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.
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)
STORYTELLING Todd Solondz’s raspberry to his detractors comes snidely packaged as preemptive autocritique. Alternately defensive and combative, tauntingly contemptuous and sometimes cruelly funny, this deformed diptych (“Fiction” about a flustered creative-writing student, the much longer “Non-Fiction” about an exploitative documentarian) amounts on the one hand to yet another morbid suburban freak show. But it’s also a fascinating portrait of a persecution complex on a rampage; there are more reflexive layers encasing the rotten core than the director may even realize. The film makes a mockery of everything—not least its own disingenuousness. Fine Line plans a release next year. September 29, 30 (DL)
THAT OLD DREAM THAT MOVES As a factory prepares to shut down, a young technician arrives to dismantle a piece of heavy machinery and befriends the remaining skeleton crew. To an extent a stunt premised on its own incongruity, Alain Guiraudie’s 50-minute film—this year’s Prix Jean Vigo winner—begins as sober social realism, but an improbable triangle of thwarted desire gradually emerges against the backdrop of ghostly abandonment. The film’s casual eccentricity is also its most magnanimous gesture. Screening with Lisandro Alonso’s La Libertad. No distributor. October 1 (DL)
LA CIÉNAGA Lucrecia Martel’s accomplished first feature is a mordant account of provincial torpor in northwestern Argentina. It’s superb filmmaking, shot and framed with a hyperreal documentary detachment—the actors might be playing themselves. As in Claire Denis, a vivid, if oblique, narrative is fashioned out of numerous micro-incidents. The title—which translates as The Swamp—refers, among other things, to the miasma of alcohol-infused social relations, involving kids, dogs, servants, and two interlocking, accident-prone families. Possibly the discovery of the festival, this Cowboy release opens next week at Film Forum. October 1, 2 (JH)
ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS Denmark’s fifth Dogme production is certainly its most benign. Writer-director Lone Scherfig’s ensemble includes plenty of drunks but no donkey-boys. Although characters die throughout, the mode is basically an Ealing-style romantic comedy that ends with the equivalent of a triple wedding. Not nearly as sentimental as it might have been, Italian for Beginners is heartwarmingly rife with second chances and spiritual redemption. Miramax plans a 2002 release. October 2, 4 (JH)
TIME OUT An ordinary middle-management type gets fired from his job and, ashamed to tell his family, invents a new occupation—persuading friends and relatives to invest in a nonexistent business. Laurent Cantet (whose previous film was Human Resources) handles this tale of economically induced mental illness, the story of a guy who likes to drive but can’t turn the car around, as though it were a moody thriller. The movie is too long, but its pathos is undeniable. No distributor. October 3, 4 (JH)
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER Charles Laughton’s alternately sentimental and terrifying religious gothic is a bona fide contribution to American literature, as well as the occasion for Robert Mitchum’s career performance. Made in 1955, this proudly anachronistic amalgam of D.W. Griffith and German expressionism (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari goes Way Down East) is Laughton’s lone credit as a director. As Jacques Rivette remarked, “It’s the greatest amateur film ever made.” Showing in a new UCLA restoration, it plays Film Forum for a week starting October 26. October 3 (JH)
Y TU MAMA TAMBIÉN The most popular Mexican movie ever made, Alfonso Cuarón’s delicately raunchy comedy sends a pot-smoking Bill and Ted duo on the road with a total fantasy chick. The trio set out looking for an imaginary beach and get there anyway—it’s that kind of movie. A “new wave” voiceover adding to the manic charm, Y Tu Mamá También is a reproach to current American youth films, as well as a lighter, more enjoyable piece o’ pop than last year’s Amores Perros. An IFC release. October 6, 7 (JH)
MULHOLLAND DRIVE Thrilling and ludicrous, this is David Lynch’s strongest outing since the halcyon days of Twin Peaks. The movie is scarcely unfamiliar in teaming a dark woman of mystery with an innocent blond “detective,” and yet it’s continually surprising. Careening from one violent non sequitur to the next, Mulholland Drive is never far from the brink of self-parody—not least in offering its own critique of Hollywood and a vision of L.A. as a gorgeously tawdry, seductively malign organism. Universal Focus will open the movie following the festival screenings on October 6, 7 (JH)
FAT GIRL Directly translated, the title of Catherine Breillat’s latest sexual forensics lesson is My Sister!, which better evokes its bloody core: the hopelessly entangled bond between two siblings, one gorgeous and cruel, the other obese and almost frightfully stoic. If Breillat doesn’t earn her schematic shocker ending, she certainly etches the sisterly dynamic with ruthless precision, blurring the lines between love and hate until they become indistinguishable. Cowboy opens the movie the day after the festival screenings on October 8, 9 (Jessica Winter)
BARAN What is a New York Film Festival without the latest film by Majid Majidi? This time, heaven is an Iranian construction site manned largely by illegal immigrants. When her father is injured, an Afghani girl passes as a boy to take his place. An Iranian youth figures it out; suffice to say that every good deed has unexpected consequences. Baran is benign, undistinguished, and somewhat less emotionally strident than Majidi’s previous films. Miramax has it. October 9, 10 (JH)
DEEP BREATH Smashingly shot in austere black and white, Damian Odoul’s first feature might be termed an anti-idyll. A spotty, ungainly, rambunctious kid—spending a boring summer on his uncle’s farm—is allowed to get drunk with the guys and goes on an extended bender. Odoul rivals Bruno Dumont in celebrating what Marx termed “the idiocy of rural life.” No distributor. October 10 (JH)
SOBIBOR, OCTOBER 14, 1943, 4 P.M. Claude Lanzmann’s stripped-down, journalistically acute 1979 interview with Holocaust survivor Yehuda Lerner was originally intended as part of the monumental Shoah, but it resisted incorporation. Lerner was 16 years old when he participated in an uprising at Sobibor which shut down the camp where 250,000 Jews had already been murdered. Relishing the irony, Lerner explains that the revolt went like clockwork and succeeded in part thanks to the Germans’ obsession with punctuality. The complications of translation from Hebrew to French (subtitled in English) cause a delay between Lerner’s words and the viewer’s comprehension, thus making palpable the distance between his experience and our own. New Yorker releases the film in October. October 11 (AT)
INTIMACY All unairbrushed sex and unquiet desperation, Patrice Chéreau’s anguished character study posits loneliness as a permanent human condition—the passionate grapplings of extraordinary leads Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox stand in stark contrast to hyperreal scenes of conversational disconnect and meltdown, achieving a tension that’s cumulatively devastating. Empire releases the film October 19. October 11, 13 (JW)
WAKING LIFE A collective labor of love involving director Richard Linklater and some 30 animators supervised by Richard Sabiston, this dreamlike, peripatetic narrative sends fragile, anxious Wiley Wiggins wandering through a surreal landscape where he meets a series of motormouths who spout grand theories of existence harbored since their undergraduate days. Not only do these oddballs of all ages contradict each other, their absolute belief in their various cosmologies is gently mocked by the film’s ephemeral images. Fox Searchlight releases the film October 19. October 12, 13 (AT)
THE SON’S ROOM Nanni Moretti’s self-aggrandizing male weepie stars the director as a psychotherapist and subtly controlling patriarch of a near-perfect nuclear family. He has a beautiful wife, a lovely daughter, and a teenage son who has just begun to rebel against familial expectations. Then a terrible accident reveals the abyss beneath their orderly lives. The Cannes Palme d’Or winner, this chicly modern melodrama left the festival’s audience dissolved in tears. If only Moretti had been less heavy-handed with the music cues and had valued the feelings of the female family members even half as much as he did those of his alter ego. A Miramax release. October 12, 13 (AT)
ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU Here’s a curious pop epic of teen angst and the Internet, courtesy of Japanese director Shunji Iwai. The unhappy hero seeks virtual shelter in a world of adolescent cruelty by managing a Web site for a pop idol named Lily Chou-Chou. For all the movie’s dreamy chemical colors and high-school confidential material (shoplifting, prostitution, gang rape), the effect is precious and ultimately tiresome. Lily’s music, when we get to hear it, is thunderously insipid. No distributor. October 13 (JH)
IN PRAISE OF LOVE Lovely to look at but not always delightful to know, Jean-Luc Godard’s feature is a self-conscious work of art (and historical memory) in the burnished tradition of Nouvelle Vague and Passion. Much of the argument is visual: In Praise of Love begins in a black and white that’s voluptuously Lumière-like; after a while, the action flashes back to garish video. The atmosphere is vaguely religious, although Godard’s most overt article of faith is his insistently simpleminded anti-Americanism. There’s even a distributor, Manhattan Pictures. October 14 (JH)
SHORT FILMS As usual, the curtain raisers are a mixed bag. One exception is Australian filmmaker Janet Mereweather’s Contemporary Case Studies (as Witnessed From Life) (playing with Intimacy), a tartly funny take on sex and romance, couched as an old-fashioned training film and updated with split-screens and irreverent observation. Mereweather is the NYFF’s latest female discovery from down under, following in the footsteps of Jane Campion and Alison Maclean. Geoff Dunbar’s Tuesday (with Silence, We’re Rolling), a whimsical animation about a fleet of frogs that takes to the air on lily pads, is a lovely distraction until the unintentionally chilling last line: “All those in doubt are reminded that there is always another Tuesday.” Ola Simsonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson’s Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers (with Mulholland Drive), a Fluxus-like demonstration of homemade musique concrète, and Eric Guirado’s Superhero (with Storytelling), a glimpse at the hostility underlying party games, make a virtue of brevity. On the other hand, Inja (Dog), Steve Pasvolsky’s allegory of apartheid, packs so much pain into its 17 minutes that it will be difficult to focus on Baran, the feature with which it’s paired. (AT)
Unavailable for preview: The Royal Tenenbaums; The Lady and the Duke; Silence, We’re Rolling.