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New York Film Festival 2008 Dispatch #1: The Stop Smiling Film Review

The Stop Smiling Film Review

Steve McQueen's Hunger


Thursday, October 09, 2008

46th New York Film Festival
Sept. 26 – Oct. 12, 2008
Film Society of Lincoln Center

By Michael Joshua Rowin

Directed by Steve McQueen

Well-known in the art world for his gallery-exhibited short film work, British director Steve McQueen’s background may be the best entryway into Hunger, a feature-length debut that plays more like something to be encountered in the corner of a museum than in a theater. Hunger communicates, in almost purely sensorial terms, the 1981 hunger strike by Irish Republican Army prisoners fighting for political status. Images and dialogue are bifurcated: In the film’s first section, a taciturn tour de force, McQueen examines the daily routines of guards and prisoners in a Northern Ireland jail by focusing on physical, almost tactile, details — walls smeared with human excrement, maggots swarming out of mounds of rejected food, puddles of urine flooding from beneath cell doors, bloodied hands and dirty fingernails and secret exchanges through nostrils and mouths of notes between prisoners and visiting relatives.

The guards eventually break the prisoners’ “no wash” protest by violently enforcing baths and haircuts, but McQueen is less interested in narrative than in making the viewer viscerally experience the sights and sounds of prison through precisely composed close-ups and Bresson-like studies of behavior. The second section is a lengthy conversation, most of it captured in a single long-take two-shot, between Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and his priest (Liam Cunningham) about the ethical quandaries posed by Sands’s planned hunger strike. Unfortunately, the third section refuses to follow up on the larger consequences of the strike and returns to the former taciturn style in tracing Sands’s slow death by self-imposed starvation, though this time incorporating symbol-heavy memory sequences. McQueen thus succeeds in manufacturing a palpable intensity (some of it very difficult to watch), but retreats into individual subjectivity when it might do better to open out into the larger political arena.

The Headless Woman
Directed by Lucrecia Martel

The 24 year-old director Antonio Campos, whose film-school exercise in alienation, Afterschool, was inexplicably allowed into this year’s festival, could learn a thing or two from Lucrecia Martel. The Headless Woman, her third feature, employs a similar aesthetic — richly silhouetted figures isolated from their environment, unorthodox compositions cutting through characters and positioning them partly or wholly out of frame, keyed-up ambient sound — but employs it to far greater effect. That’s because The Headless Woman’s story of an amnesiac stupor — caused by an automobile scrape only a few minutes in — sensually evokes the disorientation of Maria Onetto’s blonde-then-brunette dentist without resorting to over-symbolic or over-stylized cop-outs. The movie is just as confounding to the viewer as the world — its immediate stimuli, social conventions, and arbitrary identities — becomes to the woman post-accident, who at one point begins to believe she ran over a child instead of a dog.

An unsettling sense of guilt and dread runs through this elliptical film that proves Martel has much improved from The Holy Girl, a less-than-meets-the-eye coming-of-age story containing only the intriguing potential of her medical-book approach toward depicting the human body. The Headless Woman is her Red Desert, and a major step forward.

24 City
Directed by Jia Zhangke

Jia Zhangke seems to be entering a new phase of his fascinating career with 24 City, a documentary/fiction hybrid that reworks the director’s signature techniques and strategies to stunning and self-critical effect. Functioning as a cinematic repository and conduit of industrial China’s personal and historical memories, 24 City blends the architectural melodrama of The World and Still Life with the nonfiction realism of Useless into a series of interviews with workers from a soon-to-be-closed state-owned machinery manufacturing plant (with plans to expand the company’s facilities into a modern mini-metropolis surrounded by high-rise luxury-apartment complexes). The interview subjects are real workers as well as professional actors creating composite characters out of true testimonies and interpretative performances; the result is a meta-portrait of China’s transformation from a planned economy to a free-market economy.

Such a risky strategy — reminiscent of another festival success, The Class — complicates the very act of storytelling, already under the stress of emotional and political subjectivity in bringing back the past (referred to in quotations from Dream of the Red Chamber and Yeats: “Things we have thought and done must ramble and thin out”). Zhangke expertly diffuses the tension between real and fake into the very act of delivery, including an appearance by Joan Chen as a worker who’s been told she looks like Joan Chen, and surreal, typically Zhangke touches like Tao Zhao as a manager posing by an abandoned car in a field of yellow flowers.

Let It Rain
Directed by Agnès Jaoui

Agnès Jaoui’s Let It Rain is the platonic ideal of a mediocre “French film”: light drama, light jokes, light light, all in the service of thinly sketched portraits of dull bourgeois dealing with love and loss and blah blah blah. Jaoui, writer and director of the equally forgettable The Taste of Others and Look at Me, attempts delicate character studies of an intertwining group of thirty-somethings in Southern France (perfunctorily shot with soft, postcard compositions of country gardens and old city cobblestones). But she only comes up with caricatures, as exemplified by the over-reliance on real-life husband and screenwriting partner Jean-Pierre Bacri’s oafish pot-smoking comic relief, or overly polite moral dilemmas, as with a tentatively broached storyline involving a sensitive married man (Jamel Debbouze) with a hesitating wandering eye.

Despite surveying a wide range of issues — the conflicts are marital (a woman’s suffocation under obnoxious husband, played by Pascale Arbillot and Guillaume De Tonquedec respectively), familial (a struggle over the family estate between two sisters [Arbillot and Jaoui]), generational (lack of communication between Bacri’s character and his teenage son), racial (the condescending treatment suffered by Debbouze’s Moroccan and his housemaid mother), and political (Jaoui’s feminist character has recently entered the regional government) — the film doesn’t dare dig too deep into any of them lest it offend its target middlebrow audience with anything not reducible to pat resolutions, which arrive at the end as astonishingly rushed afterthoughts. Let It Rain may be harmlessly pleasant, but it’s harmlessly pleasant to the point of insipidness, no better than the blockbuster escapist entertainment to which its supporters think it some sort of “answer.”


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