In our second dispatch from this year’s New York Film Festival (the first is here), we take a look at the veteran Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland’s “quietly radical” Spoor; the contemporary political implications of “Berlin School” director Valeska Grisebech’s neo-western, Western; two black-and-white films about infidelity, Hong Sang-soo’s The Day After and Phillipe Garrel’s Lover for a Day; and the NYFF’s Opening Night selection, Richard Linklater’s Iraq War-era dramedy, Last Flag Flying.
Some of the most elegant and graceful tracking shots ever seen open Agnieszka Holland’s Spoor. They may be drone or helicopter-assisted; the camera, gravity-defying, soars over a remote snowy spot in the mountains of southwest Poland’s Kłodzko Valley region. In the late gloaming hours, some kind of search party, in Jeeps and pickups, are scouring the vast, cold, dark environs for something—or someone. Jolanta Dylewska and Rafal Paradowski are the credited cinematographers; Antoni Lazarkiewicz, who did the music, also contributes to the powerful mood-setting with a menacing, minimalist score. The atmosphere is reminiscent of Claire Denis’s thorny mind-bender L’Intrus, also set in some isolated frosty mountainous region and prominently featuring an older character living in seclusion with dogs. With L’Intrus, it was a memorable Akita Inu; here, it’s a pair of black and white pups who, one night, don’t answer to the call of their owner, English teacher Janina (Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka). Devastated, Janina begins a weeks-long search. No ordinary animal lover, she is angrily opposed to the constant hunting that surrounds her, to the point that when a wild boar is shot, out of season, she tenderly comforts the dying animal before going to the police and reporting it as a murder. This compassion for all life unfortunately marks Janina as a local eccentric, with even a priest condescendingly explaining to her that the Bible’s Commandments only apply to people, as animals don’t have souls. When human corpses start turning up, Spoor settles into the rhythms of a crime thriller and whodunnit—and, as the victims are hunters, Janina becomes a suspect.
Janina, meanwhile, believes that it’s the animals themselves who are taking revenge, and Holland’s phantasmagoric flourishes (bizarre dream sequences shot in a garish alternate style) seem to align with Janina’s possibly warped subjectivity. Like its protagonist, Spoor is a quietly radical film about the insidious effects of corrupt cultures with entrenched, unexamined, and harmful values. On the issue of animal rights, it’s a film that even the violent Animal Liberation Front would approve of. But Holland also finds space within this somewhat baggy 128 minutes (brimming with secondary characters and subplots) for a late-in-life romance of sorts between Janina and a new neighbor, Matoga (Wiktor Zborowski), an entomologist and ex-terrorist bomber. In a remarkable scene, the two radicals smoke a joint, which leads to uncontainable laughter. Matoga starts talking about his childhood and, still laughing, mentions (for the first time out loud, he says) that he walked in on his mother having hanged herself. It’s brutal to see that smile and laughter slowly morph into shocked despair, mixed with some relief at having unloaded the memory. Moments like these show why the prolific Holland (who in addition to her long list of features has also directed, for American television, episodes of shows like The Wire) is one of Poland’s most revered filmmakers. Justin Stewart
The American Western — usually identified by its action, machismo, and its oftentimes flimsy portrayal of Native American genocide — has also always dealt with borders. The Mormons of John Ford’s Wagon Master drift into the territory of Utah sixteen years before its statehood in order to find their Eden outside America proper. The Arizona of Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar exists outside federal jurisdiction, which means Joan Crawford’s Vienna can only run into trouble for supporting the up-and-coming federal railroad that threatens the local farmers’ business. Even the Suphan Buri Province of Tears of the Black Tiger is a wild west outside Thailand that can only be tamed by a large invading force. Following in this tradition, Valeska Grisebach’s Western imagines the sort of animus that can come from a place where wealth’s borders are closed, but capital’s borders are wide open: the EU. Grisebach throws a group of German workers into rural Bulgaria (one of the EU’s poorest, and, as recently discovered, unhappiest countries) as imported labor to build a hydroelectric power plant, much to the chagrin of the locals. However, the film’s pace, sparse plot, and little need for character-driven anything (some hallmarks of what’s become known as an amorphous “Berlin School,” to which Grisebach is attached) disallow the same sort of action, explicit racial tension, and law-and-order dialogue that defines the typical Western. Instead, politics is front-and-center, as eventual standout Meinhard (played, as with every role here, by a non-actor) slowly gains the trust of several key villagers and acts as an intermediary, despite not speaking the language. In this way, Meinhard is a bit like the new, centrist Germany: nice, understanding, willing to smack down any compatriots who become a bit too aggressive, but simply not radical enough to be truly helpful. Like Germany’s adherence to the austerity that has doomed the Balkans to poverty, Meinhard never quite emerges as a true hero. Grisebach’s Brechtian touch merely renders him an observer with limited power, simple action, and no room for sentiment. Meinhard’s journey is one from passivity to mild assimilation in the Balkans; it features a horse companion, chauvinists, and other Western signifiers, skirting the borders of the Western genre, without fully committing. ZL
The Day After, Hong Sang-soo‘s first black-and-white film since 2011’s The Day He Arrives (which is indeed quite a while, considering the rate at which he works), comes at a time when the director’s films have never garnered more attention. Veteran festival-goers are plenty familiar with the Hong set-up and punchlines by now, and neophytes have at least heard of what to expect. Hong can’t even prevent his private life — specifically, his affair with actress Kim Min-hee — from hemorrhaging into both the director’s films and the staid conversations surrounding them. How much of his next film will be autobiographical? How should we feel about the central male characters, given that Hong is asking us to both pity and judge him? Where should one place the soju joke? The Day After won’t breathe new life into the mythos surrounding Hong Sang-soo, but it may be a solid guide as to where he can go from here. Its initial setup is familiar: Bong-wan (Kwon Hae-hyo), an independent book publisher, hires a new assistant, Areum (Kim), after his previous one, Chang-sook (Kim Sae-byuk), quits. Bong-wan’s wife, Hae-joo (Jo Yoon-hee), then discovers a love affair between Bong-wan and his assistant, only to mistakenly castigate Areum instead of the real culprit, Chang-sook. The rest of The Day After manages to slightly break form, playing similar notes but in a slightly different key. Instead of ascertaining a casual, slow-building relay of drunken infidelity, the women here immediately grasp Bong-wan’s sins and put him on an endless kangaroo court trial. However, Hong places emphasis on identity rather than guilt. When Bong-wan turns from servile husband to stern new boss, the anticipated Hong camera zoom finally rears its head and calls attention to this shift. When he begins a fifteen-minute session of slurred accusations and admittances, he’ll go right back to Chang-sook, having learned nothing, the camera patiently poised to admit evidence to the next tribunal. Hong never allows a clear portrait of Bong-wan to develop, as he’s simply the collected lies, hopes, desires, and pity-parties of a middle-aged life. But these “court” sequences still tease his various personae out, giving Areum and Hae-joo not answers but glimpses of a better possible future for Bong-wan. If Hong is truly struggling with identity here, what’s next for him? Zach Lewis
Philippe Garrel’s career has certainly taken an odd turn. The director, who first made waves in the experimental Zanzibar Group after Mai ’68, now sits comfortably tracing the ins and outs of fidelity, often using his children as his stylo. Lover for a Day comes as no exception, as once again a healthy dose of Flaubert and Freud flow through a bourgeois Paris home, possessing characters who do before they think. And, again, there’s very little doing and a lot of thinking. This time, however, it’s Esther Garrel’s (Philippe’s daughter) turn to lead the rote conversations about infidelity. Her Jeanne discovers that her father Gilles (Éric Caravaca) has been sleeping with a student, Ariane (Louise Chevilotte), who’s just as old as Jeanne herself. To make matters worse, Jeanne has just been through that sort of adolescent breakup where the sting of the young, rash broken promises seeps its venom into the skin. It sinks deep into Jeanne, and her face constantly bears a mask of sickness, often in close-up. Of course, Jeanne can’t rely on her father’s comfort when his new girlfriend is making advances, and Ariane can’t steal her lover away when his suicidal daughter needs attention — so, they become fast friends. Cinematographer Renato Berta’s blacks and whites, as in In the Shadow of Women, exist to minimize everything aside from the performances. In the scene in which Gilles discovers Ariane’s impulsive affair, the camera is positioned such that the audience knows of their act before Gilles does, allowing Caravaca’s whole range of emotions to sweep through his body. However, it’s Chevilotte, a relative newcomer, who gets the most close-ups, as she does the heavy Lacanian lifting of multiple désirs: mother, friend, girlfriend, freedom. She’s broken down, only to be lifted back up with no promises. Garrel doesn’t seem to like young people, but he does find them endlessly fascinating, as they still somehow expect things to turn out all right and still have the energy to express shock and disappointment when they don’t. He still sees the spirit of ‘68 in those young Parisian faces, and he’s pressing them to exert the same political energy. ZL
Richard Linklater is a talented director, but it feels like he may be running out of ideas. Last Flag Flying, based on the Darryl Ponicsan novel of the same name, transposes the three Vietnam War soldiers from Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail into a politically turbulent 2003. Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, and Steve Carell replace Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, and Randy Quaid, respectively, playing three friends reunited to bring the body of Doc’s (Carell) son home after he’s killed in Baghdad. Carell is the standout, believably darting across the spectrum from happy to sad, while the charismatic Cranston and Fishburne, who are given less to do, tend to overact. But something aside from the performances is definitely off here. One expects a level of craftsmanship from Linklater, whose writing tends to simultaneously explore big ideas and exude a certain social realism. The conversations in Linklater’s films are supposed to bring out character complexities, to bring about dynamic changes, but all the principles here rarely come off as more than one-note constructs, consigned to enforce their roles. Sal (Cranston) is the devil on Doc’s shoulder while Richard (Fishburne)—who is literally a preacher—obviously is intended to be the angel. Last Flag Flying works best when it is simply a hangout movie about old friends: scenes of characters reliving their past memories break them out of their rigid archetypes, and feel genuinely sincere. On the other hand, when Linklater engages broader philosophical reflection, it tends to just feel obnoxious, as if his characters were loud mouthpieces for whatever ideas he felt like exploring on set that day. One conversation, during the opening scene of the film, finds Sal yelling about the illusion that is reality television, and how viewers are kept in a “dream state.” Cue the loud groans from tired audiences—does anybody find this kind of commentary eye-opening? Jason Ooi