A Very Complex & Human Story: Dispatches from NYFF61

Maestro | Photo: Jason McDonald/Netflix 

Thank god for the New York Film Festival, where every year I buckle under the pressure of a glut of art and groan to anyone who will listen: “I didn’t see enough!” Let’s start with the bad news for once: I skipped Priscilla (Sofia Coppola). I missed The Taste of Things (Trân Anh Hùng). I couldn’t make All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Raven Jackson). I couldn’t swing Ferrari (Michael Mann). Don’t talk to me about Aggro Dr1ft (Harmony Korine). I opted for a dinner reservation when I should have been watching Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World (Radu Jude). Shame on me! I know, I know. But the festival loomed large during a busy, bursting autumn, and still I came away from the festival having seen two more feature films than I did last year. I laughed, I cried, I barely slept. I hope I never see another movie ever again, and I also hope to see one tomorrow.

I: An Appetizer

I almost had a conflict with the first press screening at this year’s New York Film Festival: Menus-Plaisirs: Les Troisgros, a four-hour documentary by esteemed nonfiction director Frederick Wiseman. The screening was at six in the evening, and I had commitments until five. “Do you think it will be crowded there?” I asked a handful of friends and fellow critics, all of whom shook their heads and spoke to me with grace. The four-hour Wiseman documentary? On a weeknight? Crowded? “That’ll be a pretty self-selecting crowd,” one of them wrote. And so I burst in, one minute late, badge in hand, cold sandwich in backpack, and sat for all four hours at Wiseman’s table, so to speak, at Michel Troisgros’s three-star Michelin restaurant La Maison Troisgros. 

I’ve watched hours of cooking show footage in my day, much of it overly concerned with ego and personality—the preening Chef’s Table and the addictive The Bear—so it feels like a breath of fresh air to simply watch French people argue about soy sauce for fifteen minutes with little resolution in sight. So much as there’s a “plot” to Menus-Plaisirs: Les Troisgros, it’s Michel’s concern over his age and legacy, and how his two sons struggle and work to branch out from under their father’s appetite for greatness. But mostly, it’s a movie about food: who makes it, who eats it, what it comes from, and where it all goes. We tour a cheese storage facility, we meet some cows. Three men argue about sriracha—is the dish too spicy, how big of a bite will a customer take. An American tourist won’t stop smelling his wine. A woman at the restaurant won’t stop ordering cheese. Wiseman’s latest film is frequently funny and humane; as inaccessible as this food is to many of the audience members who will watch it being made, the joy and labor of its creation is priceless.

II: To the Land of the Dead and Back

La Chimera | Photo: Courtesy of NYFF

I want to speak briefly about two short films, one of which played the festival and another that did not. The first is a piece of restored film by the late filmmaker Agnès Varda, a brief documentary entitled “Pier Paolo Pasolini – Agnès Varda – New York – 1967” which stars, if you can believe it, Pier Paolo Pasolini, out on a walk with Varda during the fourth (!) NYFF. The two briefly discuss filmmaking, fiction, and Christianity, set against the backdrop of Times Square. It’s a slight, colorful, almost frantic work, with the hustle and bustle of city life threatening to upend the conversation (taped afterwards) at any time. It’s an odd relic of the past to pair alongside the final short Terence Davies submitted to Film Fest Gent (a festival I covered nearly a decade ago for this very publication). Davies’s “Passing Time” is a quiet piece of filmmaking: a static shot of a lush green field, scored by Florencia Di Concilio, with Davies himself reading in voiceover a poem he wrote after the death of his sister. Both shorts feel as though they exist out of time, their ghosts lively and vibrant. Davies’s deep voice, Pasolini’s handsome jaw, Varda’s playful gaze. It was nice to see—and hear—them, if only for a short while.

In the ‘Currents’ selection of the festival, I was curious to seek out Phạm Thiên Ân’s debut feature Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, which won the Caméra d’Or at this past year’s Cannes Film Festival. The three-hour film tells the story of a young man, Thiện (Lê Phong Vũ), whose sister-in-law dies in a motorcycle accident, leaving his nephew seemingly orphaned, his brother’s whereabouts otherwise unknown. Thiện travels from Saigon to rural Vietnam, where he grieves and plays with his nephew, otherwise slowly trying to put the pieces of his brother’s disappearance together. Did he leave for another woman? Is he dead? Few have answers. It is easy, perhaps, to connect the lethargy of the pacing and verdant nature of the film—its charming animal interludes, its almost unbearable quiet––to the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but I thought more of Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth, another film set between homes. I have great admiration for slow cinema, but sometimes too slow is too slow. Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell treads close to the divine, but never quite catches up.

On the topic of the divine––I consider Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera one of the monumental achievements of this year’s festival, a stirring and romantic film, equal parts classical and innovative. The Italian director’s latest film tells the story of an English ex-con, Arthur (Josh O’Connor––dreamy alert!), who, after a stint in prison, returns to the small Italian village he calls home to restart his life of crime. With a crew of charming and whimsical “tombarolis”––grave robbers––he digs up ancient tombs for Etruscan artifacts to sell on the black market. He is haunted by the mysterious presence of his ex-girlfriend, Beniamina, but charmed by her mother’s (a wonderful, be-wigged Isabella Rossellini) new housekeeper, Italia (Carol Duarte). There’s crime, there’s mystery, there’s music, there’s flirting. As in Happy as Lazzaro, Rohrwacher paints a just-off-center sense of magical realism. For a film so concerned with the dead, it is fully rich with life. It’s not that anything can happen, but more so that it might.  

III: A Journey of Self-Discovery

Janet Planet | Photo: Courtesy of NYFF

There were three films in this year’s ‘Main Slate’ line-up about the self—the discovery of, the rejection of, the embrace of. I confess I didn’t care for this trio. I was provoked by Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast, a The Fountain-like romance through time between will-they/won’t-theys Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux—always good) and Louis (George MacKay). In the future, both seek to expunge their ability to feel, hoping, perhaps, it will dull the pain of the past. Their past is set across two timelines—one in the early 20th century that draws most heavily from its source material by Henry James, the other set in 2014 that takes from separate source material perhaps best not spoiled. I found their mutual self-agonizing tedious to my own dismay; I have liked all of Bonello’s other films I’ve seen. 

Along with The Beast, there was Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things—in which Emma Stone plays Bella, a woman with a baby’s brain who learns to love sex and socialism; so, like, undergrad, I guess—and Richard Linklater’s Hit Man—in which Glen Powell plays a smart guy (college professor) who also sometimes acts like a different kind of smart guy (undercover cop) where he plays a dumb guy (fake hit man) but also gets entangled in a little web of crime (real dumb guy). Both films seem to ask: Who are we deep down and what do we really want? I wish the answers had the capacity to surprise, rather than just reaffirm—a warm body in the safety of our home.

Thankfully—thankfully!—there was also Annie Baker’s superb Janet Planet, the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright’s directorial debut starring Julianne Nicholson and newcomer Zoe Ziegler as mother Janet and daughter Lacy living in western Massachusetts. After a tumultuous stay at sleepaway camp, Lacy returns home to Janet where the two must spend the rest of the summer together ahead of Lacy’s first year of middle school. Most things are normal: they eat, they watch TV, Lacy goes to piano lessons. Three visitors come and go: Janet’s boyfriend (Will Patton), an old friend (Sophie Okonedo—perfect), and a mysterious local figurehead (Elias Koteas). The script is full of pause—and, in turn, thought. Lacy is an introvert by nature, and this is an introverted film about the wonder and discovery of growing up in the shadow of a figure whose own adulthood is seemingly always in question. Ziegler is a revelation with natural comedic timing and soulful eyes. She is the perfect movie child; I hope she never has to appear on-screen again.  

IV: Love Hurts

By the time this essay is published, Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or-winning psychodrama Anatomy of a Fall will be in theaters and everyone will have said what they have to say before me. That’s fine. The movie is farcical; sillier, possibly, than last year’s Palme d’Or winner, Triangle of Sadness. It matters, I think, that this film was selected over others that appear here—May December, La Chimera, The Zone of Interest—in part because it accomplishes what Ruben Östlund has not been able to do: depict a relationship that is equal, which is to say, equally bad for everyone involved. Here we have writer Sandra (Sandra Hüller) and writer Samuel (Samuel Theis), married, somewhat unhappily, until they’re not: he goes out the window of their Swiss chalet with no witnesses. She takes the fall, so to speak, the ugliness of their lives now unpacked and displayed in front of a court of their peers and their blind son Daniel (the excellent Milo Machado-Graner). It’s a television sort of movie movie, by which I mean it’s more fun than smart, more mean than sharp, and its answers are almost irritatingly simple. Still: I laughed, I groaned. 

On the topic of laughter, I was also happy to see Catherine Breillat’s first film in a decade—Last Summer, an adaptation of the 2019 Dutch film Queen of Hearts. Now here is a movie that is funny: a deranged, misguided sexual relationship between a high-powered lawyer and her step-son, who is a teenager. Maybe that bugs you: good, it’s gross! Breillat knows this, and she milks every uneasy chuckle she can out of the script. To see it with a full audience was to revel in its discomfort and painful humor. Everyone in the film is almost archetypical: the uptight wife, the cuckold husband, the mischievous teen. But no comedy can truly succeed without tropes, twisting and skewering them until they are unrecognizable. 

You’d have a beautiful afternoon watching Bas Devos’s Here and Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves—two under-90 minute romances about melancholy and displacement. The former is set in Devos’s native Belgium and is a movie that is largely about, well, soup. Stefan Gota stars as Stefan, a Romanian construction worker, who is headed home to Romania for an undetermined amount of time. We get the sense that his time in Brussels has worn him down; though he has friends and even a sister there, he is weary, homesick, taken to wandering around the city on sleepless nights. Before he leaves to go home, however, Stefan feels responsible for clearing out his fridge, and cobbles together a vegetable-dense soup that he starts bringing coworkers, family, and the mechanics who work on his car. On his soup delivery journey, Stefan crosses paths with Shuxiu, a bryologist, played by Liyo Gong (a non-actor, and actually the editor of another NYFF entry this year, Wang Bing’s Youth (Spring)). Bryology, not to be confused with biology, is the study of moss, and Shuxiu, like Stefan, is taken to long solo sojourns into the woods, where she kneels in the dirt to literally watch grass grow. Devos’s work is slow and peaceful, not without flashes of gentle humor.

Fallen Leaves also centers on two displaced individuals, floating between bouts of joblessness and loneliness—Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen). Their paths cross in Helsinki again and again, at work, at the karaoke bar, out on the street. They each share a form of self-harm: Ansa is a bit too reliant on the news, prone to listening to harrowing updates on the Russian-Ukraine conflict, whereas Holappa is an alcoholic. There is some unspeakable connection between them, though they are awkward and miserable in their own little ways. When they stand or sit or speak together, however, it’s as though the world is suddenly infused with warmth. The days seem longer, the streets a bit less lonely, maybe the news on the radio isn’t so bad. The movie is idiosyncratic, dare I say, a bit quirky. “It’s okay to laugh,” Pöysti warned us before the screening, “even though we Finns are not known for our sense of humor.” When they have their first date, Ansa goes to buy another set of dishware. It’s not much, but it’s a start. 

And then, of course, there are two great maximalist romances, throwbacks in their own ways: Bradley Cooper’s Maestro and Todd Haynes’s May December. The former is a biopic, ostensibly, of American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, but Cooper argues the film is more a “story of a marriage” about Bernstein’s unconventional relationship with his wife, Felicia Montealegre, and his other male lovers. Like A Star is Born, Maestro is at its best when it feels like a musical: big, bombastic, splashy, silly. Think too hard on it—what’s going on with that voice? Is that what they really all sounded like?—and you’re doomed. More than the legacy of American classical music or even celebrity, what Cooper wants us to know about Leonard Bernstein is that he loved: big, hard, messy, enduring. 

May December | Photo: Francois Duhamel/courtesy of Netflix

To double back, briefly, to “what’s going on with that voice?”: the best of the festival according to my eyes, but most importantly my ears, was May December, a splashy raucous throwback, a Persona for the 21st century. Haynes reunites with his beloved regular Julianne Moore (doing a crazy voice) who plays Gracie, a Mary Kay Letourneau type, imprisoned and eventually released for an affair she had with middle-schooler Joe, played as an adult by Charles Melton (revelatory). They were tabloid fodder for several years, but in the two decades (!) that have since passed, Gracie and Joe live otherwise normal lives with three kids. On the eve of their empty-nester-dom, an actress named Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman—maybe she always had a crazy voice?) shows up on their doorstep, eager to study Gracie for a part she’s playing in a forthcoming TV movie about the scandal. 

May December is at once harrowing and hilarious, a feast for the senses. Haynes is at his most direct and meticulous, every glance and whisper choreographed in this nightmarish ballet. He borrows the score from Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1971)—a violent, plunking piano that alternates between punchline and omen. As Joe says while he eats one of Gracie’s cakes, flashes of the little boy he once was lingering behind his eyes: It’s so good.

V. Brief Notes on Systemic Failure

Paul B. Preciado’s Orlando, My Political Biography gambles. It throws down big money and hopes for the best. In that regard, I find Preciado’s trans documentary wholly successful: a vibrant, thrilling film that delves deep into the complicated, joyful discovery of gender and identity through Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. On the other hand, however, for every jackpot, there is a stumble, a slip. It bets too big; it doesn’t bet enough. The film alternates between stirring personal stories of its cast and Woolf’s words herself; this is interesting, until it isn’t, testing patience in an already short runtime. Its big musical number a third of the way through might turn off those with an allergy to corniness. This is a film like no other, in ways both good and bad—which is to say, Preciado’s film exists on a new plane of filmmaking. That alone should count for something. 

One of my most anticipated films of this year’s festival was Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist, his follow up to his two excellent 2021 films, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car. In his most recent work, I was reminded of the cognitive dissonance I experienced after watching Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman, an excellent film, certainly, though smaller in scale—more localized, baffling—than her feature that preceded it. Hamaguchi reels himself in a bit in Evil Does Not Exist with a premise that appears, at first glance, altogether too simple: a close-knit rural community protests the forthcoming development of a “glamping” site on their land on which urban dwellers can come to escape to the natural world. The film initially focuses on Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) and his daughter Hana (Ryo Nishikawa) and their isolated life together in the woods, before the scope of the film expands. Hamaguchi is given due credit for his musings on loneliness and isolation, but he is also one of the great directors of petty bureaucracy, much of which was on display in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, and here takes flight in a heated neighborhood meeting. It is clear he has great disdain for the hapless middle managers (maybe all middle managers), who come to argue on behalf of glamping with no clue what they’re talking about—but it’s only in the film’s final moments that Hamaguchi’s ire is most present, potent, gurgling along like a melting mountain creek. 

I’ve saved my thoughts on Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest for last, in part because it’s possible that like a cursed grocery store gumball, I’ll be chewing on it for what feels like the rest of my life. I like Glazer’s previous work and as a Jew who watches movies, I am always interested in anything that’s not the standard Holocaust cinema. Adapted—so loosely—from Martin Amis’s novel of the same name, The Zone of Interest depicts the seemingly idyllic life of an upper-middle class Nazi family who cultivate a homey cottage that just so happens to share a border with Auschwitz. Father Rudolf (Christian Friedel) works in the camp during the day—“Heil Hitler, etc.,” he says over the phone—and mother Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) tends to the home. There’s a garden, there’s a swimming pool. They celebrate birthdays. Gunfire, smoke, screams all echoing in the background. 

Mostly: The Zone of Interest is boring. It’s boring on purpose. We say “banality of evil” because it is pretty fucking banal deep down. The inner lives of these people are not compelling: at best, they are grotesque—Hedwig asks Rudolf if they can go back to an Italian spa they liked—at worst, they are obvious—Hedwig calls herself the “Queen of Auschwitz.” I was drawn in the aftermath of viewing to negative reviews of the film, hoping one of them would be able to crystallize my own indifference and weary dismay. No such luck, but a few gestured at the tiredness of the subject material. Why not make a movie about climate change, or a current crisis—something else we ignore to partake in otherwise middle class indulgences. That’s sort of the thing I admire most about Glazer’s film: it is a climate change movie, it is about a current crisis. It is about all the sickening boredom of those on the precipice of suffering. While I commend Glazer’s decision to withhold direct violence against concentration camp prisoners, his movie is at its best when it bumps up against that gruesome reality—when the sky darkens, when the water turns ashen.