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While gentlemen thespians such as Fassbender, Clooney, and Banderas hog all the headlines, the real story at this year’s New York Film Festival is the ladies. Good, strong, not-egregiously-regressive female roles are notoriously scarce, but in this fall’s survey, at least (and at last), there’s a surfeit of uncommonly compelling female characters. In addition to Oscar-courting turns by Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia) and Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn)—matinee idols with major chops—here are five performances (not a prostitute or a masturbating ballerina among them) worth seeking out at Lincoln Center in the coming weeks.
Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method
We’re used to watching characters go mad, but it’s rare—and frankly disorienting—to meet one who’s as far gone as Sabina Spielrein, a virginal hysteric in fin de siècle Zurich. The film opens on a buggy bounding for the funny farm as Knightley howls, kicks, and cackles, and her first few scenes with Michael Fassbender’s Carl Jung are a worrisome showdown between under- and overstated acting styles. Yet Knightley dials Sabina down, little by little, reining in her jaw juts and ticks until a complexly charismatic person emerges: Jung and Freud’s intellectual equal, she alone understands their theories in both her body and mind. There’s still a monster inside, but now she can control how and when to let it out.
Lola Créton, Goodbye First Love
First seen as a monster’s enigmatically tender child-bride in Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard, the 17-year-old Créton returns with a performance that should ensure a long career as a Gallic queen of the art house. In Mia Hansen-Løve’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama, her character begins at 15 and matures into her mid-twenties, trying different personas before returning to herself; all the while Créton somehow remains both open and interior, expressive and mysterious. There’s an integrity to her performance that converts what could be seen as soap opera—ricocheting between lovers and towns—into something emotionally and philosophically true. She’s fully herself when acknowledging that she has dual affections and desires.
Hani Furstenberg, The Loneliest Planet
Great acting isn’t just about line readings and scene stealing—Furstenberg’s performance is almost exclusively physical. From an opening shot in which she’s sopping wet, naked, and pogoing to stay warm, to mountain-climbing sequences, Furstenberg’s Nica comes alive through action. In Julia Loktev’s elliptical tale of a tourist expedition gone subtly awry, we’re meant to fixate on her star’s body—the camera lingers on her luscious red mane and marvels at her lithe and limber frame—but not idly. When a brief but shocking event estranges Nica from her backpacking partner and fiancé (played by Gael García Bernal), we feel his distance from her acutely. The film’s main attraction is the painterly Georgian landscape, yet Furstenberg, grinning, bounding, gazing, keeps stealing us away from the scenery.
Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene
Although beautifully written, composed, and constructed, the film simply wouldn’t work without Olsen’s committed and intuitive performance. Playing a young woman who has recently escaped from a cult, Olsen never lets us think of her character as a wayward child or silly dupe. Instead she exudes strength and intelligence and an idealism she won’t abandon regardless of how viciously it has been exploited. Director Sean Durkin complicates villainy to explore how it works, and Olsen complicates victimhood to make us care about the person, not simply what has happened to her.
Cécile de France, The Kid With a Bike
Although she has one of the more recognizable faces in world cinema, de France is never central to the action of this latest Dardenne brothers’ film, and she’s barely ever shot in the center of the frame. Yet from the periphery, she becomes the person through whom we see, love, and try to understand Cyril (Thomas Doret), an orphaned boy who’s desperate for care yet seemingly destined for tragedy. Playing an astonishingly undaunted foster parent, her performance is almost entirely reactive, chasing after her young co-star, receiving his blows, tracking his movements. She might never solicit our attention, but whenever she slides out of frame, we share Cyril’s anxiety over her absence.