This is it. The last weekend of the 43rd New York Film Festival, and in our humble opinion, this year's program has, for the most part, lived up to its grand expectations. From big name films like Good Night, and Good Luck (which opens citywide today) to promising indie fare like The Squid and the Whale (also opening this week) to lesser-known foreign gems like Who's Camus Anyway? and The President's Last Bang (to name just two), not too much has disappointed us this year, and even some of those let-downs still contain great elements, such as Capote which is worth seeing solely for Philip Seymour Hoffman's brilliant channeling of Truman Capote.
This final weekend seems to be a continuation of the fantastic and diverse two weeks film lovers have received from the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Along with main program features Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Gabrielle, The Sun and closing night feature Cache (Hidden) and the continuation of the Shochiku at 110 sidebar, Saturday includes three other events you should certainly consider checking-out. Two more HBO Films Directors Dialogues are on tap in the Kaplan Penthouse (Lincoln Center Rose Building at 65th and Amsterdam; 10th Floor): at 2:30 PM, The Nation film critic Stuart Klawans will moderate a discussion with the incredibly versatile, and occasionally controversial, director Michael Winterbottom, who's Tristram Shandy is one of the best films at this year's festival. Then at 5 PM is another HBO Films Directors Dialogue with the man behind Gabrielle, French filmmaker Patrice Chéreau. And one last discussion at 7:30 PM featuring more from Tristram Shandy: "Film Comment Focus: A Conversation with Steve Coogan". If you manage to get to the film tonight or tomorrow morning, chances are you will want to rush to both the Winterbottom and Coogan events.
And if that's not enough, as we mentioned yesterday, there's also the 6 PM screening of Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni's "preferred cut" of The Passenger which is not to be missed. All that plus the aforementioned Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Gabrielle, The Sun and Cache. Thoughts on all four after the jump:
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
Quite simply, Tristram Shandy is the funniest film at this year's festival, and one of the best and most enjoyable movies we've seen so far this year. Director Michael Winterbottom continues to impress and surprise with his ability to make a good, or at least interesting, film out of almost anything. Winterbottom sure doesn't make the same film twice, and if your first exposure (no pun intended) to him was earlier this year with the Is-it-porn-or-not? 9 Songs, not only are you missing out on many great earlier works from a filmmaker more interested in exploring the human condition through different means and worlds rather than simply revisiting what he knows he does well, but you also will question how one man made two such different films.
If anything is similar between the two, it's the difficulty of the subject matter. Laurence Sterne's 18th Century novel has long been considered unadaptable. As Tristram says himself, his story ends before it even begins at his birth. We haven't actually read Sterne's novel (nor do you need to in order to thoroughly enjoy the film), but in many ways, the brilliance of Winterbottom's (along with screenwriter Martin Hardy) adaptation is its choice to represent the apparent themes and spirit of the book by embracing the difficulties of transformation to film rather than trying to work around them. Obviously influenced by previous movie-about-movies (but really about life) masterpieces 8 1/2 (from which Winterbottom actually coopts some of the score) and Day for Night, Tristram Shandy combines the story of the novel with the making of the filmed adaptation itself. The brilliant Steve Coogan, who plays himself in addition to Tristram and Walter Shandy, and the hysterical Rob Brydon, also playing himself as well as Captain Toby Shandy, provide many of the laughs with marvelous scenes of deadpan humor. (Stay through the end credits for dueling impressions of a notable major actor.) The sequences between Steve and Rob parallel the relationship between brothers Walter and Toby, but most of what makes this film work isn't due to direct correlations between the two stories.
In the middle of the movie, one character mentions that the trouble with adapting the novel is due to the sense of constant chaos in the story, and that even as Walter Shandy hopes to meticulously plan out everything in his and his son's lives, the randomness of actual human existence always gets in the way. The production of any movie presents a self-contained example of this same dynamic: film's are always carefully planned yet constantly in flux. Reshoots and new script pages may be added at great expense at the last minute (as they are in this film within a film) only to still hit the cutting room floor before anyone sees the movie. It's with this spirit that Winterbottom succeeds in at least communicating his vision and interpretation of the novel. But even more crucial is that from beginning to end, Tristram Shandy is simply really really funny. (Screens tonight at 6 PM and Saturday at Noon)
The Film Society could not have picked a more interesting and challenging film to close this year's festival. Writing about Caché proves to be almost as difficult a task as figuring out the film itself. Michael Haneke -- a triple award winner (including the Best Director prize) for this film at May's Cannes Film Festival -- is now well-known for making provocative dramas that leave much of the story, and particularly the conclusions, to the audience's own imagination, and none more so than this film. Attempting to describe much of the story -- beyond the basic set-up involving a married couple who suddenly start receiving surveillance videotapes of their own house from an anonymous sender -- is not only difficult but also unfair. In fact, we would suggest you read as little as possible about the film before seeing it.
But see it is something you should do. The translation/English title -- Hidden -- couldn't be more appropriate. Haneke utilizes an economy of storytelling that keeps the audience constantly questioning what's important and what's going on. He challenges the viewer to fill in the gaps where necessary -- and for some, this may be an overly frustrating task -- but none of them are so wide that you can't come up with multiple theories as to what has happened. The film has a few shocking moments that will take anyone by surprise and simultaneously change the tone of what's too follow. It's a fascinating depiction of what's hidden behind those well-manicured hedges and clean house facades in which otherwise normal families live, but he's not pulling aside the curtain in a satirical way like Desperate Housewives and American Beauty. Instead, he deals with the secrets between even the closest and most loving family members and the mistrust that can ensue simply due to human nature.
Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche are both magnificent in roles that could have easily been overdone by less competent talent. And we're still caught up in at least three different scenes in which Haneke's staging is so complicated yet beautiful, we found our eyes constantly shifting all over the screen. Where are we supposed to look? What are we not seeing? What's right there in front of us, hidden in plain sight? These are just some of the questions Haneke poses visually, thematically and philosophically in Caché. They're all worth answering for yourself. If you can't get in to Avery Fisher Hall for Sunday night's 8:30 PM screening, be sure to catch-it when it's released in New York and LA on Dec. 23 by Sony Classics. (Sunday at 8:30 only, Avery Fisher Hall)
We really tried to like Gabrielle. Much of French director Patrice Chéreau's intimate marriage drama, based on Joseph Conrad's "The Return," proves incisive and provocative, but ultimately, the filmmaking itself combined with a story and characters who don't really develop in the least, instead simply rehashing the same argument over and over again, make Gabrielle a major letdown. The story centers on a loveless marriage of a well-positioned couple in French society. When the wife (Isabelle Huppert) decides to leave her husband (Pascal Gregory) in an attempt to find passion with another man, only to return less than four hours later. The majority of the movie deals with the husband berating the wife, but really just wanting everything to go back as it was before for all he's truly concerned with is how everything will look to their friends and the outside world.
Chéreau inserts multiple gimmicks -- first person narration, switching between color and black-and-white, a moment turned silent with a large title card replacing the dialogue -- in an attempt to create a certain mood and tone, but he uses none of them with any consistency. The music and black-and-white, noir-like photography frequently utilized at the beginning of the film attempts to create an almost Hitchcockian, suspense-thriller feel, only to suddenly disappear as the story gets even more insular. Not having read Conrad's story, we can't speak on whether or not what's missing from this film -- primarily any real sense of humanity from either character, rather than simply one dimensional representations of the battle between surface reality and underlying emotions. But maybe it would be a better idea to just turn to the original source material. (Screens tonight and Saturday at 9 PM)
The title of Aleksandr Sokurov's movie about Emperor Hirohito's final days before surrender to General Macarthur at the end of World War II is the one thing consistently missing. Sokurov's Japan in 1945 sees little actual sunlight, instead existing as a gloomy, smoke and fog covered landscape, and that's only when he actually takes us out of the houses and below-ground bunkers. The interior scenes are shot with dim lighting so much of the film is actually difficult to see clearly, but of course, that's the point. "The Sun" refers to Japan's national identity and even more so to the Emperor himself, whose underlings won't stop reminding him that he is not a normal man but a descendent of the Sun god. What Sokurov gives us, however, is a man who seems more like a child, simply wanting to be normal. Sokurov's plodding, deliberate pacing may turn off some viewers, and the emphasis of the conquering Americans' condescension is certainly a bit off-putting (although likely relatively accurate), but if you're patient, The Sun proves to be a thoroughly thought-provoking and visually fascinating examination of one man's emotional and psychological fall from supreme power. (Screens Saturday at 3 PM)