April 13, 2010

Brokaw's Film Fest, Part Deux!



I walked into the first New York Film Festival in 1963 with a 25-year-old's film sensibility. It was pretty slim, though I'd logged four years as the film critic on the student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin, succeeding the estimable Richard Schickel.

Through the 60s and 70s, festival after festival, Richard Roud immersed me in foreign-language films, especially the French New Wave. What impressed me most were dramas like Truffaut's "Wild Child," Rohmer's "My Night At Mauds," Rivette's "Celine and Julie Go Boating," Chabrol's "La Rupture," and Godard's "Band Of Outsiders," in which characters transcended difficult lives and circumstances --sometimes magically or through fateful changes--becoming stronger and wiser. Roud doted on Godard (more than one festival showed multiple Godards), but Roud listened to his viewers, often standing outside Alice Tully Hall to chat with moviegoers and hear out their praises or criticisms (and he got plenty of each).


Richard Pena succeeded Roud on his passing some twenty years ago, and Pena's selection committees have steadily widened Roud's Eurocentric focus into a more global exploratory of feature films, launching the careers of more far-flung first directors while continuing to celebrate works of the masters. This year's festival has seemed unusually rich in my Uplift Theme noted above.


Here are four prime examples.

"The Diving Bell and The Butterfly" is Julian Schnabel's indelibly moving dramatization of the massive stroke suffered by the Paris Elle editor, Jean-Dominique Bauby, a decade ago. Bauby, 43, was left paralyzed entirely except for his left eye, which could see and blink. A husband and father who had been living a full, rich life, Bauby, backed by a team of dedicated therapists in a Parisian hospital, lived to dictate a complete book--the picture's title--by blinking "yes" to alphabet letters read to him over and over and over. The title's two images are occasionally visualized through an underwater figure confined within a diving bell, and a butterfly just beginning its emergence from a cocoon.


The premise is depressing beyond words, but Schnabel--admittedly drawing upon his own experiences caring for an aged parent as well as his long days reading to a bedridden friend--infuses Bauby's journey with intricate learning sessions, social flashbacks and family visits, all interlaced with grim determination and a tireless, graceful humor. The picture is never static. It has pace and urgency, and a growing sense of triumph as Bauby (played with passion by Matheau Amalric, who voice-overs his situation with dozens of conflicting emotions) sees the book take shape. This is the first motion picture I've ever watched in which even the closing title credits, crawling through a collapsing ice glacier that is reversing itself back into its original form, brought me to tears.


"A Girl Cut In Two." Claude Chabrol is the leading architect of what you could call the elegant, family-oriented crime thriller. He's directed over 50 French films, nine of which have shown at the NY Festival. This is a return-to-form cause for celebration, in that "A Girl Cut In Two" echoes his sleek, assured and stylish studies of infidelity and murder of a much earlier time, like "Le Bouchet" and "Just Before Nightfall."

"Girl" is a retelling of the 1955 Fox film, "Girl In The Red Velvet Swing" which starred a luscious Joan Collins and which was based on Broadway showgirl Evelyn Nesbitt and her affair with architect Stanford White around 1900. White was murdered by Nesbitt's embittered husband. The update here is a TV weathergirl-turned-show-host (a sublimely beautiful Ludivine Sagnier) in love with a married bestselling author, who eventually gives in to a young society dandy's pursuit but never loses her love for the writer who's 30 years her senior.


When Chabrol is clicking along with a cast and script with bite, he can mount an archetypal tale like this with more panache and sophistication than just about any director in the world. He knows how to surprise, and he's discreet and restrained here with the elements of upper-class decadence and eroticism. Chabrol worked for many years with Stephanie Audran as his muse and leading lady, a far more mature actress than, say, Anna Karina or Isabelle Huppert.
Sagnier is a younger, more appealingly blond media star who's conflicted by the younger suitor she doesn't want and the older married author she can't have. The film shakes fresh life into this timeless premise, and the ending--which is a deft twist of the film's title--is immensely satisfying in bringing Miss Segnier's future to a divided closure.


"Silent Light." Half a century ago the Danish director Carl Dreyer made a film of transcendent faith, "Ordet," which may have been an answer to Ingmar Bergman's denial of God in all things earthly. Carlos Reygadas' Mexican remake refashions the tale using a Mennonite cast in his breathtakingly beautiful countryside A hardworking dairy farmer, his abiding wife; their scrubbed and obedient children quietly go about their lives and chores. The complicating factor is that the husband is heartsick with love for another farmer's wife down the road.


This taciturn farmer's affair with his neighbor's wife is severely simple, though it's opened up with stunning color and CinemaScope's widest 2.55 to 1 framing. When a sudden death occurs, you may be reminded of the film's opening moments, in which a star in a darkened skyful of stars seems to drift down into a majestic landscape at first light. After the death, an event occurs of considerable magnitude, which I dare not reveal and which you may accept or reject depending on what kind of belief system you carry into the theater. I liked it because it's in a kind of classic 40s tradition of "A Song of Bernadette" and especially a picture titled "The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima." To be sure, not everyone will feel comfortable in this picture, especially in the film's closing moments when that tiny star in the twilight landscape begins its ascent back up into a darkening sky of stars in a fixed cosmos. But there's a message here of real forgiveness and redemption.


"Go Go Tales." Abel Ferrara is a maverick indie director, cut from the same cloth as Sam Fuller and Sam Peckinpah. He's a rebel, and one thing we've all learned is that you can count on his films to damn near wreck the place. This is his breakthrough picture, and high time. It's about closing night at an 18th street topless/lap dance lounge, and while Ferrara shot it on a soundstage at Rome's Cinecitta studios, it has the look, feel and smell of a Manhattan dive that takes no prisoners.


The MC who keeps the girls and music moving is Willem Dafoe, giving the best performance of this ilk since Laurence Olivier in "The Entertainer." His deep-pockets partner who's running dry is Matthew Modine. The shill reeling them in at the door and tossing out the non-spenders is Bob Hoskins. And omigod, the lead stripper on the pole is Asia Argento. The music score is cranked up loud and down-and-dirty, and Ferrara's cameras prowl relentlessly through the club's multi-levels, recording one sorry, funny disaster after another. When Sylvia Miles strides in and starts yelling at everyone to pack up and get the hell out because there's a Bed Bath & Beyond waiting to take possession, you realize you're settling into the "Spinal Tap" of the burlesque circuit.

But then something truly unexpected, and truly magical takes place. The girls and Dafoe do take off their sweaty outfits and pasties, and the poles come down--and the Paradise Lounge suddenly reinvents itself as a supper-club cabaret. Everyone's changing clothes and personas. The Japanese businessmen go back to their tour buses and the uptown crowd walks in to a comfy cozy upscale room. This happens very fast--are you going to believe Ferrara or your own lying eyes? It's enormously moving and everyone works like they're singing, dancing and making magic at Cafe Carlyle, and it's over much too quickly. That heart-of-gold New Yorker, Miss Miles, does a talk/sing/rap of "I got the $18,000-a-month, Bed-Bath-and-Beyond Blues over the end titles that ought to be the breakout single of a knockout soundtrack CD. Now that's entertainment.


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