Hailing a New "World-Class" Director NYFF Toasts Jaoui, Alongside Modern Masters Almodovar and Godard
by Brandon Judell
If it weren't for a distributor shipping over a copy of Eric Rohmer's "Triple Agent" with German subtitles, you would have guessed that Richard Peña, committee chairman of the 42nd New York Film Festival and Film Society program director, had made a Faustian deal with the devil. Why? Because everything else this year is running more than smoothly. In fact, the press from the New York Times to Time Out New York are calling this year's fest, with its 25 features in the main program, one of its best and saying that the four-decade-old Big Apple institution is indeed hip again. Peña, in a highly stylish suit, smart tie, and chic shirt, laughed at that notion the other day after a press screening of Jonathan Caouette's masterful bio doc "Tarnation."
"Honestly, I don't think much has changed," Peña said, "If people feel that something has, I guess then it has. But my sense is that the strategy of the Festival since 1963 has been to have a kind of vision, have a kind of policy, to stick to it, and to just sort of go ahead. Many other festivals come and go, and try their own things. Some work and some don't, but we've always had a specific way of doing things: the same structure, the same general approach, and that I think has served us well for 42 years. Happily, it seems as you say, that some members of the press now have begun to appreciate that."
I suggested some folks might be tiring of the supermarket sort of festival with its hundreds of uneven offerings. "It could be that," Peña agreed. "If there were 300 good films to see in a year, that would be remarkable. You're never going to have that. So in a sense a lot of those festivals wind up being encyclopedic or panoramic. They have, almost by necessity, a category about Latin American film or a category about African films, so they have to fill them. In a sense, what's always been our strength is that we have none of those categories. If we have Latin American films it's because we really want them. If have an African film, it's because we really want it. So in that sense, I think the festival has always had a sort of contract with the public that the selection this year is our selection. You might not agree with it, but it is an honest selection. It's not there merely because we have to fill certain spots."
As for specific directors that have been long time fixtures of the Fest, Peña is absolutely gleeful that so many old faces are showing up again with solid offerings this year. He noted, "I'm amazed, especially in the case of Pedro Almodóvar, that an artist I've known personally for many years had such an extraordinary evolution. When I first saw his films back in the early 80s in Madrid, I thought they were wonderful. Then when he began making things like 'Laws of Desire' and 'Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,' I was really pleased to see how much he had developed. Now when I see films such as 'Talk to Her,' and 'Bad Education,' again it's that remarkable sense of being in the presence of somebody's who really turned out to be a major. Always the work was always good; it was always interesting; but to see it deepen, to see it get so much more profound, so much more finely wrought, that's been a great pleasure not only for me, but I think our audiences as well. We're fortunate that we've been on hand to be able to provide a showcase for it."
As for the new film by Jean Luc Godard, "Notre Musique": "Well, again Godard is for me sort of like the patron saint of the New York Film Festival in a way. He's just been with the Festival so long. I think we've had more films by Godard than anyone else. Since the War for me, he's the great figure of modern cinema. Love him. Hate him. You can't ignore him. He's sort of influenced everybody and everything. And again to see him continuing to make works that are as subtle and really moving as I think a film like 'Notre Musique' is, again I think it's really encouraging. It shows that the true artist just kind of continues to grow. That in a certain way, it's just the directors whom you later think not so well about, they are the ones who seem almost like flashes in the pans. That's not been Godard. This is somebody who as times change has himself evolved with those times. Indeed, I think the body of his work is already recognized, but someday it will be even generally recognized as one of the great bodies of art in any medium in the last 50 years."
A new addition by comparison is Agnès Jaoui and her New York Film Festival opening night feature "Look at Me," showing tonight at the event's first public screening, followed by the annual gala bash at Tavern on the Green. This tale of irritating French men and the women who try to deal with them is a critical favorite already. As for earning the opening spot, Jaoui told me from a car, in which she was traveling between photo shoots and TV interviews, that "it's really a big honor for me. I'm very happy. I think Richard Peña makes a terrific festival for a long time... the festival lets American people see a lot of different movies that they can not see in the theaters. That's a pity, of course. So I'm really pleased and I hope it's also an opportunity for my movie to be seen by a lot of people because it's quite difficult in America for foreign movies. Really I'm very proud and happy."
As for people proclaiming that she's now a world-class director, Jaoui said: "It's funny you mention that because to tell the truth, I was reading the program, and I saw this 'world-class director' and I thought, my God! I really felt... I don't know... like dying. I was very flattered really, and I called [her mate and star] Jean-Pierre Bacri. I told him they wrote that I'm a world-class director. We laughed. I think I have a lot to learn. I think that I know actors. The language of the camera I've learned since my first movie until this one. I think I have still to learn a lot."
Some must-see features to catch: "Tarnation" is a masterpiece of personal cinema that supposedly was made just for 200 some odd dollars with iMovie. This astounding visual journey is seldom less than brilliant. Arnaud Desplechin's "Kings and Queen" is a little unwieldy at times, yet superb performances and fine writing make this tale of ex-lovers and a dying dad memorable. Other NYFF films with a buzz include Mike Leigh's ode to abortion rights, "Vera Drake"; Sam Fuller's "The Big Red One: The Reconstruction"; Todd Solondz' "Palindromes"; and Alexander Payne's "Sideways."
The only out-and-out disaster so far is Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Tropical Malady," a title that might as well serve as a review. Gay lovers in Thailand kiss each other's unwashed hands after urinating in part one. In the endless part two, a naked shape-changing shaman has numerous encounters with one of the chaps from part one. Possibly. It's often hard to tell what's happening, why it's happening, and why we should care.
[The New York Film Festival opens tonight and continues through October 17th.]
2004 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL LINEUP
"Look At Me," directed by Agnès Jaoui (France)
"Bad Education," directed by Pedro Almodóvar (Spain)
"Sideways," directed by Alexander Payne (USA)
"The 10th District Court: Judicial Hearings," directed by Raymond Depardon (France)
"The Big Red One," directed by Samuel Fuller (USA) 1980 (Restored 2004)
"Cafe Lumiere," directed by Hou Hsou-Hsien (Japan/Taiwan)
"The Gate Of The Sun," directed by Yousry Nasrallah (France/Egypt)
"The Holy Girl," directed by Lucrecia Martel (Argentina)
"House Of Flying Daggers," directed by Zhang Yimou (China)
"In The Battlefields," directed by Danielle Arbid (Lebanon/France)
"Keane," directed by Lodge Kerrigan (USA)
"Kings And Queen," directed by Arnaud Desplechin (France)
"Moolade," directed by Ousmane Sembene (Senegal)
"Notre Musique," directed by Jean-Luc Godard (Switzerland/France)
"Or (My Treasure)," directed by Keren Yedaya (Israel)
"Palindromes," directed by Todd Solondz (USA)
"Rolling Family," directed by Pablo Trapero (Argentina)
"Saraband," directed by Ingmar Bergman (Sweden)
"Tarnation," directed by Jonathan Caouette (USA)
"Triple Agent," directed by Eric Rohmer (France)
"Tropical Malady," directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand)
"Undertow," directed by David Gordon Green (USA)
"Vera Drake," directed by Mike Leigh (UK)
"Woman Is The Future Of Man," directed by Hong Sang-Soo (South Korea/France)
"The World," directed by Jia Zhangke (China)
SPECIAL SCREENINGS AND PROGRAMS
"Infernal Affairs Trilogy," Andrew Lau and Alan Mak (Hong Kong)
"Macunaima," Joaquim Pedro De Andrade (Brazil)
"Miles Electric: A Different Kind Of Blue," Murray Lerner (USA)
"Selling Democracy: Films Of The Marshall Plan," 1947-55
"Elegance, Passion, And Cold Hard Steel: A Tribute To Shaw Brothers Studios"
"Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise And Fall Of Jack Johnson," Ken Burns (USA)
"Views From The Avant-Garde"