Though this year’s New York Film Festival officially opened with Joel Coen’s The Tragedy Of MacBeth, the first film screened for the press was actually Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta. Its pulpy take on the forbidden love between two nuns—one a possibly false prophet, the other a coarse commoner fresh off the Tuscan streets—made it an appropriate crowd-pleasing mood-setter for the return of in-person screenings. Verhoeven takes a refreshingly broad, quasi-blasphemous approach to the life of 17th-century nun Sister Benedetta Carlini, who was investigated on charges of falsifying religious visions as well as sapphism. The film begins with a young Benedetta using her holy influence to drop a mess of bird shit on a rude bandit determined to rob her family. Later scenes have the patina of Monty Python And The Holy Grail, complete with dirt-covered peasants and corpse carts, and they feature dialogue exchanges more indebted to saucy double entendres than The Good Book. Anyone worried that Verhoeven has gone stuffy and austere can relax. Benedetta’s stately appearance quickly gives way to his exaggerated, sexualized style.
Virginie Efira portrays the eponymous nun, who begins to see alternately welcoming and disturbing visions of Jesus Christ right around the time the young Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) begs to be accepted into the nunnery to escape her violent father. The two take a liking to each other almost immediately, and their suppressed yearning culminates with a passionate affair not long after Benedetta awakens from a nightmare that leaves her with a stigmata, i.e., scars corresponding to Christ’s crucifixion. As Benedetta gains a following for speaking the word of God, Abbess Felicita (Charlotte Rampling), along with a skeptical Sister (Louise Chevillotte), harbor doubts that spiral into a violent investigation that garners the attention of the Nuncio (Lambert Wilson, slimy and impatient as ever) and scandalizes the Church.
Verhoeven’s sneering, cynical attitude toward the Church carries most of the comedy and conflict. He emphasizes the institution’s capitalist underpinnings to demonstrate their spiritual hypocrisy: Every prospective nun (or their parents) is expected to fork over a considerable sum for entry into the abbey, and the priests view the recently deceased as opportunities for professional advancement. Efira alternates between playing Benedetta as sincere savior and a sly trickster almost from scene to scene, with the film deliberately not tipping its hat in one direction or the other. Verhoeven doesn’t take the piss out of faith, necessarily. In fact, he retains most of his sympathy for Benedetta and Felicita, who grapple with the uncertainty of their convictions, as well as Bartolomea, whose loose principles render her more perceptive of her peers’ follies but also more alienated from their struggle. He reserves most of his cheeky ire for organizations and elites, who both have one foot firmly in the secular world.
Verhoeven’s violent, goofy sensibility delightfully takes hold in the film’s third act, but Benedetta partly suffers from a languid pace and general tedium. For as much as they’re driving the marketing, the salacious sex scenes are few and far between; though longtime Verhoeven collaborator Gerard Soeteman (who was hired to adapt the Judith C. Brown source material) took his name off the credits because of the focus on sexuality, the film’s ultimately far more interested in inner-abbey politics. There’s just enough passion and violence to intrigue Verhoeven heads and possibly the masses (save for some staunch Catholics, of course), but it’s still a little tattered to rank among this subversive director’s best, like Robocop, Starship Troopers, or his recent Elle.
A character study of a washed-up porn star who returns home after years in the not-quite-Hollywood hills, Red Rocket continues Florida Project director Sean Baker’s successful streak of capturing marginalized American life without undue preciousness or condescension. The Texas City community in Red Rocket, portrayed by an ensemble of non-professional (or previously un-utilized) actors, represent the hardscrabble, “economically anxious” demographic covered ad nauseum by New York Times profiles over the past half-decade. Yet Baker depicts their lives honestly and without an ounce of moral judgment; they never become one-dimensional political symbols.
When Mikey (Simon Rex) comes to crash at the home of his estranged wife (Bree Elrod) and mother-in-law (Brenda Deiss), the small town gets turned sideways by his noxious presence. Mikey initially seems like he wants to fly straight, but when his adult film career poses an insurmountable obstacle for every employer he meets, he starts selling pot to strippers and roughnecks. Just when his rough family unit stabilizes, he falls for a 17-year-old Donut Hole employee named Strawberry (Suzanna Son), who he sees as his ticket out of the small town and back on porn-paved easy streak. A fairly uneasy watch before Mikey and Strawberry start making eyes at each other, Red Rocket really ratchets up the discomfort once their technically legal, undoubtedly toxic relationship gets underway. Baker’s point is clear: Mikey might use everyone he meets, but he doesn’t fool anyone for very long.
Red Rocket’s hyper-confident filmmaking style, steeped in verisimilitude, impresses on its own merits but also lends itself to charges of provocation. Some will likely see the film as an example of poverty fetishization, and others will inevitably take issue with Baker’s disinterest in crafting a punitive narrative for his narcissistic con man of a protagonist. But the filmmaker never paints his subjects in simplistic terms. He leaves open the possibility that Strawberry is cannier than she seems, using Mikey’s lust to get out of Texas just like him. Mikey’s nine lives might not be up any time soon, but his cycle of embedding himself with people and then washing out after their meager trust evaporates seems endless. Baker sets Red Rocket during the lead up to the 2016 election (thankfully relegated to TV background noise) and draws a frankly unnecessary connection between Mikey and Trump: People like Mikey are evergreen beings and have leeched off the vulnerable for eons.
Baker once again coaxes lived-in performances from anyone who passes through the frame, but he elicits a true comic miracle from Rex, whose turn as the motor-mouthed Mikey feels fully formed from minute one. He renders him a caricature with a pulse, a Lothario meathead half a step ahead of the rabble, someone to simultaneously mock, sympathize with, and despise. Baker immerses us in the character’s subjective perspective, while appropriately keeping one foot outside of his head so that audiences can come to their own conclusions about Mikey. There are no easy answers here.
After taking a detour to suburban New York with Louder Than Bombs and genre city with Thelma, Joachim Trier returns to the milieu of his first two features with The Worst Person In The World, which follows restless late-twentysomething Julie (Renate Reinsve, a dead ringer for Dakota Johnson) as she juggles multiple career changes, personal insecurity, and two love interests: underground comic book artist Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), who represents stability, and relaxed barista Elvind (Herbert Nordrum), who represents a roll of the dice. Told in 12 chapters plus a prologue and epilogue, Worst Person chronicles a couple years in the lives of these three characters, charting their desires and crises with tenderness and sensitivity, as well as plenty of self-deprecating snark.
Trier’s films tend to exude a strong literary sensibility, as though they were adaptations of unpublished or long-lost realist novels, sporting multiple points of view and flashy structural shifts. Worst Person thrillingly feels like the apex of this style, with Trier and regular co-writer Eskil Vogt using every second of the film’s two-hour running time to immerse viewers in the emotional minutiae of their characters’ lives. We get every element of Trier’s French New Wave-meets-Desplechin technique here: fluid chronologies; abundant use of voiceover, sometimes narrating in-progress scenes; and rapid-fire montage sequences that incorporate archival footage and different visual media. Worst Person exerts an intoxicating formal confidence that elevates its “early-adulthood angst” premise to impressive heights.
Sometimes, Worst Person is hobbled by Trier’s tendency to showboat. A self-consciously bravado scene in which time stands still while Julie makes an important decision aims for transcendent but lands on corny. And a drug-trip sequence is an abject embarrassment. Similarly, the writer-director’s sentimentality can often be a liability, leaning on melodrama instead of trusting his characters’ emotional lives will reach viewers organically. What saves Worst Person are the performers, especially Reinsve, in all her maddeningly impatient ambition and lust for life, and Danielsen Lie, a long-time Trier player who possibly delivers the best performance of his career. The two communicate the banality and excitement of their characters’ lives. It’s likely that most viewers will find something uncomfortably relatable in Worst Person. For me, it was a late monologue about the existential distress of committing oneself to consuming and creating art. Trier plainly argues there’s many depths to be mined even in the most “ordinary” of lives.
Gaspar Noé’s signature immersive-to-the-point-of-nausea style, as featured in Enter The Void and Climax, has always been his calling card. Unfortunately, his subject matter tends towards the tediously sensational and insipidly juvenile. His latest film, Vortex, might be his most “adult” yet, given that it follows an elderly couple, played by renowned giallo director Dario Argento and Mother And The Whore actress Françoise Lebrun, who struggle when one begins to succumb to dementia. Noé employs split screen for his take on Michael Haneke’s Amour to track both the Mother and the Father, as they’re credited, and it’s somewhat impressive how well he controls the viewer’s attention depending on the demands of each scene. The Father’s relative inaction dictates the eye to drift to the Mother’s side, and vice versa. The performances are also strong, particularly the one delivered by Lebrun, who’s extremely convincing as someone tragically losing their mind—an impressive feat, especially when you consider, per Noé, she’s “the total opposite of how you see her in the film.”
He might have eased up on the dizzying psychedelica and torrid degradation. Noé marinates in the suffering of his characters. Worse, he does so in a completely monotonous fashion. This time, his subject matter is sympathetic, but it’s frequently undermined by his technique as well as his pet indulgences. By the time one side of the screen features Mother using her hand to stir feces in a toilet bowl and the other captures their troubled adult son (Alex Lutz) using drugs in plain sight of his child, any façade of “maturity” completely evaporates. It’s still the same Noé all the way down the line.