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.

23 comments:

D Cairns said...

I plan on seeing the Cronenberg with an open mind and keen anticipation, but nothing I've seen of KK has been exactly promising, and more often I've been astonished that she actually finds work. Although "hammy" at least sounds like a contrast with her earlier flatness: maybe one day she'll discover a path between the two.

swhitty said...

Agree completely on "Method," Siren. Although the most interesting thing for me was Mortensen's very good performance; I could have drawn up a list of 20 names of actors who I'd imagine as Freud and he wouldn't be one of them. But he's wonderful -- and shows a sense of humor he rarely has onscreen.

gobsmackedprotean said...

Keira Knightley has been poorly directed in 'Method', allowed to flail about, as Cronenberg is not known for being a great director of women. Further Freud saw being a woman as an incurable disease, and Keira's character here 'stands in' for the malady in a 3-way between Jung and Freud ... Who were so absorbed in each other's personalities, btw, that when Jung broke with Freud, he fell off his chair, and fainted. No wonder Keira could find little inspiration for her own sexuality; she was like the hysterical blow-up doll for two major neurotics. Think she was in more sympathetic hands with Joe Wright in P&P ... David Lean school, not BODY HORROR which Keira wholly displays.

Trish said...

Lack of sexuality is a shortcoming Knightly shares with other actresses of her generation. Did the feminist movement kill their ability to put out on screen? Or is there something lacking in their film education? Knightly, Dunst, Stewart, Portman, etc. likely never heard of Kay Francis or Barbara Stanwyck. If they had, we might not be calling them "unsexy".

Rachel said...

I've been conflicted over A Dangerous Method since I saw a laughably over-the-top trailer, but I'm still fascinated by the subject material.

Keira Knightley, to me, is okay when she rides along on gawky, cheerful charm (Bend it Like Beckham, Pride and Prejudice but so far, she hasn't been able to stretch much beyond it. The most interesting work I've seen from her was The Duchess. Horribly miscast, but at times, she veered into being very good.

Although I have to say, when I heard that she was going to be Joe Wright's Anna Karenina, my reaction was "Oh hell no!"

Fascinating question, Trish. I wish I had a quick answer for it. Maybe they've all been watching Doris Nolan and Priscilla Lane films instead?

Vulnavia Morbius said...

This, of course, will not dissuade me from seeing A Dangerous Method at the first opportunity. I'm such a complete Cronenberg fangirl that he would have to kick puppies at a Cannes press conference for me to rethink things. The material seems a bit upscale for Cronenberg, but now that I think about it, his entire filmography is a conversation between Jung and Freud, isn't it? Too bad about Keira Knightly, but I can live with it. It can't be any worse than Stephen Lack in Scanners, can it? Nevermind. Don't answer that.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Siren I beg to differ.

I found KK's jutting jaw utterly enchanting. She's my favoirte hysteric since Sussanah York in Huston's Freud

glennkenny said...

Not going to get into the specifics of our disagreement here, dahling, but just wanted to register my amusement at the proclamation " as Cronenberg is not known for being a great director of women," a really terrific addition to my own Dictionary-of-Not-Quite-Received-Ideas, also known as the Department Of Making S**t Up. Seriously. With the possible exception of Samantha Eggar, who didn't really relish licking the strawberry jam off the fake baby's head at the end of 'The Brood," pretty much every woman who's been directed by Cronenberg has given him what the kids call "props." Right, I understand, it doesn't matter whether THEY enjoyed the experience; well, there's plenty of the proof that matters in plenty of puddings, including Marilyn Chambers' work in "Rabid," which never once evokes that performer's then-notorious porn persona.

swhitty said...

Ah, well, Huston's "Freud". Which circles back to my original comment, with the one actor who should NOT have played Freud (much as I unresevedly love Clift in almost anything else).

swhitty said...

And -- yes, as to Glenn's comment -- can we please remember not only the great work of the female leads in "Crash," "eXistenz" and "The Fly" but Marilyn Chambers in "Rabid"? If ever anyone benefited from a director's attention...

I don't care for Knightley's performance in this film, and am not willing to absolve Cronenberg for it, but whether or not you like KK, it's hardly proof of Cronenberg's poor direction of women.

Yojimboen said...

K Knightly (or as she is known in our house “Our Miss Mannered”) is half-Scottish so I feel a demi-apology is called for; interesting as she is, she has always struck me as dangerously angular, as in you get in a connubial clinch with her you could lose an eye.

will said...

"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."

And she's right. From Jung's journal:
"'patient laughs and cries in a strangely mixed, compulsive manner. Masses of tics; she rotates her head jerkily, sticks out her tongue, twitches her legs… Cannot stand people or noise.’"

Her mental illness manifested itself into physical contortions and express. The attempt of the body to express what the mind was trying to repress.

Shamus said...

Great post, Madame S. Re: Panahi, one minor quibble. I think This is not a Film was shot over 4 days, not one but Panahi covers his tracks to make you think otherwise. (Offside also appears to be shot in real time, during a football match between Iran and Bahrain, but the production seems too complicated for that.)

Segueing to:

(Garbo... Vivien Leigh... and now Keira Knightley: Progress)

Ms. KK seems to have cornered the market for any historical film made anytime between 1789 till 2085, so naturally she was slated to appear (according to wiki) in a remake of My Fair Lady, but then she was replaced by, uh, Carey Mulligan. Not even as good as Cukor's f*ck-up...

The Siren said...

Will: The key part of my observations on Knightley isn't really the twitches, although even if they are accurate there's too much of them; it's the part where I say they don't play. She's indicating. She has her critical defenders, good ones (like Glenn and gobsmackedprotean) but it will be interesting to see how the general public reacts. I'm willing to bet most of them hate the performance. And it's a shame, because as S. Whitty says, it's some of Mortenson's best work. I didn't see him as Freud at all and he's so good, a conception of Freud that I didn't see coming at all and yet felt absolutely right.

Mark T Lancaster said...

Off topic here, Siren: I read your April 2009 post on "The Private Affairs of Bel-Ami", and noted that you had to watch it on a lousy VHS transfer. I checked Netflix last night and they have it streaming. It looks pretty good too. Thanks for the recommendation, and I'll pass that on to your readers here -- if you can stream Netflix you don't want to miss this, it's a real treat.

gobsmackedprotean said...

Yojimboen attributes Knightley's performance to the consequences of being part Scottish; I like this explanation, as if heather, rough winds, haggis and kilts are somehow alchemical combinations producing extremities ... glennkenny defends Cronenberg's direction of women, whereas I would say that they are so often featured as twisted and hideous that Keira's task of translating spastic horrors as sympathetic AND sexy can be added to the long lines of 'tasks' his actresses are given. Playboy's Snake Pit of the Month ... At a certain point actors just have to trust their directors. I also recall reading in Jung's journals (university years) a description of this patient, and she very nearly fell off her chair (along with Freud), being unable to contain her paroxisms and outbursts. Perhaps this was a screenwriter or directors choice that went awry. One could never accuse Cronenberg of being overly concerned about film-goers sensibilities -- he is expressly interested in bending that envelope to its limits -- and after all female hysteria was THE SUBJECT of 19th-20th Century Psychoanalysis reducing women to little more than curiosities or monsters. But now that the subject has been raised, when has any actor made insanity 'attractive' on the screen? Jack Nicholson in Cuckoo's Nest wasn't really insane until they lobotomized him, and he got all of a few seconds screen time to portray a drooling vegetable. Frances Farmer; Jessica Lange poignant as the puppy who was finally spayed and neutralized. The Shining? Grand Guignol. Madness is a hard sell. Blanche Dubois? Well, if you can't admire Vivien Leigh, you aren't even human. Look, I'm just saying it's a problem, and Knightley is not past her prime; and an elbow in the eye is better than mud. I love the way she chews out Mathew MacFadyen in P&P; never was a fiercer Lizzy expressed. Viggo Mortensen, one of my favorite actors, has been slurpied in film role after film role -- slummed, underused, misused, poorly directed -- practically to death. But really, how I can make such preposterous statements? ... Because they're my opinions.

Yojimboen said...

@ gobsmackedprotean:
But really, how I can make such preposterous statements? ...
Because they're my opinions.


a) Nothing remotely preposterous about your opinions, ma’am, sage and savvy, more like…
b) Only a poltroon would question your right to express them.
c) Happily, poltroons are thin on the ground in the Siren’s cockeyed caravan.

gobsmackedprotean said...

Why, thank you kindly, Yojimboen.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Not as off-topic as you might atfirst imagine: Tuesday Weld Day

Noel Vera said...

Unlike the dislike of Carey Mulligan in the other thread (which I understand but can't bring myself to share), the nonlove for Kiera Knightly has me in a tizzy--so I"m not crazy after all!

On the other hand it's a pity Cronenberg's latest seems to be a disappointment. I'll watch it, but hoping against hope.

I hope you see more Panahi, Siren; he can be a lot of fun: Offside, The Mirror, Crimson Gold and more, all worth watching.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

Not that I would ever wish for anything to disrupt your classic-movie-coverage, but I am totally digging these new-movie reviews. Part of me wants you to do this more often.

The Siren said...

Goran, what a lovely thing to say, and it's much appreciated. I have a couple more up my sleeve (probably) and then it's back to b&w for the future, but I just wanted to see if I could do it. Glad you say the answer's "yes."

Harry K. said...

To chime in late, I just saw A Dangerous Method at the New Orleans Film Festival, and wanted my agreement with your opinion, ma'am, on record. Not to put too fine a point on it, Cronenberg has made a low quality film. Though, yes, I think Keira Knightley deserves some of the credit, I think that the script is also a major offender. I don't think I have ever heard more on the nose dialogue in a film outside of the straight to video action market.