The Power of Love: from NYFF61

photo: Chris Harris/Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Part One of BW/DR’s ongoing brunette NYFF 61 coverage. Keep your eyes peeled for more like this, plus Fran Hoepfner’s field report and our accompanying conversation for the podcast.

Please be advised that spoilers for plots, images, and ideas follow.


All of Us Strangers (Andrew Haigh)
photo: Parisa Taghizadeh/Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Whenever I see a bunch of films in a condensed period, my notes run conspiratorial: an inventory of the weird resonances that link one to another, beats that reflect my taste in selection as much as any semblance of collective consciousness. This is the second year running that the festival opens (for me, my first screening) with Paul Mescal co-starring in an elegy to dead parents for which archival “footage” (here, family photos) is an invitation or even portal to a queer artist’s cryptic past.

We meet screenwriter Adam (Andrew Scott) at his window, saturated by an orange dawn that cuts to the dim glow of his laptop screen—a depressing but telling downgrade. Throughout Strangers we volley between what is real, vivid, and phenomenal, and what’s concocted—evocative of, but murkier than, the film-as-life/life-as-film of Joanna Hogg’s Souvenir films. There are effectively two plots, one in the inky confines of Adam’s high-rise apartment and one that unfolds once he leaves on a daily train away from the city to his childhood home. In the first, Mescal’s Harry turns up after an errant fire alarm with a half-drunk bottle of Japanese whisky; not since In the Mood for Love (2000) have neighbors so potently hovered in an apartment doorway just to part in opposing directions. If we find Harry irresistible (we do), eventually so does Adam, and the best parts of Strangers find them whiling away the hours on the sofa and in bed, chatting with an intimacy and naturalism that the more primary plot lacks; there, in a kind of suburban Haunting of Hill House, Adam repeatedly visits his deceased parents fixed at the ages they were killed in a car accident. In these encounters, time spirals out of sequence: the present may impose itself, as when Adam’s father (Jamie Bell), handsome and alone in a neighboring field, initially resembles a cruising prospect; likewise, the past exerts reflective force—Adam’s mother (Claire Foy) sums it up: you were just a boy, and now you’re not. The film’s fixation on the mental process of reflection is supported by a visual language of reflective textures, doubling, shine: mirrors from train windows and elevator walls, gleaming bottles, even the glisten of Harry’s thick gold band.

Adam is reluctant to undress in front of his ghost mother after getting soaked by rain, but spends most of the film painstakingly shedding his layers: coming around to Harry, coming out to his parents, pressing at their responses, exploring the loneliness of loss that’s been tangled in subsequent decades with the loneliness of being gay. All of us, strangers; loss is about the most universalizing force there is, and we get—again, as in Aftersun (2022)—a strobing club sequence to confirm that queer loneliness, too, has its historic outlets, its rituals of alleviation.

Often the lesson of haunting tales is that one has to let go of the past to receive the future. But when its two plots ultimately converge, All of Us Strangers swerves from convention, foreclosing the future with an explanatory development that paradoxically casts further mystery back onto Adam’s daily hauntological expeditions (are we to believe he’s just writing in these episodes?). The series of closing images is freighted with sentiment, expressive but inarticulate. There’s an overwhelming sense of Haigh’s film aspiring toward a theory of queer time, where the present may converse with the past and the future is at once at risk yet worth our hopeful investment. But the guiding temporality at work in All of Us Strangers (even in its reverential needle drop) is closer to nostalgia: less explosive or liberatory than the final galactic image, and more like a train route with a designated terminus. For all his revelations, Adam never seems to get off that train. One wonders how he’ll feel in the morning.

Anatomy of a Fall (Justine Triet) 
photo: courtesy of NYFF

A caveat: I loved every national edition of Netflix’s claustrophobic anthology series Criminal, set in different countries but somehow in the exact same highly technologized steel chamber for criminal interrogation; I even loved the trial season of Broadchurch, and probably prefer the hypnotic orderliness of British trial to the comparative circus Anatomy ascribes to French court. So I’m not surprised I devoured Triet’s courtroom procedural, which is smart to assign viewers to the court’s gallery. Our perception of the crime, Samuel’s (Samuel Theis) fatal fall from an uppermost chalet window, is at once immediate and severely restricted. We open directly onto a sketch of an encounter—a few pages of dialogue, a disruptive noise from an offscreen source—in effect, a glassy surface, seemingly transparent (anyone could summarize “what happens” in the first five minutes) but opaque, so we too wonder about the veracity of impressions. Are we imagining a tension between husband and wife (Sandra, played by Sandra Hüller)? Is there a latent flirtation between Sandra and her interviewer, Zoé (Camille Rutherford)? Was the instrumental of “P.I.M.P.” played at a hostile or merely bratty decibel? 

Too often, procedurals treat the truth like a matter of an overlooked clue, definitive and provable; Anatomy revels in the title’s etymological origin, to cut up (ana + tomia), less as an invitation to spectacularize testimonial nitpicking (though they do that, too) than to proliferate models of reenactment: a 3-D dollhouse of the chalet, digital renderings, and, most disturbingly, a live performance that requires Sandra and son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) to withstand loops of the track Samuel blasted prior to his death. Truth eludes from all angles, and is therefore as supple in the courtroom as in the realm of “autofiction” (which, in a big Basic Instinct turn, novelist Sandra is accused of writing). 

As an honorary court attendee, I was riveted by the trial’s pacing, led to gasp when testimony falters or applaud a zingy rejoinder by defense attorney Vincent (Swann Arlaud). Though much relies on the unspooling of information and the performances of those arguing (special shout out to puckish prosecutor Antoine Reinartz), there’s an elegant bit of formalized perspective when Daniel first testifies, framed on either side of the podium by opposing attorneys. As they question him, the camera swings toward each of their voices while keeping their faces offscreen; in alignment with Daniel—who is blind, and whose blindness is a critical, complicating facet of his status as sole witness—the camera shifts our “gaze” by listening toward.

Anatomy’s major set piece (and the trial’s piece of evidence) is an extended fight between Samuel and Sandra, recorded without her knowledge one day prior to the fall. In its depiction, the film moves from straightforward flashback to Sandra’s retrospective narration, strategically severing sound from image to amplify the escalation of their conflict. Samuel complains he’s owed more time to devote to his writing, time he’s instead spent on home renovations and caretaking. It’s impossible to imagine an inversion in which the depleted wife demands restitution for the time she’s spent feeding, socializing, and educating their son while the husband’s career chugs prosperously along. Yet, at least in an American context, Sandra’s unruffled refusal to capitulate seems remarkable, almost comical—and in a room full of critics, you could feel a collective blanch when she says, I always find time to write. Whether of disbelief or envy (or worse), that blanch is something the film solicits and incorporates; it corroborates the prosecution’s sexist dissection of her work, and enables that development to be as horrific as it is absurdly funny.

I find Sandra to be right: perfect reciprocity in a relationship can be naïve at best and depressing at worst, especially when, like “compromise,” it is often code for one partner thanklessly accommodating the other. When Samuel says, “I’m a man who’s been cheated on,” he seems to mean, I’m a man who’s been cheated—out of the freedom from familial obligation that other men have enjoyed or perhaps endured, depending on how you look at it

Strange Way of Life (Pedro Almodóvar)
photo: courtesy of NYFF

It’s Wild West lovers-to-enemies-to-lovers. Jake (Ethan Hawke) is a sheriff seeking his brother’s killer; Silva (Pedro Pascal) is the suspect’s father and Jake’s estranged paramour. Like Pain and Glory (2019), Almodóvar’s Strange Way of Life is a reunion movie built to indulge the awkward pleasures of recognition. It’s also a corny bit of spon-con, co-produced by Anthony Vaccarello/Yves Saint Laurent, but while the clothes are significant enough in their vibrancy (green!) and narrative prominence (off they come, on they go) and thematic value (one rather remarkably preserved red kerchief), Vaccarello’s costumes don’t shape the overall fantasy as forcefully as, say, M. Saint Laurent’s demure provocations for Catherine Deneuve in Buñuel’s Belle de Jour. Given that its most exuberant image by far is a carnal flashback to young Jake (Jason Fernández) and young Silva (José Condessa) making out under crisscrossing fountains of barreled wine, Strange Way would make more sense brought to us by Yellowtail.

I suspect some critics will dismiss the film as an innocuous but substanceless ad. For me, there was something lovely (if The Last of Us coded) in Silva incanting the tender range of what men can do together, left to their devices: “look after each other, protect each other, keep each other company.” Like a counterpart to an earlier scene of Jake and Silva scrabbling in the dirt, we get a companionate shot of horses in a pen, just playing. Some ways of kicking up dust are sweeter than others.

The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer)
photo: courtesy of NYFF

The Zone of Interest delivers maybe the prettiest frame I’ll see this season: an exterior shot of housewife Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller) amid crossing lines of hanging laundry, where planes cut the sky overhead and wheelbarrows draw diagonals through the frame. It’s a self-consciously quotidian slice of life as composed as a painting, full but uncrowded, and exceedingly balanced. Naturally, given the film’s premise (the Tartuffian home life of Auschwitz commandant Rudolph Höss, played by Christian Friedel), we’re supposed to feel skepticism toward such displays of harmony, because the facades of a well-kept home and happy family are inextricable from the relentless atrocities unfolding audibly over the wall.

The rest of Glazer’s film looks … okay. The lighting is high key, the shots wide, and the perspective often fish-eyed, so that even on a big screen, my vision blurred toward the frame’s edges. Everything felt pale and pointy, as if the leaves of shrubbery were run through the sharpen tool on Instagram. This isn’t a critique (‘Glazer fell off!’), it’s a curiosity toward the film’s outlook on style, order, and ethics. Its aesthetic of estrangement is elegant, but alienating—and therefore, presumably, a relief. We don’t have to look too closely; we get to leave certain rooms. At the same time, Zone seems to scold us for not looking closely enough, for persisting in willful ignorance of what occurs in one’s “own backyard” (this is also a movie about yard work).

The title of Serge Daney’s article “The Tracking Shot in Kapo” refers to a stylized camera movement toward a dead woman on an electric fence in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1961 film. Specifically, he cites Jacques Rivette’s disgust for the shot’s ethically suspect floridity; of Pontecorvo’s “one little move too many,” Rivette wrote, “the man who decides at this moment to track forward and reframe the dead body in a low-angle shot—carefully positioning the raised hand in the corner of the final frame—deserves only the most profound contempt.”1 For Daney, unequivocal agreement with Rivette is a social litmus test: “I would definitely have nothing to do or share with anyone who didn’t immediately feel the abjection of ‘the tracking shot in Kapo.’” Differentiating Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 Ugetsu from Kapo—though the former also features a showy lateral shot—Daney credits the distinction to Ugetsu’s cinematographic transmission of fear and trembling. “It’s [Mizoguchi’s] fear, this desire to vomit and flee, which issues the stunned panoramic shot … Pontecorvo neither trembles nor fears; the concentration camps only revolt him ideologically. This is why he can inscribe himself in the scene with the worthless but pretty little tracking shot.”

This is what I thought about while Zone played: not the rigidity of Daney’s ethical dogma—maybe we’ve all got tests for critical fellowship, maybe not—but at what level the concentration camp revolts in Zone, or whether revulsion is an aim ascribable to a film whose style is 95% anesthetizing. You could argue that the bulk only serves to contrast with the other 5% (or whatever proportion you like; Jessica Biel voice, “I don’t major in math”), which are bizarre formal disruptions of realism: when the frame goes red and silent, or the sound (remarkably evil even when normal, children’s laughter indiscernible from nearby screams) drops to a long, guttural drone. But if affective charge and embodied immediacy lend meaning—and “worth”—to stylizations of brutality, Glazer seems after something else.

Many critics have called this film “haunting.” Meaning, I think, that it’s evocative and stubborn. Zone takes a haunting thought—the ability to live not only beside but off of genocidal barbarism—and depicts it less evocatively than clinically: throughout, we are mainly subjected to one single idea, which is that absolutely evil goings-on did and can operate coextensively with the seemingly benign stuff of giggling with your husband at bedtime or maintaining a garden. This idea is not hard to grasp, nor does it provide a novel entrée to taking Nazi fascism very seriously, so I have to imagine that the film aims, again, at something else—but what? The “own backyard” argument seems to disregard that the film’s Nazi subjects aren’t merely incidentally close to the camp; they’re conscious, willing, enthusiastic designers and supporters of its operations. Of course their proximity doesn’t prevent them from experiencing the ordinariness of their own lives. Nor should it shock us that their consciousness, willingness, and enthusiasm for death would not foreclose exploiting Jews as they live (or, preserving them alive for further exploitation).

At the end of Zone, time seems to fold. Leaving a reception, Höss pauses and gazes toward camera, cuing the film’s cut to an impersonal sequence set in the present. A cleaning crew is prepping the facility for visitors; the artifacts of death are literally ossified, exhibits behind glass. I struggled to understand precisely how one age relates to the other, which is the lesson for which. More broadly, I struggled with the intrusions of mystery on an otherwise insultingly transparent film. I wrote in my notes, “mundaneness / labor / indifference,” but those are just some words.

  1. This passage is also quoted and discussed helpfully in Daniel Morgan’s essay, “Max Ophuls and the Limits of Virtuosity: On the Aesthetics and Ethics of Camera Movement,” in Critical Inquiry 38 (2011). I’ve quoted Serge Daney’s essay from his volume Postcards from the Cinema, trans. Paul Douglas Grant, but the essay is also available via Senses of Cinema, trans. Laurent Kretzschmar.