David Edelstein

David Edelstein

A weeklong electronic journal.
Sept. 29 1999 3:00 AM

David Edelstein

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It's only the second day of this Diary and the movies are already beginning to blur. Two or three a day, plus shorts. Just when you shake off one artist's energetic vision--clearing your palate, as it were--you get hit with another's and another's and another's. Plus there they are in the flesh, talking at you, telling you what they were trying to do, sometimes so charismatically that you get confused between what they said and what they actually put on film.

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Amazing stuff this afternoon: Boys Don't Cry, Kim Peirce's take on the true story of Brandon Teena, the guy who turned out to be a girl and got murdered in rural Nebraska, and the Spike Jonze/Charley Kaufman cosmically absurdist Being John Malkovich, which is at least three-quarters of a classic comedy ...

But I'm still catching up with yesterday. So many pictures, it's easy to relate to Pascal Bonitzer's Rien Sur Robert (Nothing About Robert), which takes off from the real-life anecdote of a French film critic who got into trouble at Cannes for panning a movie he didn't see--Emir Kusturica's Underground (which, coincidentally, appeared in an earlier New York festival, and which I did not see, but did not review either). There's some amusing neurotic-romantic badinage, chiefly from Sandrine Kiberlain as the critic's longtime sort-of girlfriend who tries to pick up other men in his presence and then tells him about the sex--slapstick neurosis. But why must the protagonist (Fabrice Luchini) be such a blurry, unrealized man--in the words of a pompous intellectual (Michel Picoli) "a warped soul, a void, without substance--a critic!" Bonitzer (a former critic) might be working off some loathing for himself and his old colleagues, but great comedies are built around titanic fools, not indecisive flyweights. A speck of a movie.

But more diverting than The Letter, the latest work from "the world's most senior active filmmaker," Manoel de Oliveira, and a sort-of update on the 17th-century French novel La Princesse de Cleves. "Sort of" because the attitudes haven't been updated, only the setting, and Oliveira has made the object of the heroine's illicit desire a Portuguese rock star. Watching the film, I get the sense that Oliveira doesn't like to move around much. There is little wasted energy--little energy of any sort. In fact, the actors appear to be on the verge of nodding off. There's a certain kind of silence that signals "transcendental" cinema: It's supposed to compel you to look beyond the surfaces. But surfaces are what I fixate on. Chiara Mastroianni's enormous black beauty spot. Her simultaneous resemblance to her father, Marcello, and mother, Catherine Deneuve: What a piece of gene-splicing! The rock star's sunglasses and beret. Surfaces. Oliveira's art has become the art of taking away, but I don't think he had anything here to take away from. Truly updated, the novel might have made for an affecting and amusing Princess Diana saga, but this odd mixture of 17th-century histrionics and art-movie catatonia yields nothing.

"What a bore," says one man, walking out before the end.

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"The worst," says his friend.

Someone stomps over to Richard Peña, who heads the selection committee. "This is supposed to be a prestigious festival. Why are you showing this shit?"

Peña takes the criticism graciously, with a shrug.

"Beautiful film, Richard," says someone else, and Peña is visibly buoyed. "Just exquisite."

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"Ninety years old," says Peña. "Can you believe it?"

("No," says Salon's Charles Taylor, later. "He doesn't seem a day over 89.")

I hazard to Peña that it must be hard to say no to a 90-year-old with whom you have a long-standing relationship, but he assures me that "no one has a pass at the New York Film Festival. In fact, we rejected Oliveira's last film."

"It's too bad," says Village Voice critic J. Hoberman, later, "because that last one had interesting stuff. Sometimes they take the wrong movies." Hoberman has been chiding Peña for years for neglecting the French director Claire Denis, going so far as to call her in print the best director in the world never to be invited to the New York Film Festival. This year they invited her Beau Travail, and it's not her best--an extremely elliptical take on Billy Budd as a French legionnaire in Africa that's gorgeous and evocative but finally too imagistic and emotionally diffuse to have much impact.

Peña says he doesn't mind the controversy. "To do a festival where the Village Voice liked everything, I'd think, 'What's going on here?' You want it to be a festival where people talk, people discuss, people challenge. ... I happen to really like Julien Donkey-Boy. There are people in this room who can't stand it, but that's OK, we can talk about it, it raises a lot of issues--it's a debate about the state of cinema."

Shot on grainy digital video, Julien Donkey-Boy, "directed" and "written" (for lack of better terms) by Harmony Korine (Gummo, the script of Kids), comes literally with a seal of approval from the Danish Film Collective Dogma, which imposes a strict "vow of chastity" on its filmmakers: The idea is to get out from under the medium's gimmicks and "lies" and make a movie with existing lighting, no special effects, and lots of other Biblical-type commandments. But Julien Donkey-Boy, the story of a schizophrenic (Ewen Bremner) and his pregnant simpleton of a sister (Chloe Sevigny), is anything but disciplined. It's the result of meandering improvisation, with painfully self-conscious acting and scenes that make the same point over and over. Korine must think that when the director Werner Herzog, playing the sadistic father, berates Julien for five minutes, telling him he's so stupid he should slap his own face, that he's getting at a truth undiluted by art. But where a real writer might have taken the emotion of that scene and modulated it, showing us the layers of anger and self-doubt inside the man, Korine is content to hit the same note the way a child pounds on a table. Blurry images of iceskaters twirling to "O mio Babbino caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, boys wrestling in their underwear, nuns masturbating, an armless man shuffling cards with his feet, a dead baby--it all gets thrown into the pot.

He's boyishly magnetic, this director, and he talks a good movie. Other artists adore him because of his punky defiance of convention--they envy someone who can be so critical of the "elitist" machinery of filmmaking and so "out there" in his storytelling and still get his movies made. (His devoted producer, Cary Woods, promises that Korine has a "studio for life.") Korine told an audience that--rather astoundingly--didn't laugh him off the stage that new technologies will make it possible to give two actors each their own camera and sit them down at a table to improvise. The director, he said, could go to the deli and come back two hours later. Or, one would hope, in this case, not come back at all.