The New York Film Festival Returns…and Expands
The New York Film Festival is back, and in some ways, it’s bigger than ever. After a 58th edition last year that, thanks to COVID, was primarily virtual (give or take a few drive-in public screenings), this cinematic institution, whose 59th edition began this past Friday, September 24, has returned to in-person screenings (with masks on and proof of vaccination required, of course).
But for the first time in its history, it has also expanded its borders beyond its usual Lincoln Center bubble, with screenings scheduled at other theaters both around the city and even outside of it, with the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York, getting in on the action. Hopefully this isn’t a one-off gesture of magnanimity, especially considering the festival’s brand as an inclusive survey of the best that cinema has had to offer over a given year, from the film-festival circuit to popular culture.
On a more personal and insular note, press screenings have also gone back to being in person this year. This is in some ways a positive development: face-to-face camaraderie is back, baby! But it also means that, unlike last year, when virtual press screenings, with various time limits imposed on how long I had to watch particular films, meant I had the freedom to work them around my schedule (including a day job with eccentric hours), this year I have had to make some sacrifices based on Film at Lincoln Center’s set press-screening schedule.
So I’ve already missed some personally much-anticipated films—Paul Verhoeven’s lesbian-nun historical drama, Radu Jude’s Berlinale Golden Bear-winning , or Julia Ducornau’s Palme d’Or-winning (all thankfully already covered by my colleague Stephen Garrett for Book & Film Globe). Still, I have to check my own film-critic privilege here. I’m just glad to be back in the saddle, and I’m grateful for the interesting, challenging, sometimes even great cinema I’ve already gotten to see and will hopefully continue to see in the next two weeks.
Joel Coen’s Macbeth adaptation, not quite a tragedy
One of them, unfortunately, isn’t its opening-night selection, Joel Coen’s Shakespeare adaptation The Tragedy of Macbeth (which has one more screening scheduled for Saturday, October 9). That’s not to say there’s anything actively wrong with it. Though Coen, for the first time working without his usual brother-collaborator Ethan, has assembled a starry cast, including Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand (Joel’s wife, and an executive producer of the film) as Lady Macbeth, the real star of the film is Bruno Delbonnel’s lustrous black-and-white cinematography and Stefan Dechant’s atmospheric production design.
Coen reimagines Macbeth as a Gothic horror yarn, with Delbonnel emphasizing the contrasts between light and shadow, and Dechant’s castle interiors feeling as oppressive as they are vast (their breadth heightened by Delbonnel’s use of the 4:3 Academy ratio). Coen, to his credit, also adds some horror-movie-like touches of his own, most strikingly his combination of the three witches into one, played with imposing physical and verbal menace by veteran stage actress Kathryn Hunter.
But Shakespeare adaptations are a dime a dozen on stage and screen, so a new production ought to have a fresh angle at which to approach these time-honored plays. In that respect, I find The Tragedy of Macbeth rather lacking. It doesn’t help that, in spite of all the natural charisma and intensity he brings to the part, Washington never quite burns with the kind of bright-eyed ambition that would have brought a measure of coherence to his mood-swinging characterization.
And while McDormand (who had previously played Lady Macbeth onstage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley, California, in 2016) effortlessly nails the character’s steely, conniving nature, she and Washington rarely achieve the kind of chemistry that would make some sense out of Macbeth’s devotion to her cold and calculating wife. Coen’s Macbeth is ultimately defeated by its own reverence. This is a solid, watchable, often visually beautiful screen adaptation that never fully justifies its own existence.
Noé in the Vortex
“Reverence” is the last thing anyone expects from provocateur Gaspar Noé: the man who subjected viewers to a 10-minute rape scene in Irréversible, shot most of Enter the Void from a first-person subjective viewpoint, featured un-simulated 3D sex scenes in Love, and featured a 42-minute single take of a mass drug-induced freakout in Climax.
Nevertheless, his latest film, Vortex (playing on Thursday, September 30, and Saturday, October 2), which chronicles the last days in the lives of an elderly couple, may still through you for a loop. Instead of the sensory overload of some of his previous films, Vortex revels in lengthy takes and slow rhythms. Legendary horror director Dario Argento and French cinema stalwart Françoise Lebrun play the two main characters. Benoît Debie’s camera patiently following these two characters and a third, their son (Alex Lutz), while they all deal, in their own ways, with the wife’s encroaching dementia.
But even in a more autumnal context, Noé can’t help but push the formal envelope. Vortex’s overriding gimmick is his decision to present most of the film in split-screen, sometimes even as two or three characters are within the same room. Surprisingly, more often than not, the gambit works, emphasizing a sense of distance between the couple that feels like a plausible evocation of the psychological gap between Argento and Lebrun’s characters as the latter declines mentally.
There’s one scene in particular—a lengthy, wrenching negotiation scene between the couple and their son as the son tries to convince his father to place his mother in a nursing home—that demonstrates that, when he isn’t showing off stylistically, Noé can be a sterling director of actors (Argento, who has never had a starring role in a movie before, is actually quite impressive here). Vortex is by no means an easy watch—it runs 142 minutes, and you feel that grinding length in your bones—but as an examination of aging and mental illness, it’s superior to both the arctic detachment of Michael Haneke’s Amour and the narrative game-playing of Florian Zeller’s The Father.
The power of ‘Drive My Car’
At 179 minutes, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car (playing on Sunday, October 3, and Monday, October 4), a Best Screenplay winner at Cannes this year, runs even longer than Vortex—ironic, since it’s based on a short story by Haruki Murakami. But as Hamaguchi proved many years ago with his five-hour masterpiece Happy Hour, when a film is as filled with warmth, insight, and novelistic attention to human detail as Drive My Car is, one quickly adjusts to its patient storytelling rhythms, especially as it builds to a payoff of genuine emotional power.
Hamaguchi’s achievement is especially remarkable considering how relatively simple the plot of Drive My Car is: It’s about an artist—Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a theater director—who is still dealing with the two-year-old death of his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), when he is commissioned to direct a multilingual production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima. After an opening 45 minutes or so that chronicles the days leading up to his wife’s sudden death from a brain aneurism (a prologue demarcated by the belated appearance of the film’s opening credits), much of the rest of the film chronicles Yusuke’s process of artistic creation, lengthy rehearsal scenes and all, detailing the various ways in which this production dovetails with Yusuke’s own lingering grief.
In that sense, Drive My Car shares with a few other of this year’s New York Film Festival selections—including Nadav Lapid’s flawed but invigoratingly angry Ahed’s Knee and Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Part II (unseen by me, but covered by Stephen Garrett at Cannes)—the theme of being a film about art-making, especially during a time of personal struggle. But Hamaguchi’s film stands out for the resonant and ultimately transcendent way it approaches that subject. Though Yusuke himself had taken on the role of Uncle Vanya in previous productions, this time around he cedes that role to a younger actor—Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), with whom Oto had been carrying on an extramarital affair, a fact Yusuke discovered just before her death—saying that he is no longer able to bare himself emotionally the way he feels Chekhov’s text demands.
Drive My Car is thus, in large part, about the ways in which he regains that connection to Uncle Vanya that he had thought he’d lost. In this film , that’s equivalent to his coming to terms with both his wife’s infidelity and her death (even two years after her death, he still regularly listens to tapes of her reciting lines from the play). That latter process is also aided by his growing bond with his driver in Hiroshima, Misaki (Toko Miura), who, he gradually discovers, is dealing with some personal tragedies and guilt of her own. Hamaguchi’s film is one of the most potent and moving depictions of the cathartic power of art, an affirmation of its ability to speak across cultures and generations. Here’s hoping the rest of this year’s New York Film Festival has similar catharses in store.