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Film festivals taking place in your town are funny things. Sometimes they can completely take over your life, leaving you to subsist on power bars and sneak naps in screening rooms while, 10 blocks away, your friends are carrying on their normal routines without you. Other times they slip into the fabric of daily life so neatly you barely notice, meaning that another day at the office turns into three screenings a day, but you're still home for dinner.
The New York Film Festival, for me, is usually the latter kind-- a big rush of movies and writing, but nothing too tricky. This year it barely felt like a blip. The festival has always been partial to obscure Cannes favorites and foreign films that may never get a release in the U.S., but this year it was virtually everything they had to offer. Among the 30 or so films screened, only five were American, and only two-- Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' By Sapphire and Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime-- seem likely to be seen by much of anyone. Even the foreign films, which included offerings from well-known auteurs like Catherine Breillat and Michael Haneke, leaned heavily toward the depressing and obscure rather than anything likely to start a big conversation.
Given that I write for this site, which focuses on a general movie-going audience and rarely finds any readers who care about Harmony Korine's latest, I had a choice: I could spend hours and hours at the NYFF watching films I'd never heard of, then spending more hours writing pieces that no one was likely to read, or I could pick and choose the stuff I'd heard good things about and get on with my life. Because there are only so many hours in the day, I chose the latter, and left NYFF having seen three films: Precious, Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or winner The White Ribbon, and Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces.
I'll save my writing about Precious for our formal review, since it comes out in theaters in a few weeks anyway. I also had the opportunity to interview the insanely intimidating Michael Haneke about his film, and I'll be posting that later today. But below are my thoughts on Broken Embraces and The White Ribbon, as my meager offering of insight from this year's festival. I'm willing to take some of the blame for not getting myself out there to catch some smaller stuff I know I would have loved (I'm catching the Romanian film Police, Adjective tonight after missing it at the festival). But here's hoping next year the NYFF embraces the mainstream just a tiny bit more, just so people like me can justify spending a Tuesday morning in a screening room to write about movies that at least a few more people will care about.
There's one unambiguously beautiful thing about this film, and that's Almodovar's lavish attention to his star, Penelope Cruz. It's her fourth film with the director, though they've known each other for decades, and their collaboration has reached the point where his camera doesn't just love her, it venerates her, and she puts every bit of that adoration right back on the screen.
In Broken Embraces, a story broken up and ultimately hampered by a series of flashbacks, Cruz plays a secretary who becomes the wife to a corporate mogul (Jose Luis Gomez) as well as the lover of a director (Lluis Homar) who casts her in his film Girls and Suitcases. The story is largely the director's, as he flashes back to the time he was making the movie and having the affair; in the present he is blind, and through the story of his romance with Cruz's character Lena, we learn not only the source of his blindness, but how he came to become such a miserable cuss to begin with.
The movie is lifted by Almodovar's typically lavish colors and sense of melodrama, particularly in the scenes within the movie being filmed. Film bleeds into reality at times, too, and cinematic red staircases, lush seaside retreats and gloomy late-night car rides all become part of the filmmaker's life, or memory, or maybe both? The narrative isn't as scattered as Almodovar's other films have been-- it's really a straightforward reminiscence about a love affair gone wrong-- but the viewer still tends to feel unmoored as time shifts from the present to the past.
And despite all the lavish music and colors, and the multiple tearful confessions that happen near the end, the emotional impact never really come as the story wraps up. People familiar with Almodovar's earlier film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown will get a kick out of the final scene, which ostensibly comes from a recut version of Girls and Suitcases, but it's hard to know what any of it is beyond a meta joke on Almodovar's own career. Almodovar has been on a near constant winning streak this decade, but Broken Embraces seems better suited for Almodovar completists than those (like myself) with only a passing knowledge of his work thus far.
I walked out of his 2008 shot-by-shot remake of Funny Games loathing Michael Haneke, his contempt for his audience and his desire to show up in America and prove to us while we're all bloodthirsty monsters who go to the movies only to see innocent people punished. And though it's not a kinder, gentler Haneke who showed up at NYFF with The White Ribbon, his morality tale this time felt a lot more elegant and relevant, though just as brutal.
Set in a small German village just before the outbreak of World War I, The White Ribbon is like a whodunit without anyone willing to investigate the clues. A series of violent events-- a doctor on his horse is tripped by an invisible wire, the spoiled son of the local baron is tormented in a barn, a barn is set on fire-- happen seemingly at random in a village where there are a lot of potential suspects. The doctor is a monster, belittling his devoted assistant and abusing his daughter, while the local pastor ties up his son at night to keep him from masturbating, while in another family, extreme corporal punishment is the standard. The only possible innocent in town is the teacher (Christian Friedel), who is pursuing a chaste relationship with a local girl even while harboring his own suspicions about the potential evil lurking in his town.
Shot in color but transferred to a stark black and white, The White Ribbon is beautiful and uncomfortable to look at, both thanks to the blinding whites and the knowledge that, in any moment, anyone could do something horrible to anyone else. The teacher narrates the film as an old man, saying he wants to tell the story to possibly help "explain some things that happened in this country." And while it's only World War I that directly affects the events of the film, it's World War II that hangs over it like a ghost. These children, who both care for each other and torment each other cruelly, will grow up to be Nazis. Even with the on-the-nose introduction, Haneke avoids making this point too often, simply letting us observe all these strange events with that knowledge in the back of our minds, reminding us that childhood cruelty can often metastasize in something far more vicious.
At two and a half hours, The White Ribbon is less a movie than an experience, an opportunity to delve into the miserable psychology of this highly religious, highly insular town, and draw what conclusions from it we will (as you'll see in my interview later, Haneke isn't willing to explain much of anything about his choices in the filmmaking, and more power to him). But the gorgeous cinematography combined with emotional and raw performances, particularly from the child actors, make for captivating and thought-provoking viewing, with a whole lot less finger wagging than what came with Funny Games.
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