Friday, October 14, 2011

The 49th New York Film Festival: Goodbye First Love & Play

Loosely composed of three correlative parts sketching fifteen year-old Camille's first adolescent romance, sentimental follow-up and the consequent renewal of her youthful affair, writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve's Goodbye First Love (Un amour de jeunesse, 2011) refreshes both the minor-key teenage sexuality thematic of her exceptional The Father of My Children (2009), as well as its concluding emphasis on moving on after a life-shattering loss. Hansen-Løve however not only synthesizes these concerns in her treatment of Camille's emotional life (with seventeen year-old art-house ingenue of the moment Lola Créton in the lead after providing support in The Father of My Children), but indeed makes each a predominant focus of her latest narrative, thus developing the content which she introduced in more granular form in her second feature. In this respect, Goodbye First Love adds to the thirty year-old Hansen-Løve's burgeoning auteurist credentials - which at this early juncture remain no less pubescent - as do the film's crisply biographical features, from Camille's romantic relationship with her intellectual and professional mentor, Magne-Håvard Brekke's Lorenz on screen and Olivier Assayas off, to the film's renewed emphasis once again on practical artistic creation, which in the director's latest finds a cinematically analogous form in the architectural medium. Hansen-Løve's world appears very conspicuously in Goodbye First Love.

So too do the director's filmic antecedents, whether it is Assayas's Late August, Early September (1998), in which Hansen-Løve received her first screen credit (as an actor), and which increasingly feels generative of her entire body of work, or Eric Rohmer's corpus, with the "Comedies and Proverbs" and his supreme masterpiece The Green Ray (1986) especially key for Goodbye First Love. Hansen-Løve indeed replicates the latter's journal titles, its geographical precision - with the film's twinned on-screen maps signposting the foucs, while also tracing Camille's personal progress - and its rhetoric of chance and feminine indecision. Where Hansen-Løve falls short of Rohmer, however, is on the level of dialogue, which never rises to the grace and sophistication of the late director's, even when a heroine like The Green Ray's Delphine (subtly name-checked in Goodbye First Love) succumbs to inarticulateness. Hansen-Løve's conversations fail to live in the same way as Rohmer's; excepting Valérie Bonneton's mother, no one in Goodbye First Love is compelling by dint of what they say or how they express it.

Still this is not to say that the fine Goodbye First Love lacks life or at least verisimilitude, and the characters interest. Instead, it is the tenor and dynamics of Camille's relationships with Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky) and Lorenz that do much of the heavy-lifting - in addition, naturally, to the seventeen year-old Créton's undeniable carnal appeal - in the filmmaker's latest, whether it is the sexual intensity of the former or the more cautious, adult-coded approach of latter, with Lorenz admirably escaping the archetype of the lecherous collegiate instructor. Of course, in thus dividing Camille's romantic and intellectual compatibility between her two lovers, Hansen-Løve inscribes a comparatively rote and conventional dichotomy - while also inviting the viewer to wonder about the implications of the film's biographical subtext.

More than forty-years after Vilgot Sjöman's sexually explicit I Am Curious films set an international standard for controversy, as well as what would be permissible in the art-house - in its erotic focalization on the underage Créton's body, even Goodbye First Love owes to this earlier tradition - fellow Swede Ruben Östlund's politically indelicate Play (2011) has discovered a new manner in which to shock from the famously liberal Scandinavian nation: by inviting speculation on the problem and inadequate domestic reaction to immigrant youth violence that continues to provide nearly daily headlines in the two cities mentioned in the film, Östlund's hometown of Göteborg (whose center and suburbs provide Play's primary setting) and the nearby site for a recent wave of Arab-on-Jew attacks, Malmö. While the specter of Islamic terrorism is raised only inferentially in Play, Östlund's surveillant long-take work does dramatize the experience of being terrorized, with the picture's three youthful leads - one Asian and two white, including one yellow-haired, blue-eyed boy who provides a clear symbol for Swedish ethnic and national identity - articulating a spectrum of reactions from crippling fear to abject humiliation to even sympathy for one's captors, which is to say Stockholm syndrome. At the very least, Play certainly qualifies as a work of ideas and ambition as it engages for better or worse with the nation's multiculti present.

When the boys do eventually emerge from their captivity, even as their tormentors share a meal and an abusive crank call, the victimized trio become the object of police recriminations, just as the film's consequent homosexual vigilante fathers, talk about the modern face of Sweden, receive scorn from a well-intentioned, pregnant on-looker. Östlund's Play is a very difficult film to watch, though one that this writer would recommend, not only for its troubling real world-inspired subject and politically incorrect racial politics, but also for the act of defecation that one of the abused youths is forced to perform on screen. As site collaborator Lisa K. Broad describes it, Östlund's is a cinema of cruelty in which the filmmaker subjects his young actors not just to the above, but indeed to a series of physically and psychologically punishing trials that in essence penalize the children, of all races, for the sins of their parents.

However, for this viewer at least, it is even more disquieting that Play may just represent the future of both European cinema and the continent itself. That is, if fellow New York Film Festival main slate entry The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr* and Ágnes Hranitzky, 2011) represents an endpoint for both the director's modernist art idiom and a Europe whose collapse he has been long heralding, Play offers a glimpse of what conceivably could follow, after the fall. After Tarr.

Note [*]: As a footnote to the Hansen-Løve narrative, and to bring this account full circle, it may be recalled that the real-life model for The Father of My Children's protagonist, Humbert Balsan, in fact committed suicide following his well-publicized difficulty in working with Tarr on the director's previous feature, The Man from London (2007).

Goodbye First Love will screen twice at the New York Film Festival, on Friday, October 14 at 9:00PM and Saturday, October 15 at 3:00PM, before being released on a limited basis by IFC Films. Play will screen once on Saturday, October 15 at 12:00PM.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The 49th New York Film Festival: Pina

Shot in sparkling high-definition 3D, Wim Wender’s Pina (2011), a warm, engaging, and ingenious tribute to the late, German choreographer Pina Baucsh, cultivates a sense of immediacy and bodily presentness that seems entirely suited to the subject matter. In this respect, Pina has much in common with Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), which seeks to make unfathomably ancient cave-paintings accessible to only a few scientists and researchers available to the average cinema-goer. Unlike Herzog – whose musings and preoccupations color and frequently overshadow his spectators’ experience of the Chauvet caves – Wenders carefully effaces his distinctive authorial voice, in order to bring Pina’s unique artistic vision to the fore.

On the whole, the film consists of a series of performance sequences interspersed with brief statements by each of the featured dancers, who intone Bausch’s name with the same hushed reverence. These talking-head inserts are presented as disembodied monologues over screen-test-like shots of their faces; the lack of synchronized dialogue lends the interviews a dreamlike quality that allows them to merge more-or-less seamlessly with the dance sequences. Pina, herself, is featured in a series of black-and-white video inserts that are projected within the space of the film; in a few instances, she appears as a spectral superimposition whirling on an empty stage.

While the film’s personal portrait of Pina Baush tends to canonize rather than humanize or demystify, it nonetheless provides an illuminating introduction to her work. As represented in Pina, Bauch’s choreography is high concept, physically demanding, and undeniably impressive. Over the course of the film, one discerns several of Bausch’s authorial signatures: a number of sequences utilize repetition in manner that conflates choreography and insane compulsion; others explore the ritualistic desire to infuse gestures with incantatory meaning. Some routines play with stiffness and fluidity in a way that recalls Charles Chaplin’s silent comedies. As we become acquainted with the personas of the various company members, we are able to appreciate the extent to which each routine is a marriage of Bauch’s overarching artistic vision and her dancers’ personal styles and physical strengths.

Wender’s sensitive us of 3D depth effects combined with subtle well-chosen camera movements helps to tease out the spatial relationships between the dancers and their environment and to transform bare theatrical spaces into fictional worlds. Conversely, some dance sequences shot in natural settings are less successful, transforming forests and mountains into flat, lifeless backdrops. One sequence, which places miniature dancers inside a doll-house sized version of Bausch’s Café Müller, makes a coy reference to digital 3D’s puppet theater effect. In a performance near the end of the film, Wenders uses simple trick photography to transform young dancers into their older doppelgangers; a charming moment of cinematic specificity that recalls the hybrid cine-dance form popular in the medium’s early days.

Pina will screen once at the New York Film Festival, Saturday, October 15 at 6:15 PM.

Friday, October 07, 2011

The 49th New York Film Festival: The Student

A political coming-of-age story, Santiago Mitre’s assured debut The Student (El estudiante, 2011) plots out the arc of Roque Espinoza’s brief career as campus activist with sleek, mathematical precision. Introduced through a novelistic voice-over, Roque begins the film as a well of untapped potential ripe for both nurturing and corruption. He carefully insinuates himself into a political group headed by the dynamic, outspoken junior professor Paula and her ruthless advisor-lover Acevedo, and a love quickly triangle ensues. In contrast to prevailing Hollywood conventions, romantic jealousy plays no significant role in the series of alliances and betrayals that follow; in Roque and Paula’s world, romantic relationships are merely a side-effect of ever-shifting of political loyalties.

The film employs a smooth and economical pattern of elliptical match cuts that reflect Roque’s fluid movement between the academic, political, and social worlds. Early in the narrative, a series of kisses take Roque and Paula from a political meeting to her apartment in the blink of an eye. Much of the film is shot in close-up, the camera fixed on the solemn visage of Esteban Lamothe, who delivers a guarded yet charismatic performance in the title role – his dark eyes reveal flickers of emotion that are belied by his even, watchful expression. A delicate use of rack-focus isolates characters in the foreground from their surroundings, providing a visual corollary to the pattern of inclusion and exclusion that structures the larger narrative.

The Student will screen twice at the New York Film Festival, on Saturday, October 8 at 12:30 PM and Wednesday, October 12 at 6:00 PM.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The 49th New York Film Festival: The Kid with a Bike

Multi-hyphenates Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo, 2011), awarded with a share of the Grand Prix at Cannes this past May - the Belgian filmmakers' fifth consecutive citation at the showcase - provides a conspicuously convergent and no less rich companion piece to Aki Kaurismäki's FIPRESCI prize-winner Le Havre (2011), albeit one that displays the brothers' very different concerns from their humanist fellow-traveler. Composed of the same bold, primary color palette as the Finnish maestro's latest, particularly on the level of Maira Ramedhan Lévy's costume design - Thomas Doret's eleven year-old protagonist Cyril goes nowhere without his bright red windbreaker or a similarly hued 'T'; guardian Samantha (Cécile De France) with her light-blue jean jacket or at the very least a visible teal bra-strap - The Kid with a Bike similarly focuses on an at-risk male youth, the aforesaid Cyril, who finds a savior in a charitable stranger. While the eminently secular Kaurismäki's film finds its subject matter in the controversial, and naturally trendy politics of immigration, the culturally Christian Dardennes look to the no less individually vital though far less sexy milieu of predatory, under-class gangs. In The Kid with a Bike, the Dardennes simply but scrupulously map the personal appeal of this criminal sub-culture to Cyril, with the charismatic young Wes (Egon Di Mateo), in an unexpected nod to Wesker in Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), fulfilling the role of surrogate father; Wes in essence replaces the former's deadbeat dad, longtime Dardennes collaborator Jérémie Renier, in a role that abounds with private self-reference. In the end, it is left to proxy single-mother Samantha to combat the archetypal underclass neighborhood threat. The Kid with a Bike in this sense trades in myth, in the universal, as opposed to Le Havre's concrete particularity.

In one significant, theoretical sense, however, the Dardennes' latest is more specific than the Kaurismäki: as a work of uniquely cinematic art. From the film's opening, hand-held, long-take framing - a strategy that proves ubiquitous throughout The Kid with a Bike - the Dardennes and cinematographer Alain Marcoen depict the anguished Cyril's perpetual motion. Their camera follows the child with great precision as he avoids capture, first in the group home and consequently in Samantha's place-of-residence; as he races after the same bicycle thief twice (in the film's most obvious set of inter-cinematic references); and above all, as he whips across the thoroughfares and glides down the side-streets of the small Belgian city, on his eponymous bike. With the filmmakers' kinetic camera - in contrast to Kaurismäki's more commonly static set-ups - rigorously identifying with the consistently mobile Cryil and reactive Samantha, The Kid with a Bike in effect becomes all movement, which is to say in the classical film theory sense, all cinema.

The Kid with a Bike will screen twice at the New York Film Festival, Thursday, October 6 at 6:00 PM and Friday, October 7 at 9:00 PM. Sundance Selects has acquired the film for North American distribution.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The 49th New York Film Festival: Le Havre & Twenty Cigarettes

Adorned by metronomically regular swatches and vast fields of blues and cyans, reds and yellows, Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre (2011) proceeds not only along a comfortable narrative trajectory of humanistic resistance and proletariat solidarity in the face of aggressive immigration-law enforcement, but also according to a rigorously formalist path dedicated to the application and manipulation of the aforementioned color schema. With Kaurismäki establishing his palette from the opening Gaullist noir set-piece, albeit in the micro form of the poster art that hangs behind the film's abundantly charitable, if equally roguish lead, Marcel Marx (André Wilms; pictured left), Le Havre progresses fugue-like with one or more of the primary hues consistently serving as the visual dominant in each of the successive set-ups. In a back-alley of the Normandy port city as the canary yellow credits roll, for example, a greengrocer's light blue facade opposes a deep crimson bakery (the location and color field patterning, not to mention the Euro-African subtext, all call to mind Jacques Demy's total art opus, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964). According to the same visual logic, when Le Havre's fugitive child Idrissa (Blondin Miguel; pictured right) first appears in the back of a docked freight container, his dark sweater happens to feature red and blue patterning, even as he sports a long-sleeved yellow shirt beneath. And much later, when Kaurismäki opts for a pillow shot of the port itself, the mist rises from the water in an all-encompassing sapphire that the filmmaker and cinematographer Timo Salminen exclusively cut with a dusting of glowing golden lights - and a single illuminated dapple of red near the left edge of the frame.

Kaurismäki thus invites his spectator to read his work in primarily visual terms, attending first to the color continuities in his mise-en-scène, and then, once his schema is established with overwhelming regularity, to those moments of variation where the absence of even one absent hue provides reason for notice. One such instance occurs with Mrs. Marx, Arletty's (Kati Outinen) hospitalization. Here, Kaurismäki initially withholds yellow from his visual field - with Macel's single rose providing the composition's red splash; it is only with the latter's delivery of Arletty's yellow dress that the film's palette is brought to its completion, which as it happens occurs in conjunction with a major narrative revelation. In fact, though Kaurismäki's strategies display a familial relation to Pedro Almodóvar's mannerism, Le Havre does alternately utilize its palette with an eye to the film's narrative subject: even more than the work's primary tones, Kaurismäki's marked introduction of black-and-white to dress his law enforcement officials procures a distinctive metaphorical value, as it suggests a strict, insufficiently flexible and compassionate legal morality. Consequently, the film's more vibrant palette retrospectively secures its own, inverted signification, as a poetic emblem of the bohemian value system that defines the Finnish maestro's latest. Le Havre indeed represents Kaurismäki working at the peak of his filmmaking powers.

James Benning's Twenty Cigarettes (2011) progresses according to the same theme-and-variation visual logic as Kaurismäki's latest, albeit without its narrative armature. Rather, the Structuralist filmmaker's latest presents another in a series of minimalist, one-take countdowns depicting an eponymous subject: here, the duration required by twenty on-screen smokers to complete a single cigarette. Benning's libertarian-spirited work finds its interest in the differences that the act itself emits - that is, in how the cigarette is held, the manner in which the smoke is exhaled and so on - as well as in the faces themselves, the intractable canvases that have come to replace the filmmaker's landscapes. Benning presents each of his multi-ethnic 'performers' before visually congruent, unfortunately on-the-nose backgrounds that combine with his human figures to produce totalizing spatial fields. If Twenty Cigarettes thus suggests the possibility of an important new direction for Benning, that is in his movement from landscape to face, the filmmaker's HD latest is in every other sense a minor achievement, the product of spare moments plotted and captured during Benning's itinerant globe-trotting. Twenty Cigarettes is a smoke-break in Benning's rich body of work.

Janus Films will begin its limited release of Le Havre on October 21, 2011, while The New York Film Festival will screen Twenty Cigarettes once as part of its "Views from the Avant-Garde" series, Sunday, October 9 at 9:00 PM.