Fifteen of the twenty-nine features lined up for the Main Slate of this year’s New York Film Festival premiered in Cannes. With the fifty-seventh NYFF opening this weekend, the time is right for an overview of how these films have been received at other festivals since those first bows in May. Last week, we caught up with the latest reviews of Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory. Here, we begin with the winner of the Palme d’Or, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a film that, as Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov puts it, “presents a pretty literal upstairs/downstairs class stratification, letting the gap widen until it’s not just merely inhumane but actually untenable.”
Bong’s first feature in a decade to be set in his native South Korea, Parasite is a tale of two families. From their cluttered semi-basement apartment, the dirt-poor Kims begin to infiltrate the filthy rich Parks and their hilltop Architectural Digest–ready spread. In a piece that appeared last week in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Seo Hee Im explains why she’s hardly surprised that the jury in Cannes “adored” Parasite. The film “delivers uncensored class contempt,” she argues. “Bong’s claim that the title was meant ironically is a cop-out: ironically or not, Parasite unambiguously equates the poor with pests. CGI insects trail the Kims everywhere, and Gi-taek (Song Kang-ho) traipses around looking convincingly arthropod in his spinal stoop. More subtly, Parasite implies throughout that the Parks are at the top and the Kims at the bottom of the social ladder for good reason.”
Writing for the Ringer, Adam Nayman offers a polar opposite reading of Parasite. “In lieu of the gentle and sometimes condescending empathy that usually defines films about cash-strapped characters—including last year’s Palme d’Or winner, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s lovely, wistful Shoplifters—Bong foregrounds and even celebrates his protagonists’ cockroach-like tenacity,” writes Nayman. “The pleasure here is that of watching people who have everything get had, and Bong, who is easily one of the most fluid and assured storytellers in contemporary cinema, revels in all the brazen manipulation.”
That manipulation entails “left turns and big reveals that not only bring new layers to the film’s social commentary, but also develop the characters and their attendant psychologies, which encompass the psychic toll of shame, lack of empathy, and deception,” as Sam C. Mac points out at Slant. That said, Mac finds that Bong derails the narrative altogether with an “overstuffed pile-up of incident that occurs toward the end. This is frequently an issue for Bong’s films (both Snowpiercer and Okja climax with busy and disorientating action set pieces that lose sight of their characters in the process), and here it manifests in a boldly gruesome scene of violence that’s undercut by a lengthy and rather contrived denouement.”
Atlantics, French-Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop’s debut feature and winner of the Grand prix in Cannes, is “the rare picture to address the global migrant crisis with intense storytelling imagination as well as moral outrage,” wrote the Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang back in May. Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) is the de facto leader of a crew at work on the construction of a skyscraper towering over Dakar. These laborers haven’t been paid in months and are left with little other choice than to leave Senegal for Europe. Souleiman spends one last evening with seventeen-year-old Ada (Mama Sane), who doesn’t yet know that this means goodbye. Their love defies Ada’s parents’ plans for an arranged marriage to wealthy yet dull Omar (Babacar Sylla).
Rather than follow the men who set out for Spain, Atlantics remains with the women they’ve left behind. “My project was to write the Odyssey of Penelope,” Diop tells the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, who notes that the filmmaker “sees flipping the narrative in terms of heritage and the necessity of making ‘the collective and mythical stories yours’ and ‘in your own time.’ She also looked to what she called ‘the Muslim imaginary’ for inspiration, folding the supernatural figure of the djinn into an otherwise realistic milieu.” Have the men, believed lost at sea, returned as wandering spirits? Is Souleiman scheming to take Ada back from Omar? In Another Gaze, Rebecca Liu observes that all of Diop’s films “blend together fiction and non-fiction, the mythic and the every day. This is a way of extending generosity into a world that sorely lacks it—even at her most surreal, fantasies are not so much about a flight from the world as imagining how it could be better.” At Slant, Christopher Gray calls Atlantics “a work of disparate influences and genres that pulses on its own oblique wavelength.” It’s also one of the NYFF films Ashely Clark, Nicolas Rapold, and Farihah Zaman discuss in the latest Film Comment Podcast.
Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau, winner of a jury prize, takes its name from the fictional, ethnically diverse town tucked up in the predominately white northeastern region of Brazil. After the town is unplugged from the grid—no cell phone reception, no GPS—its people are hunted down by armed American tourists on a safari led by Udo Kier. Adam Nayman argues that the directors “are intentionally trying to conjure up that ’80s action-flick aesthetic à la John McTiernan—or John Carpenter, who gets name-checked in a bit of background set dressing, nodded to in synthy music cues, and honored by cinematographer Pedro Sotero’s sublime widescreen compositions.”
For Sam C. Mac, Bacurau “succeeds as a stingingly personal missive aimed squarely at Brazil’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro . . . From the implications of complicity in committing atrocity to the hunters’ flagrant misogyny and orgiastic love of guns, Bacurau fervently represents the degeneracy of the Bolsonaro state. But it’s also a crowd-pleaser that celebrates lovemaking, body positivity, and liberal use of psychotropic drugs, a plenty righteous message for a violent world.” Writing for Film Comment, Jonathan Romney finds Bacurau to be “an ungainly, sometimes ugly mess, but in our ever-intensifying age of rage, righteous or otherwise, we can expect to see a lot of hothouse cinema blooming from a fertile ground of protest and fury. Frustrating as it is, Bacurau fulfills that description with flourish and ambition.”
As Manohla Dargis noted back in May, the Cannes jury’s decision to present the best director award to Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne for Young Ahmed was not an immediately popular one. The film opens with Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), a teen in a small Belgian town, under the sway of a manipulative imam (Idir Ben Addi) and then tracks the progress of his radicalization. For Chuck Bowen at Slant, “on the surface, Young Ahmed feels like a classic Dardenne production, as it’s been staged with their customary docudramatic urgency.” At the same time, though, “the Dardennes maintain a distance from Ahmed as a way of celebrating their refusal to reduce him to any easy psychological bullet points, which ironically reduces him to something else: a signifier of their virtue.”
Dispatching to Filmmaker from Cannes, Blake Williams granted that Ahmed is “sketchily developed, an archetype for an ideology that consumes him—and our understanding of him and his psychology—all-encompassingly.” But: “I cannot say I’ve seen a more affirmative and humanist gesture in this year’s festival than the brief instance in which Ahmed does experience and succumb to desire: the cognitive processes that have organized his way of thinking about himself in the present and in an eternal sense breaking down, giving way to another, contradictory way of being alive in the world.”
Céline Sciamma won not only the best screenplay award but also the Queer Palm for Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Set along the coastline of Brittany in the eighteenth century, Portrait centers on Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a woman in her twenties hired by an aristocratic family to secretly capture the likeness of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who is to be married off to a wealthy suitor in Milan. “As Marianne and Héloïse become closer,” writes Leonardo Goi in the Notebook, “the secrecy around the former’s job finally dispelled in a cathartic heart to heart where the two understand the rigid boundaries of the patriarchy they are up against, the portrait takes on an unbearably tragic dimension. The object that brings the two women together is also the one that will ultimately draw them apart, and there is nothing short of extraordinary in the way Marianne and Héloïse wake up to the realization, in a game of glances and gestures which, away from Héloïse’s mother’s stare, shift from furtive to wanting, as the young women’s relationship veers—and ultimately gives into—a tale of selfless love.”
Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov finds Sciamma “triple-underlining themes lest anyone miss them,” and at Slant, Christopher Gray argues that her screenplay has “more than a handful of dazzling turns of phrase, but it’s also unnecessarily keen to give some present-day relevance to a romance that’s assuredly timeless. Where her previous films (Girlhood, Tomboy) have excelled in situating their protagonists in complex, sometimes hostile societies, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is at its most beguiling and probing when the rest of the world feels far away.”
The NYFF has selected three films from Cannes’s Un Certain Regard program. In Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come, winner of the jury prize, a man accused of arson returns from prison to his elderly mother’s home in the Galician countryside. “Were it a piece of writing it would exist at the crossroads of an essay, a reportage, and a series of haikus singing the praises and the plights of a threatened ecosystem,” writes Diego Semerene for Slant. “Although we know its images to be composed and assembled, and as such ‘fiction,’ the film’s delicate pace and the contemplative choreography of its camerawork conjure a sense of authenticity so organic that we’re almost convinced that there’s no space between the characters and the actors, between the filmed setting and the actual landscape.”
Writing for In Review Online, Lawrence Garcia notes that “tensions abound, but Laxe’s inclination is to defuse them, often by defaulting to silence and stasis. That is, until the climactic conflagration portended by the title, for which Laxe, his crew, and local firefighters underwent months of preparation—and which is no less devastating or fearsome for it.” In the new issue of Cinema Scope, Azadeh Jafari observes that this sequence is “like a document of the apocalypse, complete with some found surreality: two goats wandering in the kitchen of an abandoned house; a blinded horse stumbling through the scorched landscape.”
Inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War, an oral history of the women who fought for Russia during the Second World War, Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole centers on two friends working at a Leningrad hospital in the aftermath of one of the longest and harshest sieges in history. “Balagov has set his film largely in tones of dark amber, bright green and red, and filthy yellow redolent of old incandescent lighting,” writes Jake Cole at Slant. “Cinematographer Kseniya Sereda’s color palette recalls that of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Véronique for the way it gives settings an artificiality that nonetheless brings Beanpole’s grounded sociopolitical commentary into greater focus.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Balagov, who won UCR’s director award and a prize from the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI), presents “psychological states so decentered that expected emotions never appear,” writes Bessie Rubenstein for Another Gaze. At In Review Online, Daniel Gorman calls Beanpole “a remarkable achievement by a young director, who manages to conjure an ending so beautiful that it makes the misery bearable.”
As Jordan Raup reports at the Film Stage, Cinema Guild has just picked up U.S. rights to Albert Serra’s Liberté, winner of a UCR special jury prize. The project’s origins are rooted in a theatrical production, also called Liberté, and an installation, Personalien—writing for Cinema Scope, Phil Coldiron explains why he prefers the installation to the film. In all three versions, libertines on the run from the French court in the late seventeenth century enjoy a night of no-holds-barred erotic play in the Prussian forest somewhere between Potsdam and Berlin.
At Slant, Carson Lund finds that, while it betrays “the markings of its original form in its small revolving ensemble, single location, and frequent tableau staging, Liberté conjures a sustained ambiance and eroticism that’s unique to the language of cinema. The most immediate testament to this pedigree is the film’s look, which perversely blends the compositional and lighting style of the Rococo period with the oft-unflattering sterility of digital photography. Some marriage of painting and cinema has always been central to Serra’s art, but the overall effect here has never seemed so uncanny, in large part due to the work of cinematographer Artur Tort.” Back at the Film Stage, Ethan Vestby argues that Liberté is “both Serra’s most uncompromising film and his most enjoyable.”
Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, the NYFF’s lone selection from the independent Directors’ Fortnight program, juxtaposes scenes of Haiti in the early 1960s, where a man is zombified and enslaved, and present-day France, where one of his descendants, Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), is the only black student at an elite, girls-only school founded in the Napoleonic era. As Sam C. Mac points out, these are “two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. And the anxiety this creates—through discursive editing and match cuts—leads to a feverish payoff, one that uses genre and supernatural elements to further Bonello’s idea of there being one historical continuity.”
Writing for Sight & Sound, Giovanni Marchini Camia admires the way Bonello “packs so much history and culture and commentary into Zombi Child, expertly capitalizing on the allegorical potential of the horror film,” but argues that the project “falls apart” in its final sequence. “On its own, the botched exorcism ritual that takes up the last ten or so minutes would have been pleasurably outrageous and exhilarating in its lack of restraint,” he writes. “However, Bonello keeps intercutting the scene with a close-up of Mélissa explaining the specifics of voodoo in order to both underline the cultural appropriation thematic and avoid its pitfalls. The effect is that of watching a thrillingly bewildering scene and having it explained at the same time, dispelling its magic.”
In Cinema Scope, Jordan Cronk argues that Bonello’s eighth feature is “among his best and most daring,” but in Variety, Scott Tobias finds that Zombi Child “feels like a pre-fab cult movie, or at least Bonello’s attempt at an eccentric genre twist like Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day. But his previous films are not so predigested in their conclusions, much less in how they arrive at them.” For Filmmaker, Christopher Small talks with Bonello about his influences and composing his own soundtrack.
The remaining five features from Cannes all premiered in competition but went home empty-handed. Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor, though, has just been selected as Italy’s entry in this year’s race for the foreign-language Oscar. In his outstanding review for Cinema Scope, Celluloid Liberation Front argues that, in telling the story of Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), who became the first mafia boss to turn informer in the early 1980s, Bellocchio is “hardly interested in the historical dimension of the Sicilian Mafia or that of its protagonists: on the contrary, he explores the phenomenological tics of their lives and, as always in his cinema, the Oedipal folds of their psyche.” What truly interests Bellocchio is “the ordinary unfolding of a supposedly epic life whose narrative peaks are frustrated by anti-climactic counterpoints. The film is dynamically suspended between the pathos of rise and fall and the monotony of daily life, though punctually subdued and understated; it flows like a Homeric poem.”
Over the course of nearly two-and-a-half hours, Bellocchio tails Buscetta from the outbreak of a war between two families to his flight to Brazil and his extradition back to Italy. For Jake Cole, “it’s in Bellocchio’s depiction of the ‘Maxi Trial’ in a heavily fortified courtroom in Palermo that the film completes its metamorphosis from a grisly, stone-faced drama about mob violence into an almost farcical satire of Italy’s justice system.” Cole finds that the third act flounders until Buscetta is dragged back into a courtroom. “The Traitor is at its best when showing how gangsters undermine their lofty notions of nobility, through their petulance and agitation,” writes Cole, “which makes it all the more frustrating to see Tommaso left at the end with too much of his dignity intact.”
In The Wild Goose Lake, Diao Yinan’s long-awaited followup to Black Coal, Thin Ice, his 2014 winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin, Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is a gangster on the run who meets a mysterious woman, Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei). While the film “hardly reconfigures the crime thriller afresh,” writes James Lattimer for Sight & Sound, “it does pare it down to the essentials to exhilarating effect, progressively jettisoning the whys and wherefores of plot to focus on little more than two bodies moving through any number of ravishing, noirish spaces.”
The Wild Goose Lake “at times plays like Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out envisioned by Jia Zhangke,” suggests Fernando F. Croce in a dispatch to the Notebook from Toronto. “It’s a largely nocturnal world, Diao’s China, a welter of leaky basements and motels and noddle shops or, in an uncanny moment, simply a darkened road where headlights briefly appear, tantalizingly weave, and vanish.” Writing for Cinema Scope, Azadeh Jafari finds that beyond “the overtly stylized visuals and exhilaratingly violent set pieces that are reminiscent of the Coens and Tarantino, Diao once again delves into the all-devouring capitalism that defines modern China.” Talking to Wang Muyan in Film Comment, Diao notes that the film was sparked by a real-life “congress of thieves” that took place in 2012. “They were in the middle of dividing up the territory in front of a map of Wuhan when they were captured,” he says. “The news item made me laugh for a whole minute.”
Loosely based on Mosco Boucault’s 2008 television documentary Roubaix, commissariat central, affaires courantes, Arnaud Desplechin’s Oh Mercy! centers on Yakoub Daoud (Roschdy Zem), the chief of police in France’s poorest commune. An elderly woman has been murdered and two asocial women (Léa Seydoux and Sara Forestier) are the prime suspects. Oh Mercy! is “a striking stylistic departure for Desplechin,” writes Chuck Bowen. “By the standards of florid pseudo auto-biopics such as Kings and Queen and Ismael’s Ghosts, this film is an exercise in formal and tonal restraint. Desplechin has cited The Wrong Man as an influence here, and one can see the Alfred Hitchcock film’s docudramatic legacy in prolonged sequences that savor the particulars of, say, taking fingerprints, or of advising a suspect to shed all potentially dangerous articles of clothing, such as a belt or the cord in a hoodie.”
The problem with the film for Leonardo Goi is “not just that the rhizomatic and bloated narrative detracts attention from what Desplechin eventually presents as the main case. It’s that the other investigations are potentially far more interesting than the one Oh Mercy! zooms into . . . And even the unsettling nighttime mood cast by Irina Lubtchansky’s cinematography hardly penetrates into the interiors’ proceedings, leaving you to reckon with a procedural cop film graced with a few inspired scenes that feel closer to compartmentalized units than parts of a cohesive whole.”
In Justine Triet’s Sibyl, Virginie Efira plays an alcoholic therapist who sobers up to write a novel about one of her patients, Margot (Adèle Exarchopoulos), an actress having an affair (and a baby) with with her costar, Igor (Gaspard Ulliel), in a movie being directed by his wife (Sandra Hüller). “Triet’s ability to wrap up tragedy in a vaudevillian fabric is what makes Sibyl such a palatable and unpretentious affair,” finds Diego Semerene. “It’s at its most farcical that Sibyl yields the deepest insights into the film’s characters,” he adds. Tomas Trussow agrees, noting especially “the way Efira slowly unspools Sibyl’s vulnerabilities, the way Exarchopoulos channels Margot’s desolate rage, the way Ulliel seizes on Igor’s manipulative tendencies. It patterns out their psyches in ways that simultaneously entertain and aggrieve, amuse and disturb.” For Evan Morgan at In Review Online, though, Sibyl is “a movie that feels richer at the margins than at the center.”
Vlad Ivanov, who broke through internationally with his chilling turn in Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), plays Cristi, a corrupt cop who falls for a femme fatale, Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), in Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers. Gilda convinces Cristi to leave Bucharest for the Canary Islands, where he’ll learn a whistling language that will allow him to communicate with a band of money launderers. The Whistlers is “very much a genre film, and a particularly Soderberghian one at that,” writes Christopher Gray. “Mercilessly efficient and righteously cynical, the film is nested with twists that place Cristi further and further from discovering who’s manipulating the byzantine plot he finds himself enmeshed within. Cristi’s inability to make sense of his place in the very case he’s investigating is just one of the film’s cruel, quite funny jokes.”
Cinema Scope editor Mark Peranson notes that the film “doesn’t appear to fit into any dominant narrative, whether we are talking the historical development of the Romanian New Wave or current international art-house output in general.” Nonetheless, it’s “auteurist cinema of the best kind, as Porumboiu takes the genre trappings of the old-school international policier/heist film and invests in it his foremost concern: the attempt to escape from the control of the dominant forces of society by way of language.”
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