A few hours before the 2021 New York Film Festival opened with Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” Lady Macbeth herself sat onstage for a press conference in Lincoln Center and unleashed the ultimate understatement. “In 400 years, everybody’s done almost everything,” Frances McDormand said. “It’s not like we’re inventing anything new.”
She was referring to the daunting odds of her director-husband’s stark, expressionistic take on the ultimate Shakespearean tragedy, though she may as well have been addressing the greatest crisis in modern creativity, and one that the movies face more than most other mediums. With its silent cinema aesthetic and gruff, visceral performances, “Macbeth” certainly provides an original take on one very familiar narrative. But NYFF, as a whole, projects an ethos altogether different from other prominent festivals on the fall circuit, as its curatorial strategy heralds the art of the new.
Throughout the winding path of starts and stops that has characterized the past 18 months, the return of the festival circuit has demonstrated its efficacy at launching certain films into the world, but the NYFF slate functions more like an argument for the continuity of the medium. Yes, as McDormand says, storytelling is exhausted every which way to the point where even a simulacrum has a simulacrum. Within those daunting odds, however, examples of ingenuity stand out more than ever.
NYFF’s prime slots demonstrate this in subtle ways: Jane Campion’s Centerpiece selection “The Power of the Dog” reassesses masculine Western tropes with its study of a sexually repressed cowboy (Benedict Cumberbatch) who buries his identity in crude machismo and misogyny until it traps him. Next weekend’s Closing Night slot goes to Pedro Almodovar’s emotional “Parallel Mothers,” which repurposes his trademark approach to melodrama by using it to investigate the ghosts of the Spanish Civil War.
While these movies explore the past from a modern day perspective, other NYFF highlights probe the immediacy of the current moment. In “The Tsugua Diaries,” co-directors Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes present a self-reflective quarantine story told in reverse, like “Memento” by way of Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie.” The real-life couple open their saga on “Day 22” of an apparent love triangle huddled together in the countryside, and the ensuing project drifts backward through time, as it becomes clear that we’re watching a document of its own production. The structural gimmick results in a fascinating meditation on the haziness of day to day experiences brought on by the pandemic, as well as the sense of play that creeps into the uneasiness of getting through each day (a fun slo-mo shot of actors riding a tractor leads into the scene of an earlier day later on in which the serious Gomes explains the intention of the shot).
A kind of freewheeling party movie bookended by living room dance sessions, “The Tsugua Diaries” is a reassuring assessment that life goes on even amid temporal disruption. It’s also a vote of confidence in the filmmaking process, much like Joanna Hogg’s bracing “The Souvenir: Part II,” in which the filmmaker’s alter ego (Honor Swinton) confronts the tragedy she experienced in the previous installment by making a movie about it. Hogg’s touching character study is a most welcome demonstration of cinema’s cathartic power.
Still, you won’t find a more astute look at pandemic-era anxieties than Romanian director Radu Jude’s Berlin Golden Bear winner “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn,” the outrageous saga of a schoolteacher (Katia Pascariu) whose community attempts to oust her after a private sex tape makes its way online. Shot in the streets of Bucharest with masked figures roaming about, “Bad Luck Banging” careens from zany physical comedy to an outlandish tribunal that culminates in a brazen act of female empowerment too shocking and surreal to spoil here (though the trailer doesn’t hesitate).
In between, Jude stuffs in an extensive taxonomy of modern day concepts, juxtaposing very real and tragic human crises with the inanity of our information culture (he notes that “blowjob” is the most common word looked up in the dictionary not long after dwelling on images of fallen dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu). The ensuing experience is a riotous indictment of modern times that positions the bizarre encroachment of the pandemic on everyday life in the broader context of a society trapped in a trepidatious perch between tragedy and comedy, poised to fall in one direction at any moment.
What else haven’t we seen before? Cue Spike Lee at Cannes over the summer: “I’ve never seen a film in my life where a Cadillac impregnated a woman.” That was Palme d’Or winner “Titane,” which received a giddy welcome at NYFF ahead of its U.S. release this weekend. Julia Ducournau’s stunning meditation on identity and interpersonal relationships transforms its outré premise into a genuinely touching look at parent-child bonding unlike anything the movies have given us before.
The examples go on. Iranian director Panah Panahi’s brilliant “Hit the Road” reinvents the road movie as a melancholic black comedy about a family on the run from ominous authorities, providing a striking tonal contrast to the suffocating bleakness of so many movies focused on societal oppression. The astounding “Flee” turns the testimony of an Afghan refugee into a mesmerizing and poignant animated survival story that universalizes his plight. The big-screen Italian spelunking saga “Il Buco” and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Colombia-set mystery “Memoria” eschew plot for sheer sense of place, forcing us to see familiar worlds from entirely unexpected audiovisual perspectives. Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket” goes back to election-era 2016 for its rascally tale of a contemptible ex-porn star in an isolated Texas town, mining fresh insights about an underclass all too easy to ignore by those privileged enough to do so — until it’s too late.
By and large, this NYFF lineup is a welcome reminder that the world always hovers in fragile state, and it’s better to gaze straight at its messy interiors than deny they exist. As ever, it’s the movies that set that particular record straight.
The 59th edition of the New York Film Festival continues through October 10.