Occupational Hazards


You walk into a movie nobody’s ever heard of, from a country that never seems to appear on an airline map, and hey — it’s something good! Now celebrating its 30th year, “New Directors/New Films,” the annual Museum of Modern Art-Film Society of Lincoln Center co-pro, is dedicated to one of the most welcome sensations in the realm of international film festivals. Twenty-one features from 13 different countries, and only three (thus far) with distributors.

The millennial “New Directors” — which introduced Suzhou River, Ratcatcher, and Voyages — will be a tough act to follow. This year’s trends? I did detect an emphasis on workers, working, and the workplace — a preoccupation befitting a venue that last year saw a major strike. Everywhere in the world, banks, restaurants, and shops are incubating hysteria or ennui. Just look at the two opening movies.


The first feature by musician Jonathan Parker transposes Herman Melville’s dark, dank story “Bartleby the Scrivener” to a brightly colored one-building industrial park. The direction is broad — but then the original story is itself less subtle than enigmatic. Parker’s major inspiration is casting the supremely eccentric Crispin Glover in the title role as the supremely diffident clerk — a world-class passive-aggressive who “prefers” neither to work nor leave his office. With his lopsided comb-down, bony face, and desiccated aristo demeanor — not to mention his sidelong, offspeed delivery — Glover is an actor whose peculiar looks are matched only by his mannered performances. Bartleby gives him ample opportunity to swan around the set in a state of anxious vagueness, tortuously responding to all questions with perpetual disbelief. Some may well find this excruciating, but Glover’s strangeness is more than convincing — and aptly contextualized by an oddball showboat cast and a theremin-heavy score. March 23, 24 (JH)


You know you’re in Eastern Europe when, two seconds into Dalibor Matanic’s droll first feature, a pair of bicycle-riding dustmen have a violent collision in front of the not-too-spiffy “Diskont” convenience store where Matanic’s sad-sack protagonist operates the register. As with Bartleby, workplace misery is rendered cartoonish in stridently cheerful colors and iconic symmetrical framing. (But here there’s a larger social organism — a Croatian town populated largely by drunks and shoplifters, in which the mailman is regularly mugged for the pension checks he delivers.) The movie has a slow fuse — the wait for a downtrodden worm to turn against her overbearing boss is justified by an unexpectedly philosophical closer. March 23, 24 (JH)


Fearlessly simplistic, if less politically daring than it might initially seem, this minimalist tract — written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf and directed by his wife, Marziyeh Meshkini — is a tri-part allegory on three stages of Iranian womanhood (childhood, married life, old age). The movie opens cute and poignant, turns wildly visceral, and ends in a burst of magic realism; the elemental landscape in which the action unfolds is rendered additionally exotic for being set on Kish Island in the Persian Gulf. With its metaphors of female imprisonment, The Day I Became a Woman complements The Circle, the season’s other provocative Iranian picture; Shooting Gallery will release it in early April. March 24, 25 (JH)


The hapless but lucky hero of South Korean director Kim Jee-woon’s comic second feature escapes the prison of his office job by joining the circus of professional wrestling — or rather by establishing a secret identity as a ring villain who specializes in flamboyant cheating. The matches, fantasy and actual, are high slapstick; the rest of the movie oscillates between rambling and thud-thud-thud. The Foul King has a specifically Korean subtext in its anarchic revolt against an oppressive corporate culture, but it’s more than ripe for an Adam Sandler remake. March 24, 25 (JH)


The title translates as Blame Voltaire, but writer-director Abdel Kechiche’s first feature might equally be called The Loves of an Illegal Alien. Jallel comes to Paris from Tunisia, passing himself off as an Algerian political refugee to get asylum. Not quite Candide, he supports himself by peddling avocados in the metro. The film is less interested in the mechanics of survival than the development of interpersonal relations — mainly with the two French women who complicate Jallel’s life. Overly expansive at 130 minutes, La Faute a Voltaire is shot vérité-style and largely actor-driven. Sami Bouajila is engagingly understated as Jallel; everyone else gets to run wild, particularly Elodie Bouchez (The Dreamlife of Angels) as a simpering, eye-rolling handful who seems to have escaped from the nympho ward in Shock Corridor. The movie is sympathetic toward its subjects if not particularly critical of their society. The family Jallel supposedly supports back home never figures in the equation, while France itself is shown as a land of decent social services, tolerant institutions, and a sometimes alarming degree of fraternité. March 26, 27 (JH)


In Jessica Glass and David Ellenberg’s modest documentary, American and German veterans individually recollect their experience of World War II in preparation for meeting in the Huertgen Forest, the site of a horrific battle. As the former enemies struggle to make small talk and maintain a semblance of control over their conflicting, often unexpectedly violent emotions, the film takes life. As painful to watch as these face-to-face encounters are, the documentary would be stronger if there were more of them. March 26, 28 (Amy Taubin)


In Junji Sakamoto’s eccentric, semi-facetious road movie, a frumpy seamstress throttles her taunting younger sister and goes on the lam. The heroine’s dawdling odyssey of escape and empowerment is punctuated by broad slapstick, the odd sexual assault, and (in what passes for a running gag) streams of vomit. To her credit, Japanese stage star Naomi Fujiyama adds complexity to a thorny character — whom the film insists on regarding with deadpan derision or condescending sympathy. March 27, 29 (Dennis Lim)


Pascal Greggory plays a philandering fortysomething bisexual lawyer half-heartedly making his way through a revolving door of bedmates and lust objects. The cute teen brother of an ex-girlfriend avidly pursues him; the neurotic senior partner at work (Nathalie Richard), pregnant with his child, proposes marriage; a hunky, mentally unstable client, now serving a life term, enlists him to negotiate a reconciliation with his pretty ex-lover. Avowedly risqué yet fundamentally old-fashioned, this sexual roundelay is characterized by chatty indecision and bottomless self-absorption; writer-director Ilan Duran Cohen flirts with self-parody but never musters the nerve to follow through. A Picture This! release. March 28, 30 (DL)


Fans of DeMane Davis and Khari Streeter’s subversive Black & White & Red All Over, which played in the 1997 ND/NF, may be disappointed in this more conventional follow-up. Kerry Washington gives a star-making performance as a department store display designer who spends most of her time shoplifting high-end clothes to satisfy her own expensive taste, make money, and win the love of her withholding mother. The film exposes how designer labels are used as a bandage for damaged identity, but the predictable plotting and the false redemptive ending suggest the undue influence of the Sundance Lab. March 29, 31 (AT)


Lech J. Majewski’s exceedingly bleak (if continually laugh-out-loud) biopic tracks a self-destructive young poet of the ’60s as he creates his own myth, staggering drunk and bright-eyed through an empty Warsaw of patriotic placards and entropic “literary” nightclubs. The verse is convincingly declaimed; the film’s grainy black-and-white elegance suggests both the new wave Jerzy Skolimowski (Wojaczek’s contemporary) and the early Jim Jarmusch films that Majewski doubtless saw during his long residence in postpunk New York, where, among other things, he cowrote the script for Julian Schnabel’s not unrelated Basquiat. April 1, 2 (JH)

Short Films

In a particularly poor array, the most woolly-headed is Paul Harrill’s contrived Gina, an Actress, Age 29, which inexplicably won the Sundance Grand Prize. Gina uses an incident of attempted union-busting as an occasion to meditate on the relationship between truth and the art of acting. On the positive side: Giga Chkheidze’s Brasil slyly exposes the emphasis on reasonable behavior in contemporary German culture and the irrationality lurking beneath; Laurence Attali’s Baobab is a lyrical exploration of landscape and legend in Senegal; and Marion Lee’s Salty is a slight but touching glimpse of an Australian teenage summer romance. (AT)

Reviews of later films at “New Directors/New Films”: “You Can’t Go Home Again”

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