by InRO Staff Features Festival Coverage

New York Film Festival 2017 – Dispatch 1

September 29, 2017
On the Beach

Most seem to agree at this point that the Cannes Film Festival’s competition line-up was not good this year. While the New York Film Festival’s main slate includes more than a few of the same selections, the films that didn’t make the cut are especially noteworthy: Michael Haneke’s cynical, typically mean-spirited career rehash Happy End; Sergei Loznitsa’s miserablist slog through Russian bureaucracy, A Gentle Creature; Michel Hazanavicius’s insulting Jean-Luc Godard biopic Redoubtable; and Fatih Akin’s flat-out offensive jihadist commentary-cum-revenge flick, In the Fade. (Seriously, Cannes, you’ll accept that cloying and exploitative drivel but not Bertrand Bonello’s actually stimulating, and provocative, Nocturama?) It’s also notable which non-Cannes competition films the NYFF has had the good sense to include. It’s heartening to see a fest like this one shine its light on no less than three genre out-and-out films: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers/Starman hybrid Before We Vanish (which was relegated to the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes), Joachim Trier’s puberty-is-hell psychological-thriller Thelma, and Serge Bozon’s schoolroom dark comedy Mrs. Hyde (as in, Dr. Jekyll).

If none of these really fit with the more traditionally prestige-y vibe that the NYFF’s opening night, centerpiece, and closing night selections give off (Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck, and Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel—three sobering dramas, all directed by white American males), the rest of the fest’s 25-film main slate suggests that commercialism and accessibility were far from the only criteria for selection. (It would be very hard to argue otherwise, considering the 2 films here by the same idiosyncratic South Korean arthouse auteur, the Argentinian movie set in 18th century Paraguay, and the slow-burn German drama about building water facilities in rural Bulgaria.) Outside the main slate, as per usual with the NYFF, things tend to get even more interesting: There’s a Chinese film shot completely using surveillance cameras; No Wave icon Sara Driver’s documentary on a teenaged Jean-Michel Basquiat; and the latest transmission from experimental filmmaker Ben Russell. In short, there’s plenty to dig into here—and over the next several weeks, we’ll be covering as much as we can from across all of NYFF’s sprawling program.


The Other Side of HopeThe 60 year-old Aki Kaurismäki has declared that his latest, The Other Side of Hope, will be his swan song. There’s cause to treat the excitable director’s threat, which he made at the Berlin Film Festival this year, with some skepticism: He made the same claim in Berlin in 1994 (in solidarity with Krzysztof Kieślowski). If it’s true, though, the director’s fans could scarcely ask for a better bow-out than this timely, hilarious, achingly touching film, which evidences Kaurismäki still at his “late” career acme, riffing and building on chords strummed in his Finland trilogy. Agnostics might wonder if he’s just out of ideas, since The Other Side of Hope features so many signature elements: dry, flat line deliveries; a warm regard for immigrants; frequent musical interludes by random bands and troubadours; near-identically duplicated scenes (a posse of aging locals coming to the defense of an outnumbered victim feels straight out of The Man Without a Past); and familiar actors, like Kati Outinen’s shopkeeper, who’s planning a new life in Mexico City (“I want to drink sake and dance the hula hula”). The sympathetic will appreciate these recurrences as auteurist stamps.

The dual narrative here involves a Syrian refugee, Khaled (Sherwan Haji), who arrives in Helsinki stashed underneath some coal on a parked barge, and who hops the fence of an immigration service point after attempting to seek asylum legally. There’s also a shirt salesman, Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), who uses a mammoth poker payday to open a restaurant called the Golden Pint. The paths of these two cross when Wikström fishes Khaled out from behind The Golden Pint’s dumpster and a fistfight swiftly turns into a janitorial job offer. A cloud of sadness hovers over both, basically sweet and decent men. Khaled was separated from his sister on the Balkan route, and though he falls “in love” with Helsinki, he looks lost dumping way too much detergent into a coin-operated washing machine or sharing a beer (“or whatever it is they drink here”) and watching music with his Iraqi station-mate. (In one scene, Khaled even reveals a secret gift for the guitar.) Wikström is introduced placing his wedding ring on the table next to his chain-smoking, alcoholic wife, both quietly fed-up with each other for the time being. The film turns more baldly comedic once we enter the Golden Pint, which has a starchy, seniors’ civic center vibe; it has an out-of-place Hendrix poster on the wall, serves only sardines, meatballs, and potatoes, and comes bundled with a three-person staff, including a chef who sleeps standing up with a lit cig in his mouth. When the gang decide that sushi is trendy, they go Japanese—the broad sight gags include hasty signage and kimonos and horrifying gobs of wasabi. But tuned into the violence, fear, and danger that accompany immigration, The Other Side of Hope avoids cute cuddliness, thanks to its tone-perfect acting and Kaurismäki’s arch compassion. Justin Stewart


On the Beach2Both of the wildly prolific South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo‘s two films in the NYFF Main Slate this year are seemingly inspired by his real-life affair with actress Kim Min-hee (who starred in his 2015 film Right Now, Wrong Then). On the Beach at Night Alone is the most sensitive character study Hong has made since Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, and in the context of his relationship with Kim—and the tabloid-fueled scandal that ensued—it’s also his most self-questioning and self-critiquing film, interrogating formal techniques that have become trademarks of his recent work while complicating his career-long preoccupation with the fickle, foolish, yet somehow persistent nature of love. Hong’s structural ruptures are less schematic and more dreamlike here, his zooms more inquisitive than intrusive, and his characteristically ineffectual men still present but less of a concern. The film is not a repudiation of characteristics in Hong’s work so much as a careful rearranging, and in the spaces newly created thrives a true collaboration. As Young-hee, an actress recovering from the fallout of a recent affair with a married director, Kim is a magnetic and intuitive presence among absences, searching within herself and others for a sense of how her life and career should proceed. In the film’s first segment, she’s nearing the end of a self-imposed exile in Hamburg with an older expatriate friend (Seo Young-hwa), seemingly wishing to extend her stay but finding herself out of alignment with the needs of others, and with time: the park she tries to return to is closed, and she learns the market she wants to revisit the next day won’t be open, before a stranger approaches her from afar, wanting to know the time. Finally, Hong makes Young-hee’s loneliness and desire for escape manifest in a haunting and cleverly executed gesture, in which the same stranger seemingly returns to literally sweep her off of her feet and carry her away into the distance.

The second segment of the film (heralded by its own opening titles) finds Young-hee back in Gangneung, South Korea; it opens with the image of her sitting in an empty movie theater as the credits roll, suggesting a significant separation between the first and second segments, as though the preceding scenes were distant memories, or perhaps a dream Young-hee had after dozing off in her seat. That ambiguity returns in the film’s final moments, but here the implication seems to be that some time has passed, and that Young-hee’s recent experiences both at home and abroad have had a significant effect. What she’s feeling in the aftermath doesn’t emerge, however, until a drunken dinner scene, during which Young-hee unloads her disillusionment and anger on her male companions and makes an unexpected, intimate connection with the woman sitting next to her (captured in one of Hong’s most poignant zooms, the camera adjustment relegating the surrounding men to voices on the periphery and letting body language speak volumes). “Where is love?” Young-hee asks. “It isn’t even visible. You have to see it in order to search for it.” The achievement of On the Beach at Night Alone lies not just in how Hong makes that need palpable, matching Young-hee’s searching (and Kim Min-hee’s probing emotional depths) with his own self-inquiry, but in the bittersweet, bitterly ironic recognition that feeling the absence of love is also proof of its existence. Alex Engquist


Florida Project

For anyone lamenting the political reticence of much of American independent filmmaking, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project—the consensus favorite of this year’s Directors’ Fortnight Program at Cannes—provides a joyous, resounding reply. A trio of rambunctious children, led by eight-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince), introduce us to the film’s titular setting: a cheap motel just on the outskirts of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Spurred by the heat and boredom of summer, the kids explore their home’s vibrant, lavender-tinged hallways and the surrounding verdant spaces, revealing a place of everyday wonderment and magic. Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe’s stern, but good-hearted caretaker presides over this kingdom of sorts, looking after his tenants (most of whom are scraping to get by) and fixing whatever inevitably goes wrong. Baker imbues all this with the coruscating energy of his breakout film, Tangerine—though that film’s aggressive central duo is here replaced by the irresistible charm of Moonee and her temperamental mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite).

As a portrait of life on the margins, The Florida Project is effortlessly evocative, equally attuned to the enchantment of childhood and the bitter realities of the adult world. Although there’s an overarching trajectory to the film, it is, for the most part, a freewheeling, beguilingly plotless affair. Rather than assume a grand importance, Baker builds The Florida Project in sharp, lived-in detail and flashes of vibrant local color. Imagine, say, Kleber Mendonca Filho’s tenement fictions (Neighboring Sounds, Aquarius), but refracted through Baker’s warm, empathetic, and uniquely American sensibility. The giddy energy of the film can sometimes be overpowering; in particular, its humor too often leans on the kids’ irreverent antics and casual profanity. But there’s a real, world-weary sadness that seeps into the margins of Baker’s fulsome vision. Stories build and intersect within the space of that single motel; entire histories are glimpsed in brief moments of silence. In sum, it’s a snapshot of liminal existence captured without a shred of condescension—the film that American Honey, Andrea Arnold’s misguided road-trip romp from last year, should’ve been. At first glance, The Florida Project’s last scene—a full-blown, whiplash-inducing retreat into obvious fantasy—may seem similarly misguided, as if Baker finally gave in to the kind of manufactured “magic” that the rest of the film had so nimbly avoided. But step back, and that sequence becomes tinged with self-aware desperation. Lawrence Garcia


OccidentalThe first feature from French-Algerian visual artist Neïl Beloufa is an odd hybrid of comic arthouse thriller and Brechtian installation piece, and certainly far more conventional than most of the avant-garde Projections slate. Set in the present, in a shabby 1970s-chic Parisian hotel with protestors facing off against riot police outside in the street, Occidental immediately establishes its atmosphere of retro Euro-sleaze tinged with a contemporary sense of impending doom. When louche, mustachioed Paul Hamy (recently seen as The Ornithologist’s protagonist/lust object) enters in a yellow fur coat and introduces himself as an Italian named Giorgio “Armani,” one might think we’re watching an unusually oblique fashion film; the Occidental is the kind of place where even disheveled hotel attendant Khaled (played by Nocturama scene-stealer Hamza Meziani) sports a slouchy Lacoste cardigan. But the hotel’s manager, spotting Giorgio’s slick-looking partner Antonio (Idir Chender), and noting that the two men have booked the bridal suite together, is immediately suspicious of their slippery accents and strange behavior and soon calls the police, despite having no evidence the men did anything wrong.

With Occidental, Beloufa seems to be surveying a microcosm of tensions and suspicions within Western Europe, with a stylish eye informed by late Fassbinder and early Almodóvar. The production design for the film, by Dan Perez, is indeed striking and immaculately crafted—the attention to detail being especially clever. (Note: a row of three gold stars over the entrance followed by a black velcro square, implying the fourth star fell off; and murals depicting French colonial wars that adorn the hotel walls.) Beloufa maneuvers his camera through the elaborate, multi-tiered lobby set with elegant assurance, but his script lacks that confidence. Despite some play with language and malapropism (one of the Italians, upon entering their room, exclaims, “So this is your Hotel Occipital?”) and a few nods to Last Year at Marienbad, Occidental never seems fully fleshed-out as drama, satire, or political statement. Late in the film, when the hotel has gone up in flames and the masses in the street have begun to speculate on what’s taking place, an anonymous protestor bluntly states, “We have to destroy one world so another may emerge.” His companion’s response is a noncommittal gesture somewhere between a nod and a shrug, which is all too reflective of the muddled Occidental. Beloufa’s clearly an artist with a distinctive cinematic approach; here’s hoping his next film matches that style with a sharper sense of purpose. AE


ThelmaOminous portents abound from the first moments of Joachim Trier’s Thelma: the film opens with the unsettling sight of a man pointing a hunting rifle at his daughter’s head. The man doesn’t pull the trigger, and whatever compelled him to consider doing so is left unexplained. In the next moment, the daughter is a young adult in Oslo, located in a high overhead shot of a crowded plaza that steadily zooms in, evoking a sense of creeping paranoia. Trier leans so heavily on recognized thriller-genre conventions in the early stretch of Thelma that the quiet, observant style of his Oslo, August 31st seems a world away; the amplified gusts of wind and droning synths that fill the soundtrack, the birds that collide suddenly and loudly with plate-glass windows, and non sequitur flashes of snakes slithering through grass and across skin threaten to suffocate Thelma before even its midway point. But once Trier settles into the story of Thelma herself (Eili Harboe), a sheltered biology student struggling with feelings of loneliness and isolation as well as intense and seemingly inexplicable seizures, a sense of interiority returns. Thelma strikes up a friendship with a classmate named Anja (charismatic newcomer Kaya Wilkins) that quickly grows intimate, stirring longings with the repressed Thelma that trigger her seizures, along with outbursts of uncontrollable telekinetic force. Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt are firmly in Carrie territory here, paralleling a young woman’s awareness of her sexuality with the manifestation of her supernatural abilities. And Thelma even makes explicit the religious nature of her repression, though Trier and Vogt are far more measured in their treatment of Thelma’s parents: her devout father (Henrik Rafelsen) and disabled mother (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) are not Bible-thumping lunatics but people attempting to repress trauma themselves (the nature of which becomes clear in a lengthy, late-film flashback).

Trier’s forays into genre and allegory do not necessarily mesh with his characteristically evenhanded approach, and withholding crucial aspects of Thelma’s backstory for so long makes much of the film feel like its treading water. There’s also an ill-advised sequence that presents a medical diagnosis for Thelma’s condition by way of putting Wikipedia pages and a Google image search on the screen, suggesting that Trier is simply unsure of how to artfully convey so much information to an audience. (Perhaps that’s why he seems so much more assured handling a comparatively spare narrative like Oslo.) But the director has an extraordinary sensitivity with actors, and what works most in Thelma is Harboe’s performance, which grounds the ambiguities of Vogt and Trier’s screenplay in an emotional credibility. Harboe and Wilkins have a lovely and natural chemistry together, and the moments in which Trier stays most closely attuned to their tentative romance are by far the film’s most affecting. A pile-up of postponed revelations drags out Thelma‘s finale (and unleashes some expected telekinetic destruction), but ultimately Trier trades Carrie’s bloody retribution for a moving grace note of forgiveness, an earthbound homecoming for a director somewhat lost amidst the supernatural. AE

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