New York Film Festival: Part IDirector:
he selection at the 44th New York Film Festival is an odd assemblage of high-profile and unknown films. Programming a festival is certainly a simpler feat when it is non-competitive, and the people behind this one have taken advantage of an opportunity to run a major slate of vintage films. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ridiculously offbeat but cinematically quite beautiful El Topo (1970) is not the least of these, and the festival has even arranged for the Russian Chilean to come introduce the film (as well as his 1973 follow-up The Holy Mountain). What follows are some of the festival’s early highlights.
Sofia Coppola’s long-awaited, avant-hip placeholder Marie Antoinette turns out to be, well, a period piece. The first third of the movie is all procedure—Austrian princess has to be handled through several stadiums in order to become the French dauphine, and then is subject to a rigorous royal schedule of dressing and eating—and it is overflowing with energy. In all of her films, Coppola is abundantly capable of creating a world worth watching. Her antebellum France is slightly caked with dirt and refreshingly vile at times. But as Marie gets accustomed to her new world and confident enough to buck it just a little, the blush is off the rose for her—and sadly, for the movie as well.
This movie is full of bad narrative threads. There’s a conflict between the dauphine and the king’s mistress; Marie plays the traditionalist who hates the harlot, yet meanwhile, we’re supposed to understand her as a libertine. In a half-cocked return to nature, Marie reads Rousseau in her rural bungalow; at the same time, she’s stealing out at night for Parisian benders. If these are meant to be paradoxes or even character development, they fail, registering as confused rambling. Still, this film’s success does not rise and fall on its plot points, but on tone and character. There is an endlessly charming air to it, and the movie is consistently fun. The patently daring soundtrack, which is its own early eighties period piece, does not come off as intrusive or strange, but rather simply fitting.
The poor reception at Cannes was easily dismissed as a reaction against the non-political nature of the movie—who says this ever needed to be a polemic? But the critics were right insofar as the final product actually travels past political disengagement, developing emotional empathy for a woman who stood beside a wretched king. That’s a dig in itself, but it also points out that, despite hints of valor and wisdom, it isn’t clear whether Marie is meant to be intelligent or not. There isn’t terribly much to write about Marie Antoinette actually because, frankly, Coppola doesn’t have a tremendous amount to say in the first place.
Syndromes and a Century witnesses the lives of several Thai doctors; it covers this ground twice, with the film’s two halves set at different hospitals, the same actors playing nearly the same roles in each section. The film does not labor through the details twice, but makes it very explicit that it’s covering the same period in two sets of slightly varied lives. It is director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s (he of Stylus favorite Tropical Malady) ode to the lives of his parents, which he observed as a child roaming their hospital grounds. Its observational role is accordingly central, and the movie’s awesome attentiveness often renders every other scene silent, sometimes allowing its images to drift places where its audio is not.
Unlike Tropical Malady, which revolves around one of the most expressionistic metaphors ever filmed, this movie attempts to lay bare the simplest and most honest gaps between things. Uncovering some slice of truth is usually, if not always, the goal of a great filmmaker—though, as any traumatized viewer of a Michael Haneke film will agree, it can also be a tragedy. In this film likewise, the odd shame of being a deadbeat and the pathetic sadness of unrequited love, while not savage, are plain and unromanticized, Weerasethakul locates the arbitrariness of intimacy. Familiarity between people is also random and almost inconsistent; we even see, in ellipsis, a love affair that seems only like a small, comfortable space.
The director is also invested in his own culture, and the contacts between monks and doctors are particularly present. The monastery is merely one cultural facet: Elderly monks are as pushy about their pain medications as any man of science, and faith-based medicines are less offensive to the doctors than are petulant tones of voice. There is a silence at one point when a hematologist turns to chakra healing. Perhaps the Thai experience encompasses a wider range of emotional touchstones? But then the thing is reduced to merely a joke, one additional reference point–without mystification or romance–and it seems that the director is perhaps mocking the Orientalist looking for peculiarity. This is funny in its way, because Syndromes and a Century is also hunting for surprising connections and disconnections—and is successful at conjuring spaces both realistic and surprising.
Infidelity is a whip, and it’s hard to do empathetically without the benefit of melodrama. So, director Todd Field was thinking clearly when he decided to adapt Tom Perotta’s (Election) suburban adultery showstopper, Little Children. The melodrama makes for suspenseful entertainment, and for a drama far less grating than Field’s emotionally shocking In the Bedroom. In fact, maybe it’s because the movie is so clearly caught up in its own entertainment value, but there are a couple of moments where I sensed edges of irony like those trespassed in the underrated (and straightforwardly stupid) Wild Things.
This is a compliment, though. Field’s movie displays great sensitivity: The desperate housewife falls for the hunky househusband in the moment when he is loneliest; common ground and the mothering nerve proving more significant than sex drive. The biggest trap for the househusband proves not to be laziness or irresponsibility, but the more insidious passivity—which leads not only to adultery but also far worse enterprises. Unlike the unknowing kitsch of soap opera, Little Children is careful with its exaggeration: Selfishness is so prevalent here that characters witness each other’s sins, yet are so self-centered as to be oblivious.
It’s always a challenge to adapt a complex book to the screen, and Little Children has a couple more primaries than Field can comfortably accommodate. A new-in-town convicted sex offender is cast as the repository of all things perverse when spotted in the children-laden public pool on a lazy weekday; he is the poison pill to top all arsenics, and the hysteria that ensues is perfectly played. Nonetheless, the character doesn’t fit in the movie, and his subplot strays too far from the heart of the story. Remarkably, Field signals this shortcoming in his production notes. There is something literary about multiple plots that just doesn’t translate well to film, especially in this very head-on production
Watch for Part Two of Jonas’s New York Film Festival wrap-up, appearing soon in this space.
By: Jonas Oransky
Published on: 2006-10-09