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.