Movies fascinated with royalty bookend the New York Film Festival, which opened with Stephen Frears' crowd-pleasing "The Queen" and showcases Sofia Coppola's meretricious "Marie Antoinette" closing weekend, but overall, eclectism rules. Far from Balmoral and Versailles are the Cairo streets where Tahani Rached's doc "These Girls" captures homeless, glue-sniffing teenaged girls who often steal or turn tricks to survive and who are frequently raped and disfigured. Some consider the fest rarefied, but it is blind to class.
[This is critic Howard Feinstein's second notebook from the 2006 New York Film Festival. The first installment was published last week. The festival continues through October 15th in Manhattan.]
And directorial pedigree. There is space for both the validated and the less recognized. Of the heavy hitters, Guadalajara native Guillermo del Toro has crafted the most original film in the NYFF, the Spanish-Mexican co-pro "Pan's Labyrinth." By building two layers of narrative around polar-opposite females, he brilliantly melds the realms of political strife and fantasy, the latter more Brothers Grimm than Chuck Jones. Although her mother has married a sadistic Francoist commander and they reside in a military outpost, a 10-year-old girl copes with nasty reality by plunging into a world of fairy-tale fauns, animated mandrake roots, reincarnated princesses, and del Toro's signature insects (albeit magical ones). The other woman is past the age of such innocence. The captain's right-hand person, she confronts the ugliness head-on by secretly assisting the nearby tattered remnants of the Republican resistance. Another Spanish film, Pedro Almodovar's "Volver," also brushes up against the otherworldly, though less successfully. The ghost of a mother returns to La Mancha to assist daughter Penelope Cruz. Darker than his usual fare, "Volver" tracks two generations of child abuse and death. Almodovar has matured into a welcome new phase, save for some childish scatalogical outbursts.
David Lynch's hermetic, three-hour "Inland Empire," shot on a type of HD camera without much HD, is fuzzy and muddy. It is also the hermetic, nearly incomprehensible product of a man who has been in Hollywood too long. Laura Dern plays both an actress and, in a film-within-the-film set in Poland, the adulterous role in which she has been cast. It turns out to be a remake of a film called "4/7" in which the lead actors were murdered on set. Much is silly: Young women dance to Little Eva's "Locomotion" for no apparent reason, and the human-sized rabbit "sitcom" with contrapuntal laugh track is embarrassing. (I wish I could say it is Brechtian.) "Inland Empire" is egregiously Eastern-Europhobic. On the plus side, the last half hour is superb. I think that Dern, who registers fear like no one else, traverses time and reverses the dark history of "4/7," but who knows?
Alain Resnais' gorgeous "Private Fears in Public Places," on the other hand, is a straightforward adaptation of Brit Alan Ayckbourn's play, transposed to Paris, about the solitude of several interconnected characters. Not as annoyingly overt in saluting its theatrical origins as "Smoking/No Smoking," it doesn't deny them either. Resnais marks scene changes with snowflakes over dissolves, and his use of an overhead camera to shoot apartments without ceilings reminds us they are stage sets. The precious "Climates," by Turkish director and festival darling Nuri Bilge Ceylan ("Distant," "Clouds of May"), is an overly composed vanity production in which he lingers WAY too long on himself, starring as an older man trying in winter to salvage a summer affair with a much younger woman. Fetishized by the camera, she is played by his real-life second wife.
The inclusion of genre films grounds the NYFF. Best is Korean Bong Joon-ho's stunning "The Host," about a dinosaur-like monster (superb animatronics) that emerges from a river and swallows the locals, including the young daughter of a ne'er-do-well determined to find her. The film has echoes of Don Siegel's 1956 "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," at the time a metaphor for McCarthyism's danger to our country -- ironic given "The Host"'s strong anti-American sentiment. The U.S. military had poisoned the river in "The Host" several years before, then overreacted to the resulting beast with a noxious substance called Agent Yellow. For their part, the Koreans take care of the beast with the most fundamental implements. Hong Kong director Johnny To's "Triad Election" is a deftly shot and edited thriller packed with ominous night scenes about the no-rules competition to lead the Triad, which now does official business with China. Louis Koo is a visual treat as the upstart candidate. The torture scenes at a gang jail are horrifyingly visceral. Emmanuel Bourdieu's "Poison Friends," from France, fits uneasily into the boarding-school film genre. A Svengaliesque bully and ultimate loser molds three of his fellow male dormmates. The film is full of literary pretentions and banal encounters among the boys. Their gal pals are shamelessly peripheral.
Other movies zero in on women. "Marie Antoinette" fails as a postmodern take on the doomed Austrian-born wife of France's Louis XVI. Coppola fuses harpsichord and electronic music over frou-frou shots of Versailles and Le Petit Trianon. Though nicely shot and costumed, the enterprise is shallow. Having icon Judy Davis clumsily camp it up as a lady-in-waiting is a cardinal sin. The dull reunion of five 34-year-old female schoolfriends following a teacher's funeral is at the core of Austrian Barbara Albert's "Falling." The women are cliches (an actress, a teacher) who shift from catfights to empathetic chats and back. Here it would do well on Lifetime. Rached's "These Girls" provides important documentation, but frankly, it is pedestrian, in the vein of other docs about street kids in Bucharest, Rio, Seattle, and St. Petersburg. That several of these girls sleep with their newborns on the sidewalks does distinguish it to some degree.
Another doc is Nikolaus Geyrhalter's dialogue-less "Our Daily Bread," an expose of the high-tech machinery and assembly-line production used to harvest crops and butcher animals so that Europe can eat. It also foregrounds the no-hope plight of the countless immigrants who do most of the redundant labor. The film is poetic, but in a cold, overly precise fashion that is shared by other recent documentaries from Austria such as "Men at Work." Shot in an ethnographic-doc style, "The Journals of Knud Rasmussen," by Canadian directors Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn, takes place during the Danish explorer's 1922 visit to the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic. This is no "Nanook of the North": It has unbearably long monologues and voiceovers and lacks Flaherty's matter-of-life-and-death suspense. It's a shame that missionaries came along and made the the movie's fascinating shaman superfluous. Religion and monarchy: The festival has unwittingly pointed a finger at two of humankind's most divisive institutions.