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The 47th New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, Sept. 25-Oct. 11: The Stop Smiling Review

The Stop Smiling Review

Clockwise, from top: Everyone Else, Mother, Precious and Broken Embraces


Friday, October 09, 2009

By Mark Asch

With three-fifths of its selection committee comprised of Village Voice vets from the good old days, and its line-up sporting as many Portuguese centenarians as high-profile American releases, this year’s New York Film Festival has been alternately praised and bemoaned as the funkiest, most eclectic in recent memory. (The strongest pre-fest word-of-mouth accumulated around a documentary about sheepherding.) Still, several of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s (for better or worse) standout selections make implicitly lofty claims for what one might call the power of cinema (if such phrases were still in fashion).

In Opening Night’s Wild Grass, from Janus Films Library mainstay Alain Resnais, randy retiree Georges (André Dussollier) finds the stolen wallet, and pilot’s license, of Marguerite (Sabine Azéma, aka Mrs. Resnais, looking more like Grace Zabriskie every year). It’s amour — stalkerishly fou — even before first sight, and eventually, hiccuppingly, reciprocated. Ending with a joyride in a WWII-scarred Spitfire, Wild Grass is a sustained flight of fancy: Spry octogenarian Resnais shoots in a kids-menu crayon-set palette, and interrupts his obsessed characters for frothy non sequiturs and stylistic curlicues. The filmmaker takes pleasure in the way his medium can gratify the urges of foolish mortals — his characters, and himself.

At the far side of the festival fortnight, Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces ends with a filmmaker literally reassembling his past, reediting a film-within-the-film made with a lost love. Here too is NYFF ’09’s main complement of flashbulb wattage, in the person of Penelope Cruz — the diva seen, in one shot, as a raven-haired actress decked out in a platinum Vertigo wig and eyeball earrings, in front of a mirror, being photographed by her director and lover, filmed by her Peeping Tom stepson, fetishized by Almodóvar, and us. Like the mirror, the movie is all reflective, reflexive surface, compressed tropes and tiers of subtext, with all the cinema-studies kicks and closed thematic circuits that implies.

Broken Embraces is a doubled feature from its Panavision-footage opening credits, in which Cruz replaces her stand-in just before “Action.” As in Hitchcock and Almodóvar’s previous Hitchcock riffs, characters are doubled within the film, and life is doubled through art. Lluís Homar plays Mateo Blanco, a former filmmaker who also scripted his own movies under the name Harry Caine, and has been going by his nom de plume since losing his vision. A pitch from a man calling himself “Ray X” — an obviously autobiographical story of father-son vengeance — inspires memories of Harry’s one-time leading lady (Cruz), the kept woman of a powerful industrialist (José Luis Gómez).

Harry has his “eyes” (Tamar Novas) read the spines of his DVD collection — whenever an expository scene gets too functional or daytime-TV melodramatic (a man implores a doctor to “do the impossible”), Almodóvar plays daytime-TV music over it, to re-frame the scene as a genre signifier. A raggedly sewn-up thriller, this movie or something like it has been made before, with softer core and fuller assedness, by Brian De Palma. Or maybe Broken Embraces is Almodóvar’s Dial M for Murder, an enjoyably shallow self-pastiche.

At the press conference for NYFF Centerpiece Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, director Lee Daniels related a traumatic childhood anecdote and concluded that he made the movie because he “wanted to heal.” The language of pop therapy fits the talk-show catharsis exercise Precious, but hosts like (executive producer) Oprah Winfrey are far more honest than Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher. Daniels and Fletcher assemble the most miserable character imaginable, and then contrive a set of circumstances in which she is miraculously granted the capacity for hope.

Obese, mostly illiterate 16-year-old Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) lives with her welfare queen gargoyle mother, Mary (Mo’Nique). Mom throws glasses at Precious’s head from her Barcalounger while the daughter cooks her up more pig’s feet and fried chicken, and banshee-howls at her daughter that “school ain’t gonna help none,” so she ought to get her worthless “bitch ass” on welfare. Precious has already delivered one (Down’s Syndrome-afflicted) baby on her kitchen counter, and is pregnant with another. Her own father is the father of both. But, through the intervention of her tough-broad principal (Mary wants “that white bitch” off her stoop), Precious is sent to an alternative school, Each One Teach One, where a Halle Berry doppelganger named Blu Rain (Paula Patton) talks … very … slowly … as a show of the quiet strength with which she creates Precious’ sense of self-worth.

Watching Precious, at the fullest NYFF press screening thus far, I broke out laughing once: when, during a TV-chucking knock-down drag-out brawl (following a blatantly telegraphed eruption), Daniels slows the image down, intercuts photos of mother Mary and infant Precious during happier times, and replaces the audio track with Christmas carols. Pauline Kael will understand how Nixon got reelected before I understand the appeal of this movie: Precious seems to compile every manipulative set-up that a lifetime of moviegoing has taught me to recognize and reject, into a single steamrolling package.

A different sort of übermom is played by Kim Hye-ja as Bong Joo-ho’s Mother, alternately insipidly abashed and mama-grizz fierce, who’d do anything for her developmentally disabled adult son, Do-joon (Won Bin; it’s hard to pinpoint his mental defect, which seems to make him act as autistic or retarded as the scene demands). A manchild’s best friend is his mother: When Do-joon is arrested for the murder of a schoolgirl, Mom sets out to prove to the investigating officer that her son “wouldn’t hurt a water-bug” — an allusion that goes a long way toward encapsulating the sexual ambiguities of their relationship (they “sleep together” in the same bed, at least) and the seeping-stain sense of ironic guilt Bong is after.

Like Bong’s Memories of Murder, Mother is essentially a procedural, though this time with an amateur, character-studied sleuth. (Korean TV veteran Kim is playing against 40 years of audience expectation; it’s her intensity, in a role shaped for it, that makes one wonder who’ll play it in the U.S. remake.) Bong is Spielbergian in his ability to reveal character through perfectly timed action — Mother is perhaps never better than in its opening sequence, a mobile, darkly comic table-setter balancing multiple points of view, tight and wide perspectives, and on- and off-screen space — and in his determination to elevate genre material by the imposition of a worldview. Though in the troubled endings of Mother and the open-ended Memories (though not in the nuclear-familial The Host), the vision Bong insists on is much cloudier and uncertain.

Equally committed to ambiguity, though diametrically opposed in method, is writer-director Maren Ade, the invisible auteur of Everyone Else. The challenge, for a reviewer, is to dissect the central couple in this unobtrusively shot and edited relationship study from the perspective of a film critic, and not an amateur psychologist. Boyish/immature, sensitive/pissy, smart/snobbish Chris (Lars Eidinger) and affectionate/clingy, sensible/unsophisticated, sincere/tacky Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) fight, break up, kiss, make up, rinse, repeat while on vacation at Chris’s family vacation home on Sardinia. Everyday interactions — passive-aggressive event planning, avoiding and then socializing with the neighbors; dancing, cooking, reading hiking, fucking — seem founded on a deep, universally familiar understanding of how private, paired and public selves all have different opinions about class, taste and interpersonal relationships. Chris and Gitti are sometimes happy, but never carefree — when things are going well between them, it seems willed, as if to forestall the inevitable — and Ade’s focus is on the capacity of two people in love to wound each other: when to hold back, when to lash out, and how much can be taken back afterwards.

The work of a second-time no-name filmmaker, featuring unknown Germans shopping for groceries in shorts, bikini tops and shapeless button-downs, Everyone Else is what we’ve been talking about when we’ve been talking about this year’s dressed-down New York Film Festival. But Ade’s ability to dramatize such stabbingly close moments is as miraculous a feat of cinema as any this year.


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