Critical Distance

October 9, 2020

FOR CINEPHILES, CRITICS, AND INDUSTRY FOLK, the end of summer is announced by three overlapping North American film festivals: Telluride, Toronto (TIFF), and New York (NYFF). I usually make do with the last, although this year I had committed to going to TIFF before it became clear that “going” meant watching links in my own apartment—the same links that were shown to the paying public. There’s something to be said for not having to dash from theater to theater every day, for being able to turn off an indifferently received movie and queue up the next without even breaking for coffee. Yes, the best thing about going to the movies at home is that no one catches you walking out. Many years of festival-going has taught me to save my eyes and energy for the great films, at the risk of unfairly dismissing others in haste. But I missed watching movies on large, luminous screens, and I missed enthusing and arguing about them with friends and colleagues. I missed experiencing movies as social glue. 

TIFF (September 10–20), which is both a public festival and an industry market, usually programs over 350 films. This year, they were reduced to about fifty-five new features, several groupings of shorts, and a bunch of revival and tribute programs. NYFF (September 26–October 11) showed forty-five new features, eight programs of shorts, and a string of rediscoveries and restorations that kicked off with a John Waters drive-in marathon of art nasties. Among the restorations were two of the most exquisite color films in the history of cinema: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai (1998) and Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000). I guess if you had never seen them, digital streams were better than nothing, but I’ll wait for the new Blu-rays (right now, a good Blu-ray beats any home streaming link).

The lure of film festivals is the opportunity to discover brilliant movies and, if you are a critic, to call attention to them. A secondary appeal is that you also discover, and can weigh in on, mediocre to truly terrible films around which a positive critical consensus is fast forming, prompting distributors to splurge on what they hope are award contenders. Before I get to Lili Horvát’s Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time—the one fiction feature that more than rewarded four weeks of viewing (bear in mind that I may well have missed others)—I can’t resist taking down three festival darlings: Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (TIFF and NYFF), Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning (TIFF and NYFF), and Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman (TIFF). Zhao’s last feature, 2017’s The Rider, which employed a cast of nonprofessional performers, was a tough and tender depiction of a Native American rodeo star who loses what he loves most when he suffers a brain injury. In Nomadland, the story of a woman who goes on the road when she loses both her husband and the town where she lived most of her life, the hero is played by Frances McDormand, who here gives free rein to her tendency to sanctify her characters rather than investigate their potential complexity. Our heroine is taught the rules of the road by a welcoming community of nomads—older, recession-hit Americans who travel the country in search of work—most of them played by nonprofessionals. Largely set in the Southwest, the film is nice to look at, but I found the absence of Trump signs and MAGA hats too aspirational, a wrinkle in the movie’s realist fabric. Ditto the comradery between workers and managers at the various Amazon warehouses where our down-home optimist finds occasional and, according to her, “well-paid” employment. An opposite set of problems trip up Kulumbegashvili’s debut feature, which is set within a small congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses living in rural Georgia, yet another failing former Soviet republic. The film begins slowly and intriguingly, although blatantly indebted to Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman; the second half deteriorates into a psychodrama of abjection and internalized misogyny that borders on exploitation and ridiculousness.

Pieces of a Woman, for which Netflix paid big money, will be an award season favorite, probably because of Vanessa Kirby, who plays the central role of a woman underestimated and belittled by her husband, her mother, and her siblings. Toward the end of the film, Kirby unleashes a torrent of rage and grief as raw as anything this side of Anna Magnani. Unfortunately, she also has to suffer through an earlier thirty minutes of labor and childbirth—replete with burps, groans, and multiple prosthetics—as phony as everything else in this plodding, illogical domestic drama, excepting the aforementioned later scene. Speaking of labor and birth, Kirby’s histrionics pale next to the extraordinary stillness of Gunda, the titular sow in Victor Kossakovsky’s documentary, the greatest of a strong roster of docs at both TIFF and NYFF. In the opening nine minutes of Gunda, we see this unassuming and decidedly unglamorous mammal lying in the opening to her hutch as if she were asleep, until the bevy of piglets she is birthing climbs out from under her. For a year she cares for them with patience and ingenuity. They absorb her completely and are, for her personally, the meaning of life. Unfortunately for Gunda, they have a different life-sustaining meaning for the unseen owners of a small “free-range” livestock farm. For the wrenching revelation of the life of Gunda, we must thank its compassionate, visually gifted director and the invention of small remote-controlled video cameras, which can do everything but help Gunda when she is most in need.

In addition to Gunda, there were at both festivals extremely impressive nonfiction films that ranged from Spike Lee’s movie translation of David Byrne’s American Utopia—as minimalist and ecstatic as the Broadway production—to David Dufresne’s The Monopoly of Violence, in which eighteen months’ worth of footage capturing clashes between Yellow Vest demonstrators and French police is analyzed on the fly by participants, workers, and intellectuals on both sides in a dazzling assertion of the dialectics of theory and practice. Just as powerful: Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI, which features newly declassified FBI audiotapes (obtained through wiretaps and bugs) of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Shaping his source material into a transfixing, infuriating narrative, Pollard details the activist’s relentless targeting by the surveillance state, and in doing so launches a preemptive strike against the entire archive that the FBI accumulated on King; whatever documents haven’t been destroyed are scheduled for release in 2027. In a more hopeful mining of the (in this case electronic) archive is Garrett Bradley’s Time, a portrait of Fox Rich—mother, wife, and activist—that opens in select theaters on October 9 and will be available to stream October 16.

Without diminishing the importance of these docs—all four of which you will find on my Top Ten list in this magazine’s December issue—the film that mattered the most to me, perhaps because complex, coherent, pleasurable fiction, whether written or filmed, is so rare, is the aforementioned Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, programmed at TIFF only. Not simply a romance between two people but with consciousness itself, the film invites comparisons to David Cronenberg’s underrated A Dangerous Method (2011) and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Marta (Natasa Stork), an accomplished Hungary-born neurosurgeon who has spent the last twenty years practicing in New Jersey, meets Janos (Viktor Bodó), who shares her profession, at a conference. (Both actors are extraordinary, especially given that their careers have been in theater rather than film.) For her, it’s love at first sight, or maybe the déjà vu involved in such feeling has more to do with a longing to go home than with this particular man. She makes a date to meet him in Budapest in a month, but he doesn’t appear, and when she tracks him down, he claims they’ve never met. Rather than giving up, she rents an apartment, joins the surgical team at the hospital where her former professor is the chief, and goes into psychoanalysis in order to ascertain whether or not she just imagined the incident that effectively upended her life. Is she crazy or is he gaslighting her? While not exactly stalking him, she finds her way to places where he is bound to be. Midway through the film, she climbs a Vertigo-like spiral staircase to the lecture hall where Janos is doing a reading from his book on the life of the brain and mind: “I don’t perceive that my thoughts are electro-chemical and yet they are. . . . We accept the mystery of the Big Bang theory of the universe, and yet we have an equally large mystery in our possession. It is within us, within the microcosm of our consciousness.” Working with cinematographer Róbert Maly, Horvát shot the movie in 35 mm, composing images that are like moving Saul Leiter photographs, shadowed and layered, edged with the unseen and the uncertain, but not as in film noir, doomed to darkness. Among the many miracles of Preparations is that Horvát turns Vertigo inside out, not only by placing it within a woman’s subjectivity but by transforming one of the most perverse patriarchal depictions of romantic love into a narrative of reconciliation and a badly needed defense of the Enlightenment.

NYFF ends this weekend with Azazel Jacobs’s French Exit, in which Michelle Pfeiffer gives a hilarious, heartbreaking performance backed by an eccentric and thoroughly appealing ensemble. I laughed a lot, which these days is a blessing, but I also thought the film would be better if it were twenty minutes shorter. Or maybe my sense of time is out of joint from too many movies, not to mention everything that’s happening to our broken world.

— Amy Taubin