The Walk, chosen as opening night film

The Festival

The New York Film Festival is always an exciting event. It has been held at the same glorious venue,  Lincoln Center, since it began. I attended opening night at the very first festival, in 1963. The film that was given the honor to open the festival that year was Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel.

As a lifelong New Yorker, I admit to bias: I think the festival is the most prestigious in the world. But even the elite who attend have no problem in lauding New York if it helps to promote their films.

For instance, Steven Spielberg, who was attending the world premiere of his new film, Bridge of Spies, announced that half of the film was shot in New York, and that he was dedicating the first half of the film to New York for that reason. But in a sly acknowledgment of the importance of festivals, he said that when he goes to Berlin with the film next month, he’ll dedicate the second half to them.

George Clooney and Amal Clooney at the New York Film Festival 2015

George Clooney and his wife Amal attended a special screening of Joel and Ethan Coen’s movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

A major event was the fifteenth anniversary of Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother Where Art Thou? George Clooney, star of the film, attended a special screening with his wife, Amal. The film was honored as a classic that was premiered at the festival in 1995.

As you can see, the stars turned out to promote their films, none of which had gone into release here before the screening. Michael Fassbender was there for the festival’s centerpiece, Steve Jobs. The eagerly anticipated film, covering selected events in his life, was directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin.


Steven Spielberg attended the premiere of his latest movie "Bridge of Spies"

Steven Spielberg attended the premiere of his latest movie “Bridge of Spies”

 

Peter Sarsgaard, starring in Experimenter, came with Maggie Gyllenhaal

Peter Sarsgaard, starring in Experimenter, came with Maggie Gyllenhaal

 

Don Cheedle stars in the film about jazz legend Miles Davis

Don Cheedle stars in the film about jazz legend Miles Davis

Michael Fassbender appeared to promote Steve Jobs

Michael Fassbender appeared to promote Steve Jobs

 

Kate Winslet spoke about "Steve Jobs"

Another special event was an evening with Kate Winslet, who also appeared for the premiere of Steve Jobs.

 

John Turturro, starring in <em>Mia Madre</em> (see below) was among the many actors to make personal appearances to promote their films. Mr. Turturro stayed after the screening for Q &amp; A with the audience.

John Turturro, starring in Mia Madre (see below) was among the many actors to make personal appearances to promote their films. Mr. Turturro stayed after the screening for Q & A with the audience.

 


The Films

This year, I selected eight films from the main slate to be reviewed. Except for my top two films, which I hold as equally fine, I will rank the other six films in ascending order of quality. But even that formula doesn’t mean much to me because I often change my mind. Also, I may see one of the festival’s other films afterwards, when it’s released, and like it more than any I saw here. I write only about the experience of seeing the film, always trying to discover what it was that gave me pleasure from it, or why it wasn’t worth my time. Therefore, my critical assessment never pretends to be an objective standard. The reader should take from the review whatever value it has in developing their own personal aesthetic for film as an art form.

The Lobster

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Rachel Weisz and Colin Farrell in “The Lobster”

This satire was directed by Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, and was written by him with Efthymis Filippou. I saw Lanthimos’ Dogtooth last year, and thought it witty, provocative and original, if sometimes obscure. The enjoyable qualities are also evident in his new entry, but are somewhat muted and uncertain. It is his first English-language film, which could account for some uncertainty. But the concept, too, is fuzzy.

Here, instead of using one dysfunctional family as metaphor for governmental tyranny, Lanthimos expands it to an entire society in a meltdown of its sexual values. For unexamined reasons, all people are required by law to choose a mate – although choice of the same gender is allowed. If one has not chosen, or if a relationship does not survive a predetermined test period, that person will be turned into an animal of their choice, which they must specify before the forced mating period begins. David, played by Colin Farrell, chooses to become a lobster, because he believes it lives the longest.

The first part of the film deals with the leaders’ program for encouraging the mate selection. This includes eating meals together and ballroom dancing. Dress is formal, if less than black tie. Casual sex is encouraged, but only if it leads to a couple’s official declaration of fidelity. Throughout the film, we see various animals milling about the grounds, but never in pairs. Apparently, the program has a large failure rate.

David has a short-lived romance with a woman described by every one of her acquaintances as “heartless”, played by Angeliki Papoulia. He soon learns she is homicidal as well, and flees for his life. He escapes into the forest, and falls in with a band of revolutionaries who, it turns out, are as fascist as the government, but differ by forbidding all sex of any kind. Terrified but defenseless, David appears to comply, even though he is attracted to a woman in the group, played by Rachel Weisz. He secretly expresses his feelings to her, and she responds positively. They run away together, but not until after she is blinded by the group leader. The film ends with a demonstration of personal sacrifice.

Even from this description, you can tell that the concept turns soft and any valid satire is pretty much blunted by the time we get to the mawkish climax. All of the fun is in the first section, at the mating camp, where Farrell and the other detainees, especially John C. Reilley, provide some good deadpan comedy from the material. Still, Lanthimos is an intriguing talent, and I hope The Lobster is just a stumble in a rewarding career.

 

Mia Madre

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Margherita Buy and John Turturro in”Mia Madre”

This film was directed by renowned Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti, and was written by him with Francesco Piccolo and Valia Santella. I was impressed with the quality of the performances, especially of the lead actress, Margherita Buy, who plays a film director named Margherita who is struggling with her mother’s declining health, raising a teenage daughter as a single parent and completing a film about oppressed factory workers. While this material is not particularly fresh, you get involved with the story because of the fine acting.

One major problem stems from one of the film’s pleasures, namely the scene-stealing, often hilarious performance of John Turturro, who plays Barry, an Italian-American actor cast in the lead role of Margherita’s film. Barry is cast to play the ruthless businessman who just bought the factory, and has several scenes where he is screaming at the workers and denouncing unions. But often, for good measure, he winds up screaming at the film crew and at Margherita; he’s that impossible. Further, his Italian is horrible and he can’t remember his lines. His defensive and outright defiant attitude are costing thousands of euros in delays and may cost Margherita her job.

I’ve enjoyed Moretti’s work in the past, and his strengths are also evident here. Moretti writes with wit and economy, and has a keen eye for fresh and interesting locations in Rome. He is also an accomplished actor, and he gives a sensitive performance as Margherita’s brother.  The film is obviously autobiographical, as has been much of his past work, and is clearly a very personal account of the death of an elderly parent. But in telling a personal story about his own life, he chose to split himself into two roles: as Margherita’s brother, he is remembering the experience of caring for a dying parent, which he shares with a sibling; but the role of himself as filmmaker is given to a fictional woman.

In spite of his solid skills as a filmmaker, the frequent shifts in tone – the story of the family crisis is somber and sensitively told, while the filmmaking story is frenetically comic – are not handled smoothly. This would not be a major problem if we could see some thematic relationship between the two story lines, but Moretti does not clearly establish one. They fail to reverberate with each other. In retrospect, the work seems shapeless and unresolved.

 

Experimenter

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John Leguizamo (through window) and Peter Sarsgaard in “Experimenter”

I must confess that my own reaction to this film was itself confusing, at least in that I’m not even sure how to describe the experience of seeing it. It’s a pretty straightforward chronicle of the career of Stanley Milgram, a pioneer in psychology research, specifically in the area of the individual’s response to authority or group pressure, whether real or only perceived.

Almost a quarter of the film – or so it seemed – has the actor playing Milgram, Peter Sarsgaard, speaking directly to the audience, while the rest are dramatized scenes from his life. Milgram is famous for the research he did at Yale in the early ’60s. He would tell the subject that he (usually a male) would be the “teacher” who would administer electric shocks to a designated “learner”, who is hidden behind a screen, for wrong answers to questions. The subject is never told that the person supposedly being shocked is really a researcher working with Milgram who is only pretending to be in pain.

The results were startling, and transforming for all future research: only one person, out of dozens of subjects, ever refused to continue the shocks, even though the other person seemed in danger of permanent injury, or even death. Many of the subject “teachers” objected at some point, but their protests were routinely dismissed because the research “needed to be continued”, and no ethical issues could be considered. And so the subject resumed the torture.

This section, roughly the first third of the film, is the most detailed. The rest of the film deals – rather disconnectedly – with Milgram’s subsequent research, which usually focused on the behavior of individuals in a public or crowd setting, or with scenes from his domestic life until his death, in 1984, at the age of 51. Sarsgaard’s co-star, Winona Ryder, plays his wife, Sasha (who was present at the festival screening), which is the only other major role.

My confusion stems from the fact that the writer-director, Michael Almereyda, seemed to intentionally avoid nearly all of the qualities of a film that I consider the most important. (1) It is dramatically static. There are no major obstacles to Milgram’s research; no single antagonist who must be defeated by the hero; nor any major conflicts with his family. (2) The direction is flat, and unvaried. It is all talk, all the time. The same people either sit, stand or move around in enclosed interior spaces – whether lab cubicles, apartment dining rooms or lofts with partygoers – and little of the talk ever seems of great importance to the characters, who seem pretty content with their lives overall. (3) It is not particularly informative. While the subject matter is fascinating, the film never really explores the significance of the research, especially as to how it influenced any important theory of human behavior.

I must also admit, somewhat shamefully, that the audience’s behavior at the screening may have influenced my reaction. They were – inexplicably! – wildly enthusiastic. I’ve seen many public responses to celebrities at screenings, but the reception for Sarsgaard, Ryder and Almereyda was among the loudest and most sustained. Most confusing of all was the audience’s nearly constant laughter throughout the film,  as if  Oscar Wilde had done the screenplay. Believe me, I got more laughs from March of the Penguins.

But I don’t want to be too negative, especially since so many people seemed to enjoy it. The subject matter is fascinating, and Almereyda has apparently succeeded in making the film he wanted to make. It is certainly original.

 

Maggie’s Plan

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Ethan Hawke and Greta Gerwig in “Maggie’s Plan”

This was a pleasant surprise: a straightforward romantic comedy that looked back to the virtues of the studio system, the days of William Powell, Carole Lombard and Leo McCarey. Similarly evoked are Woody Allen’s glowing sex and rom-coms of  New York. But Rebecca Miller – who wrote (from a short story) and directed the film – pureed these influences through the no-nonsense, female-dominant sieve of millennial culture. Although lumpy, and a little too sweet, I drank it in with pleasure.

Maggie, played by Greta Gerwig, is approaching thirty and impatient to be a mommy. She doesn’t know if she’ll ever master the traditional way – men are so unmanageable! – so she decides to pick a willing stranger to donate his sperm. She tests the plan out on her friends Tony and his wife Felicia, played by Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph, respectively. Their reaction is not totally negative – they’ve learned not to try to dissuade Maggie from any of her schemes – and, taking this for encouragement, she proceeds with it. She selects a young man, a success in the pickle business, but who is rather shy with women. He makes his donation, wishes Maggie a happy life and goes home. Once alone, Maggie prepares for the procedure, but is interrupted when John, the married man she has secretly fallen in love with, suddenly shows up to confess his love for her. Happily, they consummate, she conceives and John divorces his wife to start a new family with Maggie.

We jump ahead three years, and Maggie is miserable. John, played by Ethan Hawke, had two children with his wife, Georgette, played by Julianne Moore, but the marriage failed mostly because Georgette had not shown emotional support while John was struggling with his first novel. But Maggie doesn’t think the novel is any good either, and she’s starting to resent having to support the family and do most of the parenting of their child. Worse still, Maggie also has to take care of John’s two children while Georgette, a professor and published author, travels for speaking engagements. Finally, John spends hours talking to Georgette on the phone, indicating that he’s still in love with her. Which gives Maggie the idea for a new plan to get her out of the mess she’s made of her life.

For the first time, Maggie is able to break out of a losing pattern. The plan works, with winning results for the audience too. Miller has fashioned a witty script, and directed it – if not quite at Capra or Hawks level – more than competently. I also liked the clever use of costuming, makeup and hairstyles; Bill Hader’s hair is a hoot in itself. Just as importantly, she cast the film with first-rate farceurs, and they kept the fizz bubbling to the last shot. And, like the best comic actors, they work like hell to steal scenes from each other. If you want to know the winner, it was no contest: Julianne Moore took the film home in a Bloomie’s tote. Not only did she get all of her laughs, she almost made this insufferable character sympathetic, even if she was not someone you’d want to spend five minutes alone with. I also note that Moore’s career is on quite a roll. With Still Alice (Oscar), Map of the Stars and now this film, she’ll be competitive for the top roles in quality commercial and indie projects.

And, just in case you’d forgotten, real moviegoers knew that the pickle salesman would reappear before the end. Miller smartly saves that for the last half minute, but it caps the film with a chuckle and a broad smile.

 

My Golden Days

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Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet in “My Golden Days”

From my earliest experiences with foreign films, I learned that nobody loves to talk more about love than the French. Then, after Godard and the nouvelle vague took over in the 60’s, the French started to talk about sex as much as they talked about love. They seemed to talk about sex as much as doing it, preferably while naked.

There’s a lot of that talk in this film, with and without clothes, and it makes for some sophisticated entertainment. But Arnaud Desplechin, who directed and co-wrote (with Julie Peyr) the film had more on his mind than that. I found that the sly and (mildly) subversive undercurrents in the story make it a genuinely original work that can be enjoyed standalone, although people who have seen his earlier film from 1996, My Sex Life…or How I Got into an Argument, of which this is a prequel, may see recurring themes that I will not become aware of until I see it too. Which I certainly intend to do.

We first meet the hero, Paul (Mathieu Almaric), a middle-aged and respected anthropologist, when he is in Africa saying good-bye to his mistress, also French, because he has accepted a position in Paris. The film itself, a remembrance of three episodes from his youth, is triggered when he is detained at French customs because another man, with the same name and birthday, has been found in Australia. Paul is asked if he ever had his passport stolen, indicating identity theft. But Paul’s explanation goes beyond that one anomaly – due to an adventure when he was sixteen – to reveal the psychological effects from the death of his mother when he was eleven.

It so happens that Paul’s identity was not “stolen” but actually donated by Paul to a “refusenik” in Russia who wanted to emigrate to Israel. Paul was not Jewish, and had no great interest in politics, but he did it to please a Jewish friend, even though the Russians had been known to execute people for it. Although well-made, the episode is a minor part of the film, the bulk of which is devoted to Paul’s teenage affair with Esther, who is three years younger.

As a teenager, Paul is played, excellently, by Quentin Dolmaire. Paul, who is shy with girls, comes onto Esther slowly, but with increasing bravado. Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet, also excellent), who at sixteen already has three boyfriends, is disarmed by his charm, and falls in love with him. The next hour of the film is amusing, sexy and, often, frustrating because both lovers, usually Esther, are continually betraying each other, then reconciling tearfully. Each turn in the romance seems to be a dramatic resolution – either for true love forever or the final break-up – but somehow it never is. But eventually we know that it’s doomed; Esther, for all of her sexual confidence, is hopelessly dependent upon male approval. She openly tells Paul that she can only be faithful to him if he is with her constantly, that even a brief absence would force her to find other lovers. Finally, after one of Paul’s closest friends takes advantage of her weakness while Paul is away, we see how hopeless it is. Les jeux sont faites.

As for Paul, we learn that he became skilled at distancing himself emotionally at an early age, even as friends and lovers tried, unsuccessfully, for deeper connections. Anthropology was perfect for this; he could move from culture to culture at will. We sense that the furious, and totally uncharacteristic, outburst at the climax of the film, when, years afterwards, he finally confronts the friend who betrayed him, is only momentarily cathartic. He would soon withdraw back into himself, which would protect him from the pain of personal relationships. It had all become as easy as lending his citizenship to a total stranger.

The young leads, Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet, are appealing and sexy, especially because they are just normally attractive, not gorgeous. Mathieu Amalric, as the older Paul, has little to do until the scene confronting the friend who betrayed him, but he is forceful. I didn’t mind much that the film seems to end inconclusively, with Paul emotionally unchanged. More seriously, it’s a little overlong,  and the fitful and choppy narrative is sometimes hard to follow. But Paul is a character of unusual depth and intriguing contradictions; he’s someone you want to know more about. Maybe when I see the earlier (that is, later) film, which interlocks with this one, its flaws will not matter as much because Desplechin is really making a single, extended work that is dramatically complete.

 

The Treasure

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Nicodim Toma and Cuzin Toma in “The Treasure”

This Roumanian film, written and directed by Corneliu Porumboie, tells the story of Costi and Adrian, a pair of your basic “underachievers”, who go looking for some unspecified treasure that was supposedly buried in the 1960s to hide it from the Communists. At any rate, that’s the legend Adrian was told by his grandfather on his deathbed, and since Adrian will lose his home if he doesn’t come up with his mortgage payments, it seemed like a good time to see if the legend was true. He asks Costi, his next door neighbor, to join him and to help pay for the use of a metal detector that will be needed, since the treasure was buried in an iron box. Costi, a quiet and very ethical man, is neighborly and agrees to help, but is also tempted by the thought of extra money to help him support his wife and young son.

As joined by a man who has the metal detector, the three men go to the property at night to begin the search. After a few false starts, they find a spot that makes the metal detector scream like an ambulance, and they start some serious digging. It seems like a good portion of the film is just the three men arguing and whining while mounds of dirt get shoveled in the air, until, having had enough, the man with the detector leaves in disgust. The two neighbors then continue digging in the same spot. Then, just as it begins to seem hopeless, metal hits metal; the treasure box is found. But then, as they start to drive home, they are stopped by the police. According to law, the government can take seventy percent of treasure found in Roumania if it qualifies as “National Heritage”.

The rest of the film has a number of surprises. Although it takes at least ten minutes of screen time just to open the metal box at the police station, the reward for the audience is more comedy and suspense. The uplifting conclusion, which some may find hard to believe, works for me because of the wonderful performance of Cuzin Toma, who, in his bearing and expression, reminds me of the American actor Jim Cazavial (Interestingly, Toma’s own wife and son played those roles for his character). Conveying a quiet, gentle strength throughout, Toma made Costi’s final act of generosity seem the natural expression of an eternal optimist.

 

Mountains May Depart

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Zhang Yi and Zhao Tao in “Mountains May Depart”

This powerful epic, set in modern-day China, tells the story of a young woman named Shen Tao (Zhao Tao, giving an unforgettable performance), her family and her two suitors, Zhang and Liangzi, in Fenyang, a rural town in the northern province of Shanxi, which is where Zhangke grew up. Extending over a twenty-five year period, it is a subtle, yet passionate expression of Zhangke’s distress at the loss of traditional values due to globalization. It accomplishes a very rare achievement: to lead the viewer, almost imperceptibly, to a profoundly insightful perspective on the modern world by focusing tightly on a small group of characters.

It begins in 1999. We first see Shen leading a group dance to a pop song, “Go West”, by the Pet Shop Boys. We can see she is a young woman of vitality and joy in life. One day, Zhang (Zhang Yi), a prosperous businessman, shows off his new car to Shen and their friend, Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong), who works in a shop in Zhang’s business. Liangzi is just as infatuated with Shen as Zhang, but feels inadequate because he is only a minor employee in Zhang’s company. Although Shen is emotionally torn between the two men, Zhang is very attentive, smart and likely to become very rich. Liangzi is crushed when Shen chooses Zhang. He refuses to attend the wedding, and leaves Fenyang for another town so as not to be reminded of Shen. After their marriage, Shen and Zhang have a child, a son, whom Zhang chooses to name Dollar, in the hope the name will prophecize wealth.

The film then jumps ahead to 2014. Liangzi is now married, and has a young child. Forced to work in the mines, he has become seriously ill with respiratory problems, for which he will need an expensive operation. Seeing no other way, he moves back to Fenyang with his family, hoping to borrow money from his friends there. Overcoming her shame, Liangzi’s wife appeals to Shen for the money, which Shen gives her. Shen, however, is not rich any more. She is divorced from Zhang, and runs a small gas station. Zhang now lives in Shanghai, and has sole custody of Dollar, who is being raised in luxury there. When Shen’s father dies, she asks Zhang to send their son to Fenyang for the funeral. But Dollar seems totally confused when he arrives. He barely remembers his mother, and didn’t even know he had a grandfather. Shen is saddened but resigned to her son’s indifference. She sees how much better a life he has in Shanghai, and knows she could never offer him that.

The final section is set in Australia in 2025. Dollar (now played by Zijian Dong) is a student living with his father in Australia, where Zhang relocated for business reasons. Raised there since his early teens, Dollar never speaks Chinese any more and speaks only English, which Zhang doesn’t speak at all. Zhang is wealthy, but he spends most of his time drinking and collecting guns. Dollar rarely sees his father, and they have so little in common that he prefers to avoid him. The young man is aimless, confused and doesn’t know what he wants to do. He develops a close relationship with Mia, one of his teachers (Sylvia Chang), an attractive middle-aged woman who is divorcing her husband. Eventually the relationship deepens into an affair. Dollar tells her he often thinks about his mother, whom he hasn’t seen since the funeral, and he wants to visit her. With Mia as translator, he tells this to Zhang, who becomes furious. His memories of Shen are bitter, and he feels threatened by his son’s interest in his mother. But Dollar defies him, and decides to go without his father’s permission. He tells Mia, and they plan to go together. However, at the last minute, Dollar’s enthusiasm cools; he finds that he has nothing to say to Shen, and feels uncomfortable going there with Mia. The visit will never be made.

For the final scene, the film returns to Shen, who is living alone in Fenyang. She is taking her dog for its walk, and there is a sudden, windless snowfall. Shen is reminded of the days when she taught dancing. She acts out the moves of the dance we saw at the beginning of the film, set in 1999.

Zhangke has taken a simple story and framed it in such a way as to give it contemporary significance. Although many socially concerned filmmakers also do this, or try to, Zhangke’s approach is among the most difficult. His intent is to illuminate a social trend by telling a story of people whose lives are controlled by conditions of which they are almost totally unaware. Zhangke feels that the internet has brought about just such a change. The ability to communicate, instantaneously, with people in the most remote corners of the world, has become essential for economic survival. Even more significantly, he feels that people have accepted this without question and, unconsciously, based major life decisions on it.

Zhangke’s view of this condition is that we have become practically deadened to the need for intimacy in our lives. None of the characters in the film even seemed to notice that they have mindlessly abandoned long-standing traditional values, including the loyalty to one’s community and the richness of family relationships, which are no longer possible in the cyber environment. The story concludes, as many such films have, with the characters feeling vaguely disappointed with life, and disconnected from the people who had once been close to them.

In making such a film, Zhangke summons to mind, in his boldness if not his technique, the Michaelangelo Antonioni of L’Aventura and Red Desert. Like Antonioni, Zhangke prefers to make implicit connections between the lives of his characters and the cultural environment surrounding them, showing how its very pervasiveness prevents us from seeing its influence on our lives. While Antonioni’s viewpoint was largely a Marxist one, which is not shared by Zhangke, they are similar in how they avoid explicit statements of their themes.

I can understand why some critics felt the final section of the film is the weakest; Shen’s total absence, until the final scene, puts too much dramatic weight on the relationship between the young adult Dollar and Mia, his older lover, which we hadn’t been prepared for. But it does not diminish the impact of Zhangke’s epic vision. By placing fully-realized characters so suddenly in a foreign culture, in the near future, I could sense the kind of alienation and displacement that will afflict the next generation; our legacy for them.

 

Carol

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Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in “Carol”

This film, Todd Haynes‘ finest since his masterpiece, Safe in 1995, takes place in the early 1950’s, when there was barely an acknowledgment, much less a cultural acceptance of lesbianism in this country. Based on a Patricia Highsmith novel – one she could not publish under her name – it has been filmed with exceptional integrity. Although perfectly cast in every role, with a brilliant performance by Rooney Mara in the second lead, Cate Blanchett’s breathtaking performance in the title role is as dominating as anything  I’ve seen by an actress this year, although it is equalled, in my view, by Zhao Tao’s in Mountains May Depart.

It opens in a luxurious restaurant, where a middle-aged, and very expensively dressed woman, Carol, is having lunch with Therese, a modestly dressed young woman in her twenties. We sense a discomforting tension between them, which they try to dispel with polite conversation. This scene is only prelude to the main story, told in flashback; but it will be returned to.

We begin with Carol first seeing Therese as a shopgirl in a high-end department store. It is Christmas, and Carol is shopping for her four-year old daughter. It is clear that Carol is immediately drawn to the young woman, and that leaving the store without her gloves was not accidental. Then, when Therese makes an arduous search of store records to learn Carol’s identity, and returns the gloves to her, we see that the attraction is mutual. Their friendship leads to an affair, the discovery of which precipitates a divorce action by Carol’s husband, Harge. Although Harge also knew of Carol’s earlier affair with Abby, a relationship that had started in their girlhood, Harge did nothing about it then because he remained hopelessly in love with Carol. Now, however, fearing the corruption of his daughter, he is compelled to end the marriage and fight for sole custody.

With the exception of Therese, who is confused by her own desires, and mostly passive, all of the other major characters are willful, selfish and often cruel. Carol arouses our sympathy, but she also seems to have coldly, and calculatingly, accommodated her physical needs to society’s hypocrisy. In fact, Carol’s self-control is so effective that her genuine emotions are never totally revealed to the audience. In the climactic scene at the lawyer’s office, we’re never entirely sure whether Carol’s fateful decision is because she wasn’t willing to give up Therese, or because she clearly saw the odds against her. The scene is brilliantly written to make both explanations equally plausible.

Okay, I’ll have to be blunt about it: Carol is flawless, and will be rewarding after multiple viewings. The casting and dialogue are so precise that individual performances are deeply etched after only seconds of screen time. Kyle Chandler, as Harge, is almost frightening in his hostility to Therese, yet he never becomes a monster because his pain is so real (However, as an aside, the role does blend in a little too smoothly with Haynes’ growing list of tortured, clueless husbands; they could form a therapy group by now). Carter Burwell’s music can serve as the model for spareness for the most dramatic effect. But the revelation is Ed Lachman’s photography. At the Q and A after the screening, Haynes said how exciting it was to use Super-16 in Mildred Pierce, and he wanted to go even further with it. With a darker palette, the interiors have an unusual clarity, as if the deepest spaces in shadow are sharply outlined. The most memorable motif – used more often than I’ve ever seen before – is the image of a character’s face as seen through the windshield of a moving car.

Among contemporary filmmakers, Todd Haynes is identifiably devoted to a particular kind of story. His lead characters, nearly always women, are invariably in conflict with the cultural mores of their times. But he is unique, in my view, in his commitment to presenting that culture and its values as they appeared to the people who were living at that time. Unlike more commercial filmmakers, who rely on production design and costumes to depict another era, Haynes wants to imagine the story as it might have been told by a filmmaker in that era. By implication, of course, he wants today’s audience to have the chance to experience the film as if they were a movie audience of that era as well. However, in trying to create that illusion, Haynes uses the most advanced tools of cinema, masterfully, and with no apologies. An analogy is as if a potter, in making a vase in the style of the ancient Greeks, would use the latest chemical techniques and materials to simulate only those clays and pigments that were actually available to the ancient Greeks.

The Party’s Over

Well, that’s it. As of today, October 26th, only Experimenter has had an opening here, and the reviews were generally positive. If any of you have seen any of the films I reviewed, or see them after they open for commercial runs, I’d really like to know your opinions. But the films, good as they are, are only part of the experience. Festivals have their own kind of excitement. It has to do with seeing something new, with being there before opinions have already been formed. Like tasting a food you never had before, and going…wow! That was a surprise, and a pleasure.

About the author

Michael A. Scott has been watching movies for as long as he could walk down the sidewalk by himself (and even before). I don't always love every movie, yet I founded this website to share my love of movies with people throughout the world.