It has a decidedly French twist. For one thing, 18 of the 28 features in this edition of the New York Film Festival bowed in Cannes in May. Four "fully" French movies and eight co-pros with French backing are being screened. Given the weight of place, of site, in this year's crop, the latter frequently translates into product placement, aka "embedded marketing," not of Converse or Nike but of France itself--more economic exchange than organic inclusion.
(I'm concentrating on films that were either not in Cannes or Toronto, or were but came in under the radar.)
Take Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo's "Night and Day," which takes place almost entirely in Paris, but was shot in Korean with Korean actors. That is about as credible a concept as is the lead actor's interpretation of a fortysomething artist who specializes in painting clouds. He plays it like a Neanderthal: For two-and-a-half hours we watch this klutz, whose wife is still in Seoul, making passes at young Korean art students, committing assorted faux pas, and just drifting. Hong is a competent director, but his non-stories, usually about conflicted males, lack the glue that might make them more enticing. Despite this guy's earthiness, occasional chords from Beethoven's "Seventh Symphony" are almost Bressonian in their impact.
Nods to French culture are less jarring in Kazakh director Darezhan Omirbaev's excellent "Chouga," a contemporary adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Filmed in Kazakhstan with Kazakh performers, it includes gratuitous scenes of French nationals making movies and dining in local eateries.
In this minimalist version, Omirbaev uses ellipses rather than spelling out the novel's better-known and more dramatic episodes. We don't see the beautiful Chouga leave her son and much older husband for her lover (now a post-Soviet, newly rich criminal instead of a count). The confrontation between her and her spouse when she attempts to return home occurs off-screen, a series of shutting doors conveying his refusal to take her back. No jump in front of a train. Omirbaev's actors are props, putty in his hands. The strategy suits the understated non-action, which runs counterpoint to his inserts of live "cultural" performances, ranging from high (an opera) to low (a strip show).
Two films are intrinsically French, both in terms of locale and their Gallic observations of familial rupture. Olivier Assayas is back in form with the poignant "Summer Hours," set in a quiet, charming country home and assorted apartments and cafes in a more frenetic Paris. Three middle-aged siblings argue over their late mother's estate, which includes the house and rare art pieces. Assayas smartly follows his actors closely with his camera. With the survivors played by Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche, and Jeremie Renier, he needn't make a big formal fuss.
The eldest child (Berling) is a traditionalist who wants to keep the old place and the artworks within the family. Assayas claims that this is the one with whom he most identifies. Binoche and Renier's characters operate on a broader canvas: They are globalized. Divorced from the past, they have moved on to places like New York and China to market their skills. (The Musee d'Orsay did commission the project, and it figures prominently in the narrative; it becomes the repository of most of the art. Mini-product placement, but it fits into the screenplay.)
Did Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri share an office with Assayas while writing Jaoui's "Let It Rain?" Much of it also takes place in an old family home, which in this case is in a provincial southern French village. (Jaoui shoots lovely scenes, in 'Scope, in the surrounding countryside, replete with baaahhh-ing sheep.) And, here again, siblings, two sisters, sort through their late mother's possessions. Jaoui portrays one, an urbane feminist-turned-politician, while the other, the conventional one who stayed in the house, is an unhappy housewife. Then there's the beloved old female servant who will, like the maid in "Summer Hours," lose her job. The overlap is strange, especially because the scripts are so bourgeois.
Jaoui does make the servant Algerian, and her son, played by the great French-Arab actor Jamel Debbouze ("Days of Glory"), co-directs with Bacri a doc-within-the-film on Jaoui's character, so that the recent recognition of multiculturalism in France is acknowledged. The problem is the premise: The "making of" device is so worn, beneath the abilities of Jaoui and Bacri (his portrayal of the docmaker as a constant bumbler is annoying). Their screenplays for "The Taste of Others" and "Look at Me," both directed by Jaoui, were original, witty. The rain of the title, here literalized, is a facile metaphor for...I'm not sure what. This is precisely the kind of French trifle that does not deserve a slot in the NYFF but should do well at the Paris Theater with the culture vultures who devour anything shipped from Paris.
Arguably the best film in the festival is a 19-minute short by Sixth Generation Chinese maestro Jia Zhang-ke entitled "Cry Me a River," the location of which is exceptionally well integrated with its characters and mise-en-scene. (On a different program at NYFF, following its Cannes debut, is Jia's feature "24 City"---in which the land upon which an arms factory had been becomes the lot for a lush condo high-rise--a unique fusion of doc and fiction that is probably the most site-specific film on the schedule.) "Cry Me a River" is shot entirely in the canal-ringed provincial city of Suzhou, the "Venice of China." Inspired by Mu Fei's Chinese feature "Spring in a Small Town" (1948), which is distinguished by gestures and silences, quiet nature walks and river scenes, Jia creates a nostalgic mood piece about memory, regret, and the fleeting power of love.
Ten years after graduation, four old friends, who had been couples as students, reunite in Suzhou for a professor's birthday. They have new families, but express remorse over the direction life has taken them. They make their confessions with spare dialog, on a small boat on a canal and inside a gorgeous park.
Wainscott, a wealthy town in the Hamptons, has none of Suzhou's charm, yet Alexander Olch's hagiographic American doc, "The Windmill Movie," captures its ambience of laid-back privilege. Unfortunately, the film is as bad as "Cry Me a River" is accomplished. Its subject, the late filmmaker and teacher Richard (Dick) Rogers, appears to have been a decent, accomplished man, born of privilege yet grounded, but he lacks cine-charisma. His widow commissioned Olch, Rogers's former student and a successful tie designer to go through reels of old footage, most of it shot by Rogers during his lifelong effort to make a film about himself. The editing is arrhythmic and self-conscious; it feels badly stitched together, without flow. Go back to your ties, Mildred.
Why is "The Windmill Movie" in the New York Film Festival, and not, say, the Hamptons, MAYBE even New Directors/New Films, or some academic series on self-reflexive cinema--especially when the NYFF has only one other doc, Ari Folman's marvelous animated Israeli wartime expose, "Waltz With Bashir," another Cannes film? (A sidebar documentary, French filmmaker Daniel Leconte's "It's Hard Being Loved by Jerks," covers the trial in Paris of the editors of an alternative magazine that was sued by Muslim groups for reprinting unflattering images of the Prophet Mohammed--a topic not longer au courant--but it is tTV-like, hardly an inspired choice in a year when documentaries with ballsy forms such as "Stranded," "Man on Wire," and "Standard Operating Procedure" have made significant splashes.)
"The Windmill Movie" is not the only American indie misfire that is done no favors by playing the NYFF. Take New Yorker Antonio Campos's "Afterschool." Yes, it does reflect a specific place, especially for those who give a hoot for the campus of a New England prep school, and it does possess a stark widescreen beauty. A troubled student witnesses, and records, the painful deaths of two girls. The film is about how the cyberworld has colonized the unconscious of the young, how its mediation undermines their moral fabric. The film's shock value is not matched by a dense enough story line, and it has that underpopulated look that screams, "low budget!"
Another movie about troubled youth, Mexican filmmaker Gerardo Naranjo's "I'm Gonna Explode," is a follow-up to his "Drama/Mex." Naranjo's camera records the unique beauty of Guanajuato, his hometown. Unfortunately, the film is Terence Malick's 1973 "Badlands" on crystal meth, a flamboyant exercise in exhibitionism--way too much moving camera and fast tracking--by the little director that could. Which is fine: He can, and he does, but he goes too far over the top for such a flimsy tale about a confused teen duo on the lam.
The boy, whose father is a wealthy right-wing legislator, is a nihilist. His girlfriend, daughter of a migrant worker--unsubtle class dynamic--is a misanthrope. (Maria Deschamps is a revelation as the neurotic Maru.) Her diary and voiceover echo Sissy Spacek's more convincing narration in "Badlands." Instead of driving around the expansive spaces of the American Midwest as Spacek and Martin Sheen's characters did in the Malick, the Mexican couple hide out on the roof of his parents' palatial home. Though Naranjo is talented, this is a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Heady Portuguese filmmaker Joao Botelho sets "The Northern Land" on the island of Madeira, where women from different generations are all played by the outstanding Ana Moreira. Like Omirbaev in "Chouga," the first scene of which shows a man reading Anna Karenina, Botelho honors Agustina Bessa Luis's original text, filming pages of the novel during the opening credits. Botelho's style is NEARLY literary and NEARLY theatrical, but it is more cinema at its purest and most distilled, certainly not for everyone.
"Bullet in the Head," by the promising Catalan director Jaime Rosales ("The Hours of the Day"), is an exercise in formalism as well. The site of the film, geographically San Sebastian, Spain, is more accurately the retina of an unknown voyeur who observes a nondescript man as he goes about his banal daily activities. Most of the scenes are shot through windows and other dividers; we never hear dialog, only see (got it, we are voyeurs, too) his and his friends' lips move. Like in a silent movie, but without title cards.
Beautifully abstract if mannered and tediously academic, the movie is based on the 2007 murder of two Spanish civil guards by suspected Basque terrorists, including the fellow we have been watching for over an hour. Once violence erupts, the omniscient eye gives way to rapid action from no particular point-of-view. Incidentally, this final section takes place in a small town across the border--in France.