Dispatches from the 2019 New York Film Festival: It's Great to Love Movies Again

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“Have you seen any… normal movies?” my mother asked me on the phone last week, as I vaguely explained the movie I had just seen, Albert Serra’s Liberté, which is a sort of paraphilia-in-powdered wigs mood piece about 18th century cruising for sex. Too many, I say! Too many normal movies this year that just didn’t do it for me, from big hits like The Lion King (whose dispassionate photorealistic CGI renderings made me feel like I was watching a bunch of sad circus animals forced to act in a soap opera) to little indies that couldn’t quite, like Booksmart (I thought it was more smarmy than charming and not particularly funny).

Before September, there were a handful of movies this year that I legitimately enjoyed (Climax being at the top of the list), but at last the drought is over. Festival season has unleashed its torrent, and everything I screened, playing this year’s New York Film Festival, I’ve enjoyed. That’s on top of other non-NYFF things I’ve seen, as well, like Judy (broad biopics rarely get so specific and Zellweger is nonstop charming), Hustlers (what’s not to love?), and The Lighthouse (complete and utter screaming-in-your-face-while-dancing-a-jig madness). I feel like I’ve exhaled. It’s great to love movies again.

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Below, some thoughts on four that I’ve caught thus far at NYFF, which runs Friday to October 13.


Parasite

The unanimous winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the toast of practically every film geek with a working internet connection, Parasite marks Bong Joon-ho’s return to his native tongue after making the predominantly English language Snowpiercer and Okja. Inflated festival hype is a real thing that owes undoubtedly to a number of factors (not the least of which is the enthusiasm that sprouts out of the joy of getting to watch something before most of the rest of the world). I know this, yet I remain susceptible to it, and so Parasite didn’t quite live up to my expectations, even though I should know better than now to have such high hopes. That said, I did like it and was enthralled for most of it, until the last 10 or so minutes. I think it shares a problem with 2018's Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters in not quite sticking the landing and petering out in a babbling conclusion that a few snips in the editing room could have made graceful.

Parasite follows poverty-stricken family the Kims as they one-by-one worm their way into the lives of a wealthy family, the Parks. Ki-woo, the Kim son, scams his way into tutoring the Parks’ young daughter and soon learns Mrs. Park is looking for an art tutor for her child son. Ki-woo recommends an “associate” of his for the role and gets his sister Ki-jeong in there. The Kims devise a scheme to throw out the Parks’ current help so that soon their entirely family is working for the Parks, who have no idea they’re being conned. Their plot (and that of the movie) relies on an almost cartoonish amount of credulity on the part of the Parks, and for the Kims’ plans to go off exactly as intended with no intervening variables. They’re just too good at this. Teaching art to a young hellion turns out to be as easy as Googling art therapy and ad libbing the rest, according to Ki-jeong. Ha ha. Though the glaring of the contrivances are acknowledged by the Kims—they comment on Mrs. Park’s gullibility and when midway through they finally hit a snag, Ki-woo and Ki-jeong’s father Ki-taek laments the futileness in planning—awareness isn’t quite the salve that it’s supposed to be.

The movie is as clever as its characters, but it made me feel like I was being conned myself. Nonetheless, it works as a broad satire, a near fantasyland of class struggle whose intricacies keep layering (there’s what amounts to a twist about two thirds of the way through, though it’s not quite as shocking as the pull quotes would have you believe), but that makes its final sentimental resting place feel like unearned territory. Bong frequently favors multivalence as an aesthetic, but Parasite was too on the nose too often for me to give it my full heart. However, I loved an ambiguity at its core: its title could refer to any of its opposing forces. Capitalism creates an environment where the rich eat the poor, the poor eat the rich, the poor eat the poorer. To have teeth is to have hope.


Liberté

During the ’90s, during the golden age of erotic thrillers, it seemed via scathing reviews that “boring” was the meanest thing you could call such a movie. Sex can be all kinds of things, but it should never be boring! The pursuit of it is another matter entirely—cruising for sex in public is often boring. There’s a lot of waiting around, testing, and disappointment. Albert Serra’s Liberté captures the process well, probably to a fault for all but the most patient (and perhaps horniest viewers). Somewhere in the forest in the 18th century, a bunch of men in powdered wigs who speak a range of languages (French, Italian, German) have gathered to… do stuff.

And so they do, for a little over two hours of screen time. There’s very little plot here, just a series of encounters, most of them awkward and unenthusiastic, many of them featuring shriveled soft penises. A woman strung to a tree gasps in pleasure as a bucket of milk is poured over her, a whipped man tops from the bottom, pleading through his cries of pain, “Don’t be more ridiculous than me. Give it to me.” A character at one point notes that a man who’s made himself available as a urinal hasn’t had an erection in a while—“This is all internal” responds a fellow observer.

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So it is. With a score of crickets chirping and trees rustling in the background, much of the sex depicted here is unremarkable and free of relief—the most vivid thing about this movie, besides its stunning cinematography that often places branches in the foreground so that you have to sort of look around them for the action, are the fantasies that some partaking dare to share. One of the wig wearers starts the movie by describing the torture and execution of Robert-François Damiens, attempted assassin of King Louis XV, who was dismembered by being tied to horses. The point of the story isn’t the gore, but the reaction to it that this character witnessed, by a group of women who were so entranced with watching a man be pulled apart, leaving his torso screaming. Unlike the teller of the story, they couldn’t look away. “We need you to help us find women like these,” says the man to a duke.

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Throughout the movie, we return to this figure—who, like most of the 15 to 20 bodies here, exists without a name or context—and his increasingly extreme fantasies. At last, someone puts into his head something sufficiently transgressive (swallowing one lover’s vomit only to present it to the next in the form of shit) and he exhales, “Finally, an image that satisfies me.” The movie wraps up soon after. As a depiction of the aimlessness of sex, the tether of always wanting more (and for many, the need for increasing extremeness), Liberté is a brilliant portrait, but one that’s more appealing to think about than to sit through. Even within its meandering organization, even within my great admiration for Serra’s audacious and realistic exercise, I couldn’t help wishing that it built more to a narrative climax but that’s clearly beside the point. This movie is about stasis, a sort of existential prison people may find themselves in during the pursuit of liberty.

 

Atlantics

I mean this in the most complimentary way: Mati Diop’s Atlantics reminded me of the work of exploitation filmmaker Jess Franco. A phantasmagorical story set in a tropical locale (Senegal), the atmosphere is so thick you practically choke on it and its budgetary constraints are handled shrewdly, with minimalism that only serves the creepiness (ghostly possession is portrayed physically via the use of contacts that white-out actors’ eyes). But what Diop has over Franco is coherence in spades—for all of its abstractions, Atlantics is deliberately crafted and generous to its viewers as a result. Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is engaged to the affluent Omar (Babacar Sylla) but in love with Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), one of several local construction workers who hasn’t been paid in months by a corrupt land developer. Souleiman and his disgruntled coworkers set off from their worksite (in a Dakar suburb), where nearby looms a giant skyscraper that looks something like a conch shell standing on its tip (it’s very Dubai). The men set out to Spain and are lost at sea, only to return as ghosts who inhabit the bodies of the women they left behind.

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The notion of colonization in its many forms hovers here like that skyscraper. Ada, though, who’s pressured into marrying a man she doesn’t love while mourning the loss of the one she does, remains uninhabited as she holds onto her resolve in an environment that exists to deny her (her own mother pressures her to wed Omar and speak sweetly to him, lest he take another wife before she’s pregnant). Sane wears the pressure of Ada’s struggle with oppression like a costume. Diop’s does so much with what she’s got here—there’s a gorgeous sequence of Ada in a dance club with a pattern of green pin-prick lights dancing over her—and her methodical approach is only reinforced when about midway though Atlantics becomes something of a procedural as a domineering investigator steps in to investigate a freak fire that burned Ada and Omar’s marriage bed during their wedding.

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In a rather self-possessed way, this movie is wild and never really runs out of ways to surprise as a pan-genre exercise. It’s weird and depressing and spooky but also ravishingly romantic. My favorite line is Ada’s devastating, “I’ll always taste the salt of your body in the sweat of mine.” Diop has the distinction of being the first black woman director to have a film play in competition at Cannes with Atlantics; it eventually won the Grand Prix. Atlantics is her first feature; this could be the start of a brilliant career.

 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

This movie. This movie. I’m going to write more about it shortly, but now two days after watching it, I cannot believe how good it is. It’s my favorite movie of the year next to The Lighthouse, with which it has so little in common, they’re practically opposites. The Lighthouse is an expression of madness; Portrait of a Lady on Fire is nothing if not mannered. The Lighthouse lets it all hang out (Willem Dafoe’s character farts twice before you hear him say a single line), and Portrait of a Lady on Fire is straight-backed and sucked in with a corset. And while The Lighthouse explores a relationship among men in a finite world by the sea (a tiny island), Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a little French female utopia of sorts (also by the sea).

In the 1700s, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) by Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino). But because Héloïse refused to model for the last person who attempted to paint her portrait (a man), Mariane’s assigned to go undercover as Héloïse’s maid and study her subject surreptitiously, painting her portrait in secret. Gently, they fall in love. That Marianne has been assigned to essentially, silently obsess over what becomes her object of desire, externalizes the act of falling in love in such an ingenious way for the medium of film. Just when you thought there was nothing new to say about love, along comes writer-director Céline Sciamma with this.

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Each increasingly refined stroke of Marianne’s brush is a small tragedy—her portrait will be used to secure Héloïse a marriage proposal. The better job she does, the tighter she seals their fate. Gaze is not merely subtext here, it’s what the entire movie is about, and yet Sciamma manages to examine what could be a stuffy issue in what could have been a stuffy period piece with verve, enthusiasm, and brain-tickling, heartbreaking pragmatism. Merlant and Haenel turn in the kind of performances that make them impossible to imagine as actual humans; I can barely believe they aren’t their characters frozen in time. I cannot wait to see this movie again and again and again for the rest of my life.

 

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Rich Juzwiak

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.