It's Up to You, New York, New York

Even in the Giuliani era, the New York Film Festival brings the beautiful and the blasphemous to American shores

New York--

Dogma director Kevin Smith had a rather purgatorial week at the New York Film Festival. A couple of days before a thousand or so protesters took a cue from anti-blasphemy mayor Rudy Giuliani, picketing the festival screening site at Lincoln Center in opposition to Smith's surprisingly smart Catholic satire, a journalist at the movie's press screening called the young filmmaker on his Clerks-era statement that he had no use for the kind of foreign classics that regularly grace the NYFF. "I didn't grow up watching films by the old masters," admitted Smith, clad in the black hooded sweatshirt and blue jeans that are his trademark. "I grew up watching Sixteen Candles and Animal House and shit like that. So naturally those films are going to have a greater influence on me."

True enough, although what Smith failed to mention is that "shit like that" is abundant in movie theaters these days. What's crucial about the New York Film Festival, by contrast, is that its particular repertoire of world cinema often can't be seen in the likes of, say, Minneapolis (or pretty much any city besides New York). For instance, of the five foreign must-sees highlighted in my coverage of the festival last year, only one, Emir Kusturica's Black Cat, White Cat, has made it to the Twin Cities thus far (and it took nearly 12 months). So the question for this visiting critic becomes whether to write about a half-dozen great films that few can see (with the hope that it might help bring the films in sooner), or focus on the mini-major distributors' coming attractions, which are likely to arrive well-heralded soon after the start of next year.

The answer, frankly, is that I have no idea--which is why, not unlike the NYFF itself, I'm splitting the difference this year between covering obscure gems and high-profile coming attractions. Luckily, most of those coming attractions at the fest--including new works by directors Mike Leigh, Jane Campion, and the Belgian-born Dardenne brothers (reviewed below)--happened to be gems as well.

Taking into account the rather occult nature of film distribution, I'm including predictions about when each of these pictures might finally flicker before us.

 

License to Live

"No more Soviet Union," says this Japanese comedy's newly awakened Rip Van Winkle, catching up on what has happened in the ten years since a car accident at age 14 landed him in a decadelong coma. "Was it a big deal?" asks his friend, who really ought to know. "Sort of." Characteristically Japanese in its mordant sense of humor and its low-key approach to a high concept--Hirokazu Kore-eda's After Life and Shohei Imamura's Dr. Akagi have the same inventive, off-kilter tone--License to Live never rests on its dreamy premise. The mop-topped slacker protagonist (Hidetoshi Nishijima) oddly acts almost comatose even after he has awakened, as director Kiyoshi Kurosawa favors deadpan long takes of him sitting around channel-surfing or wiping the sleep from his eyes. Eventually, the film becomes a subtle philosophical investigation of whether the young hero's life may have--or should have--ended with his accident. Kurosawa bears no relation to the late Akira, and yet this contemplative study of a life in limbo deserves a place alongside the master's classic Ikiru (To Live).

Estimated Time of Arrival: Sometime in the next decade

 

Rosetta

Having missed this controversial Palme d'Or winner at Cannes, I now see what all the fuss was about. Following a tenacious 17-year-old girl (Emilie Dequenne) through the endless struggles of her life on the outskirts of Seraing in Belgium, the Dardenne brothers (Luc and Jean-Pierre, whose equally tough La Promesse graced the NYFF two years ago) bring their 15 years of documentary experience to bear on a narrative feature that possesses all the aching force of the best nonfiction films about labor. The heroine of the title fights to fend off poverty in the film's every frame, yearning for a job that will keep her and her alcoholic mother (Anne Yernaux) living uncomfortably in their trailer-park home. The Dardennes train their roving camera on Rosetta's hands as she baits the hook on a bottle fish trap, mixes waffle batter, peels a hard-boiled egg, or carries a heavy canister of propane back to her house: Every action is an effort. Recalling the great tradition of neorealist world-cinema classics about poor children, from Los Olvidados to Pixote, Rosetta displays an astute class consciousness that's never reducible to platitudes about the courage of the impoverished. In her debut, the young Dequenne holds the screen all the way to the end of the film, at which point the Dardennes pull off a brilliant transference of energy that puts her fate in another's hands--and perhaps the viewer's as well.

ETA: February 2000--or whenever Lagoon Cinema finishes with its Christmas hits

 

Pripyat

Nonfiction films about Chernobyl have been a dime a dozen over the past decade, but this bone-chilling documentary of the 20-mile restricted zone around the nuclear accident site in the Ukraine comes closer than any other picture to portraying what the postapocalyptic world might look like. Shot in an appropriately gloomy black-and-white film stock, and named for the present and former plant workers' ominously sparse hometown near Chernobyl, Pripyat follows the few brave and/or crazy souls who continue to live and work in the area despite lethal levels of radioactivity. One elderly couple explains that they returned to the city of Chernobyl in 1993, feeling homesick and skeptical of health warnings. "What can the radioactivity do to us at our age?" one of them asks. The film's most frightening moments involve an amiable power-plant engineer who leads the camera into a main reactor room that resembles nothing so much as a hopscotch playing field with rows of numbered tiles, some of which appear to be running "a little hot." Such instances of gallows humor (not to mention the recent accident in Japan) only accentuate Pripyat's devastating point that this poisonous wasteland could be anywhere on earth.

ETA: April, 2000, at U Film Society's Mpls./St. Paul International Film Festival--or, barring that, whenever Chernobyl begins exporting bottled water

 

Pola X

Following up his recently released, eight-year-old Lovers on the Bridge with another cinematic scandal that may take just as long to reach the States, French director Leos Carax turns this adaptation of Herman Melville's Pierre or the Ambiguities into an exceedingly morbid and incest-laden variant of Vertigo--complete with a near-necrophilic sex scene. It involves a well-off writer (Guillaume Depardieu) who turns his back on his wealth when he meets a mysterious woman who may be his half sister (Katerina Golubeva), and begins to wander with her through the French countryside as if in a trance. Ultimately, Pola X charts the direct opposite trajectory of Carax's earlier film, whose homeless lovers rather implausibly turned into yuppies; here the leisure class goes slumming toward self-destruction. The movie isn't the least bit commercial (downward mobility isn't too sexy these days), but its breathtaking images are often thrillingly weird: I don't think I'll ever forget the outrageous process-shot of Catherine Deneuve, as the protagonist's strung-out mom, riding a motorcycle late at night like some makeup-smeared biker mama.

ETA: We waited eight years for Carax's last film...do we hear seven?

 

Holy Smoke

Director Jane Campion's justly awaited response to the younger-woman/older-man cycle is, alas, a major disappointment. Seeming to borrow a bit from her movie's own flaky new-age agenda, the filmmaker described it after the press screening as being "about people's journey to the heart...how vulnerable we all are, how we fall in love and out of love, those leaps of faith we take." Such transformations are made none too believable here, as Kate Winslet's young and independent Australian woman has a religious-cult rapture in India (rendered in a style akin to a psychedelic MTV clip); fights in an outback shack with an oily American "cult exiter" (Harvey Keitel) hired by her suburban Sydney parents; falls in love with this deprogramming nemesis (or so it appears); and then humiliates him en route to her next epiphany. As battles of the sexes, Campion's The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady are infinitely more complex than this up-with-girls tract, which is made much too cute by a pair of Neil Diamond songs and the tables-turned image of Keitel's macho man wearing lipstick and a tight red dress (while the heroine's forehead bears his written advice to "BE KIND"). Still, the voluptuous, sari-clad Winslet is a revelation, delivering not just a much-needed riposte to Ally McBeal-itis but an unflinching command of character despite the script's many contrivances.

ETA: January 2000 (Given the film's Miramax distribution, look for Winslet on the cover of Talkin December.)

 

Topsy-Turvy

At the press conference for this, director Mike Leigh's vibrantly colored and engrossing bio-pic of Gilbert and Sullivan, the filmmaker stated emphatically that despite his movie's lavish re-creations of Princess Ida and The Mikado, this piece is not a musical. No doubt the auteur of Bleak Moments and Naked prefers to see his heavily improvised works as documentaries of human behavior, and, true to this form, Topsy-Turvy deconstructs the legendary G&S "magic" as the product of the librettist's and the composer's two gargantuan egos, much backstage bickering, the toppling weight of the pair's past successes, the talents and frailties of their tireless acting troupe, and no small amount of visionary genius (plus some intuitive and invaluable contributions from their wives). Utterly doing away with the Epic Sweep method of film biography, Leigh encapsulates the team's work (and their unflattering personalities) by focusing on the decisive period between their calamitous creative drought and The Mikado. There are scenes here that capture the politics of artmaking more astutely than any narrative film in memory, as when the inspiration-starved Gilbert (impeccably played by Jim Broadbent) raids a Japanese exhibition for new color, imports some "real" Japanese women to London to instruct the actors during rehearsal, and is only too happy to allow his visitors' incomprehension of English to translate into more demure geisha-girl stereotypes. More amazing still is the fact that, per Leigh's usual method of working, this unqualified masterpiece was shot entirely without a script.

ETA: January 2000--at which point the tireless Leigh will have another film in the can

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