My third dispatch from the 59th New York Film Festival includes capsule reviews of Jane Campion’s The Power Of The Dog, Gaspar Noé’s Vortex and Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers.
THE POWER OF THE DOG
dir. Jane Campion, Centerpiece, 2021, Australia/New Zealand, 127 minutes.
I thought I had this one all figured out. Silly me. Writer-director Jane Campion’s first film in twelve years is an adaptation of a novel by Thomas Savage about two rancher brothers in 1920’s Montana whose insular routine is interrupted when the more worldly of the two (Jesse Plemons) marries a tremulous, widowed innkeeper and adopts her effete teenage son, played by Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee, respectively. Seeing his territory threatened, the younger, boorishly macho brother – a curiously cast Benedict Cumberbatch – proceeds to bully and terrorize the wife and child, and I settled in for the usual yadda-yadda about “toxic masculinity” (an annoying internet term Campion thoughtfully pooh-poohed during the post-screening Q&A.) Shame on me for thinking I could second-guess an artist so consistently surprising, because The Power Of The Dog gets weirder and more perversely seductive as it goes along, upending our expectations and enveloping the audience in a malevolent frontier hothouse scored by Jonny Greenwood’s discordant piano. Owing less to Red River and more to The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner conjure an eerie, forbidding atmosphere where even the fey Cumberbatch’s counterintuitive casting comes to make perfect sense. His ardently overcompensating cowboy’s worship of a mythical figure named Bronco Henry is almost cult-like in its devotion to solemn rituals of manhood, an affectation that becomes tenderly, inescapably sad.
dir. Gaspar Noé, Main Slate, 2021, France, 142 minutes.
A pulverizing movie experience I would like never to have again. Or in other words, a new film by Gaspar Noé. The punk provocateur behind audience-abusing sensory overload spectacles like Climax and Enter The Void is being praised for making his most tender movie yet, which might make it the most difficult to watch. Françoise Lebrun, star of Jean Eustache’s The Mother And The Whore, and Italian giallo god Dario Argento play an elderly couple coping with her dementia and his heart problems in a cozy, cluttered apartment that becomes a hellish obstacle course of misery over the course of these two-and-a-half grueling hours. They share exactly one happy frame together before the screen splits in two, individual cameras following each of them around as they navigate their days with diminishing abilities. There have been a lot of recent films about dementia and most of them try turn it into a metaphor for something. Not so with Noé, for whom aging is simply day-to-day disintegration, which his cameras capture in as unadorned and unflinching fashion as possible. Vortex is basically Amour from the director of Irreversible, including a heart attack sequence as agonizingly protracted as the nine-minute rape scene in Noé’s 2002 affront. The filmmaker is said to have been through a similar experience recently with his own family – and I respect his attempt to strip away any trace of artifice or sentimentality while conceding that the result is nearly impossible to sit through.
dir. Pedro Almodóvar, Closing Night, 2021, Spain, 120 minutes.
Pedro Almodóvar movies are such a pleasure to watch, not just for all the bright colors and beautiful women, but also because of how seamlessly his shots flow into one another. Like Steven Spielberg, he’s got such a casual mastery of the medium that however universally acclaimed I feel like his filmmaking skills are still somehow taken for granted. Parallel Mothers is one of his boldest efforts yet, grafting Almodóvar’s patented women’s picture melodrama onto a larger historical canvas, insisting that the lessons of his soapy domestic saga also apply to his country’s past via a gutsy gambit that hits you like a ton of bricks in the film’s shattering final image. Before that, it’s already an accomplished, sexy tear-jerker, starring Penelope Cruz and newcomer Milena Smit as single moms sharing a room at the hospital whose lives become intertwined in ways both predictable and out of left field. There’s the usual sumptuous production design, fine fashions and a Rossy de Palma sidekick role, along with an erotic interlude set to Janis Joplin’s “Summertime” so exquisitely timed you’ll want to somehow applaud the staging without seeming like a perv. Once so slight and coltish onscreen, Cruz is more and more reminding me of Sophia Loren these days, having grown into a powerful figure of femininity anchoring this ambitious film. And have I mentioned that final shot yet? Hell of a way to close out a festival.