NYFF ’14: The Wonders, ’71, Goodbye to Language
Now entering its 52nd year, the New York Film Festival tends to benefit and suffer from its fixed position as last stop on the fall festival circuit. The obvious pro would be that the discerning selection committee, headed up by Kent Jones, is allowed to cherry pick whatever they deem to be the best of the year; the con, at least for those keeping up with film criticism, is that the majority of these titles arrive pre-packaged with their own neat and tidy media narratives. (A year later, I’m still overhearing men debating the virtues of Blue Is The Warmest Color’s sex scenes.) As such, it’s nearly impossible to enter any selection that isn’t a World Premiere without a rigid set of expectations waiting to be confirmed or dashed.
Naturally then, not 20 minutes into The Wonders, my heart sank. Ready and willing to defend Alice Rohrwacher’s cooly received Grand Prix winner, the film was off to a clunky start. A heavy handed juxtaposition between a dying way of life and a “reality” show that charitably props up that very occupation was setting the stage for a cumbersome coming-of-age tale. Gelsomina, the eldest of four daughters to an Italian mother and German father (who converse in French?) in the Etruscan countryside, longs for a respite from her responsibilities. The de facto second in command to her father’s beekeeping enterprise — nevermind her 14 years of age — Gelsomina becomes transfixed by the mythic looking host of “Countryside Wonders,” begging her parents to enter their dilapidated farm in a bid for a cash prize. Thankfully, just as Rohrwacher could drive home this obvious critique of divergent, modern-day cultures, she shifts her focus to another storyline, deepening her exploration of familial dynamics.
Enter Martin, a mute German boy and avid whistler, whom Wolfgang the patriarch takes in to obtain some state funds. As Wolfgang is constantly chided by locals for his inability to land a Y chromosome where it counts, you’d think that Martin’s presence would tip the power scales among the daughters and their father. Just the opposite: his stern favoritism of Gelsomina only intensifies. In one scene that is as superficially goofy as it is revealing, Wolfgang honors a childhood wish of Gelsomina’s no sooner than he reprimands her for her infantile escapism. His desire to create Gelsomina in his image, as an effective heir to his flailing empire, while also wearily recognizing that she will strike out from under is thumb, is where The Wonders gets interesting. At times, it is though she is his daughter and his wife, or at least the mother to her sisters.
While Rohrwacher may get tripped up in narrative staging, her eye is more or less without fault. Hélène Louvart’s cinematography is some of my favorite this year, and not just for its 16mm foundations. Rohrwacher is deliberate in her framing — lingering on a shot when you’re expecting the reverse, meandering from face to face or object to object just long enough to sustain a sense of urgency, always wary of color and composition. Loredana Buscemi’s costume design lends a timeliness to the film, as well as its own texture to the family dynamic: Wolfgang and his wife Angelica may share wears, but there isn’t much else they agree on. Perhaps most impressive is how the film scampers off with a ballsy close that suggests the world ends not in fire, nor ice, but with a whistle. If only Rohrwacher had rolled the dice earlier on.
Maybe I wasn’t paying much mind to its reception out of Berlinale, but ’71 struck me as a film that received an unnecessary resuscitation at Telluride. An action thriller that fancies itself of historical portent, Yann Demange’s debut finds a young English soldier named Gary Hook smack dab in The Troubles of Belfast during the titular year. Playing a macho with soft guts, Jack O’Connell is given considerably less to do here than in his impressive, charismatic turn as a juvenile delinquent in last month’s Starred Up.
At first telegraphing a vague desire for due context, Demange lets the finely choreographed bloodshed cut loose and consume the film as soon as Hook and his compatriots hit the Irish cobblestones. Separated from the Brit pack after a riot breaks out, Hook is left to meander his way back to the barracks through a series of injuries, confrontations with the dirties of birds, and prolonged refuge in the home of the only woman in the film with more than three lines of dialogue.
Punctuated by gimmicks that include freckled-faced, red-headed little militants and war ravaged citizens inexplicably overcome with mercy when it’s time to pull the trigger, ’71 boasts its fair share of transparent conveniences. It works as an action film insofar as I was constantly anticipating when the next bomb was about to blow and who was going to make it out alive, but its suggestion that army men and secret police alike are desperate to do whatever it takes to stay alive is less than revelatory. Eventually, all of the double crossing begins to muddle its barely there politics.
Then, of course, there’s Goodbye to Language, that 3-D masterpiece that provoked “Godard Forever” chants and mid-screening bursts of applause at Cannes. As for me, I fear it will take no fewer than two more viewings to come to an adequate consensus on this nonsensical behemoth. Yes, those cinematographic superimpositions are a marvel to behold, but even that dizzying maneuver is the most straightforward thing happening here.
Any given frame has at least three planes of action unfolding simultaneously — which are not to be confused with dimensions, an infinitely malleable concept to Godard. Take, for instance, the closest thing the film has to a heroine, who, while merely sitting on an armchair and pontificating with her paramour, seems to engage in direct dialogue with the blown-out film playing on the flatscreen behind her. No portion of Goodbye can be taken at face value or on its own terms, because it is constantly interacting with whatever precedes it, shares its space, or spins in its wake.
If there’s one thing I can say for certain, it’s that in pushing and plying the limits of what cinema can be, Goodbye to Language becomes next to impossible to write about, because my grammar and Godard’s are no longer of the same lexicon. But it also seems impossible to deny that Godard desperately wants to provoke us and try our patience in this linguistic exorcism. Consider his hero, who extols Rodain’s “The Thinker” while taking a loud, fussy dump on the toilet. Here, he lectures, we are equals. Well, if Godard says so.