My first dispatch from the 59th New York Film Festival includes capsule reviews of Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, Julia Ducournau’s Titane and Ed Lachman’s Songs For Drella.
dir. Paul Verhoeven, Main Slate, 2021, France/Netherlands, 121 minutes.
Returning to the New York Film Festival for a third time following Kevin Smith’s Dogma in 1999 and Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary back in 1985, a small crowd of Catholic protestors stood angrily outside Alice Tully Hall during the Sunday afternoon premiere of Paul Verhoeven’s feverishly blasphemous Benedetta. A pal noted that people picketing a new Verhoeven movie was the best kind of ‘90s nostalgia, but alas, any religious fervor in the streets had subsided by the time I arrived in town for Tuesday night’s screening. (It was also raining, and the devout don’t like to get their signs wet.) This appallingly enjoyable nunsploitation epic stars Virginie Efira as a 17th century sister struck with stigmata after being rocked by visions of a sexy Jesus. Soon she’s manipulating her way up through the church hierarchy, while secretly having a lurid lesbian affair with her cellmate Sister Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia) as the plague makes its way to the region. Like a lot of Verhoeven movies, Benedetta is a sophisticated exploration of institutional power imbalances and systemic structural oppression that plays just as well with intellectual pointy-heads as the crowd who came to see some titties and gore. (Get you a director who can do both.) The knowingly naughty Benedetta completes a post-Hollywood trilogy of brilliant provocations from the fearless 83-year-old filmmaker, as Verhoeven’s 2006 Holocaust fuckfest Black Book and his 2016 “rape comedy” Elle mine similarly outrageous entertainments out of subjects that are no laughing matter.
dir. Julia Ducournau, Main Slate, 2021, France, 108 minutes.
For the first half-hour or so of writer-director Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winner I thought Spike’s jury was right and I was watching the movie of the year. Disfigured as a child in a car accident, Agathe Rousselle’s Alexia grows up to be a fetish model with a steel plate in her head and all sorts of sexual hang-ups involving sharp metal objects and (literal) autoeroticism. She’s also kind of a serial killer, and an extended sicko set-piece involving oblivious roommates is funnier than most feature-length comedies. Pregnant and lactating motor oil, Alexia’s suffering from an intense, hallucinatory body dysmorphia that’s only exacerbated when a hulking, sensitive fireman (Vincent Lindon) takes her in, insisting she’s his long-missing son despite all visual evidence to the contrary. That’s when Ducournau cools it on the shock effects and the movie mellows out into a quasi-remake of The King Of Staten Island, except instead of Pete Davidson as the tattooed freak being adopted by his local fire department you’ve got a mass murderer who was impregnated by an Oldsmobile. To the extent that I understand Titane, I think that it wants to be a movie about how unconditional love can heal even the most twisted among us, and Lindon’s performance in particular can at times be quite moving. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t prefer the heavy metal viscera of that wrenching opening reel.
SONGS FOR DRELLA
dir. Ed Lachman, Revivals, 1990, USA, 55 minutes.
Programmed as an addendum to Todd Haynes’ outstanding Velvet Underground documentary, this affectingly sparse concert film features Lou Reed and John Cale performing their 1990 tribute to Andy Warhol in an empty auditorium at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music. Directed by legendary cinematographer (and frequent Haynes collaborator) Ed Lachman, it’s a stark, evocative performance and a sea of sad, bad vibes. The bickering ex-Velvets hadn’t spoken in years before reuniting at Warhol’s memorial in 1987. By the time they finished this album they hated each other’s guts again, and Lachman’s camera crisply captures the tension between performers, probably as physically and emotionally far apart as two people can be while sharing the same stage, singing the same songs. (Check the look on Lou’s face during “The Dream” when John reads the bit from Andy’s diary complaining about him.) Thought lost until Lachman recently discovered the original negative in his loft, the movie feels even more mournful three decades later now that Reed is gone, too. Lachman’s use of negative space makes the themes of loss resonate visually throughout the piece: we’re always aware that somebody’s missing. The restoration looks and sounds insanely superior to my old VHS copy, and the presentation includes a vintage promo reel Lachman shot for Lou’s 1973 Berlin album, after which the singer claimed not to remember kicking over the tripod and telling the fledgling cinematographer to “shoot it like Andy.”