For personal reasons, I wasn’t able to see as many films at this year’s festival as I was last year. I didn’t go to the glamor events, so I’m only going to write about the films.
I saw five features from the main slate at Alice Tully Hall, a perfect venue for it. Although four of my reserved seats were listed as “partial view” – because they were box seats at the side of the theatre on the balcony – the full screen was always visible to me.
I will once again list the five films in reverse order of preference. It was a very varied selection, but a rewarding one overall.
Paterson is Jim Jarmusch’s latest, and it was a satisfying, if unsurprising, work from him. I haven’t seen a lot of his films, but Dead Man stands out as the most adventurous and absorbing. I’m sure that Johnny Depp’s star charisma had a lot to do with it, too. Here Jarmusch seems to want to recapture that, and Adam Driver seems to channel his inner Depp: thoughtful, passive and vulnerable but demonstrating a quiet integrity.
Adam Driver plays Paterson, whose name is the same as the city he lives in. He drives a city bus, but thinks of himself as a poet, as yet unpublished. His wife, Laura, stays home day-dreaming of being a fashion designer or, maybe, a country singer like Patsy Cline. He also has an English bulldog, Marvin, who shows a growing resentment of his master.
While the film moves along pleasantly enough, you soon discover that the people of Paterson, a multi-ethnic, working class town in New Jersey, are very similar to the characters in many other Jarmusch films. They are open, friendly, mildly dissatisfied with life but generally trusting and tolerant of each other. Nobody, but nobody, harbors ill feelings towards anybody else.
That might present problems for a filmmaker who wants to hold an audience’s interest for two hours. After all, don’t you need dramatic conflict to move the story along? Ah, but that’s just for the human characters. Hint: watch out for Marvin.
The film can be considered an homage to William Carlos Williams, the second most famous Patersonian, after Lou Costello. He wrote a poem in praise of his hometown, which was its title, like this film. The crisis that threatens to end Paterson’s career as a poet, such as it is, is resolved, happily, by his chance meeting with a genial Japanese man who came to Paterson in tribute to Williams. It gave me a nice feeling, even though I could see it coming from a mile off.
The moral? True poets will always find each other.
Personal Shopper, this year’s entry from Olivier Assayas, is an audience-pleaser for devotees of this very accomplished filmmaker, but it doesn’t have the staying-power of his major films, like the masterful Summer Hours. Still, I was consistently entertained.
It’s certainly a showcase for Kristen Stewart. Or rather for her face. The fact that it really didn’t change its expression very much is almost irrelevant. Assayas obviously loves to look at it, and I can see why. There is a fierce intelligence in her eyes, which are embedded in what seems a classic ancient mask.
But, like the rest of the story, it gives us more of mystery than clear answers. She plays Maureen, a young American who performs the title job for a very wealthy, eccentric woman as they both hop about the capitals of Europe. Maureen is a “medium” who, like her twin brother Lewis, can communicate with the “spirit world”. The film opens after Lewis’ death from a heart attack. Maureen has the same heart condition that killed her brother, and her expectation of an early death has directed her to an aimless, pleasure-seeking existence. Maureen is visiting a house that a couple, who were Lewis’ friends, want to buy, and they want Maureen to see if it is haunted. She tells the couple, in passing, that she had made a pact with her brother that the first to die would communicate with the survivor.
The film ends with Maureen in Morocco and, in a kind of climax, speaking with Lewis’ “presence” in the spirit world. Along the way, a murder is committed, for which Maureen is briefly considered a suspect by the police, but it seems a lot of time is spent just dashing about Europe by plane, train and motorbike. I should also mention that, like Naomi Watts in Eastern Promises, Stewart looks terrific in jeans riding a motorbike. Actually, I didn’t need to mention that, but it’s one of the things that occupy your mind when you’re trying to follow a confusing and rambling story that never quite makes sense.
But I do intend to see it again because it’s simply gorgeous to look at, and it made me want to visit some of the locations.
Neruda is an altogether different kind of experience. The Nobel-winning Chilean poet was a senator, as well as a leader of the communist party in his country. Director Pablo Larrain wanted the film to be as much a history of a particular era – the period just after World War II when communists were killed and imprisoned in a fascist purge – as it is a portrait of a genius. With a passionate, multi-layered screenplay by Guillermo Calderon, he has made an unusually compelling film.
Luis Gnecco gives a full-blooded and commanding performance in the title role. We can easily believe he is revered by the Chilean people as their true voice, as poet and as defender of freedom. He is a man of passion and large appetites, whether for the beauty of words or wine or beautiful women. And, perhaps strongest of all, is his love for worshipful attention by the public. But Larrain is as inspired by Neruda’s poetry as by his personal courage. The story has many fantastic and imaginary elements, most prominently the creation of a personal nemesis, Peluchonneau, a fascist officer who narrates the film. The story shows this character’s transformation from virulent anti-communist to someone who sacrifices himself to let Neruda escape Chile, saving his life.
Until the final third of the film, suspense is maintained because Neruda’s flight is fairly straightforward. Neruda and his wife, superbly played by Mercedes Moran, evade the police while engaging in a kind of cat-and-mouse game with them. Neruda is torn between self-preservation and his own unquenchable ego. He is compelled to vent his outrage, and risks capture by making public appearances to recite his poetry.
But the storytelling falters once Neruda tries to cross the snow-capped Andes. Peluchonneau starts to become muddled and self-consciously poetic in his narration; I was never quite sure about his state of mind. Also, the film began with Peluchonneau adopting a mocking tone, which was amusing and surprising as well. He was making fun of the Chilean communists, calling them bourgeois hypocrites who would never take the risks of real revolutionaries. But when his tone became more serious, with Peluchonneau doubting his fascist beliefs, it was as if Neruda had faded into the snowy landscape. While some critics consider Peluchonneau to be the true central character of the film, and find allusions to Neruda’s poetry in his narration, the stream of inscrutable poetic phrases became numbing after awhile, in spite of Bernal’s vibrant performance.
But happily, Neruda does escape to Paris, and the film ends with him in his glory again: hammy, defiant and surrounded by gorgeous women.
Manchester By The Sea is an emotionally powerful, rigorously unsentimental story of the effect of a terrible personal tragedy on an average working class American. But, as in his previous film, Margaret, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan wants us to see the personal elements as interwoven within a broader exploration of a particular culture, and the values shared by that community.
Casey Affleck, in a painfully honest performance, plays Lee, who had spent much of his life in Manchester, a Massachusetts fishing village. But the film opens in Boston, where Lee works as a handy man at a lower middle-class apartment complex. His employer is upset with Lee’s sullen, often resentful attitude toward the residents. Lee only responds that he is underpaid, abused and that he doesn’t care what they think of him anyway.
But his indifference is hiding a deeper cause for his despair, which the film reveals slowly, in short flashbacks that are sometimes confusing, at least initially. Lee had been a family man with a wife, Randi, played by Michelle Williams, and two small daughters. But a terrible tragedy occurs before the film opens, which is revealed in flashback. After a late-night drinking spree, Lee has a mishap that leads to a fire in which both daughters are killed. Randi divorces him, and he goes downhill fast from drinking and social isolation. He moves to Boston, which is where we find him at the beginning of the film.
What Lonergan does next is quite interesting. After Lee’s older brother dies of natural causes, Lee finds that he has been appointed guardian of his brother’s sixteen year old son, Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges. To do this he has to return to Manchester. Lee is grudgingly forced to care for the needs of another person, and the story is shaped as his emergence from a guilt-fueled depression into what is at least the possibility of a normal life again.
The flashback structure helps us to maintain interest. As with a puzzle, Lee becomes a more complete person with each revelation. Once the tragedy is revealed, the earlier flashbacks, some of which were confusing, are crystallized into a coherent narrative. In fact, Lonergan’s use of flashbacks is the most sophisticated I’ve seen in years.
Along with Lee’s story, we also learn much about Manchester. There is a kind of pall over the city, as if its adults have stabilized into a routine of working class monotony that is only made tolerable with hockey and alcohol. The teenagers also have sex, of course, and most of the humor in the film concerns Patrick’s various girlfriends and Lee’s resentment at having to drive Patrick to their homes. Still, an overall sense of gloom pervades the entire film.
The fact that the film maintains interest, and reaches several peaks of emotional involvement, shows how skillful a filmmaker Lonergan has become. The generally joyless atmosphere is not allowed to lull our dramatic involvement. The emotional peak of the story is Lee’s chance meeting with Randi on the street near the end of the film. She is with her newborn child after she remarried. She experiences an onrush of tremendous guilt for her treatment of Lee after the death of the children, and her desperate, tearful plea for forgiveness is piercing. Michelle Williams will surely be celebrated for her performance.
The conclusion, however, does not promise a full recovery for Lee, and this should leave some members of the audience unsatisfied. Lee simply gets a new job, but does not seem any more capable of intimacy with anyone. If his walk on the road with Patrick is meant to show how they’ve formed a trusting and caring relationship, I don’t buy it. But, to his credit, Lonergan is more concerned with truth of character than in giving us another pretentious Oscar showboat like Ordinary People. I have learned not to expect anything less of him.
Yes, here is the big one. You may not like Toni Erdmann – much less love it, as I do – but you’ve probably never seen anything quite like it before. Comedy-dramas about how middle-class adults relate to a difficult parent provide rich material for filmmakers. The superior ones, like James L. Brooks, know how to use this material in an entertaining way, and when all the elements click, as in Terms of Endearment, we get a kind of model for the genre. I’m certainly not complaining about that.
But German writer-director Maren Ade was intent on creating a new model, and boy did she succeed. We’re first introduced to an elderly man, Winfried, played by Peter Simonischek with an almost other-worldly charm. He is quiet, but playful and seemingly incapable of ever telling the truth. After about 20 minutes we meet Ines, his power-driven daughter, whose smart-phone seems to be grafted onto her face. Sandra Huller’s spectacular performance is simply beyond praise.
The plot of this ground-breaking film is insanely complicated, and yet, as in all successful works of art, painlessly simple. Winfried feels that Ines is being exploited by her boss and colleagues, all male, and is unhappy being a business-dynamo. More importantly, he never gets a chance to see her any more.
To say that Winfried’s way of solving his problem is uproarious is an understatement. Part of it involves the creation of an imaginary person named “Toni Erdmann”, and that’s just the start of it. But the laughter doesn’t come just from the way he interferes with Ines’ work, but in the interaction between father and daughter. Ines’ attempts to stifle her growing outrage at her father – the many ways the human face and body show the equivalent of an eye-roll – are hilarious. Ines is “straight man” in a divine comedy team, with Winfried an infuriating geriatric imp. To see Winfried’s sly, faux innocent expression when Ines confronts him is classic.
But, along with all of the perfectly timed comic set-ups, a serious theme is explored. This is one of the most scathingly feminist films I’ve ever seen. It succeeds where so many others fail because Ines is a woman who has so thoroughly absorbed the value system that has perpetuated male privilege that she accepts her humiliation as routine business practice. Besides, she is confident that her superior intelligence and total commitment to success will win over the men who control the business world. She thinks she can be better than them at their own game.
It isn’t until the final hour of this nearly three hour film that Ines’ confidence is shaken. We have seen her submissive smile as she helps a client’s wife with shopping. She thinks nothing of taking a member of her team as a lover just to better control his work performance. And her cold indifference to the harm she can cause isn’t pretty to watch. One scene, where Winfried is upset that an offhand remark of his causes a worker to be fired, is especially telling. With icy nonchalance, Ines says that it’s a good thing because the more workers the boss fires, the fewer she’ll have to.
But finally, Ade rewards the viewer’s patience. The first sign of Ines’ breakdown is her breathtaking rendition of “The Greatest Love of All” in front of a neighborhood sewing circle. And then she completes the job of unraveling her unsatisfying life at a birthday party – for herself – that audiences will be talking about for a long time.
There is comedy that is just funny, and I enjoy it as much as anyone. But then there is laughter that is liberating and restorative, where you howl till the tears flow.
This is comedy that “cleans you out”. Think of the first time you saw Tootsie. Maren Ade was aiming for that level, and with Toni Erdmann, she takes you there.
One final thought: there just may be people who, in spite of the raves from critics and audiences, are not inclined to see a nearly three hour German language film with subtitles. But with such a universal story, an American remake – directed by Maren Ade, of course – is worth the risk. Casting would have to be perfect, or it won’t work. We have a few fine actresses who’d make a great Ines; Amy Adams, for instance. But anyone other than Jeffrey Tambor for Winfried is unthinkable.