Wednesday, September 30, 2009

NYFF 2009: Searching For Answers

After a strong start to the New York Film Festival, with only one major dud in my first report, the festival continued its strong set of films with a couple works by some of the more provocative directors out there (Von Trier, Dumont), and hyped arrivals for the Romanian Cannes Jury Prize winner Police, Adjective, directed by 34-year-old Cornielu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest), and Berlin Golden Bear winner Everyone Else, directed by 32-year-old Maren Ade. But did our shockers shock? Did the hype from Cannes and Berlin hold over? Or did reports of weak festivals around the world finally reveal itself in New York? Much of this is still to be seen, but its certainly something to think about as these dispatches and other reports continue to come out. Onward and upward.

But first, a non-critical explanatory note: the press screenings begin before the festival and ex-tend throughout it. As such, I have had a bit of difficulty trying to see as much as possible while feeling confident about what I’m writing for these dispatches, so taking it a little bit at a time seems to be the best choice. I’m covering the four films mentioned above in this set, while leav-ing a couple that I’m sure people are interested in (and may have seen preliminary reactions to on Twitter or Facebook) – Trash Humpers, Around A Small Mountain – for the next set to give them a little more time to sink in.

Antichrist (Lars Von Trier, Denmark)- I don’t get much more excited about new films than I did for Antichrist. After the in-sane reactions from Cannes (which always seem so intent on saying something that brash acclamations are thrown around without much thought), Antichrist was and is undeniably a film whose reputation will precede it for most first time viewers. But, lest you buy into everything you have read (and as Michael Sicinski has aptly described), Antichrist spends about two thirds of its running time being an intense, oftentimes beautiful, and thrilling psychological thriller. Did people really think this was a giant humorless prank? Featuring some razor sharp debates between He (Willem Dafoe) and She (an incredible Charlotte Gainsebourg), Von Trier isn’t throwing scissors around without set up. An extremely skilled artist and, yes, provocateur, Antichrist is sure to entice, but only after the brilliantly bizarre wind up. Set up in a chapter structure, slightly reminiscent of Dogville but without the sly reflexive commentary, Antichrist uses the first two chapters to earn the smack down (of sorts) that most of you have probably heard about by now. And while the horror is certainly what most people seem to remember (unfortunate as its the weakest section of the film), Antichrist is extremely interested in empathy, guilt, sorrow, fear, and the search for self-empowerment (or the lack thereof/inability to do so) following extreme situations –elements anchored by Gainsebourg’s fearless performance. Pleasure becomes non-existant and indescribable pain are part of the severe depression, but what this really leads to for the psyche of She is total chaos. Antichrist’s third chapter does just that as it escalates to the majority of its already infamous moments. Von Trier loses some “emotion” in the face of shock, yet the shift to visual horror (shown in great detail, mirroring pornographic ideas of visibility indicated in the film’s first scene) after so much psychological discussion under-scores the progression of terror from the interior to the exterior. In the end, Antichrist is a powerfully affective psychological horror film questioning states of suffering and pondering the ability to exist in a world whose very nature is founded on chaos. A-
Antichrist will be released by IFC Films on October 23.

Everyone Else (Maren Ade, Germany)- I wish I had a chance to see this again to really give it its due. A superbly crafted work for sure with incredibly strong performances, Everyone Else tells the story of Gitti and Chris, a couple on a summer vacation to Sardinia where they try to learn about and redefine themselves for each other. Taking the position of their parents (at Chris’s parents summer home), Gitti and Chris are finding their new positions in the world, as a little bit older, a little insecure, and totally unsure of what do from here. Mirrored by a neighbor couple who represent what Gitti and Chris think they want, but know they can’t and won’t be, Everyone Else is more classically structured and “accessible” than anything else I’ve seen at the festival thus far, yet Ade’s direction is so in command that it becomes sharp, assertive, and downright exciting. I’m a bit amazed that this doesn’t have distribution. Is German film really that down in the US these days? B+

Hadewijch (Bruno Dumont, France)- Having only seen Twentynine Palms, I’m certainly not a Dumont expert enough to say things like “Hadewijch is an interesting change of direction for Dumont”, but Hadewijch seems to be an interesting change of direction for Dumont. Chronicling the religious devotion of a young girl named Hadewijch, banned from her monastery for her attempts at martyrdom in the name of Christ (abstinence, not martyrdom should be the goal, say the nuns), Hadewijch recalls the religious tales of Robert Bresson in a thoroughly modern context. Forced out in the world to face “real” demons, Hadewijch, going by the name Celine (and portrayed in a captivating performance by Julie Sokolowski), meets Yassine, a Muslim, at a cafĂ©. In an attempt to make a con-nection without losing devotion to her own religion, Celina befriends Yassine to the point of sexual attraction, but refuses his calls saving herself, instead, for Christ. The requirement to see and touch pitches Yassine as a religiously devout Doubting Thomas and Celine as a (blind?) follower never questioning the status of her savior. But how far will this devotion go? [major spoiler alert] Influenced by Yassine’s older brother Nassir’s Islamic teachings of love and devotion, while not turning away from Christianity, Celine begins preparations to sacrifice herself for her cause. Nassir ponders violence in nature and who is really innocent. All of this is rather interesting and Dumont’s direction is clear, but a larger set of implications make Hadewijch a troubling work. The overbearing coda following a literal explosion certainly hightens the emo-tion in Celine’s final call for grace, amid the under construction monastery complete with an accused murderer released from prison, now a bricklayer for the church, becoming a stand in for Christ after Dumont pulls another page from Mouchette. Michael Koresky has said, “As in all of the director’s previous films, acts of terrible finality ironically refuse to provide any sort of resolution…” and it is precisely in Dumont’s final plunge into a large graceful resolution that is Hadewijch’s biggest, regrettable misstep. While some have argued that there is more subversion hidden with the film, I’m yet to be convinced that this is anything other than more Western fundamentalism positioning Islam as a threat to the modern world. Sympathetic characters can’t justify the extreme action following Islamic influence and the laughable coda where handyman Christ swoops in to save our heroine from the outside world once again. I’m willing to give this a second viewing, which could make all this analysis mute, but, for now, I don’t buy it. C+

Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)- Another major Cannes arrival in New York, Corneliu Porumboiu’s Jury Prize winning Police, Adjective follows 12:08 East of Bucharest in the mode of taking vague concepts or ideas (for 12:08, what, when, and where did a revolution occur?; for Police, Adjective –what is a conscience) and questioning them in a move to reposition the words, events, or moments in new ways. The effect of this questioning and repositioning, as well as pondering who is asking the questions, who gets to define what, and why we believe any of it anyways, is at the heart of Police, Adjective where the penultimate scene features characters literally reading definitions out of a Romanian dictionary. In a kind of reinvention of the police procedural crime film, Police, Adjective tracks Cristi, a morally conflicted cop, in real time as he follows a young boy accused of selling hashish. Worried about the long term effects of an arrest and convinced the law is going to change anyway, Cristi prolongs the case trying to bide time for the case to develop and his conscience to remain clean. But what is the conscience? And how does it relate to the law? To being a policeman? To being Romanian? Ingeniously infusing ideas of text, images, and the effects of deeper meaning, seen particularly in a long scene where a music video plays alongside Cristi eating dinner, Police, Adjective is perfectly acted and oftentimes riveting look at the power of language in all its forms and its ability to repress or, at the very least, alter any subject it comes into contact with. The incredible final shot is a marker of everything that has come before it. It stands as an abstract symbol where people are no longer just people, words are no longer just words, and language is shown to be a powerful, far reaching weapon. A-
Police, Adjective will be released by IFC Films on Dec 23.


Brandon Colvin said...

This is definitely some of your best work, James. Great stuff. I'm excited to hear more, especially about TRASH HUMPERS.

James Hansen said...

Thanks so much Brandon! Means a lot coming from you. And I'm excited to write about TRASH HUMPERS! Hopefully it lives up to the hype.