Walk Up - Hong Sang-soo - NYFF
Credit: The Cinema Guild
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

NYFF 2022 — Dispatch 2:Walk Up, Stars at Noon, Saint Omer

October 1, 2022

Walk Up

Walk Up is Hong Sang-soo’s trickiest film since The Day After (2017), and his most intricately structured effort since The Day He Arrives (2012). With the former it shares lead actor Kwon Haehyo, who here plays a middle-aged director named Byung-soo. With the latter it shares a marked spatial coherence, focusing its events on a single location, in this case a four-story building owned by Ms. Kim (Lee Hyeyoung), an interior designer and an old friend of Byung-soo’s. With both films it shares Hong’s keen grasp of character psychology and narrative probability, which allows him to play off structural and temporal gamesmanship as quirks of human behavior, but also, equally, to go the other way, and use psychological insight to motivate absurd story shapes. If The Day After tends more to the former, eventually allowing us to assemble its events into a linear chronology (as when a possibly new iteration of the story is revealed to be a character’s memory lapse), The Day He Arrives tends to the latter, building up a cyclical repetition of events that is nothing short of Borgesian. The remarkable achievement of Walk Up is that Hong manages to accommodate both tendencies within a single film, at once offering a linear, behaviorally coherent chronology and a metaphysical image of simultaneously coexisting presents.

Walk Up begins simply enough, with Byung-soo bringing his daughter Jeong-su (Park Miso), a recent graduate and aspiring interior designer, to meet Ms. Kim. They have a meal together, and then go for a brief tour of the building, whose tenants all happen to be out. The first and second floors are occupied by a restaurant whose owner does all the cooking herself. On the third floor is a cozy apartment which Ms. Kim initially thought of using herself, but which she rents out to a couple. On the fourth lives a rather reclusive man who doesn’t pay his rent on time, but who is set to move out shortly. The three then move to the basement, Ms. Kim’s work studio, for a glass of wine. Shortly, Byung-soo is called away to a meeting with a film executive, leaving Jeong-su and Ms. Kim to talk and drink, though he promises to return within the hour. A few bottles of wine later, with Byung-soo nowhere in sight, Jeong-su petitions Ms. Kim to take her on as an assistant. No promises are made, but Ms. Kim doesn’t refuse Jeong-su, either. Finally, the latter leaves to fetch yet another bottle of wine. As she walks down the street away from the building, soft guitar music fills the soundtrack — not for the last time — closing the first of the film’s four parts.

Walk Up’s second section opens with a nondescript view of the same building, where Byung-soo is again met again by Ms. Kim — though this time he is unaccompanied and does not arrive in a car. Conspicuously repeated dialogue immediately suggests formal play, i.e., that this is not a subsequent meeting, but another iteration of the same day with some variations. Byung-soo and Ms. Kim again share a meal, this time on the second floor of the building, where they are joined by the owner (Song Sunmi), who turns out to be a fan of his work. But when Byung-soo’s daughter comes up in conversation, and Ms. Kim talks about how she had taken her on, only to have her quit within a month of starting, the hypothesis of an alternate storyline fades into the background. The bulk of our attention thus falls on their interactions: Byung-soo’s disappointment at one of his productions falling through; the restauranteur’s two attempts to articulate what she likes about his movies; her sincere, if drunken, expression of her belief in God; and his combative, equally drunken response that religion is simply a human construct; and so on. A few bottles of wine later — a characteristically Hongian ellipsis — Byung-soo goes onto the balcony for a smoke, and the familiar guitar music plays on the soundtrack once more.

Having now acclimated us to this appealing behavioral atmosphere, Hong proceeds to change things up yet again in the film’s third section. We open again at the same building entrance, but with a few more conspicuous changes. We see the restaurant owner driving what we previously saw to be Byung-soo’s car, and when she goes up to the third floor, where the rest of this section takes place, we find that she and Byung-soo are now sharing an apartment, having gotten together in the interim. More specific details of their situation soon emerge: Byung-soo’s deteriorating health and planned career retirement, the restaurant’s declining revenue, and the couple’s financial issues, exacerbated by Ms. Kim’s decision to raise the rent. But other half-forgotten details bubble up from memory and test our ability to assemble the film into a linear chronology: such as the couple who were said to be living there in the first section, whom Byung-soo and Song’s restauranteur seem to have replaced; Ms. Kim’s talk of the reclusive man on the fourth floor, whose bathroom is leaking into what is now their apartment; and talk of Jeju Island, which is now a retirement goal for the two. It remains possible to assemble these details into a linear timeline, but to do so we have to accept a great deal of coincidence — or synchronicity, to use the Jungian term — which underscores, and thereby challenges, our ability to form causal connections from part to part. So when the final section of Walk Up sees Byung-soo now occupying the fourth floor, as if having transformed into the reclusive man whose bathroom needs repairs, our ability to assemble the film into a linear chronology finally gives way.

What all this adds up to is a total vision of Byung-soo’s life from two distinct spatio-temporal perspectives. On the one hand, Walk Up presents his life as existing in linear, chronological time, with the four parts as episodes in a larger trajectory of withdrawal and decline: We see not just his estrangement from the various women in his life, but also his declining health and career, coupled with an increasing reclusiveness. On the other hand, Walk Up allows us to see that single afternoon as a simultaneity of presents, to see the four parts as the same event played out in different ways, and, crucially, unfolded in a kind of empty time, detached from a linear succession of past, present, and future. In the film’s dazzling closing sequence, Hong leaves us suspended between these two alternatives. In so doing, he affirms what his entire career may be said to affirm: that our experience can never be fully reduced to causal mechanisms, and that freedom consists in realizing that we can, in the end, only speak of space and time from the standpoint of the human.

Writer: Lawrence Garcia

Stars at Noon - Claire Denis - NYFF

Credit: A24

Stars at Noon

A gnarled, lightbulb-spotted, two-dimensional plastic facsimile of a red palm tree in an empty plaza and a close up of Margaret Qualley’s face are the introductory images of Claire DenisStars At Noon, a prologue of sorts that already pledges fidelity to the bruised lyricism of author Denis Johnson’s prose, whose 1986 novel serves as the source material. Johnson often times alternated between dilapidated landscape portraiture and extreme bouts of — drug/alcohol/sex-influenced — subjectivity. Previous adaptations siloed out the more palatable aspects of his fiction (like the redemptive arc of Jesus’ Son for Alison Maclean’s film of the same name), so Denis is easily the most simpatico partner for Johnson’s story of an unmoored, and perhaps delusional, white American woman and Englishman within the Nicaraguan Revolution, now transposed to the present day.

Denis forgoes the gradual scene-setting of Johnson’s book to instead unleash Qualley’s remarkable freneticism as both incongruously and machine-like as possible, the specifics of her hardscrabble endurance as a stranded, and eventually documentless, wannabe journalist never anything less than visibly pained. Her Trish Johnson is a perfect encapsulation of American entitlement, maneuvering, and exploitation, taking advantage of a country’s unrest for her own writerly gains (which fail), and then traipsing around with condescending, broken Spanish, demanding air conditioning and rum. Picking up British oilman Daniel Dehaven (Joe Alwyn) at the Intercontinental Hotel bar, and sleeping with him for fifty dollars (“fifty US”), she unwittingly makes herself even more of a player in the USA-abetted conspiratorial activities that she’d otherwise remained on the peripheries of. This isn’t to imply that Daniel is some sort of paragon of espionage; he, too, is just as adrift, prone to the bumbling mistakes innate to one in over their head.

The two become joined at the hip, so to speak, mutual lifelines in an environment intent on expelling them. Denis, always attuned to the immediacies of intimacy, has always been conversely drawn to those of obliviousness, a temperament detectable in L’intrus and White Material, Stars At Noon’s undeniable sister films. Logged with beer and rum, Trish and Daniel play at giggly adventurers, ducking brutal police in modest chase scenes, before falling into bed again. The rain repeatedly obfuscates the surroundings, and the attendant mud works its way up Daniel’s white designer suit — Denis maps her characters’ halting progress toward the Costa Rican border on their bodies, the earnest disheveledness of the beginning devolving into near destitution, where clothes have to be washed in a hotel shower with bar soap, a tic of the perennial transience of Johnson’s work. The border is a Beckettian goal, a never-fulfilled promise of liberation, a confirmation of the unchanging social landscape.

Stars At Noon is reliably protean, Denis reprising her haphazard union of variegated camera styles after the somewhat uniform Both Sides of the Blade, and her almost erratic rhythms coalesce into a sublime whole, the perfect externalization of a lovers-on-the-run experience. The weather and landscape interrupt, knotted powerlines stretch across the top of the frame, funeral processions dutifully trudge along in the foreground, and Denis is fascinated by it all, these distracted tangents justifying themselves as the circumstances worsen. This atmosphere retains its impossible romanticism with two constants: sex and low-level haggling against a larger conspiratorial backdrop. Villainy is diffuse, and the painted-on smile of a third act Benny Safdie — whose performative stiltedness is straight from Pakula and Polanski — is more discomfiting than the ubiquitous soldiers; respites are disorientingly intrusive, and even oneirically transcendent, like when the lovers find what has to be the only DJ in the world playing Tindersticks to an empty room. Viscous and violent settings engender a purity of feeling, so much so that it becomes easy to wholeheartedly care for these two idiots, who despite their unfamiliarity with one another, generate a rickety trust for a new age.

Writer: Patrick Preziosi

Saint Omer

A woman stands in the courtroom witness box, her face tensed, pained, and withdrawn, her hands clasping the railing before her, while the judge’s questions dig in like nails: What was your childhood like? Why did you come to France? What was your relationship with your mother? But despite this endless barrage, the interrogation is about one question and one alone, a question that doesn’t sit as easily as the others, a question that lingers and poisons the air, leaving the room cold: “Why did you kill your child?” “I don’t know,” the woman answers. “I’m hoping this trial will give me the answer.” And so begins the action that forms the heart of Alice Diop‘s Saint Omer, a film that may be inspired by a real-life trial, but one that roots itself just as much in the immortal myth of Euripedes’ Medea. Diop, who has already proven herself an expert documentarian, shifts modes here with remarkable ease and commands a confident narrative debut positively vibrating with ideas; a mythic maelstrom compacted into the suffocating environs of a small courtroom.

While Medea is explicitly evoked only in passing, including a brief nod to Pasolini’s film adaptation, the Greek play pulsates through the runtime and the trial’s combative dialogues adopt a poised theatricality; their lines paralleling those of the ancient text. Its story is simple, but far from straightforward: Medea, a sorceress from the East betrays her family and homeland to help Jason (of Argonauts fame) steal the Golden Fleece, after which she escapes to the Grecian city of Corinth to wed and bear his two sons. When Jason makes clear his intentions to abandon her for a “proper” Greek wife, Medea executes horrific revenge: poisoning his wife-to-be and murdering the children as a way to end his lineage. Diop masterfully entwines her narrative with the play, and showcases how the ensuing trial tacitly weaponizes the mythology of Medea’s betrayal, treachery, and, most importantly, her “otherness,” allowing the woman who stands before the court to serve as the vessel for a slew of projections, which only further obscure her reality.

Before we arrive at Saint Omer, the small French town hosting this trial, we are introduced to the other key character in a scene that unlocks the weight of the film’s title. Here we meet Rama (Kayije Kagame), a scholar and a novelist finishing a lecture on Marguerite Duras with a clip from the Resnais-directed, Duras-penned, Hiroshima Mon Amour. The fragment shows “justice” dolled out to women considered traitors to France at the close of WWII — Medea’s betrayal of her homeland for Jason is thrown back in her face at the end — the protagonist having slept with a German soldier and so humiliated for it. This moment is forever seared into memory by the French town where it took place: Nevers. In Hiroshima Mon Amour, “Nevers” becomes a word of devastating power, like “Hiroshima” is a word of power, the film’s lovers exchanging these words as revelations. There’s a broad range of human suffering and degradation contained in the histories of these places, and here Diop mirrors the exercise by lending another small French town that same affliction — “Saint Omer” will become a word of power as well.

In Saint Omer, Rama bears witness to Laurence Coty (Guslagie Malanda), the young Senegalese immigrant standing trial for abandoning her 15-month-old daughter to die, left helpless to the sweeping ocean tide. Paralleling Jason is the reluctant father M. Dumontet (Xavier Maly), an older white Frenchman who, ashamed of his relationship with Laurence, has kept the affair and their mixed-race child a secret. It might be easy to infer the decision-making here, a poor young immigrant, isolated with no friends and cut off from her family, financially dependent on a lover who attempts to distance himself from both the child and the relationship, resorts to the most drastic solution imaginable. Yet, things are complicated when Laurence, a graduate-level Philosophy student, evokes sorcery as a defense, claiming she has been the victim of an evil spell. This twist scintillates the press and encourages the court to probe and question. “We are here to try to understand, you must explain!” the judge demands of Laurence, but the court’s “understanding” is barbed. It’s not an attempt to attain justice or empathy, but rather to recontextualize the events that transpired to something safe and status quo. A Black woman stands on trial before the white judge and jury in the French countryside, Jason’s famous reply to Medea ringing in subtext: “I was mad to bring you from that barbarian lair to this bright land of Greece… No Greek would have dared what you have done.” The racist implication of the judge’s probe and prosecutor’s attacks percolate as the trial moves forward.

Rama sits and watches, herself a Black woman in a mixed-race relationship, four months pregnant, projecting onto Laurence, and planning to write a book — her publisher suggests having Medea in the title. Diop films the proceedings with gorgeous restraint, forming still compositions that resemble portraiture. At one point the Mona Lisa appears, and later the reference goes off like Chekhov’s gun when for a split second Laurence locks eyes with Rama and shoots her an inscrutable smile from her stately perch. Another influence Diop notes for the painterly look of Laurence on trial is Andrew Wyeth’s Grape Wine, which depicts Willard Snowden, a drifter who lived above Wyeth’s studio, in the style of portrait typically reserved for Renaissance nobility. Diop’s pull to elevate her subjects runs through her documentaries in much the same way, like when she creates space for young Black actor Steve Tinetcheu to perform a monologue denied him by his theater troupe because of his race in The Death of Danton, or the way she juxtaposes video footage of her late father alongside the ritualistic mourning of Louis XVI at Saint Denis Basilica in We. Another technique ported over from her documentary work is the camera’s roving eye; it sits on subjects long after they have stopped talking, or fixes on those listening to allow us time to scrutinize reactions. In the courtroom, this manifests as Rama’s gaze, which occasionally shifts focus from defense to prosecution, from the jury to the window, or occasionally shifts to those seated in the audience.

At one point her gaze settles on the only other Black woman in the room, who turns out to be Laurence’s mother. Never taking the stand, we learn only bits and pieces about her in the testimony, but Rama and her begin to spend time together outside of the courthouse. Once this connection is revealed, a gorgeous symmetry develops:the three mothers in the court, the mother that was (past), the mother that is (present), and the mother that will be (future). With each day of the trial, we inch closer to Laurence, made literal by Diop’s camera pushing deeper into close-up until the final days, when her face fills the screen, and yet our proximity doesn’t deliver any more clarity than we had before; the closer we get to Laurence, the further we are from what happened. As the days go on, Rama begins to drift into her own past as hard memories surface, and further unsettle her. “I’m scared I’ll be like her,” Rama confesses to her partner late in the trial. “Like who?” he asks. By this point, it appears we’ve spent too much time with Laurence, that the projection has become too real, that the tacit violence has surfaced too much. “Like my mother,” Rama says. A cold reminder that people aren’t as simple as they seem, and our projections may blind us to the truth. Rama stays through the trial’s end, but its true revelation lays here. At the end of Euripides’ play, Medea escapes on a golden chariot pulled by dragons; it’s unlikely that Laurence will share that fate. Instead of triumphant vindication, Diop leaves us with a lasting bit of poetry: a mother and a daughter sit together holding hands. The mother’s breathing has grown raspy over time, the inhale and the exhale are rough and loud. The two women rest together, easing into the quiet of a late afternoon nap. Eyelids slowly drop, and the screen cuts to black. The mother’s breaths persist. The rhythmic push and pull sounds like the sweeping ocean tide.

Writer: Igor Fishman

Slaughterhouses of Modernity - Heinz Emigholz - NYFF

Credit: Filmgalerie 451

Slaughterhouses of Modernity

Heinz Emigholz opens his latest, Slaughterhouses of Modernity, with a voice. This would have normally been shocking as Emigholz’s austere “Photography and Beyond” series of films lack any sort of voiceover, preferring the subjects (always architecture) to do the talking themselves. Oftentimes, this means an overview of an architect’s career (Perret in France and Algeria or Maillart’s Bridges) or an attempt to compare and contrast the details of certain works (Two Museums or Two Basilicas). Just like with Frederick Wiseman, if you’ve seen a few, you know what you’re going to get with the new, and with Emigholz, that means looking at buildings. But, his most recent fare has departed this system: actors grace the screen and talk in Streetscapes [Dialogue] (2017) and The Last City (2020), often in architectural spaces such that Emigholz can continue the spirit of the “Photography and Beyond” project.

But, a deviation does still appear in this new film. Never before has Emigholz quite editorialized his architectural tours. Title cards with names of cities and dates of the works usually give the only context to his series of shots, allowing the viewer to infer any meaning themselves. Perhaps a dilapidated building in the countryside followed by a pristine building in the city, both made in the same year by the same architect, is a commentary on how and what the government funds. Perhaps an empty auditorium shows how much community life has dwindled. Film studies professors typically label this as “structuralist,” and the process can be just as fun as it is quintessentially snobbish. This is not the case for Slaughterhouses, as Emigholz conducts lectures about the politics and history of each work and lays out the connections explicitly. One can still play the structuralist game, but there is a point to these works that is too important to be left out.

The initial lecture, read by Stefan Kolosko, laments the political elites’ theft of words like “modernism” and “tradition” such that they are robbed of meaning for the general population, yet their aesthetic will continue to dominate the landscape (a process that has also stolen the language of identity politics in the United States as wonderfully outlined in Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s recent Elite Capture). This explains the Art Deco approach to architect Francisco Salamone’s municipal buildings in Argentina, the very first modernist works in the country that often stick out and announce themselves as European land claims. Many were made during Argentina’s Infamous Decade, a time of political malfeasance and a sunken economy, to show the grandeur of industrial life, especially as farmers left the pampas for work in the cities. If this sounds like Italian futurism at work in Argentina, that’s because it is. Emigholz’s shots of municipal buildings then take a detour to post offices commissioned by none other than Benito Mussolini, then veer to cemetery portals with almost Brutalist crosses and a gigantic Art Deco Jesus. Finally, the titular slaughterhouses that “rise up like monuments or churches” in the pampas take the frame, each dominating the grassy plains around it. Some have been abandoned (one with an on-the-nose graffito: “Tell me baby, what’s your story?”), while others have been converted to museums or have at least been preserved. But the slaughterhouses merely serve as the central metaphor in Emigholz’s journey: afterwards, he shoots the flooded village of Villa Epecuén, the restoration of the Berlin Palace (which architect Arno Brandlhuber jumps in to editorialize as “one of the most disgusting buildings in the world”), and the antipode to these projects in Freddy Mamani Sylvestre’s utopian buildings of El Alto.

Kolosko even appears in-frame through his tours of Epecuén and the Humboldt Museum (attached to the Berlin Palace), acting as tour guide to what has been destroyed and what should have been destroyed, respectively. Thankfully, this is anything but literal as he mostly recounts a Borges story (”Deutsches Requiem”) that complements both locations. Indeed, this voiceover itself works to transform Emigholz’s art gallery-style into edifying essay film, allowing the members of the audience who do not have architecture doctorates to learn something. That “something” is best expressed in a signature Emigholz Dutch angle shot from this film: a brand-new window, unadorned, frames our view of the slaughterhouse ceiling where the rusty hooks still hang, just hang. A then-fascist, now-capitalist version of modernism can divorce these hooks from their meat, just as fascist thinking can divorce the Nazis’ train timetables from their purpose. When Emigholz ends on Sylvestre’s bright Neo-Andean cholets, parodies (yet reclamations) of European modernist opulence, the colors and shapes seem to find a way out of the fascist, colonial cityscapes of these South American cities. But, he notes, they too can be claimed as BMW showrooms or Berghain II. It’s just a bit harder, even comical, to imagine.

Writer: Zach LEwis

Trenque Lauquen

Unfolded in twelve chapters and split into two parts, Trenque Lauquen includes across its 250-minute runtime a story of a missing woman possibly gone mad, a strange incident at a lake which may or may not involve a human child, and a scientist’s search for a mysterious yellow flower. If that description brings to mind Mariano Llinás’ mammoth 2018 feature La Flor, this is no coincidence: Trenque Lauquen, Argentinean director Laura Citarella’s third feature, shares with that film not just its production outfit El Pampero Cine, but also two of the film’s leads, Laura Paredes and Elisa Carricajo. (Llinás also has a producer credit.) Granted, four hours is a ways off from fourteen, and instead of Llinás’ intentionally incomplete stories, Trenque Lauquen comprises elliptical fragments which do, finally, offer some semblance of unity. But it is characteristic of Citarella’s approach that many of the film’s chapters are told from the perspectives of different characters and vary wildly in tone. By the film’s end, these tonal disjunctions create the impression that we are not seeing subjective points of view within one and the same world, but rather a single, inexplicable event played out in different objective worlds.

The film begins, in any case, with the disappearance of a woman, Laura (Paredes), an academic from Buenos Aires currently doing a project on flower classification in the rural town of Trenque Lauquen. The opening chapter is meaningfully titled “La aventura” — though unlike the Antonioni film being referenced, we don’t have an initial sense of Laura from which to gauge her sudden disappearance, which we learn happens via stolen car. When Trenque Lauquen begins, she is already gone. Thus, all we can do is try and re-assemble her actions and personality from the fragmentary perspectives of the people who knew her. From Rafael (Rafael Spregelburd), her imperious, entitled boyfriend from Buenos Aires, we get a sense of her life in the city. From her former colleague “Chicho” Ezequiel (Ezequiel Pierri), a local of Trenque Lauquen, we get a more exciting sense of her life in the small town: such as her recurring program on a local radio show, titled “Women Who Made History.” In the present, we see Rafael and Chicho try to uncover clues as to her disappearance. But it’s the intrigue of a secret (and highly erotic) correspondence Laura uncovers in the local library — relayed in flashback from the perspective of Chicho, who willingly gets involved in Laura’s investigations — which drives much of the film’s plot. It also reflects, too, our primary interest in figuring out who Laura is and solving the mystery of her disappearance.

In the second half of Trenque Lauquen, tone and rhythm change significantly, and Citarella also starts to interrogate our established interest in Laura’s story. Even as the details of Laura’s abrupt departure are filled in, mainly through a lengthy recording she leaves Juliana (Juliana Muras), the host of the local radio show her “Women Who Made History” program is a part of, we are asked to reflect on why, exactly, we want to explain the mystery of her disappearance. Rafael has his reasons as a jilted, abandoned lover; and it turns out that Chicho, who falls for Laura in the course of their amateur sleuthing, has a similar one. But why, Citarella seems to ask, can’t we simply take an interest in the story for its own sake? Why look for someone who evidently doesn’t want to be found? When Juliana lets Chicho hear the recording Laura left behind, which fills in a lot of factual detail, but only makes her actions more inexplicable, he expresses uncertainty at what he should do with this information. Unfazed, Juliana simply responds, “There’s nothing we have to do.”

In all this, it is no coincidence that Trenque Lauquen’s second part gradually shifts perspective from male to female. Nor is it incidental that Laura’s radio segment is called what it is; that the book which triggers her investigation into the secret correspondence is titled “Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Woman”; or that Laura finds solace with two women (one of them played by Carricajo) in a stable domestic partnership. Taken together with the film’s first part, these details point to two distinct responses to the story being told: the first associated with Rafael and Chicho, who have a proprietary, almost possessive interest in the narrative outcome; the second associated with Juliana, who takes the story in stride, respecting Laura’s apparent desire not to be found. The film’s overall trajectory makes clear that Citarella is highlighting the limits of reducing the story to a kind of “answer,” instead of simply taking pleasure in its telling. What is less clear is whether she is also trying to map these responses onto specific stylistic or narrative forms. Trenque Lauquen’s final chapter (“Laura’s Part”), which sees any narrative interest completely drain away in favor of contemplative landscape shots and an atmosphere of quiet repose, suggests that she is, and this effort makes the film a frustratingly paradoxical experience. It turns Trenque Lauquen into a film whose intricate, shape-shifting storytelling ultimately resists the fulsome pleasures of story, a work whose narrative indirection serves, in the end, no other purpose but negation.

Writer: Lawrence Garcia