This Isn’t Goodbye: The 57th New York Film Festival
The sense of an ending — and the start of a beginning — colored the 57th New York Film Festival. On September 19th, Kent Jones announced that he was stepping down as Director of NYFF, most likely to focus his energies on filmmaking. A great relief or disappointment, depending on who you ask, NYFF will change as Jones leaves and a new head is appointed, one who may abandon directors he clearly favored. Why should they get a free pass to NYFF every time they make a new movie? Nevertheless, Jones’ announcement added to the fest’s tinge of closure.
No other film embodied NYFF’s autumnal feeling more than The Irishman (2019). Martin Scorsese has made a three-and-a-half-hour late film comparable to those Ford, Hawks, and Lewis made in their golden years: creaky works that go against the grain of stylistic trends, and that reflect not only on the idiom that they’re known for working in but also on their oeuvre and approaching mortality. Where Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990), and Casino (1995) run scalding hot, The Irishman pours out cold. The fragile 150-million-dollar crime saga is filled with aging — then digitally de-aged — men. One of them, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), must live his final years ruminating on how he ground down his morals over his lifetime. You get the sense that the epic is Marty’s final say on the subject of gangsterdom.
The Irishman set the mood for the rest of the fest, one that’s blue and introspective with the occasional burst of elation. Like Kent Jones, and the other members who fill out NYFF’s programming team, some of the works by the usual suspects (the curse of auteurism!) struck a chord with me. These movies moved me because, like any cinephile, I follow the directors who made them and delight in their personal and artistic growth. This year these festival veterans brought works about the role of memory in public and private histories. How does one recall the past? How do prior personal or historical moments influence the present? These films explicitly or implicitly reckon with such queries.
An enfant terrible with a divisive filmography — and an even more rankling public persona — Albert Serra is an arthouse version of “primitive” filmmakers like Samuel Fuller and Abel Ferrara. Throwing away grammar, both filmic and verbal, he relies more on gut than brain to make movies whose inner rhythms elude him.
After trapping viewers in a room to watch the remaining days of a Gallic monarch (2016’s The Death of Louis XIV), Serra made a complementary durational test: Liberté (2019). This time he considers sex and death by observing debauched libertines. Cast out of 18th-century continental Europe for their dangerous beliefs, they indulge in a night of violent carnality. Camped in a fairy-tale woods, the powdered and bewigged lads and lasses touch, caress, fondle, grope, rub, slap, lick, whip, penetrate, and piss. DP Artur Tort shoots the non-stop fuck fest with measured detachment, evoking a world of luxurious rot that is neither particularly sexy nor pornographic, with the multitudinous sex acts staged suggestively in semi-shadows.
After a few minutes, porn becomes boring. Liberté, all 132 minutes of it, is first entrancing, then exhausting. These affects are a feat in itself; the movie is pointedly one-note, exposing you to displays of sensual pleasure. The bodies on screen, attuned to a give and take, never seem to tire, coupling in a never-ending cycle of self-obliteration.
Entrancing doesn’t begin to describe Vitalina Varela (2019), the latest by Pedro Costa, another practitioner of moody moving images. The opaque film hints at a shadowy, grim world in which the title character dwells in. From Cape Verde, Vitalina arrives in Lisbon three days after her husband Joaquim’s funeral, staying in his decrepit hovel of a home and facing his acquaintances, squatters, and a priest (Ventura, now a full-fledged character).
Lending her full name to this film, Vitalina first appeared commiserating with Ventura in Costa’s last, Horse Money (2014). Vitalina is a deepening of the latter as well as something of a departure for the director. Filmed with an ARRI camera and illuminated with OSRAM lights, both of which Costa won at the 2014 Munich International Film Festival, Vitalina’s imagery possesses a heretofore-unseen piercing clarity. In most shots, pitch-black areas sharply contrast with the lit up focal points. It looks simply conjured up.
Vitalina was partially shot in a studio, which is inevitable. Pedro Costa has been shooting in the Lisbon neighborhood of Fontaínhas since Ossos (1997), yet the shantytown no longer physically exists: it was demolished and public housing now stands in its place. Using a blend of location and studio settings, Vitalina depicts an irreal Lisbon.
The film isn’t like Costa’s prior works, as haunted as they are. Vitalina is slightly conventional because it is less a psychogeography and more of a psychodrama, less of a consideration for Fontaínhas’ legacy and more of a character piece built around absence in Vitalina’s life: she has no place to call home, no loved one, no nothing. Just darkness. Though, a glimmer of hope does appear in the form of a rare blue sky.
If Costa gingerly steps towards convention, Bertrand Bonello approaches it, meets it, and modifies it to his needs. With his last feature, the slow-building terrorist actioner Nocturama (2017), and now Zombi Child (2019), he is on a roll — transforming and transcending genres he chooses to work in and with. He has made a zombie movie with astounding poise and formal control, juggling two primary characters, two major locations (France and Haiti), and two time periods. One story follows contemporary Parisian teens in a boarding school while the other, set in 1962 Haiti, is based on an actual person, Clairvius Narcisse, who after ingesting powder, becomes a zombie, toiling away as a slave laboring on a sugar cane plantation. It eventually becomes clear that blood ties link the stories: one of the students is Narcisse’s granddaughter.
Anita Roth’s dexterous crosscuts between these narratives make Zombi Child a balletic orchestration of plot points commingling. When alternating between the different timelines, her edits are deliberate and assiduous, timing them just right to inform and interest viewers in what’s happening on screen. This is cutting on par with Thelma Schoonmaker and Kirk Baxter’s.
Let’s not forget that he has made a horror movie, too. It’s a cracking good one in which filmic effects are underplayed, successfully evoking uncanny imagery: the day-for-night cinematography used in the Haiti sequences conveying a transitory state between the living and the dead; the hyper-real, visceral handheld footage showing Clairvius stumbling into a town. Such simple techniques merely suggest horror, the possibility for it to arise. Though rooted in race, class, and history as Bonello mines France’s colonialist past, the horror isn’t declaimed with scenes that are the equivalent of complete-sentence statements. Today’s hotshot horror filmmakers could learn a thing or two from Bonello’s craft.
Kent Jones ends his tenure on a satisfactory note, despite a line-up stacked with regulars (some on autopilot, others stretching themselves to their detriment, a few making outstanding works) and a suspect concession to screening a “dangerous” comic book product. Standout films this year used genre vehicles or the more typical arthouse trappings to acknowledge and deal with histories bent by memory. While Jones was director, the festival expanded, adding documentary (Spotlight on Documentary) and interactive (Convergence) sidebars, both welcome additions. As for the main slate, its curation during his era may or may not have enticed you, but it certainly bore his tastes.
The 57th New York Film Festival took place between September 27 and October 13.