Whenever I sit down to watch a movie at The New York Film Festival (something I’ve been looking forward to for the last full calendar year), I’ve noticed that it’s incredibly difficult to turn off my brain to coincidence. I suppose it’s part of the job. NYFF is actually comparatively light on movies compared to gauntlets like Toronto or Cannes, and yet there are still over 50 fascinating films to choose from; an embarrassment by any measure. The press screenings are thrown at critics in ways that seem so random that there must be some secret order. Part 3 of a six-hour saga must have something to do with a ponderous revisionist western, right? The search for a theme can frequently lead me too far away from the films themselves, but there’s no shaking the commonality. There are ideas that appear in film after film like love letters you thought you’d thrown away suddenly falling out of the back of a notebook.
It’s precisely that feeling, the choice between remembering and forgetting, that ties together these two main slate offerings, Miguel Gomes’ trifurcated “Arabian Nights” (covered in part by the formidable Ben Kenigsberg at Cannes last May) and Thomas Bidegain’s “Les Cowboys." One is about the false comfort and inevitable bitterness of memory, the other about the inestimable value and many uses of the same thing. A cultural memory still being written binds the two tales of a family and a country torn apart by tragedy. One is massive, the other small. One is funny and free, the other closed off and humorless. One is about the beauty of the simplest parts of culture and their mythic continuity with a past only accessible through ritual, the other is terrified of all of that. The bad news first, eh?
If you know Thomas Bidegain, it’s probably as the scribe of most of Jacques Audiard’s work, but he finally makes his directorial debut with ”Les Cowboys.” As its name lamely and facilely suggests, this is an update of John Ford’s western “The Searchers” but hews much closer to Paul Schrader’s porn-centered tribute “Hardcore” than the genuine article. At a kind of annual western/rodeo-themed county fair in one of the most beautiful parts of France, a man loses his daughter. A day passes and the truth is revealed: she’s left town with her Muslim boyfriend, and has no intention of coming back. So begins a decades-long scouring of Europe and the Middle East for any shred of evidence of the long-missing Kelly. It first consumes the father’s life and then his son’s, who picks up where he left off after seeing the events of 9/11 on TV. The film volleys back and forth between points of view before ultimately deciding that not having one is more to its taste.
It’s rather telling when a screenwriter/director decides that the way around an unsympathetic character is either death or marriage to a sympathetic one. Not even the Levi’s-ad cinematography can disguise the ugliness at the film’s core with relation to its clueless protagonists (it never does). The film condemns revenge in a roundabout sort of way, but not without the help of hideous Muslim stereotypes, a literal white savior, and a bout of Stockholm syndrome that of course turns into romance. The unavoidable truth is that, behind all the narrative subterfuge, writer Noé Debré and Bidegain have nothing to say. The film has to tie itself in knots that would shame a tantric masseuse to get to its supposedly powerful conclusion, as Bidegain passes a thousand things more interesting than the plot. A documentary about Americana-obsessed French cowboy culture would have been fascinating, and he’s clearly interested in it, as those sections are the strongest. Such a choice might have excused the too-pretty photography, anyway.
In his review of Truffaut’s “Mississippi Mermaid," Stanley Kauffmann wrote of the French director’s relation to the auteur theory: “One tenet … holds that material is less important than its cinema treatment, thus these directors have often taken stock material, like American thrillers, in order to prove that film art can be made out of the film’s 'own.' Sometimes the transmutation succeeds; more often, the result is only a combination of smugness and camp.” There is no better way to describe “Les Cowboys," an arthouse sham that will make you reconsider other misfires that have used the war-on-terror as a backdrop, like Brian De Palma’s “Redacted” and Bruno Dumont’s “Flandres."
Miguel Gomes’ “Arabian Nights” has a completely different relationship to the past, while still being fundamentally compelled by its sweet auspices. It was instructive to see the World Cinema Foundation’s excellent restoration of Filipino director Lino Brocka’s should-be-a-classic “Insiang” right after “Arabian Nights." “Insiang,” a neorealist plea for compassion dressed as a torrid melodrama, allows the inhospitable living conditions of the people they describe to seep in around the main action. Brocka couldn’t point a camera at a starving child, too poor to afford clothes, and place the words, “This is what the government has to answer for,” on-screen in bold type. He had to let facts stroll by his fiction or risk looking like a dissident at a time when president Ferdinand Marcos could have had him killed like so many of his other opponents. Miguel Gomes is under no such restrictions. The Portuguese government will probably do nothing to him for calling them incapable of social justice, as he does at the start of each of the three parts of “Arabian Nights." This leads to an interesting question at the heart of the daring and dazzling project: Can artists be said to represent a people? If that’s the case, do they have a responsibility to do so through their art?
Gomes has always answered “yes” to that question, but not without a little sideways glance and a grin. He’s Portugal’s premiere Jean-Luc Godard enthusiast, a man who points his camera like a telescope observing a parade. Here is the commemoration of an historic event. Here a song and dance only known to the residents of one village. “Arabian Nights” finds him in the meta-tastic mode of his breakthrough feature “Our Beloved Month of August." It is comprised of a dozen vignettes based around the economic crisis in Portugal (specifically from 2013-2014) and how it affected the citizenry.
Form and tone seem to be the guiding principle behind the separation of the film into its disparate parts. “Volume 1: The Restless One," true to its name, is texturally omnivorous, introducing the structural conceit of the film after a very funny intro in which the crew play themselves. Gomes wears many masks here. The opening mixes his existential crisis (he says he has gone impotent as a director, an idea that will appear again and again throughout the three parts) with the story of a dwindling wasp colony and a strike at a ship yard. The interplay of image and sound and the meshing of the three stories directly recalls Godard’s early veering into non-fiction, 1968’s “A Film Like Any Other." He manages, however, to demonstrate an aesthetic tenderness that the Swiss legend was in the process of abandoning at that time. “Volume 1” continues to weave together the gnostic and the personal, the cinematic and the dully humane, the historic and the present, fiction and non-fiction, with little apparent regard for the shape it takes.
That, unfortunately, will prove a deal-breaker for a lot of people (as may his over-reliance on a handful of fourth-wall breaking devices). The parts don’t have clean endings, so viewers will naturally want to know what comes next; to see how Parts 2 and 3 will speak to Part 1. This presents a slight problem. “Volume 2: The Desolate One” adds new ideas and modes to the mix, but does not expressly comment on the events of “Volume 1.” “Volume 3: The Enchanted One” abandons the promises of both for an audaciously unhurried detour into a non-narrative cul-de-sac. The solution, strange as it may sound, is to watch all three in a row. The ending sequence, one of the best you’ll see all year, has power because it follows a 370-minute tour of a nation bleeding to death. This scene consists of a long walk with a major, yet still slightly mysterious character in “Volume 3," accompanied by The Langley Schools Music Project’s cover of Klaatu’s “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.” That sounds hopelessly random, but it’s unexpectedly and powerfully cathartic. The long minute Gomes grants you to exhale after his little epic really only works if you’ve had the whole six hours to build to it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. “Volume 1’s” pleasures are in the way Gomes lets you know that he’s behind the camera. The film’s biggest laugh belongs solely to him, as he sits next to his co-writer, growing aware that he’s being filmed, and eventually running away from his own movie. The crew rather touchingly gives chase. It’s a game, sure, but Gomes plays with all his heart. This soon gives way to the framing device, of Scheherazade on an island of women, dreaming up stories to tell her husband the king to keep him from beheading her for the fabled 1,001 nights. Here the film, moored in paradise, is most redolent of Gomes’ last triumph, 2012’s “Tabu”, but it only stays a moment before diving into realizations of Scheherazade stories. “Volume 1” is taken with a sarcastic punk rock humor that works about 50% of the time and co-mingles news items and the logic of fables. “Volume 2: The Desolate One,” Portugal’s submission for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, is the verist, an overtly Buñuelian phase. First we spend time with an outlaw who has unexpectedly become a hero during his time on the lam. Then it’s off to a surreal trial where every testimony accidentally indicts someone new, each party (from a genie to a talking cow to 10 Chinese courtesans) miraculously appearing in the courtroom while Gomes pretends they’ve been there all along. Finally we follow the fortune of a dog passed from one poor tenement resident to another in search of stability. “Volume 3” checks back in on Scheherazade, who, it becomes clear is meant to be the personification of Portugal, in all her doomed glory. The film ends with a documentary on a song bird competition that consumes the lives of many men. Several of them have become obsessed with capturing the song of a generation of birds who died in a tragic accident.
Look closely and you can see that every one of these is a not-so-thinly veiled accusation, a purposeful rendering of a bunch of news items related only in that they happened unfairly to an impoverished class unable to change their fortune. The metaphors aren’t hard to parse, so the question is: Does this smorgasbord form a coherent whole worth a quarter of your day? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. To return to the question I posed earlier, if artists like Gomes (or Sergei Loznitsa or Aleksei Fedorchenko or Jafar Panahi) won’t shoot films documenting the human cost of greed and oppression in their home countries, foreign audiences will never glimpse what life in these cultures looks like, what their value systems have become, what they’re afraid of, and what they live with day in and day out. Artistically the film justifies itself through routine displays of Gomes’ rhythms and imagination. “Arabian Nights” is a hybrid of about a dozen forms, most importantly that of the song cycle. Motifs appear and reappear constantly, buttressing the new chapters with an ever strengthening thematic identity. "Volume 1" in particular is like a road being paved and driven upon at once, with text and subtext commenting on and redefining almost every image moments after they’ve occurred. This can become blissfully insane, like the case of the whale who swallowed a mermaid, a man’s endoscopy taking place in a giant stomach, a judge who can speak the language of a rooster, or the arson with a fondness for emoji. I realized during these bonkers little tangents that Gomes wanted me to look for coincidences in this madness, because they make everything richer.
If this all sounds like too much to keep track of, you’re getting at the dilemma that led to the project in the first place. Gomes and his writers looked at the headlines a few times too many and saw things that made their blood run cold. The government was pushing culture underground, making ancient ritual, language, art and the people who practiced them extinct. Like the songbird catchers, Gomes tried to quickly capture the music of Portugal before it faded, no how obscure the tune. And that’s not just metaphor: the film is bursting with robust music, each representative of the subset of civilization in which the film’s pieces take place. Gomes used to subtitle all of his early shorts “a musical comedy” and here, he has placed a microphone to the heart of Portuguese history like a stethoscope and played back the vibrant and varied songs he heard, intermingled with the music of his coming of age in the Portugal that only he knows. What bolder and more defiantly optimistic a response to tyranny than to release a full-throated song about dozens of esoteric heritages that it would silence that lasts for six hours? This ultimately is what makes “Arabian Nights” the can’t-miss film of 2015. It is a record of a human history told through the alternately sarcastic, sincere and poetic voice of an uncompromisingly weird artist. Can we ask for more? Even if you don’t fall head over heels in love with “Arabian Nights," I doubt very much that you’ll forget it.