Wonderstruck (NYFF 2017)

Wonderstruck (2017)

Wonderstruck has all the trappings of a sweet and whimsical work of wonder. Based on the novel by Brian Selznick, from a screenplay written by the author himself, Todd Haynes’s film tells the story of two children from two different time periods, finding companionship and freedom in the environs of the Museum of Natural History in New York. In 1927, there is Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a deaf girl who runs away from her New Jersey home to find silent screen idol Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). In 1977, there’s Ben (Oakes Fegley), who runs away from his home in Michigan following his mother’s death. The two stories are told in parallel, drawing comparisons to the situations of the two children, and especially highlighting their shared deafness. Rose was born deaf and her story is presented in black and white, as a sort of homage to silent film (but without any intertitles). Ben is struck deaf  not long after his mother’s death, though he seems to be able to sometimes hear himself, though not others? The pair are also connected to a book called Wonderstruck, a discussion of collecting and the building of museum collections that informs their journeys.

Wonderstruck has so much going for it. There are many excellent concepts: the idea of telling a deaf girl’s story as a silent film, the homage to collecting and museum culture, the connection between people across an expanse of fifty years. So it’s a shame that the film is such a spectacular mess. Wonderstruck manages to squander every single one of its concepts, visual, thematic, and aural, in the service of an ultimately superficial story that fails to hit any of the emotional markers it sets for itself. Ridden with clichés and overly predictable plot turns, it seems to believe that whimsy can replace emotion and that style can paper over a paucity of script that has all the sentimental honesty of a Hallmark card.

The messiness of the film seems to stem from a total lack of regard for basic things like plot structure and character development. There are moments of magical realism – like Ben’s sudden deafness following his discovery of the book – that simply don’t land, because the rest of the film does nothing to reinforce them. Ben’s journey to find his father in 1970s NYC is not only ill-advised, it’s insanely dangerous, and yet the boy seems to have no fear, not even the slightest bit of nervousness of uprooting himself and fleeing to a big city where he spends the first night sleeping in a bus terminal (despite being unable to hear or to understand sign language). Rose’s story fares a bit better, but Haynes’s insistence on filming in 35-negative anamorphic rather than attempting to approximate silent film aspect ratio and style makes the occasional use of silent film techniques incongruous. It’s as though Haynes only wanted to go partway with an interesting concept, and relied on the audience’s good faith without earning it.

In fact, the entirety of Wonderstruck is half-baked. There is not a concept followed through on, not a plot thread that isn’t left hanging, or resolved without fraying other threads beyond repair. The cast is strong, and apparently game, but they’re given little to work with, trying to mine a script for emotion that simply isn’t there. The conclusion – which is telegraphed early and often – is endless exposition meant to be moving. Visually, the film is all over the place, and completely anachronistic to its various time periods. Scenes go on for far too long – no, I do not see a deep emotional impact in watching a little boy walk around NYC in 1977 – and elements are introduced and then discarded with little regard for character or arc. Finally,Wonderstruck is so aggressively twee that it seems willing to beat itself to death with its own mediocre sentimentality.

I’m not quite sure what happened with Wonderstruck. I suspect that allowing Selznick to write the script based on his own book was a major miscalculation, for perhaps he had no ability to cut or streamline his own work. But Haynes is better than this. He’s perfectly capable of constructing a film with aesthetic and thematic depth without sacrificing either. How this particular film fails so abysmally is beyond me – and I’ve been trying to figure it out for some time.

Lady Bird (NYFF 2017)

Lady Bird (NYFF 2017)

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird doesn’t feel like a first film. It’s more mature, more cinematically eloquent than that. Gerwig has already done most jobs in the film industry, including acting and writing and co-directing, so directing her first solo feature is hardly a big jump. But unlike many actors turned directors, there is not even a hint of self-indulgence in her film; not a glimmer of smugness or egotism. She simply tells the story, with intelligence and quirky humor and an awkwardness that can only approximate the mind and emotions of a teenage girl.

Saoirse Ronan is Christine “Lady Bird” MacPherson, a high school senior in Sacramento, where she attends a Catholic high school because, as her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) says, her elder brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) “saw a kid stabbed” in the public school. The film encompasses all of Lady Bird’s senior year, as she shifts identities according to her social desires, spars with her mother and father (Tracy Letts), and hopes to get into a New York college, despite her mother’s constant admonition that they cannot afford to send her out of state. She hangs out with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), finds a tentative romance with Danny (Lucas Hedges), and flirts with social anarchism via Kyle (Timothee Chalamet).

But Lady Bird is more than the sum of its parts. I’ve tried – and failed – to think of another film that so sharply and humorously shows what it’s like to be a teenage girl. Lady Bird’s shifting identities reveal a combination of uncertainty and confidence, a desire to fit in and a desire to stand out. She tells everyone to call her Lady Bird – a nickname she gives herself and that is never explained – because she rejects the idea that her parents should be allowed to name her, and thus identify her. But she seems to have difficulty discovering her own identity, or accepting those parts of her life that are bequeathed to her by her family. Many of her friends and classmates are wealthy, and she dreams of living in the big houses on the “right side of the tracks,” where she goes to Thanksgiving with Danny. Her father’s job is in jeopardy, her mother works double shifts in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital, her brother and his girlfriend graduated from Berkeley but have to work at the grocery, but Lady Bird has ambitions to escape Sacramento for the excitement of New York City. She in love many different ideas, and not quite able to fulfill any of them. She’s not unaware of her family’s circumstances but, as with many children and teenagers, she doesn’t seem to understand just how difficult it is for them to get by.

Class and religion are not the focus of the film, yet they do drive much of the narrative, integrated as they are into the characters’ lives and desires. Lady Bird’s class consciousness is immature as yet, and she flirts with various performative identities as a way of standing out. There are moments of high hilarity and joy, as when she joins the school’s drama club for a Sondheim production, and moments where she’s petty and mean, rejecting good friends in order to be accepted by the cool kids. As basically predictable as these plot points are, Lady Bird transcends them by making them real. Yes, teenage girls really do try on identities in the same way they try on clothes. Yes, they do sometimes drop good friendships in order to find some social acceptance in bad ones. And, yes, they do fall for overly cool boys who are just douchebags. These things happen in real life and Lady Bird treats them with the seriousness and the humor that they demand, weaving them into a complex fabric that makes them an organic part of the characters’ lives.

There is also something so fundamentally believable about these characters. They are fully realized people whose lives we are allowed to watch. Yes, they are sometimes types, but they never clichéd. These are human beings, not symbols, and they live whole and sometimes tragic lives. Drama and comedy go hand in hand; there are moments of cringe-worthy humor and all-too-human meanness. While the film is often uproariously funny, it’s also poignant, and we are never asked to really laugh at the different people who come in and out of Lady Bird’s life. They are people, too. In this, Gerwig is already a mature director with a deep respect for her medium and the characters that permeate it.

The supporting cast here are excellent, but the stand out – the co-star, really – of the film is Laurie Metcalf, who deserves an Oscar and more for her multifaceted performance as Lady Bird’s mother Marion. It’s as much a movie about her as it is about Lady Bird. She’s trying to learn to let go, worried about her daughter’s future and intensely critical of her choices at the same time. She’s an acerbic character, but never shrill, never deliberately vicious, even if she is sometimes a bit cruel. There is one scene in particular nearing the end as the camera dwells on Metcalf’s face as it transforms with a tapestry of conflicting emotions, culminating in one of the most heartbreaking and beautiful moments in the film. I’ve always appreciated Metcalf as a comedienne, and now I truly appreciate her as an actress.

At another time, on a second or third or fourth watch, I’m sure I will be able to find something to criticize about Lady Bird. But right now, having ruminated on this film for a full day, there is little to nitpick. It’s a beautiful film, very funny, and profoundly moving. Gerwig the director can only improve from here, and that’s incredibly exciting.

Call Me By Your Name (NYFF 2017)

Call Me By Your Name (NYFF 2017)

Undoubtedly one of the best films to come to the New York Film Festival this year is Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, a sun-drenched story of first love and loss based on the novel by Andre Aciman. While coming-of-age stories have a tendency to rely on clichés and easy answers, Call Me By Your Name treats a boy’s experience of love with a tenderness and sensuality unseen in many mainstream films, queer and straight alike.

Call Me By Your Name opens with the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer) in northern Italy, where he’s staying and working at a villa owned by Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlberg), his wife Annella (Amira Casar), and their son, pianist Elio (Timothee Chalamet). Over the course of the season, Oliver and Elio develop an intense, occasionally antagonistic relationship that eventually becomes a summer romance. Their relationship grows, but is stymied by their own uncertainties, the difference in their ages, and Elio’s sexual awakening.

Anything that I can say about the plot of Call Me By Your Name would be inadequate, for this is not a film about plot. It’s about emotion, about youth and sexuality and love; about desire, and the confusion, elation, and anger that comes with it. The film focalizes everything through Elio – the camera gazes at Oliver as Elio does, turning the older man’s body into an object of sensual veneration. But the relationship is mixed with a heavy dose of antagonism, as Elio attempts to navigate the growing attraction and confused emotions that it brings. Oliver is a little distant and tends to head off on his own, even as Elio wants to draw closer to him. The pair engage in a tentative dance, punctuated by moments of friendship and deepening respect. Elio is already engaged in a flirtation with a local friend, but his connection with Oliver grows deeper the more time they spend together. The lyricism of the film works in tandem with the eroticism, never crossing over to exploitation or even discomfort. There’s never overt discussion of their relationship, never discussions about homosexuality or bisexuality, or even sexuality in general.  This is a story about first love shorn of clichés and avoiding simplistic solutions to a problem of the characters’ own making.

Hammer and Chalamet are brilliantly matched here – and if there’s any justice in the world, they’d both be nominated for an Oscar. Hammer’s Oliver is slightly aloof, trying to keep Elio at a distance, but constantly circling back to him, fascinated by the young man’s talent and intellect. Yet Oliver remains something of an enigmatic presence, like a fantasy that Elio has made real and will eventually have to give up. Chalamet likewise creates a character relatable and ultimately impenetrable – young, but with a deep intellectual curiosity and confidence. He’s a trifle awkward, not yet grown to manhood – watch the way that Elio struts, or attempts to, or dances, a little disconnected from his own body and not yet in control of it, while Oliver is himself fully embodied. Elio is a shifting force – smug but vulnerable, apparently confident and yet concerned about the way others think of him. Chalamet creates not only a believable character but one that is not always sympathetic, at times a snotty teenager and a vulnerable young man.

Of the supporting cast, Michael Stuhlberg is the standout as Elio’s father, an equally enigmatic – though far more centered – man as his son. Stuhlberg gets the best speech in the entire film, a moving tribute to a father’s love and understanding that forms the film’s moral and emotional core. In a film where answers are neither easy nor always required, this speech catalyzes so many of the emotions that run rampant across the screen, not trying to push them into boxes but rather allowing, encouraging, them to be free and accepted. Stuhlberg delivers his lines with an eloquence and a seriousness that moves and affects without seeking to control.

What all this comes to is that Call Me By Your Name is more than a worthwhile film; it’s a film with something profound to say about love, about desire, and about life itself. There are few works of art that so precisely capture the experience of being young and in love, of the awkwardness and the fear and the absolute joy of desiring and being desired. It deals with what is said and what isn’t said and the space in between. There’s no compartmentalizing, no coming out story, no moral about young love and growing up. It’s a beautiful and emotional story, personal and universal, one with a finite ending and infinite implications.

Un Beau Soleil Interieur (Let The Sun Shine In) (NYFF 2017)

Un Beau Soleil Interieur (Let The Sun Shine In) (2017)

Claire Denis’s latest film Un Beau Soleil Interieur (Let the Sun Shine In) makes the almost unbelievable proposal that Juliette Binoche just cannot find a halfway decent man in all of France. I mean, if she can’t, then there is no hope for anyone else. But this concept runs throughout the film, as Isabelle (Binoche) drifts in and out of relationships with a multitude of sub-par men, from the outright boorish to the inept and childish. The question becomes: are all men in France terrible, or is Isabelle just attracted to terrible men?

And the answer is: both. I’m being facetious, because Un Beau Soleil Interieur is a truly beautiful and realistic film that evades taking itself too seriously while speaking legitimate truths about the female condition. Isabelle attempts to navigate a series of relationships that fill her with a desperation to love, to be loved, and, more nebulously, to be satisfied. The film opens with one of her lovers actually asking (in the midst of rather dull love-making) if it always takes her this long to come. A gross question, to be sure, but one that hits at the heart of this film, which makes Isabelle’s dissatisfaction with all her relationships into an intriguing and multifaceted plot. While she sleeps with a number of men, the most intimate, sensual moments don’t involve sex at all. What Isabelle craves, and what she cannot find but in fleeting instances, is human connection. A brush of the hands, a quick kiss, an embrace, an intimate dance hold more weight for her than do the more mechanical and distant sex scenes.

There is also a healthy dose of humor mixed in to Isabelle’s dissatisfying existence. Her boorish lover Vincent (Xavier Beauvois) is so precise that he instructs the bartender exactly how to serve him whisky and soda, while another lover goes through all kinds of mental gymnastics to avoid committing to her. The humor is rarely at the expense of Isabelle, though -the men are almost uniformly ridiculous, attempting to justify themselves and their relationship with her by philosophy, by moralism, by didactic explanations of her life and her needs that she does not apparently share. Much of Isabelle’s discomfort is because she takes these things to heart, listening to men who either want something from her or want to avoid giving her something. She’s an everywoman, in that sense, angry but also internalizing what is being said by men around her. As they attempt to narrate themselves into her life or form her according to their needs and desires, she becomes unmoored, further removed from herself and her own desires.

Binoche once again proves that she’s one of the finest actresses working today, drawing out the comedy of her character’s situation without sacrificing emotional honesty or making Isabelle ridiculous. There is something refreshing in seeing an actress, and a film, unafraid to show women as they actually are, without histrionics or fabricated drama. Binoche’s co-stars are a shifting roster of terrible men, all of them terrible in their own ways, and all acquitting themselves admirably in their roles (though none stick around for long). The center is always her, bright, desperate, and relatable, longing for love and sabotaging herself in the process.

The final scene of the film indicates a potential future for Isabelle as she extricates herself from some of her more damaging relationships and seeks out happiness within herself. My French is a tad rusty, but I’m fairly positive that “un beau soleil interieur” actually translates to “a beautiful sun within/inside.” This has some significance in light of the way the phrase is used within the film, nearing the end. It acts as an admonition that Isabelle find some kind of sunlight within herself, rather than basking in the reflected glow of other people. But because of who utters it, and in what context, it can be read as another masculine attempt to rewrite Isabelle into his own narrative, to inject his opinions, and himself, into her life. At the same time, Isabelle finally begins to smile, aware of what is happening but also taking the advice to heart. It’s humorous, hopeful, and ambiguous ending.

Un Beau Soleil Interieur will likely be a minor film at NYFF this year, for it has no grandiose performances or “important” statements about the world. It’s a slice of one woman’s life, intensely personal and individual while also speaking truths about modern human relationships. It’s the best kind of art there is: personal and universal.

Un Beau Soleil Interieur (Let the Sun Shine In) is now showing at NYFF 2017.

Madame Hyde (Mrs. Hyde) (NYFF 2017)

Madame Hyde (Mrs. Hyde) (2017)

There have been any number of adaptations of The Strange Case Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde over the years, veering between Freudian analysis and Social Darwinism in the 1931 and 1941 films, to the more subversive versions involving sexual mores and gender-bending in I, Monster and Hammer Studios’ Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. And no wonder: Stevenson’s novel raises questions about human psychosis and monstrosity, the desire to do “evil” in a way that escapes detection or even personal morality. So it’s a reasonable story to inspire Serge Bozon’s Madame Hyde, a story about a science teacher at a technical school who obtains some very strange powers.

Madame Hyde stars Isabelle Huppert as Mrs. Gequil, a timid woman who teaches physics to underperforming students at a technical high school. She’s unable to control her classroom, harassed by students and mocked by other teachers and the principal (Romain Duris, mugging for the camera). The only person who appreciates her at all is her husband Pierre (Jose Garcia), and the only place where she seems to find any solace is her technical laboratory, where she works on unspecified experiments involving electricity. One night, lightning strikes her laboratory and alters Mrs. Gequil forever, providing her with a “spark” that eventually transforms her into a glowing woman of fire. She begins to control her classroom and challenge her students, especially her most problematic pupil Malik (Adda Senani), slowly transforming into the teacher she has always wanted to be.

Madame Hyde is a difficult film, for it shifts wildly in tone and subject and, at times, seems to be trying to make a point without making it in a coherent manner. The ideas behind it are solid enough, though they’ve been done before, but the occasional bouts of wry comedy and absurdism conflict with the serious philosophical underpinnings. What has happened to Mrs. Gequil and how it transforms her isn’t terribly clear, but it’s a lack of clarity that indicates a simultaneous lack of direction beneath it. This isn’t a film that begs to be understood or to challenge the viewer, but that rather seems to be concealing its own lack of coherence through sudden cuts and jumps in narrative. I was willing to go with Madame Hyde for much of its runtime, but at some point I realized that it wasn’t going to provide any solid resolution. There’s certainly some commentary going on here – Mrs. Gequil is faced with a group of capable but impoverished students who remain intellectually unchallenged by their work. All the teachers and officials are white, most of the students Arabic and Algerian and living in housing projects, but if there’s a social commentary at work here, I can’t figure it out. Those elements, so rich in themselves, are never really explored. Instead we have random moments that include charring two dogs, Mrs. Gequil ripping her shirt off, and an extended shot of Mr. Gequil sadly watching his wife nearing the end of the film. What is the goal? What is the point?

Unsurprisingly, Huppert is (literally) luminous, her shifts in personality believable and moving. She commands the screen in every scene, and is quite well matched by Senani’s Malik, who becomes Mrs. Gequil’s biggest challenge, grappling with his evident intellectual curiosity, the limitations brought on by a disability, and his anger at his academic and social situation. One of the best scenes of the film is between the two of them, alone in a lab, as Mrs. Gequil finally learns how to teach her most intelligent and recalcitrant student by delving into a deceptively simple physics problem that she asks him to solve not by theoretics and equations, but by practical logic. The conflict and chemistry between them keeps the film afloat, and stops it from being a total wash. But it’s still not enough.

Madame Hyde has so many good elements that it’s hard to dismiss it out of hand. It doesn’t work; it’s messy and lacks clarity, but there’s still something there at the core, if only Bozon’s script could get at it. It’s a frustrating film, failing to make enough of the undoubted talent of its cast, the depth of its philosophy, and the quirks of its use of adaptation. The film never quite works, yet I still desperately want it to.

Madame Hyde is currently at NYFF 2017.