Fran at the Festival: Reflections on NYFF ’18

Prologue: Housekeeping

It’s been a minute since I covered a festival. A couple of minutes! To catch up, if you’ll indulge me, is to say that I’m new in town. I arrived, fresh-faced and spirited, to the glorious garden state of New Jersey sometime in early June and spent the summer learning the ropes of a life not defined by a strict 9-to-5 regimen but rather aimless wandering, many old movies, and to top it all off, a heat rash. What a summer! In the midst, I took a vacation to Southeast Asia with my younger brother, and it was from there I submitted my application—I’m sorry, I mean: asked my parents to fill out the application after I sent them all of my personal information—for the New York Film Festival. Then I got in.

To write about a film festival and what it’s like to see all these movies often sounds like complaining. I realize my privilege in being able to say that, and trust me when I say how grateful I am to have been able to see so many movies in such a brief period of time. It’s hard not to feel exhausted and worn down, rampaged by festival fever which grows to such a fury that I begin to not be able to discern which movies work and which don’t. (This is, perhaps, why I came out of Venom claiming it was one of the worst movies I had ever seen, yet cannot manage to describe it without making it sound like the movie of the year.) Over the summer, a friend said to me, “I can’t eat popcorn at the movies, it just makes me sick these days.” Reader, I must say: same. Two attempts to enjoy a lunchtime popcorn left me feeling outrageously disgusting and bloated, sick with salt. The only way to get through movies is to hydrate and caffeinate and to let the bright lights and the music and the enthralling movie-ness of it wash over you.

Chapter 1. The Women

Her Smell | Bow and Arrow Entertainment

The first film I saw at NYFF was the brash, wild, obnoxious Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry). I say this in a good way. It’s the kind of film that shakes you out of your slumber and wakes you right the fuck up. Which is great because I saw it at 10 in the morning. Elisabeth Moss stars as a “Becky Something,” the outrageously out-of-control front-woman of a fictional band called Something She, and over the course of only five scenes, Perry documents her rise, fall, and eventual path toward what resembles recovery and redemption. It’s tough to watch––I could feel myself actively sinking into my seat throughout the first hour, feeling so simultaneously repulsed and drawn in. There’s a real sense of rubbernecking throughout: not wanting to know more and yet relentlessly curious to see where it goes. The men, I’ll say, Dan Stevens and Eric Stoltz, are totally good and serviceable as the boyfriend and the manager, respectively. But this is a fully female-driven narrative, and it’s impactful to watch the women in Becky’s life––her bandmates (Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin), her peers (a great Amber Heard, Cara Delevingne, and others)—try desperately to pull Becky back from herself. Her Smell made me think at times about Support The Girlsa different, softer movie, no doubt, but one equally about the ways in which women will unceasingly work to help each other, often at their own detriment.

And then, of course, one of the last films I saw at the festival was Yorgos Lanthimos’ much-anticipated The Favourite. The Greek director’s new film is an 18th century period piece about the slow downfall of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and the way in which two of her handmaids and friends, if you can use that word (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz), manipulate her circumstances for their own gain. This movie, quite frankly, rules. There’s much to be said, again, about women doing it for themselves in the hardest, cruelest way. Colman is a legend of course, and Weisz is great as always, but to me, Stone gives the most assured comedic performance of the year, and perhaps her whole career. I clung to every glance, every nod, every scoff she gave as she plots her upward momentum with harrowing specificity. There’s much to be said in the film about female love and obligation, and the limitations (or lack thereof) of what we are willing to do to get ahead in our own lives, but a lot of that teeters on spoiler territory. So, for now, let me add that this is also a movie that puts Nicholas Hoult—an actor who is about 6’2”—in heels!

Chapter 2. The French

Non-Fiction (2018) | CG Cinéma
Non-Fiction | CG Cinéma

Forgive me for unrealistic expectations of Olivier Assayas’ new work, but following his two, Kristen Stewart-centric mystifying features—2014’s Clouds Of Sils Maria and last year’s Personal Shopper—I was a little let down by the relenting normie-ness of his new film, Non-Fiction. It’s funny, no doubt, actually very funny in stretches. Which is not to say Assayas wasn’t funny before, but I found myself a little surprised nonetheless. Non-Fiction, which centers itself around a publisher (Guillaume Canet) and one of his writers (Vincent Macaigne) as well as both of their partners (Juliette Binoche and Nora Hamzawi, respectively), features long diatribes about the future of publishing…and Twitter…and blogs…and also…adultery. The whole thing truly felt like a French person trying to make a Joe Swanberg feature, which—hey, maybe your mileage varies here. The poppy, chattiness of it is delightful for stretches, then tiresome, and then walking out of the theater, it’s really as if nothing has changed at all. Maybe someone in grad school for writing shouldn’t have seen a movie so pessimistic about the future of publishing? Impossible to say.

Although, if you really want to talk about books, the film for you is Christophe Honoré’s Sorry Angel which is so delicately structured like a 19th century romance novel that it swept me off my feet in parts. Consider it the more personal side of the AIDS epidemic in France (especially compared to last year’s seering BPM which thrust the romance and the melodrama of death into the corner), Sorry Angel maps the romance of a dying writer, Arthur (Vincent Lacoste), and a young reader and camp director (cool job), Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps), over the course of a summer. Their relationship is meandering, literary, marked by letters and book recommendations. There’s a particularly lovely scene in which the two men arrange to meet up and Arthur is accosted by an old colleague who tells him a long, boring story while Jacques walks 10 feet ahead such that the two men will be able to meet up once she is done speaking. As the movie persists, however, it feel increasingly a little shallow to me, reaching an ending so definitive in a movie that otherwise takes its time and allows for emotional ambiguity that I, in earnest, felt a little betrayed.

In the press conference following the screening of High Life, director Claire Denis said she knew the film would either have to be in English or Russian because the French would never go to space. I see what she means, and I laughed at the time, but despite all of the English in the movie, don’t get it twisted: the French are in space. This is a fucking French space movie. It was no doubt my most enthralling viewing experience of the New York Film Festival: a disturbing, haunting, funny, and beautiful film. Its first act rivals Wall-E—though in no way is it similar beyond, uh, taking place in space and having very little dialogue—and is one of the most enthralling sequences put to film in a long time, and can really only be described as “long sequences of Robert Pattinson and a wonderfully sweet baby.” From there, it only gets darker and weirder. It comes out next year. We’ll talk more then.

3. The Stand-Out

If Beale Street Could Talk | Annapurna Pictures

I went to go see my first non-festival movie the other night, which meant that for the first time in three weeks, I saw previews. Previews before a movie! Remember those? All of which is to say that when the preview for Barry Jenkins’ forthcoming If Beale Street Could Talk, I clutched my heart as if the movie was my own. Which it’s not! But it’s still dazzling, and what I was reminded of, seeing the preview, is that soon I’ll get to see it again.

Of course there’s tremendous pressure for a filmmaker after they win an Oscar for Best Picture, and perhaps doubly so for Barry Jenkins and the gaffe and the Twitter discourse and everything. Moonlight was a very special movie made with very little except love, and even in its opening, it’s more than clear that with If Beale Street Could Talk, he’s working with more. More characters, more stakes, more settings. But part of what is such an absolute joy about If Beale Street Could Talk is that it’s such a divine example of how to do more with more. It never overwhelms, it never breaks outside of itself. There’s so much of Jenkins that so many grew to love in Moonlight: the wistful, centered character close-ups, the Nicholas Britell score, the lush, romantic coloring. There’s a perverse joy in seeing even the smallest characters in the film portrayed by some notable and nameworthy actors alongside its two relatively unknown leads. (I won’t spoil some of the bigger cameos for you, but I will say it’s worth not looking up before seeing it and letting them surprise you.)

And the leads: we have to talk about KiKi Layne and Stephan James who play Tish and Fonny, the couple at the heart of its story. Adapted from a James Baldwin novel, If Beale Street Could Talk centers around their romance and their forthcoming child as Fonny is imprisoned for a sexual assault he did not commit. In the midst of the political moment, I can see how that subject matter will be difficult for some, but what I can promise you is that Jenkins’ handles it deftly, compassionately. An extended sequence with Regina King, who plays Tish’s mother, is one of the most harrowing and heartbreaking pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen this year. But! Don’t come away thinking If Beale Street Could Talk is all misery, all sadness, all tragedy. As he did in Moonlight, Jenkins’ fearlessly enmeshes joy and love amidst the black struggle at the heart of this film. It’s profoundly romantic, this piece of art. I can’t wait for you to see it.

4. The Rest

Wildlife (2018) | IFC Films
Wildlife (2018) | IFC Films

Gorgeous, self-assured, with a truly original and heartbreaking performance from Carey Mulligan (a long-time favorite), Paul Dano’s directorial Wildlife is a near-flawless example of a type of movie I’m quite frankly tired of seeing. No doubt the story, adapted from Richard Ford’s novel of the same name, has some meaning for Dano and Zoe Kazan (who co-wrote the screenplay), but I do feel uniquely tired of narratives about unhappy marriages set in the mid-20th century. Wildlife does not shine a new light on the white, American “struggle”––learning to hate your spouse after almost two decades together––other than to take it out of the east coast, perhaps, and put it in the middle of Montana. Because this form feels all too familiar, the film takes shortcuts in parts, assuming we know what the deal is. Even at its short running time, though, it feels like there’s something missing at the heart of it all. Still: to watch Carey Mulligan as a young mother sitting across from her teenage son and ask him, pointedly, how old he thinks she is, thinks she ought to be, is wonderful. She’s worth the ticket alone.

What if you could date someone who looks like your ex in every single way except they have the exact opposite personality? Would you do it? Could you love them? Could you see them as two separate people? Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Asako I & II asks these questions of its audience and of its protagonist, Asako (Erika Karata) who begins dating a mild-mannered consultant named Ryôhei (Masahiro Higashide) who happens to be more or less identical to her wayward, negligent ex-boyfriend, Baku (also…Masahiro Higashide). The film is slow, deliberate. These questions are not simply interrogated, they’re pondered quietly. It’s a meditation on love and familiarity, wondering softly whether we are ever allowed to truly move on with our lives. I left the theater feeling sullen, moved. I don’t have any of the answers.

In Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, a man goes out with a woman he used to love—still does, to be truthful—then returns home to his live-in lover, who mutters as he’s getting ready for bed, “Where were you?” He pauses, doesn’t look at her, and says, “I was with the woman of my life.” Though the film has, for the most part, not stuck with me, this line reverberates. Not a day goes by in which I don’t think about it. I was with the woman of my life.

Cold, British. Buggy. Gross. The icky realism of Richard Billingham’s Ray & Liz could be off-putting to some, but to me, it was impossible to look away from. It’s not a long movie, but as the time passed, I became overwhelmed with a profound sense of dread—as if all of the slow monotony was building up to something horrible. Some flashy moment of violence or awfulness. No doubt, there’s plenty of awfulness to go around in Ray & Liz, but I was relieved when it just carried on inside itself.

At Eternity's Gate (2018) | Iconoclast
At Eternity’s Gate | Iconoclast

The last film I saw at the New York Film Festival was Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate. This is one of those movie titles where, if I’m being honest, the movie could be about literally anything. And so: At Eternity’s Gate is about Vincent Van Gogh, specifically focusing on his time in Arles as well as his post-ear-removal nervous breakdown. The painter is played by Willem Dafoe, whom many on Twitter have pointed out is about 30 years too old for the role; nevertheless, he’s incredible. Sensitive, manic, full of fury and life. I was surprised at how moved I was by the film and by Dafoe’s uneasy confidence as Van Gogh—a man who knew he was a painter whether or not the world did. Occasionally, it veers a little too knowing for my tastes. We only need so many scenes of Van Gogh’s peers telling him his paintings are ugly and make no sense and upset people, yes? Yes. Still, I left the theater seeing everything in gold.

5. The Missed

I wish I had seen Burning! Or Shoplifters! Or Happy As Lazzaro! Or Roma! Oh well!

6. The End

I realize that in only covering my second film festival, I’m revealing myself to be fairly amateur. There’s a mock confidence in doing something twice, and I waltzed into the New York Film Festival like I knew what the whole deal was. And I did—I knew about the lines for movies, I knew about scribbling notes in the dark. But a lot of it stays the same. What I like about film festivals, and in seeing so much in such a short amount of time, is how I’ve learned to distrust my own taste. This would sound disorienting to some—and believe me, it’s a headtrip. But when inundated with so much art, it’s easy to stop conceptualizing and contextualizing and other -izings and just let shit wash over you.

What I was drawn to was what enthralled me, held my attention. Showed me something I hadn’t seen before in a way I wasn’t expecting. And yet, for all that left me cold, there are still refrains and scenes that have stuck with me. Another day, another I was with the woman of my life. The brightest feeling of all is knowing that I can see some of these films again, and maybe even a third time. I can’t wait to revisit the sharp smacks of dialogues in The Favourite, the gilded frames of At Eternity’s Gate, the love that holds the center of If Beale Street Could Talk together.

The festival drove me a little insane: made me think about books, made me think about art, made me think about life, love, bugs, sex. The festival made me cry. I spent too much money on expensive ice cream sandwiches at the theater, I now live at the Lincoln Center, I got to sit with friends, I got to sit with strangers, I got to see Robert Pattinson up close.

Seeing movies is a gift, and I can’t wait to go back next year.