THE 2009 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL

October 13, 2009

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The coverage of this year’s New York Film Festival was weirdly tendentious, culminating in A.O. Scott’s bizarre NY Times dispatch in which he claims (I paraphrase), that there is a cabal of scheming festival programmers who hate humanity and eagerly promote films which espouse a “principle of innate depravity.” I’m (slightly) exaggerating his argument, but he adopts a strikingly strident tone for a diverse slate of movies, grandly sweeping complex works of art into his “festival” category so he can haughtily ignore them. What he yearns for, it seems, are films of “high-minded middlebrowism.” Don’t we have the next two months of Oscar-bait to satisfy that particular need? I’d much rather have a rare screening from an experimental young Filipino filmmaker like Raya Martin than the latest Sam Mendes chin-scratcher that will be released nationwide the following week.

Two of the films he dismisses under the “innate depravity” tag are Bong Joon-ho’s hugely entertaining Mother and Claire Denis’ mesmerizing White Material. I love innate depravity! Mother is a unique blend of police procedural and melodrama of suffocating motherly love. Opening on a shot of the galvanic lead, Kim Hye-ja (famous in Korea for her portrayal of maternal roles), sinuously dancing in a glade of flowing high grass, Bong is announcing the film’s playfully enigmatic tone. The shot is an amusing non-sequitur until the plot reveals its seedy secrets.

Kim is the unnamed mother of Do-jun (Weon Bin), a soft-spoken simpleton who can barely string a sentence together. Their relationship is combative and creepy. Mother stalks his every move, inching up to him as he pisses against a wall, lifting a bowl of “medicine” to his lips. As the urine pools on the sidewalk, she tries to cover it up with a street side hunk of trash. This kind of suffocating attention is twisted inside out when Do-jun is accused of murder. Artlessly bulldozing her way through the crime scene and the victim’s friends, she styles herself a one-woman truth commission. She is an incredibly unreliable narrator, riveted on clues that lead to digressive dead ends and a motley crew of supporting characters. Do-jun’s erstwhile “friend” Jin Tae (Jin Gu) is the most fascinating of these ghouls, a self-styled Dirty Harry who milks the mother for money while doggedly, and quite violently, pursuing the lurid clues in the case.

Bong moves among these different plot strands with startling precision, steadily layering motifs (of pooling liquids that build in malevolence, from the aforementioned urine up to the blood on a dirt floor) until they effortlessly evoke the complicated moods of its compromised protagonists. The way he levers the mother’s acupuncture kit into a moment of tragedy is a master class in scripting and composition. It’s the most devilishly enjoyable film I’ve seen in quite a while. Luckily it has been acquired by Magnolia and will be released early in 2010.

Denis’ immersive, knotty White Material is a return to the more allusive, abstract style of L’intrus after the more straightforward family drama of 35 Shots of Rum, with Material’s multiple flashbacks and fragmentary narrative. Set in an unnamed African country (although shot in Cameroon) suffering from a protracted civil war, Isabelle Huppert’s Marie is hanging on to her family’s coffee plantation long after safety would dictate she return to France. Denis’ first film without cinematographer Agnes Godard since 1990s No Fear No Die(Bruno Dumont’s regular DP Yves Cape takes the reins here), it still maintains her tactile, overwhelmingly physical sense of space. The camera lingers on Marie’s “white material”, her upholstered seats, gold-plated lighters, and cotton blue dresses.

Denis lolls back and forth between these spaces of buzzing comfort and the pastoral scenes of rebel activity outside. Violence is generally kept off-screen, while ragtag groups of teens, and some small children, carry machetes and rifles along the rugged countryside. As the country descends into chaos, the boundary between house and country breaks down, and Denis repeats an earlier montage of household items: iron, bathtub, dress. Two armed African children enter the space, steal her clothes, muddy the tub, and are spirited away. There’s an extraordinary sequence where the child soldiers revert to an innocent state, play games, and fall asleep in Marie’s home, and Cape’s camera caresses their victimized bodies as if of a loving parent. Denis later dedicates the film to these “rascals” who have had their lives stolen from them.

This incursion marks the inevitable breakdown of the line between colonizer and colonized, and soon Marie, increasingly hysterical and determined to keep the only success of her life, is doomed to fall under the sway of the country’s destruction. It’s woozy and masterful, exploding into pure metaphorical chaos as the paternalism of France, the greed of the government, and the horrifying violence of the rebels break down the bonds of a corrupted society. It demands to be seen again, and I hope a distributor takes a chance on it. Hey, Denis’ previous film, the sublime family drama, 35 Shots of Rum, has had a successful run in NYC, so here’s hoping.

Quick takes:

Another favorite at the festival was Jacques Rivette’s small gem Around a Small Mountain, which is anchored by Sergio Castellito’s phenomenally detailed performance. A traveling circus is on its last legs, and Jane Birkin returns to the fold after a tragedy drove her away decades earlier. Castellito is just a curious interloper, but one with a silent comedian’s grace. His performance is essentially a pantomime, from the wordless car repair opening to his coiled tension and release entrances and exits, it’s a tour de force of timing and charm. No distributor.

Eccentricities of a Blonde is another remarkable sliver of a film, this one from 101 year old treasure Manoel de Oliveira. In setting Eça de Queiroz’s short story of courtly love in modern-day Lisbon, he gets great anachronistic effects from a poet’s recitation, an uncle’s growling rejection of a marriage vow, and the curling irony of the final, puppet-like shot of resignation. No distributor.

Police, Adjectivefunny about language and Romania’s bumbling law enforcement bureaucracy, nailing a Kafkaesque sense of the absurd. The Romanian New Wave has legs in it yet. IFC Films will release this next year (they are also releasing Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist on October 23rd, which was neither as horrible or shocking as you might expect. It’s a tossed off domestic horror film that contains moments of beauty, terror, and ridiculousness. A decent Trier experiment).

Trash HumpersThe title says it all, but I found this fake piece of found footage to be oddly affecting. As Harmony Korine and pals don elderly people masks and debauch around flourescent-lit parking lots and basements, shot in the oatmeal murk of old VHS tape, a performative truth rang out: humping trash is funny. No distributor.

To Die Like a Man: A drag-queen melodrama filled with graceful touches. Director João Pedro Rodrigues’ playful color manpulation lifts a few of the musical sequences to the plane of back-alley Minnelli. No distributor.

So, as it turns out, there was a vast scope in this year’s slate, and I only saw 8 of the 29 entries! If I didn’t discover any stone-cold masterpieces (unlike the previous year’s Headless Woman), there was plenty of bold experiments, minor pleasures, and strangely alluring waste baskets.

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