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NYFF 2017: “Wonder Wheel”

In its 55th edition, each showing at the New York Film Festival opens with a rapidly edited montage of clips that takes us back to the festival’s very first year, 1963. The visual bobsled ride down memory lane is both exhilarating and illuminating.

The titles in that inaugural year included Luis Bunuel’s “The Exterminating Angel,” Robert Bresson’s “The Trial of Joan of Arc,” Roman Polanski’s “Knife in the Water,” Yasujiro Ozu’s “Autumn Afternoon,” Joseph Losey’s “The Servant,” Adolfas Mekas’ “Hallelujah the Hills,” Alain Resnais’ “Muriel,” Chris Marker’s “Le Joli Mai,” Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Magnet of Doom” and Masaki Kobayashi’s “Harakiri.”

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As that partial list should indicate, the NYFF from its inception was a celebration of both international cinematic modernism and auteurist cinema, as codified in the previous decade by critics who would lead the French New Wave. (Interestingly, the 1963 slate contained no films by Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Chabrol or their fellow polemicists-turned-auteurs.) In the decades since, those fundamental coordinates have retained their influence even as cinema itself has changed in numerous ways. We’re now guided not by ‘50s/’60s modernist precepts but by their conceptual grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

As for auteurism, it remains a key value. Yet looking at the 1963 roster given above, it’s striking how many of the films and their makers are renowned even now, an impressive testament to the NYFF’s success as a tastemaker and evaluator of cinematic art over the years. It is course impossible to know how much of the 2017 Main Slate will still be familiar and considered important come 2072. The current crop as chosen by the festival’s selection committee, though, seems to illustrate both current strengths and weaknesses in the auteur idea’s evolution.

One strength is simply the durability of the essential model of European auteurism. This year, “Faces Places,” a whimsical collaboration between 89-year-old Agnes Varda and 33-year-old French artist (and Elvis Costello lookalike) J.R., demonstrated a delightful thread of continuity between Parisian cinematic sensibilities of the ‘60s (it references Varda’s “Cleo from 5 to 7,” from 1961) and today’s. As for non-French European films, Sweden’s “The Square,” this year’s Palme d’Or winner from Cannes, may fall a bit short of being a total masterpiece, but its smart, formally adventurous skewering of the Stockholm art scene easily solidifies director Ruben Ostlund’s reputation as one of contemporary cinema’s most interesting auteurs.

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On the American front, I thought the most impressive films in the auteur tradition were all by younger filmmakers making their first appearance in the Main Slate. At the festival’s end, the single best film I saw in four weeks of attending press screenings remained Chloe Zhao’s stunning sophomore feature “The Rider” (described in my NYFF preview), shot on the Pine Ridge native reservation in South Dakota. (Alas, U.S. filmgoers will have to wait a while for this masterpiece; it’s an April 2018 release from Sony Classics.) Though I had major reservations about “The Florida Project,” one of the festival’s most lauded films, its thematic risk-taking and stylistic distinction justifiably furthered “Tangerine” director Sean Baker’s claim on the title of auteur. And actress Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” a droll and flavorful coming-of-age tale set mostly in Sacramento, established her striking gifts as both director and writer.

As for the downside: The central weakness in the auteur idea was always the possibility that the filmmaker’s name would come to outweigh the value of any individual film. (“Auteur, to be sure,” Andre Bazin once wrote, “but of what?”) Ironically, that very problem seemed to loom over the festival’s three biggest titles by established American auteurs, which occupied its three most prestigious slots. All three films, as noted in my previous festival report, were made by Amazon Studios, which is currently under the amazingly auteur-centric regime of filmmaking head Ted Hope. Yet even more than Richard Linklater’s festival opener, “Last Flag Flying” (see my previous report), Todd Haynes’ Centerpiece, “Wonderstruck,” seemed like a lame screenplay that got made because of its director’s name. And got into the NYFF for the same reason. Honestly, had this tedious, bifurcated period drama, which displays little of the brilliance of Haynes’ best work, been shown to the festival’s selection committee with “Joe Blow” in place of “Todd Haynes” in the credits, I can’t imagine it would have gotten anywhere near the NYFF.

As for Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel,” I don’t regard it as nearly as disappointing as the Linklater or Haynes films, even if its status as middling late-period Woody Allen is hardly cause for excitement even in the snootier precincts of the Upper West Side. Like the later-Allen film it most resembles, “Blue Jasmine,” it seems constructed mainly as a vehicle for a lead actress, in a role that that’s yet another variation on Tennessee Williams’ Blanche Dubois. The actress this time is Kate Winslet, and if the film wins her an Oscar, history will have reason to remember it; if not, it will to attract little notice as it slips into Allen’s overstuffed back catalogue.

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Set in a playfully cartoonish vision of Coney Island in the 1950s, the comedy-drama at first seems like it will center on pretty Carolina (Juno Temple), who comes to the amusement park to ask for shelter from her long-estranged father, carousel operator Humpty (Jim Belushi). Carolina married very young to a mobster and now knows too much, so she’s being pursued by his cronies. That dad would agree to take his daughter in and let her stay indefinitely is, given the proximity of the mob and potential dangers to all of his family, just one of the unbelievable elements you have to accept in a tale as fanciful as this.

The tale’s dramatic center, though, turns out to be Humpty’s current wife, Ginny (Winslet). A waitress, she’s got a pyromaniac young son from a previous marriage that also left her with a load of guilt: she loved the guy but destroyed him emotionally when she cheated on him. Now in a loveless marriage to Humpty, Ginny begins an affair with a hunky NYU graduate student who’s working as a summer lifeguard (Justin Timberlake), a romance that’s only one of the things that sets her on a collision course with both Carolina and Humpty.

The emotional temperature surrounding Ginny continues to mount, giving Winslet a succession of near-hysterical blow-outs to negotiate. While some of the writing may be contrived and artificial, as always in Allen, the actress uses it to her advantage, creating a tense, near-volcanic portrait of female desperation. Timberlake, Belushi and Temple are also very good, demonstrating again Allen’s skills (as both writer and director) with actors. In all, the film proved far more agreeable than recent Allen offerings including “Irrational Man” and “Café Society,” which struck me as absolutely torturous.

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Finally, though, the most memorable thing about “Wonder Wheel” may be the lush, picturesque look created by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Santo Loquasto. I’m not sure why we need a Coney Island that looks like Bertolucci’s “The Conformist,” but somehow it works, providing a level of visual interest that fascinates even when the dramatic interest lags.

To end this report on an upbeat auteurist note: When I first saw the festival’s Main Slate announced, one of the titles I most regretted not seeing was Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed,” which got great reviews when it premiered at Toronto. Yet it turns out the film wasn’t turned down by New York; its producers withheld it while negotiating a sale. That sale (to A24) having been finally made, the NYFF gave it a showing. I’m not sure why the festival didn’t announce it to the press or provide a press screening, but the public screening—followed by a great Q&A with Schrader—was one of festival’s highlights for me. Anchored by a terrific performance from Ethan Hawke as an emotionally and spiritually distraught Protestant minister, the film advances themes that have long been of concern to Schrader, as well as reflecting the (freely admitted) influence of such films as Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” and Bergman’s “Winter Light.” An important and moving work by a master filmmaker, “First Reformed” will go into release next April.

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