The pandemic offers the strange advantage of being able to attend film festivals across the globe while lounging in your bedroom in ratty comfort clothes, the kind you tell yourself are permissible because no one you know is ever going to see you. This year’s edition of the New York Film Festival was especially welcome, given its superb curation and its ease of online accessibility.
Digital filmmaking has abetted burgeoning durations, and two of the festival’s best films – Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog, a philosophical period piece set in an isolated villa, and Luis Lopez Carrasco’s The Year of the Discovery, a brilliant documentary about the politics of post-Franco Spain – each clocked in at 200 minutes.
Both were bested by Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall, which ran a whole 72 minutes longer. Wiseman has of late fallen into the trap of equating length with importance, and his attenuated observation of the inner workings of Boston’s civic administration quickly turned my blood to dust, with its interminable sequences of committee meetings and PowerPoint presentations.
Conversely, Pedro Almodovar slimmed down his cinema with the half-hour The Human Voice, based on Jean Cocteau’s monodrama, most famously performed by Anna Magnani in a Rossellini film. Kitted out in outrageous Balenciaga, Tilda Swinton (supreme) delivers a dryly anguished soliloquy on the telephone, as she pleads with an unseen, unheard lover who is abandoning her. The Spanish auteur manages to insert plenty of sly self-references in his glistening miniature, from the prevalence of retina-ripping red in Swinton’s apartment, to a weird homage to his muse Chavela Vargas via a poster of a nude by that Peruvian purveyor of kitsch, Alberto Vargas.
In a festival of frequent extremes, several films ranged from rampant logorrhea to enforced muteness. While Puiu’s and Carrasco’s behemoths both ran off at the mouth – the euphemism to describe their perpetual palaver might be “talky” – Taiwanese veteran Tsai Ming-liang managed to forego subtitles entirely in his exquisite Days, given the paucity of dialogue in this melancholy and unashamedly sentimental portrait of a man (Tsai’s stalwart actor and alter ego Lee Kang-sheng) suffering from both physical and psychic malaise.
Not a word is uttered in Viktor Kossakovsky’s vegan-prop documentary Gunda, a dauntingly intimate portrait of a sow and her newborn piglets, quite the best animal movie since Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le quattro volte. Animals (dogs) also predominate in the festival’s other doc designed to charm and enchant, The Truffle Hunters, which errs by trying too hard. A highlight of the festival, The Monopoly of Violence, David Dufresne’s trenchant inquiry into French police brutality against the “yellow vest” protesters flirts with Gallic self-parody in its propensity for theorizing – Debord, Weber, Rousseau, Arendt, Genet, Trotsky, Pasolini and others are casually invoked to complicate the voluble debate.
Overstuffed and often underwhelming, the festival’s copious programs of experimental short films turned up some splendid finds. In A Night at the Opera, Sergei Loznitsa applies his archival legerdemain to black-and-white footage of actors, aristocrats, heads of state and foreign royalty arriving at Paris' Palais Garnier in the fifties, cleverly conflating many “nights at the opera” into one, so that every celebrity in the world appears to be attending the same event.
Burak Cevik also reworked black-and-white material in While Cursed by Specters, returning to sequences and settings in Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s masterpiece Class Relations to excavate its meanings. One of the most moving shorts, Mouaad el Salem’s This Day Won’t Last, a roughly assembled montage of TikTok and cat videos, travelogue scenery and despairing confessional captures the sense of risk and imprisonment that a young gay man experiences in his simultaneously beloved and accursed homeland of Tunisia.
The festival’s – and the year’s – best film, Hong Sang-soo’s brisk and poignant The Woman Who Ran, comprises long takes of a series of conversations a young Korean woman has over the course of three days. In each, her tender, probing exchanges with other women – two old friends and a romantic rival – are invaded by a querulous male: a neighbour annoyed by stray cats, a jilted lover and an obtuse, vain ex-boyfriend.
Hong, master portraitist of social discomfort, thankfully forgoes some of his more tiresome meta-cinema tropes, but continues to deliver both arbitrary zoom shots and sequences of cringe-making comedy in which a compliment about a new hairstyle or complaints about neighbourly behaviour turn quickly, quietly into weapons of politest aggression.
James Quandt is the senior programmer for TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto
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