This year at the New York Film Festival, quite a few features explored the complexity of loneliness and the need for familial and romantic love. Set against lush backgrounds full of grass, trees, and various greenery, these films transported us to a quieter place and time—a place for pondering relationships and wondering about one’s place in the world.
One such film challenges audiences with its silence. "Here," the latest feature from Flemish director Bas Devos, is a peaceful, meditative story about a young Romanian construction worker living in Brussels. His name is Stefan (Stefan Gota), but we rarely hear his name, or any names, spoken out loud.
We follow Stefan as he goes about his daily life, focusing on all the little moments. We see him clean out his fridge multiple times, putting the contents in a pot for homemade soup that he shares with coworkers, friends, and anyone he runs into. He’s planning on leaving town soon, but fate has other plans for him.
He eventually meets Shuxiu (Liyo Gong), a Chinese-Belgian woman who studies moss for a living. Stefan is quick to join Shuxiu, happy to observe the moss and spend time with her. Though all the feelings between the two are unspoken, we glean enough from the tranquil time they spend together.
While "Here" was a story of new love, Alice Rohrwacher’s latest feature is about love lost. "La Chimera" follows Arthur (Josh O’Connor), a surly, heartbroken young Brit archaeologist living a nomadic life with his friendly group of grave robbers. Arthur has a special ability to find tombs with Etruscan antiques buried along with the bodies. Still mourning his lost love, Beniamina (Yle Vianello), he makes time for her mother, Flora (Isabella Rossellini), who also can’t seem to let her go. But everything starts to change when he meets Italia (Carol Duarte), a beautiful young mother taking singing lessons from Flora.
Even as their flirtation blossoms, Arthur can’t shake his brooding ways, wandering the countryside brooding and smoking. Most people call him “The Englishman,” a sore thumb sticking out in a sea of easy smiles and good-natured jokes. But as Italia softens him, Arthur begins to wonder about the possibility of his happiness. Raiding tombs gives him momentary pleasure, but the spoils never last, and his heartache only seems to function as armor. But he, much like Flora, holds on tight to the memory of Beniamina. Rohrwacher uses magical realism to craft a film that’s just as playful as it is heartbreaking.
Familial love can be just as devastating as the romantic kind. Annie Baker’s directorial debut "Janet Planet" focuses on the complicated bond between a free-spirited acupuncturist and her depressed daughter living in rural Western Massachusetts. Janet (Julianne Nicholson) is a single mother raising Lacy (Zoe Ziegler) the best she can. When Lacy decides to leave summer camp, Janet promptly arrives with her boyfriend Wayne (Will Patton) to pick her up. But things aren’t much better once she’s home, as Lacy clashes with the moody Wayne, and Janet has to keep smoothing things over.
Lacy is precocious, headstrong, and loves being near her mother. Some nights, she even insists they sleep together, holding hands. Janet worries that she’s messing up with Lacy somehow, but she continues to live by her own rules as a revolving door of friends and lovers enter and leave their lives. And yet, so much of the tension between Lacy and Janet is unspoken, as Lacy is a child and hasn’t quite figured out how to disagree with her mother.
We follow Lacy as she observes Janet, unsure of what truths she’s able to glean. Their mutual devotion to each other grounds the story without giving the audience easy answers. We don’t know who Lacy will be when she grows up or how Janet has affected her. That’s not for us to know. But we can see the love between the two, even as their hearts ache. Time will transform their relationship, but right now, Lacy gets to live in her mother’s world, in all its beauty and complications.