Bill Ross and Turner Ross, Western, 2015, color, sound, 93 minutes.


TRUE/FALSE, A FOUR-NIGHT, three-day documentary film festival which takes place annually in the central Missouri university town of Columbia, has since its humble beginnings in 2004 acquired a reputation for its curatorial excellence, as well as for the fervid, quasi-mystic loyalty that it inspires in regular attendees—journalists, filmmakers, and most anyone involved in the distribution and exhibition of docs. True/False is scheduled immediately before South by Southwest, where many films and filmmakers decamped to immediately after the party in Columbia ended, and with praise for True/False now so universal, at this point it only remains to wait for it to jump the proverbial shark and begin its downhill tumble, as the festival in Austin did many years before. “I just know it,” one longtime attendee said to me a couple of weeks before True/False, “This is going to be the year when it all goes to hell.”

Doomy prognostications aside, in True/False’s eleventh year, the beat went on. Due to renovations to some regular venues, screenings were spread between eleven locations, including churches and University of Missouri lecture halls repurposed to temporarily serve as movie houses, and the flagship Ragtag theater, specially equipped with 35-mm projection to accommodate archival prints imported for critic-curated Neither/Nor film series. A retro sidebar now in its third year, this year’s Neither/Nor, organized by the Warsaw-born, São Paolo–based writer Ela Bittencourt, was dedicated to Polish cinema from the 1970s to the 1990s, with several filmmakers present in person. Particular standouts in the shorts selection included Andrezej Czarnecki’s Rat Catcher (1986) and the works of Bogdan Dziworski, also cinematographer on Grzegorz Królikiewicz’s Through and Through (1973), an at times exhaustingly virtuoso reenactment of a famous 1930s murder case.

The defining feature of True/False’s programming is the pronounced emphasis on heterodox, formally ambitious documentaries, a broadly encompassing mission statement shared by the likes of FIDMarseilles and Lincoln Center’s newly introduced The Art of the Real. The historical perspective provided by Neither/Nor establishes that work in this vein doesn’t constitute any new, revolutionary development, but is rather rooted in the history of documentary since its very inception—that in fact it’s the doctivist tract and the info-dump op-ed films that are the historical aberrations.

True/False’s catholic definition of “documentary” encompasses films which many programming committees wouldn’t generally categorize as such. Last year’s closing night film, for example, was Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, eligible for inclusion for the documentary impulse implicit in its time-spanning conceptual framework. This year, one film on the program which wouldn’t pass the strictest nonfiction scratch test was Benny and Joshua Safdie’s Heaven Knows What, a staged and scripted film about junkies living around Manhattan’s Riverside Park, based on the memoirs of its ex-addict star, Arielle Holmes. Field Niggas, positioned ever so slightly nearer to meeting the traditional criterion for documentary, issues its dispatch from the margins from uptown—posted on the corner of Lexington and 125th Street, in the heart of Harlem, filmmaker Khalik Allah collects testimony from winos, the philosophical homeless, and self-styled stickup men in the months after Eric Garner died at the hands of NYPD officers in Staten Island. Shooting entirely at night, Allah captures his subjects in ultrasaturated slow-motion portraits, accompanied by the out-of-sync audio of their testimonials, his own booming interlocution making him very much a character in the proceedings.

Khalik Allah, Field Niggas, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 60 minutes.


Another fraternal team were represented at True/False—this was Bill and Turner Ross, then fresh from Sundance with their well-received Western. New Yorkers have since had a chance to see Western as part of New Directors/New Films, in which it has been included by a curious logic known only to that festival’s programmers, being as it is the Rosses’ third film, preceded by 45365 (2009) and Tchoupitoulas (2012), set respectively in their hometown of Sidney, Ohio, and New Orleans. Like the Rosses’ previous films, Western is a sort of ambient portrait of a place, in this case straddling the Rio Grande. The twin cities of Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras, Mexico, have largely been spared the epidemic cartel violence which has afflicted other border towns, but Western documents the alienation of these longtime good neighbors through skittish, overcautious policy imposed by Washington. The Rosses’ intimate technique creates a mosaic of offhand impressions, details for which they have a marvelous eye, though the story is loosely tethered to two protagonists: Eagle Pass mayor Chad Foster, who speaks Spanish with a native fluency and steadfastly opposes federal closed-border policy, and Martin Wall, a doting father and profane cattleman whose business is in buying beef south of the border and bringing it north.

The central importance of characters to documentary is a point stressed by two new French films screened at the fest. The first, Claudine Bories and Patrice Chagnard’s rather audaciously titled Rules of the Game, concerns goings-on in a private HR firm subcontracted by the French government to find placement for the unemployed. The movie’s use of “chapter head” intertitles, with coy descriptions of the contents in the fashion of nineteenth-century novels, adds little, but it is blessed with the presence of a genuine star in the form of Lolita, a brusque, sullen teenager whose flagrant disregard for social niceties makes for ripping comedy. Ioanis Nuguet’s Spartacus & Cassandra likewise deals with recalcitrant outsiders being dragged kicking and screaming into the role of citizens of the French Republic, in this case an immigrant family of Romani. The eponymous adolescent siblings, through court order, are gradually separated from their parents—their father is a feckless alcoholic; their mother a madwoman with a regal, ruined face—placed in the care of a circus performer who lives a responsible, sanitized version of the Romani’s real hand-to-mouth bohemianism.

In Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe’s (T)ERROR, one can view another itinerant lifestyle heretofore hidden from cameras. The film is an “embedded” ride-along with Saeed Torres, an American Muslim and former Black Panther turned FBI antiterror informant, seen here attempting to collect damning evidence against a homegrown suspect in Pittsburgh—it’s a startling exposé of just how unglamorous, morally dicey, and frankly janky our domestic spy game is. Which leads me to the most undefinable and engrossing work that I encountered in Columbia this year, another mission-driven movie: Adirley Queirós’s White Out, Black In. (Set to play New York as part of Art of the Real.) A lo-fi sci-fi piece in which past and future overlap in the liminal zone of dystopian present-day Brasilia, Queirós’s film stars a handful of handicapped middle-aged men, self-sufficient and isolated, yet united by the common past that they share—a memory of the club scene of the mid-1980s, of its music and its dancing, and of the night whose scars they will bear forever, left crippled by a police raid. The survivors’ compulsion to relive their trauma isn’t a matter of self-pity but a crucial act of keeping historical memory alive, providing vital, damning testimony to help a visiting emissary from a tribunal in the far-flung future collect evidence to redress the past injustice. It’s a too-rare instance in which a filmmaker can be found using pop music cues not just to siphon the emotional effect of a song but to signal their function as vessels for collective cultural memory. Here, in this this film with a most fantastic premise, we find a compelling case for the historical necessity of the documentary project.

Nick Pinkerton

The True/False Film Festival ran March 5–8 in Columbia, Missouri.

Rough Cuts

03.26.15

Abel Ferrara, Welcome to New York, 2014, color, sound, 125 minutes. Devereaux (Gérard Depardieu).


ABEL FERRARA’S WELCOME TO NEW YORKa thinly veiled recounting of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s infamous May 2011 stay at midtown Manhattan’s Sofitel Hotel in which only the names have been changed—begins with a lengthy disclaimer, and so will this review. The version of the film set for theatrical and VOD release this Friday—and the only one I’ve seen—is not the one that made its world premiere last year at Cannes (where it was conspicuously not part of the festival’s official selection). More to the point, the most recent iteration of the movie—which, ostensibly to secure an R rating, shaves off seventeen of the original’s reportedly more orgy-filled 125 minutes—is the one that Ferrara emphatically doesn’t want you to see. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Ferrara “issued a cease and desist letter [on March 13] addressed to [the movie’s US distributor] IFC Films in New York and to the film’s global distributor Wild Bunch in Paris”; the latter company made the trims to Welcome to New York after the director refused to do so.

With this caveat now out of the way, I’ll say this: Despite the troubling violence done to Ferrara’s movie, it’s difficult to imagine that the original is a vast improvement over the expurgated version. Welcome to New York begins unpromisingly: A fourth-wall-obliterating scene features Gérard Depardieu, who plays the DSK surrogate Devereaux, participating in a staged press conference, where a “journalist” asks, in heavily French-accented English, “Why did you accept to play this part?” The superfluous gambit may be an epigraph of sorts but plays more as a hedge for the actor, who was also the subject of a fairly recent scandal, if one not as sordid as that which brought down the one-time head of the IMF: Depardieu’s stature as beloved pillar of French cinema was tarnished in 2013, the year he became a citizen of Russia, where he enjoys significantly lower taxes—and Putin’s friendship. More wearying still is the opening-credits sequence that follows, a dully ironic montage that features twenty-dollar bills being printed and bundled, and is scored to a lethargic C&W version of “America the Beautiful.”

That bluntness never ceases in Welcome to New York, which, after this prologue, essentially recapitulates the chronology of Strauss-Kahn’s flameout after he was accused of sexually assaulting Nafissatou Diallo, a housekeeper at the Sofitel. (Here played by the Carlton, whose branch in Lille, in northern France, was central to the trials that concluded just last month in which DSK and thirteen others were charged with “pimping and abetting prostitution”; a verdict is expected later this spring.) But that isn’t to say that Ferrara, who wrote WTNY’s script with Chris Zois, wields his cudgel wholly unadmirably. Devereaux is consistently presented as a pig: His grunts during a three-way in the bedroom of his VIP suite are indistinguishable from those uttered when, held by the NYPD after the alleged attack on the hotel maid, he must submit to a strip search—the denuding also forcing the viewer to submit to Depardieu’s obscenely massive gut. Though the case against DSK was soon dropped by the prosecution owing to Diallo’s lack of credibility—Ferrara includes obviously Internet-sourced footage of Kenneth P. Thompson, Diallo’s lawyer at the time, stating as much—it’s never in doubt whose side Ferrara takes.

But the director’s bracing fury is weakened during much of the second half of the film, when Simone—the analogue for Anne Sinclair, DSK’s billionaire (now ex-) wife, played by Jacqueline Bisset, who replaced Isabelle Adjani—posts her debauched spouse’s one-million-dollar bail and secures a sixty-thousand-dollar-a-month rental in TriBeCa, where the couple hole up while Devereaux is under house arrest. The ferocious fights between the couple, which, puzzlingly, are carried out mostly in English—even though the UK-born Bisset is fluent in French, a bilingualism that her costar hasn’t quite yet attained—often come perilously close to farce. Depardieu’s untamable vowels (“I don’t need your monay!”) and elision of prepositions (“I jerk on that lady. On her mouth”) are almost as bad as the truisms that Bisset must deliver: “The other side of love isn’t hate—it’s indifference.” In the end, Ferrara’s fact-based film fails to leave the scalding imprint of one that more obliquely treats the Sadean excesses of DSK and other French operators: Claire Denis’s Bastards (2013), which stages its scenes of unspeakable depravity not in high-end resorts but in corncob-strewn barns just outside Paris.

Melissa Anderson

Welcome to New York opens in San Francisco and will be available nationwide on VOD on March 27.

Sam Gorski and Niko Pueringer, Superman with a GoPro, 2015, digital video, color, sound, 2 minutes 53 seconds.


“THE QUESTION is not who are you wearing, but what were you flying?” my neighbor in the press corral floated his drone joke for the nth time.

“Turbo Ace Matrix.”

“Aibot X6.”

“Phantom.”

“Uh, the cameras?”

Yes, of course the cameras—why else would you be one of thirty-five teams of filmmakers standing there on the red carpet, boom mic stuffed in your face, speaking to your fans before a backdrop patterned with the logos of NBC News, DJI Global, something called Yeah Drones, and the six-rotored emblem of the first-ever New York City Drone Film Festival?

“I was just a little kid flying a drone around, you know?” said Randy Scott Slavin, the festival’s manic founder, crossing the step-and-repeat. “The footage was…OK.” Today, according to the DFF program, Slavin is “an award-winning director, aerial cinematographer, and surrealist photographer”—one of the lucky few living out his drone-lofted passion at the cutting edge of dronespace. “It’s like everyone’s got a drone now, man!” he said.

Drones—some more threatening than others—are in the air. John Cale performed a “drone opera” at the Barbican in London. The current Nora Schultz show at Reena Spaulings includes drone-based videos. Fans in Los Angeles celebrated the Kings’ Stanley Cup win by taking down a quadrocopter with championship T-shirts. The list goes on. Hollywood, too, has drones pretty well in its toolkit. Harry Potter, The Expendables 3, and The Wolf of Wall Street all use drone footage. There’s even a drone moment in Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure. If Kubrick had made The Shining in 2015, instead of a tricycle, Danny would run circles through the hotel by drone.

The parameters here, though—entries to the NYCDFF had to be under five minutes, and more than half shot by drone—mostly exclude high-budget efforts. High-concept efforts, too, were few. If aliens landed at the NYCDFF, they might think the state-of-the-art of drone cinematography was limited to high-end vacation footage—circling around cruise ships anchored in azure bays or across a tropical patio, threading tiki bars and beach umbrellas—or (truly stunning) feats of extreme sport: for example, in Danny MacAskill’s The Ridge, a guy rock-hopping his bicycle on the pinnacles of the Isle of Skye. The sound tracks had two speeds: cheesy dubstep and overwrought opera. The FPV/Proximity/Technical category mostly consisted of people flying their drones really close to things without hitting them. Watch any UAV blooper reel to get an idea of how hard this is—and how much editing went into these crashless entries. Though to his credit, after weaving his rig at high speed around banyan trees and collapsing warehouses, pilot Carlos Puertola ends his clip with a wipeout.

Danny MacAskill, The Ridge, 2014.

Films in the Narrative and X-Factor categories took greater advantage of the drones’ conceptual mobility. A music video by Los Angeles–based band OK Go, directed by Morihiro Harano, definitively outclassed the field—perhaps unsurprising, given that the quartet is known for their avant production. Over the course of an intensely choreographed, long single shot, the drone cameraman pulls back from the band’s routine on gyroscopic stools, through Busby Berkeley–like swirls and worms of umbrella-toting Japanese schoolgirls, up into the lower atmosphere as hundreds of opening, shutting umbrellas form the pixels of a Jumbotron. Then, something truly artistic happens: The camera drifts up, into the clouds, executing a slow pan across the now tiny city, and, with a nod to Antonioni’s The Passenger, the drone loses interest in human drama...

But wait, aren’t drones supposed to be the deathless, lustless, sleepless avatars of our dystopian controllers? The darkest vision by far at the NYCDFF came courtesy of Alex Cornell’s Our Drone Future, in which a bloodthirsty security bot is kept in check by its human operator. (“Am I weapons free?” “Uh, negative…”) When the drone ends up disobeying orders, descending into a warehouse district to investigate a robbery, some kind of cyberpunk vigilante quickly guns it down. Even bearing in mind that the whole festival could be considered pro-drone propaganda, Future seems eager to put our fears to rest—by force, if necessary—as if, when the tool flies amok, we might still have a chance to stop it.

Yet the message was largely upbeat. For every flyover of Chernobyl, there were three life-affirming sweeps across rock faces and a pass by Mont Saint-Michel. Late in the long evening, the festival presented Patrick Meier of UAViators.org—an organization dedicated to promoting the humanitarian potential of drones “before disasters, during disasters, and after disasters.” One slide, for example, showed villagers cobbling together an RC airfoil out of scrap plastic. In another, a drone snaps a photo of the word HELP roughed out in wreckage in a Philippine slum. “What if to solve our problems,” goes the group’s slogan, “we simply have to rise above them?”

New York City Drone Film Festival founder Randy Scott Slavin. Photo: Travis Diehl.


Between each group of films, Randy Slavin took the stage to raffle off his sponsors’ pro-grade drones. Walk in liking drones, walk out owning one. Each winner a convert.

“S900 Cinema.”

“Inspire 1.”

“Always use your drone in a positive way,” said Slavin.

Which is slightly more evangelical than what drone maker DJI’s Jon Resnick said shortly before the screening as we stood outside the venerable Directors Guild Theater on Fifty-Seventh Street—a venue that, it was mentioned more than once, lent the night’s proceedings an air of legitimacy.

“We fought it at first,” he said. “We called them UAVs, flying cameras, but nothing caught on. Finally we just said ‘Uncle’ and called them drones.” Still, something chilling about every shot of smiling children running on a crumbling jetty or a clay-colored rooftop after—you know—a drone.

“I mean there are planes,” said Resnick. “There are F-14s and there are Cessnas.” And with any luck, people are smart enough to know the difference.

Under the theater’s red awning, folks formed a line in the bitter cold hoping for spare tickets to the sold-out screening. Behind us, mounted to the building’s black granite cladding, was the Guild’s bronze seal: an eagle, wings spread, talons gripping a banner, either taking flight or landing.

Travis Diehl

The first New York City Drone Film Festival took place Saturday, March 7, 2015 at the Directors Guild Theater.

Pretty Hurts

03.20.15

Kunio Watanabe, Song of the White Orchid, 1939, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 102 minutes. Kazuo Hasegawa and Shirley Yamaguchi.


IN THE LIFE OF SHIRLEY YAMAGUCHI, who died in the fall of last year at age ninety-four, the entire twentieth-century history of the Pacific Rim is reflected.

An actress, songbird, and legislator who lived and worked in Manchuria, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong, Yamaguchi is one of the subjects of a Japan Society film series timed to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II. “The Most Beautiful: The War Films of Shirley Yamaguchi & Setsuko Hara” is somewhat deceptively named—the nine-feature program focuses on female stars, and so none of the movies are dispatches from the front lines, exactly. Most take place far from the battlefield, and four were released after the surrender of the Empire of Japan. In another respect, however, the marks of the war are all over these films: Japanese imperialism, the reverberations of combat on the home front, and the confusion of new possibilities that followed defeat—new possibilities that Yamaguchi would seize upon in the course of a most remarkable career.

Guest-curated by Markus Nornes, professor of Asian cinema at the University of Michigan, “The Most Beautiful” looks at this period as reflected in the films made by the two actresses, both born in 1920, who came to fame in “national policy” propaganda films reinforcing the official doctrine of the empire and were subsequently reborn along with Japan itself. Setsuko Hara, who’d made her film debut in 1936, would have been all of sixteen years old when she appeared in The New Earth, a German-Japanese coproduction meant to illustrate the virtues of Japanese culture to their new white-supremacist allies. The codirectors, Mansaku Itami (father of director Juno) and visiting German Arnold Fanck, best known for his “mountain films” featuring Leni Riefenstahl, clashed openly, and settled on shooting two different versions of the story, involving a German-educated Japanese returning home, being reconciled to his motherland, and embarking as a settler to Manchuria with his new bride (Hara). (Japan Society will show Itami’s version, not Fanck’s, whose German premiere Hara herself attended in the company of one Mr. Hitler.)

One might think that such associations would’ve sullied Hara forever, but in roles for Naruse, Kurosawa, and particularly Ozu, she became more famous than ever for her radiant, self-sacrificing purity, and retired in 1962 as Japan’s “eternal virgin.” For these high-profile collaborations, Hara is today the better remembered of the two actresses in the West—she was among the “Five Japanese Divas” singled out for recognition in a 2011 Film Forum series of the same name—so I will concentrate instead on the case of Yamaguchi who, per Nornes’s notes for the series, took another path: “Rather than running away from history, she participated in it.”

Mansaku Itami and Arnold Fanck, The New Earth, 1937, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 114 minutes. Ruth Eweler and Setsuko Hara.


Subject of a March 28 lecture at Japan Society titled “An Actress with a Thousand Names,” the woman who we will for the sake of simplicity call “Shirley Yamaguchi” was variously credited as Yoshiko Yamaguchi, Ri Koran, Pan Shuhua, Li Xianglan, and Yoshiko Otake. I first became aware of the diminutive yet resolute actress in the movies she’d made during her marriage to the American-Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi: King Vidor’s too-little-seen Japanese War Bride (1952), and Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955), which will play Japan Society in a brand new 35-mm print. (The hasty New York Times obit for Yamaguchi, “Actress in Propaganda Films,” identifies these as “Hollywood B-movies” which, point of fact, they are not.)

Yamaguchi was born in northeast China in the years of increasing Japanese influence in the area preceding to the 1931 invasion that created the puppet state of Manchukuo, and was raised in the mainland speaking what I am told is flawless Mandarin. This, along with other obvious assets—she had a lovely, tremulous soprano singing voice and photographed strikingly, with large eyes and a prim bow of a mouth—brought her to the attention of Manchuria Film Production, a Japanese company half owned by the South Manchuria Railway, of which her father, Fumio Yamaguchi, was a sometimes-employee.

Billed as Li Xianglan and playing a native Chinese, Yamaguchi appeared in the so-called Continental Trilogy films opposite Kazuo Hasegawa. These movies explicitly endorsed the philosophy behind Japan’s pan-Asian ambitions, gozoku kyowa, or “harmony of the five peoples” (Chinese, Koreans, Manchus, Mongols, and Japanese), a doctrine raised to the level of utopian cult by Fumio Yamaguchi, among others. Two of these films, Song of the White Orchid (1939) and China Nights (1940), play Japan Society, and follow approximately the same narrative arc: Stubbornly nationalistic Chinese Xianglan/Yamaguchi is at odds with Japanese Hasegawa, but gradually comes to appreciate the benevolence of his intentions, and prostrate herself before him. The Chinese people were not so grateful for the lesson they were being taught by Manchuria Film Production and Yamaguchi—“a Chinese manufactured by Japanese hands,” as she wrote in her 1987 autobiography. She was imprisoned for nine months and sentenced to death by Chinese Nationalists, only saved when proof of her Japanese origins was smuggled into the country inside a doll. The judge presiding over her case called her “a Chinese impostor who used her outstanding beauty to make films that humiliated China and compromised Chinese dignity,” which is something like the ultimate in backhand compliments.

Returned to a foreign homeland, Yamaguchi began the first of the reinventions which would mark her career, traveling between national film industries with an ease unmatched by any Asian actress of her era. Japan Society has Yamaguchi’s best-known Japanese and American efforts, Akira Kurosawa’s Scandal (1950) and House of Bamboo, in both of which she plays a woman scorned—a classical singer smeared by the tabloid press for romantic indiscretions for Kurosawa, a Japanese detested by her own people for shacking up with a gaijin for Fuller.

After her divorce from Noguchi, Yamaguchi briefly revived the Li Xianglan sobriquet to film and record in Hong Kong, then became a television anchorwoman in Japan, in which capacity she secured the first interview with Japanese Red Army founder Fusako Shigenobu, in large part due to her outspoken support for the Palestinian cause. Yamaguchi visited Palestinian refugee camps, traveled to Vietnam and Cambodia during the war, and interviewed world-historical figures including Yasser Arafat, Nelson Mandela, Idi Amin, and Kim Il Sung. After ending her career as a broadcaster, she ran for and won a seat in the upper house of the National Diet of Japan in 1974, and remained there for eighteen years. Throughout this time she agitated for Japanese recognition of war crimes, advocating for and winning the payment of reparations to Korean “comfort women” sold into sex slavery, and continued this work after her retirement as vice president of the Asian Women’s Fund. In 2005, she chastened Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for his visits to the Yasukuni Shrine honoring Japan’s war dead, and at least one Chinese media outlet was quoted praising her for transforming “from an abettor in Japan’s aggression on China to a messenger of peace.”

Playing Chinese, Japanese, even an aboriginal Taiwanese in 1943’s Bell of Sayon, Yamaguchi might’ve created the mold for the multiplatform pan-Asian pop star, a torch later carried by Taiwanese Teresa Teng, who covered Yamaguchi’s “Hen Bu Xiang Feng Wei Jia Shi” (If Only We Had Met Before I Married). None of this was quite enough to warrant Yamaguchi’s inclusion in the Oscar death montage, but Japan Society has given a much greater tribute to this remarkable, complicated career.

Nick Pinkerton

“The Most Beautiful: The War Films of Shirley Yamaguchi & Setsuko Hara” runs March 21–April 4 at the Japan Society in New York.

Sylvia Schedelbauer, Erinnerungen (Memories), 2004, HD video, color, sound, 19 minutes.


WITH SIX SHORT WORKS to her videography, Sylvia Schedelbauer is easily one of the most impressive moving-picture artists to emerge in the past decade. Born in Japan of a Japanese mother and a German father—both of whom severed ties to their postwar childhoods—Schedelbauer’s videos are so eloquently and exquisitely constructed that it is easy to underestimate the passion and urgency that underlie them. Driven to conjure a past to replace the one her parents have denied or hidden from her, she has, through an ingenious use of found footage and the endless possibilities of montage, created a series of works that turn artifice into a means of investigation and a bridge to repair the rift between desire and knowledge.

In Erinnerungen (Memories, 2004), her first movie, she counters parental silence directly, appropriating dozens of family photos, accompanied by a voice-over commentary that presents her plight. It begins with a series of images from a photo album she discovered in a shoebox buried in a closet when she was fourteen. Vivid and sepia-colored, these affecting, carefully framed photographs document her grandfather’s service as a German soldier during World War II. Seen at rest and in groups, ordinary, uniformed men emanate a humanist spirit wholly at odds with the realities of the ideology they served and the war in which many of them lost their lives. Though Schedelbauer tells us that her grandfather died at Stalingrad, she cannot identify him in any of the photos. As elusive as the past of which he was a part, he seems to embody the paradox that she implies is intrinsic to photography: its documentation of a world that remains unknown. For all its irrefutability as data, every photo in this group, however evocative and haunting, remains a tantalizing enigma, its truth-value indecipherable and irretrievable. Schedelbauer’s work suggests that this is not merely a matter of technical limits or human fallibility, but the byproduct of the perpetuation of wars and the conditions that promote them.

Schedelbauer follows up with more casual-looking photos from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, many presumably taken by her parents. In juxtaposing the suppressed past with the one she has lived through, she contrives a wished-for continuity, a gesture both pitiable and palpable. Thus when, near the close of her movie, she provides a list (retrieved from the Internet) of international wars, mostly throughout the twentieth century, she links her own incomplete story to those of the countless millions whose pasts were similarly fractured and suppressed. In so doing, she affirms that the distortions that beset personal and cultural histories are among the most far-reaching casualties of war.

Given the relative uncertainty and malleability that bedevils photography, it is no surprise that Schedelbauer saw the even greater possibilities of found footage. Her subsequent works, equally marked by semifictional, “biographical” impulses, use montage to bind these found images—and the “stories” embedded within them—to her need to summon the missing pictures from her life. Indeed, her title Remote Intimacy (2007–2008) suggests the very contradiction of this phenomenon. Schedelbauer manifests an acutely intuitive sense of selection (her sources here and elsewhere include Craig Baldwin, master of found-footage compilations, with whom Schedelbauer has collaborated), evoking times and places with uncannily apt images and sounds—of ships sailing to the music of 1940s radio, men cutting down trees, children playing baseball in a California forest—as well as hints of the Japanese internment that took place there during the war. In the last third of the work, color images, including shots from Japanese movies, highlight the cultural dislocation her parents survived. It is tempting to imagine that the fleeting found images of a Western man and a Japanese woman are meant to evoke them.

Sylvia Schedelbauer, False Friends, 2007, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 5 minutes.


False Friends (2007) ups the ante, so to speak, adding noir-like suspense to Schedelbauer’s repertoire. In the spirit of the title—a phrase that refers to words which, though identically spelled in two languages, mean different things—she repeats a select number of images, crosscutting them with others to imply both complementary and contradictory meanings. The opening shot of newborns in a hospital nursery seems linked somehow to the two men greeted by a nurse at the entrance of a medical building. But the latter is interrupted repeatedly by images of unspecified menace: a possible intruder exploring a house with a flashlight, a figure running through a darkened terrain from some undetermined danger. Shots of a nude couple making love, seen briefly and translucently, may be Schedelbauer’s imagining of a primal scene—both intimate and remote—imbued with cultural ambiguity. In the penultimate shot, the figure seen running throughout suddenly pauses and looks offscreen left, in the direction, the editing implies, of the men who have just been admitted to the building by the nurse. In welding two segregated pieces of found footage into quasi-narrative coherence, this gaze, symbolically, might be that of Schedelbauer herself, in poignant pursuit of the very connective tissue that eludes her.

Despite the presence and recurrence of a male figure walking across a muddy field at the beginning, middle, and end of way fare (2009), the footage, taken from educational and industrial films, seems more diverse and the overall effect more abstract than the previous works. This impression is compounded by faster editing and superimpositions, tending to blur and blend images temporally as well as spatially. A vague family resemblance prevails: trees, leaves, woods, farmers, tractors, rivers, a grasshopper eating a leaf, then being devoured by insects, emerging larvae—first accompanied by bird sounds and then by a distant buzz saw, which we see later resting on a tree trunk—might suggest that nature’s cycle is a unifying theme. But we also see vehicles moving along highways, people who seem to be migrating illegally via boats—and that lone walker who might just be the artist’s surrogate traveling consciousness, attempting to piece together the disparate places, times, and experiences that constitute an individual’s life.

This idea seems, in fact, to be the unifying motif of Sea Vapors (2014), a gorgeous, lyrical mosaic in which a woman—shot first from the back of her head in close-up, and near the end from the front, but whose face we never fully see—lifts a cup (of tea or coffee?), ever so incrementally, to her mouth, every stage of her movement interrupted by a horde of disparate images, including other shots of her, until, as the bowl of the cup seems to fill the screen like some giant orb, she drains it entirely. This barely hints at the density of the work’s texture, in which dissolves and superimpositions are compounded by the flickering effect produced by the rhythmic intercutting of black leader. Schedelbauer describes it as an “allegory of the lunar cycle,” but, no less than her other pieces, Sea of Vapors suggests, in a condensed form, that the most mundane of gestures contains a world of associations and meaning, both those we experience consciously and those that remain beyond our grasp.

Tony Pipolo

“Show & Tell: Sylvia Schedelbauer” runs Saturday, March 21 at 7:30 PM at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Touch and Go

03.17.15

Anja Marquardt, She’s Lost Control, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 90 minutes. Ronah (Brooke Bloom).


SHE’S LOST CONTROL, writer-director Anja Marquardt’s first feature, clocks in at ninety minutes—which, coincidentally or not, is also the duration of a typical appointment with sex surrogate Ronah (Brooke Bloom), the film’s aspirational protagonist. Some of Ronah’s clients have been referred by a psychotherapist, Dr. Alan Cassidy (Dennis Boutsikaris), who feels that certain of his male patients require both the talking and touching cure. Much like a typical therapy session, She’s Lost Control is marked by repetition, clichés, preposterousness, and occasional insight.

Marquardt’s movie, chilly and remote, if studiedly so, shares some subject matter with The Sessions (2012), a gooey docudrama about a man long confined to an iron lung who seeks out a sex surrogate so that he won’t die a virgin, but little of that mawkish project’s sensibility. Yet despite its austerity, She’s Lost Control isn’t immune to narrative improbabilities, most egregiously so in its final-act paroxysms of violence. The movie is additionally burdened by the obviousness and easy metaphors that attach to many films about outsourced intimacy; this deadweight is also found in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience (2009), which, like Marquardt’s film, whose heroine gazes out a window at a still-under-construction One World Trade Center, takes place in New Gilded Age New York.

Other, less iconic Gotham edifices are brazenly defiled in She’s Lost Control. The severity of the psychosexual problems of Ronah’s latest referral from Dr. Cassidy, a handsome, bearded nurse anesthetist named Johnny (Marc Menchaca), who spends his off-hours caring for his wheelchair-bound sister, is signaled during the film’s opening minutes: The camera, which had been trained closely on the back of Johnny’s head, captures him in long shot as the butch strawberry-blond, his body nearly flush with a building’s exterior, jerks off in broad daylight. “We’re just gonna create a safe space,” Ronah, bedecked in Talbots chic, tells her new client during their initial meeting in a hotel room—its decor as crushingly drab as that of Ronah’s apartment. In the film’s most absorbing moments, Ronah demonstrates the specifics behind that hackneyed expression, her patient, step-by-step simulation of physical intimacy including an exercise that involves touching only from the fingertips to the elbow.

Yet too often, She’s Lost Control hazily drifts from scene to scene, invested in examining the exhausted topic of what happens when a sex professional finds that the rigid boundary between work and off-duty pleasure has become uncomfortably porous. (The scenario dates back to at least 1971, the year of Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, a distant relative of Marquardt’s film; the Jane Fonda–starring neo-noir vehicle, its paranoia rooted partly in anxiety over second-wave feminism, is one of the few to have explored the topic fruitfully.) Bloom, for her part, is adept at maintaining the long silences required of her character, a near-friendless graduate student in behavioral psychology accustomed to chopping vegetables for dinners for one. Sometimes, though, the quiet reveals more than Ronah’s solitude: The film has run out of things to say.

Melissa Anderson

She’s Lost Control opens in New York on March 20 and in Los Angeles on March 27.

David Zellner, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 105 minutes. Deputy Caldwell and Kumiko (David Zellner and Rinko Kikuchi). Photo: Sean Porter.


ALTHOUGH ADORNED in a variety of distinct outfits—whether a thick cherry-red hoodie, an “office lady” uniform, or a motel-room bedspread repurposed as a poncho—the title character of David Zellner’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter seems never to change her carriage, her shoulders slumped and her eyes always cast downward. Played by Rinko Kikuchi (best known for her portrayal of a deaf Japanese teenager in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s globe-hopping Babel from 2006), Kumiko can barely endure direct eye contact, or any other form of human interaction. Her nights are spent in a cluttered Tokyo apartment, which she shares with her pet rabbit, Bunzo, and where she compulsively rewatches a battered VHS copy of the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996)—itself unearthed during Kumiko’s opening-scene spelunking—cueing up the moment in which Steve Buscemi’s character buries a briefcase full of money. Fastidiously mapping out the coordinates of the hidden loot, details that she then cross-stitches onto cloth, the twenty-nine-year-old misfit sets out for the American Midwest to excavate the riches.

Zellner’s film, which he wrote with his brother and frequent collaborator, Nathan, originated in an Internet-generated story, eventually exposed as a myth, from 2001 about a Japanese woman, also putatively seeking Fargo’s fictional cache, who was found dead in a Minnesota field. The siblings’ fable about an idée fixe has its own obsessions, namely Kumiko’s handcrafted maps and other analog and artisanal artifacts. To have a bunny play such a central role also risks an overreliance on kawaii. Yet the film, especially in its second half, after Kumiko lands at the Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport, is resolutely more invested in, and sympathetic toward, its heroine than her fetish objects.

The movie’s obliquely amiable charms are most apparent in the protagonist’s encounters with random Minnesotans, each of whom tries to aid Kumiko in her monomaniacal mission (“I want to go Fargo”). Unlike most of the disdainfully sketched ancillary characters in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2013)—another film whose obstinate protagonist is convinced that millions await him—those in Zellner’s movie may be idiosyncratic, but they are also unfailingly kind. (Coincidentally, Payne serves as one of Kumiko’s executive producers.) “It’s just a normal movie. Documentary is real, and a normal movie is fake,” Deputy Caldwell (played by the director) tries to explain to the Japanese visitor, the police officer’s blunt cine-taxonomy failing to convince Kumiko of the futility of her quest.

Yet her expedition, no matter now misguided, is portrayed as nothing less than heroic. Frequently framed as an effulgently hued figure in a vast monochromatic panorama—whether in a sea of black-clad passersby in the Tokyo subway or against the blinding whiteness of Minnesota expanses—Kumiko is imbued with unmistakable grandeur. Her gaze fixed on the ground, she sees what escapes us.

Melissa Anderson

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter opens March 18 in limited release.

James Fotopoulos, There, 2014, HD video, color, 103 minutes.


BEWARE OF MOVIES in which actresses spend most of their time in eyelet-trimmed white cotton nightdresses, as does Sophie Traub in James Fotopoulos’s The Given (2015). According to the filmmaker, The Given is about “acting, performance, and abuse.” Fair enough. It is indeed about those things, but in the negative—how not to act, perform, or attempt to deal with abuse, given or received. One wonders if that was Fotopoulos and Traub’s intent. If so, the bad acting, staging, and psychodrama text could have had a bit more satiric bite.

In any case, Fotopoulos is a notably talented, prolific, and obsessive filmmaker. Formerly based in Chicago, he created a stir in 2000 with Migrating Forms, a celluloid eruption of unconscious horror and disgust more nauseating than David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). Many feature-length and short films followed. I have a deep bookshelf entirely devoted to Fotopoulos’s homemade VHS and DVD screeners. His short movies are sometimes witty, sometimes lyrical, sometimes borderline abstract but nearly always insistently personal, though his early features paled compared to Migrating Forms.

With Alice in Wonderland (2010), Fotopoulos moved into more complex intellectual terrain, finding the roots of twentieth-century modernism in nineteenth-century paracinema photography and pre-Freudian dreamscape revelations of the unconscious. The film was projected as an installation titled Alice at Brooklyn’s Microscope Gallery in 2011. A meditation on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by way of Henry Savile Clarke and Walter Slaughter’s 1886 musical Alice in Wonderland: A Dream Play for Children, Fotopoulos’s Alice is at once dense and ephemeral. Like a mandala, it focuses on a medium close-up of Alice, or rather of two different depictions of Alice. In part one, she resembles Carroll’s photographs of the dark-haired Alice Liddell, who was the inspiration for the Alice books. In part two, she suggests the blonde Alice of John Tenniel’s illustrations for both Wonderland and Looking Glass.

Swirling around her, as if emanating from or impinging on her psyche, are hundreds of drawings—bits of body parts, strange animals, featureless faces—as well as single words and short phrases. More than a muse or a vehicle for Carroll, this Alice is her own woman, her thoughts and desires responsive to the transformations of art and science in the late nineteenth century. Sarah Evans, who embodies Alice, was not a professional actor, but the camera loves her face, which conveys, with almost no conventionally expressive movements—no smiles, grimaces, or eye-widening—a mercurial array of feelings and thoughts. But perhaps she is thinking and feeling nothing at all and our reading is the result of the images with which Fotopoulos surrounds her.

In his two recent features There (2014) and The Given, Fotopoulos employs some professional actors, with mixed results. The former, by far the more interesting of the two, achieves an enveloping paranoia within a controlled, minimalist mise-en-scène. Xander O’Connor plays a war veteran with PTSD who becomes a homeland terrorist. At least one of the women in his life also suffers PTSD, the result of sexual abuse. To indicate their unresolved traumas, both characters speak in short bursts as if they were highly resistant psychotherapy patients. While O’Connor, a forceful presence, clamps his lips shut after every four- or five-word phrase, Sarah Brooks, as the abused woman, repeatedly gasps midsentence through widely parted lips, as if repeatedly horrified by her memories.

I’m not sure if Fotopoulos draws a gender distinction regarding the open- or closed-lip defense against buried trauma, but Traub, the star of The Given, spends most of the film with her mouth open and her arms undulating around her head like an expressionist dancer playing a sleepwalker. Actually, sleepwalking figures in the scenario, which also concerns an actress who goes to uncomfortable places to prepare for an audition, pondering her memories of abuse in long incantatory speeches. I would like to let Traub off the hook—once you agree to work for a director in a film, you abdicate control over what will end up on the screen—but since The Given is largely a showcase for an actress playing an actress, I suspect she was highly complicit in the result. Fotopoulos and Traub might speak to this issue when they appear in dialogue at Microscope on Monday, March 23, at 7 PM.

Amy Taubin

James Fotopoulos’s installation The Given is on view at Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn through March 23. There will screen at Microscope on March 20 at 7 PM.

Emilio Fernández, La perla, 1947, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 85 minutes.


THE ROLE OF CINEMATOGRAPHER has its perks, not unlike those of any of the ancillary creative roles in filmmaking. Once you’ve shown that you know your business, you generally won’t lack for work until you’re ready to retire, and you’ll likely have a longer and busier career than a director starting out at the same time, for directors are more celebrated and, at the same time, more liable. The downside, if you consider it one, is that you’ll rarely be taken as seriously as an artist. Writing about the Spanish-Cuban director of photography Nestor Almendros, David Thomson delivered an ultimatum which encapsulates accepted wisdom: “Few cinematographers have demonstrated what I would call a single creative character.”

An intermediary and a buffer, the cinematographer helps keep the mystique of the director intact. While the director is allowed to play the role of conjuror who summons his art from thin air, the cinematographer seems decidedly earthbound, limited to recording the things that are. The cinematographer, as a result, may be connected to a place in a way that directors rarely are. As much as the body of work produced by the late Gordon Willis, subject of a memorial tribute at the Museum of the Moving Image which has only just ended, is inextricably tied to the New York in which he lived and worked, so too does Gabriel Figueroa’s cinema belong to Mexico.

In “Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa—Art and Film,” a show at El Museo del Barrio, the question of whether or not Figueroa is the “author” of the 200+ movies on which he worked in a fifty-year career is almost beside the point. Instead, Figueroa’s career in imagemaking is placed within a broader cultural context, alongside parallel historical developments, new ways of representing Mexico which had been emerging in the graphic arts, and the changing image of Mexico that the country broadcast to itself before, during, and after its “Golden Age” of studio filmmaking in the 1940s and ’50s.

First conceived in 2007 on the centennial of Figueroa’s birth, “Under the Mexican Sky” toured Mexico before appearing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in late 2013. Its appearance at the Museo, for whom this is the first film-themed gallery exhibition, is its premiere East Coast appearance. The experience begins with an immersion in images from Figueroa-shot films beamed onto the wall by six ceiling-mounted projectors. I’ve seen variations on this ta-da “splash-panel” effect in cinema-related gallery installations before, as in MoMA’s 2013 “Dante Ferretti: Design and Construction for the Cinema,” though there is a greater method evident here, as certain reemerging locations and visual motifs ripple through simultaneously projected scenes: images of neon urbanity and chic nightclubs; the desolate Nonoalco-Tlateloco railroad zone; or votive candles, an ocean of light in Roberto Gavaldón’s Macario (1959).

In the galleries ahead, these motifs are given not as the personal expressions of an obsessive individualist but as a network of symbols that were struck upon as icons of mexicanidad (Mexicanness)—“part of the network of appropriation, interchange, and reinterpretation that generated twentieth century Mexican visual identity and culture,” per one piece of wall text, in the years following the 1910–1920 revolution.

After passing through a gallery which addresses Figueroa’s apprenticeship as a still photographer, illustrated with glamour shots of Mexico City celebrities taken in something like the style of Cecil Beaton, one proceeds through a series of rooms in which Figueroa’s images of Mexico are put into dialogue with those by other artists, both foreign and domestic. Of the former, particular weight is given to the work of Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, whose photographs for Anita Brenner’s book Idols Behind Altars drew Sergei Eisenstein to Mexico to begin his ultimately uncompleted but hugely influential project ¡Que viva México! (1932)

In a gallery dedicated to “Clouds,” heavenward-looking excerpts from Figueroa-shot films are projected in between scenes from ¡Que viva México! and Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gómez Muriel’s The Wave (1936). The walls of the room are decorated with works by the Mexican landscape painter Dr. Atl, whose “curvilinear perspective” is cited as an influence on Figueroa, famed for his canopies of dark sky fleeced with blindingly white clouds which, we read, were achieved by using infrared filters “to counteract the layer of the atmosphere.”

Figueroa’s motifs, including those skies, are given as belonging to a common cultural heritage built from a shared stock of images connoting mexicanidad. Another of these symbols is the spiny maguey, or agave, plant, which is to Mexico what the longhorn is to Texas—one nook of the exhibit places enlargements depicting the maguey from Figueroa’s films next to similar photographs and a sketch, Under the Maguey, by Jose Clemente Orozco. Other recurring images include the bandolier ammunition belt and the calaveras Day of the Dead skeleton, iconographic tropes that are consigned to subsections dedicated to “Revolution” and “Requiem,” respectively.

In historical hindsight, the quest for mexicanidad has in some eyes taken on the character of an aesthetic conspiracy pursued with government connivance, a legacy to be rejected or at least reacted against. And the argument can be made that Figueroa did his best work when pushed outside of his comfort zone, as in his collaborations with Luis Buñuel during the Spanish filmmaker’s long, on-again-off-again stretch working in the Mexican film industry, beginning with Los olvidados (1950). The modest section dedicated to the Buñuel-Figueroa films cites a telling excerpt from the director’s memoir: “[Figueroa] had prepared an aesthetically irreproachable frame, with the Popocatépetl volcano in the background plus the indispensable white clouds. What I did was to simply turn the camera around and focus on a landscape that was quite commonplace but that seemed to be more realistic, more true to life. I have never been fond of prefabricated beauty.”

Far more than the Buñuel films, the works best represented here are the twenty-three movies that Figueroa shot for Emilio “El Indio” Fernández, including Maria Candelaria (1943), La perla (1945), and Río Escondido (1947). (Maria Candelaria, which contains a character based on Diego Rivera, is another instance of the close connection in Mexico between filmmakers like Fernández and Figueroa and those in the plastic arts like Orozco, Rivera, and Leopoldo Méndez, whose engraving illustrations for the title cards of Figueroa-shot films are on display here.) Fernández, probably most familiar to English-speaking audiences from his roles in various Sam Peckinpah films, was a director of unsurpassed renown in his homeland, so certain of his contribution to mexicanidad that he once claimed “There only exists one Mexico: the one I invented.”

Figueroa’s images are the fulcrum around which the exhibition turns, while the focus only returns to the man himself in its final galleries. In a room which also contains altars to Figueroa’s work in Mexican “new wave” cinema and his colorful feature-film adaptations of telenovela soap operas—both rather vaguely filled out—one finds a biographical time line of Figueroa’s “Life in Film,” which refers to his apprenticeship with cinematographer Gregg Toland in 1930s Hollywood as well as the fact that he was named by Robert Rossen and Elia Kazan to the House Un-American Activities Committee, presumably one reason that his ventures into American movies were only brief and fitful.

This precedes a concluding “visual biography” that lines both walls of the hallway leading out of the exhibition space, comprising two chronologically arranged collections of photographs showing Figueroa on set. One wall features close-ups of Figueroa, who, as you head toward the exit, can be seen to grow older, though always trim and dapper, and usually with his eye screwed into a camera viewfinder. On the other wall are pictures with Figueroa as one figure among many in the teeming crew. It is the defining dichotomy of an exhibition that describes filmmaking, like all cultural production, as an effort at once individual and collective.

Nick Pinkerton

“Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa—Art and Film” is on view through June 27 at El Museo del Barrio in New York.

Thomas Cailley, Les combattants (Love at First Fight), 2014, 35 mm, color, sound, 98 minutes. Madeleine (Adèle Haenel).


CELEBRATING ITS TWENTIETH EDITION THIS YEAR, the “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” series points to both the particular problems and pleasurable results of film curation based solely on national origin. As in previous installments, 2015’s roundup of recent Gallic movies is larded with strenuously mediocre (and worse) fare from veterans and newcomers alike, whether behind or in front of the camera. But the program, which this year comprises twenty-two features, continues to serve an important role by providing New York audiences with what may be their only chance to see adventurous, genre-defying works that are still without US distribution (and unlikely ever to secure it).

That’s certainly the case with Antoine Barraud’s spellbinding Portrait of the Artist (an inexplicably banal retitling of the more evocative Le Dos Rouge—“The Red Back,” a reference to the psychosomatic rash spreading over the protagonist’s torso). Coproduced by the Centre Pompidou, the film concerns the labyrinthine quest of an auteur named Bertrand—played by the acclaimed French director Bertrand Bonello, whose slinky, heady YSL biopic, Saint Laurent, opens stateside in May—to find the artwork that best exemplifies the concept of the “monstrous,” the subject of his next movie. Guiding the filmmaker on his monomaniacal quest through the galleries of, to name just a few institutions visited, the Museum of the History of Medicine and the Musée Gustave Moreau is Célia, a gnomic art historian who is incarnated in some scenes by Jeanne Balibar and in others by Géraldine Pailhas. The tactic of having two actresses inhabit the same role clearly nods to Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), which deploys a similar conceit; other cinephilic salutes include a film-within-the-film reimagining of Vertigo. These tributes, rather than appearing slavishly derivative, instead add to Portrait’s scene-by-scene unpredictability and sharpen its absorbing ideas about images, both moving and still. The film also contains my favorite line from a movie this (admittedly still young) year: “I love to hate. It wakes me up.”

Antagonism and aggression also arouse in Thomas Cailley’s charming debut feature, Love at First Fight (yet another dopey English renaming; the straightforward original title, Les combattants—“The Fighters”—is conspicuously pun-free). Cailley’s film, one of eight “Rendez-Vous” titles with a US distributor, invigorates one of the most shopworn genres, the romantic comedy, largely through its unusual premise and its enormously appealing leads. Set during the summer in a coastal town in southwestern France, Love at First Fight follows the unlikely attraction that develops between Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs), a mild-mannered woodworker and carpenter, and Madeleine (Adèle Haenel), an affectless, doomsday-obsessed graduate student preparing for an elite army unit. The two initially encounter each other at a self-defense demonstration on the beach, where Madeleine easily proves her physical superiority. Both embarrassed and intrigued by his opponent, the ginger-headed tradesman soon finds himself enrolling in the same intensive two-week boot camp that Madeleine is attending, in the hopes of figuring out his puzzling new acquaintance. Undeniably strong, the chemistry between Azaïs and Haenel occasionally confounds: Is it animal lust that draws their characters together or a sibling-like camaraderie (and concomitant enmity)? That the impulse behind this cathectic energy is never quite clear makes this mismatched couple all the more memorable.

Haenel, a twenty-six-year-old actress whom I’ve followed with great interest ever since seeing her in Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies (2007), also stars in André Téchiné’s In the Name of My Daughter, an overcooked, often ridiculous mid-1970s true-crime saga. Despite my better judgment, I was hooked, pulled in by the scenes with Haenel—whose intensity here recalls the ferocity of Isabelle Adjani in her best performances from the ’70s and ’80s—and Catherine Deneuve, her hair dyed a blinding, Hitchcock-blonde white, as Haenel’s casino-operating mother. To witness the lioness of French cinema (Deneuve superfans will be pleased to know that she appears in two other films in this year’s “Rendez-Vous” slate) and one of its ascendant young talents in the same frame is to be reminded of the nation’s greatest natural resource: actresses.

Melissa Anderson

“Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” runs at the Film Society of Lincoln Center March 6–15, the IFC Center March 6–12, and BAMcinématek March 7–12. In the Name of My Daughter will be released on May 8; Love at First Fight will open in New York on May 22 with a national release to follow.