Just over half of the thirty-nine filmmakers with work screening at this year’s New Directors/New Films are women. Audrey Diwan’s second feature, Happening, has opened the fifty-first edition and screens once more this afternoon, and artist Martine Syms’s first feature, The African Desperate, will close things out on May 1. “From its inception,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, “New Directors has focused on younger or at least less-established filmmakers, many grappling with social and political issues. In a bad year, that means the event is little more than a grab bag of nice tries and misses. In a good year, though—and this is one—the event can feel like the unrulier, at times more adventurous younger sibling of the New York Film Festival.”
The winner of the Golden Lion in Venice last year, Happening is based on Annie Ernaux’s memoir, L’événement, an account of her increasingly desperate attempts to terminate her pregnancy in the early 1960s, when abortion was illegal in France. Writing for Another Gaze,Alice Blackhurst finds that “the film’s measured tone hews close to the intention stated by Ernaux in the original text, to ‘guard against lyrical outbursts such as anger or pain,’ and to insist on her experience as a symptom of collective suffering, shared in by ‘hundreds of other women.’”
The African Desperate tracks twenty-four hours in the life of Palace Bryant (Diamond Stingily), who leaves her interview with an all-white faculty at an upstate New York art school with an MFA and decides to skip the after-party and head home to Chicago. That plan of action gets derailed, leading to what Beatrice Loayza, writing for Film Comment, calls “a surreally immersive and snickering good time, and Palace—a deadpan, no-nonsense woman with a languorous gait, a mane of fluorescent orange hair, and a winsome scowl—emerges as one of the most lived-in and gloriously unpredictable characters of the year, even (or especially?) as she’s liable to be marching around with a bit of vomit in her hair.”
Further recommendations from Film Comment contributors include Full Time, the winner of top awards for both director Éric Gravel and lead actress Laure Calamy following the premiere in the Orizzonti program in Venice last fall. Calamy plays a divorced mother racing between her job in an upscale Parisian neighborhood and her home in a distant suburb where she raises her two small children. Her bank is demanding mortgage payments and transit workers have just gone on strike, making her commute a practically insurmountable challenge. Vikram Murthi finds that Full Time “potently blends the social realism of the Dardenne brothers with the nerve-racking intensity of the Safdies’ Uncut Gems.”
Vadim Rizov spotlights one film in each of the two shorts programs. North Pole “initially appears to be a dutifully dreary portrait of awkward teen girlhood, but Marija Apcevska’s inventive short upends expectations at every turn,” he writes. “Filipino director Maria Estela Paiso’s It’s Raining Frogs Outside is, in many ways, North Pole’s polar opposite: a partially animated work whose through line isn’t narrative but rather its protagonist’s melancholy internal monologue about COVID-19 and isolation.”
Back in January, when The Cathedral screened at Sundance and Rotterdam after premiering in Venice, Jordan Cronk spoke with Ricky D’Ambrose for the Notebook. Over the course of making several shorts and his first feature, Notes on an Appearance (2018), D’Ambrose has developed a style that “looks and feels indebted to modernist masters like Bresson and Straub-Huillet,” writes Cronk. In The Cathedral, which tracks the childhood and adolescence of an only child from the late 1980s through the mid-2000s, D’Ambrose “applies his typically meticulous eye to settings, fashion, and iconography of a certain nostalgic vintage.” The New Yorker’s Richard Brody finds that “these scenes don’t have the subjective feel of point-of-view shots; rather, they render memory as fact and present inner experience as an objective reality. This ardent view of a young man’s artistic education is reminiscent of Terence Davies’s autobiographical films Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes.”
Teresa Sánchez won a special jury award at Sundance for her performance as the Mexican owner of a tequila factory on the verge of going under in Juan Pablo González’s first fictional feature, Dos Estaciones. Sánchez’s María García is “an enigmatic force that commands the viewers’ attention just as her established influence in the region begins to wane, and it is her threatened power (and ego) that González is most interested in,” writes Elena Lazic for Sight and Sound.
Among the films Forrest Cardamenis writes about for Filmmaker is Kavich Neang’s White Building, which was coproduced by Jia Zhangke. Cardamenis notes that this “story of residents of the real-life eponymous Phnom Penh development being effectively forced out by property developers evokes Jia’s Still Life.” The films Jia made in the 2000s are acutely aware of “the costs of industrialization,” but they are “marked primarily by uncertainty, not pessimism; White Building, by contrast, is resigned . . . Change not met with hope or even uncertainty but with disaffection: this is the new cinema of the developing world, one for those who see ‘development’ as an entry not into the promises of a globalized world but into the particular misery that is now the west’s greatest export.”
For more recommendations, turn to the Film Stage and In Review Online. ND/NF is presented each year by Film at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, and FLC has hosted a half-hour conversation to watch or listen to in which three programmers—Tyler Wilson, La Frances Hui, and Rajendra Roy—preview this year’s edition, which runs through May 1. Writing for MoMA’s Magazine, Nicolas Rapold points out that most of these new directors “resist turning their characters’ stories into easily commodified stories of uplift, and there’s an intriguing coda, or complement, to be found in Laurynas Bareiša’s Pilgrims.”
In Lithuania, Indre (Gabija Bargailaite) and Paulius (Giedrius Kiela) launch an amateur investigation into the death of Matas—her boyfriend and his brother. “Paulius seeks to air this personal history,” writes Rapold, “to confront others with its violence, and to break out of the inertia of complacency and oblivion. As with other films at New Directors, we’re reminded of the importance of telling stories and the way art can insist, often beautifully, on keeping experiences alive.”
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