September 25, 2012
The 50th New York Film Festival, which runs from September 28th – October 10th, marks the end of an era. Richard Peña, the Program Director of the Film Society at Lincoln Center, as well as the Festival’s Committee Head, is retiring after 25 years, to be replaced by the well-respected critics and curators Kent Jones and Robert Koehler. This year’s main slate, made up of 32 features from around the world, presents directors that Peña has long championed, including Alain Resnais (You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet) and the late Raul Ruiz (Night Across the Street), but also features artists poised to take their place in the fest’s firmament. Christian Petzold makes his long overdue main slate debut with the meticulously stunning Berlin Wall-era drama Barbara, while the astonishingly productive image-grabbers from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab make their second main slate appearance, following Sweetgrass (2008) (Foreign Parts was a sidebar selection in 2010), with Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s immersive fishing documentary Leviathan . Also making his second appearance is Leos Carax, with his weary ode to cinema Holy Motors, his first feature since Pola X (1999), which was his NYFF debut. Petzold is a classicist, the Ethnography Lab a group of experimentalists, while Carax is a bit of both – a provocative trio to kick off this year’s festival.
Barbara is the most unassuming feature of the three, a slow-boil suspense film in which the most action occurs in the eyes of actress Nina Hoss. She plays the title character, an East Berlin doctor in 1980 who is banished to a country hospital after being incarcerated for an unknown crime. Even at this distant outpost she is hounded by the police and forced to endure humiliating searches, as she plans to escape with the help of her slick West Berlin boyfriend. Only the attentions of the sympathetic wreck Dr. Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), and the decrepit state of a teen girl abused at the Torgau workhouse crack her determination to leave.
Petzold presents a world that is manifesting Barbara’s justifiable paranoia, one that constantly pokes and prods at her inviolable wall of privacy. He generally frames her in medium shot, with Hoss placed in corners, her eyes slathered in mascara so they pop out of her pale face, looking with the same intensity as the doctors in the reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulip that hangs in Dr. Andre’s office. She is alert and pensive, scanning a mise-en-scene that is rebelling against her. Her apartment’s electrical outlets blow out, the doorbell sounds like a clattering death rattle (and usually portends worse), and her bike’s tires pop at regular intervals. Then while at the office, she has to aid Dr. Andre in a lumbar puncture – with work the only place she can project her fears outward. Otherwise she is in constant surveillance of her environs, woman as prison-guard tower. Nina Hoss presents Barbara as an imposing edifice, a stone-faced sphinx who speaks in brief bursts, transmitting as little information as possible. But her eyes tell the tale, climaxing in an ecstatic close-up in the hospital, in which encrustations of anxiety fall from her face, and Barbara is ready to accept her fate.
The fate of the fish in Leviathan is never in any doubt. They will end up on our tables and in our bellies. Filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel are interested in how they get there – not the facts of it, though, but the experience, and from every conceivable perspective. The duo used waterproof digital cameras and tied them to fisherman’s heads, shoved them into a pile of the writhing new catch, and dipped them underwater on long poles off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Herman Melville worked as a whaler in New Bedford, and used the town as a model for Moby Dick, in which great whales are called “leviathans”.
This association reflects on the changing industry in New Bedford, which was the number one dollar value fishing port for the 12th consecutive year, thanks to the sea scallop industry, although it’s a long way from the dominant whaling port it was at the turn of the 20th century. But while the fish are smaller, the sense of awe is still present, as Castaing-Taylor, Paravel and sound designer Ernst Karel cut between the brute reality and industrial noise of life on the boat with the awesome beauty and gurgling solitude of the nature outside of it. When the cameras bob up and under the surface of the water, catching flickering visions of seagulls manifesting out of the dark, it looks as if the world is being created before your eyes. The filmmakers told Dennis Lim in the NY Times that while Melville, as well as philosopher Thomas Hobbes (“life is nasty, brutish and short”), were the original touchstones of their work, it was the original, biblical sense of leviathan as sea monster that ultimately animated their vision. It is a primal, visceral and overwhelming work, one of those artistic breakthroughs that intimates what it might have felt to view the Lumiere’s train riding towards you for the first time.
If Leviathan feels like something bracingly new, Holy Motors is obsessed with the old – with old films, old actors and old age. After years of failing to secure funding for his work, Leos Carax fueled all of his rage at the business and love for the medium into this weary spectacular. Denis Lavant plays Oscar, a burnt-out itinerant actor who travels in a stretch limo around Paris (which has a similar tomb-like quality to that of Cosmopolis), heading to nine “appointments” in which he performs scenes in a variety of genres, from softcore porn to tearjerking melodrama to a grandly romantic musical reminiscent of Jacques Demy. His whole life is performance, and performance is life, acting for an invisible crowd that we see in the opening scene lolling contentedly in their seats.
This is no celebration, though, for Oscar is exhausted, as Michel Piccoli notes in a crucial cameo. These forms and characters that Lavant so imaginatively embodies are losing their force – these grand emotions are as outdated as the lugubrious limo that creeps through town. Oscar’s tour is a joyous kind of eulogy, a superb rendering of these spectacles that is also their last. He straps on a motion capture suit, a human disco ball in a dark room, and engages in an intensely erotic pas de deux with a similarly outfitted blonde. Their bodies heave and contract as one – but their efforts result in the slick, inhuman CG of writhing dragons. Later, a movingly melancholic Kylie Minogue breaks out into a heartsick ballad, singing of her past love for Lavant, a gorgeous number in which Carax tracks the camera up a desolate building onto the roof, where they part. All that is left afterward will be some broken glass on the sidewalk, another performance ended. In Holy Motors cinema still works, and gloriously so, but it is fated to die anyway. The film is Carax’s form of mourning this passing, and here’s hoping this film and his career will have a lengthy afterlife.
In the coming weeks I’ll discuss the sidebar programs, including the Views From the Avant-Garde program and an ultra-rare screening of Manoel de Oliveira’s The Satin Slipper (1985) , along with more selections from the main slate.