NYFF 2019 Roundup

Netflix dominated the discussion surrounding the 57th New York Film Festival; Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story were two of the best-reviewed films coming out of the fest while special screenings of Joker and Uncut Gems kept the chatter to a peak. Outside of these much-hyped films, the festival’s Main Selection and Projections sidebar offered films as deserving of attention that delved into heavy themes such as past tragedies, loneliness, and cultural disorientation. Even though not all the films covered in this article were considered big events of the festival, their importance and in many instances their excellence ensure they are not to be overlooked.

In one of the major highlights of the festival and the year, Albert Serra breaks conventional boundaries of late 18th century French nobility in Liberté. The film follows a group of aristocrats expelled from the French court, who are passionately devoted to nighttime libertinage in the French countryside on the outskirts of Paris. He sets the film as the sun is setting and his characters inhabit the forest until the early morning dew appears. Serra shoots each scene without prejudice and gives his characters complete freedom to make their own sexual choices. A myriad of sexual proclivities and fetishes are featured in the film, from depictions of masturbation to scenes of sadomasochism.

Like in a dream, Serra mixes many of the shots, images, and sounds of the film and uses many ellipses to create a demanding and telescopic vision of the night. It’s not an easy film to sit through; the plot is not clear and Serra uses this disorientation to symbolize the complexity of the night. Liberté was originally shot as a play and then later became an art installation. Serra decided to make it a film so he could have the intimacy provided by the shots and zooms of a camera. Importantly, adapting the source material from a play provided Serra the ability to create beautiful and stunning scenes of the acts performed, including lighting feats and two astonishing sequences, one at dusk and one at daybreak.

While Liberté depicts scenes of sexual atypicalities of the French aristocracy with vivid precision, there was no film in the festival with more astonishing images than Pedro Costa’s latest, Vitalina Varela. As in four of his earlier films (O Sangue, Ossos, In Vanda’s Room, and Colossal Youth), Costa again sets the film in the impoverished Fontainhas district of Lisbon, with the story centered on Vitalina, played in real life by Costa’s muse Vitalina Varela. As she arrives in Lisbon she learns her husband has passed away and she meditates on the life she has lived and on the conflicts of their marriage. She has never visited Lisbon before and for much of the film she sorts through the remnants of their relationship while living in the dilapidated house her husband left.

Costa’s camera consistently focuses on the beauty that can be found even in the most sorrowful and squalid conditions. Vitalina’s cracked and aged features are beautifully rendered while the dark and nighttime scenes of the downtrodden and impoverished neighborhood are shot with stunning use of light. He shoots colors with vibrancy, consistently uses beautiful long takes in his films, and applies colors and textures to enhance the rugged fine lines and contours of his human characters. Vitalina spends much of the film being haunted by her husband’s ghost and Costa’s images of dark alleys further signify Vitalina Varela as Costa’s ghost film. Because of the way he films, in a slow, languid, and precise manner, the film can be tough to sit through.

Compared to some of his more recent films (Colossal Youth), Costa imbues Vitalina Varela with a streak of warm sentimentality. Costa gives us beautiful scenes of Vitalina and her husband building her beloved house in Cape Verde and contrasts it with the dingy shack that he owned in Lisbon. This sentimentality and nostalgia culminate in a devastating heartbreak at the end of the film. Vitalina Varela was one of two films I saw at the festival to portray a female outsider longing for her love in another country, the other being Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s exceptional To The Ends of the Earth.

In the masterful and serene To The Ends of the Earth, young Japanese news reporter Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) films a series of educational videos in Uzbekistan alongside her TV crew and their translator (Adiz Rajabov). During her time in Uzbekistan she experiences loneliness and cultural shock, and spends much time thinking about her boyfriend in Japan. Many of the sequences of the film show her and her crew overcoming setbacks and delays to the production. In one comical scene, Yoko boards an amusement park ride at a local Uzbek carnival and there are multiple attempts to get a good scene with her explaining how to enjoy the attraction. She nearly gets sick but endures with her tenacity to give a good face and a smile for her crew’s camera. There is also a beautiful segment where Yoko visits a famous mosque and has a dream where she sings on stage. At the end of the film this spellbinding rendition is heard again as Yoko sings to her boyfriend from on top of a mountain with Kurosawa slowly drawing the camera away from her to portray her isolation while juxtaposing that loneliness with tranquility and hope.

While Kiyoshi Kurosawa may be known for his earlier J-horror ghost films, he still has a panache and care for films about serenity and physical specters that haunt his characters’ minds. For this reason To The Ends of the Earth should still be considered a Kurosawa ghost tale. Yoko spends hours longing for her boyfriend and his soul and she waits for his spirit, albeit in his living body, when she returns to Japan. It is important to note though that there are no horror or thriller genre elements in To the Ends of the Earth, just the loving touch of a master who is continuing his inquiry into the human soul. Using some of the more anthropological approach found in the films of Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, Kurosawa challenged and broadened his canvas with To the Ends of the Earth, creating one of his best films to date.

Also using an ethnographic and historical approach were two documentary films found in the Projections Sidebar: Heimat is a Space in Time and The Tree House. In Heimat is a Space in Time, Thomas Heise tells the story of multiple generations of his family in Germany, detailing from the late 19th century to today. Heise narrates the film and quotes family letters while using many impressive black-and-white images for the backdrop of his family’s history. In a section about two brothers who were held in concentration camps during the final days of Hitler’s Germany, Heise positions photos of the same camps in their current-day state as background, producing a sense of remaining sorrow and desolation. In one of the most arresting and affecting sequences of the film, Heise reads letters from family members anxiously awaiting news on deportation as their apprehensiveness and despair grows on a daily basis while the camera scrolls down deportation documents listing the names of those who were deported.

The word heimat translates from German to the word homeland. This direct translation of the title to “Homeland is a Space in Time” squarely defines Heise’s preoccupation with his family’s history in Germany and how he tries to explain his existence and his family bonds through the changing dimensions of space and time. Throughout the course of the film some family members disappear, others pass away, and others are forgotten, which creates a haunting and true reverie on human existence, familial lineage, and the cruelty of humanity. Heimat is a Space in Time runs nearly four hours, and at times the narrative feels overlong, with the archival images on screen becoming more moving than the story itself.

The idea of ghosts and past generations continued in Truong Minh Quy’s The Tree House, a documentary in which he plays a filmmaker living on Mars in the year 2045. Using this framework he examines two different ethnographic events from the rural Vietnam jungle. In the first he studies the story of a man who took his infant son from the local village and built an extremely tall tree house. The two lived in seclusion for forty years until the son reappeared and knew little spoken language. In a second story strand Truong Minh Quy studies the Kor and Ruc people who have no written language, with only about 500 speakers left, and who live in caves.

Truong Minh Quy is a relatively new filmmaker but he deftly delves into themes on temporality and space and the meaning of home. For the Ruc people, a cave is their house and where they belong and for the father and son in the tree house their home is secluded from society. A house is temporal for these people and not one based on physical space alone. The director focuses on the past and present, using archival footage from the US military when they were stationed there during the Vietnam war, and interviews both the son who left the tree house and members of the Ruc society. With an immersive sound, designers Ernst Karel and Arnaud Solier mix noises that don’t align with the images being shown, further emphasizing themes of temporality. About halfway through the film, the frame story of Truong Minh Quy being a director telling the story of colonization of Mars falls away, but this ethnographic study still continues to hypnotize even without the science fiction aspect of the story. Truong Minh Quy creates a mesmerizing trance in The Tree House and firmly establishes himself as one of the most important up-and-coming directors to watch.