It would be callous and inaccurate to say that this year’s New York Film Festival offerings have ADHD arthouse vibes, but there is a palpable sense of dynamism within many of the slate’s films. A grifter nun who enjoys lesbian sex during the time of a global pandemic? Check. A serial killer whose desperate attempt to disguise herself prods issues of transformation and chosen family? Check. Besides those two movies (already covered by Jezebel: Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta and Julia Ducournau’s Titane), there’s a stunning Western from Jane Campion, which gets under the genre’s skin with the precision of an X-ray. There’s a Norwegian romcom, The Worst Person in the World, chopped up into 12 chapters (and epilogue/prologue) which are often self-contained formal exercises. There’s a movie about dying, Gaspar Noe’s Vortex, which presents a split-screen (one side for each protagonist) throughout. And then there is Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest, as logic-twisting and beguiling as a dream itself.
Capsule reviews of four notable new films playing at this year’s fest follow.
Jane Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name goes where few Westerns do, simply by taking a look under the genre’s hood. All that macho stuff, the homosocial atmosphere, the inherent physicality? That doesn’t look very different from what could be deemed “actually kinda gay” in a more contemporary context. Campion understands that because masculinity is the norm, it is if not defined then certainly affirmed by that which deviates from it. The ostensible deviant in this story, set in 1925 Montana, is Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a soft young man who is perhaps on the spectrum (his stimming behavior suggests as much), who finds himself in the crosshairs of Phil (a never-been-better Benedict Cumberbatch). The cowboy patronizes the restaurant of Peter’s mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and immediately starts mocking Peter, a server there, whom Phil openly wishes would “snap out of it and get human.” After Phil’s brother George (Jesse Plemons) approaches Rose to apologize, they enter a relationship (yes, real-life spouses Dunst and Plemons once again play onscreen spouses, as they did in the TV series Fargo). This brings Rose in regular close proximity to Phil, whose bravado terrorizes her, as well as Peter, who seems keen to learn his oppressor’s ways. The term “toxic masculinity” has been thrown around a lot already in reference to this movie, but in my estimation, this masculinity is actually more virulent than anything.
Phil eventually takes to Peter, and we learn via suggestion that Phil was in turn mentored by a cowboy who died in 1903 named Bronco Henry. There’s a strong suggestion—Bronco Henry’s name written on a beefcake magazine that Peter peruses in the woods—that Henry shared a romantic/sexual relationship with Phil, and things look to be headed in a similar direction with him and Peter. But Brokeback Mountain this is not, and the plot’s resolution is so subtle that if you blink you might miss something crucial. But wow is it satisfying. I’m extremely interested in how this probing, thoughtful take on a Western will play out when it drops on Netflix around Christmas—nuance is the strength here and I wish I could say I have as much faith in a mass audience as Netflix and Campion seem to have. This really isn’t one that’s going to give people the warm fuzzies on a cold winter’s night, but as a revenge story, it simply couldn’t be more satisfying. Again and again Campion shows us how lucky we are to have her.
If any movie would have benefitted from being told backwards, a la Gaspar Noé’s 2002 rape-revenge breakout Irréversible, it is Vortex, a movie so focused on the quotidian existence of its characters to make tedium its aesthetic. The Noé-ian flair here—I won’t say gimmick, but I wouldn’t hold it against anyone who did—is that with a few exceptions, the two principal elderly characters each have a camera fixed on them as they go about their domestic existence and their shared/parallel lives are presented in split-screen (two separate rounded boxes presented side by side) for the duration of the movie. Choose your own…non-adventure. The acting by the people playing the couple (Italian horror maestro Dario Argento and veteran French actor Françoise Lebrun) is superb—her depiction of cognitive decline, in particular, is stunningly sad. She wanders and wanders and wanders some more. So it’s a lot of watching that, as well as her husband’s attempt to care for her (not to mention her drug-using son, who doesn’t attempt much). As impressive as Vortex is as a facsimile—several scenes are more or less in real-time, which means you get to follow these people through their morning routines and it all has the feel of a documentary—for about two hours, it doesn’t deliver much of anything besides the ambient misery of slowly expiring life. When the climactic event that you know is coming actually arrives, it really does render a lot of the preceding meandering poignant. Death really does have a way of coloring things, and Vortex reminded me of the great effect to which Shannan Watts’s banal Facebook posts were used in the Netflix documentary about her death, American Murder: The Family Next Door. (The fading effect Noe uses in the respective box when a character dies, however, did strike me as a gimmick, and one straight out of film school.) Overlong as it is, Vortex is effective and, like most of Noé’s films, something I never want to sit through again. That seems to be the intent, so I suppose I mean that as a compliment.
Norwegian director Joachim Trier subverts the romcom just enough to qualify as one, nonetheless, and charmingly so with this movie, told in 12 chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue. Our hero Julie (Renate Reinsve) can’t get enough of the new, we learn early, as we watch her hopping from a college major in medicine to psychology to focusing on photography. She skips through men similarly, landing on Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a comic book artist who’s about 15 years her senior. When he tries to break up with her, she falls in love with him, and they become a couple. This all occurs in the prologue, and is not the thrust of the movie. That would be, it seems, the relationship she moves to next with the dashing, younger Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), whom she meets at a party she crashes. The scene of their first acquaintance is sheer brilliance as they flirt and discuss their reluctance to cheat on their respective partners, while groping for the line that they have pledged not to cross. They smell each other’s armpits, they tell each other secrets, they shotgun a joint, they pee in front of each other (she farts, marking the second movie I saw at this year’s NYFF where a couple bonds immediately via flatulence). After a chapter in which Julie freezes time to seek out Eivind and hang out with him as the rest of the world is suspended around them, she leaves Aksel literally with his dick out (and, in a touch of chef’s kiss realism, his t-shirt on) for the younger, cuter guy who works as a barista. But then, the movie isn’t about that relationship either. It’s about the downside of neophilia, about haste leaving issues unresolved, and how growing up can require one to circle back on unfinished business.
Overall the tone here is light, but there’s quite a bit of philosophizing sprinkled in—most movingly is the notion that when you’re gone, you take with you the parts of a partner that only you observed. It’s a kind of contagious identity that intertwines with yours. Reinsve is plucky and mischievous without being adorkable, thank god, and feels truly like someone who is only beginning to understand herself. In another era, this foreign-language charmer would have sleeper written all over it. And while the success of something like Parasite gives me a little more faith that a movie not in English that is so hell bent on crowd pleasing (and provoking thought) could actually make an impact in the U.S. commercial market, I fear only an English-language remake could really do the trick. They better not fuck it up, but they probably will.
As Jessica, Tilda Swinton spends most of the 135 minutes of acclaimed director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first non-Thailand production in a daze, trying to figure out what the hell is going on in this slow-moving riddle of a film. Uh, same! In a series of Eyes Wide Shut-esque static medium shots that go on for long enough to make you think, “Well, I guess this is just my life now!” Weerasethakul unfurls a dream set in Columbia. “I think I’m going crazy,” Jessica tells an archeologist, who in an earlier scene showed her a 6,000-year-old skull with a hole in it (perhaps to ritualistically release spirits). Jessica happened upon the scientist while visiting her sister in the hospital, where the archeologist’s lab was also located. “It’s not the worst thing to be,” the archeologist tells Jessica of her suspected mental state.
Just typing this out makes me feel like I’m hazily recalling a dream that I really wanted to understand but never did. What an effect! Jessica, an insomniac whose condition also involves hearing a disruptive, intermittent booming that she describes sounding like “a big ball of concrete that falls into a metal well and is surrounded by seawater” does get some closure—though, notice I said some. It is predictably vague. Memoria is the kind of thing you can only experience for yourself and that you will only know whether you have patience for once you’re settled into your theater seat. It’s the Weerasethakul I have enjoyed the least, though I did appreciate his ability to capture the very power of a strange land (including the strong Columbian weather), much as he has in the past with Thailand. Overall, I found Memoira to be overly ponderous to the point of feeling like self-parody at times. It felt like my patience was being tested merely for the sake of displaying preciousness.
After Tuesday’s press and industry screening, Weerasethakul and Swinton (in town directly from Bogotá, where they were the day before to screen the film) took the stage for a Q&A, during which Swinton said, “I don’t think of Jessica as a character; I think of her as a predicament.” She described a dog Jessica encounters as “some kind of fellow” (as in a colleague, not a gentleman…I think) and said Jessica’s condition was that of being “dislocated and connected.” Regarding the film’s climactic scene that comprises an epically long take Swinton said:
For that last very long scene, we did three takes, which is quite a chunk of change. And each one, of course, was a little bit different and responsive to that particular moment. For example, there’s rain…very beautifully rain on the landscape that there is no rain visibly in. But there was a take where there was a lot of wind, and that meant something different because that could have translated as rain. But when there was no wind, and the breeze was still, then there was a sort of clear thoroughfare of understanding to the fact that there was rain, which means there was this disconnect, which means there was this kind of strange collision.
So yes, this movie is very that. I left the theater exhausted.