Our first dispatch from the 2019 New York Film Festival offers quick takes on a smattering of the festival circuit’s biggest films this year, including: the world premiere of Martin Scorsese’s Netflix-backed, de-aging spectacle, The Irishman; a trio of Cannes Competition entries — The Whistlers, Atlantics, and Oh Mercy!; the late Agnès Varda’s final, introspective documentary, Varda by Agnès; and the latest efforts from two of the most distinctive female filmmakers working, Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow and Angela Schanelec’s I Was Home, But… Check back next week for the second of three dispatches we will be publishing on the festival, and make sure to visit our recent Toronto Film Festival coverage for takes on the many NYFF films we’ve already tackled.
When originally announced as the Opening Selection for this year’s New York Film Festival, The Irishman’s near-marathon length confounded most critics. Initially revealed to be approximately 210 minutes, Martin Scorsese and Co. found it in their hearts to lessen the film’s robust runtime to a slim 209 minutes right before the film’s premiere. The implicit suggestion, then, is that Marty’s at a point in his career where he can employ elaborately indulgent tactics like this, meaning casually subjecting your audience to three and a half hours of a rise/fall mafia film qualifies as a “late period” move. So, what happens in The Irishman that hasn’t already been covered by a plethora of other, much shorter and streamlined, gangster films? From a narrative standpoint, very little. There’s the slow come-up, where comically-looking Italian stereotypes unironically wax poetics about the strength of brotherhood; and then there’s the aforementioned fall, where we witness Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) slowly deteriorate both physically and socially. This final stretch feels like Scorsese fully embracing his elder statesmen role in American cinema, taking the “responsible” route in making sure every audience member understands that Crime Does Not Pay™. This builds to a rather embarrassing moment near the end where Frank begs his estranged daughter, Peggy (Anna Paquin), to forgive him for his past actions, after a series of vignettes depicting Frank being left to flounder in his old age. (One can imagine that the cut sixty seconds involved Frank at the supermarket, dropping his groceries as nobody assists the elderly hitman in picking them up.) De Niro is caked with CGI-wizardry (and using two different canes, in case we didn’t already get it), yet the emotional stakes are never properly established to give this moment any weight. For Scorsese, it’s a variation on a theme he’s explored before: the ways in which women are systematically abused via this life of crime. Yet, his scope feels like one of width, not depth — there’s a feverish attention to detail in articulating the film’s period setting, but little placed on the acuity of human moments that should inform this attempted pathos. The rest of The Irishman proceeds similarly, weighting most heavily the objectivity of narrativized events and the technical showmanship on display — the repeated use of “In The Still of the Night,” a needle drop that practically begs for critics to hyperventilate about the film’s mournful tone, is a perfect example of Scorsese externally cuing the emotional beats that should instead be conveyed through his characters. It’s a dog sticking with his own tricks, only presented with a slight hint of anguish and despair — again, a decidedly “late period” move. Paul Attard
First Cow is a film of beginnings and endings (and thusly also of returns). Kelly Reichardt‘s second period film marks the return of the 4:3 aspect ratio, once again opening a dialogue with silent cinema to invoke a style of photography long since departed from mainstream cinematic productions. It’s a film of densely textured images, of moss-covered trees and thickets that steep this 19th century portrait of Oregon in vegetation, in untamed land apathetic to the plight of every man and woman that suffuse the frontier. Loosely based on the novel The Half-Life by frequent collaborator Jon Raymond, the story follows the friendship of Cookie, an innocuous man hired as a cook for a group of trappers, and King Lu, a Chinese immigrant found hiding in the undergrowth from a band of hostile Russians. After Cookie secures his new friend’s escape, the two men meet again in a nearby town and establish a business selling fried biscuits, ‘oil cakes’, the primary ingredient of which they procure from the property of a wealthy English landowner – a cow, the first to arrive in the area. Thematically, this could be considered familiar ground for Reichardt, yet here we can see the opening up of her minimalist style to allow it to bespeak wider historical processes that push forward in spite of individuals desperate for a piece of the pie. The film’s beginning is instrumental in this, serving as both a prologue and epilogue, in addition to acting as a conjunction of capitalism’s vector within Oregon Territory and the fate of her two protagonists. But where this really excels can be seen in the endearing instances of domesticity where Cookie and King Lu take lodgings together and form a bond that contrasts strikingly with the mercurial attitude of the boorish fur trappers; indeed, it comes as no surprise that the masculinity of the latter men is something represented as ultimately self-destructive and segregated from the ability to communicate – so vital to success. Considering the quite blunt inference of the prologue, success is not something the audience will necessarily expect of their protagonists; thus, as the narrative enfolds, it becomes clear that the conflicts which comprise the film are only of importance inasmuch as they’re the driving forces which remind Cookie and King Lu of the exigencies of life so that finally they may return to the earth, together. Sam Redfern
Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers is a tight, satisfying crime yarn — even if its small quirks and arthouse sheen sometimes get in the way of the good time its offering. Setting out not to reinvent the wheel so much as spin it, and spin it well, the Romanian director’s latest checks all the boxes one would expect of its genre: murder, triple crosses, misbegotten romance. Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), a crooked cop, seeks to set free his incarcerated, drug-smuggling boss, with the help of some affiliates. But to do so successfully, he and the others must travel to La Gomera, in the Canary Islands, to learn Silbo Gomero, a language that transcribes Spanish (and, now, Romanian) into whistling. The gist is that Cristi will communicate, via whistle, when freeing his boss from a Bucharest prison. It’s a strange contrivance of a device that Porumboiu only manages to make great use of in the film’s just-as-contrived, too sentimental epilogue. But it gets things out of Bucharest for a time, contrasting the drab Romanian city with the more vibrant landscapes of the Canaries, lending the film an air of globe-trotting adventure. Though the whistling is the only real wrinkle in the otherwise standard police procedural narrative, Porumboiu glosses up the proceedings with an ever steady camera, some psychologically expressive lighting, and the sorts of narrative digressions that are usually reserved for films twice as long. Those digressions, too, are efficient, delivering plot and characterization simultaneously without much fanfare. A scene between Cristi and his priest, for instance, reveals both the officer’s uneasy home life and how his superiors in the department catch on to his double agent status. These moments add intrigue, instead of bloat, and by the time bullets finally fly, The Whistlers has worked itself into a series of thrilling knots — though ones that do come untied a bit too easily. Christopher Mello
Agnès Varda’s documentaries have often incorporated her immediate periphery – friends (Jane B. by Agnès V.), family (Uncle Yanco), neighbors (Diary of a Pregnant Woman, Daguerreotypes), or strangers she finds particularly interesting (The Gleaners and I, Faces Places). While she often takes part in the films as a kind of surrogate for the audience — searching, probing, and questioning the day-to-day realities she encounters with an often mischievous disregard for cinematic convention or adherence to actual documentary reality — she is rarely the focus of her own films. Varda had previously turned the camera on herself in 2008’s The Beaches of Agnès, but never before has she she taken such an intimate accounting of her work as she does in Varda by Agnès. Like a personal cinematheque retrospective hosted by Varda herself, Varda by Agnès takes us on a tour through her career as she meets with audiences of eager film students around the world, sharing stories, experiences, and amusing anecdotes about her process and craft. Just listening to Varda discuss her career would have been enough to make a fascinating viewing experience, but the legendary French filmmaker isn’t content to simply sit in front of a camera and talk about herself. This isn’t merely a “concert film” comprised of clips of Varda’s public appearances. She returns to the scenes of several films, recreating various techniques and breaking the fourth wall with the kind of wistful fondness of a lion in winter reflecting on the days of old. It is fitting, then, that Varda by Agnès ended up being Varda’s final film before her death, occurring earlier this year at the age of 90. The film is a sublimely autumnal reflection of a legendary career, but it never feels mournful or melancholy – instead, it is a celebration of the “dreams and reveries” of a life well-lived, an endlessly engaging ode to a titan of cinema proving she’s still playful, still vibrant, and still filled with childlike wonder at the endless possibilities of the art she held dear. Varda was consistently an artist ahead of her time, a filmmaker who refused to compromise her sense of self or the implicit politics of her identity, who consistently sought to push the boundaries of cinema and better understand the world around her. And in this, her final film, she writes a bittersweet epitaph for herself. Matthew Lucas
At right around the halfway mark of writer-director Angela Schanelec’s latest film, I Was at Home, But…, recently widowed mother Astrid (Maren Eggert) goes off on a literal five-minute rant about how actors and actresses are nothing more than liars, and that the deception — especially in comparison to the reality that exists around her — makes her sick. This is a striking moment for a number of reasons. Until this point, Schanelec has communicated primarily through image alone, presenting a series of carefully composed static shots whose overall meaning, even when taken cumulatively, seems opaque at best: a donkey and a dog sharing a room in an abandoned countryside home; the purchase of a bicycle; a young boy returning home after a seemingly unexplained absence; a choreographed dance in a hospital room. While the mere presence of sustained dialogue is startling in and of itself, what proves especially surprising is the bluntness of the messaging. Why is Schanelec so artlessly dropping what basically amounts to her work’s thesis right into the middle of the film? This is, after all, an actress in a film discussing acting as subterfuge. This gambit forces the viewer to reorient, and in reflecting on everything that came before this interlude, it becomes clear that Schanelec is commenting on both the contradictory nature of life itself and the duality of man, with the film as a whole serving as the ultimate example. The contradictions are endless, from a strong-willed and independent woman constantly seeking validation from every male she meets, to a couple experiencing relationship problems as one of its participants craves independence even while acknowledging feelings of love. Even its formalism, especially Schanelec’s reliance on extended long takes, serves to create a sense of realism while simultaneously highlighting the artifice of the proceedings. The problem is that once the viewer figures out what Schanelec is attempting to do, her work takes on the air not of art, but of academic exercise. This would be less of a problem if the filmmaking itself were stronger — while there is certainly artfulness on display, from a technical standpoint, there is nothing here that hasn’t been done before. Schanelec continues to hammers home her point all the way to film’s end, with an extended bit involving a dispassionate middle school production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and emphasizing what she could indeed learn from the Bard — enlightenment and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. I Was at Home, But… is instead admirable but obnoxious. If we want to consider that a contradiction, then I guess Schanelec has succeeded. Steve Warner
At his best, Arnaud Desplechin is a mad tinkerer, creating weird, expansive narratives that follow dysfunctional people through the vicissitudes of every day life. He’s got a big bag of tricks, infusing typically staid, talky family and romantic melodramas with boundless formal energy and a willingness to follow tangents and strange details. Strangely, Desplechin has now turned his attention to a fairly standard police drama with Oh Mercy!, shot in and around his hometown of Roubaix in northern France. Desplechin bifurcates the film, with the first half cross-cutting between multiple characters and cases in a kind of day-in-the-life scenario, before settling down in the second half for a long interrogation of two murder suspects (a dressed down, de-glamourized Lea Seydoux and Sara Forestier). This is all handled with aplomb, and it’s never boring, exactly. But it is very, very familiar stuff. Desplechin could have really exploded the format by creating a kaleidoscopic tapestry of voices and characters. But instead of really digging into the genre, he seems content to just scribble in the margins, confining his idiosyncrasies to brief interludes and some lovely, impressionistic cinematography by the great Irina Lubtchansky. We spend the most amount of time with Captain Daoud (the stoic, magisterial Roschdy Zem), as well as a young, almost pathologically gung-ho officer named Louis (Antoine Reinartz), who occasionally seems like he might become the film’s main character. (Louis also gets intermittent hard boiled voice over narration that seems imported from an entirely different film.) But Desplechin keeps cutting away from him, juggling a multitude of characters, some of whom are seen repeatedly but given little dialogue or even proper names. There’s no discernible rhythm here, and Desplechin constantly scuttles any sense of narrative buildup with the constant cross-cutting. The cops eventually get their man — or women, in this case — but the film as a whole remains unfocused and diffuse. Desplechin touches on some of the sociopolitical nuances of policing, a hot-button issue right now.. (The captain is Muslim, and most of the suspects they bring in and interrogate are, too, although the murderers are young white women.) But if this is his attempt at commenting on the changing demographics of his home town and immigration in general, it’s pretty limp. Everything is wrapped up neatly in an oversimplified ending that offers narrative closure but barely acknowledges that life so rarely offers the same. Daniel Gorman
Mati Diop’s debut feature Atlantics utilizes multiple narrative modes: social-realist drama, love story, detective procedural, ghost story, supernatural possession tale. And if the seams between these disparate elements are sometimes visible, it’s to the film’s benefit, marking this work as a very personal, lovingly handcrafted piece. The initial scenes focus on a construction site in Dakar, Senegal, where workers are building a massive luxury tower (rendered in CGI for later distant shots). The workers haven’t been paid for months, and they’re haranguing their bosses for their missing back wages. But they’re met with nothing more than lame, responsibility-avoiding excuses. One of these workers is Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), who escapes the stresses of his job by stealing fleeting moments with his girlfriend, Ada (Mama Sané). At their last meeting, Souleiman is clearly troubled by something that he’s not telling her about. Ada finds out what this is later that night, when she learns that Souleiman, along with a number of his workmates, have left for the open sea on a pirogue to Spain to pursue better work opportunities. This leaves Ada and her girlfriends, the paramours of the departed men, feeling abandoned and bereft. Ada is especially heartbroken, since this leaves her to face an arranged marriage to Omar (Babacar Sylla), a rich, older man whom she doesn’t love. When news arrives that Souleiman and the other men have apparently perished at sea, this sends Ada into an even deeper depression. She very reluctantly submits to the marriage, a glum presence among her celebrating relatives and in-laws. Events take a surreal turn when Omar’s marriage bed suddenly bursts into flames, and Ada’s friends tell her they’ve seen Souleiman in the area, even though he’s supposed to be dead. Then a group of young women, prowling the night like zombies, with milky white eyes, descend on the mansion of the African Trump figure overseeing the tower project, demanding lost wages. Atlantics finds a uniquely potent way to address the hot button issue of the mass migration of people from poorer to richer countries, by injecting poetic, supernatural elements. Diop also gives this tale an explicitly feminine, slant focusing on the women left behind. Although this is essentially a tragedy, there’s a hopeful conclusion, as Ada, in the film’s triumphant final moments, sees a path to personal liberation despite the dire circumstances. Christopher Bourne