NYFF57 Week One: Fire Walk with Me

The 57th New York Film Festival kicked off with Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, his return to crime epics like Goodfellas and Casino, and while I lacked a genuine drive to see it, I did end up attending his talk thanks to an invite from critic Odie Henderson. Scorsese, who by now was probably tired of talking about The Irishman himself, focused the conversation on championing an assortment of films and directors on his mind. After speaking on the influence of Hugo Haas on his childhood, he switched gears to gushing about the work of Joanna Hogg, having recently executive produced her exquisite film The Souvenir. Watching Scorsese subject the audience to an uncomfortable clip from Hogg’s Archipelago seemed like a good omen of things to come for the festival. I recently wrote an in-depth guide to Hogg’s filmography and found the moment tremendously validating – like stars aligning or tea leaves fortuitously coalescing in my cup. It was with this in mind I made my way to what if I had it my way would be the festival opener: Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow.

First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, 2020)

For those unfamiliar, Kelly Reichardt is one of the best American filmmakers working today. Her films are quiet meditations on loneliness and alienation in the U.S., and whether set in the current day (Certain Women) or the past (Meek’s Cutoff) they focus on life on the fringes with characters often struggling to survive. First Cow, which is set in the 1820s and based on a novel by frequent collaborator Jon Raymond, might be her sweetest to date, but it exists within the same oeuvre of films about lonely outsiders that have defined her career. In the post-screening Q&A, Reichardt spoke about explicitly avoiding any ‘grandiose shots’ in First Cow and her preference for using the 4:3 aspect ratio as a ‘humble frame’ to tell a story about characters who don’t have very much. The timbre and tone of soothing melancholy that swirls around First Cow brought back memories of reading the shorter, but by no means lesser, Steinbeck novels like Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat. About a century separates those works from the era Reichardt depicts, but the same empathetic heart and social consciousness unite them. 

First Cow
sees Reichardt returning to the type of dissection of male companionship depicted in Old Joy, her first collaboration with Jon Raymond. Just like in Old Joy, we see traditional masculinity subverted in small but touching ways throughout the film. The two friends at the heart of the story: Cookie (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee) are emphatically gentle with one another and their attempt to build a household together, a refreshing inversion of the Western, continues the interrogation of gender and race Reichardt began in Meek’s Cutoff. A lot of depth lurks underneath the comic sequences, a curious but a welcome change of pace for Reichardt, whose films are rarely this funny. The delicate comedy blends well with Reichardt’s style and when the emotional gut-punch surfaces, it just hits that much harder. A parallel springs to mind in thinking of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man; not only do both films feature Indigenous Canadian actor, musician, and activist Gary Farmer (Nobody in Dead Man), but are also united in a similar period, genre subversion, and tone. That Dead Man played as part of the retrospectives in the festival shows that the Selection Committee had it on their minds as well.

Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar, 2019)

If Kelly Reichardt leaning into comedy was unusual, Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, doing the same was nearly expected given how some of his best work tiptoes to the downright farcical. Some of Almodóvar’s adventurousness runs through this semi-autobiographical film, but I couldn’t help sense a lifelessness to the plotting that was at odds with how ostensibly personal the film was supposed to be. There’s a key scene in Pain and Glory, where an actor performs a one-man show written by a friend and evokes a powerful emotional response from an audience member about whom the show was originally written. That may seem a bit convoluted, but it’s exactly this type of nested metaphor that defines Almodóvar’s approach to the film. Through the meta subtext, he argues his thesis; that the layer of artifice is irrelevant to the emotional resonance, and that theater and film can transcend the limits placed on them. It’s a beautiful notion, but unfortunately, much of Pain and Glory suffers from exactly this type distancing that Almodóvar is trying to brush aside. Like the one-man show, it becomes difficult to forget that the intermediary, Antonio Banderas who is serviceable but lacking in this role, is merely a stand-in, made all the more difficult with the film’s persistent winks at self-awareness.

What makes this so particularly aggravating is that Almodóvar, a director known for his fearlessness, is playing it so safe here. By staying within a vague form of semi-autobiography, Almodóvar paradoxically distances himself. Meanwhile, the disparate elements that are introduced from the relationship with his mother to a reunion with an old lover, and separately an old friend, never cohesively align to something more meaningful and so exist on oddly different planes. This becomes most evident when one of the film’s strongest scenes revolving around a youthful sexual awakening, is tethered to a flat-footed attempt to tidily wrap up the present day story of a director’s creative resurgence – squandering the power and resonance of the original moment. As the credits rolled in Alice Tully Hall, the spotlight shone onto the balcony above, and I stood up and saw Almodóvar waving to the crowd mere feet from me. From this distance, I could see his eyes welling with tears, and at that moment, I knew what was missing. Through the nest of this sly meta-commentary, I wished that there were more of him, the man I saw there and then, present in this film.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma, 2019)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire was one of my most anticipated films of the festival, having rushed out of Cannes with both Best Screenplay and Queer Palm under its belt, not to mention a wealth of critical praise. A beguiling puzzle opens the film, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is hired to paint a portrait of Heloise (Adèle Haenel) without her knowledge, and these attempts to surreptitiously paint create a delirious cat and mouse dynamic that eventually blooms into a love affair. Director Céline Sciamma (Girlhood) set out to craft a lesbian romance that would shatter the traditionally sexist narratives that typically plague this type of period piece, and for the most part she is resoundingly successful.

After the screening, Sciamma described the film as grounded in the rejection of the ‘muse’, the restoration of the model as an equal co-creator, and shine a light on women painters whose work has been long overlooked. This subtext grounds a tightly wound film that builds with erotic tension that erupts in the second half. Along the way there are parts where the tone and manner come off almost too stuffy to the point of suffocating the emotional underpinnings that drive the story, but, the exuberance of the sequences of the latter half compensate for this. Meanwhile, there is nothing quite as satisfying as a fantastic closing shot, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire ends with a moment so rapturous and memorable that it eclipses any stray criticism of what came before. 

Two years ago, director Bertrand Bonello floored me with his film Nocturama, so his latest Zombi Child has been high on the watchlist. The film explores Haitian voodoo traditions paralleled with a coming of age story within a privileged boarding school in Paris. It’s an odd attempt at juggling difficult material and unfortunately, Bonello doesn’t pull it off. Particularly taxing are the transitions from allegorical depictions of slavery in Haiti to the snide mockery of privilege at the boarding school. At the Q&A Bonello, a White director from Paris, stressed his discomfort and the care he took in trying to avoid a colonialist gaze when filming in Haiti. He explained that setting a second part of the film at the boarding school created a vantage point for him to speak as an outsider. The result is that he repeatedly undermines the brooding power of the remarkable Haiti sequences, with muddled boarding school sequences that feel too often feel wholly out of place.

Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello, 2020)

More troubling is that rather than centering those Parisian sequences on Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), whose family’s history is explored in the Haiti sections, Bonello instead focuses on her white friend, in a move that feels at once too cynical and shallow. Several striking sequences appear throughout the film and the colonialism allegory is at times fascinating, but sadly Bonello never overcomes the wavering discomfort with his role in telling this story. All of this was encapsulated in a fiery moment post-screening during which an audience member of Haitian descent gave a forceful rebuke to an earlier question that contextualized the film within the horror genre, saying that such a framing was deeply offensive. She then asked Bonello if anything changed in his perspective and/or if he had any regrets once filming had completed, having been immersed in Haitian culture during the filming process. In response, Bonello dodged the question and had nothing to say about the heated argument that just transpired. It might be unfair to judge Bonello by this lack of on the spot answer if his film had more to say on the matter. 

Filing into Walter Reade Theater for the screening of
Fire Will Come, we passed by a sad-looking printout on the doors announcing director Oliver Laxe wouldn’t be in attendance. Dennis Lim, part of the selection committee, announced the reason in the pre-screening introduction: Laxe, had his visa denied last minute because of a recent visit to Iran. What threat does the winner of the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes, pose to the United States? Even as this administration appears to buckle under an impeachment investigation, its cruel policies hold firm. The anger stayed with me for the duration of the film, creating a great canvas for this already powerful work. Portrait of a Lady on Fire may have had the strongest ending of the festival, but Fire Will Come had without a doubt the greatest opening.

Fire Will Come (Oliver Laxe, 2019)

The film opens with shots of trees barely visible in inky blackness, they groan and creak, eventually collapsing under the force of the bulldozers below. This sequence electrified me in a way separate from everything I had seen at the festival thus far. What follows is a deeply immersive and aching piece of slow cinema that I savored every minute of, and was disheartened to see it end so quickly. Most films could stand to lose twenty minutes, but I could have stayed in the world that Laxe crafted for another hour easily. 

The film follows Amador (Amador Arias), a man returning to his village after serving time in prison for alleged arson. The film is a mood piece tracking his attempt to integrate back into his old life. Laxe films this in 16mm feels like a perfect fit and gorgeously appropriate for the rustic Galician setting. One issue however, is that the ninety minutes feels altogether brief in capturing the beautiful parable that unfolds. The last time I saw something like this was Pawel Pawlikowski’s gorgeous Cold War, wherein the hour and a half run time seemed to smother the epic arc that moved across decades, resulting in the most beautiful looking film of last year feeling stuck on fast forward. This isn’t the issue with Fire Will Come, as the elegance of its narrative could be condensed further still, yet, the experience of watching this expert piece of slow cinema is so evocative, I couldn’t help but yearn for more.

Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, 2019)

Marriage Story, the festival centerpiece and unabashed award season juggernaut, calls to mind the Hoffman/Streep divorce drama Kramer vs Kramer. Noah Baumbach has surrounded his Hoffman-Streep stand-ins (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson) with so much talent (Laura Dern, Wallace Shawn, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda) as if daring the Academy to ignore it. Sure enough, the Oscars, obsessed with acting with a capital ‘A’, won’t be able to look past Johansson’s all-in performance. Her full-throated tears and snot delivery felt to me so forced that I worried she would pull a muscle, but your mileage may vary. Driver, on the other hand, continues to elevate, giving one of the stronger performances of his career, but it’s largely a force of will overcoming a muddled script.

The supporting actors are there to add levity and the casting of Dern and Liotta as viperous attorneys, does the trick, but they are played so big they feel more at home in a sitcom than alongside the emotional acrobatics at the film’s core. It’s bewildering how much the movie at once panders to me with Driver, Dern, Sondheim even, and yet, still leaves me fairly cold. Baumbach is adept at balancing tone as he has shown time and time again from The Squid and the Whale to Frances Ha, but Marriage Story finds him pushing his limits outside of his ‘dramedy’ sweet spot leaving most of the absurd antics strikingly at odds with the rest of the film. The sheer firepower of talent may serve as a cleaning crew and likely the driving force behind the critical goodwill, but great acting reels don’t always make great films, and the messy self-indulgent script does nothing to help. 

Check back soon for the second part of my NYFF coverage featuring Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, Ed Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn, Mati Diop’s Atlantics, a digression about Joker, and more.