Cinema of Enduring Connection in a Brutal World: The 54th New York Film Festival (2016)
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At the start of this 54th New York Film Festival (NYFF), once again taking place at its long time home, the Walter Reade Theatre, the informal chat before the press screenings was about awards. For over half a decade, NYFF has prided itself on refusing to make competition for prizes a feature of its presentation of new films. Festival awards are generally acknowledged to be economically motivated ways of increasing excitement and generating income. But, when it's autumn in New York, film lovers gather for the sheer pleasure of being present at the public debut of new artists and to delight in the continuing artistry of familiar festival favorites. “It's refreshing,” one enthusiastic donor said to me.
I would venture to suggest that it's more than refreshing. It's essential. Film experiences are unvarnished and they create a purely cinematic exhilaration of many varieties with their own histories having nothing to do with winning and losing. We now wait with anticipation for the films of the Dardenne brothers and Olivier Assayas, whose latest work I will discuss below, but once upon a time their cinema was a surprise encounter. Similarly, this year, the first film I saw was Neruda, by brilliant Chilean director Pablo Larraín, and I arrived at the Walter Reade looking forward to it. However, the first time I learned of Larraín was quite a different story. His film Tony Manero was listed on the Main Slate for the 2008 festival, and that title, invoking the hero of Saturday Night Fever (1977), didn't sound promising. If it had played for two nights in a distant arts cinema, it would have come and gone unnoticed by me. But I had been at an earlier press screening and took a chance. Tony Manero rocked my world. What Larraín had made of that light-hearted romance about disco and John Travolta's white suit! Did I see what I thought I saw? Yes. Tony Manero is about Augusto Pinochet's brutal, dictatorial regime. Once you have seen how, in that film, Larraín plays with the relationship between art and politics, you will never see the political possibilities of film the same way again. (If that tickles your cerebellum, please take a look at this extraordinary film; there isn't space in this review for further comment.) In Neruda, Larraín returns with both energy and finesse to his favorite themes and his delicious indirection.
The present time of Neruda is 1948. The poet Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is a Communist senator in a Communist government; Pinochet is a guard in a prison camp who barely grazes Neruda's consciousness. Neruda dominates the film from his first appearance when he cuts a swath through the ornate senate rooms to his scenes at the end of the film with Pablo Picasso (Emilio Gutiérrrez Caba) in Paris, having survived the attempt of the government of Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro) to kill him for having accused the President of betraying Communist ideals. By contrast, Pinochet is seen so briefly in a prison camp that he doesn't even appear in the credits. But, although Neruda's main adversary in the film is Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a dapper, monomaniacal policeman who, on behalf of Videla's dictatorship, hunts Neruda doggedly through cities and across the snowy Andean wilderness, Pinochet looms silently over the action. For if, in this film, Neruda escapes from Videla's surrogate, anyone familiar with his life knows that his death in 1973 was suspiciously contemporaneous with Pinochet's successful coup against Salvadore Allende's government. Neruda's death was officially blamed on cancer; but it was more likely a murder perpetrated by a doctor in Pinochet's employ. So, hidden within Neruda's victory over Videla is a fatal destiny beyond the final frame. Through its eloquent silence about Pinochet, Neruda invokes a large macro picture, in which political victory is fleeting; flesh is weak.
Ah, but in micro reality, evading one's enemies is sweet, and flesh is a source of beauty and gratification. Neruda, as does this film, savors life in the moment to the fullest. With gusto, Neruda plays a cat and mouse game with Peluchonneau, taunting him by leaving books of his poetry for the policeman to find as the poet disappears, two steps ahead of him. He takes time out from fleeing his would-be assassin to partake in extravagant orgies, in scenes that radiate joy, generosity, and love of living rather than the kind of decadence and grotesquerie characteristically associated with excess of that kind, for example in the films of Fellini. There is a particularly moving moment at one of these erotically charged soirees in which Neruda shows extraordinary kindness to a much-mocked transvestite, pathetic in his ugliness and his yearning for love. Subsequently, unasked, the man repays Neruda by setting one of his poems to music and by stonewalling Peluchonneau during an interrogation about the poet.
Neruda takes inspiration from the life of a historically real man, but it is not a biopic. Rather it is a vision that incorporates and then transcends facts. It is a poem about a poor young man who is recreated as a literary legend by Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), the aristocrat who inspired him to become a Communist, bringing into his life the accompanying love of humanity and hatred of cruelty and oppression that that implies within the Chilean context. His politics, poetry, and love for Delia nurture his writing, a literature of love, witty and ironic like the sonnets of the metaphysical poet John Donne. The Neruda poem that is quoted frequently in the film is “Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines,” which speaks of lost love as neither fully vanished nor fully comprehensible. These three couplets suggest the subtleties and music of the larger work:
Neruda contains a lot of Pablos: Neruda, Picasso, and Larraín. It's not a coincidence. Larraín is speaking through two remarkable artists to paint his own picture of the complex enfolding of the big historical picture and the immediate human moment. To these, Larraín adds the mystery of human connection. At the beginning of the chase, Peluchonneau, who like Neruda was born into poverty and obscurity, and has risen through his own role in politics to be a person of consequence, thinks of Neruda much in the way Inspector Javert thinks of Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, as the doomed prey of a seasoned hunter. But during Peluchonneau's pursuit of the poet, they become entangled with each other on a level that both transcends politics and is born of it, as the hunt brings into being a sense of intimacy. (Spoiler ahead.) By the time Peluchonneau dies in the snow from a wound inflicted by a comrade helping Neruda to escape, they each have come to view their experience as an ecstatic mutual creation of the other, which seems odd at first blush, but ultimately makes sense as a most vivid and accurate description of a process that engages the nerves, impulses, and intelligence of each of them so fully. Politics IS a meeting of strange bedfellows, policeman and poet. Neruda fuses poetry and politics so that we cannot know one without knowing the other. Neither can we escape the human tragedy of a society that sets us against each other.
There is something of this same mystique of the endurance of connectedness in a brutal world that pervades The Unknown Girl, directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, long time festival favorites. The Unknown Girl is the story of Jenny Davin (Adéle Haenel), an enigmatic doctor who renounces a prestigious appointment to the Liege Kennedy Medical Centre in order to practice community medicine in a depressed and violent working-class neighborhood. But knowledge of her mystery is belated. Our first impression is of a methodical, patient, thoughtful community doctor who is plunged into what appears to be a kitchen-sink crime story. One critic left the Walter Reade talking to me about how she had initially imagined that she was about to see a run-of-the-mill “policier,” startling though that would be in a Dardenne brothers film. But indeed at first we do seem to be watching a traditional story ignited by a conventional inciting incident, to use the parlance of screenwriting classes, when Dr. Davin, just finishing a very busy day, decides not to answer when the bell rings after clinic hours are over. What follows is anything but conventional.
Already a slight sense of foreboding is invoked by the unanswered bell, it turns increasingly into a feeling of dread as Davin insists on conducting her own investigation of the murder of the person—a black woman and ostensibly the unknown girl of the title—whose desperate attempt to get into Davin's office she ignored. The police in charge of the case are a provincial pair, well meaning, not particularly invested in finding the killer, while, by contrast, Davin, who identifies herself to almost everyone, including her patients as Jenny, is oddly personal in her yearning to know not only who committed the murder but the identity of the dead woman and exposes herself to the possibility of all kinds of danger and maybe worse. Why?
We feel we are being prepared for the worst by the way that the film begins with mundane concerns and subtly becomes disconcerting. During a routine examination of a man with a lung problem in the opening scenes, Davin shares a stethoscope with a male colleague, Julien (Olivier Bonnaud). This should be cut and dried but we find ourselves wondering what they are to each other. Is he checking on her diagnosis, or is he her student? We discover that the latter is the case, but almost immediately the pair again elicit our curiosity. A young boy in the midst of a seizure is rushed into Davin's office, and Julien freezes when Davin orders him to get her some cushions for the child's head. Rather than respond with anger or dismay, she becomes more and more solicitous of Julien's welfare and when he subsequently disappears from, she visits him at his home showering him with sympathy, and then follows him to his tiny provincial hometown to try to persuade him not to abort his medical studies. Why? The film takes on the proportions of a Rorschach test, an indeterminate collection of shapes that each audience member will fill with his or her private fantasies or assumptions.
Similarly strange is the unreliability of Davin's first words to Julien as she ignores the after hours bell. She tells him in measured tones that it is urgent that a doctor neither become emotionally involved in her work nor allow the patients to intrude on personal time, since a doctor cannot make appropriate judgments if she is over-emotional or insufficiently rested. What follows, however, shows a doctor Davin totally motivated by her feelings and constantly sacrificing her personal life although no one has asked her to do so. Why has she so misrepresented herself? The best we can say is that she was as surprised as anyone by her reaction to the situation. Davin's pursuit of clues to the identity of the dead black woman propels her into one violent situation after another with people who at first appear to be temperate and civil, if not particularly helpful, suddenly hit and batter her, leaving her shocked, but undeterred. Her tenacity is rewarded. Davin finds all the answers she is searching for and in the process reveals a few truths to the people with whom she has been involved.
But who is this woman? What is the source of her goodness and courage? Why has this journey been so compelling to her? Clearly, all other mysteries pale before the enigma of Jenny Davin. As is typical of the monumentally understated drama of the Dardenne brothers—an oxymoron that sums up their cinematic oeuvre—there is thunderous portent in the subcutaneous turmoil of a life whose surface had not appeared to be disturbed by even a ripple. Much like Bruno (Jérémie Renier) the callow, opportunistic “type” in the Dardennes' L'Enfant—NYFF 2005—who, as if he has been pounded on the head with a sledge hammer, discovers the meaning of love after he casually sells his baby son for a short term infusion of cash; Davin becomes who she is when she is catapulted into an expected and almost incomprehensible entanglement with strangers. In the Dardennes' 2005 film, who ultimately is l'enfant (the child)? In their latest film, who, ultimately, is the unknown girl? And what are the Dardennes pointing to in all of us?
“Lewis?” is the question that begins Personal Shopper, only the first of many questions sparked by this film directed by the great Olivier Assayas and starring Kristen Stewart, an actress he worked with as a key collaborator. There are a handful of characters in this work, but it is essentially a two person dialogue between director and star, as became clear in the press conference that followed the screening. Assayas is moving deeper and deeper into the realm of such collaborations. Last year, when he and Juliette Binoche spoke at NYFF about his superb film The Clouds of Sils Maria, it was clear that it was her project and that he was her facilitator and the same seemed to be true of his work with Stewart in this year's offering. He wrote the script, undoubtedly it was he who called “Action,” but ultimately he was turning Stewart loose to determine both how long the shots would be by virtue of how long she wanted to sustain a moment and what would appear on the screen that she mined out of the deepest recesses of her being as a performing artist. Her understanding and her physicality “is the film,” according to Assayas.
The result is our cinematic experience of Maureen, a young American woman in Europe, who is working as a personal shopper and general assistant to Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten) a self-aggrandizing celebrity who may be famous for being famous or renowned for an actual talent; we don't know which. We only know that she appears at various high style, exclusive events and likes to shimmer and glow. Maureen, who picks up Kira's Channel and Cartier for her is decidedly understated, which is an ironic way of describing her undistinguished wardrobe of jeans, leather jacket, and tee shirts. But the world of celebrity is only the backdrop for a spiritual journey. Maureen's twin brother Lewis has just died and Maureen is waiting for a sign from him from beyond. The two of them shared a similar heart condition—in Lewis the cause of his very early death—and a similar sensibility that might be a capacity for contacting a supernatural world of ectoplasm outside of the realm of ordinary reality. It is that possibility that intrigues Maureen and the audience as she spends time in the now almost bare house owned by her brother. Is that him that she sees when she has encounters with wraithlike humanoid apparitions? “Lewis?” Or is it another spirit come to do Maureen damage? There is the other possibility, of course, that she is merely hallucinating out of grief and desperation. That question about the borders of ordinary reality functions to make Assayas' film a liminal vortex of speculation about the boundaries of identity, and the line that separates life and death, male and female, and mind and body.
Kristen Stewart's Maureen is herself highly liminal. Maureen is an androgynous figure, with the body of an early adolescent girl and the physicality of a male biker. She dresses like James Dean, but also takes some side trips into hyper-feminine high style when she secretly tries on the high fashion clothes she delivers to Kira. The complication of her identity is further compounded when she receives text messages that might be from a mysterious stalker, her dead brother, or from herself. We are always kept in suspense about the nature of reality in this film. Does it testify to the existence of the paranormal? Or is it about the endless strangeness of human psychology? There are some mysteries which can be answered by worldly investigators like the police, but Personal Shopper is most concerned with those that can't be.
Both Assayas and Stewart want to create modern cinema that is in dialogue with itself to ask rather than answer questions. The questions in this film point to an obsession with spirituality born, as Assayas believes, of the oppressively materialistic times we live in from which we are impelled to flee to the spirit world. Maureen is an impressively bold and brave adventurer, unflinchingly honest with herself about her doubts, terrors, desires, and loneliness, as is Assayas in making the film. It's all there on the screen, but the discussion afterward in which director and star declared their intentions provoked in me more interest in what I had seen. They didn't spell out the meaning but they gave me some hooks to hang my thoughts on. The artists' pleasure in their work was a delight, and that it enlivened my recognition and appreciation of the way Personal Shopper teases the edges of the spectator's psyche with its reflections of the modern materialism we see around us every day.
The final two films I will discuss are more connected with history, but they do not lack their own enigmas. If there is no mystery about the thesis of Ava DuVernay's new film 13th , and nothing mystical about the history lesson she wishes to teach, there is, in her accumulation of damning historical facts, a frustrating, enraging perplexity about the persistence of racism in America. Du Verney's film is, quite simply, about how racism and slavery has been perpetuated from 1865 to today, despite the 13th amendment. It is a finely articulated examination of how, once the amendment was passed, various forces in the United States colluded to criminalize black American men by viciously taking advantage of a loophole in the 13th amendment. It forbids slavery, EXCEPT IN THE CASE OF CRIMINAL PUNISHMENT. Prisoners may be forced to work for free. So free labor was still possible if men who were once slaves were turned into prisoners. There is a clear economic advantage to the historical American betrayal of the 13th amendment, but questions about the hatred that accompanied it are not easily answered.
DuVernay painstakingly documents the various waves of unjust mass incarcerations of black men in America, bringing in various academics and politicians to add weight both to the documentation and credence to the claims that all of the strategies were and remain conscious. She gains emotional as well as intellectual leverage by including in her documentary massive amounts of newsreel footage; there are no dramatizations of incarceration or public violence. Everything we see—the lynchings, the prison scenes, the chain gangs, the attacks by police, dogs, water hoses, and crowds—is ripped from the contexts of American lives. Some of the footage will be familiar; most is not. All the footage is damning, requiring no commentary—DuVernay, unlike Michael Moore, never appears in her film, and lets the evidence and the experts speak for themselves—imprinting searing images of the career of inhumane hatred of ordinary people trying to go about their ordinary lives. In the press conference after the screening, DuVernay spoke of her favorite sequence which showed a tall, formally dressed black man, elegant in his carriage and dignified in his response to the harassment he is suffering from crowds of white southerners, their faces contorted with rage at nothing more than his being, his very existence. Du Vernay doesn't know the name of the man; she referred to the film sequence as “the dignified man scene.” The situation moves her deeply, and I would be hard pressed to find, among sane Americans, anyone who didn't feel the same way.
Du Vernay also alludes to images from mass media entertainment that entrench the association between rapacious criminality and black men. D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation , particularly, appears early and often in 13th. The juxtaposition of Griffith's scenes that horribly and ludicrously dramatize and embody the myth of uncontained lust that it insists black men feel for white women are even more shocking within the context of the DuVernay documentary because, excerpted from their place in American's first full length narrative film and placed along side of scenes in which white Americans have clearly bought into this racist tripe, the connection between racist entertainment and racist violence jumps out at the audience. Griffith's film even coaches racist attackers in ritualistic ways of creating fear and inflicting harm. It was news to me and many in the Walter Reade that Griffith invented the burning cross in Birth of a Nation. Only after the KKK saw it onscreen did they begin to burn crosses during their raids on black homes.
The film contends that organized violence continues to be inflicted on the black community, breaking up families and robbing black men of their lives, and who can deny this claim? DuVernay makes no attempt to soften her message with reassuring statements about progress. However, progress is embedded into the bone and marrow of 13th. Most of the experts are black academics, thoughtful, impressive, and absolutely candid about their views—a complete departure from the narrative that dominated both feature and documentary film until recently in which benevolent white Americans speak for and defend black Americans. The full participation of these experts in the argument about new forms of slavery makes a more powerful statement than any explicit verbal argument about progress ever could.
DuVernay told us that there are six more hours of film on the cutting room floor, and I suspect that they contain material that would qualify and complicate her discussion. I further presume she omitted that footage because of time constraints and to keep her line of argument clean. In looking back on 13th, I found myself wanting to think about whether they were the new images of black Americans in the media, of righteous, competent, and debonair black policemen, doctors, detectives, husbands, and fathers who populate the stories we tell on network and cable television. I want to say, Ava, you could have shown us that “The dignified man” of your film has survived, endured, and prevailed. No one would ever make a film in which a snarling black rapist is representative of all black men. But she knows that. And I know that she is trying to keep us from distracting ourselves with consoling thoughts.
Finally, we come to James Gray's adaptation for the screen of David Grann's The Lost City of Z. When James Gray came out with his first film Little Odessa (1994), David Lynch advised me to watch Gray's career. He saw something special and marvelous in the fledgling director. That was a long time ago, but Lynch's words of praise have stayed with me and made me curious. I wonder what he will think when he sees The Lost City of Z, which sounds like the title of a 1940's weekly Saturday morning movie serial, ancestor of the current crop of bloated super-hero studio movies. Anyone who has read Grann's a non-fiction account of British explorer Percy Fawcett's 1925 trek into the jungles of Bolivia is likely to presume that Gray's film is of similar, but more serious stripe. After all, Grann's motive for writing the book was inspired by both a taste for unsolved historical mysteries—Fawcett and party disappeared never to be seen again—and the compulsion of boys' magazine to print stories pitting man against nature. But nothing could be further from what Gray has made of Grann's research into Fawcett's life. Here again, I am indebted to NYFF for a filmic experience I probably would otherwise have missed.
At his press conference, Gray said that the first aspect of the story that attracted him was that it was a story about class. Fawcett (Charles Hunnam), the son of a disgraced father, and a major in the army who was not appropriately promoted despite his excellence because of, as one aristocrat puts it, “his poor choice in ancestors,” was virtually blackmailed into his first trip to the jungle in 1906. The mission he was offered by the Royal Geographical Society was to map the boundary between Brazil and Bolivia, as part of a political strategy by Britain to avoid war between the two countries. Fawcett did not want to accept, but it was made clear to him that, if he survived, which they thought dubious, he would redeem his name for his children and his family. So, Gray set out to make a film about an outsider—a typical subject for this director—using his nerve, stamina, and determination to break into the upper crust of English society, not a mere jungle adventure.
But that is only part of Gray's story. Fawcett does return, having achieved all he set out to do: avert war and and achieve social redemption. But, as with so many quests, during his 1906 trek, a new question revealed itself to Fawcett. He discovered evidence for a universal humanity that the class bound England of the period never dreamed of. Gray's film springboards off the odd truth that it is the outsider who is the most likely to advance his culture in important ways when, during this first, forced journey, as Fawcett and his party reach the border they are commissioned to survey and map, Fawcett is stunned to find an huge trove of pottery fragments. At first, a 2016 audience is likely to be as underwhelmed by this discovery as Fawcett is overwhelmed. For we have lost track of the contempt in which the West held first nations over a hundred years ago. Fawcett's England took it as a given that the Indians who lived in the jungle were so entirely inferior to Europe—certainly to Great Britain—that they were incapable of anything but the most elementary culture. What, in fact, the fatuous “men of science” at the Royal Geographical Society could possibly have imagined about the Indians is difficult to figure out. Did they believe that the thousands who populated the jungle simply milled about in the underbrush, grunting and grabbing raw food at odd moments of the day and night? Quite possibly, for during the 1906 expedition, Fawcett, who began his quest with a better attitude toward difference in cultures and peoples, is nevertheless completely dismissive of what his Indian guide tells him of a lost, marvelous civilization created long before there was anything of the sort in England.
But during that trek, Fawcett sees that the Indians not only create pottery, they also cultivate the jungle, planting their crops with a mathematical precision. When his Indian guide, just before he escapes from Fawcett's research party, expresses in broken English pity for the limitation of the horizon of understanding that he sees in the British, a crack opens in the wall around Fawcett's parochialism. The fissure grows until the inspiration for Fawcett's subsequent explorations—and Gray's film—becomes building a bridge between England and the otherness of the Indian cultures. In fact, Gray is interested in all kind of otherness, the otherness of men and women, parents and children, social classes, as well as Western and native cultures. What success he achieves in depicting multiple subjectivities, I will not reveal, in order to give you the opportunity to make your own trek of discovery into his film.
The press conference with Gray and some of his cast added sizzle and substance to the experience of the film. Gray is a charming, witty man with an outsized capacity for mimicry—his Brad Pitt imitation was the jewel in his crown as far as I am concerned—and also a capacity for thinking about what it means to make movies, bringing us back to my initial thoughts about the significance of the New York Film Festival. Gray struck a nerve when he spoke of Francois Truffaut's definition of cinema as a combination of truth and spectacle. These days, said Gray, we have big studio movies that are spectacle without truth; and $4.00 independent films that are truth lacking in spectacle. It is that middle ground, he contended, that was the treasure of American cinematic culture; and he mourns its loss—temporary, I hope. He accurately described The Lost City of Z as a film in which he intended to combine the two, and asked us to be the judges of how much truth accompanies his jungle spectacle.
I find myself pondering the pertinence of his comment to Gray's film and the four others in this review. None is a product of a big American studio, and none is a $4.00 patchwork of unspectacular truth. They are the products of international film industries—Chilean, Belgian, and French—and of the new American production facilities of Netflix (13th) and Amazon (The Lost City of Z). Dare one hope that a marvelous global film culture is growing in the areas vacated by the boring policies of the big studios? (Sclerotic, as Gray described them.) Dare one prophesy a filmic renaissance? Keep watching the Walter Reade!
Martha P. Nochimson has reviewed film festivals from New York to Montreal to Istanbul. She is the author of eight books, including David Lynch Swerves: Uncertainty from Lost Highway to Inland Empire; World on Film: An Introduction; and The Companion to Wong Kar-wai. For over 15 years, she has been an associate of the Seminar on Film and Interdisciplinary Interpretations at Columbia University, and she was the director of the film studies program at Mercy College. She has written for five network soap operas, taught screenwriting at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and served as an editor for Cineaste magazine. Currently, she is writing a book on the rise of non-formulaic television for the University of Texas Press.