The Directors of “Film Comment Selects” Show Compassion for Societal Outcasts

Standouts from the series include a “Lord of the Flies”–ish queer fairy tale and a remarkable AIDS-themed doc from 1993


Eighteen years young and still eagerly nudging audiences toward discovery, Film Comment Selects” is a film series as pointed act of correction. Curated by Film Comment magazine’s editors, this cinematic showcase is devoted to the underseen, the avoided, and the cast-off. Even this year’s sidebar is an attempt at a resurrection: Five films by Nico Papatakis that are at risk of falling to the scythe of time, among them 1963’s Les Abysses. This visionary provocation, which embodies an elemental immediacy in everything from its performances to its no-less-searing audio-visual embellishments, was based loosely on Jean Genet’s play The Maids and fulsomely boycotted by the Cannes Film Festival’s selection committee.

It’s fitting that, for a series that considers the distant margins of the film-distribution market, many of the program’s picks this year focus on persons inhabiting liminal spaces. Ildikó Enyedi’s On Body and Soul is a perversely prolonged meet-uncute between two Hungarian slaughterhouse workers: Mária (Alexandra Borbély), the quality inspector who falls somewhere on the spectrum, and Endre (Morcsányi Géza), the financial director with a crippled arm. Endre is both enticed and exasperated by Mária upon entering her orbit, almost oblivious that his persnickety work ethos pegs him as a kindred spirit. The film leaps with exacting precision between spaces, and often into the shared dreams where Mária and Endre commune as deer (yes, deer) — a journey of convergence that might have been too precious by half if it weren’t for Enyedi’s unnervingly obsessive compassion for her characters’ frailties.

“The state of trance was familiar to us,” says one of the characters from Bertrand Mandico’s Wild Boys, a work of queer maximalism that almost defies you to describe it. Okay, here goes: Think an adaptation of Lord of the Flies as directed by the love child of Guy Maddin and Petra von Kant. Five adolescent boys, banished from their privileged kingdoms after committing a horrible crime, reclaim their humanity on a mysterious island lorded over by a formerly male doctor played by Elina Löwensohn. It could almost be a fairy tale, and, indeed, Mandico treats the spectacle of his nasty protagonists finding out what toxic masculinity’s own medicine tastes like as a subversively genteel fantasy. The thematic engine of every scene is how women are enculturated to submit to male dominance, to relinquish control of their pleasure. And the film’s wild boys, whose dicks (literally) fall off across black-and-white tableaux that are deliriously alive in theatricalized detail and innuendo, are played by female actors — all the better to underscore Mandico’s belief that gender is as surreal as the high that must have willed this unforgettable whatsit into being.

Walking a far more straight and narrow path, Govinda Van Maele’s Gutland is finely tuned to the paranoia of a German drifter, Jens (Frederick Lau), who arrives at a small Luxembourg village looking for work and eventually becomes involved with a local woman, Lucy (Vicky Krieps, from Phantom Thread), who’s dominant in bed. Throughout, the way the filmmakers add an element of suspense to the most mundane of occurrences — from discussions of musical traditions to daily farming ritualsis casually gripping, but as soon as Lau’s perpetually dumbfounded drifter is revealed to be a thief on the lam, the film’s ruminative take on falling into the rhythms of country life gives way to flippancy.

Conversely, Antonio Méndez Esparza’s opening-night selection, Life and Nothing More, regards the lives of its characters with a granular precision that never succumbs to condescension. “Are you free, dead, or in jail?” asks one character of a classroom full of young African American men. This seemingly effortless docu-realist production, which Méndez Esparza developed alongside his nonprofessional actors and revolves around a single mother (Regina Williams) and her teenage son (Andrew Bleechington) simply trying to navigate a life that’s rigged against fairness, is by and large patient in its discernment. The film bravely hums with resentment for how black lives in this country are set on a trajectory — toward poverty, imprisonment, and worse — that can feel irrevocable in its machinery.

In defining the idea of the self, 19th-century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote: “A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis.” That synthesis is evoked by Mrs. Fang, throughout which Chinese documentarian Wang Bing often stares for what seems like an eternity into the face of a 67-year-old woman slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s. Wang trains his camera on the sad routineness of a family caring for its dying matriarch, but also on how members of this clan abstain from that responsibility by going fishing. Some will no doubt find Wang’s gaze on Mrs. Fang to be pitiless, but then the guiding principle of the film is to capture the cruel horror of the comforting din of the familiar becoming unknown to us.

The triumph of this year’s “Film Comment Selects” is another film that feels out of time, and not only because it has gone relatively unseen since its 1993 release. Silverlake Life: The View From Here documents the final months of a relationship between two gay lovers, Mark Massi and Tom Joslin, dying of AIDS. Throughout, Massi and Joslin grapple with the burden of their failing bodies and fraying relationships with their families, with Joslin especially displacing his anger at the disease with a sense of humor that feels totemic in its resistance. Joslin, a filmmaker who once taught Ken Burns and Rob Epstein, captures his lover’s death in wrenching detail; before his own demise, he enlisted another former student, Peter Friedman, to finish the documentary. That its influence can be traced all the way to the intimate exchange of war stories throughout Robin Campillo’s recent BPM (Beats Per Minute) suggests that this testament to the horrible stigma once associated with AIDS isn’t done passing the baton of remembrance to generations to come.

“Film Comment Selects 2018”
Film Society of Lincoln Center
February 23–27