Of all the pleasures that go missing when a film festival goes virtual, true post-movie discussion might be the most, well, missed. Because even if one were to toggle from the end credits running in one tab to a Zoom call waiting in the next, it wouldn’t quite replicate the experience of stepping out of a dark auditorium and into the light of the lobby, ready to talk about what the hell we all just experienced. This critic, for example, has very fond memories of just one year ago, when an early morning screening at the start of the New York Film Festival bled straight into a café conversation with peers and colleagues about the towering, august-years opus that had just world-premiered across the street. (And that’s to say nothing of the moderated onstage dialogue between Martin Scorsese and his cast of venerated gangster alums, further greasing the wheels of debate on that magnificent movie.)
Perhaps the programmers at this year’s NYFF recognized how starved we’d all be for some good old-fashioned exchange of ideas. That could be one rationale behind making room in the lineup for Malmkrog (Grade: C+), the talkiest movie of this year or possibly any other. This characteristically demanding drama from Romanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu is almost nothing but gab: a three-and-a-half-hour block of philosophical discourse between wealthy intellectuals, restricted by nothing but their own patience, lung capacity, and tolerance for soapboxing. For a certain portion of the audience, this may impart a vicarious thrill: Who among us has had the recent opportunity to chew the fat at length with the like-minded over food and drink on a chilly evening? Others may find themselves cured of any nostalgia for rhetorical circle jerk.
Set around the turn of the 20th century, within the parlor and dining hall of a vast Transylvanian manor, Malmkrog pulls up a chair to studiously listen in on a series of unbroken Christmas Eve debates between Eastern European aristocrats. The language is florid and eloquent, which doesn’t quite dispel the sense that those speaking are running through the syllabus of a philosophy 101 class; the topics include such well-trod territory as colonialism, the morality of war, and the existence of God and evil. No one makes their case quickly. The film, in turn, makes a very slow case that these ideas are not so productively explored by pointing a camera at actors reciting pages upon pages of raw musings, no matter how artfully that camera has been positioned.
Puiu adapted the film from a philosophy text by Russian writer and thinker Vladimir Solovyov, approaching the material like a creative challenge. Was it possible, he purportedly asked, to make something dramatically compelling out of a collection of dense, highbrow conversations? Malmkrog suggests the answer may be a resounding “Nyet.” Puiu does attempt to provide some distinctive characteristics for his tireless gasbags: The host (Frédéric Schulz-Richard) is an antagonistic blowhard, his most frequent sparring partner a naïve and devout Christian (Marina Palii), their most odious holiday guest a kind of proto-Ben Shapiro (Ugo Broussot) pitching his white supremacy as sensible straight talk. But the focus is on the words spilling constantly from their maws; a mouthpiece with a hint of personality is still a mouthpiece.
Around the edges of these protracted verbal showdowns, a more interesting movie occasionally threatens to emerge. Puiu, who effectively launched his own career and the Romanian New Wave into the international eye with the health-care odyssey The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu, keeps subtly tugging our attention (and sympathies) away from the chatterboxes at center, the eye drifting to the servants wandering the background of the frame and gently interrupting with a beverage or hors d’oeuvre. A revolution—a violent reckoning even—threatens to burst the bubble of privilege occupied by these cloistered nobles. Yet the director is perhaps too committed to the maddening challenge of his experiment to deviate far from it; surrealist flourishes and ominous hints of a coming comeuppance never prevent a reversion to stultifying blather. One is left to admire the literal and figurative wallpaper—to be blessedly distracted by the mise en scène and Puiu’s attempts to constantly vary how he’s filming a tedious tête-à-tête. He has a special gift for framing doors within doors, for instance. You may wish you could exit through one.
Puiu has orchestrated a marathon gabfest before. He’s also tested his audience’s tolerance in the opposite direction; his nearly-as-long Aurora kept dialogue to an extreme minimum. The same can mostly be said of The Calming (Grade: B-), the second feature by Chinese actor-turned-director Song Fang, which might serve as a chaser for the endless verbal diarrhea of Malmkrog—or maybe just leave a viewer longing for the happy medium. There aren’t too may exchanges in this meditative wisp of a movie, in which a young filmmaker (Qi Xi) floats from Japan to China to Hong Kong, traveling with her latest project but also attempting, perhaps, to outrun her depression over the recent collapse of a romance. This international tour includes pit stops to her parents’ house, where her father grapples with an increasingly serious illness.
Song’s first film, Memories Look At Me, was explicitly autobiographical, and it’s tempting to suspect a personal dimension to the sightseeing sort-of narrative she unfolds here, as her potential surrogate experiences a fugue state of unarticulated heartache. Operating in the general orbit of Ozu, Song luxuriates in melancholy dislocation—this is a film that understands, if nothing else, how a breakup can leave you both more attuned to the beauty of the world you’re gusting through and rather unmoored from it. (It’s a state of mind conducive to creative observation but not necessarily to creation itself, the film implies.) This viewer found it easy to get onto the movie’s gentle wavelength, tougher to commit its sparse incident to memory. Which it to say, The Calming ultimately might have benefitted from an animating tension—from something beyond its sustained mood of lovely but unvaried serenity. If this a breakup movie, it’s the kind that leaves you in the position of a concerned friend, ready to see the dumped pull themselves out of their existential funk, even just for a self-destructive rebound. The title is accurate to a fault.
There’s no dialogue at all in Gunda (Grade: B+), and no human beings in sight either. Yet Victor Kossakovsky’s portrait of a farm in Norway, and the new family of pigs living there, is much more urgent—and, in its own nonfiction and chiefly observational way, much more dramatic—than anything in Malmkrog or The Calming. Decades of anthropomorphizing nature documentaries have conditioned viewers to look for “characters” and “narratives” in the life patterns of fauna. And one might think they’ve identified a plucky underdog hero early into this film, when the birth of a litter of hungry piglets leaves behind one runt, dug out of the hay it was buried beneath while its fellow newborn siblings swarmed to the teat. But any Pavlovian awws dry up quick once the sow crushes her smallest offspring under a carelessly dropped hoof, prompting squealing from baby and audience alike.
Gunda does not fuck around. As adorable and brutal as a farm, it suggests Babe by way of the Sensory Ethnography Lab. Kossakovsky, who shoots in a crisp and immersive black-and-white, thrusts us into the chaotic scuffle of this corner of the animal kingdom; he doesn’t humanize the critters—including chickens that move and loom almost prehistorically, and cows that stare into the camera like the stars of a stark, poetic music video—but he does find a kind of personality in their primal behavior. For a time, the film seems to offer only a close look at the bottom rung of the food chain, and that’s plenty gripping enough. But a kind of related narrative arc does gradually take shape from Kossakovsky’s remarkable footage, and it’s the harsh truth that there’s nothing actually natural about the lives of farm animals. No words or ventriloquized human voices are necessary to feel the gut punch of Gunda’s final shot.