The second week of the New York Film Festival is what a film festival should be—a cornucopia overflowing with more good movies than a sane person would want to watch in a short period of time. (Last Friday, I wrote about some of my favorites from the festival’s Week One offerings; you can see the full lineup here.) The most exciting of this week’s movies are modest in tone but audacious in substance, foremost among them “Petite Maman” (“Little Mommy”), a brief, laconic, wildly inspired, and deeply mysterious drama written and directed by Céline Sciamma, whose previous film, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” was one of the festival’s highlights two years ago. The new film follows an eight-year-old girl named Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), who is seen, at the beginning of the film, passing from room to room in a nursing home and bidding goodbye to three different elderly women. But Nelly’s big goodbye is spoken in an empty room to someone who’s no longer there—her grandmother, who’d lived in the nursing home and recently died there. Nelly’s mother (Nina Meurisse), named Marion, and her father (Stéphane Varupenne) are there with a car and a van to pack up and cart off her grandmother’s things and then head to her rustic house to empty it out, too. Yet the practicalities and the intimacies of mourning soon give way to a grand leap of imaginative wonder.
At that house, Marion’s childhood room is filled with knickknacks and notebooks that had been left intact for many years, but she’s chary with her reminiscences and, emotionally burdened, drives away alone, leaving Nelly there with her father. Wandering in the woods behind the house, Nelly runs into another eight-year-old girl from nearby; the girl (played by Gabrielle Sanz, Joséphine’s real-life twin) looks like Nelly and is named Marion, like Nelly’s mother. Visiting the girl’s house and learning some key details of that family’s life, Nelly realizes that she is face to face with her own mother as a child. The mighty mystery of their bond shivers with tenderness and quiet humor. Sciamma depicts the strangeness of this encounter, the supernatural twist to the girls’ friendship, with a graceful simplicity that’s illuminated by terse and pointedly expressive dialogue (including my favorite line of the year, about “the music of the future”). No less than “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “Petite Maman” is a cinematic composition of deft poses and sharp gazes. Here, they resound with the secrets and ironies of the bending of time (including the literal meaning of the French word for goodbye, “au revoir”—essentially, see you again). Sciamma’s exquisite sense of fantasy has a firm basis in reality: she portrays the ordinary, loving transmission of family lore from grandparents to grandchildren as an extraordinary, transcendent gift.
Two other death-haunted tales confront the beyond with a different range of practical means—principally, artistic ones. The South Korean director Hong Sangsoo’s “In Front of Your Face” (one of two films that he has in the festival) is the tale of a homecoming. A middle-aged Korean woman named Sangok (Lee Hye-yeong), who has been living in Seattle for many years, returns to her native Seoul and visits her estranged sister Jeongok (Cho Yun-hee). Sangok is gravely ill—and keeps it a secret from her sister, but discloses the fact to a movie director (Kwon Hae-hyo) whom she meets, and with whose help she hopes to rekindle the acting career that she’d abandoned decades ago. The Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” (based on a story by Haruki Murakami) is, by contrast, a tale of a leave-taking. A Tokyo-based actor and director named Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), two years after the death of his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), is hired by a Hiroshima theatre company to stage a production of “Uncle Vanya”—for which his prime rehearsal tool is an audiocassette recording of the play, made by Oto, and with which he rehearses while driving his car. But the company requires Yusuke to have a driver—a young woman, named Misaki (Toko Miura), with little connection to the theatre—and his unwanted yet compulsory time with her changes his relationship to his work and to his past. Hamaguchi’s three-hour-long, theatre-centric film (featuring a remarkable cast of international actors who perform their Chekhovian roles in their own mother tongues) is as tautly patterned and loftily artificial as Hong’s brisk, cinema-centric drama is intimate and fluid. Both filmmakers—Hamaguchi earnestly, Hong ironically—craft distinctive styles for their serenely passionate deployment of art as resistance to mortality.
“Hit the Road” is the first feature by the Iranian director Panah Panahi (the son of the filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who has been making movies for the past decade while under house arrest on political charges). Like “Petite Maman,” it features an outstanding child character—and a phenomenal child actor to match. True to its name, it’s a road movie, about a family—mother (Pantea Panahiha), father (Hassan Madjooni), and two sons—on a journey by car that’s also a desperate and clandestine mission: to get the grown son, Farid (Amin Simiar), to the border, where a smuggler waits to take him out of the country (his final destination is Europe). The car trip is difficult, for practical reasons: the father has a broken leg (Farid is doing the driving), and his injury poses inconveniences throughout. The car is borrowed from a friend, and the planned passage across the border was financed by the family’s selling their house. Though it’s never specified why Farid is rushing to get out of Iran and why his family is sparing no expense (or risk) to help him, the sight of police nonetheless throws the family into a panic; their wariness endows tiny details (such as the presence or absence of a cell phone) with high drama. The younger son, played by Rayan Sarlak, is one of the funniest, sharpest-witted, most exuberantly willful child characters I’ve ever seen, and his bond with his brother and their parents is complex and subtle, gruff yet tender. The simple fact of the family’s impending separation is the story’s prime agony, but it’s doubled by the fact that, for safety’s sake, the boy is being kept in the dark about the purpose of the trip, forcing his parents to conceal their emotions, too. The profound solitude and desperation that the drama involves, along with the underlying political distress of depending on outlaws to cope with unjust laws, is balanced by the solidarity that forms, near the border, among the many families who are similarly transporting a grown child for exfiltration. Panahi films the drama with aesthetic audacity to match his psychological subtlety. The painterly grandeur and contemplative distance at which he films crucial moments of furious expression suggests a deep respect for his characters’ ineffable emotion, for the sublimity of their sacrifices.
Jean-Gabriel Périot’s film “Returning to Reims,” about a prodigal son’s homecoming, is an unusual kind of documentary: it’s an adaptation of a nonfiction book of the same title, from 2009, by the sociologist Didier Eribon, who had left his family’s home in that northeastern French city, moved to Paris, and didn’t visit for decades, until after the death of his father. Périot is a specialist in films of historical montage, but in “Returning to Reims” his assemblage of archival clips—from fiction films, documentaries, and TV news—seems organized around the solid specificity of Eribon’s reminiscences (read in voice-over by the actress Adèle Haenel, one of the stars of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”), providing them flesh and blood.
Eribon came from a poor, working-class family, and he narrates its arc with ardent research that reaches back to the early life of his maternal grandmother. The excerpts from Eribon’s text recount the severe difficulties of her youth in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, and the cavalier methods by which she grasped at bits of comfort (including a relationship with a German officer during the Second World War). Eribon goes on to describe the constraints of his mother’s life (despite her intelligence, she had no opportunity for higher education), the family’s struggles to achieve a modicum of security, the social solidarity offered by the Communist Party, the promise of government-subsidized housing, the rise of overt racism toward families who migrated from North Africa, and the corresponding rise, among former Communist voters (including Eribon’s mother), of the far right. The voice-over, both historical and intimate, works alchemically upon Périot’s shrewdly selected footage. Snippets of fiction films (including “Zero for Conduct” and Jean-Daniel Pollet’s great short film “Pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse”) gain the real-world anchorage of documentaries; clips from TV news and documentaries (such as “Chronicle of a Summer” and “Le Joli Mai”) gain the dramatic dimensions of fiction. The over-all effect is a metacinema that transforms France’s history of movies into an archeological treasure, a secret archive of private life that’s hiding in plain sight.
In the great, teeming, wildly imaginative three-hour-plus films “Li’l Quinquin” and “Coincoin and the Extra-Humans,” Bruno Dumont has been a crucial chronicler of France in the grips of the far right but doesn’t say why. In his new film, “France,” he says why: because the people of France are being stupefied by mainstream media—and, so, are ripe to be bamboozled. Dumont’s bitter new comedy is aimed keenly and pugnaciously at a TV journalist named France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux), who manages to ask an insignificant but attention-getting question at a press conference held by France’s President, Emmanuel Macron. (A brief title at the end of the film explains that he didn’t participate in the movie and that the sequence was created by montage.) Her right-hand woman, Lou (the comedian Blanche Gardin), makes a series of increasingly contemptuous and obscene gestures to encourage France in her egotistical antics. When France does on-location reports from war zones, she converts them into her own star turns, complete with TV-ready stagings of the events on which she is ostensibly reporting.
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