New York

Nineteenth New York Film Festival

The somewhat lackluster 19th New York Film Festival proved to be an unstable amalgam of “quality” French auteurs (Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Bertrand Blier, Louis Malle), independent documentaries, docu-drama factoids, and jingoistic piety (Chariots of Fire). Strictly in terms of film form, the festival did nothing to reverse the conservative trend of the past six years: the most conventionally successful movie was Contract, Krzyzstof Zanussi’s antibourgeois comedy of ill manners, and a model of bourgeois filmmaking. Two of the factoids—Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Iron (Polish workers forming independent unions) and Frank Ripploh’s Taxi Zum Klo (German homosexual forming numerous liaisons)—were populist triumphs of life over celluloid, and along with these Lincoln Center did provide the venue for several numbers that might otherwise never have played New York.

One of the festival’s few critical polarizers, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il Mistero di Oberwald, is neither a disaster nor a masterpiece. Produced for Italian TV, this is a talky adaptation of a Jean Cocteau play (The Eagle Has Two Heads, filmed by Cocteau himself in 1947). The original is a frayed piece of fluff—a Ruritanian gothic with a hall-of-mirrors plot concerning the impossible love between a reclusive queen and an anarchist poet, her would-be assassin. As the former, Monica Vitti exhibits so strong a likeness to Barbra Streisand that I kept waiting for the moment she would break into “People.” The sentiment is apposite, and so is the schmaltz: Antonioni’s soundtrack pastiches Brahms and Schonberg, but what sticks in the mind are the sappy, almost Disney-like passages lifted from Richard Strauss.

The film’s shtick, ballyhooed as Antonioni’s most radical experiment with color since his 1964 Red Desert, is the use of a video synthesizer. Il Mistero di Oberwald opens with a flash of fuchsia lightning and proceeds to oscillate between colors for the next two hours like an unsteady Trinitron. Treating the play as the “libretto” for his “tonal experiments,” Antonioni washes the screen with pale waves of green or orange, submerging it for prolonged periods in the russet hue of badly faded Technicolor. From time to time he throws in a discreet superimposition or an isolated color effect, as when a doorway reveals a shaft of shocking turquoise light.

But there is no overall consistency to these devices, and many of Antonioni’s ideas are embarrassingly weak. When the conversation turns to “blood,” he portentously tilts down to a bouquet of flowers and turns them flaming red. Intermittently his characters are assigned specifically colored auras, which they radiate like walking chunks of kryptonite. (“Please excuse my appearance,” insinuates the evil count as he fills the library with a gaseous purple haze.) Only once does Antonioni pull out all the stops: a splendid helicopter swoop of the queen galloping through pink fields on a blue horse, her punk crimson hair limned against the canary sky. As Vitti exclaims upon discovering her assassin stumbling into her bedroom: “At last something is happening at Oberwald!”

Mostly, one has the sense of looking over the maestro’s shoulder while he fiddles with the control knobs. Timidly amateurish compared to the synthesized video of Barbara Buckner or Bill Viola, let alone Nam June Paik, the electronic doodling of Il Mistero di Oberwald is ultimately one more half-baked appropriation of the trendy, only marginally more interesting than Antonioni’s trip to China or the Wavelength zoom with which he ended The Passenger.

Exasperatingly uneven but genuinely experimental, Jacques Rivette’s films hover between whimsical documentary and paranoid fantasy. They traffic in extended improvisation, elaborately open-ended structures, Borgesian mysteries, and arcane references to the overheated Hollywood melodramas the director used to review for Cahiers du Cinema in the ’50s. Le Pont du Nord, which had its world premiere at the festival, is less radical but more successful than Rivette’s last few films. Inspired, he says, by the political scandals of the Giscard d’Estaing regime, it’s an extended shrug on the interplay of fiction and reality that begins with the title, “Once upon a time . . .”

Rivette has made several films about Paris as a conspiratorial labyrinth. Thus, Le Pont du Nord has three protagonists: Bulle Ogier and her daughter, Pascal Ogier—strangers who pick each other up in the manner of the eponymous heroines of Celine and Julie Go Boating—and Paris itself, photographed (and reshuffled) by Rivette with enormous tenderness and verve. Closer to Narnia than to Alphaville, this enchanted city is a somewhat hard-boiled version of Joseph Cornell’s New York, inhabited by stone lions, steel dragons, and sinister cabals. Ogier mère, just released from prison (where, Rivette suggests, she has served time for the terrorist bank heist she pulled in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Third Generation), is a wanly chic waif with a bad case of claustrophobia and an angel-of-death boyfriend (Pierre Clementi) buzzing in and out of the plot. Ogier fille, who arrives in Paris from “elsewhere,” is a vision of virginal fierceness—her slim build armored by a leather motorcycle jacket, her unsmiling oval face crowned with a French knot and bracketed by a headphone radio. She never eats unless she’s starving, practices kung fu at every opportunity, and slashes the eyes out of advertising posters because they’re spying on her.

The women wander through Paris for four days, sleeping on benches or in all-night movie theaters, increasingly implicated in Clementi’s unknown game. The clues they have pilfered from his attaché case are a sheaf of newspaper clippings (on political kidnappings, government scandals, and miscellaneous crimes and assassinations) and a spiral drawn over a map of Paris. Bulle converts this into a Chutes and Ladders board, with squares designated “The Tomb,” “The Pit,” “The Prison,” “The Inn,” and so on. Like his protagonists—or rather, along with them—Rivette is inventing the film’s plot as it unfolds, and after two hours the question arises whether he will be able to steer things toward any sort of conclusion. Barely, he manages, turning the film first into a sort of abstract gangster flick and then back into a mock medieval quest.

Sometimes silly, occasionally breathtaking—Pascal’s entrance, spinning around the Place de Verdun on a motorbike, making hypnotized eye contact with the statuary, is marvelous—and almost always entertaining, Le Pont du Nord grounds its vapors in small, tactile, spur-of-the-moment details: the appearance of a sandwich board advertising Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, Clementi idly flipping his totemic deck of cards, Bulle basking her face in the sun. As much as anything else, these privileged moments are the fruits of Rivette’s risk-taking strategies.

This was the year of verité at Lincoln Center, and, out of the dozen or more documentaries and documentary hybrids at the Festival, none gave greater pleasure than Agnes Varda’s unexpected Mur Murs. The subjects of this idiosyncratic 80-minute feature are the murals—visionary, historical, cautionary, and playful by turns—that seemingly embellish every housing project, high school cafeteria, storm drain, and empty wall in Los Angeles. One comes away convinced that the city with the best kitsch and vernacular architecture in America has the nation’s most interesting public art as well.

Drawing on José Orozco and Mexican folk motifs, on movie posters and billboards, the work ranges from Chuck Close–like portraits of local artists adorning the state unemployment office to the scores of multihued hogs that festoon the exterior of a massive slaughterhouse. Other murals introduce redwood forests into downtown intersections, envision Santa Monica covered by snow, transpose Pieter Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus to a literal painted desert (where it’s advertised on the marquee of a drive-in movie theater), show the first men on the moon with their space helmets reflecting the shopping plaza across the street, or use three television icons of the 1950s—Clayton Moore (The Lone Ranger), Jan Clayton (the mom from Lassie), and Billy Grey (the son of Father Knows Best)—to represent God, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus Christ. While the murals in Venice are spacey trompes l’oeil, the more ferocious statements of Chicano East Los Angeles overpower the freeway landscape and provide the cumulative effect of seeing the city through someone else’s eyes.

Mur Murs is animated by Los Angeles street life: strolling surfers, disco roller skaters, religious zealots. In no particular hurry, Varda pauses to observe people practicing kung fu in front of a gigantic painted whale, or to examine the parallel art forms of custom-painted automobiles and tattoos. (“Of course, woman is always the rose in the cliché garden of the tough guy’s heart,” the filmmaker comments on one specimen in her heavily accented voice-over.) It’s hard to know how seriously Varda takes herself—“one cries out, the other doesn’t,” she says of two murals, paraphrasing the title of her last feature. Her knack for epigrammatic misfires, her decision to stick actress Juliet Berto into three scenes as “The Visitor,” and her use of a dated jazzy-baroque score, are affectations so close to self-parody that they are truly disarming: the anthropologist appears as charmingly culture-bound as the exotic fauna she’s surveying.

Jim Hoberman