I’ll never forget the first time I saw a Michael Haneke film in a theater. The film was Funny Games, an unsparing critique of movie violence in the form of a sadistic home invasion thriller. It was shown in front of a huge audience at the Miami Film Festival, which functions a lot like the New York Film Festival in that only a select two dozen or so films are chosen and screened at the Gusman Center, a venue with a seating capacity of well over 1,500. After spending much of the film watching two young men torture a bourgeois family held captive in a lakehouse, there’s a moment when it appears that the tables have finally turned—as thriller conventions dictate—and the audience let out a burst of applause, relieved that this unbearable tension had been relieved. Then, just as the applause died down, Haneke completely pulls out the rug, and the audience gasped in unison, as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room.
Watching Haneke’s new movie Hidden in front of another packed house on Monday, I was again reminded of the frightening control he can wield over a collective audience’s emotions. I won’t even hint at the Funny Games-esque moment that rocked this particular crowd, but there’s definitely a palpable feeling of dread that never lets up from the opening shot. Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, both terrific, star as a married couple who are terrorized by a series of videotapes planted on their front porch: The first couple of tapes are just static shots of the outside of their apartment, but subsequent tapes slowly reveal the sender’s agenda, which is tied in some way to Auteuil’s past. On a deeper level, Haneke tries to reach for political allegory on the French-Algerian War, but the film functions best as a perfectly calibrated thriller, perhaps his most accessible to date. Without giving anything away, I advise those who do see it to look closely at the final shot: Haneke, perverse fuck that he is, buries a critical piece of information that the vast majority of people I talked to afterwards missed entirely. If you saw the film and want to know what’s there, email me at email@example.com.
For brevity’s sake, I won’t say much about The Notorious Bettie Page, a biopic from director Mary Harron, whose underrated adaptation of American Psycho had me hoping for more than she delivers here. Which isn’t to say that the film is unaccomplished: Shot mostly in B&W and celebrating the life of a half-witted, scandalized dreamer, Bettie Page recalls Ed Wood, and it’s nearly as entertaining. Gretchen Mol has never impressed me before, but she’s always looked like a movie star from 50 years ago and her vacancy seems right for Page’s lovable naivety. But there’s really nothing to her story: Her career (and the film) ends with such a shrug that I’d have forgiven Harron if she had just made something up.
Still, the morning screening of Bettie Page was good enough to end a two-day losing streak and set up one of the best days I’ve ever had at this festival, starting with Hidden and continuing with two other impeccably executed (and similarly chilly) films: Patrice Chereau’s Gabrielle and Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy For Lady Vengeance. I’ve never been terribly impressed by Chereau in the past—though I haven’t seen Those Who Love Me Can Take The Train, which seems to be everyone’s favorite—but Gabrielle, based on Joseph Conrad’s short story The Return, is a perfectly realized turn-of-the-century chamber drama, set in these immaculate drawing rooms where the walls seem to be closing in like a noose. The premise is very simple: A wealthy couple, known for throwing elegant society parties, have a marriage based solely on appearances, which seems a happy enough situation for the man (Pascal Greggory), who sees emotion as a kind of vulgarity. All that changes when his wife (Isabelle Huppert) leaves him a note confessing her passion for another man, but returns to Greggory all the same. Both parties soon discover that they can hurt each other, and the film becomes a bravura exercise in shifting power dynamics. Never thought I’d see anyone who could out-ice Isabelle Huppert, but Greggory gives his level best.
Not to be outdone, Korea’s Park Chan-wook, who’s having a breakthrough year in the states with the release of three features (JSA: Joint Security Area, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, and Oldboy), brings the pain in Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, which confirms his reputation as the king of the mega-revenge film. Some have called Lady Vengeance a response to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill—both about wronged women who resurface after years of confinement (Uma Thurman in a coma, Park’s heroine in jail) to enact an elaborate and bloody revenge plot—but they’re really just kissing cousins. While not as over-the-top baroque as Park’s Oldboy, Lady Vengence has been plotted and stylized within an inch of its life, yet he has enough control over his effects that it’s tremendously entertaining. The last two reels, especially, offer plenty of fodder for discussions of victims’ rights and capital punishment while keeping your jaw on the floor.
Biopics may be my least favorite sub-genre—or, at least, the one that lures filmmakers into the most pitfalls. The scope of anyone’s life is never neat enough to tuck into a narrative box, and filling in a great person’s backstory usually banalizes more than it illuminates. My favorite biopics find some other angle: Off the top of my head, Topsy Turvy looks at Gilbert & Sullivan through the narrow frame of the staging of a single musical; 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould parses out concise impressions of the man and his music; and the recent Last Days captures the spirit of Kurt Cobain’s death without even naming names. Walk The Line, a competent but disposable Johnny Cash bio, seeks to eradicate the dark mysteries that made the Man In Black such a compelling figure. With that voice from the depths of Hell, Cash’s presence always seemed larger-than-life, but the film brings him back down to earth; Cash here just seems like another weak-willed pill-popper with daddy issues. He’s well-played by Joaquin Phoenix, who uses his own impressively deep vocals on the soundtrack, though I still think it’s a mistake to try to mimic such an inimitable voice. The real standout here is Reese Witherspoon’s June Carter, the ultimate country professional whose cheeriness both complements the troubled Cash and veils some heartbreak of her own. Their scenes together, in private and on stage, are undoubtedly the highlight of the film and should have been its focal point.
Recent years have produced several new hotspots of world cinema—Taiwan, Iran, Thailand, et al.—but Romania definitely hasn’t been one of them, so it’s fair to say that Cristi Pulu’s The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu has taken a somewhat miraculous (and richly deserved) road to prominence. First screened as a Cannes sidebar, it was so roundly praised that some felt it outpaced anything in Competition; now, the film has a slot in Toronto and the prestigious New York Film Festival, and it has an American distributor in the increasingly adventurous Tartan Films. Of course, Tartan will now have to figure out how to market a morbid two-and-a-half hour black comedy about a man’s deteriorating journey through the Romanian health care system, but bless them for trying. Basically, the poor sap of the title is doomed anyway, suffering from terminal conditions in the brain and the liver, but even after an ambulance arrives (about 40 minutes in real time), he gets shuffled from one hospital to the next by doctors who are too apathetic and arrogant to treat him. In other words, Mr. Lazarescu is like the anti-E.R., and its grim humor stings: Imagine if your local hospital was run by the Teamsters Union and you get the idea.
The last person in the world who I thought could deliver the yucks would be Alexsandr Sokurov, whose relatively playful breakthrough Russian Ark was the exception to a career devoted to arch, static, snail-paced (and often gorgeous) films like Mother And Son, Father And Son, and Moloch. But lo and behold, Sokurov’s The Sun—the third in a trilogy on “ultimate power” dictators like Stalin (Taurus) and Hitler (Moloch)—finds plenty of culture-clash comedy in Emperor Hirohito’s surrender after WWII. Brilliantly played by Issey Ogata, Hirohito is portrayed as a kind of tragic fool, a man who has to go through the humbling process of renouncing his status as a deity in order to concede to General MacArthur. Sokurov confines much of the drama to stuffy chamber rooms without a view, which helps to underline the myopia that affects many world leaders who choose to wage war. On those few powerful occasions when the camera ventures out into the razed city outside, Sokurov shoots the wreckage in a haunted gray haze that’s more ghostly than apocalyptic. This may be my favorite of his films, and certainly the most entertaining.
“Wassup Rocker!” has become a popular greeting for my friends and I all week, in homage to Larry Clark’s hilariously dopey new film Wassup Rockers, which is about as in tune with today’s kid as its title suggests. (Also in this year’s fest is a movie called Sorry, Haters, which has become our second most popular catchphrase.) What begins as standard (albeit unusually clunky) Clark—shirtless 14-year-old boys getting into trouble, in this case skate-punk Latinos from South Central—quickly turns into a bad ‘80s sex comedy. Initially, it’s hard to know what Clark was intending here: Could the movie really be this dumb or is it all a big juvenile joke? Though he occasionally takes an ill-advised stab at pathos—not to mention those long, numbing scenes of skateboard stunts—I think it’s pretty clear that Clark wants us to laugh at the stereotypes. Things get agreeably wacky once boys take an odyssey to Beverly Hills, where they’re confronted by sexy schoolgirls, sneering preppie boyfriends in Miami Vice-era duds, a Clint Eastwood-type with an itchy trigger finger, and a psychotic Janice Dickinson luring one of the boys into the hot tub.
Please tell me you were kidding with this one, Larry. For your sake and mine.