My third dispatch from the 58th New York Film Festival includes capsule reviews of Pedro Almodóvar’s The Human Voice, Matías Piñeiro’s Isabella, Philippe Lacôte’s Night Of The Kings, Béla Tarr’s Damnation and Jia Zhangke’s Xiao Wu.
dir. Pedro Almodóvar, Spotlight, 2020, Spain, 30 minutes.
Pretty much exactly what you’d imagine Pedro Almodóvar and Tilda Swinton would get up to during lockdown, it’s a floridly melodramatic short loosely adapted from Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play, previously referenced in Pedro pictures like Law Of Desire and Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. We watch Tilda traipsing around a dazzling Technicolor apartment and wonder why she hasn’t been in a hundred Almodóvar films already, so smoothly does she slide into his italicized Sirkian sensibility. Swinton stars as a spurned lover waiting for a final farewell phone call from her ex. She’s first glimpsed going after his old wardrobe with a hatchet, all the while navigating hairpin turns between heartbreak and hysteria. Occasionally she’ll wander out of the room and around a half-constructed soundstage set, or the camera sometimes snakes overhead across the empty rafters, as if inviting us to appreciate the elaborate artifice Almodóvar and his crew have constructed. It’s a powerful enough performance that he can keep elbowing us with reminders that it’s exactly that – a performance – and yet we find ourselves enthralled all the same. Maybe more.
dir. Matías Piñeiro, Main Slate, Argentina, 2020, 80 minutes.
Piñeiro’s airy meditation on the actor’s life is done no favors by screening alongside the Almodóvar, drawing unfair comparisons that’ll only add to the been-there-done-that vibe of the proceedings. Temporally hiccupping in a style similar to the nesting doll-ish art installation later created by one of the characters, it fragments the rather banal story of two actresses vying for the role of Isabella (natch) in a Buenos Aires production of Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure. There’s a fair amount of trickery with scenes being rehearsed and repeated, as plain, pregnant Mariel (María Villar) at first doesn’t realize she’s in competition with her sexy movie star friend Luciana (Augustina Muñoz). But it soon starts to feel like the narrative gimmickry is intended not so much to deepen the story’s themes but rather to obscure their insignificance. It’s a sleepy, placid movie, with a telling central image from the aforementioned exhibition being cards painted countless shades of purple. When every scene takes place on an almost identical emotional keel, eventually you get tired of it all being the same color.
dir. Philippe Lacôte, Main Slate, 2020, France/Ivory Coast/Canada/Senegal, 93 minutes.
I don’t normally have much patience for prison movies, but this clever reworking of Arabian Nights in an Ivory Coast hellhole has enough visual invention and poetry in its soul to counter the claustrophobia and oft-oppressive, overall alpha-ness of films that take place behind bars. Our Scheherazade is a fresh-faced convict selected on his first day to be part of a ritual he only half-understands, serving as a storyteller for the inmates’ annual blood moon celebration. The portly crime boss who’s run the place for decades is dying, hoping that his soul will transform into a doe while warring factions plot who will rule once this particular party is over. (“You, a doe?” his head lieutenant laughs.) The storytelling scenes are full of sorcerers and tribal wonders that liberate us from the dreary cells, growing increasingly outlandish as our hero begins running out of bullshit. The only white guy in the whole prison is a daffy old dude named Silence who carries a chicken on his shoulder wherever he goes. Of course he’s played by Denis Lavant.
dir. Béla Tarr, Revivals, 1988, Hungary, 116 minutes.
Perhaps the rainiest movie ever made, Tarr’s first collaboration with novelist László Krasznahorkai served as a stylistic fork in the road for the filmmaker, taking a sharp turn into the chiaroscuro austerity via which they’d create a towering masterpiece in Sátántangó some six years later. As such, it’s hard not to see this as something of a rough draft. It’s a film noir that doesn’t care at all about plot, with our luckless leading man falling too hard for a faithless torch singer and suffering the sort of heartbreak that makes a man get down on his knees and bark along with the dogs. What’s fun to watch are all the durational devices that will become directorial hallmarks, with endlessly repetitive accordion droning and a blearily depressive beer hall dance sequence that goes on long enough you wonder how everybody hasn’t sobered up already. (It’s like a mathematical inversion of Lovers Rock.) The weather in this movie is so viscerally raw, I swear the temperature in my living room dropped ten degrees while I was watching it.
dir. Jia Zhangke, Revivals, 1997, China, 112 minutes.
One of those directorial debuts where you can see the sensibility already fully formed. After initially resisting his work back in the aughts I’ve come relatively late to Jia, but I’m sure the fact that he makes movies about characters clinging to their old, outmoded ways while a confusing new culture passes them by has nothing at all to do with why I can’t seem to get through them these days without crying. This one’s about a pickpocket whose friends all grew up and got straight, now they’re getting married and want nothing to do with him. So he’s hanging around all day trying to put the make on a karaoke hostess while the avuncular, exhausted local cops have had just about enough of his nonsense. As will become his habit, Jia turns China’s capitalist explosion into a reflection of the character’s inner dislocation and finds strange solace in the cheesiest pop ballads imaginable. He also can’t seem to get enough of that Sally Yeh song from The Killer. Which is cool, because neither can I.