New York Film Festival: Dispatch 1

Miguel Gomes, Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One, 2015, color, sound, 125 minutes.

“WE TELL OURSELVES stories in order to live,” wrote Joan Didion in 1979, a sentiment literalized several centuries earlier by Scheherazade, the legendary fabulist of The Arabian Nights who spins elaborate tales to delay her execution. In Miguel Gomes’s epic three-part endeavor, also called Arabian Nights—one of several titles I caught last week during press screenings for the New York Film Festival, which begins this Friday—storytelling is deployed to prolong the life of another endangered entity: present-day Portugal, a country severely diminished by austerity measures. With the organizing principle of this massive undertaking spelled out in on-screen text in each of the three volumes—Arabian Nights, which records events that took place in the Iberian nation from August 2013 to July 2014, takes the “fictional form of facts”—the project flows with a deluge of narrative tropes. Documentary passages (on chaffinch enthusiasts, laid-off shipyard workers) segue to elaborate fantasias (on ghost dogs, bow-tied cockerels, and other gifted animals) and, more often, to hybrids of the two. Not every passage in this six-hour-plus opus succeeds; “The Tale of the Men with Hard-Ons,” a jab at the IMF in the first film, is especially banal. But Gomes’s sheer ingenuity with storytelling structure and convention, not to mention his sound-track choices, often elates.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s luxuriant, hushed Cemetery of Splendour also offers a précis of sorts on a country—Thailand—with history allegorized as deepest REM sleep (or, to put it another way: in dreams begin responsibilities). Like the director’s previous works, notably Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (an NYFF selection in 2010), his latest is populated by all manner of reincarnated beings, mostly benevolent. At least three materialize to advise or console Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), a gentle volunteer who tends to comatose soldiers hospitalized in a former schoolhouse. These wounded warriors, hooked up to glowing Flavinesque light fixtures that the medical staff insists will “give them good dreams,” are thought to be restaging centuries-old royal battles in their prolonged unconscious state. “I see no future in being a soldier,” one of the combatants says upon emerging from his narcoleptic state, a declaration that resounds all the more profoundly for being uttered so softly.

Les Cowboys, the first feature from Thomas Bidegain, on the other hand, clangs and shrieks with its grossly inelegant political melodrama. (As a screenwriter for Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet [2009] and Rust and Bone [2012], Bidegain has already made too many contributions to this odious genre.) Opening in 1994, the film updates John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) for the jihadism era, as the teenage daughter of a country-and-western superfan, Alain (François Damiens), disappears from a hoedown, bidding adieu to the French Republic to run off with her Muslim boyfriend. With his son, Kid (screen nullity Finnegan Oldfield), aiding Alain in his monomaniacal quest to reclaim his child from the chador, the father’s hysteria is quickly surpassed by the film’s own, never more so than when Bidegain himself warbles a disastrous cover of Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” over the closing credits.

The 53rd New York Film Festival runs September 25–October 11.

Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One screens September 30; Volume 2: The Desolate One screens October 1; Volume 3: The Enchanted One screens October 2. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour screens September 30 and October 1; Thomas Bidegain’s Les Cowboys screens October 1 and 2.