Family ties bind a wide array of cinematic visions
Family ties emerged as a fascinating thread tying together a wide array of cinematic visions in the last two weeks of this year’s New York Film Festival, with the uneven closing film French Exit tying it all together.
The Plastic House
Family is very much on the surface of The Plastic House, a 46 minute experimental nonfiction work that screened virtually as part of the festival’s Currents sidebar. Set in and around the dilapidated greenhouse of writer/director Allison Chorn’s recently departed Cambodian parents, the film follows her attempts to keep up both the greenhouse and, by extension, her parents’ memory beyond the video footage of them she captured on a camcorder.
But this isn’t a plot-heavy film, and there’s barely any dialogue. Instead, Chorn builds The Plastic House on a series of repeated actions and images, with the only moments of “drama” coming from a symbolic hole that forms on the greenhouse ceiling and a crack that materializes and spreads on her bedroom wall. Together, this mesmerizingly melancholic miniature adds up to a poetic vision of grief as a kind of physical and emotional holding pattern, one that, as its enigmatic coda suggests, threatens to consume one’s sense of self even as it succeeds in keeping lost loved ones figuratively alive.
Atarrabi & Mikelats
If The Plastic House is content to depict rather than cast judgment on the family bonds that can psychologically tie us down, there’s little doubt where United States-born French filmmaker Eugène Green lies on the matter. In his new film Atarrabi & Mikelats, the earnestly spiritual Atarrabi (Saia Hiriart) finds his attempts to get closer to God thwarted from the start because of his lineage. The Devil (Thierry Biscary) raises him and his polar-opposite brother Mikelats (Lukas Hiriart) after their mother, the goddess Mari (Adelaïde Daraspe-Lafourcade), hands them over to him just after their births.
When a grown-up Atarrabi decides he wants to fly the coop and see the world of the mortals, the Devil lets him go, but at a price. He takes away Atarrabi’s shadow, a circumstance that rules out any chance of ordination at the monastery where he ends up living. Try as he might, he can’t fully escape his family ties.
Atarrabi & Mikelats resides in the realm of myth and fable, albeit updated in Green’s own unique ways. An educator who’s devoted his life to passing the French baroque theatre tradition onto a new generation of artists, Green has conceived a whole cinematic style that manages to be uncannily retro and modern at the same time.
Previous Green films like The Living World (2003) and The Son of Joseph (2016) may feel old-fashioned as a result of their mythological or Biblical inspirations and open-air settings, but the modern-day details and deliberately stiff acting style give his films an avant-garde edge. In Atarrabi & Mikelats, for instance, we see the Devil, clad in a sharply tailored all-red suit, sitting at a computer listening to what he says is rap music on headphones. Plus, his underground lair looks like a cleaner, classier version of the basement of a frat house.
Such comically whimsical touches come pretty consistently throughout the first half of the film, and you can feel Green’s cheeky delight in building this world, so familiar yet also so strange. But there’s no anti-religious snark to be found here. Atarrabi & Mikelats is ultimately a work of faith, with Atarrabi eventually finding his own transformative path toward God. “As long as you live, you are seeking Him,” says the Father Superior (Pablo Lana) with whom he stays. That kind of devotion—which Green presents with full, moving sincerity—is enough to transcend even the most bitter of familial tensions.
Red, White and Blue
In Red, White and Blue, family bonds turn out to be only thing left for Black British police officer Leroy Logan, because his idealism about reforming racist police attitudes from within has taken a massive hit. This is the third film in Steve McQueen’s upcoming Small Axe Amazon series to premiere at the New York Film Festival (I covered the other two, Lovers Rock and Mangrove, here), and in some ways, it’s the most provocative. At the very least, you could consider the mere idea of dramatizing the real-life story of Logan (played by John Boyega) challenging to conventional wisdom. McQueen potentially flirts with the dicey-in-some-quarters implications of “not all police” and “blue lives matter.”
But talking points are about all Red, White and Blue has to recommend it, beyond a terrific performance from Boyega and an equally commanding supporting performance from Steve Toussaint, who plays Logan’s father, Kenneth, who vocally disapproves of his son’s career ambition. Leroy Logan is optimistic that he alone can help bring change to policing in Britain, while Kenneth, forever suspicious of the police, is scornful at what he sees as his son’s betrayal.
To McQueen’s credit, he doesn’t explicitly come down one way or the other on this fascinating dynamic. The mechanical quality of his filmmaking prevents it from approaching the emotional and dramatic highs of Lovers Rock and Mangrove, as if McQueen had deliberately set out to put aside his artsier tendencies and concentrate on telling the story at hand as plainly and economically as possible. But maybe the post-screening conversations that the film will surely spark is enough of a justification for its existence.
You could also call French Exit, this year’s Closing Night selection, provocative, though it’s more difficult to determine how useful its provocations are. Adapted by screenwriter Patrick deWitt from his own 2018 novel, Azazel Jacobs’s new tragicomedy is also in large part about the stranglehold of family ties: in this case, Malcolm Price’s (Lucas Hedges) devotion to his eccentric and self-destructive mother, Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer), as they both flee to Paris after Frances runs out of her late husband’s money and can no longer maintain her upper-crust existence in New York.
You can tell Frances and Malcolm are privileged because nearly every single line of dialogue that comes out of their mouths sounds “sophisticated” in ways that smack of a writer who wants to show off how clever he thinks he is. But the terminal whimsy doesn’t stop there. French Exit adds surrealism into the mix, as Malcolm encounters a medium, Madeleine (Danielle McDonald), on board the cruise ship that takes him and his mother to Paris. She’s not a fake; instead, she will eventually summon up Frances’s late husband, Frank, whose spirit is trapped in the black cat she smuggled into France (voiced by Tracy Letts, as deliciously caustic as ever).
Also…is that a dildo in the freezer of Mme. Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), the New York expat who reaches out to Frances and Malcolm in a fit of desperation? Why is it there? The film makes nothing of it beyond a random attempt at a cheap joke, which apparently deWitt considers the height of comedy. French Exit is littered with such eye-rolling momentary fancies, with Tobias Datum’s symmetrical compositions and Nick deWitt’s chamber score giving it all a classy deadpan veneer.
Occasionally, moments of emotional poignancy and truth peek through the irritation. Frances’s park-bench encounter with a bum in Paris culminates in a twist that refreshingly affirms the dignity of the homeless. And while Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance is mostly notable for the way she entertainingly feasts on deWitt’s stylized dialogue, Lucas Hedges manages to find a core of humanity underpinning Malcolm, a man-child struggling to find his own way out of a heretofore cloistered life. In the age of hit TV shows like Succession that invite us to bask in the dastardly deeds of the rich and famous from a comfortable distance, French Exit, to its credit, doesn’t entirely allow us to retreat into the same kind of gawking train-wreck detachment. But it’s questionable whether it offers much else beyond an overfamiliar tale of family dysfunction and arrested development.
James Baldwin in Paris
But let’s not end what has otherwise been a very positive New York Film Festival experience on a sour note. Instead, let’s talk about a much more interesting French exit: the one James Baldwin made in 1970 when he fled the US and settled in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in southern France, where he would eventually die in 1987. In 1971, British documentarian Terence Dixon attempted to follow the legendary writer around in Paris and get him to open up about his life and work. But it wasn’t an entirely smooth process. The resulting half-hour short Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris—which the festival presented in a new 2K restoration as part of its Revivals sidebar—chronicles his fascinating journey.
Much of the first half of this miniature documentary follow’s Dixon’s fumbling attempts to make Baldwin comfortable. Their tense back-and-forth points up a chasm of racial and social privilege between filmmaker and subject, in ways that are bound to resonate here in the US in 2020, where it seems many white people remain as oblivious to the experience of being Black in America as Dixon appears to be, for all his vocal admiration of Baldwin’s work.
Even in an emotionally guarded state, however, Baldwin can’t help but be startlingly insightful on such difficult social and political matters, and Meeting the Man positively overflows with his wit and eloquence. “Love has never been a popular movement,” Baldwin says at one point, “and very few people have wanted to be free.” We’re tasting the bitterness of that harsh truth all over the world right now.