Reversals of Fortune

Our own mood swings notwithstanding, the 39th edition of the New York Film Festival is a stolid, respectable, forward-thinking affair. The main attractions include a pair of sexually explicit provocations (Fat Girl and Intimacy), a couple of technological experiments (Waking Life and The Lady and the Duke), two surefire crowd-pleasers (Italian for Beginners and Y Tu Mamá También), and the spectacle of directors as disparate and erratic as David Lynch and 92-year-old Manoel de Oliveira working near the top of their form.

The lineup is relatively mainstream. (De Oliveira's I'm Going Home is one of the few features without an American distributor.) And for the moment at least, the geographic balance has shifted. The festival's 24 programs include only three East Asian films and one from Iran—although there is an Egyptian musical, courtesy of Youssef Chahine. With seven French-language features (plus a featurette, a French film in English, and two more co-pros), the NYFF is about as Gallic as it has ever been, and perhaps as multigenerational. One of the two debut features is French, while three of the four surviving nouvelle vague patriarchs are present: Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and Jean-Luc Godard, whose In Praise of Love closes the festival on a suitably elegiac note.

A reproach to current American youth films: from Y Tu Mamá También
photo: IFC Films
A reproach to current American youth films: from Y Tu Mamá También


39th New York Film Festival
Lincoln Center
September 28 through October 4

Va Savoir
Directed by Jacques Rivette
Written by Rivette, Pascal Bonitzer, and Christine Laurent
Sony Pictures Classics
September 28 Alice Tully Hall
Opens September 29

Va Savoir (Who Knows?)—which inaugurates the festival on Friday night and begins a commercial run the following day—may be, at two and a half hours, a difficult opening night film. Still, predicated as it is upon a Pirandello play, the quest for some arcane knowledge, and a Paris-based conspiracy, it is quintessential Rivette, albeit in a lighter mode. This is an ensemble piece in which everyone, professional performer and civilian alike, is almost always playing a role, as well as a romance in which all the principals are acting in a state of acute ambivalence.

The plot centers on three couples—or should we say, six characters. These are the French actress Camille (Jeanne Balibar); her Italian director-lover Ugo (Sergio Castellitto); Camille's recondite ex-lover, the philosophy drone Pierre (Jacques Bonnaffé), whom she hasn't seen in three years; Pierre's wife Sonia (Marianne Basler), a dancer whose valuable ring belies a shady past; and the beautiful, possibly incestuous half-siblings, Do (Hélène de Fougerolles) and Arthur (Bruno Todeschini), who, between the two of them, manage to become involved with Camille, Ugo, and Sonia.

A leisurely comedy with high slapstick interludes, Va Savoir starts onstage, with Ugo rehearsing Camille in their current production. His company is staging Pirandello's As You Desire Me with a blond-bewigged Camille as the amnesiac heroine played by Greta Garbo in the 1932 Hollywood version. The plays unfolds throughout in bits and pieces, usually before a disastrously empty house. Meanwhile, as Camille wanders around the city hoping to encounter Pierre, Ugo rummages through various libraries in search of a lost text by Goldoni—and is picked up instead by the enigmatic Do. The ensemble is brilliant, but the movie belongs largely to Balibar. With her bemused perpetual smirk, this actress (who has appeared in films by Olivier Assayas and Raul Ruiz) can be hard to cast. Rivette takes her harlequin face as an element to accentuate and, half the time, has her posed like one of Picasso's sad clowns—her thin body subtly contorted as she clutches her shoulder blade or waist. (At one point, she even wears a diamond-patterned dress.)

Va Savoir has its own unhurried pace and unpredictable humor. This is the sort of comedy Robert Altman could only dream about. The various alliances shift; the dialogue goes in and out of Italian. There are more dramatic complications than connections, and a reversal in nearly every scene. Serene and witty, it's a cerebral farce in which doors are forever opening and closing, sometimes on another world.

WHAT TIME IS IT THERE? Revisiting the father-mother-son family unit of his previous features, Tsai Ming-liang kills Dad off in the first scene. The filmmaker's reticent muse (Lee Kang-sheng, again playing a character named Hsiao-kang) sells his dual-time wristwatch to a young woman before she leaves for Paris, and is thereafter mysteriously compelled to go around Taipei resetting all the clocks to Paris time. A considered summation of the director's work to date (and an homage to his favorite film, The 400 Blows), it's also the best showcase yet for his particular strain of poker-faced, prop-ridden slapstick. Winstar releases it next February. September 29, 30 (Dennis Lim)

I'M GOING HOME In Manoel de Oliveira's latest memento mori, an elderly stage actor (Michel Piccoli) heads backstage after a performance of Ionesco's Exit the King to learn that his family has perished in a car crash. With rueful, dry humor, the film charts a wary return to normalcy, evoking the numb aftermath of loss and the sustaining comforts of habit. But it's unsentimental enough to acknowledge that coping mechanisms do break down, and that—as the title suggests—a categorical retreat is sometimes the only way out. No distributor. September 29, 30 (DL)

WARM WATER UNDER A RED BRIDGE In Shohei Imamura's wacky, life-affirming evocation of the oceanic experience of great sex, Japanese superstar Koji Yakusho plays an unemployed salaryman who falls under the spell of a mysterious young woman with a marvelously uninhibited libido. When she comes, she pours forth enough water to make flowers bloom in her garden and fish jump in the river. Part allegory, part realistic depiction of how sex turns into attachment and even love, this is an inspired work by a 75-year-old master at the height of his powers. Cowboy will distribute the film. September 29, 30 (Amy Taubin)

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