Widows director Steve McQueen kicks off the New York Film Festival with dance and romance

Widows director Steve McQueen kicks off the New York Film Festival with dance and romance
Beginning Photo: New York Film Festival

Every film festival has an identity, even if that identity is “We don’t have an identity!” The New York Film Festival, which runs for about three weeks every autumn—usually from late September to early October—prides itself on being curatorial. Though its lineup usually boasts a couple of exclusive, high-profile premieres (last year, they scored The Irishman; this year, it’s Sofia Coppola’s new movie, On The Rocks), most of its selections are culled from other festivals, including Cannes, Venice, and Telluride. The whole draw of New York is that it offers a carefully pruned program, privileging quality over quantity: You may not love every title that makes up the fest’s main slate, which usually hovers around a lean and manageable 25 films, but it almost always makes sense why something has been included. There is very little filler at this fest.

NYFF, which begins tonight, has followed the lead of just about every film festival in North America and gone primarily virtual for its 2020 edition. Not that the programmers had much of a choice: With theaters still closed in the Tri-State area, the only in-person screenings the festival is hosting this year are at drive-in venues. Otherwise, the public will be watching these movies the same way the press will: from the comfort of their homes, on laptop screens or the televisions connected to them. Yours truly will be doing plenty of that over the next three weeks, though the dispatches won’t be as regular as The A.V. Club’s still-in-progress Toronto coverage. Instead, I’ll be dropping in every few days with first impressions on the movies, hitting some but not all of the ones that make up this year’s typically promising main slate (excluding, of course, what we’ve already covered at TIFF and elsewhere, including Nomadland, City Hall, The Disciple, MLK/FBI, Time, and The Truffle Hunters).

On principle, I don’t normally make time for television at a film festival, no matter how enticing the series in question might be. Binge culture aside, most TV shows are not designed to be watched in one long sitting—and that’s assuming you’re even getting the whole season and not just a handful of episodes, plucked from the beginning or, God forbid, the middle of the running order. (I didn’t even catch the first two installments of Twin Peaks season three—which is, yes, a TV show, nerds—when they premiered at Cannes a few years back.) But I’m going to make an exception to my no-TV policy at this year’s New York Film Festival, whose programmers have acknowledged the increasingly blurred lines between the two mediums by screening three episodes of Steve McQueen’s forthcoming BBC anthology series Small Axe. To be fair, each episode is feature length and self-contained, which makes it possible to approach them as, well, movies.

McQueen has called the series, which follows different characters living in the West Indian community of South London, an attempt to fill in the missing picture of Black British stories from the 20th century. Those stories may be of grand historical significance, or they might be more intimate snapshots of a time and place, which is what McQueen offers in Lovers Rock (Grade: B+), the second episode of the series and the opening night selection of NYFF. This swoony, slender, 68-minute slice of life unfolds over a single Saturday night at a house party in the 1980s, where Black Londoners come to drink, hook up, and dance to a primo selection of soul and reggae. (The title is a reference to a particularly romantic subgenre of the latter.) Entering this cramped but festive space is Martha (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn, in her screen debut), who comes with a friend but ends up hitting it off with a suave stranger (Micheal Ward).

McQueen, director of Shame, 12 Years A Slave, and Widows, has never made a film this loose and joyful. Lovers Rock is almost a hangout movie, trading the muscular, sometimes ostentatious camera moves of his earlier work for a more sensual, roving approach. (The cinematography is by Skate Kitchen D.P. Shabier Kirchner, filling in for the director’s regular man behind the lens, Sean Bobbit). Floating around the party, pausing on various unnamed characters in the orbit of his central lovers-to-maybe-be, McQueen grooves to a mood of escape: Without articulating the idea in words (not that many are spoken in the film), he celebrates this residential nightlife destination as a kind of sanctuary for Black twentysomethings—a space by them, for them, and insulated from the bullshit they encounter outside. Not that McQueen totally drowns the film in utopian vibes. Hostile white faces leer from the street, reminding us and them of that aforementioned bullshit. And the party itself is not without its dangers, from a predatory wannabe playboy to a hotheaded someone from Martha’s past who belligerently barrels in, threatening to throw a wrench into the carefree revelry. (Thrashing around the other guests, he becomes That Guy—the one dude at the party everyone can tell is just looking for trouble.)

Mostly, though, Lovers Rock is a dream, sweet and fleeting. The romance unfolds casually and organically, less through talk than body language. And the film comes to full, ecstatic life on the dance floor. Its centerpiece sequence is a complete airing of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games,” which gradually morphs into a singalong with the euphoric quality of a hymn. (Think the heavenly B-side to Climax’s dance party from hell.) McQueen has zoomed in on a very specific milieu, but he’s also tapped into the universal and suddenly inaccessible joy of an endless night of music and dance, a house party for the ages. You don’t have to know your reggae or have been born 40 years ago to long for the ache of communal fun on which Lovers Rock waxes nostalgic.

Because of its commitment to culling the best of the best, New York is not, generally speaking, the festival you should attend if looking to discover all the newest voices on the vanguard. But some debuts do sometimes get the main-slate invite. This year, that honor was bestowed upon Beginning (Grade: B-), the methodically grim first feature by Georgian writer-director Dea Kulumbegashvili. (Those looking for a chaser after the good vibrations of Lovers Rock will have to wait a couple weeks to down this icy vibe-killer.) Kulumbegashvili’s discipline is clear from the extended opening shot, which depicts from a dispassionate remove a small church hall slowly filled by the congregation and the beginning of a sermon on Abraham—an image that holds for so long that anyone versed in this brand of international art-house severity will begin to feel pinpricks of instinctual unease, right until the moment that, sure enough, someone tosses a couple Molotov cocktails into the doorway.

No one dies, but the church burns down. We learn it’s the worship space of Jehovah’s Witnesses, on mission in a rural corner of Georgia that’s heavily orthodox in its Christianity. Yet the film isn’t overly interested in a clash of denominational values. The attack is a catalyst for the crisis of identity experienced by the minister’s wife, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), whose restlessness expands and mutates when her husband (Rati Oneli) leaves her alone with their child to consult with the elders. I’ve already heard Beginning described as “Dielmanesque,” in reference to Chantal Akerman’s 1975 classic of monotonous domestic routine. But though it shares some thematic fixation with that film, the style of ominously clinical detachment more closely recalls Michael Haneke or one of his disciples of provocation. Gradually, a familiar art-house strategy materializes, as long stretches of placid inactivity are abruptly punctuated by cruel shocks—it’s the opening sequence played out over the whole running time. A subplot involving a decidedly unsympathetic cop leads to an act of violence captured through one of those dispassionate long takes that successfully excise any potential for titillation while also suggesting the coldly unblinking witness of an indifferent Almighty.

This is hardly the first film to match the stifling qualities of holy life with a rigorously controlled aesthetic, heavy on static long takes and passages of almost monasterial quiet. One might grant that discontent is a difficult emotion to dramatize. “I look in the mirror and a stranger looks back,” Yana confesses, her words falling on the deaf ears of her emotionally unavailable spouse. By holding us at a distance from her, emotionally but often spatially too, is Kulumbegashvili replicating Yana’s own sense of dislocation, from herself and her hostile new community and her life of obligation? Beginning is alienating by design, but that doesn’t make it easier to engage with as more than an exercise in meticulously composed despair. Still, those compositions! Kulumbegashvili has a good enough eye to make her coronation at New York, Toronto, and the aborted Cannes seem sensible—and keep this critic interested in how she might apply her prodigiously exacting technique next.

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