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Nashville Scene Advance Screening

New York Film Festival offers glimpse of films to come

By Scott Manzler

OCTOBER 18, 1999:  Returning from the recent Toronto International Film Festival with an eye toward the 37th New York Film Festival, Village Voice critic J. Hoberman likened the former to a "vast and savvy department store" while characterizing the latter as an "exclusive boutique." An example: Toronto screened a seven-film retrospective of the as-yet-untouted Japanese director Kiyoshi ("no relation to Akira") Kurosawa, while New York selected a single gem, License to Live. But in this particular case, smaller may actually have been better.

New York's five-person selection committee reviewed over 1,200 titles to assemble a core schedule of 26 films--plus additional special screenings, an avant-garde series, and a retrospective of the near-forgotten Italian director Pietro Germi. Moreover, the schedule was spread over a leisurely (by festival standards) two weeks, providing the viewer with a rare opportunity to enjoy each movie as a discrete unit, to psychically digest one offering before gorging on the next. And the committee's commitment to quality over hype all but guaranteed a strong program, truly justifying the NYFF's "best of the fests" reputation.

A quick review of 1998's selections reads like a contour map of the past year's cinematic high points: I Stand Alone, Dr. Akagi, The Apple, Velvet Goldmine, Rushmore, The Dreamlife of Angels, Black Cat, White Cat. Never mind that over half these titles have yet to receive Nashville screenings. (Hell, two of the festival's best entries, The Flowers of Shanghai and Khroustaliov, My Car!, never even secured U.S. distribution.) Like all great art, these movies are timeless. As if to reinforce this point, Eric Rohmer's gentle romantic comedy Autumn Tale just opened at Green Hills 16--only a year after its standout appearance at the NYFF.

True to its "boutique" leanings, the festival has a small, almost intimate feel. Where more celebrated fests such as Sundance, Cannes, and even Toronto cater to the industry--cell phones, bidding wars, Harvey Weinstein, E!--the New York Film Festival is virtually hype-free, a well-conceived, expertly executed program presented for the city's delectation. The festival celebrates film as film without bowing to the vagaries of an unresponsive distribution system or a Hollywood-besotted media machine. This mood of cinematic reverence--rapture, even--was interrupted only once: by the news crews and gawkers drawn like insects to the flame of Kevin Smith's Dogma, with its attendant religious backlash and A-list celebrities. Prior to the screening, the presenter, Film Comment editor Kathleen Murphy, even apologized for the distraction.

Not that New Yorkers always appreciate (or even understand) their cultural bounty. The sophisticated Lincoln Center crowd staged an impromptu mass exodus during Raul Ruiz's Time Regained, an admittedly difficult text that all but demands a second viewing. But for over two hours, Ruiz's Proust adaptation is never less than entertaining--a magic lantern of sound and image, lyrical and lovely, an engaging intellectual labyrinth. The film's final images, drifting over a seaside resort as recollection and imagination merge into an eternal present, promise to linger in the mind's eye long after the Dogma-generated eruption fades from memory.

Perhaps coincidentally, Time Regained also foregrounds the festival's secret theme--a preoccupation with the mutability of time and identity. In License to Live, a Japanese youth emerges from a 10-year coma to discover that the arrested hopes, dreams, and memories of his 14-year-old past no longer jibe with the realities of today. A similar sense of displacement drives both Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother and Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet's Sicilia!. The former chronicles a mother's exploration of her gloriously misspent youth following the death of her son; the latter examines an exile's uneasy rapprochement with his native Sicily.

Not surprisingly, several entries conflate time and place still further by feeding on the medium's history. The most notable of these is Aki Kaurismaki's Juha, which employs silent-era conventions to refashion an age-old Finnish tale as a wistful meditation on the decline of postmodernism.

Eschewing the intricate absurdities and joyfully convoluted side streets of such fictional time passages, the documentary entries probed the more troublesome folds of our repressed past. Claude Lanzmann's A Visitor From the Living, composed of unused footage from his epochal Holocaust doc Shoah, focuses upon a Red Cross representative whose personal biases blinded him to the atrocities of the Nazi's "modelghetto" at Theresienstadt. The shadow of Shoah also hangs over Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Pripyat, which borrows the former's interview style and web-like narrative to revisit the history of Chernobyl, detailing the transformation of the once-prosperous title city into a frontier ghost town.

An unexpected and refreshing byproduct of the festival's balanced programming is the rather unusual opportunity to experience American film as merely an element of world cinema rather than a dominating force--as a contributing voice in a vast and expansive discourse. Thus, while the heavily anticipated Dogma represented indie maven Kevin Smith's first crack at Big Issues, two promising American debuts proved much more adept at tackling the existential quandaries of modern identity. Music video wunderkind Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich is an endlessly inventive and often hilarious romp that's nearly impossible to synopsize. And if this surrealistic fantasy ultimately lacks the intellectual heft to match its premise--well, it's a pretty spectacular premise.

Kimberly Peirce pursues a much more subtle approach in Boys Don't Cry, based on the real-life story of female-as-male Brandon Teena's brutal rape and execution in a small Nebraska town. Adroitly skirting the story's inherent sensationalism, Peirce's film tenderly and thoughtfully explores our deeply rooted gender stereotypes before deconstructing the mechanics of hate.

The good news for Nashvillians: Many of the above-mentioned titles are likely to grace our city over the next few months, some sooner than later. Boys Don't Cry and former Nashvillian Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey-Boy (both featuring Chlo' Sevigny) have already opened in New York, with Atom Egoyan's Felicia's Journey and Hayao Miyazaki's anime landmark Princess Mononoke following soon after.

In addition, media darlings such as Being John Malkovich and Dogma are all but assured Nashville screenings, and given Regal's recent foreign-friendly booking policy, the high-profile All About My Mother seems a likely bet as well. So to close this cinematic travelogue, I'll focus instead upon two radically different films, whose future in Nashville may require a more concerted push (OK, outright boosterism). One is rooted firmly in the grim present, the other seemingly existing outside of time altogether.

The surprise winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's Rosetta chronicles the struggles of a young Belgian woman to find a job and secure a "normal" life. Like its predecessor, La Promesse, the film focuses upon a common, though rarely examined dilemma posed by our increasingly impersonal modern existence: how to maintain dignity and humanity under the crushing weight of poverty and disenfranchisement.

Emilie Dequenne, well-deserved recipient of the Best Actress Award at Cannes, literally inhabits the role of Rosetta. She is rarely absent from the screen: Her determined, impassive features define our view, her labored, heavy breathing functions as our soundtrack. Through a series of near-sacred daily rituals--changing shoes, setting fish traps, eating waffles--we watch as Rosetta builds a fragile wall of routine between herself and the rut of despair.

New York Times critic Stephen Holden closed his largely dismissive review by observing that "instead of feeling universal, the movie feels claustrophobic"--but claustrophobia is the engine that drives Rosetta toward its universal truths. The Dardennes' aggressive (and perhaps revolutionary) use of hand-held camera forces a rare, initially discomfiting degree of intimacy and empathy between audience and protagonist. We feel the horrible responsibility of supporting an alcoholic mother, the crippling insecurities that hinder personal intimacy, the delicate thread that joins employment and survival.

Quite deliberately, Rosetta has no past (and possibly no future). Though presented as a distinct individual for an hour-and-a-half, by film's end, she emerges as an icon not unlike Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows, a brutal reminder of what it means to be poor and adrift in Belgium--and by extension, anywhere--at the close of the century.

Since her well-received 1988 debut, Chocolat, Claire Denis has forged a distinctly personal and idiosyncratic style--fluid and dreamlike, imagistic and elliptical. Her new Beau Travail, a loose take on Melville's Billy Budd recast in the arid, otherworldly East African enclave of Djibouti, represents the culmination of this artistic evolution. The storyline is intentionally simple and uncluttered; Galoup, a sergeant in the French Foreign Legion, is seized by an irrational, potentially erotic obsession with a new recruit, Sentain.

His slow downward spiral, recounted through internal monologue and the director's impressionistic narrative approach, mirrors the troop's transformation from individual men into Legionaries. As Galoup's fixation manifests itself in increasingly antagonistic and erratic demonstrations, Beau Travail becomes a meditation on the mysteries of masculinity, with the ruggedly handsome and enigmatic Sentain posited as the cipher at the movie's center.

Wielding a tightly controlled palette of earth tones, military greens, and unearthly sea blues, Denis creates a lost Eden, a sun-baked Erehwon, witness to a series of balletic, almost fetishistic training drills. The camera lingers sensuously over repeated images of recruits slithering like snakes under barbed wire, posing statuesque against the desert horizon, frolicking in the turquoise sea like mermen. Even the most simple tasks such as ironing, shaving, or hanging laundry are performed with a rarefied elegance and exactitude, becoming near-holy rites of purification. Like Bertolucci's Besieged, Beau Travail is a breathtaking aesthetic exercise testing the limits of film as language and visual medium. It truly is a beautiful work--and a welcome reminder that for at least two weeks in New York film was the thing.


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