I got everything I wanted from the 55th New York Film Festival on the night I watched Félicité by Alain Gomis, a writer-director who knows how to make a movie percolate.
First he gets a simmer going in his title character (Véro Tshanda Beya) as she sits, lost in thought, in a bar one night in Kinshasa. Her face in close-up is as silent and magnificent as the sculpted head of a god, but not nearly so impassive. Every time Gomis cuts back to her from the bursts of gossip, boasting, and argument that flicker around the room, you see sparks in her eyes—from sorrow, maybe, or anger. Then the bar’s owner turns up the heat, demanding to know why there’s no music. Félicité stays put, but a half-dozen men seated around her respond to the complaint by grumbling their way into the cul-de-sac that serves as a bandstand, where they wake up their instruments and start fomenting a groove. Patrons nod and shimmy in their chairs; the temperature rises. Then Félicité promenades to the microphone, throws back that monumental head, and sings. Sweating and shouting break out; people are on their feet. One of them struts forward to plaster banknotes on Félicité’s forehead.
At that, she finally smiles. The movie’s popping at full boil, and you’re caffeinated, ready for whatever may come.
Like a good many of the selections in each year’s NYFF, Félicité tells the story of a working person struggling against adversity and injustice in a locale far from the polite bustle of the festival’s Lincoln Center home. In this case, you’re projected into the jammed and ramshackle streets where Félicité—a single woman, no longer in her first youth—must chase after cash for surgery for her injured son. (The health-care system in the Democratic Republic of the Congo apparently practices the same pay-as-you-go method to which many Republicans want the United States to revert: Until Félicité comes up with the money, her son can just lie in the hospital, bleeding from a compound fracture.) But unlike the average social-problem picture, Félicité isn’t about exemplary figures making their way through representative incidents. It’s about an irreducible individual—two of them, actually: the stubborn, often standoffish Félicité and Tabu (Papi Mpaka), the large, hard-drinking, but thoroughly kind rogue who loves her.
That makes Félicité one of the experiences I craved most from this edition of the NYFF: something like a Dardenne brothers movie, but with a driving beat, a goofy love story, and the interpolation of some mysterious, blue-tinted images of orchestral performances and forest settings to remind me that Félicité’s mental world isn’t all slums and soggy francs.
Put differently, Félicité is an outgoing, exploratory movie, brimming with curiosity and feeling—qualities you might expect from an international festival that promises revelations. I can’t say that all the selections in this year’s main slate met that description. But plenty did, whether their primary impulse was to document, satirize, spin out baroque narrative conundrums, or tell a plain story straight from the heart.
The main slate’s only pure documentary, an audience favorite, was the lovely and loving Faces Places (Visages Villages), a collaboration between Agnès Varda, 88 years old at the time of production, and the 33-year-old photographer and installation artist JR. Shot in a spirit of spontaneity on a series of road trips, then playfully assembled by association of ideas, the picture delivers just what its title implies: images of the faces of laboring people, collected in towns and rural areas throughout France. These come with stories about the subjects as well as teasing portraits of the filmmakers, whose art-world Mutt-and-Jeff act (tall and skinny male hipster, short and round old lioness) would come off as cute if it weren’t for the intimations of mortality hovering around Varda. You encounter isolation and loss in the film, as well as pleasure and workplace solidarity. But the overriding impression—perfect in a film dedicated to photography—is of the potential for the human personality to abide. Look at JR’s photomural of an elderly woman living in a semi-derelict coal-mining town, after he’s pasted her image onto the row house she refuses to abandon. You see the face of someone strong enough to have been made from bricks.
As often happens, documentary tendencies ran through some of the festival’s best fictions, notably The Florida Project by Sean Baker (whose previous film was the astonishing Tangerine) and The Rider by Chloé Zhao: the first an excursion into the candy-colored stucco dilapidation of the residence motels and junk shops clustered a few streets away from Disney World, the second a trip into the ranches and rodeo arenas of South Dakota’s High Plains.
The mood of The Florida Project varies from wide-eyed delight to jittery shrewdness to weary responsibility, depending on which character we’re following. The principals are an untamed 6-year-old motel inmate (the superb Brooklynn Prince), who is always up for mischief and adventure; the girl’s scuffling single mother (Bria Vinaite), whose elaborate tattoos and hair of a color not seen in nature advertise the fun-loving, dirty-minded defiance of one of the undeserving poor; and the motel’s put-upon manager (Willem Dafoe, living his role without a moment’s self-regard), whose kindness somehow keeps overcoming his disgust. I wish Baker had thought of an ending for The Florida Project; having brought his characters to the point where they have no solutions, he finds none of his own, other than to force the naturally occurring ironies of his setting into a final grand statement. But that’s a two-minute lapse, after nearly two hours of grit, outrage, and beauty.
As for The Rider, its naturally occurring mood is one of elegiac grandeur. Brady Jandreau leads the nonprofessional cast as a young rodeo cowboy who can no longer compete because of the crack he’s put in his skull. Taking himself down a painful notch, he patches together a still-dangerous living by training other men’s horses. The film’s pace is measured; the dialogue, terse; the story, minimal. But everything Zhao puts on the screen feels alive and true, especially the scenes of Jandreau handling horses. Impossible to script or fully plan, these long moments are like gusts of South Dakota weather made as permanent as sculpture.
I suppose there’s also a documentary element, or at least an autobiographical one, in Lady Bird, the second feature written and directed by Greta Gerwig, and the first she’s done solo. The central character (played by the unfailingly persuasive Saoirse Ronan) mirrors Gerwig’s past by attending a Catholic high school in Sacramento, coming of age around the time of the second Iraq War, and having a theatrical streak, which in her case is rarely channeled into formal performance. The creative energy goes more often into fighting with her sternly sympathetic mother (Laurie Metcalf), agitating to go east for college, and getting into unfortunate misunderstandings with boys. These are normal incidents for a standard coming-of-age picture, but Gerwig and Ronan redeem them by making their heroine as finely tuned as an antenna, always quivering with signals about the new selves she might momentarily try on.
A similar depth of personal feeling, though perhaps less self-amused, runs through The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), by one of Gerwig’s frequent collaborators, Noah Baumbach. The movie crackles with an emotional energy, and cackles with a rueful laughter, that have been missing from his recent films, but which return in full force now that Baumbach has again taken up his theme of children being twisted into odd shapes by a parent’s monstrous self-regard. Dustin Hoffman holds forth as the bumbling, embittered old sculptor who has done the twisting; Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Elizabeth Marvel are the grown children, still seething and suffocating hilariously. Under Baumbach’s direction, their comic timing is faultless—though none can beat Emma Thompson in the role of the sculptor’s current wife, who seems to have kept herself preserved in alcohol since 1974.
And now, let’s get to the festival’s big-ticket items.
“Filmmaking magic” would be weak praise for the art that Todd Haynes brings to Wonderstruck, his adaptation of the illustrated novel by Brian Selznick. So why, at the end, did I feel the enchantment had melted into air, leaving nothing behind? I wanted to love this movie about young people lost and found in Manhattan in two different eras; I wanted to explore it, just like the more modern of its children pores over a mysterious book he’s found. But, it turns out, there’s nothing to discover: The film’s system of motifs and correspondences is so airtight—as sometimes happens with Haynes—that, despite the best efforts of Julianne Moore (a wonder in herself), I ultimately felt all the satisfaction of having watched somebody else solve a crossword puzzle.
Now, with Arnaud Desplechin, it’s more like having a feverishly brilliant desperado (usually played by Mathieu Amalric) thrust a half-finished crossword into your hands while raving that you must complete it for him, immediately, while he cooks you a wine-soaked dinner, mutters something about James Joyce, and sings the theme from Marnie, which he hopes won’t distract you. Ismael’s Ghosts, shown in New York in a cut that was 20 minutes longer than at the Cannes premiere, casts Amalric as an unhinged writer-director trying to make a film, or get out of making one, about a brother who died or vanished (or did he?), while at the same time struggling with the memory of a wife who died or vanished (also doubtful). Everything in the movie (Desplechin’s, I mean, not Amalric’s) springs at you with the force of discovery. There isn’t a predictable turn of events, a dull choice of image, or a settled opinion anywhere in the film, which needs the extra 20 minutes to make room for whatever is currently on Desplechin’s mind: astrophysics, Lacanian psychology, Renaissance perspective, the diplomatic corps. With Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marion Cotillard as Amalric’s Vertigo twins.
In Zama, Lucrecia Martel creates a mood that is equally feverish—as is only natural, since the setting is cholera-infested 18th-century South America—but also more stately, given that the title character (Daniel Giménez Cacho) serves as a magistrate in a godforsaken colonial outpost where the proud Spaniards insist on wearing wigs in the 100-degree heat. Based on a novel by Antonio di Benedetto, Zama becomes increasingly elliptical and fantastic as the magistrate maneuvers to be posted to Spain, only to slip further and further away from his goal: out of the governor’s office and away from the flirtations and bribes of polite society, into a native village, and then out to the jungle on a futile expedition. I might call the film a delirium, but Martel is too precise for that, and too harshly satirical. You might rather think of this work as a landscape film, whose softly colored, picturesque surface is disturbed here and there by grubby fools.
The satire in Ruben Östlund’s Cannes winner, The Square, is more up-to-the-minute and maybe also more discomfiting, since it takes aim at well-meaning people of good conscience and a little money, like the NYFF audience. Claes Bang stars as the chief curator at a contemporary-art museum in Stockholm, where he starts out sleek and smooth but becomes progressively ruffled due to the bungled marketing of a social-sculpture installation, his own ill-advised venture into street philanthropy, and the provocations of an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss) who seems gosh-darn innocent at first, but might be an imp dispatched by the forces of chaos. Östlund’s craft is immaculate, his range ambitious, his shifts of tone breathtaking. It’s also clear that he knows museums from the inside and can be killingly funny about them. My only reservation is that The Square is a pre-Trump project released in the midst of the Trump era, when it’s become convenient for establishment conservatives (and justifiably inflamed leftists) to blame our situation on the bad faith of fancy-pants liberals. Sure, there’s bad faith, but whatever the curator’s faults, I can think of worse sinners.
For that reason, perhaps, I felt that the NYFF films that best captured my mood were neither the scathing satires nor this year’s social-problem epics, Mudbound and BPM. (Both were rapturously received, by the way—but talk about exemplary characters living through representative incidents…) Maybe our present crisis doesn’t always demand the most radical or outspoken artistic response; maybe a more relenting cinema can provide room to think, and imagine. The pictures that have especially stayed with me (though I don’t claim they were the festival’s best) are Hong Sang-soo’s On the Beach at Night Alone and The Day After, and Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope.
As sly and quizzical as ever, Hong has made a pair of films starring Kim Min-hee as a sharp-witted young woman embroiled with a more powerful, married older man. In On the Beach, the affair is in the past and the man is a filmmaker (echoing Kim’s actual relationship with Hong, which became tabloid fodder in Korea); in The Day After, the man is a book publisher and the affair will perhaps happen in the future, if the bum gets his way. Both films honor a woman’s wrath, exasperation, incredulity, and contempt at male entitlement, while acknowledging that men are sometimes fueled in their misbehavior by a stupid wistfulness (and, of course, strong drink). Screening at the festival in the midst of l’affaire Weinstein, these humane, clear-eyed, heartbroken comedies seemed more than a delight: They came as a relief, and a welcome act of conscience.
But they offered no solution. That remained for Kaurismäki to do in The Other Side of Hope, his fable of a war refugee from Syria finding help and comfort among people in Helsinki who don’t much care what the authorities think. With a generosity worth emulating, Kaurismäki gives his refugee (Sherwan Haji) key lighting worthy of a 1940s movie star, live performances of the best Finnish rockabilly (played by musicians who look like Frank Zappa forgot them in a parking lot sometime in the ’80s), and a conspiracy of newfound friends who are unfailingly loyal, despite running the city’s worst harborside restaurant.
It’s all very silly, in the face of the Syrian horrors and European brutalities that Kaurismäki takes pains to acknowledge. To these, he can counterpose only kindness, community, humor, and art. These forces are hardly enough to end an international crisis. But I believe they can save a life, sometimes—and when found on the screen, they make a film festival count for more than a tally of masterpieces.