The 52nd New York Film Festival—one of the last great gatherings of cinephilia before the inanity of awards season—is officially underway, and as usual it’s a rich program of auteur-heavy selections (Godard, Fincher, Costa, Ferrara, Assayas), ace revivals (a Joseph Mankiewicz retro, Once Upon a Time in America) and diverse shorts/experimental strands—and possibly the only place you can watch the new Cronenberg movie with John Waters providing a live laugh track behind you.
No doubt all eyes—or at least mine and many I know—will be on the world premiere of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, his 70mm, Joaquin Phoenix-headlined Pynchon adaptation that, among other pleasures, promises to see the director drawing from the well of classic ZAZ comedies. I can’t wait.
Inaugurating things with 149 minutes of lurid, top-shelf pulp, David Fincher’s Gone Girl had its official US premiere Friday night ahead of a wider global rollout this week. There’s been considerable gushing over this enjoyably silly movie, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel that Fincher has, to his great credit, transformed into a grisly black comedy that takes its text as a mandate to satirize modern relationships—and, presumably, the people that write bestselling books about them.
Funnier still is David Cronenberg’s Hollywood chamber of horrors Maps to the Stars, which begins life as a perfunctory (though genuinely hilarious) hatchet job on tinsel town before mutating—in the Canadian master’s great tradition—into something decidedly more sinister (and way more ridiculous.) Mysteriously scarred, her arms clad in elbow-length black gloves like a freshly-exhumed Holly Golightly, Mia Wasikowska arrives in LA and finds her way to an assistant’s role for an aging, unraveling actress (Julianne Moore, who won Best Actress at Cannes), who’s desperate to star in a remake of her tragically deceased mother’s most famous work.
If all that sounds incestuous then you’re already halfway to getting the movie’s ostensibly dumb punchline, but Cronenberg and writer Bruce Wagner, surely giggling to themselves throughout, have weirder things on their minds. The film’s most compelling aspect is the notion that these characters—including John Cusack’s self-empowerment huckster and a franchise child star who would eat the Bad Seed for breakfast—are linked by a soapy line of dialogue from the movie being remade, intoned repeatedly here like a summons to evil (and recalling the cursed labyrinth of Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE.) Maps isn’t a major work from Cronenberg but it’s twisted, practically giallo fun just the same; perhaps more notably, it also marks the second film at the festival—alongside Godard’s dazzling Goodbye to Language—to feature an extended fart joke from a venerated auteur. Now tell me, distributors, that you’re going to consign that straight-to-VOD.
Dream factories of decidedly different—though no less disturbing—colors inhabit two of the most absorbing experiences at the festival to date. In Jauja, this year’s NYFF Filmmaker in Residence Lisandro Alonso conjures up one of the year’s sublime dislocations of the senses, memorably folding his film’s landscape of time and space back on itself. Opening on a 19th-century tableau of a Danish engineer (Viggo Mortensen) and his teenage daughter (Viilbjørk Malling Agger) locked in a symbiotic pose, the movie purports to chronicle his journey in search of her—and the title’s legendary Argentine land of “abundance and happiness”—while warning that many travelers have vanished along the way.
Composed in Academy Ratio with the rounded frame of photographs lost to time, Alonso’s disarmingly simple approach has the effect of lulling his audience into a false sense of comfort; when things insidiously slip into the fluid domain of memory, the lines between linear narrative and dream don’t so much blur as evaporate. Jauja’s denouement is both puzzling and retroactively sound. It’s a work of great resonance—and one that’s sure to haunt any child who’s ever pleaded with their parents for a dog.
Precisely how much of Pedro Costa’s stupendous Horse Money unfurls in reality or serves as a projection of a rattled soul is open to debate, though there’s no denying it’s a film of frightening psychic power. Returning from the director’s previous work as the film’s spiritual conduit, drifter Ventura is seen emerging, zombie-like, from a dark underground tunnel straight out of a noir horror. Held captive—though by whom it’s uncertain—in a hospital infirmary, he believes himself to be 19-years-old, and the year to be 1975, while the turmoil of that year’s Portuguese military coup plays out outside. In a series of disorientating interactions it becomes apparent that the film’s space is more likely the fractured chambers of Ventura’s mind, and the narrative less flashes forward than it does dissolve in a parenthetical nightmare.
Horse Money pursues the political dimension of Costa’s docufiction, yet does so with a heightened mastery of the surreal that ranks among the best work of the unconscious cinema. (To invoke Lynch again, he has a kindred artist here.) Costa’s most spectacular embrace of theme and form arrives during a hallucinatory elevator scene in which Ventura must confront a fascist trooper, who, painted to resemble a tin soldier, communicates telepathically while channeling the voices of past and present. It’s probably not too flippant to note, either, that both Horse Money and Jauja could be considered superb Twilight Zone experiences.
Two disparate music-based films play the festival this year, both heavily informed by the rhythms of their respective genres. Sundance favourite Whiplash, which opens in limited release in Australia and the US soon, is a loosely autobiographical work by first-timer Damien Chazelle that cranks up the volatile dynamic between a gifted jazz student (Miles Teller) and his tyrannical mentor, a scenery-eviscerating, R. Lee Ermey-biting J.K. Simmons. Cut dynamically to the scattergun tempo of its jazz drumming, this full metal racket has enough blood, sweat and Bob Fosse in its ambition to register as an engaging good time—before the inevitable capitulation to festival uplift, anyway. (Side note: why don’t more filmmakers shoot Simmons in close-up? He’s transfixing, almost a creature.)
Less eager to please, and more satisfying, is Mia Hansen–Løve’s Eden, which spans two decades and a mini-history of French house music. Dropping at the scene’s genesis around 1992, the story follows aspiring DJ Paul (Félix de Givry), a pivotal figure in the evolution of the genre from underground rave to global soundtrack. But the movie’s as much an essay on the perils of growing up, growing old, and losing relevance, and—in following a lesser-known, eventually sidelined talent—it superficially echoes the Coens’ mopey Inside Llewyn Davis. The joke sparks early on, when the camera pans away from two average-looking dudes loitering in the background of a shot—Thomas and Guy-Manuel, aka Daft Punk—to focus on Paul, as if to wink, “but hey, you know how their story turned out.” (The movie’s running gag, that Daft Punk are never recognized by an exclusive club bouncer, is droll catnip.) As Paul’s talent for self-destruction repeatedly upstages his musical ability, so the film chases its diminishing narrative tail like so many record grooves.
Dramatically, there’s not much to it then—the sheer scope of events renders things episodic—but Hansen–Løve’s audio-visual sense is impeccable, mixing tracks over extended montages that generate an emotional effect beyond the plot. Like the Robert Creeley poem quoted on screen, “It is all a rhythm,” and Eden captures the sound of melancholy as adulthood ambushes its subject. “Kids today!” an old lady admonishes Paul. His telling reply: “I’m 34!”
Oren Moverman’s Time Out of Mind represents a reunion of sorts for the director and his producer-star, Richard Gere. Moverman co-wrote I’m Not There—in which Gere portrayed an older variation on Bob Dylan—and the Hollywood silver fox takes on a literal vagabond role here as a homeless man on the streets of New York. “De-glamourised,” Gere’s American Hobo is knowingly freighted with plenty of screen baggage: it’s impossible to hear him pathetically say “I’ve always been very good with women” and not recall a version of the Armani-draped lothario or Julia Roberts’ prince, but the creative ploy ultimately backfires. Even slumming, Gere just looks too put together, and—with Moverman’s perpetual abuse of “screen-obscuring” tricks—the film feigns grittiness en route to suggesting a final road to redemption. Per Rampart, though, it’s to Moverman’s credit that he largely refrains from passing moral judgment, and the film isn’t without its merits: chief among them an effortlessly great performance by Jena Malone in the thankless “angry daughter” role.