New Directors/New Films: Part One
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One of New York's great cinematic treasures is the annual New Directors/New Films series, which has been curated for 37 years by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, with strong support from HBO films. This year's series showcases over two dozen international features, many of which are first films by emerging directors and some of which will find distributors thanks to their first Manhattan showings. At its best, the series introduces raw, unvarnished stories of a changing world, often made on tiny budgets and unmarked by focus groups and niche marketing. The first two share nothing in common but their surrounding milieu--water.
"Water Lilies." The wisest authority on teenage girls I've ever known was the Head of a traditional K-12 school for girls in Manhattan. She had graduated from the school herself following World War II, became a teacher and department head there, and ran the institution for decades. She was brilliant, articulate, witty and compassionate. She was once asked at a parents' association meeting whether upper school girls ever formed "lesbian-like attachments." It happens occasionally, she replied, but what happens more often is that a maturing teen girl, encased in a single-sex environment, develops a close and loving relationship with a classmate. The Head pointed out that while a sexual dynamic may develop, it also may not, and that the defining characteristics tend to be tenderness, nurture, and two best friends helping each other through the inexact and messy process of becoming independent, decision-making adults.
Something of this astute sensibility informs the debut feature of 27-year-old Celine Sciamma. "Water Lilies" centers around a girl's synchronized swimming team in a Parisian suburb pool. The water ballets are choreographed like marine drills in glistening color, and the story watches the unfolding lives of three 15-year-olds who couldn't be more different. There's the cool blonde who's a team star, the chunky homely who's trying to get in shape for the team, and the gawky stringbean who watches from the sidelines and isn't on the team at all. And that's it--"Water Lilies" dispenses with adults and uses hot boys around the pool as prop boys who never speak. Miss Sciamma's script lets the three girls come of age, each in a strikingly different way, all in a crisp 85 minutes.
The slim young innocent, who knows nothing of boys, becomes a protégé and is drawn to the pretty blonde, who manipulates boys with ease, though she's uneasy with her teammates' contempt for her. These two actresses, Pauline Acquart and Adele Haenel, seem totally without guile, and behave with alarming, surprising naturalness. "Water Lilies" is a million miles away from films you know like "Juno" and "Knocked Up." It's closer in tone to another recent French film, "The Holy Girl," which also uses a swimming pool in important ways showcasing a teen girl's stirrings, and in part to the rite-of-passage teen novels of M.E. Kerr, a pseudonym of Marijane Meaker, the pioneering lesbian writer. Yet "Water Lilies" isn't a lesbian tract, either. It's a celebration of young feminism in new, indelible images that have always managed to stay down at the deep end of the pool.
"Jellyfish." The one-sheet poster for this Israeli film is already up outside the Anjelica cinema in downtown Manhattan, and it pictures several key characters on a Tel Aviv beach, with high-rise hotels rising up behind them. The premise of this endlessly inventive tale is that everything in ordinary and not-so-ordinary lives goes wrong, and we might as well settle back and enjoy it. And so we do.
The young woman serving food at a hotel wedding isn't very adept and is fired. The woman who's attempting to take pictures of the wedding is also canned. The bride breaks her leg and the couple has to stay at this sea-side hotel but they're awakened by jackhammers. They move to a higher floor and are bothered by traffic. The husband convinces the attractive lady in the top floor suite to change rooms with them and then carries his bride's fresh orange juice up ten flights of stairs (the elevator's broken), but she's convinced he seduced the top-floor lady to get her room. Meanwhile, the food lady has tossed out her boyfriend and is watching a drippy leak in her broken ceiling that will eventually flood her entire apartment. She finds a child who's wandered out of the sea, but then loses her. Later she finds the child by the sea but loses her again to the sea. This could go on for paragraphs. Everyone is rowing through life in leaky boats.
"Jellyfish" won the Camera d'Or for best debut feature at Cannes, and is co-scripted and directed by Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen, popular Israeli writers. It will resonate well with most any big city dweller accustomed to constant inconvenience and frustrating change. A lot of what happens is deftly amusing and has a gritty international urbanity. But there's a fantasy overlay playing around the edges of "Jellyfish," too. Is that little girl real? She's always wearing a life preserver and up-close looks slightly like an animatronic. Is the actress who's engaged the Filipino care-giver to take care of her crabby mother really as bad as she acts in "Hamlet"? Did someone's father in that photograph just come to life for a second? "Jellyfish" teases our imagination as it keeps hauling us through the stressed lives of people who have an irritating way of reminding us of ourselves on bad hair days. It's cryptic, traumatic and sassy. You'll like it.