The Future of Movies Collides With the Past at the New York Film Festival
For almost six decades, the New York Film Festival has offered a glimpse of the movie future. That has certainly been true this year, with the Lincoln Center screening rooms populated and a busy season of streaming and theatrical releases ahead. Over two autumn weeks — the 59th edition of the festival runs through Sunday — New York cinephiles are treated to a series of sneak previews, early chances to see films that will make their way into the wider world over the next few months.
Part of the function of the event is to spark word of mouth and media coverage, to tease the Oscar race and handicap the art-house box office, and to see what people are inclined to argue about. Will it be the lurid provocations of Julia Ducournau’s “Titane”? The wide-screen western psychodrama of Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog”? The aching, low-key intimacy of Mike Mills’s “C’mon C’mon”? There has been something reassuring about the ritual of those questions, and about the conversations, blessedly unrelated to pandemics or politics, that they promise.
But the excitement of novelty has been tinged with nostalgia. Apart from the required masks and proof of vaccination, this New York festival seemed a lot like the earlier ones. The blend of favored auteurs and up-and-comers felt familiar, and not in a bad way. We expect to see Todd Haynes, Wes Anderson, Bruno Dumont and Hong Sangsoo in this setting, and also to stumble into discoveries and reappraisals. I didn’t know what to expect from “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?,” from the Georgian director Alexandre Koberidze. After having seen it — a slow-moving, semi-magical romance with a ruminative voice-over and leisurely shots of the town of Kutaisi — I’m still not sure what to make of it. That, too, is a quintessential festival experience.
After watching most of the main slate and a handful of other offerings — and dealing with the inevitable regret about what I’ve missed — my main takeaway is a feeling of comfort. This is unusual, and in the past I might have seen that as a form of disappointment. What I tend to look for, what I believe in to the point of dogmatism, is art that is challenging, difficult, abrasive, shocking. I saw a few attempts at that, including “Titane,” which in spite of its bright colors, extreme violence and sexual aggression didn’t quite succeed for me, and Radu Jude’s “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn,” which very much did.
Jude shot his film on the streets of Bucharest in 2020, where people are masked, anxious and rude. Like that setting, the story — of a schoolteacher caught up in a culture-war sex scandal — is unpleasantly contemporary, and the overall mood of the picture is rough and dyspeptic. This is the opposite of escapism, and while I can’t say “Bad Luck Banging” is a lot of fun, it has a purgative, present-tense power. This is how we live, and it’s awful.
What’s the alternative? Or, more precisely, is there a kind of aesthetic relief from current reality that doesn’t amount to a denial of it? An answer that seems to appeal to many filmmakers at the moment is to treat the medium as a vehicle of memory, to use its tools to construct a record of the past with room for its ambiguities, blank spaces and clashing perspectives.
The most radical and overt gesture of this kind comes, aptly enough, in “Memoria,” from the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Like his earlier features (including “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”), this one is dreamy and elusive, less a story than a succession of moods and existential puzzles. Tilda Swinton plays an Englishwoman living in Colombia who starts hearing a loud noise inaudible to anyone else. She asks a young sound engineer to help synthesize what she hears, which turns out not to be the only strange phenomenon she encounters.
In a small town in the mountains she meets a man with the same name as the engineer who claims to remember everything that has ever happened to him. Not only that, he can decode “memories” of past events stored in rocks and other inanimate objects. His consciousness is so saturated, he says, that he has never left his hometown, and never watched any movies or television. His new acquaintance is surprised, and tells him some of what he’s been missing. Sports. News. Game shows.
It doesn’t sound very persuasive. What would he do with those images? But I don’t think “Memoria” is dismissing its own technology so much as it’s reminding the audience how much more there is to reality than our attempts to represent it. The film is mind-blowing in its ambition and strangeness, but also decidedly modest, as if it were one of those stones packed with information that we might someday learn to unlock.
The most memorable films about memory at the festival felt similarly (though also specifically, uniquely) open-ended, inconclusive. Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir Part II,” like “Memoria,” evokes memory in its title, and looks through a double rearview mirror. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a London film student in the 1980s, recovers from the death of her lover (Tom Burke, as seen in “The Souvenir”) by turning their relationship into the subject of her thesis project. That movie is also called “The Souvenir,” which makes “Part II” a kind of making-of pseudo-documentary as well as a memoir, a coming-of-age story and a time capsule of the later Thatcher years.
Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers” moves both forward and backward, with love and politics on its mind. It follows the entwined lives of its two main characters, women (played by Milena Smit and Penélope Cruz) who give birth in the same hospital, over a period of several years. Their fates unfold under the shadow, at times imperceptible, at times unavoidable, of the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship that followed. The intersection of historical trauma and individual destiny isn’t an uncommon theme in contemporary cinema, but Almodóvar handles it with characteristic elegance and a profoundly melancholy humanism.
Almodóvar, the avatar of Spain’s youthful post-Franco awakening, is now in his early 70s. His film will close the festival this weekend, bookending a triptych of major work by his generational cohort. Joel Coen, born in 1954, and Jane Campion, born in 1957, both came on the scene, like Almodóvar, in the 1980s, and are both asserting their seniority by breaking out in new directions: Coen with his swift-moving, stirring “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (his first film without his brother, Ethan) and Campion with the tragic “Power of the Dog.” These movies look like throwbacks — “Macbeth” to the black-and-white Shakespeare of Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier; “Power” to sprawling Technicolor epics like “Giant” — but they are also signs of life. And portents, maybe, of the future.
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