat of who knows what hanging over any truth you feel compelled to tell in your art.
Tamara Jenkins’ “Private Life” is very likely to get a showing at the Triplex and/or on Netflix, and is well worth seeing—a smart and witty film that captures the reality of a couple going through the travail of fertility treatments and attempts at adoption. The hangdog, slightly comic Paul Giamatti is always good to watch, and this film is grounded in New York Downtown culture: husband in Off-Broadway theater, wife a writer, and names like Sam Shepard and Wendy Wasserstein peppered here and there. It’s true to the pain of the experience and the way it can begin to erode a marriage but, at the same time, the film manages to keep it all light and pleasurable.
Claire Denis’ “High Life” packed the press screening at Lincoln Center (mostly with young people) more than any other film shown at the festival. A woman director who has made some great films and has a strong following, Denis’ work is a special taste and this is uncontrovertibly a strange film, its premise as dark can be, positing a spaceship full of criminals hurtling through the black void of space beyond the Milky Way, headed for a black hole where all will be destroyed. The film also assumes that life on the Earth they left behind no longer exists. It’s as lonely, alienated and pessimistic a vision as you could find, but alive and interesting to watch — in a totally low-tech way — and entirely her vision. This is a director who has always gone her own way. She is French but, for the first time, since this is outer space, she felt she needed American speech. She, in fact, hired writer Zadie Smith (“White Teeth”) to help with colloquial English but, in a press conference in answer to a question about why they parted, she said they disagreed about everything, especially because Smith insisted the space travelers go home at the end, and Denis said it’s the last thing she would do with this film — she has never even had the concept of home, she herself comes from so far away (her childhood spent in colonial French Africa where her father was a civil servant in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, French Somaliland and Senegal), what is home? she asks. But with the excellent British actor Robert Pattison, she gets the faultless American speech she wanted, and even from Juliette Binoche, as a kind of white-coated Dr. Mengele, only a well-intentioned one, methodically collecting and inseminating sperm, to somehow keep life going. (Indeed one baby manages to get born, stay alive and grow up in the strange time on the spaceship.) The same Binoche scientist figures in a scene of wild masturbation, in a room with mechanical sex devices, thrashing around in a black void. Though I am no expert on space films, I warrant this is like no other space film you have seen. I must say it lingers and, in darker moments, does not seem such an inapt view of the current shape of things. In Denis’ rendering, only the father-daughter tie of love has meaning. There are also some marvelous glimpses, now and again, of what’s out there in the cosmos, by Polish cinematic masters. The film might move you as it did me, but you’d have to be venturous to take it on.
The Coen Brothers have gone back to the Old West in their latest, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” — the West of long-ago children’s books and old cowboy movies. The film consists of six different movies, subgenres within the Western genre, with its so-familiar sets, its iconic locations and situations that Ford and Hawks used so often: the singing cowboy, shootouts on the street and in the saloon, a bank robber and a hanging, a traveling theatrical event, a gold prospector, a roominghouse dinner table, a procession of covered wagons en route to Oregon and to a wedding with death showing up—as it does frequently through the whole film—an Indian attack (with a poignant Zoe Kazan), and finally a stagecoach ride to an eerie inn. Music, mostly familiar Irish folk songs, is used very well throughout and creates a continuity. There’s a lot of gorgeously lush, pristine-looking landscape, or starkly chilling—according to the context: mountains beautifully shot, elk, water flowing, butterflies fluttering, on an obviously huge budget — though as is the Coens’ wont, sometimes these images go too far, edging into spoofs on commercial calendar nature. And the film is as much in love with words as with images, strikingly dense with language of all kinds, and sass. Jokey, smart, making continual pessimistic pronouncements about life and people, dark, and yet with an underlying passionate affirmation — it all moves to a deeper vision than you expect. The film opens with a singing cowboy like Gene Autry, all in spotless white and seamlessly cheery as he shoots everyone who gives him trouble, violence and blood everywhere, before bursting back into song: “Cool clear water … water running free, where it’s waiting there for you and me”—no longer true. I was particularly affected by the segment with the charming little theater on the back of a wagon where an armless, legless man (with a wonderful innocent alert face — the “Wingless Thrush” — recites glorious words from Shelley and Shakespeare, delivered fervently. But in addition to the helplessness of this limbless performer, the words themselves are of the darkest import: Ozymandias, so full of his own grand power, of which nothing remains. Or Prospero’s exquisite speech in “The Tempest”: “Our revels now are ended” with everything on earth insubstantial and leaving nothing behind. The “Thrush” brings the great words to the ordinary people (and always includes great American political words, which certainly resonate powerfully with us these days, as do the poetic reminders of the transcience of power) but fewer people show up to listen, finally no one applauds or gives money anymore and he has to be (literally) thrown away by his keeper Liam Neeson (in a feelingful though wordless performance), to be replaced by an uneducated chicken(!)—a cultural comment, it would seem, on our Trumpian time. The Tom Waits gold prospector segment also really works and is touching. Perhaps because of the prospector’s hard work and resourcefulness, and also his consulting an owl before he greedily seizes all its eggs but instead shares, he is allowed to keep what he finds and survive. But the Coens don’t spare many in this film and death is a constant. The wagon trail slowly heading to Oregon touches you with the majesty of that move West, but maybe unnecessarily has to have a dream destroyed. The final coach ride, filled with interesting talk and interactions, is headed (carrying a corpse) to an inn that is probably death itself, the end of all our journeys. Perhaps a melancholic way to leave us, but the right closing note to a film that despite an uncertain start, turns out to be, in my view, a really good piece of work, and also very entertaining. This is a Netflix movie so, if you miss it in theaters, it should show up on your TV screen in November.
“Roma,” by the Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, was honored by being chosen to be the “Centerpiece” film of the NYFF, and is set in Mexico City in the 1970s and shot in exquisite black and white, suggestive of neo-realism. The film focuses on an upper middle-class family, in look and style white European, and their maid/nanny Cleo, indigenous and a much-loved part of the family, to whom the four children cleave as much as to their mother. And she is so committed and devoted to them that, even though she can’t swim, she risks her life to save two who nearly drown. The doctor husband departs early on; the mother of the household, left on her own, struggles; the streets of Mexico City are an active presence; violent events shake the outside world — an earthquake, a student uprising. Cleo has a crisis, but daily life continues — at least in the memory of presumably one of the children, looking back. The children are not much differentiated, the two maids barely contrasted, the departing husband never much defined, and obviously there’s the presence of a class system but without its being oppressive. The film is focused in a highly aesthetic way on a world of memory, a dream-like quotidian.
The final feature film of this year’s festival, honored as the closing night film, “At Eternity’s Gate,” is artist Julian Schnabel’s reconsideration of Vincent van Gogh. A number of very good films have been made about van Gogh; in fact, a few years ago, some Manhattan theater showed the four major ones (Altman’s “Vincent and Theo”; (1990), Minnelli’s “Lust for Life” (1956), whose Kirk Douglas is much more persuasive as Vincent than one might imagine or remember; Pialat’s “Vincent van Gogh” (1991); and Paul Cox’s “Vincent” (1987). I found seeing them as a group especially fascinating — as are van Gogh’s beautiful letters — and yet there’s always room for more, so intriguing, poignant, brilliant and haunting a figure does he remain in spite of all the pop hoopla that has surrounded his story and the shows of his work. So I expected to really embrace this new version. I have to say that a number of people I spoke to did embrace it and I think many up here will, as well, this film being ambitious and skillful, its writer a major figure,with Willem Dafoe giving an intense performance, plus lots of looking at facsimiles of Van Gogh’s stunning paintings as well as paintings being painted and talk about painting.
But film is such a personal and unpredictable experience, and I have to say that what truly moved me was basically just the van Gogh story itself, and the paintings. I found the film’s language stilted and lifeless, as when Van Gogh and Gauguin volley pronouncements about how they view art-making, their differences about whether or not to paint from life feel staged. Gauguin is played by an excellent actor, Oscar Isaac, but, when you think of Gauguin’s uniquely craggy profile, powerful nose and larger-than-life presence, this actor has none of that presence, delivers a sort of flat summary of what Gauguin was feeling about the need to flee civilization but without the passion, with perhaps a touch of madness, too. About van Gogh’s madness, Schnabel has it both ways, showing him twice hospitalized for the kind of thing anyone might do, casting him as a misunderstood victim — and yet he has him talk, as he did, about hearing voices, seeing visions, fearing he’d go mad — with the camera swinging around to all too obviously convey mental disequilibrium. The insistently intense piano notes or chords throughout again seem to me not to have the impact intended. And many other effects seem calculated and heavy-handed — a field of frozen sunflowers with their heads hanging. One feels the director’s own self-pity in this film, and something pretentiously grandiose that fails to connect convincingly to Van Gogh’s reality. Maybe that shouldn’t surprise one, from the man who insisted on building the notorious West Village pink palazzos over his neighbors’ protests so as to make more millions, attract maximum attention to himself, and create, in the words of Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village preservation group, “a monument to this guy’s ego” — and who art critic Robert Hughes called the Sylvester Stallone of art. But my response is truly personal and yours is likely to be very different, even enthralled.
Finally, what I CAN speak about with great enthusiasm are two excellent documentaries that were part of the NYFF56 but not included in the main slate: one about perhaps the greatest filmmaker of them all, Ingmar Bergman; the other about the extraordinary earliest woman director, Alice Guy-Blache. “Searching for Ingmar Bergman” was made by German director Margarethe von Trotta, who serves as our guide to the films that amazed us in 1958 (“Seventh Seal”) and in 1963 (“Wild Strawberries”), (and others later) and then to the streets Bergman lived on and the church his father preached in. You may have great familiarity with his films and the outlines of his life, but to actually see his father’s name and dates of service inscribed on a plaque in the church gives it all an extraordinary immediacy, as does entering his house, sitting in his study, seeing where he worked and the people he worked closely with, and, most thrilling always, footage of the extraordinary intensity and intimacy of how he directed his actors. His quest was always for truth rather than awards, which seem to have meant little to him. But we also hear from his son, and see the son’s complexity and bitterness toward a father who was so obsessed with childhood but only his own, never that of his children. You get a glimpse here and elsewhere of the cost to others of the man’s genius, productivity, of the order he insisted upon for his work’s sake — the pain he caused. You also see his own great vulnerability, the cost to himself, how difficult life was for him, though with far too much footage relating to his traumatic time in Germany and the making of his two weakest films there. But happily we also listen to Liv Ullman’s warm memories of first encountering him and, at the end, feeling herself beckoned to be with him as he was dying. And French director Oliver Assayas speaks about Bergman’s fascinating use of cinema to explore the unconscious, about how taken he was with liberated women, and Assayas argues that Bergman above all other directors was the most influential on serious contemporary cinema. For me, there’s no one who comes near him in depth and power.
Pamela B. Green’s “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache” is a moving narration of a career I knew something about but not in this detail. The best thing about the film is a long interview with Alice Guy-Blache herself, looking quite beautiful in her 80s, full of dignity and grace, remarkably without arrogance or bitterness as she tells the questioner and us her story. The film keeps returning to that interview, as it should, while moving in many different directions, to interviews with others, most notably with Guy-Blache’s deeply caring daughter Simone, to old photos, documents and artifacts, picture-postcards to evoke 1895 Paris. There’s the rough structure of a hunt to find out more about this woman who had an astonishingly important career at the birth of cinema, perhaps for 20 years, and then disappeared into oblivion for decades. She originally wanted to be an actress but her father said he’d rather she was dead, and then her widowed mother, who she needed to support, was advised to have Alice study stenography and become a secretary. Only 22, she applies for a job at Gaumont’s Photography business, he says he’s reluctant to hire one so young, but she assures him that that will pass. She finds herself at the heart of rapidly developing new motion picture technology by the Lumiere brothers, which equipment Gaumont sells. After a while she proposes shooting some scenes and he agrees, so long as the mail is not neglected. And so it begins. The first little film she creates is “The Cabbage Fairy,” in which she dances among huge cabbages, pulling out newborn babies. Not only is the work as charming as can be, but she has created cinematic storytelling while other very early filmmakers were simply showing trains entering stations; she also was a pioneer in adding (gorgeous) hand-tinted color, close-ups, synchronized sound. She says she knew nothing about the mechanics, had to learn everything. “The Cabbage Fairy” was enormously successful; she created 1,000 other films over her career, the most ambitious of which was a “Christ Passion,” again hugely successful. Her marriage to Englishman Herbert Blache and his transfer to the U.S. landed her in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where she created her own company, Solax, and installed a large sign for her performers: Be Natural. She had a second child at 38, hired and oversaw other filmmakers as well as continuing her own work, often skillful comedies, even bawdy ones, and often with unusual and feelingful use of children. Though her career was unique, those early years in silent movies were a heyday for a large number of women directors, almost all of whom got forced out when sound and the big money came into filmmaking. Only Dorothy Arzner and later Ida Lupino continued to direct in Hollywood through the decades of sound till the 1970s and ‘80s.
For Alice Guy-Blache, too, things began to unwind, Solax runs into debt, there’s a fire, her husband heads off to Hollywood with one of his actresses as his new wife, and this active and creative woman goes on to live almost five decades without being able to get work. She tries returning to France but writes that people there don’t want to hire white-haired women. She asks her old boss Gaumont, for whom she did so much, for help getting film work, but to no avail. He does ask her to help write a history of the company, but her name was never mentioned in the final book, even though she actually pointed out to him the many errors of attribution and the many omissions. Understandably, she does not speak kindly about her treatment by the French, even her old comrade. The most devastating part of her story is how, over and over, she was erased from history. Her husband, Herbert Blache, was credited with creating Solax, her company. Her films were credited to others, to men, even “The Cabbage Fairy” and “Passion.” (She says, in her quiet French: False, false, false.) The claims made for her in the end seem just, her films not great but honest and inventive. But her massive achievement seems most of all an illustration of what could have been had the doors of cinema been open in a real way to women directors. These two documentaries should surely have been included in the main slate because, even if both films have their flaws, the two directors they are concerned with have, in their different ways, meant so very much in the world of film.