First films tend to be accorded special attention in criticism, perhaps because they seem to possess not only their present virtues but the promise of a whole auspicious future. First films rouse, intrigue, pique our curiosity: They introduce to us an unfamiliar novice, and, if we forgive them their clumsiness, it’s because we are eager to hear what a fresh voice has to say. The Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art’s New Directors/New Films has a long history of endorsing the early efforts of artists bristling with talent but bereft of experience. Over the course of its nearly fifty years it has acquainted New York with the debut features of Steven Spielberg, Peter Greenaway, Spike Lee, Whit Stillman, Michael Haneke, Christopher Nolan, Xavier Dolan, Guillermo Del Toro, and Lynne Ramsay, among countless venerable others. It’s the festival’s noble mandate to give fledgling directors a platform from which to begin a long and fruitful career.
New Directors/New Films returns this week with its 47th installment, and first-time filmmakers, as one may safely expect, are represented thrillingly. Of the programme’s 35 films, 14 are debuts. It’s a testament to both the adventurousness and discrimination of the organizers that the first features are almost uniformly among the most compelling exponents of the slate.
One of the most impressive emerges close to home: From the coffeeshops and bookstores of Brooklyn comes Ricky D’Ambrose’s austere, bewildering, and unyieldingly cerebral Notes on an Appearance, an anti-mystery in the tradition of L’Avventura assembled with the cool reserve of Robert Bresson. An exercise in patient observation, a study of faces and gestures and hand-written memoranda, the movie seems interested in the sorts of things other movies cut out — the gaps between actions, the things that might happen but don’t. It concerns the clandestine endeavor of a group of academics to sanitize the legacy of a late philosopher with a long-buried antisemitic streak. The philosopher, a certain Stephen Taubes, is an invention of the film — but so convincingly has D’Ambrose recreated his literature and writings about him, including an ersatz New Yorker article so authentic David Remnick himself could hardly spot the fake, that I was obliged to consult Google to be sure. It speaks to D’Ambrose’s rigor, and the film’s diligent attention to detail.
Cyril Schäublin’s delightful dry comedy Those Who Are Fine, a prizewinner at last year’s Locarno Film Festival, is attuned to another peculiar dimension of the contemporary banal: our compulsive, almost hysterical tendency to talk at length about our phones. The film is ostensibly about a woman who swindles the elderly out of their savings by posing as a wayward granddaughter, but on the edges of the plot Schäublin stages long, placid conversations about long-distance calling plans and the range of mobile Wi-Fi hotspots and data packages. The sheer monotony of the chats is hilarious. In one scene a man describes to a painstaking extent which territories are included as part of his international roaming service; in another, a bank clerk reads a 63-character Wi-Fi password aloud to a customer — and then reads it again in full when it doesn’t work. It rings true. Doesn’t so much of what we talk about now amount to the same garbled mundane code?
The Guilty, by Danish director Gustav Möller, found considerable acclaim at Sundance this January for its brisk pace and accomplished, fashionable style. Its arthouse pedigree — Magnolia seems to have acquired the film as a prestigious foreign offering — is rather misleading: This is a genre picture, a crisp single-location thriller, and its merits are firmly superficial. But merits they are indeed. Möller devises an appealingly spare framework: Asger, a disgraced police officer played with faultless command by Jakob Cedergren, has been banished to the purgatory of an emergency dispatch center, where on duty one evening he receives a plea from a kidnapping victim in shaken desperation. Thus commences, as the phrase goes, a race against time — both for Asger to rescue the abductee and, it quickly becomes clear, to redeem himself. The action is sweat-inducingly tense, and Möller has fun exhausting the creative potential of his desk-bound setting. It may amount to little, but it’s sleek, deft, and lively.
The antithesis of these distinctions is An Elephant Sitting Still, sure to be one of the most-discussed art films of the year. The movie has already been eclipsed by the dreadful circumstances surrounding its fated production: The director, Chinese novelist Hu Bo, took his own life last October, at the age of 29, leaving this final testament to be completed by a team of supporters. It is difficult, naturally, to watch An Elephant Sitting Still without a lingering awareness of the despair Bo must have felt while making it; the bleak, pitch-black melancholy that looms over the action is all the more disturbing in light of the real-life consequences. Still, Bo proves a gifted director, with a keen eye and audacious sensibility; the film’s fathomless misery is hard to shake, in its own way a significant achievement. The tragedy of the whole thing is intensified by the venue: At New Directors, we are made all the more aware that the loss of Hu Bo dashes any promise of the artist thriving in future — as so many of his peers on this program are fortunate enough to do.
New Directors/New Films
The Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art
March 28–April 8