Festiville at NYFF: Part 3—Leaving Space for Ambiguity

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In the second week of his Manhattan adventures, Festiville correspondent Isaac Feldberg gains insights into how Ryûsuke Hamaguchi writes, how Joaquin Phoenix acts, and how Hong Sang-soo sees the world. 

In its second week, the 59th New York Film Festival was alive with unusual sights and sounds, but the strangest played out in silence—unless, of course, you had a ticket. 

Manhattanites walking by Damrosch Park on Saturday evening were greeted by the striking visual of a sea of festival-goers wearing headphones that glowed an ambient red. Attendees faced a massive screen, nodded heads, and tapped toes in time to the festival’s most musically explosive selection, which only they could hear. 

This outdoor screening of Todd Haynes’ documentary The Velvet Underground, which explores the band’s pole position within the avant-garde music culture of ‘60s New York, was preceded by a screening of Songs for Drella—a Revivals highlight, directed by Velvet Underground cinematographer Ed Lachman—and followed by a talk with Haynes and Lachman. The after-party, at Jazz at Lincoln Center, brought out a bevy of New York arts-scene royals, including Jim Jarmusch, Sara Driver, Alex Gibney, and Julianne Moore. The Velvet Underground is available on Apple TV+ now. 

While Apple came into the festival strong with its opening night team-up with A24 for Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog continued its festival tour for Netflix, serving as NYFF’s Centerpiece selection. The streamer also premiered Rebecca Hall’s Passing and Tatiana Huezo’s Prayers for the Stolen in the Main Slate, and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter as a Spotlight selection. 

Midway through this year’s in-person NYFF, a critic friend remarked that we were attending “the A24 Film Festival.” The indie-powerhouse distributor was indeed well-represented, also bringing heavy hitters like Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Part II, Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon, and Sean Baker’s Red Rocket to Alice Tully Hall. 

Another critic I spoke to felt that A24 was locked in a festival foot-race with Neon, represented by Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, and Jonas Carpignano’s A Chiara. Neon also brought a buzzy genre title to NYFF and released it in theaters before the fest was through; that would be Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winner, Titane, which I stepped away from the festival to see at the AMC Lincoln Square 13. I noticed no walkouts and one fellow defiantly eating pizza but, then again, no one’s disputing that New Yorkers have stronger stomachs than film cognoscenti gathered along the Lido.

Here’s a round-up of the best screenings and talks I attended, and Letterboxd reactions to the festival’s second week.

The Power of the Dog

Written and directed by Jane Campion, from the novel by Thomas Savage 

On stage at Alice Tully Hall to introduce her first film in twelve years, writer-director Jane Campion praised New York as “the bastion of free speech, and of free press that actually researches,” professing that she brushes her teeth to Michael Barbaro’s New York Times podcast The Daily—despite this putting her a day behind the rest of Australia and New Zealand. 

As Benedict Cumberbatch dashed out to join her in introducing their flinty and ruminative Western, Campion spoke about casting a British actor in the role of a cold-hearted American cowboy: “Americans usually want to play heroes,” she pointedly said, given Cumberbatch’s ongoing role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Outside Alice Tully Hall, where hundreds had queued up for the film’s US premiere, I had spotted a few attendees clutching Doctor Strange posters, hoping for autographs.

For his part, Cumberbatch acknowledged working with Campion deviated from his more commercial roles. “Increasingly at this point in my career, I want to work with people who can elevate the experience of what I have to offer,” he said.

To that effect, the actor left NYFF riding a wave of buzz for his role as the emotionally repressed ranch hand Phil Burbank. “Benedict Cumberbatch is going for that nomination here, as he embraces this haunting and toxic character from beginning to end,” wrote Austin Burke on Letterboxd. “Do not approach this as you would a surface-level Western; this film is much more of a character study”, he added. 

Letterboxd member Sydney, seeing The Power of the Dog at NYFF as her first-ever film festival screening, was lukewarm on it. “The ingredients are all there, but through the entire runtime I never stopped waiting for it to get started”, she wrote. More Festiville reactions for the film are incoming from my colleagues at the BFI London Film Festival. 

C’mon C’mon

Written and directed by Mike Mills 

For his latest ode to caregivers, mutual kindness, and human connection, writer-director Mike Mills enlisted Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix to play a radio journalist, and child actor Woody Norman to co-star as his precocious nephew.

It’s “another tender Mills story defined by rich characterization and plainly put meditations on the captivating and infuriating nuance of life,” according to Luke Hicks. Added Peter Angelinas: “I feel like I just got hugged so hard.” Bryan Sudfield was full of praise for the actors. “I can gush on about Joaquin Phoenix’s work, but newcomer Woody Norman gives one of the best child performances I’ve ever seen. It’s one of my favorite on-screen pairings this year,” he wrote.

“People were like, ‘What was it like working with a kid?’” recalled Mills, on stage at the Alice Tully screening. “And I said, ‘What, do you mean Joaquin?’” By his side, Phoenix cringed. “Did you just come up with that?” the actor asked, laughing, and Mills joked that he’d been workshopping one-liners in the shower. 

Though Norman was stuck in his native England and unable to make the premiere, his disarming turn was hailed by Mills and Phoenix, the latter of whom wore a “Support the Animal Liberation Front” hoodie and wool cap, hiding his face in his hands when not answering questions. Norman was nine when C’mon C’mon was shot. “It was apparent almost immediately that we were dealing with someone highly intelligent,” Phoenix recalled. “He exhibited an intelligence about the character, and [Mills] and I both looked at each other to say he understands what the character is going through in a central way, and even in a way that we don’t.” Mills agreed: “He became the barometer of authenticity when it came to acting.” 

In response to one oddly specific audience question—“Are you really into doorways?”—Mills confessed: “I’m pretty addicted to Ozu,” clarifying that his homages to the Japanese cinema master are mostly unconscious. Phoenix was less generous when tasked with a less probing question (a cautionary tale for anyone planning to be that guy in a Q&A). One young man explained he’d had a dream he’d asked the actor what the secret to good acting was, and that Phoenix had said, ‘Dude, I don’t fuckin’ know! I just act,’ concluding this anecdote by asking, “So can you actually answer: What is the key to good acting?” Phoenix left the stage immediately after retorting, “Sounds like I already did, man!” 

Whatever Phoenix is doing, it’s working for viewers. “I’m of several minds about this flick,” wrote Fran Hoepfner. “It mostly doesn't work, but stays afloat (cloud-level, even) by the strength of the Joaquin Phoenix performance.”

Introduction 

Written and directed by Hong Sang-soo

Hong Sang-soo’s introspective Introduction is about a young man struggling to find his own place in the world amid pressure applied by his parents. It was Hong’s second premiere at the festival; the first, In Front of Your Face, covered in my initial NYFF dispatch.

Introduction screened on a rainy afternoon in downtown Manhattan, and the setting invoked the strange sensation of seeing it secondhand, especially since the filmmaker couldn’t attend in person. Hong worked to bridge that distance with an opening two-minute short he made exclusively for NYFF, consisting of shots from his bedroom window. “It was basically stolen camcorder footage of the minutiae of life—kids playing soccer outside through the window screen; a woman watching them play; the blue sky,” reported EJ Paras on Letterboxd. “He finds the romance of everyday life, and that’s admirable.” 

Paras was full of praise for Introduction too, writing “I was reminded of Good Morning by Ozu a tad—not stylistically, but how thematically both explore this idea of the dangers of ‘small talk’ and the ideological differences that separate generations.”

Introduction runs a scant 66 minutes, an issue for some. “In Hong’s films, fleeting moments and the smallest of gestures can mean so much,” wrote Kevin Doree. “There just aren’t enough of them, here.” More positively, Kristen Yoonsoo Kim wrote that she was “wrecked” by Introduction and called it “deeply underrated, even among Hong fans”.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

Written and directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s romantic anthology film Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy enchanted the NYFF crowd. Telling three stories of fate, coincidence, and imagination, the film continues Hamaguchi’s emergence as a master dramatist. “His worldview may be precision-cut, but the tools with which Hamaguchi presents it are as gentle as a butter knife,” wrote Joshua Ray. “Tectonic plates move under Hamaguchi’s characters but he provides an uncommonly still support at the surface.”

In a post-screening Q&A with Film Comment co-deputy editor Devika Girish, Hamaguchi discussed his influences, especially highlighting the work of French auteur Éric Rohmer, whose novelistic style is so distinctive it’s often simply referred to as “Rohmerian”. When screening his 2018 feature, Asako I & II, in France, Hamaguchi had met Mary Stephen, Rohmer’s editor. “I talked to her about short films, and I learned for Rohmer how it was very important to be making shorts, because it was a great way to reorganize your rhythm toward making features,” he said through a translator; Rohmer’s 1995 Rendezvous in Paris is a similarly structured triptych focused on coincidence and romantic desire.

“Something about working with coincidence allows time to fork, and you’re able to imagine things that may have, could have, or didn’t happen,” Hamaguchi shared. “The way I write is to make the characters talk to each other, and that’s how I learn what they’re thinking and the things they’re desiring. When I’m doing that, I also learn what they can’t say about their desires.”

Jawni Han, also in attendance at the Q&A, reflected upon Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy in relation to two other masters: John Cassavetes and Yasujirō Ozu. “Hamaguchi noted that what makes acting different from lying is that the former is a vehicle for revealing one’s inner truth while the latter basically amounts to putting on a mask,” Han wrote. “His films—perhaps, most apparently in Happy Hour—have this confessional quality that can strip you naked and leave you devastated in a puddle of unfiltered emotions.”

Drive My Car

Directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, written by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe, from a short story by Haruki Murakami 

Hamaguchi’s other NYFF selection, Drive My Car, is Japan’s official submission to the Academy Awards this year. The director’s mesmerizing adaptation of the short story by Haruki Murakami played to a packed house in Walter Reade Theater. I found it immaculately composed, cathartic, and almost unbearably moving; by the time I left Walter Reade late on that Monday night, a light fog had settled over the New York skyline, and the night-time atmosphere seemed alive with hidden possibility.

A masterfully languorous piece about a grief-stricken theatre director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who forms a complex relationship with his chauffeur (Tôko Miura), Drive My Car defies easy categorization; by turns erotic, enigmatic, and pointedly theatrical, it’s one of Hamaguchi’s most ambitious works to date. 
 
“Although it’s three hours long, and on paper (both figuratively and literally) seems like a story that can be much shorter, I wouldn’t remove any scene from the film,” wrote TheFilmShogun. “What I appreciate is the complex emotions that the characters have about the people who have passed away in their lives. They clearly missed the people who are gone, but are angry, confused, and upset with the things they did when they [were] alive.”

That Drive My Car premiered alongside Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy was a particular point of praise from some viewers. “Amazing that the man has two five-star perfect movies at the fest on polar opposite ends of the spectrum—a collection of short stories and a three-hour epic,” wrote Brett Arnold. “Both are equally transfixing and terrific and also almost entirely dialogue-driven. My mom had a Saab 900 Turbo so I was a mark from the start. Beautiful, poignant, moving, all the adjectives.”

Passing

Written and directed by Rebecca Hall, from the novel by Nella Larsen 

Set in the 1920s, Rebecca Hall’s feature directorial debut, Passing, follows two Black women, Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga), able to “pass” as white. Childhood friends, their chance encounter as adults stirs complicated emotions—and places them at odds with their husbands (André Holland and Alexander Skarsgard). 

Based on Nella Larsen's 1929 book, Hall described the source material as an “astonishing piece of literature” in an FLC Luminaries talk. “I read the book really having no sense of what it would do to me and finished it feeling like something had been clarified and illuminated in myself,” she revealed. Hall had a personal connection to the material; her maternal grandfather was Black but passed for white throughout his life, leaving Hall with an ambiguous sense of her own identity. 

The film’s premiere was a suitably star-studded occasion. Thompson wore Rodarte, Negga sported a leather coat from Alexander McQueen, and Hall donned a cut-out dress from Galvan, all in striking black-and-white to reflect their film’s themes and format. “Something that really struck me is the viscera of the book, how sensual it is,” said Thompson, on stage with Hall, Negga, and Holland for a Q&A. “There’s this passage where Irene talks about smelling Clare, this waft of perfume, and it struck me as so deeply sensual.” 

“What I loved so much about your approach is that you left space for ambiguity,” said Thompson, addressing Hall directly. “Oftentimes, people want you to decide exactly what you are and how you feel about something, and I don’t like to do that all the time. The privilege of ambiguity, especially in characters—and as a woman of color, those are so rarefied—we spoke about that, and our conversations haunted me as much as the book.” All the actors were full of praise for Hall’s approach to directing; Holland said that his character, struggling to be a dutiful husband, was “passing for happy,” a nuance Hall was careful to illuminate. 

And the Rest

Hours before Neon announced a never-ending theatrical tour for Memoria, critics were lulled by a pleasant Tuesday-morning screening of the latest from Thai-cinema hypnotist Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Tilda Swinton joined him on stage afterward to discuss filming in Colombia—which she called an “atmospheric dreamscape”—the way Weerasethakul’s cinema explores “the reverberations of trauma in the land,” and working together after many years of attempting to. “It was something like 17 years, this conversation,” said Swinton. “Every year another layer, another leaf that fell off the tree and became the mulch of the film.” Audiences were ecstatic. Luke Hicks, revisiting Memoria at NYFF after seeing it earlier this year at Venice, wrote that “it's one of the few films I can genuinely say has changed my life. My experience of it goes so far beyond entertainment or art. It's more like an aural, visual transformative wisdom.” David Sims’ reaction expressed more or less the same sentiment: “ahahahahhahahahAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA YESSSSSSSS AHHHHHH YESSSSSS!!!!!”

Petite Maman, Céline Sciamma’s gentle gem of a follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, screened for critics right after Memoria. Though both films are memory plays that move outside of linear time, Sciamma’s explores grief and motherhood with the same naturalistic empathy and female gaze she’s known for. It’s “a film that is both fantastical and matter of fact, seemingly taking some influence from Studio Ghibli films,” wrote Anthony Romaguera. “It presents children as children, but also treats the child characters with respect and portrays them with an emotional maturity not often found in film.”

Petite Maman was my last NYFF screening. After two weeks of scurrying around Manhattan, frequenting food trucks, and glimpsing celebrities—I may have been shut out of her talk with Jane Campion, but that was definitely Sofia Coppola I spotted walking past Alice Tully—I headed to JFK International, sated and sleep-deprived. 

Isaac Feldberg

(Header image from ‘Drive My Car’)