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NYFF 2014: “Eden,” “Horse Money” Use Fest to Build Stateside Buzz

Despite the arrival of newer and more capacious film festivals in Gotham and elsewhere since its founding 52 years ago, the New York Film Festival remains the pre-eminent gateway for foreign films entering the U.S. market. This year there are some notable omissions from the festival’s slate of foreign-language titles including Cannes laureates “Winter Sleep” by Nuri Bilge Ceylan and “Leviathan” by Sergey Zvagintsev, and Berlin Golden Bear winner “Black Coal, Thin Ice” by Diao Yinan, exclusions which mean there are no films in the festival from, respectively, Turkey, Russia and China, which adds to the previously noted impression of a greater Eurocentric focus than in other years.

Yet the selective nature and relatively small size of the festival’s main slate means that such omissions are all but inevitable. And of the foreign films that are included this year, some arrive without U.S. distributors and thus are likely to be seeable only on the festival circuit (although a lucky a few sometimes get picked up by distributors in New York). Others, including the two considered here, will be headed into American art houses in the coming months.

Coming out of Mia Hansen-Love’s “Eden,” I expressed surprise to a friend that the French film had acquired U.S. distribution. Not that it is a bad film at all. But at a time when the box office for foreign-language films continues its steady decline, it would seem a distributor would need to see something truly exceptional in a film to take a gamble on it; and while “Eden” is capably made and enjoyable to watch, I wouldn’t call it an exceptional piece of cinema. My friend replied that he saw a different logic at work: rather than being given a typical art-house release, he suggested, “Eden” will have an accompanying soundtrack and be marketed less as an art film than as a music film.

Two words explain why that might work: Daft Punk. The French musical duo are now at the height of their international popularity, and they appear in “Eden,” which dramatizes the emergence of the scene they grew out of with a story that follows a fictional DJ from his fledgling spins in the early ‘90s through the peaking and collapse of his career more than 15 years later. Hansen-Love co-wrote the film with her brother Sven, who had such a career himself and whose collaboration no doubt helps give “Eden” an authenticity that appears both meticulous and thoroughgoing: the clubs, the music, the fanzines and radio shows, the patios and fashions all exactingly recreate the Paris of two decades ago.

For fans into this era of French techno and its assorted variants, the film surely offers a treasure trove of delights. And indeed it might be that “Eden” can be considered most successful–even remarkable–as a kind of semi-documentary about an important but seldom dramatized slice of pop-music history.

The film’s other great virtue is Hansen-Love’s direction. While its fluid visual style sometimes recalls “Cold Water” and other films by her husband, Olivier Assayas, the filmmaker’s confidence and skill are distinctively her own. She’s one of those directors with an un-showy, unerring sense of where to place the camera, which here is most notably employed in large club scenes and which makes the film a constant pleasure visually.

Its weaknesses mainly stem from having a long first part and short second part, with the former playing as an evocative but sometimes monotonous and excessively long music-scene chronicle that’s centered on a surprisingly bland protagonist. Paul (Félix de Givry) seems a nice chap and he goes through the usual relationship ups-and-downs as his DJ career ascends and even goes international (there’s a sequence where he comes to New York and DJs at P.S.1). But aside from a few scenes where Paul and circle are stirred by a friend’s suicide, the tale’s first part is strikingly unemotional. Among other missed dramatic opportunities, it doesn’t begin to explore the relationship between Paul and his DJ partner.

The tale’s second part, though, partly compensates for the deficits of what has come before. Here it’s as if the film shifts from being a faux-doc to an actual drama, one that contemplates the point when, in a person’s mid-30s, the dreams of his teens and early 20s become unsustainable and a painful change of direction is necessitated. This bittersweet juncture is beautifully captured and it gives the film an aptly elegiac ending.

With its stellar soundtrack and guest stars that include Greta Gerwig, Brady Corbet, Golshifteh Farahani and Arsinée Khanjian, “Eden” has beaucoup de hipness cachet. We’ll see if that’s enough to get young American moviegoers and music fans past their general aversion to subtitled films. If so, it will be cause for celebration.

While “Horse Money” by Portuguese director Pedro Costa will likely be released (by Cinema Guild) next spring, no one should expect to it compete with whatever foreign crowd-pleaser the Weinstein Company happens to be promoting at the time. Costa is a darling of many critics and festivals for reasons that strike me as mostly dubious: his films feature heavily aestheticized surfaces lacquered over fashionable political subjects and attitudes. Like the rock band that only you and 12 other people like, he preaches to a like-minded coterie. Even in the diminished world of art-house cinema, his commercial prospects can barely be considered marginal.

In reviewing his sixth feature at Locarno, where it won the Best Director trophy, The Hollywood Reporter predicted that it “will enrapture some while leaving others dangling in frustrated limbo.” That’s a pretty good description of the kind of audience-dividing director Costa is, even in festival situations. It also handily summarizes my own double-edged reaction to the film, a mix of rapture and frustration.

The latter begins with the fact that I had little idea what was going on in it. (This is called “post-narrative” cinema, folks.) Apparently played by non-actors, mostly blacks who originated in a former Portuguese African colony, Costa’s characters move and out of dingy factories and hospitals, talking of things (travel, death) that obviously have more meaning to them than they did to me. They seem poor, weary, beleaguered, unhappy.

Viewers who know Costa’s past work will understand more about this film’s intent than newcomers. Like his three previous films, “Horse Money” takes place in the Lisbon shantytown of Fountainhas, many of whose poor residents come from Cabo Verde, which gained its independence in the mid’-70s due to a revolution in Portugal. There are many cryptic references to these events in the dialogue. The film’s main character is played by an aged black man named Ventura, who has appeared in previous Costa films.

I have no idea how Costa constructs his scripts, or even if he uses a script, but it appears that many of the actors are narrating their own stories, at least in part. This, as well as the people’s faces and roughhewn settings, gives the film a documentary-like feeling of authenticity (like the images of New York tenement photographer Jacob Riis that are used as a prologue), even if their meanings remain blurry to anyone not familiar with the specific historical and sociopolitical context.

Costa has been accused of obscurantism, and I think there’s merit to the charge. Yet the power of his imagistic procession is undeniable, even enrapturing. Somewhere between Rembrandt and “Eraserhead,” dominated by shades of brown and gray, the film’s pristine HD cinematography (co-credited to Costa and Leonardo Simoes) conjures a dark night-world of shadows, hulking forms and sculpted faces that’s as visually alluring as it is psychologically resonant. Watching it, though my doubts about the story’s opaqueness remained, I felt myself being swayed into the Costa camp.

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