NYFF Dispatch: “Saint Laurent”, “National Gallery” and “Red Army”

yslThe 52nd New York Film Festival forges ahead with its post-Gone Girl selection this week, with biopics of a French fashion maestro and two documentaries from directors at very different ends of the career spectrum.

Saint Laurent (Bertrand Bonello, 2014)

With their strained efforts to eschew the obvious, one could argue that biopics trafficking in jumbled chronologies are in danger of becoming as clichéd as the traditional linear narrative. Such fate too often befalls Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, an impression of the iconic French couturier that works hard to fragment what is an otherwise surface-level—though admittedly luscious—life portrait. The second of this year’s Yves Saint Laurent biopics—he’s apparently the French Hercules—essays the man who loved women from his late ’60s design fame through the turbulent period leading to the career rejuvenation of his Spring ’76 collection, while flashing forward to the aged legend seen in his 1989 twilight.

Gaspard Ulliel performs a sensuous but curiously remote impersonation of the younger man as he’s seen negotiating the oblivion of success, while both Jérémie Renier and Louis Garrell generate sparks as the respective poles of his personal life. Like his previous, more adventurous House of Pleasures, Bonello taps the transition between eras—here, as he notes, from craft to industry—and he and cinematographer Josée Deshaies cultivate a rich visual palette, while the director’s own musical compositions exhume the chilly period synths of Tangerine Dream. Yet for all its Viscontian sensation (it’s no coincidence that Helmet Berger embodies the older man) the film well overstays the 150 minutes, and like its Mondrian split-screens the choppiness finally comes on like an epic distraction. Yet while it’s not a terribly compelling assessment of the man’s work, it is a quite effective document of his crippling melancholy. “I’m 33,” he muses at one moment. “But I feel like 100.”

National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, 2014)

There’s no questioning the artistry in National Gallery, 84-year-old documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s effortlessly engaging tour of London’s venerable art institution. At 180 minutes it’s practically a short next to last year’s masterful At Berkeley, moving at a fluid clip through the galleries halls, boardrooms, classrooms and fascinating restoration areas. (A moment in which a Rembrandt’s history is peeled back via a modern x-ray technique is literally revelatory.) Like Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, Gallery is, of course, as much about the spectator as it is the work itself, though Wiseman’s presentation of the thesis is so sublime that it never registers as forced. It’s a film of simple, almost beguiling elegance; watching it is not unlike staring at one of the gallery’s works, with all the attendant tangents of thought. As one curator points out, the art—and by extension, Wiseman’s documentary—successfully captures and embalms the ephemeral, while its viewers, and their context, constantly change. (He may have simply been watching Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused.)

Red Army (Gabe Polsky, 2014)

On the showier end of the documentary spectrum, Gabe Polsky’s Red Army pursues a surefire crowd-pleasing narrative: that of the ’80s Soviet ice hockey team, and in particular star player Slava Fetisov, whose tangles with the powers-that-were effectively parallel the nation’s own turbulence as it transitioned uneasily into democracy. Opening with a high-comedy extract of Ronald Reagan warning against the Red menace, Army follows Fetisov and his comrades as they elevate hockey to art, become international superstars, and are subsequently courted by the West as their country collapses economically. Polsky, a producer on 2009’s Bad Lieutenant, has Herzog-ian aspirations (indeed, Werner is an executive producer here), and the movie is at its best in the odd interactions between director and subject—who clearly won’t be molded to his filmmaker’s narrative. But for the most part, this is cut to play like an arc of sporting triumph, with its politics allowing the audience to cheer on the downfall of tyranny while holding close a cuddly collective ideal. Your mileage may vary according to your tolerance of hockey, however: like the little girl who randomly wanders into Polsky’s shot while interviewing a former KGB agent, some of us might prefer to eat ice cream and play with dolls instead.

Originally published on Movie Mezzanine.

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