It has been a long week and a half at the 2007 New York Film Festival; With social obligations, deadlines and a general sense of exhaustion settling over me this past week, I haven’t been able to make the time to write about the films I’ve been seeing. As usual, my passions run toward talking about films I really admire and less toward those of which I am not fond, but in fairness, this year’s New York Film Festival has been a decidedly mixed affair. As I have said before, I always think that is a good thing; If every movie in the festival aligned with my own tastes, desires and sensibilities, I don’t think the programming committee would be doing their job of finding a broad array of films for a diverse audience. Although my own tastes are very broad, it’s always a good exercise in thinking about films to unfold the reasons why I do not respond to this or that movie, but ultimately, I find far more pleasure in taking apart the things that I like and trying to discover why they move me. Which is why, as a newlywed, I was so surprised to find myself enjoying three very different films that approach the subject of marriage as a painful, sexy and confusing platform for cinematic exploration.
First up, Ira Sachs’ Married Life, a polished black comedy about a man so afraid of hurting his wife with the revelation of his infidelity that he sets his mind to killing her to spare her the torment of losing him. Sachs gets great performances from Chris Cooper as the unfaithful husband, Patricia Clarkson as the doting wife with secrets of her own and Pierce Brosnan as the couple’s dashing bachelor friend, but what is most surprising in this day and age of our country’s non-stop hypocritical, sanctimonious ramblings about the ‘sanctity of marriage’ is how the film balances on the knife’s edge between kitschy period pastiche and heartfelt melodrama. Looking at marriage as a series of near-homicidal self-delusions and unspoken lies, Sachs is able to expose the arrogance of idealism between lovers and to show that the suppression of individual desire in the name of keeping up appearances can lead down some very dark alleyways. That said, for all of the dark and brooding intentions, the film’s cynicism about the ability of couples to act morally has a lovely, light touch that will appeal broadly to adult audiences everywhere. In other words, adults are going to recognize themselves in the cruel intentions on display in Sachs’ film and laugh their asses off. Of course, the secret to laughing at a film like Married Life is to recognize our own desperation and doubt in the twists and turns of Sachs’ plot; There is no finger wagging here. Instead, Sachs (much like he did in his breakout Forty Shades Of Blue) rolls the dice by humanizing everything; Our darkest impulses invest the story with enough regret, empathy and desire to bring the film into a harmonious balance.
What’s a Guy To Do?: Harry Allen (Chris Cooper) Arrives In Ira Sachs’ Married LIfe
Playing at festival as part of Martin Scorsese’s presentation of Technicolor Classics, John M. Stahl’s 1945 classic Leave Her To Heaven was a lot of fun as well; The story of a manipulative bride who destroys everyone around her with an all-consuming need to be loved, the film felt extremely contemporary and was a hoot. I watched the movie with nothing but sympathy for Gene Tierney’s portrayal of the ‘crazy’ bride and something just this side of eye-rolling contempt for über-stiff Cornel Wilde’s ‘marriage-by-numbers’ groom. Of course, this seems the opposite of the narrative’s intentions, with its parade of the gauzy, disappointed looks of shame on the faces of the characters as Tierney’s Ellen looks for a little sugar in her bowl, but I couldn’t help myself: What kind of husband forsakes a honeymoon to bring around his cluelessly optimistic disabled little brother and then invites the bride’s family to come and share in the experience? Has Cornel Wilde never listened to any love songs? A woman has needs! Beneath Gene Tierney’ s brooding sexuality smolders more deadly intent; Without being freed from the ties that bind, Ellen can’t ever feel the fullness of sexual freedom with her lover. Despite a very, very dark 11th hour attempt to salvage the character’s villainous purpose in the story (Ellen throws herself down the stairs to induce a miscarriage a few scenes before she is seen blissfully frolicking on the beach), the movie plays today as a barometric reading of a bygone era; Time has somehow , someway transformed the film into its own opposite, a campy look at a pre-feminist world where a woman’s sexual desire was a threat to everyone around her. This print looked fabulous and really brought of the depth of design that went into every shot, but there was some controversy in the Q&A after the film when the 20th Century Fox representative was challenged on the studio’s preservation strategy (which, in all fairness, was implemented years ago) and their decision not to strike the print from an actual Technicolor positive. Instead, the print came from a restored pre-Techincolor process copy. A lively discussion ensued, and while not all complaints were salvaged, the fact that the film was available and looked so great on the screen assuaged any reservations I had about the image itself; Why pick fights in a graveyard? We’re all headed to a digital world anyway…
Girl Gone Wild: Ellen (Gene Tierney) Falls In Love In John M. Stahl’s Leave Her To Heaven
The best of bunch and one of the best films I have seen at this year’s festival is Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light, the story of a love triangle set in the world of a Mennonite community in Northern Mexico. The film, which is in the medieval German Plautdietsch dialect, has been discussed in spiritual terms, probably because it features a faithful family at its core, but I didn’t find anything remotely spiritual about it; The movie is absolutely carnal, deeply connected to the majesty and beauty of the knowable, physical world. Reygadas makes an immediate impact; The opening and closing shots, masterpieces in and of themselves, suggest the irrelevance of the human condition against the sprawling physicality of the cosmos and the natural universe, and the filmmaker spends the remainder of his film digging as deeply as possible into the most intimate and most profound of physical places, the human heart. Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr) and Esther (Miriam Toews) are a married couple with a large brood of children living in modern-day Chihuahua, Mexico. After sharing breakfast with his wife and kids, Johan is left alone at the table and begins to sob. His plight is not unlike that of any unfaithful man; He is in love with Marianne (Maria Pankratz), a single Mennonite woman with whom he has been having a torrid extra-marital affair.
Being Alive: Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light
Esther, we discover, has known about this affair all along, and what initially appeared as worry and (I have to think) exhaustion on her face becomes, in the light of the film’s revelations, a deep sadness and heartbreak; Here is the face of a woman who has created a loving family with a man, only to have his mid-life crisis call the entire enterprise into question. While the film’s narrative rejects a traditional cheater vs victim structure, the emotional punch comes not from Johan’s selfish crisis of faith at the film’s center, but from the relationship (magically consummated in the film’s climax) between the two material poles of his dilemma; Wife and mistress. I have read reviews which see the film as Johan’s negotiation between faith/obligation/duty and love/passion/desire, but if the story were really about Johan’s questions, the ending would make no sense to me; After dying of a broken heart, Esther is resurrected with a kiss from Marianne. Of course, this could be seen in terms of spiritual re-birth of Johan, a conquering of his dilemma through the power of female love. But I think Reygadas has something else in mind; This is an assertion of the women’s recognition of their own real world concerns. Marianne, acting on her own conscience, restores Esther’s heart. More magical realism than a sign of literal religious miracle, Silent Light‘s final moments assert an empathetic misdirection in the film. While Johan and the men console one another against an indifferent universe, it is Esther and Marianne who show us the beauty and power of human ethics at work in the real world.
Off to bed… More soon.