If your primary concern was the vitality of the art form, Sundance 2001 offered a series of unexpected depth charges. And yet, notwithstanding the mushroom cloud of cell-phone radiation and the admittedly distracting Mick Jagger sightings (he coproduced Michael Apted’s prosaic espionage drama Enigma and singlehandedly accounted for the throngs at the world premiere), it was—for the heavyweight attendees at least—a quiet, even lackluster year. Chastened by disproportionate returns on previous impulse buys, distributors bided their time, making for a remarkably serene first half. When they finally got out the checkbooks, it was obvious they were in no mood for adventure.
In the first significant transaction, Fox Searchlight forked over $3 million for Super Troopers, ominously described as a sub-Farrelly debasement of, um, Police Academy. Raw Deal, a callow, sloppy documentary that purports to investigate a frat-house rape (and is only too happy to illustrate both sides of the story with copious video footage of the incident), landed a New York Post cover after a couple of packed screenings; Artisan promptly snapped it up.
But the Variety headlines belied the strength and breadth of the dramatic competition slate. All week, programming director Geoffrey Gilmore introduced screenings by daring pundits to single out a trend. He had a point, though it could be argued that the strongest films shared a rare emotional fearlessness, a commitment to capturing the messy, incomprehensible details of life-size anguish. Nowhere was this more evident than in Todd Field’s first feature, In the Bedroom. A character actor of some repute (he played Tom Cruise’s jazz-pianist friend in Eyes Wide Shut), Field proves a writer-director of considerable sophistication with this austere yet visceral study of grief. As an upper-middle-class Maine couple coping with sudden tragedy, Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek match Field’s direction with performances of exquisite precision and unblinking candor. (Supporting players Nick Stahl and Marisa Tomei are no less memorable.) The film dares to abruptly effect a gaping void and plunge the viewer into its chilly depths; even a dubious third-act detour is thoughtfully undermined by a purposeful lack of closure.
The film’s midfest sale to Miramax should, in theory, lend promotional heft, but it’s also cause for concern, given the patient (and necessary) 135-minute running time and Harvey Weinstein’s history of scissor-happy dictates. (In the absence of feeding frenzies, Weinstein had no cause to reprise his now legendary “You fucked me!” speech, delivered in ’96 to the Shine contingent after the rights went to Fine Line. He did attract attention, however, when he publicly harangued Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum, who had justifiably ridiculed the Oscar-angling print ads that enlist Jesse Jackson and Abraham Foxman to hawk Chocolat as a pro-tolerance paean.)
It was disappointing but hardly surprising that Christopher Munch’s The Sleepy Time Gal left the festival without a distributor. Among the most idiosyncratic of American directors, Munch can’t help seeming even more of a maverick figure in the Sundance marketplace, and it didn’t help that this was clearly his most personal work to date. Jacqueline Bisset stars as a former radio personality whose cancer diagnosis sparks tentative attempts at resolution and reconciliation; a parallel, fluently integrated thread follows the daughter she gave up for adoption years ago (Martha Plimpton). (It’s safe to say the talented young actor Nick Stahl, who pops up again here as Bisset’s budding-photographer son, will go on to great things.) Unfazed by the unwieldy proportions of a life story, drawn equally to bliss and agony, the film fuses rapt, yearning poetics with an elegantly diffuse style. Even at its most wrenching, it has the perilous fragility of a reverie.
The fraught family dynamics of In the Bedroom and The Sleepy Time Gal were especially bracing in light of the usual fondness for glib domestic dysfunction, the most inbred specimen in Sundance’s petri dish of calculated provocations. If nothing else, the subgenre takes the form of accidental self-parody in L.I.E. (as in the Expressway), which casts a kindhearted pederast (Brian Cox) as surrogate father to a gay teenager. There’s more than a whiff of the outré in The Deep End too: Tilda Swinton is forced by a blackmailer to watch a video of her teenage son enjoying anal sex with his older gay lover (now dead at the bottom of Lake Tahoe). But directors David Siegel and Scott McGehee bring a firm hand and a cool touch to the melodramatic crescendos that surge through this lush, discreetly recalibrated remake of Ophüls’s The Reckless Moment; Swinton’s radiant performance functions as both aching heart and rock-solid center of gravity.
The Deep End is the duo’s first feature since 1993’s Suture (incidentally, the ultimate amnesiac neo-noir, until Sundance 2001 entry Memento came along and discombobulated the genre for good), but they made up for the long absence by scoring the festival’s biggest sale ($4 million to Fox Searchlight). They also served as executive producers on an early hot ticket, Patrick Stettner’s The Business of Strangers, in which corporate ballbuster Stockard Channing and her petulant assistant, Julia Stiles, spend a night in an airport hotel playing mind games. This chic exercise in claustrophobia sacrifices psychological coherence for teasing ambiguity; festival wags, quick to pick up on its hypothermic LaBute-like qualities, rechristened it In the Company of Women.
Mindful that this surreal, raging schmooze-fest does in fact take place in the company of Mormons, festival staff were carding audience members at the world premiere of French director Patrice Chéreau’s graphic Intimacy and actually turning away under-21s. Loosely based on two Hanif Kureishi stories, Chéreau’s first English-language film was shot on location in South London, with an anxious handheld camera by the brilliant Eric Gautier (who, also having photographed Pola X, can now be deemed the poet laureate of underlit sex scenes). A man and a woman (Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox, both astonishing) meet up weekly for primal, convulsive sex—until one of them violates the anonymity of their tacit pact; the scenario echoes the recent Affair of Love, but instead of coy titillation, Intimacy strives for physical abandon and emotional freefall. It’s a decidedly European film, or “perfectly dreadful high-art Eurotrash,” as Variety‘s incensed Todd McCarthy declared in a curiously impassioned screed. In a sense, though, Sundance provided an apt context all the same: Chéreau’s characters are prone to torrential, solipsistic eruptions, and their outbursts have a raw, chafing honesty worthy of a true godfather of American independent film, John Cassavetes.