Wednesday, October 05, 2011
New York Film Festival 2011: Trio
A Separation (2011, Asghar Farhadi) The Siren’s film of the festival so far. It deals with issues a good number of us will face eventually: a marriage (Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi) in trouble; a child (Sarina Farhadi, an absolute wonder) whose care and education must be secured; and a father deep in the clutches of Alzheimer’s. Into this mix comes an untrained care worker (Sareh Bayat) with money and husband (Shahab Hosseini) troubles of her own. Add the vagaries of the legal system, and this domestic drama takes on suspense that would do Hitchcock proud. Director Asghar Farhadi doles out information scrap by scrap through a searching, subtle camera. The focus on the ethics of lying--whom it helps, whom it hurts--and a child’s painful initiation into the world of adult deceit reminded the Siren of The Fallen Idol, one of her favorite films. The textures of life in some Middle Eastern societies reveal themselves slowly and exquisitely. The Siren was caught by glimpses of things she had observed in southern Lebanon--the many variations in the way women veil; the wide stone steps and big, screenless windows; the tight terraces and eerily quiet buildings that open onto chaotic streets. The performances are so precisely calibrated that watching Hatami cut vegetables or Moaadi open a door with a key reveals volumes about their characters. Often the Siren observes plaintively that more average moviegoers would like old movies if only they could see the right ones. She’s convinced that they would like brand-new foreign ones, too, if we could persuade them to take in something as good as A Separation.
This Is Not a Film (2010, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi). The Siren had no idea what to expect from this work, smuggled out of Iran as Jafar Panahi appeals his sentence for the crime of making films. What she got was a self-portrait of an artist who is as dryly understated and as moving as his actors. Filmed on digital with Jafar Panahi’s colleague, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, this shattering documentary shows one day for Panahi under house arrest--Fireworks Wednesday, an Iranian holiday. Panahi rattles around his apartment, discussing his appeal with his lawyer, feeding a scene-stealing lizard, making tea, and trying to describe the movie that he wants to make. As he marks the elements of a scene by laying tape on his carpet and describing the action, you see that the movie is as beautifully and exactly laid out in his mind as if he had already made it. The title This Is Not a Film is a dark joke; Panahi has been sentenced to six years in prison and banned from directing and screenwriting for 20 years. At one point Mirtahmasb is heard saying we’re “behind the scenes of Iranian filmmakers not making films." Later Panahi, his emotions getting the better of him, says “cut” and Mirtahmasb reminds him, in a gentle sally, that he can’t say that: “It’s an offense.” Panahi shows some scenes from his films on a DVD player, says that location can do the direction for him, and talks about the happy accidents that can take a scene to another level. We see several such accidents here, from a crane that sweeps within a few feet of his terrace like the sword of Damocles, to a chance encounter with a young man collecting garbage. The man tells him, just before a closing shot of heart-stopping perfection, “Mr. Panahi, please don’t come outside. They’ll see you with the camera.” Two weeks ago, it was revealed that Mirtahmasb is one of six filmmakers jailed in Iran, adding his plight to that of Panahi. The ghastly regime in Tehran wants to rob all these artists of what could be their most productive years as filmmakers. This Is Not a Film demonstrates that in doing so, they are robbing us all.
A Dangerous Method (2011, David Cronenberg) Les bon temps at the NYFF could not possibly roule forever, and on Tuesday they hit a brick wall named Keira Knightley. Not since Nicolas Cage and his adenoids damn near ruined Peggy Sue Got Married has the Siren witnessed a movie so heavily damaged by a lead performance. Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, who at first is being treated by Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), at his Swiss clinic, for that catch-all early 20th-century diagnosis “hysteria.” Later she embarks on an affair with Jung, as he develops a mentor relationship with Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson) and all three thrash out the foundations of psychoanalysis. After the screening, director David Cronenberg talked about the near-disappearance of the hysteria diagnosis and how difficult it is nowadays to get a bead on what its manifestations were like. Well, as played by Knightley, hysteria is facial tics, jaw spasms suggesting advanced tetanus, flailing limbs, rolling and darting eyes and sudden marionette-like jerks. None of these elaborate gestures suggest mental illness; instead they suggest distractions born of a superficial performance. Even later, when supposedly cured, or least less hysterical, Knightley is--in a word seldom applied to beautiful actresses--hammy. My old friend Glenn Kenny, for the record, went on Twitter to say “OF COURSE Knightley's performance in Method is disruptive. Her sexuality is the monster in this Cronenberg monster movie.” The trouble with this diagnosis is that Knightley doesn't show sexuality, either. This movie concerns people who spent their lives proving sex is in our minds, but sex is also inextricably corporeal, as indeed is acting. And Knightley is too busy choreographing her bits of business to portray anything recognizable as female lust, let alone release. Fassbender, who was fantastic as the still center of mounting hysteria in the cellar scene in Inglorious Basterds, has a hard time demonstrating passion for Sabina. Then again, he isn’t playing opposite believable illness or desire, just their seventh-generation Xerox copies. When Jung gets a respite in the form of a scene with his wife (Sarah Gadon), or better still Mortenson’s tranquil but savagely observant Freud, the movie fulfills the promise of its plot. The scenes between Jung and Freud are the ones that show thwarted passion, as acolyte and idol form an intense bond, only to grow increasingly distrustful of one another. The script is tight and witty, and A Dangerous Method is a gorgeous film, not merely for the beauty of the settings but for the way Cronenberg’s camera seeks them out. By her last three scenes in the movie, Knightley starts reacting to the people in front of her, and she gains some fitful poignance. But by then it’s too late.