Peaks and Valleys

A second look at the 60th New York Film Festival

Annie Ernaux, The Super 8 Years, 2022, Super 8, color, sound, 60 minutes.

ON THE CLOSING NIGHT of the sixtieth New York Film Festival, Elegance Bratton, whose first narrative feature, The Inspection, was receiving its US premiere in this prestigious slot, tried to express how thrilled he was to be thus honored. Bratton is a charmer, and his stage presence is such that I wouldn’t be surprised if he had plans to adapt The Inspectioninto a Broadway musical. (I think he should.) But on this occasion, he conveyed his excitement at standing on the very stage and speaking into the same microphone as Martin Scorsese had on a previous evening by looking out at some seven hundred people in Alice Tully Hall, fingering this Scorsese-infused mic and saying, “I almost wanna lick it.” The joke was beautifully timed, everyone laughed, including me, and then I gagged. Scorsese is a great filmmaker, but he is also an icon of the NYFF, which has programmed many of his pictures—beginning in 1973 with Mean Streets—as well as many of the movie restorations supported by his Film Foundation. It seemed to me that Bratton was both gushing about being connected to Scorsese via the NYFF and putting the cherry on top of two weeks of directors and stars being placed in the embarrassing position of having their respective tongues up the festival’s ass. I’ve never heard so many “I dreamed all my life of having a film in this festival” and “this my festival . . .,” etc. Chalk it up to my antiestablishment bias, but I’ve always felt that the institution should be honored by the artist’s acceptance of its invitation, rather than the other way around, as it seemed this year. In any case, one hopes that once this sixtieth-anniversary hump is passed, the plague of obsequiousness will go away. About The Inspection: Bratton based the movie on his own experiences as a Black gay man who enlisted and served five years of active duty in the Marines during the period of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” There is nothing notable about Bratton’s filmmaking, but the actors work well together, and Jeremy Pope, who plays the Bratton character, is terrific. The film’s most revelatory moment is a simple statement of fact: that without gay men to fill its ranks, the Marine Corps would not exist.

Elegance Bratton, The Inspection, 2022, DCP, color, sound, 95 minutes. Right: Ellis French (Jeremy Pope).

By the end of the festival, I had seen nothing else as extraordinary as three of the films I cited last week—Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO, Shaunak Sen’s All that Breathes (now at the Film Forum), and Alice Diop’s Saint Omer. But I am happy to add to the list of very good films another documentary, Margaret Brown’s The Descendant (now on Netflix), and quite a few fiction features: Cristian Mungiu’s R.M.N., Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up, Jafar Panahi’s No Bears, Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener, Carla Simon’s Alcarràs; and, on the more experimental end, Alain Gomes’s Rewind & Play and Annie Ernaux’s The Super 8 Years.

Ernaux, who was just awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, is a great novelist but not much of a filmmaker, though I don’t think she has filmmaking ambitions. She and her son, David Ernaux-Briot, performed a kind of rescue operation on ten years of home movies, shot by Ernaux’s then husband from 1972 to 1981. When the husband walked out on the marriage, he took the camera but left the home movies behind. Some forty years later, Ernaux wrote a voice-over text for the images her son edited. The text adds a fourth dimension, by which I mean that, in looking back, Ernaux opens issues of class and gender that probably were not articulated or acted upon during her marriage. We get much more than what we see, and yet nothing in the text seems forced or academic.

When you look at twenty-five films within two weeks, the films speak to one another in ways they otherwise would not. The Super 8 Years clarified why I find many of Joanna Hogg’s films unbearably solipsistic. They are blind, willfully or naively, to everything outside the English upper-middle class, and if Hogg is critical of the limited perspective of her characters, I’m sorry, but I’ve missed it, although there is the slightly conflicted expression in Tilda Swinton’s eyes in the otherwise insufferable The Souvenir and, please spare me, The Souvenir Part II.

That said, Swinton is extraordinary in Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter, in which she plays both the titular daughter—a fictionalized version of Hogg—and the daughter’s mother, now a frail octogenarian. For the most part, the film is constructed as a series of reaction shots, which means that Swinton is reacting to someone who isn’t physically present, but rather to a voice and image inside her head. To sustain such a condition throughout an entire film could be taken for an acting stunt, but the miraculous thing about Swinton’s performance is that it never provokes the question of how she is doing this. Rather, it speaks to the dilemma of the mother-daughter bond—the more intimate, the more frustrated the connection.

Joanna Hogg, The Eternal Daughter, 2022, 35 mm, color, sound, 96 minutes. Julie (Tilda Swinton).

Swinton’s performance was one of a half-dozen memorable ones by women actors in the festival. There was Michelle Williams in Showing Up, Reichardt’s best film since she last worked with Williams in Wendy and Lucy (2008); Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, in Chinonye Chukwu’s equally tough and restrained Till (now in theaters); vivacious, brilliant Vicky Krieps in Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage; Tang Wei in Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave (now at FLC), refusing the mysterious femme fatale box in which the director/writer tries to confine her by telling the story almost entirely through the eyes of the detective who falls for her. (Enough with the Vertigo remakes.) I’d be happy if any of them swept the award season. But please, please don’t let it be Cate Blanchett, playing one overblown note in Todd Field’s imbecilic and carelessly racist TÁR. My charge is based on a single cut. In attempting to convey how far Lydia Tár has fallen, Field cuts from the concert halls and trophy residential real estate of Berlin and New York (the location of 98 percent of the film) to the filthy streets and decaying buildings of an unnamed Southeast Asian country, where in the closing minutes she is embraced by an audience of “others” who turn her concerts into cosplay events. There were lots of bad movies in the sixtieth New York Film Festival, but TÁR (now in theaters) was one of the worst.

The 60th New York Film Festival ran from September 30 to October 16.