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NYFF 2019: The Wild Goose Lake, Vitalina Varela, Liberté, Beanplole

I told the legendary writer and teacher Philip Lopate I thought Diao Yinan’s “The Wild Goose Lake” had something of Eisenstein about it, the percussive directionality and suggestiveness of each edit, the way violence happened by implication because a cut is made from a violent instrument to a blood stain. He laughed at me and said Sergei Eisenstein might disagree with my police work. 

That’s the atmosphere of the New York Film Festival. Legends everywhere, myths and authors who have been famous since before you were born mingling in the Walter Reade Theatre. Lopate’s is a name I’d heard since I was a teenager and here was the magnanimous fellow not just willing but excited to talk about the gaggle of critical darlings he’d seen leading up to the big opening night premiere of Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” People are here because they love movies to the point of mania. This is our life, and NYFF press screenings are somewhere between a college class and a hungover religious service. No one sleeps enough, no one eats enough, we pour coffee down our gullets, and we watch more movies in a given week than a physician would recommend. 

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There are things I won’t forget about “The Wild Goose Lake”: A midnight boat ride fraught with erotic tension, a brawl on the floor of a hotel basement, an umbrella used as a samurai sword and unleashing a torrent of blood when through its intended victim. It’s a film of sensual tension wrung from its cinematic touchstones (like Bi Gan’s similarly exciting and empty “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” it’s got a lot of movies on its mind and little else). It’s got gangsters and cigarette wielding molls trying to nudge them to safety without losing their heads in the process and it’s thrilling while it’s on. When it’s over, you’ll remember colors and textures, blood and other fluids spilled, but the point will vanish and maybe that was the point. Movies now don’t always fight to stay forever in your psyche, they just want you for a quick swapping of sensations; their thrills for your attention and then they’re on to the next festival, the next group of critics, the next guy who’ll give them the time of day.

One of the first films I ever saw at NYFF was Pedro Costa’s “Horse Money,” and during its opening scenes, I was sure I was watching a masterpiece. The film eventually broke its own spell in the third act but I’ll never forget the feeling of seeing something genuinely new transpiring for what felt like a group of likeminded lunatics tucked into one corner of New York. 

Costa is back this year with “Vitalina Varela,” a film named for its lead actress, also present, like much of the crew in “Horse Money.” Here she plays a version of herself, a widow traveling from the Portuguese incorporated Cape Verde to Portugal proper after the death of her husband. She misses his funeral but arrives in time to scold the men who knew him and to reconnect with a priest (Ventura) who she knows from her past.

Like a goodly sum of the films chosen to play NYFF (even those not selected to play the experimental Projections sidebar) rhythm and mood is the name of the game here. Those on Costa’s wavelength will enjoy being slowly pulled along on the film’s nocturnal narcosis. Costa and returning photographer Leonardo Simões craft stark, striking compositions in academy ratio. The shocking contrast between the deep darkness around the edge of the frame and the blinding colors of clothing or the whites of Varela’s eyes make the film appear nearly neon. Varela and Ventura trade rueful monologues about death and god, about the things they were promised as Varela’s house, built by her neglectful husband, falls to rubble around her. The film’s view of mourning while all around you Gods and shelters disintegrate will haunt you long after the film crawls to its closing image of hope. Costa knows all too well that hope is fleeting and desolation is permanent. 

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Costa is an important festival fixture for reasons beyond his immense talent and unforgettable digital imagery. Yes “Vitalina Varela” has some of the festival’s most striking tableaux (a woman on her roof during a windstorm, a church with a dirt floor lit by a scorned sun) but Costa is also endemic of the direction much of world cinema has taken. His deep images, his deliberately confrontational shot lengths, his non-professional cast, his fascination in mixing theology and anthropology; he's aware that they can’t be meaningfully separated. This is practically its own school of filmmaking. 

Steve McQueen, Carlos Reygadas, Cristian Mungiu, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and more seem to have emerged fully formed in Costa's wake, pitting innocents against an absent god and a harshly lit digital landscape. The career of the polarizing Albert Serra, certainly, seems unthinkable without the runway Costa built for him. Serra has made himself no shortage of enemies with his very public pontifications about the function of art cinema, and he has a habit of repeating himself at Q&A’s almost in the manner of a motivational speaker. It’s easy to laugh at Serra as he goes out of his way to parody himself and the idea of an arthouse director at every turn, but it’s harder to argue with the results. If I could help myself I’d never read or listen to another word the man said, but a movie as awe-inspiring as “Liberté” begs to be reckoned with, one way or another. 

I knew nothing about going in and if you want go in blind as I did, just know I divined its purpose minutes in but stayed anyway, floored, amused and impressed in equal measure. “Liberté” opens on an evening 1774 with a group of exiled libertines trying to sell their philosophy to, and beg protection of, the famed German Duc de Walchen (queer icon Helmut Berger, the only ‘name’ in the cast). The film will act as a sort of mutual audition, the libertines and the Duke sizing each other’s fantasies up trying to see if they’re a good match for one another. Thematically, anyway. The actual action is a two-hour-and-change orgy in a dimly, but carefully, lit woods. The explicitness gets old about 20 minutes in, which I gathered from many of my colleagues was when most folks checked out, and so the point of the movie lies beyond the act of witnessing men and women having historically outré congress away from polite society. On that score the film is like a murky b-side to Miklos Jancso’s “Private Vices, Public Virtues” or a modern update of Pasolini’s “Salo” with a bit of the joy thrown back in. Regardless it’s like very little made today. I suspect that with a hefty budget and a forgiving producer Robert Mapplethorpe would have made a movie exactly like this, down to the exacting photography and lighting scheme. In fact if I had to describe it in a sentence I’d say it was a liberal adaptation of his famous photograph “Man in Polyester Suit,” which someone, (Luc Sante maybe?) once described as a parody of contemporary fashion advertisements.

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Serra’s operating on a parodic level at some depth: here are a a bunch of college educated critics and rich patrons whose lives led us to the sight of powdered aristocrats peeing on each other. Indeed our participation is integral to the ‘success’ of the piece. There were 20 or so walk-outs during the sparsely attended press screening, which was just enough that the sound of the door opening and closing for disgusted viewers became as much a part of the sound design of the movie as the incessant chirping of crickets and the gentle moaning of orgy. Thus the spirit of John Cage, another gay maverick, lingers over everything, his daringly sarcastic “4’33”” invoked in the mingling of intentional and unintentional silences. It was a joy working out what acts drove people to the door. There is no way to simply recommend the film, it’s too full of carefully photographed labia and foreskin, but it is a great work of art of this I’m sure. I entered into something of a trance when the copulations began, one that lifted the moment I breathed fresh air on the other side. If that doesn’t make for a good movie ... 

Kino Lorber acquired “Beanpole” just before the screenings began, so although I didn’t know a thing about it, I knew it had to be something special. Its director Kantemir Balagov was born in 1991, so the kid had better be talented or else the distributors were begging for another Xavier Dolan to start antagonizing seasoned critics with his mere presence. Well the two have a few things in common, including a real head of steam aesthetically. The second “Beanpole” started I knew I was watching one of those guys who knew his form like the back of his hand. This guy hadn’t just studied the greats, he might be one. Like Dolan, he’s got a young man’s worldview. He knows the world is capable of truly bottomless depravity, but he hasn’t yet divined its shape. “Beanpole” refers to the nickname granted a nurse named Iya (Viktoria Miroschnichenko) discharged from the Army in '40s Leningrad as the war is waning. She’s raising her friend Masha’s (Vasilisa Perelygina) son as her own in between long shifts at the hospital, until the day tragedy strikes. It’s a rule in punishing arthouse that when an adorable innocent baby is introduced in the first act it must be killed needlessly before too long. The film is replete with rookie ‘mistakes’ like this. There’s a symbolic fainting spell, a symbolic nosebleed, and an equally real and symbolic loss of virginity. If Balagov could close his Chekhov a minute he might make a great storyteller because in the particulars he’s quite good. It’s the big picture that trips him up. 

“Beanpole”’s story doesn’t actually start until Masha comes home from the war, having gotten “revenge” for the killing of the father of her child. When she comes home and discovers her child is dead too, she takes it in stride, having formulated a plan on which her body won’t let her follow through. She reasons that as long as she can just have another baby she can start to heal the wounds left by the war, internally and externally (a huge scar cuts across her belly). And as her friend Beanpole was supposed to keep her baby safe it stands to reason she owes Masha a kid one way or the other. Balagov has a marrow deep sense of color (a twirling green dress and a smear of green paint won’t leave my memory) and his compositions, even/especially when on the steadicam, are unreasonably stirring. He knows he’s got great actors fitted with great characters, and that would be enough even without his portentous tropes. Miroschnichenko and Perelygina are astonishing in their debut film roles, superlative, best of the year performances as innocent monsters, and they’re surrounded by a rogue’s gallery of twisted, depressed visages that look to have been culled from a Bela Tarr set, all up to the task of filling Balagov’s world with misery and smothered hope. 

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"Beanpole" is an incredibly strong and deeply felt work that will make you feel positively miserable--what are you waiting for? Great art is never depressing, as Roger Ebert liked to say, and though there’s only about a half-dozen laughs between the four movies above, I am grateful I took them all in. The marathon of sad Chinese gangsters, stern-eyed widows, joyless libertines, and war-scarred orphans weighs on you while it unfolds but when it’s over, the euphoria only great movies provide sets in and won’t relent. 

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