Compared to Cannes and Toronto, the New York Film Festival is a more aggressively curated affair. It’s possible to catch all 30 features in the main slate, a number that rose to 31 this week with the addition of CITIZENFOUR, Laura Poitras’s documentary on her meetings with Edward Snowden.
That’s not the only exciting world premiere. This year’s edition has snagged the first screenings of David Fincher’s Gone Girl and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. Because the festival is so spread out, some might even say manageable (it runs September 26 through October 12), coverage won’t be daily, but check back for reports on those films and many others.
Since every movie in the lineup is, in theory, there for a reason, it’s always tempting to argue over the rationales for various inclusions and snubs. (Among the absent: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palme d’Or–winning Winter Sleep.) What’s screened so far for press has shown an active engagement with history—and maybe even the present. Yann Demange’s ’71 (Grade: B), a rough-and-ready Troubles drama, proved inadvertently timely in light of this week’s peaceful referendum on Scottish independence.
Set over one day in the months before Bloody Sunday, the movie tracks an English soldier (Jack O’Connell) who’s sent on a mission to Belfast. (“You are not leaving this country,” a superior officer tells the troops, in case it were possible to miss that point.) In the city, sympathies vary block by block; even then, they’re difficult for an interloper to parse, given the secrecy of the IRA’s operations, factionalism among nationalist sympathizers, and covert alliances between undercover British army officers and IRA members.
As O’Connell’s character becomes a pawn in a larger series of strategic moves, the movie, which mimics Paul Greengrass’s immediacy but drops the faux-vérité veneer, becomes a gripping chronicle of his passage through nighttime streets, pubs, and apartments. It’s a powerful portrait of needless bloodshed, despite an irritating and omnipresent David Holmes score.
There are stodgier historical dramas on hand as well. Dominik Graf’s Beloved Sisters (Grade: B-), a favorite at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, imagines the relationship between Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter), and two women: his wife, Charlotte von Lengefeld (Henriette Confurius), and her sister, Caroline von Lengefeld (Hannah Herzsprung), who became an author in her own right and wrote the purported first biography of Schiller.
Absorbing for most of its 170 minutes, the film is marred by Graf’s creaky televisual, digital style; there’s never a sense of the sumptuousness of the period, and Schiller himself often seems less like a learned poet than a hunky bystander. The sisters essentially inhabit one life: Even their nicknames, Lollo and Lotte, are similar; the older Caroline has agreed to a loveless marriage in order to subsidize Charlotte. The two have pledged to remain more loyal to each other than to any of the men in their lives, a dynamic the movie persuasively dramatizes.
The American-born, France-based director Eugène Green is another tireless defender of the classics. In La Sapienza (Grade: B-), he follows a French architect and his wife (Fabrizio Rongione and Christelle Prot Landman) on a trip to Stresa, Italy, where they encounter an aspiring architect (Ludovico Succio) and his close, sickly sister (Arianna Nastro).
Unfolding in Green’s unusual trademark style—characters are frequently shot head-on, addressing the camera—La Sapienza is filled with information on the innovations of Baroque architect Francesco Borromini, whose buildings are used as a counterpoint to the narrative. Still, the film lacks the lightheartedness of 2003’s The Living World or 2004’s Le Pont des Arts. The director’s career-long celebration of high culture has begun to calcify into a kind of sneer, notably in a scene featuring an entitled Australian tourist. The title refers to the ostensibly forgotten word “sapience,” which, in English at least, is not quite forgotten but seldom used. “Wisdom” is easier.
Vocabulary also figures heavily in Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye To Language (Grade: A-), which I first saw at Cannes; the grade feels reductive and will likely rise if we haven’t bid language and grades a true farewell by then. Like Godard’s 1963 film Contempt, Goodbye To Language is a meditation on the history of art and literature set against the backdrop of a strained relationship. In some ways, it’s a follow-up that examines the artistic and technological developments of the subsequent five decades. Godard supplies a shot in which some hands fiddle with PDAs as others flip through books. He repeatedly casts the film’s central figures in silhouette against the backdrop of a hi-def TV showing classic films.
Just as Contempt marked Godard’s first true exploration of the possibilities of CinemaScope, with shots that stretch the boundaries of the wide screen, Goodbye To Language shows the director diving headlong into the potential of digital 3-D. One particular scene that joins two simultaneous events via superimposition—and then de-links them—seems designed to test the limits of how much information the eye can take in at once.
Alternating between two sections, nature and metaphor, Goodbye To Language ponders the changing nature of communication through time. (The naked lovers are pointedly Adam and Eve-like.) Godard ruminates on how artists give life to ideas with an extended riff on Mary Shelley and the writing of Frankenstein, and he makes a star out of his dog, Roxy Miéville, who at one point, according to the narrator, wonders what the rapids of a stream are trying to communicate to him.
Apropos of canines, the festival’s nonfiction sidebar includes Debra Granik’s Stray Dog (Grade: B), a documentary centered on Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, a hirsute Vietnam vet who appeared in Granik’s Winter’s Bone. Hall is part of a larger movement of biker veterans who every year travel to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Much of Stray Dog consists of his interactions with fellow former soldiers, many of whom suffer from untreated PTSD. (“It’s veterans helping veterans,” Hall says at one point. “Who else do we have, brother?”) Showing a sense of humor and matter-of-factness about the traumas he’s seen (“I made decisions that haunt my ass and always will”), Hall learns Spanish and helps to bring his Mexican wife’s two sons to America.
In its quiet, vérité way, Stray Dog ponders some of the major issues in American life: the lasting impact of wars on those who fight them; the government’s treatment of veterans, whose lives remain largely absent from public view; and the difficulties of immigration and assimilation. It’s a film that starts as a character study and builds into something much larger. It seems likely to linger in the mind as the festival wears on.