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NYFF 2019: Oh Mercy!, Sibyl, Saturday Fiction, The Irishman

The 57th New York Film Festival will forever be known as the place where Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” had its world premiere, an event so major that the press screening was held at the much larger Alice Tully Hall rather than the usual screening room at the Walter Reade. Perhaps the amount of star power that graced the Q&A stage after the film was too powerful to be shoehorned into the smaller venue; De Niro, Scorsese, Pacino and Pesci almost seemed larger than life as they discussed the film. The room sizzled with the excitement of critics from all over the country, none of whom seemed to care that the de-aging CGI process made Robert De Niro look like an angrier version of Wallace from Wallace and Gromit.

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Back at the Walter Reade, the normal flow of press screenings proceeded as usual, unveiling the festival’s Main Slate and a few entries from other sections. There were movies by several filmmakers whose work has appeared in prior years. For example, the 55th NYFF presented director Arnaud Desplechin’s “Ismael’s Ghosts” and this year he’s back with “Oh Mercy!”. Like “Airplane!” and “Top Secret!”, “Oh Mercy!” has the punctuation mark we former AT&T employees referred to as a “bang” in its title. The film also has a bang in its opening minutes, an explosion caused by arson. It’s one of the crimes that befall the director’s hometown of Roubaix, France. One senses that Desplechin returned out of a sense of duty, much like his Algerian-born lead character, Daoud (Roschdy Zem) does. “All that remains is misery,” Daoud says of the once-vibrant town.

Roubaix has indeed fallen on hard times. The residents, mostly immigrants, are in various stages of desperation and poverty. Using their anxiety and the town’s deterioration as a backdrop, Desplechin delivers a standard-issue police procedural based on a true crime case from 2002. It’s so standard-issue there’s even a partnership between the gruff, world-weary police Chief Daoud and the earnest yet inexperienced rookie Louis (Antoine Reinartz). There’s also an overabundance of investigations in town, a runaway teenager, insurance fraud and assault among them. But the aforementioned intentional fire unexpectedly comes to the forefront when it appears to have been used as a cover-up for the brutal murder of an elderly woman. The star witness in the arson case, Claude (Léa Seydoux) is able to finger the men who allegedly set the blaze, but she and her live-in girlfriend Marie (Sara Forestier) may have more to do with the cover-up than she lets on.  

“I always know who’s innocent and who’s guilty,” Daoud says. He thinks Claude and Marie are the killers despite their not having any beef with their neighbor. Perhaps the duo some kind of Leopold and Loeb/The Honeymoon Killers-style lethal partnership. The provided answers come in a series of excruciatingly slow interrogation scenes that play like “Law and Order: SVU” minus the sensationalism and the show’s famous transitional noise. It devolves into a very dull slog, which is a shame because when “Oh Mercy!” focuses on Daoud and his relationship to Roubaix, it does so with a melancholy grace that underscores the sadness of a once beloved town slowly sinking into the abyss. 

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By comparison, Justine Triet’s “Sibyl” is far less dull, equally French but not necessarily better. At its core, this is a film about addictions, be they sexual, drug-related or emotional. Wrapped around that is a story about a nosy shrink interfering with a film being made in a remote location. At first, it’s a tad difficult to tell what is real, what is fiction and what is flashback, but Triet’s rhythms eventually become familiar enough for us to make distinctions. Sibyl (Virginie Efira) is a psychiatrist who has decided to give up her practice to return to the selfish art of writing fiction books. Her understanding husband is on board but her own shrink thinks she’s making a bad decision. Throughout the film, we learn that Sibyl has impulsive tendencies that may border on compulsion, which adds a minor level of suspenseful uncertainty to her actions.

Despite her authorial plans, Sibyl decides to hold on to a client or two, including a young boy with whom she uses board games as a bartering for information tool. Unexpectedly, she takes on one more client, Margot (Adèle Exarchopoulos, who starred in “Blue is the Warmest Color” with “Oh Mercy!”’s Seydoux). Margot is an ingénue who has been impregnated by famous actor Igor Maleski (Gaspard Ulliel). She calls Sibyl in an extreme state of duress and earns her sympathy—or is it her curiosity? Margot reminds Sibyl of the loose cannon she apparently once was, and each of Margot’s salacious details serves as both therapy and fodder to fill the pages of Sibyl’s fiction novel. The story ultimately leads to the volcanic island where Margot and Igor are shooting a film for Igor’s girlfriend Mikaela Sanders (“Toni Erdmann”’s Sandra Hüller).

Unfortunately—or perhaps somewhat fortunately—“Sibyl” plays like a parody of a French movie. Make a checklist of every stereotypical thing you’d find in a French film and you’d hit all your checkmarks. It’s got pretentious dialogue, extensive softcore sex scenes, impulsive, sensual women spinning wildly out of control, stoic yet handsome men, playful, inappropriate music and a loony, comically explosive character straight out of Francis Veber’s playbook. As that character, Hüller is fantastic—she almost saves the film with her manic energy and her frantic desire to finish her vision by any means necessary. Having to depend on an unfaithful boyfriend and his volatile lover as her leads wreaks havoc on her sense of German efficiency. The result is the film’s most entertaining element.

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Jumping from France to China, Lou Ye’s “Saturday Fiction” also deals with volatile actors and a bit of obsession, but this is a complex spy movie set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai just before and during World War II. To simply call this an espionage thriller would be a bit of a disservice; it’s also a love story where acting is employed as a most deceptive art form. Shot in gorgeous though often bleak black and white, “Saturday Fiction” reunited me with Gong Li, an actress I first saw in the 1995 Opening Night NYFF feature, “Shanghai Triad.” Gong plays Jean Yu, a famous actress whose playwright lover has written a play for her to star in called “Saturday Fiction.” The title, of course, will earn some irony before fade out, as the film primarily covers the week in December, 1941 leading up to a climax that takes place the Saturday before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Since the joys of “Saturday Fiction” lay in deciphering the often confusing details of the plot, I'll say no more about the details. Instead, I’ll talk about how heart-stopping it is to see Gong Li with an arsenal of firepower at her disposal. This very enjoyable movie ramps up to a bullet-ridden finale that’s filled with equal amounts emotional distress and flying bullets. Writer Ma Yingli fills the script with juicy roles for the actors, so when the last reel carnage kicks in, there’s a real sense of urgency, loss, and betrayal.

Speaking of urgency, loss, and betrayal: “The Irishman” is full of all three, supplemented by an almost suffocating air of mortality. Despite the focus on its imperfect (though often effective) de-aging process, this is an old man’s lament of a film. It’s a meditation on outliving one’s usefulness, and not even the unreliable narrative can erase that sad fact. Pacino and Pesci stand out, with the former bending his Screamin’ Al routine into an effective take on Jimmy Hoffa and the latter impeccably using a calm demeanor as a far more frightening tool than any of his prior Pesci-style violent outbreaks. De Niro carries the overwhelming weight of lamentation like the pro he is, but Anna Paquin is given nothing to do but scowl at the camera as if she were channeling Grumpy Cat. Scorsese’s 209-minute runtime is ultimately too much, but still well worth seeing. A masterpiece it is not, however.

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