Sunday, October 11, 2009

NYFF 2009: Broken Records and Old Standards

by James Hansen

In order to make this post before the actual close of the festival, I have opted to posting even shorter reviews that will more or less give you a feel for how I reacted to several films that I have not yet had the chance to cover. I’ve decided to skip over some new works that I saw, since it seems slightly silly to post actual reviews after the festival has ended and several of the films I saw long enough ago that I don’t really feel comfortable trying to remember them accurately enough to write anything worthwhile. This is unfortunate, particularly for one film I really liked (To Die Like A Man) that has yet to receive a distributor. I take it no one will really mind waiting to hear about Precious, though, which will open in a few weeks anyway. And I’ll skip on The White Ribbon since it has already been featured prominently on this site, but I will say that I disagree with the enormous praise Brandon heaped upon it. To me, its a bit too overstated to be great Haneke. Thats not to say its bad (I do think its quite good), but probably not Palm d’Or material. This will be the final round up of reviews, but expect one or two more posts reflecting on the festival this week. After that, everything will be back to normal. On with the reviews!

Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat, France)- For those who don’t know, I wrote my Masters thesis on Madame Breillat so if there’s one filmmaker who I might claim to be a kind of expert on, it is probably her. Now, I’m not making that claim, but I feel like if I don’t say something about this slight new work, its a crime against myself. Based on a children’s fairy tale that Madame loved as a child (and haunted her older sister with, since the youngest child is the only one to survive), Bluebeard feels small in the scope of Breillat’s audacious oeuvre, but I think buried within it are some key questions and issues that Breillat has dealt with for years. Its an interesting shift, taking on a children’s story, as Breillat has always dealt with real young girls. Strangely, if Bluebeard feels like any other fairy tale film, it is Jan Svankmajer’s Alice. From some creepy close ups to the bizarre atmosphere, Breillat allows the children to project themselves into the story of Bluebeard – a large, ogre like man who has had several wives who have all disappeared. In Breillat’s tale, innocence trumps all as the virgin queen, refusing to consummate the relationship by literally holing herself in a closet that Bluebeard is too large to enter (crash symbols!), with the help of her sister are able to defeat the violent male. Beauty gets the Beast, but never tries to tame him. When he sadly lashes out – its equally strange how empathetic the character of Bluebeard actually is, giving the girls no real reason to despise him – beauty and innocence find a way out. Meanwhile, two young girls narrating our story create a mirroring effect for the story to find strange modern-ish application with a twist ending. So, while Breillat is treading familiar territory, she continues to shift her perspective and challenge herself along the way. Bluebeard is an odd little film, but I also think it may be a minor gem. B

Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodovar, Spain)- My ambivalence towards Almodovar post-All About My Mother turns into downright dislike with this new work. Sure, Penelope Cruz is beautiful and there is one kind of remarkable sex scene featured in here, many thanks to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. But, in a movie about a blind screenwriter with hidden mysteries that you, or the film, ever give even half a hoot about, it seems Almodovar is completely of of tricks and instead is taking up the challenge of directing a film with one hand tied behind his back and his heart totally left out of it. Broken Embraces ends with a kind of joke about the need to finish a film even if you do so blindly (ca-zing!), but I don’t think it meant to actually advocate the action and call itself out for being blindly haphazard and torpid. This scrambled grab bag of things-we-have-seen-in-an-inspired-way-before is chalk full of late game revelations that have little to nothing to do with anything, shrewd colors, goofy characters, and plenty of references to older films. But, lo – just because you reference things doesn’t mean you’re using them effectively. Its just a kick back to a steady base of fanboys who will smile, smirk, and laugh at all the references that they get. Unfortunately, Pedro’s biggest fanboy is starting to look like Pedro himself. C-

Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz, USA)- The people are plastic, the atmosphere is plastic, and there is no reason to buy into anything Solondz is doing here. This psuedo-sequel to Happiness, a film I remember liking, asks questions about redemption of the characters who have done despicable acts and the choice to recast new actors seems an inspired turn in this direction. Little else can be said to be anything near inspired, however, as the story rambles from scene to scene making the characters feel cynical, inauthentic, and outright depressing. Solondz attempts to throw in some empathy against the background he has set by the purposeful contradictions between the screenplay, the actions, and the look of the film (shot on the RED by the great Ed Lachman) highlight the shortcomings of this experiment. His humor has always been a little forced, but here it is just embarrassing. Life During Wartime is trying to balance two worlds of fake and real, past and present, even film and digital, but it just can’t get past its own insufferable attitude. C-

White Material (Claire Denis, France)- Boy does Claire Denis know how to use a soundtrack. This meditation of cross cultural exchange during wartime, shot on location in Africa, features striking imagery and a haunting atmosphere that exudes long after the final images. Denis’ stylistic convictions remain evident where spaces create their own language – from flowing grass, to a pool of water, to coffee beans bouncing through a machine. Anchored by the visuals, White Material also features some great performances from Isabelle Huppert, Isaach de Bankole, and William Nadylam who separately bring out the three different worlds at work in the film – the Western presence in a foreign land, the natives, and the rebels. Taking on civil war is certainly an admirable goal, and one that usually falters on sanctimonious predilections, but Denis manages the material well as she grapples with a devastating portrait of a world out of control. If something is holding White Material back from greatness, it is the puzzle-like structure, which isn’t confusing by any stretch, but, in this instance, has the tendency to undercut some of the action and rings a little false amid the subject matter. Nevertheless, White Material is another solid work by one of cinema’s greatest female directors. High B


Tony Dayoub said...

I've reviewed all of these at my site already, with the exception of BROKEN EMBRACES which I'll be posting in a little while. I know you've been keeping up with my reviews so I'll address yours.

BLUEBEARD: Considering you're a Breillat expert, I'm gratified that we are both pretty much in agreement on this film. I also think that it is a deceptively minor work in her oeuvre. Deceptively because it says more about the director than most of her films ever have. This film was a real pleasure to watch.

BROKEN EMBRACES: I find myself at odds with most reviews on this one. While not a great film by any stretch, I can forgive much of the flaws for reasons which amount to what I believe are cultural differences in familiar Spanish tropes that just don't translate well. I'll get more into this in my own review, but I was somewhat satisfied with the result, and thought the two leads were excellent.

LIFE DURING WARTIME: Ah, I understand your criticism of my review a bit better now. It seems that for you, the film was fundamentally flawed and that the problem I had with the recasting was the only thing worth noting. I didn't have the same problems with you in terms of what Solondz wished to say, and thought it would have been more effectively communicated had he not distracted me with his artsy "doubling." Either way, we both can agree the film is ultimately a failure.

WHITE MATERIAL: I agree that this was a strong entry by Denis. Don't have much more to say about the film than you did. But in addition to the three actors you mentioned, I also want to point out that I was impressed with Christopher Lambert's strong turn as Huppert's ex-husband. I identified most strongly with his character. This is the Lambert that looked so promising when he burst onto the scene so long ago in GREYSTOKE, HIGHLANDER, and SUBWAY, before fading into Z-movie twilight. Here's hoping he returns in more pictures like this one.

James Hansen said...

Tony- Never got back to your comments here (or over at CV) so I'm doing so now. More here just to thank you for the comments.

I had a friend who read my BLUEBEARD piece and thought I didn't really like it because I'm calling it minor and seemingly happy to brush it off. Certainly not my intention. I think it's a wonderful capsule of a lot of things Breillat's films have been working on for years. This is more inviting and less audaciously feminist than some others (by which I don't mean less feminist), but certainly has the same stuff going for it. Its quite good and I hope my grade and its appearance on the NYFF top 10 give it the justice that I think it deserves. I'm trying to be tougher with grades...a B is totally good!

I think my displeasure with BROKEN EMBRACES from the bottom up is clear enough from my review and comments at your place so I'll just leave it out of text (and put the film out of mind).

And good point about Christopher Lambert in WHITE MATERIAL. Everyone is pretty wonderful in it. Took a little too long to click and makes some odd character decisions, but another very strong entry from Denis.