A large, shaggy something called Toni Erdmann got loose at this year’s New York Film Festival, loping at will through the aisles of Alice Tully Hall while bellowing mournfully and tickling the patrons. People who had spotted the creature earlier, in Cannes or Toronto, had predicted the rampage; but as an experienced festivalgoer, I was skeptical about reports of a seven-foot-tall, pointy-headed movie that would jump out from behind a seat and try to hug me.
“Wait and see,” I thought. The main slate already promised plenty of unruliness.
There would be tales of tough-minded older people rising in revolt—Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius—and a historical fantasy about a free-living, middle-aged poet leading the police on a “wild chase” in Pablo Larraín’s Neruda. Gianfranco Rosi would test the limits of documentary filmmaking—and the audience’s moral consciousness—in his harrowing picture about the migrant route to Europe, Fire at Sea. In Sieranevada and Graduation, Romania’s usual suspects, Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu, would immerse their viewers in one afternoon of family disorder and four days of domestic collapse, with doctors as protagonists and social diagnosis as an agenda. The Americans’ contributions would include big, rich domestic dramas by Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea) and Mike Mills (20th Century Women), and an unexpected revival by James Gray of the lush wide-screen epic (The Lost City of Z).
There would be much more besides, including an extraordinary concentration of films about African-American life (discussed in The Nation’s November 7 issue), none of which seemed to demand prankish interruption. Then the festival let Toni Erdmann out of its cage, and I, too, started jabbering that Bigfoot roamed Lincoln Center.
Written and directed by Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann is the story of an estranged daughter and father who are both going through life in disguise, the main difference being that hers is respectable. Slender, blond, and thirtysomething, Ines (Sandra Hüller) keeps her hair smoothed in a French twist and her body sheathed in black pantsuits as she plots her rise in the men’s world of management consulting. Despite being assigned to the capitalist backwater of Bucharest, she maneuvers sharply against her colleagues, seeking to outdo them in the task of masking their client’s outsourcing goals. It’s cold-blooded work—and so Ines does not want to be distracted by her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a shambling, shabby, sixtyish German music teacher whose idea of fun is to play dress-up with fright wigs, Jerry Lewis–style false teeth, and an occasional application of ghoul makeup, the better to joke about, oh, mailing letter bombs and shooting people. Other than that, the old card seems harmless, except that he springs himself on Ines in Bucharest, unannounced, and begins to burlesque her profession. Disappointed that his daughter doesn’t melt at once into reconciliation, Winfried starts pretending to be a management coach named Toni Erdmann, having donned for this purpose a black suit, black tie, and floor-mop wig. He looks like Neil Young in a remake of Reservoir Dogs.
From this rigorously concise summary, you will understand that a lot goes on in Toni Erdmann—and I’ve brought you only as far as the moment when Ines hurls spaghetti at her father and he responds by handcuffing her, after which things start to get disorderly. Wills are tested, competitions fought, more extravagant disguises assumed, and all possibility of disguise stripped away. Should I say that Ines learns to loosen up in the screwball-comedy tradition thanks to an odd form of paternal care, or would it be more accurate to say that Winfried is pathetically, overbearingly needy, and Ines has to free herself before she suffocates? I can’t decide—which is one of the great merits of Toni Erdmann. Here are two more: Sandra Hüller’s performance, which proceeds from the tightest self-control to a recklessness destined for legend, and the delighted reaction of the audience. You’ll want to see this one in a crowd when it opens in theaters, so you can feel the waves of laughter crashing over each other.
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Toni Erdmann may have been the wildest animal in this year’s festival, but there were other complex, unpredictable family stories as well, including the exceptionally beautiful Manchester by the Sea. By that, I don’t just mean to praise cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes’s views of the New England coast, with their washes of winter light that gradually warms toward spring. The larger point is that Lonergan’s film accommodates many kinds of contingency—from atmospheric conditions and moments of casual humor to physiological mishaps and horrific miscalculations—and eventually, without cheating, draws redemption from them. Casey Affleck, at once riveting and faultlessly unshowy, stars as a lonely, brooding janitor in Quincy, Massachusetts, who is called home after the sudden death of his older brother—the solid, responsible one. Now there’s an unparented teenage nephew to be cared for in Manchester (the convincingly self-involved, sardonically astute Lucas Hedges), and the janitor refuses to do his part. You don’t understand the rejection until far into the film, when the explanation unfolds like a waking nightmare. Then you’re left shaken with sorrow for the characters, and slowly filled with respect for them all.
The tone is flightier in 20th Century Women, a film that takes off into occasional history lessons illustrated by stock footage and darts around in time through multiple voice-overs; but the parenting in Mike Mills’s story is no less edgy than in Lonergan’s, and can even be called calamitous in its way. The year is 1979 and the place is Santa Barbara, where almost the first thing you see is a car going up in flames in a supermarket parking lot. So much for the family wheels of single mother and disappointed career woman Dorothea (a chain-smoking, apparently self-barbered Annette Bening) and her teenage son Jamie (a dark-eyed reed named Lucas Jade Zumann). Thinking that Jamie needs additional role models, or perhaps just abandoning her hope of being one, Dorothea recruits two surrogate elders for him: the photographer who rooms in her big fixer-upper house (Greta Gerwig) and a gloomily flirtatious girl who is slightly older than Jamie, and with whom he’s desperately in love (Elle Fanning). In this way, Jamie gets sometimes contradictory guidance from women born in the 1920s, ’50s, and ’60s. It’s a clever conceit, which, like Dorothea’s plan, is all the better for breaking down. The appealing messiness of the characters ultimately matters far more than the overly neat generational scheme. The American expectation of a happy ending, which Mills surreptitiously shares with his characters, gives way at last to a pleasant shock that life sometimes does work out, for a while.
Optimism, of course, is inconceivable in Cristi Puiu’s and Cristian Mungiu’s family dramas, though you can find plenty of mordant humor in the former’s Sieranevada and a kind of exhausted crime-movie suspense in the latter’s Graduation. Puiu’s film drops you into an old apartment in Bucharest, where an affluent, sharp-tongued doctor has joined perhaps a dozen relatives and friends for his father’s memorial service and dinner. Both are indefinitely delayed due to the priest’s running behind schedule and the family’s continual squabbling about everything, from 9/11 conspiracy theories and Ceausescu to Disney princesses and fornication. Events happen in what seems like real time, observed mostly from within the apartment’s foyer, from which you see doors banging open and shut as if in a morbid French farce while the actors perform the elaborate choreography that Puiu has given them. With concealed virtuosity, he pretends it’s all just haphazard life.
By contrast, Mungiu meticulously structures his Graduation, marking the time by the steps of a police investigation and the successive days of a high-school girl’s final exams. The two processes, unfortunately, are related. Having been sexually assaulted on the street the day before her exams begin, the girl is left with a sprained writing hand—and so her father, a surgeon and onetime expatriate who is proud to have remained free from corruption (except for a little draft-dodging in his youth, and adultery now), gives in and starts trading favors in case the test scores need improving. As Graduation becomes progressively darker and tauter, you watch a fundamentally decent man start to give up on himself, having already lost hope for his marriage and his country. But he won’t give up on his ambitions for his daughter—though the plot’s mysteries hinge on her own ideas about the subject.
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As you can tell merely from these synopses, a current of social criticism ran through many of the festival’s selections—even 20th Century Women (with its boyish intimations of feminism) and Manchester by the Sea (with its bar fight targeting the guys in suits). But criticism in some films went beyond general observations to a specific sense of outrage.
I, Daniel Blake, which earlier in the year took the top prize at Cannes, is the only film that has won the Palme d’Or by attacking an act of Parliament. Its subject is the Work Capability Assessment, introduced by Labour and made more stringent by the Cameron government after 2010, which forces people seeking disability benefits to prove their incapacity to the satisfaction of a private company. (Management of the benefits was outsourced, American style.) The protagonist, a middle-aged Newcastle carpenter suffering from a heart condition, fights back with the combination of dignity and flagrant sarcasm you’d expect in a Ken Loach picture written by his longtime collaborator Paul Laverty. Although American audiences might not know the precise object of the film’s wrath, they will be able to empathize, based on their own experience of managed care. They may also appreciate Loach’s brilliant casting of a stand-up comedian, Dave Johns, in the lead. Johns gives impeccable timing to his character’s exasperation but real heart to the movie’s emotional core: Daniel’s friendship with a poor young family who have been pushed out of London by the welfare system.
Displacement is also a theme in Aquarius, which stars the redoubtable Sônia Braga as the other greatly defiant sexagenarian in this year’s festival. Her Clara, a survivor of breast cancer and long widowhood, is the last of her generation in an artistic leftist family in the Brazilian city of Recife, and the last resident of an old beachfront apartment building that has fallen prey to a real-estate developer. Magnificent in her refusal to give up her home, Clara makes it clear that she has nothing against modernity but will go to war against cheapness, shallowness, and greed. She—and Braga—prove to be much bigger than the developers (although these smirking, swaggering men don’t realize it until the end). Aquarius is far more ample than most films, multiplying its characters and situations until an entire society seems to have filled the screen.
About Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, the sole documentary on this year’s main slate (other than the opening-night feature, 13th), I will say only that it looks and moves like a clearheaded observational drama but is devastatingly, inescapably real. The subject is economic and political migration from the Middle East and Africa. The site is Lampedusa, the Italian island that is the closest place in Europe to the coast of Tunisia, and has therefore been the goal of tens of thousands of boat people, some of whom have survived the voyage. Over the course of the film, Rosi brings you closer and closer to the migrants; but he starts by following around a young native of Lampedusa named Samuele, who serves as the opposite of a point-of-view character. Rosi lets you see what Samuele does not—the ongoing catastrophe—as the boy goes about a life we might too complacently call normal.
If I’ve dwelled in this survey on well-made films of social realism, it’s largely because that bias has been built into the New York Film Festival. The weird stuff now plays in sections titled “Explorations” (for nonstandard narratives, such as João Pedro Rodrigues’s queer religious allegory The Ornithologist) and “Projections” (for the avant-garde). But delirium still breaks out occasionally on the main slate.
James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, for example, makes some pretense toward realism—it’s based on the South American adventures of the British soldier and explorer Percy Fawcett (1867–?)—while sweeping along on wings of romance last worn by David Lean. There’s a splendid view from up here, thanks to Darius Khondji’s rapt cinematography and updrafts from the swelling music. White men’s journeys into the exotic are of course questionable in today’s right-minded film festival; but by adding patches of dialogue that condemn ethnocentrism, imperialism, and male supremacy, Gray flies on unabashed.
Better still, though, is Neruda, a parodic film noir about the period in 1948–49 when the poet and former senator was driven into hiding in Chile. Rather than show the events from the viewpoint of the main character (the Neruda look-alike Luis Gnecco), Pablo Larraín invents a hard-boiled but soft-brained police detective (Gael García Bernal in goofy deadpan mode) and leaves the narration to him, letting him describe the search for the rich Commie pervert in the images and language of a paperback thriller. I don’t know if Roberto Bolaño himself could have teased out so well the desire of a hate-filled, impoverished flunky merely to be recognized by the famous artist he’s out to destroy.
Here was the festival’s currently preferred mode of realism shifted toward the fantastic, the emphasis on social concerns merged with the programmers’ preoccupation with form. Toni Erdmann was no doubt the most talked-about picture in a strong 2016 New York Film Festival; but Neruda, in its way, was the point of balance.