Fall Favorites in Chicago

Louise Orry-Diquero, Luàna Bajrami, and Anamaria Vartolomei in Audrey Diwan’s Happening (2021)

On Monday, IndieWire posted the results of its survey of 137 critics, a ranked list of fifteen favorite films that screened at one or more of this season’s four main events—Venice, Telluride, Toronto, and New York. Ten of those films are among the more than eighty features lined up for this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. The fifty-seventh edition opens tonight with Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch and closes on October 24 with Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard, starring Will Smith as the father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams.

Neither of those films has been voted onto IndieWire’s list. But Happening, Audrey Diwan’s abortion drama set in 1963 France and the winner of the Golden Lion in Venice, also goes missing in the survey. Chicago will present the North American premiere, and it should be a hot ticket, given that distributors IFC Films and FilmNation won’t release the film in the U.S. until next year. An adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novel, Happening is “often a tough watch, compassionate but brutally honest, and almost breathless in its chronicle of a struggle that has obviously stayed with the author for decades,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney. “Diwan’s choice to de-emphasize the conventional period trappings quietly underlines the seriousness with which she links the past to the precarious present.”

Happening was one of three films shortlisted by France’s Oscar committee, along with Julia Ducournau’s Titane and Cédric Jimenez’s The Stronghold, which Screen’s Tim Grierson calls “a stylish but familiar cop drama.” A trailer for Happening—French only, no subtitles—appeared yesterday, just before the committee decided to send Titane into the race for best international feature. Titane—#2 on IndieWire’s list—is already in theaters, and The Stronghold is heading to Netflix, so Chicagoans will want to catch Happening when it screens on Sunday.

In part because it screened at all four fall festivals, The Power of the Dog soars to the top of IndieWire’s survey. In Jane Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Phil Burbank, a mercilessly masculine rancher in 1925 Montana. Phil bullies his teenaged nephew, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), before deciding to take him under his wing. The Power of the Dog “looks at times like a stiff-jawed period piece, but it ripples underneath with a prickly modern sensibility,” writes Chris Barsanti at Slant. Molly Haskell, though, writing for Film Comment, has her reservations: “The film works best not so much as a realistic treatment of forbidden love, as in Brokeback Mountain, but as an Old West fable of stories never told and desires never acknowledged, of loners locked into hard-bitten roles. Yet as such, the film is perhaps almost too tactful for the current moment.”

Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World (#3) is “dynamic, messy, and prone to abrupt shifts in temperament—appropriate for a story centered on an impulsive twenty-nine-year-old with grand ambitions but little follow-through,” writes Jordan Cronk in Cinema Scope. Renate Reinsve, who won the best actress award in Cannes, plays Julie, a winningly aimless woman tempted to cheat on her older boyfriend (Anders Danielsen Lie) with an intriguing man (Herbert Nordrum) she meets at a party. “Indulging a variety of narrative techniques,” writes Cronk, “Trier and his longtime cowriter Eskil Vogt present a decade in the life of these three characters with an infectious energy and the kind of storytelling creativity that’s typically forsaken in the name of ‘realistic’ drama.”

Given that Ryusuke Hamaguchi won a Silver Bear in Berlin for Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (#12, opening Friday) and the award for best screenplay as well as the FIPRESCI Prize in Cannes for Drive My Car (#4, November 24), it’s hardly surprising that both titles have landed on the IndieWire list and in the Chicago lineup. Though he considers “both films thoroughly distinctive masterpieces,” Godfrey Cheshire favors Drive My Car, an adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami, over Wheel, a collection of three tales with twists. “What ultimately proved so impressive was the psychological depth and greatly expanded narrative architecture that Hamaguchi derived from Murakami’s fiction,” writes Cheshire at RogerEbert.com. “The more familiar I become with his work, the more fascinated I am with both the exacting, un-showy stylistic control and philosophical resonances of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. Yet portmanteau films have an Achilles heel in that some segments can seem better than others.”

Céline Sciamma’s Petite maman (#5) is “a brief, laconic, wildly inspired, and deeply mysterious drama,” finds the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. While playing alone in the woods, eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) meets Marion (Gabrielle Sanz, Joséphine’s real-life twin), a girl very much like herself—and her mother. “Sciamma depicts the strangeness of this encounter, the supernatural twist to the girls’ friendship, with a graceful simplicity that’s illuminated by terse and pointedly expressive dialogue,” writes Brody. “No less than Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Petite maman is a cinematic composition of deft poses and sharp gazes.”

Last week we surveyed critical response to Memoria (#6), the film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the book from Fireflies Press, and the tour Neon is planning. Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov talks with Mia Hansen-Løve about Bergman Island (#9, opening Friday). Noting that familiarity with the work of Ingmar Bergman “isn’t necessary” to appreciate the French filmmaker’s seventh feature, Rizov suggests that “it certainly helps (there’s a certain Ready Player Bergman quality to the level of citational detail).” In the end, though, “the emotional dynamics and tightly edited pleasures are characteristically and gratifyingly Hansen-Løve’s own.”

In Pablo Larraín’s Spencer (#11, November 5), Kristen Stewart plays Princess Diana, who, over the course of the 1991 Christmas holidays, decides she’s finally had enough of Charles and all the other Windsors. “Spencer is as precise and intricate as a luxury timepiece,” writes Alison Willmore at Vulture. The film is “Stewart’s to carry, and she does it by going less minimalist than is her habit and by allowing an awareness of the absurdity of Diana’s situation to seep in, even as she plays the woman’s suffering entirely straight.”

In Parallel Mothers (#13, December 24), starring Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit as bonding single moms, Pedro Almodóvar “creates a slipstream of history, art, architecture, and lineage, folding every element of his society effortlessly into one of his most robust and moving melodramas,” writes Chuck Bowen at Slant. There’s more bonding in C’mon C’mon(#14, November 19), here between radio journalist Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) and his young nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman). Director Mike Mills “presents a picture of sincere sentimentality rooted not in previously occupied states of nostalgia or raw lived experience,” writes Natalia Keogan for Paste, “but rather forward-looking hopefulness for an ostensibly fraught future.”

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