Friends and family have long been the source of compelling stories; We all have both, don’t we? This year’s NYFF is chock full of the social units that we all know and love, and any discussion of the festival program should include a look at this year’s biggest trend; the social and familial obligations that drive us all to distraction. And I’m not even going to talk about The Queen !!!
Onward with the capsule reviews…
Poison Friends by Emmanuel Bourdieu
Emmanuel Bourdieu is responsible for co-writing one of my favorite films of all-time, Arnaud Desplechin’s My Sex Life… (or how I got into an argument), so I entered the Walter Reade theater for a screening of his new film, Poison Friends, with a great deal of anticipation. Reports out of Cannes, where Poison Friends won the Critic’s Week Grand Prize, were strong and I knew going in that the world being examined in the film was not unlike that in My Sex Life; the intellectual Parisian set, navigating the shark infested waters of university life. What I wasn’t expecting, and what Poison Friends ultimately delivers, was the highly conventional storytelling which makes the film much more accessible (and ultimately less imaginative) than My Sex Life….
Poison Friends tells the story of an arrogant fraud named André (Thibault Vincon), a writing student who undermines the intellectual confidence of his friends in order to maintain his own position as class sage. There is no subtlety about André’s machinations as he criticizes his classmates’ ambitions, takes profoundly arrogant and nonsensical intellectual positions (‘Do not write what is not essential,’ he oozes) and schemes behind the scenes to destroy the lives and loves of his colleagues. André’s classmates, all young men who take their intellectual work very seriously (only in France… An American movie set in a university that shows education and creative life as important? C’est impossible!), are charmed by the rogue, and the film charts the long road to social disillusionment; Alexandre (Alexandre Steiger) is a dramatic writer and actor working on plays, Eloi (Malik Zidi) is the son of a famous writer who has promised not to write (while secretly working on a novel), and the humble Edouard (Thomas Blanchard) is an aspiring writer who is the first of the group to publish. As André criticizes his way to the top of the social food chain, feeding on their humility and creative self-doubt, Bourdieu shows him as a true charlatan; While we always see Eloi and Alexandre at work, André is rarely shown doing anything at all.
School For Scoudrels: Eloi (Malik Zidi) meets Andre (Thibault Vincon) in Emmanuel Bourdieu’s Poison Friends
Ultimately, Poison Friends charts André’s fall from grace, and I can’t say anyone in the entire theater will feel an ounce of pity for him. Instead, the slow disillusionment that the young artists come to feel toward their colleague becomes the dramatic thrust of the film; Like Hitchcock showing us the ticking bomb underneath the desk, the thrills in Poison Friends all come from the anticipation of the ominous disaster on the horizon. As a portrait of very serious young men, Bourdieu’s film is a solid, engaging and entertaining piece of filmmaking for adults, but I couldn’t help but missing the randy, novelistic messiness of a film like My Sex Life…; Gone are the long diversions, the wonderfully illuminating subplots and the foul-mouthed pleasure of truly witty and engaged creative types. Instead, Poison Friends is almost too serious for its own good and maybe that is the point. Either way, I really enjoyed the film, highly recommend it and look forward to Bourdieu’s career as a director. A terrific movie.
The Journals of Knud Rasmussin by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn
One of the most beautiful and deeply moving films at this year’s NYFF, The Journals of Knud Rasmussin is the story of a people at a moment of supreme transformation; The arrival of Christianity among the Inuit people of Canada which, in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the population, demands the complete erasure of the spiritual history of the community. The titular Rasmussin, a half-Greenlander, half-Danish anthropologist who speaks the Inuit language, is more or less a minor character in the story (although his actual journals are, in fact, the screenplay’s source material) and instead of showcasing a cultural encounter from an anthropological point of view, Cohn and Kunuk instead opt to tell the story from the point of view of a family in crisis; Apak (Leah Angutimarik) is a widow who recently remarried but saves her intimate feelings for the spirit of her dead ex-husband. Her father, the tribal patriarch and shaman Avva (Pakak Innukshuk), encourages her to live in the real world, but Avva has other things to worry about; As his fellow tribesmen have begun to convert to Christianity, his shamanic role (and his ability to feed his tribe) come into direct conflict with the forces of cultural change.
I won’t give away the film’s beautiful and tragic finale, but needless to say it isn’t surprising which historical and social force wins in the end. That said, the film is by no means a traditional tragedy or a cold (pardon the pun) nor tedious documentation of the Inuit community of 1922. Instead, Kunuk and Cohn have crafted a powerful and deeply moving drama that remains deeply rooted in the Inuit tradition of storytelling. As such, a lot of the reviews of the film that I have read have offered a less than favorable comparison to Cohn and Kunuk’s masterpiece Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner and maybe the source material (a Danish documentation of this cultural encounter) or 20th century context of the story has in some way altered the power of the movie, but that is a minor complaint; Journals is perhaps a more interesting look at Inuit history and culture than Atanarjuat if only because of the way this film resonates as a cultural document. I asked Cohn about the casting process at the press conference, and he delivered a goose-bump inducing description of how the actors in the film are basically playing their own ancestors, telling the story of their own culture that, until now, has basically been forbidden and hasn’t been told since it happened 84 years ago. If that’s not cinematic magic, I am not sure what is.
Frozen Moments: Avva (Pakak Innukshuk) looks for answers in The Journals of Knud Rasmussin by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn
Ultimately, Journals is a film that rewards patience and curiosity of both the emotional and intellectual kind. The story visually fascinating, providing the details of survival in the hostile Arctic environment as the source of not only daily life but as the foundation of beliefs and spirituality, and Kunuk and Cohn are not afraid to represent the experience of faith within the literal context of how beliefs are experienced. Of all of their directorial choices, the decision to show Avva and Apak’s spiritual reality as a part of the physical reality of their world has been met with the most confusion, but it is absolutely the most moving aspect of the story. Forget the commercial prospects, as a film that understands community filmmaking at its deepest and most intellectually honest levels, The Journals of Knud Rasmussin is as beautiful a record of the process of change as you’re likely to find.
The Host by Bong Joon-ho
Family in the moment of crisis is also the subject of Bong Joon-ho’s amazingly moving and funny monster movie, The Host. When an American mortician working on a US military base orders his Korean subordinate to dump toxic formaldehyde into Seoul’s Han River, the terrible consequences aren’t felt until years later when a giant mutated tadpole with a very bad attitude (and a big appetite for human flesh) decides to come ashore and let the Korean people come face to face with their history. At the center of the terror is the small, motherless Park family who own a snack food stand near the popular shoreline of the Han River; Lazy, narcoleptic Kang-du (a hilarious Song Kang-do), his precocious and very cute daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung), the hardworking and proud patriarch of the family Hie-bong (Byeon Hie-bong), the estranged rageaholic Nam-il (Park Hae-il) and his sister Nam-ju (Bae Du-na), the bronze medal archer who can’t win the big tournament. When the monster captures the young Hyun-seo, the family will do whatever it takes to save her from his slimy clutches.
Uh-Oh: Kang-du (Song Kang-do) Says Goodbye In The Host by Bong Joon-ho
What separates The Host from the traditional monster movie is not only the thrilling, high-quality special effects, but the absolutely hilarious interactions of the Park family; Imagine a Korean version of The Royal Tenenbaums trapped by the love child of Godzilla and Alien, you have an initial idea of the delights to be found in The Host. I was raised on monster movies; The Creature Feature, Godzilla week, and Count Scary were staples on my TV growing up in Flint, so I know from which I speak; The Host will go down as one of the best, most entertaining and most accessible monster movies of all time. There is something for everyone here and, a perfect tragic-comic balance aside, the film is genuinely thrilling and a whole lot of fun. Kudos to Magnolia Pictures for releasing this wonderful film in the USA; Forget the movie’s “blame America first” politics, this one has hit written all over it. I am certain that Hollywood will try to remake this movie and get most of it wrong, so in the meantime, hook your wagon to the big bang that is happening in Korean cinema right now and catch The Host on the big screen.
Falling by Barbara Albert
I wasn’t sure what to think about Falling before seeing it; I had heard good things coming out of Toronto and I enjoyed Barbara Albert’s Free Radicals, but I had also been told that movie was essentially a ‘chick flick’ with few charms for the Y-chromosomed among us. Well, as if I needed further proof not to listen to the advice of my fellow film-goers, Falling turned out instead to be one of my favorite movies at the New York Film Festival. A funny, poignant look at life among a group of thirty-something former schoolmates reuniting in small a Austrian town, Falling describes both the changes in the women’s lives and the unchanging roles that are ascribed by their pasts. We’ve all been there; You get together with your old friends, and the rituals and roles that date all the way back to your childhood come screaming back and you find yourself doing and saying things you haven’t though of as being you in a long, long time. It’s all there, sitting beneath the surface, just waiting for the right buttons to be pushed.
After the death of a former school teacher who made an impact on the lives of his student, five women, all old friends, reunite at his funeral to celebrate his life and share memories of the past. The gang’s all here; Troubled Nicole (Gabriela Hegedüs) who says the first thing that comes to her mind (never mind if it’s socially acceptable), moody Brigitte (Birgit Minichmayr, who audiences will remember from Downfall), a schoolteacher with a secret, the pregnant and confident Nina (Nina Proll) whose amorous history will come back to haunt her, the hard-drinking Alex (Ursula Strauss) whose free-spirited lifestyle may not be all its cracked up to be, and the gorgeous Carmen (Kathrin Resetarits) an actress who has escaped the confines of small town life for a moderately successful career in Germany. The women end up spending the entire night floating from party to party, relationship to relationship, and rediscovering the roots of their friendship and the innumerable changes that have impacted their lives.
Alone Together: Brigitte (Birgit Minichmayr) Dances In ‘Brooklyn’ in Barbara Albert’s Fallen
At the center, Director Barbara Albert refuses to let this become a Big Chill elegy for her Gen X dreams and instead shows us the dignity of her characters, even in the least dignified of situations. An example of her excellent touch focuses on Alex who, drunk and wrapped up in the feel-good peer pressure on the dance floor of the local discotheque, decides to go topless before the frenzy of the music fades away and she is brought back to the reality of the situation. Ursula Strauss handles the moment perfectly and Albert’s refusal to look away is just he right approach for the scene. In the end, Fallen’s humor (it refuses to take itself too seriously) and its tremendous performances are a perfect compliment to Albert’s sure-handed and deep connection to the story and, who knew, the film was truly one of the gems of a very engaging 2006 New York Film Festival.