Bears, Leopards, and Lions

On Film / The Daily — Sep 27, 2019
Varda by Agnès (2019)

Back in February, the Berlin International Film Festival presented its Berlinale Camera, a “tribute to personalities and institutions that have made a unique contribution to film and to whom the festival feels especially close,” to Agnès Varda. The roots of the Berlinale’s relationship with Varda were deep, reaching back to 1965, when the festival hosted the international premiere of her third feature, Le bonheur, and flourishing as Kung-fu master! (1988) and One Hundred and One Nights (1995) screened in competition. This year, the Berlinale presented the world premiere of Varda by Agnès, a lively blend of recollections and advice to future filmmakers, a grand summation of the work of a tireless filmmaker, photographer, and installation artist. It would be her last film. Just weeks later, Agnès Varda passed away.

The fifty-seventh New York Film Festival, opening today, is dedicated to her memory, and on October 9 and 10, her daughter, Rosalie Varda, will be on hand for the New York premiere of Varda by Agnès. From December 20 through January 9, Film at Lincoln Center will roll out a retrospective, “the most comprehensive survey to date of the late filmmaker’s vast canon,” presented in partnership with Janus Films, which will be taking the retrospective around the country.


In Varda by Agnès, Jaclyn Bruneau, writing for Cinema Scope, finds the filmmaker unlocking secrets “not in the transactional, bureaucratic manner that late life (near death) often invites, but merrily, with the uncanny ebullience of a child inside the body of (and with all the wisdom of) a ninety-year-old woman whose creative work has been the conduit for all the richness a life might bring.” At Slant, Pat Brown notes that Varda “allows herself to go off on tangents, and, ironically, her ancillary thoughts feel a bit less navel-gazing than the film’s main thrust. For one, the story about directing Robert De Niro for one day for her final fiction film, One Hundred and One Nights, should seem an extraneous bit of boasting, but Varda’s bashfully excited tone makes it seem generous; she’s letting us in on the somewhat guilty pleasure she took in landing a major Hollywood star. And whenever she talks about her beloved husband, director Jacques Demy, who died of AIDS in 1990, the film also approaches a kind of ‘sharing’ not borrowed from her previous work.”


The NYFF’s Main Slate features two more films that premiered in Berlin this past winter, Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms, the winner of the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear, and I Was at Home, But . . ., which won a Silver Bear for best director for Angela Schanelec. In Synonyms, which the New York TimesManohla Dargis calls “a furious, at times splenetically funny squirm-a-thon,” newcomer Tom Mercier delivers an unforgettable performance as Yoav, an Israeli with his mandatory military service behind him. He arrives in Paris with little but the clothes on his back, and when even those go missing, he’s lucky to be taken in by a young couple (Quentin Dolmaire and Louise Chevillotte) intrigued and charmed his determination to vehemently disown every aspect of his nationality and become French. “Yoav’s adventures . . . range through sex and politics, personal and familial betrayals, in explicit repudiations and mockeries of what he rejects as official Israeli militarism, belligerence, violence, and martial vanity,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. Synonyms “feels like a collection of Lapid’s own phantasms and furies, its drama only scantly concealing the eruptive power of his repressed rant.”

In the new issue of Cinema Scope, Robert Koehler notes that “in his carefully crafted narrative, whose helter-skelter surface deceptively appears as chaotic as Yoav himself, Lapid holds back on any social or political causes for Yoav’s state of mind and behavior . . . Perhaps the perfect movie act to be set in the city of Sartre, the work of Lapid’s camera and Mercier’s untethered instincts as a performer express the essence of what it is to be in the present moment and to find meaning in that.” Pat Brown calls Synonyms “a bold film about the refusal to assimilate in one country, and the failure to assimilate in another.”


Early in I Was at Home, But . . ., Astrid (Maren Eggert) races to reunite with her son, Phillip (Jakob Lasalle), who has quietly reappeared after several days spent wandering in the woods. Two years after the death of Astrid’s husband, a theater director, Astrid, Phillip, and his younger sister, Flo (Clara Möller), are still barely coping. At school, Phillip and his classmates rehearse for a production of Hamlet, and Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov finds that “it’s extremely pertinent that the Hamlet being performed is from a translation done by Schanelec and her own late theater director husband, Jürgen Gosch . . . I abstractly admire filmmakers like Schanelec, who work from a rigorous and personal conception of film that has zero time for market niceties or unexamined storytelling norms, but I also enjoy watching [these films] in a way that’s much more visceral than cerebral.”

At Slant, Carson Lund suggests that Schanelec shares with Ruben Östlund “a preference for subtly off-kilter compositions, chilly soft light, and slick modern architecture, while her exacting use of sound—punctiliously ADR’d and selective—is what most closely aligns her with her frequently cited forebear: Robert Bresson. This stark cinematic language, combined with a severe acting style in which even a dry cleaner’s assessment that a coat might not wash properly is spoken like a terminal diagnosis, makes I Was at Home, But . . . a decidedly austere affair. But this is less a pose of artistic seriousness on Schanelec’s part than a strategic leveling of affect to make key moments register with the sharpness of real-life trauma.”


Last month, we gathered a first round of reviews of Vitalina Varela when Pedro Costa’s first feature in five years won the Golden Leopard in Locarno. Now that it’s played in Toronto and will screen at the NYFF on October 6 and 9—Costa will be there—we should make note of two more. Varela, a Cape Verdean woman living Lisbon, appeared in the Portuguese filmmaker’s Horse Money (2014) “as one of the ghostly figures alternately confronting and comforting Costa regular Ventura during his soul-searching stay in a haunted sanatorium,” notes Haden Guest at the top of his interview with Costa in Cinema Scope. “Vitalina Varela forms a diptych with that earlier film, extending its intermingling of personal and national trauma while refining Costa’s unique mode of oneiric first-person cinema in which inner voices are theatrically recited like prayers.”

Varela won the best actress award in Locarno and, “like everyone else in Costa’s films,” as Jake Cole points out at Slant, she “speaks in a declamatory fashion that recalls the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. But Vitalina’s long reflections on her thwarted dreams and her husband’s broken promises and lack of fidelity, drawn from some of the real Varela’s experiences, are shot through with tremors of suppressed rage and anguish that are rare across Costa’s calculatingly stoic filmography. The director has gotten some incredible performances from non-professionals over the years, but the inner pain and disgust that plays across Varela’s hardened features may be the most viscerally compelling acting to ever grace one of his productions.” From Monday through October 7, Vitalina Varela will also be screening at the Harvard Film Archive.


A week before Locarno presented its awards, we noted that reviews of Koji Fukada’s A Girl Missing, which went home empty-handed, were mixed. Switching between two timelines, the film centers in both on Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui), a middle-aged private nurse for a family with two girls, teenaged Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa), who’s fallen for Ichiko, and her younger sister, Saki (Miyu Ogawa), who is kidnapped but returned weeks later. Writing for Cinema Scope, Elena Lazic finds the film to be “mad but wildly engrossing, imagining a cruel world where unrequited love plus time makes for a fatal sum.”

Fukada can be “a master of an implicative, pregnant kind of social portraiture,” writes Chuck Bowen at Slant, but A Girl Missing “feels like an experiment in pruning that has gone somewhat awry . . . Fukada may believe that he’s transcended the melodramatic strictures of a regular crime film or of the kind of woman’s martyr vehicle in which Joan Crawford used to specialize. Instead, he’s fashioned an occasionally haunting art object with miserable stick figures.”


Locarno wrapped this year with Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s To the Ends of the Earth, featuring J-pop star Atusko Maeda as Yoko, the host of a television travel magazine touring Uzbekistan. On camera, Yoko is a feisty risk-taker, sampling the local cuisine and enduring endless rounds on a punishing amusement park ride until her crew finally has the coverage it needs. Off camera, Yoko yearns to reunite with her boyfriend back home and become a singer. “A shaggy-seeming but carefully modulated affair, To the Ends of the Earth gradually emerges as an offbeat but persuasive investigation of culture clashes and the potential for trans-global bridge-building,” writes Neil Young in the Hollywood Reporter. “Officially endorsed international co-productions are usually stilted, self-consciously didactic affairs; the seasoned but adventurous hands of Kurosawa, however, here yield quietly immersive and spellbinding results.”

At the Film Stage, Leonardo Goi notes that the film “unfolds as an episodic tale, a series of vignettes, of diary entries of Beckettian aura . . . As much as Akiko Ashizawa’s widescreen lensing does justice to the belittling beauty of Uzbekistan’s interior, To the Ends of the Earth is unmistakably enamored with its lead, and it is when it closes in on Maeda’s vulnerable face that her loneliness bursts most vividly. All Yoko wants is to sing, but to do so she must be attuned to her feelings; this is not so much a tale of an artistic awakening, but an emotional education.”


A few weeks ago, we mapped out the starkly conflicting responses to Todd Phillips’s Joker, which went on to win the Golden Lion in Venice. Phillips and his star, Joaquin Phoenix, as well as producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff, production designer Mark Friedberg, and cinematographer Lawrence Sher will take part in a discussion when the NYFF presents the film as a special event on October 2. To return to the Main Slate, it’s just a matter of days now since we surveyed the critical response—quite strong, for the most part—to Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden, an adaptation of Jack London’s novel that won a best actor award for Luca Marinelli in Venice and topped the Platform competition in Toronto. And earlier this week, we noted that Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is one of the best-reviewed films of the year so far. Olivier Assayas’s Wasp Network presents a special case in that, as Andreas Wiseman reports for Deadline, the version that screened in Venice and Toronto will not be the same as the one presented in New York.

“There are a few things that need clarification,” Assayas told Wiseman in Toronto. “There are a series of fixes I’ll make. I might shorten some parts and lengthen others. The running time won’t change considerably, but it’s about gaining fluidity.” Based on Fernando Morais’s book, The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, Wasp Network features Édgar Ramírez, Penélope Cruz, and Gael García Bernal in the true story of spies sent to Florida by Cuba’s government in the 1990s to infiltrate anti-Castro groups. “An agile problem-solver like Steven Soderbergh, Assayas is also a cine-sensualist à la Michael Mann,” writes Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook. “Linking his dot-like characters across continents, he luxuriates in vast swathes of sky and ocean and jets whooshing across the screen. Too often, however, Wasp Network feels diaphanous, incomplete, like a mini-series compressed into two hours.”

But Little White Lies editor David Jenkins argues that the film “cannily combines dense political intrigue with an oblique but welcome touch of classic Hollywood romanticism . . . With his more recent films, Assayas often makes a pointed attempt to siphon out any unnecessary style, whether that’s in the choreography of scenes, the way actors deliver dialogue or the rhythm of the editing. That terseness is also one of Wasp Network’s key strengths, especially when it comes to a riveting Hitchcockian sequence that involves a young boy agreeing to bomb three tourist hotels in order to make a fast buck.”


Lou Ye’s Saturday Fiction, which also premiered in competition in Venice, is evidently anything but terse. The black-and-white thriller “stuffed to bursting with sumptuous movie-movie atmosphere,” as Mark Asch puts it at the Film Stage, stars Gong Li as an actress returning from Hong Kong to Japanese-occupied Shanghai in 1941. As she rehearses a play directed by her former lover (Mark Chao), she’s also being stalked and may be spying for the Allies. Asch finds that Saturday Fiction “has more than a passing resemblance to Lou’s earlier Purple Butterfly (2003), with its slightly dizzied story-structure; its plot in which love is thwarted by the harshness of idealism and the deceptions of spying until a climactic act of self-sacrifice; and its heavily romantic early-WWII production design.”

All in all, for Jessica Kiang, writing for Variety, Saturday Fiction is a “grandiloquently incoherent misfire.” Fernando F. Croce finds that “for all the perpetual motion and clamor, there’s no concealing the static void at the center of a film that mistakes clutter and muddle for complexity and profundity. Decked out in trench coats and dangling cigarettes with Sternbergian weariness, Gong makes for an alluring icon of ambiguity, and I must confess that, flaws and all, any movie that places her front and center during its climactic shootout certainly has something going for it.”

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