Couldn’t make it to Sundance this year? Never fear, as this year’s New Directors/New Films is practically a pu pu platter sampling of some of the more memorable titles you missed at Park City. And the 46th edition of Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art’s film festival opens and closes with two of the most buzzed-about titles from Sundance this past January: Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$, a coming-of-age dramedy about an aspiring rapper from Bayonne, New Jersey that was purchased by Fox Searchlight Pictures for just shy of $10 million, and Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person, a love letter to New York City by way of a seriocomic peek into the lives of a motley group of eccentrics who call the city home.
The festival’s centerpiece is Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats, which according to Slant critic Sam C. Mac is redolent of Claire Denis’s Beau Travil for its “homoerotic display of male bodies mesmerizingly moving in concert.” But the film turned heads at Sundance for other reasons, and what you make of Hittman’s follow-up to her acclaimed debut, It Felt Like Love, may depend on just how snugly you feel the character at the center of the film fits into the narrative of a closeted youth and where you think he ends up.
Apropos for a festival devoted to visions from (mostly) nascent filmmakers, this year’s ND/NF lineup abounds in works featuring characters contemplating identity, tradition, technology, and more. Among our favorites: Jérôme Reybaud’s 4 Days in France, about a lonely gay man pouring the totality of his being into the sexual hookup; João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s Arabia, about how the seemingly incidental moments in a young Brazilian man’s life come to entirely define him; and Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark, which, per Chuck Bowen, “earnestly and ambitiously attempts to redefine cinema’s conventional grasp of consciousness.”
New Directors/New Films runs from March 15—26. For tickets click here.
4 Days in France
Finally a film about a classical music-listening, Rimbaud-reading, sweater-wearing gay man addicted to Grindr, though to be fair, writer-director Jérôme Reybaud’s 4 Days in France is about much more than just the digital sexual compulsions that afflict so many gays. This is a kind of ode to cruising writ large, to the intransitivity of cruising: looking for no object at all, but for its own sake. And there’s something endearing, if not uncanny, about the way the film evokes universal truths about erotic wandering through the extremely specific figure of the French gay man, and Parisian white and preppy gayness in particular. Queer mobility is here a luxury and a curse, enabled by an alfa Romeo, Parisian couture, and lots of free time, but beleaguered by isolation. >>
The prologue to Albüm functions as a kind of mise en abyme for the film as a whole. In a series of wordless scenes made to resemble a documentary, the entire process of artificial cow reproduction is shown in clinical detail. In its hyper-realistic depiction of this procedure, these scenes bring to mind the scene from In a Year of 13 Moons set inside a meat factory. In Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s equally unsentimental film, unvarnished footage of meat being processed serves as an ironic commentary on a transgender woman’s sex-change operation, while also contrasting the woman’s emotional sensitivity with the brutal circumstances of her life. In Albüm, the unembellished portrayal of the synthetic reproduction of cattle serves to prepare viewers for the detached, caustic, and almost anthropological view of childrearing offered by writer-director Mehmet Can Mertoğlu. >>
A carefree life on the move is steadily and exquisitely overtaken by melancholy in writer-directors João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s Arábia, the portrait of a meandering journey fueled by song, anecdote, and landscape that zeroes in on the pressures of contemporary Brazil almost in passing. While the film is a gently fragmented road movie first and foremost, Dumans and Uchoa are never afraid to let other influences wander in at will: off-kilter social realism, the musical, the essay film, and even the (invented) autobiography. Because what else makes up the life of an individual but all the moments they’re unable to escape? >>
If conventional narrative cinema grammar has trained us to understand scenes taking place prior to the broadcasting of a film’s title as build-up to the story proper, a whetting of the palette for the more significant events to come, then how do we negotiate the import of Ji-hyeon’s (Woo Ji-hyeon) tale, remarkably slight as it seems? This is just one of the gentle perplexities of Autumn, Autumn, a deft realist miniature that operates as both a record of everyday spaces and a document of the emotionally charged, albeit ephemeral, human dramas that pass through them. When the film abandons Ji-hyeon after its delayed title card to resume a different narrative thread, it becomes apparent that director Jang Woo-jin’s conception of storytelling isn’t linear but delicately cubist, and rooted less by human agency than by a fixed time and place. >>
With Beach Rats, writer-director Eliza Hittman continues to chronicle roughly the same type of burgeoning teenage sexuality she captured so frankly and unsentimentally in her debut feature, 2014’s It Felt Like Love. What’s deflating about this film is its generally more familiar approach to its subject. It Felt Like Love benefitted from its bold portrayal of the female gaze, as Hittman was less interested in character study than the theoretical idea of a character, someone who simulates sexual desire for the sake of maintaining a social expectation. Beach Rats, though, falls much less excitingly into the stereotypical narrative of a closeted gay youth. >>
Chloé Robichaud’s Boundaries rather formally advertises the unique personalities of its main characters—Danielle (Macha Grenon), Emily (Emily VanCamp), and Félixe (Nathalie Doummar)—via three successive shots as they stare directly into the camera. Subsequently, Robichaud continues to gently attest to how these women manifest the uniqueness of who they are through situations, big and small, that threaten to crush their will. The snippets of the women’s daily lives that illustrate their respective backgrounds suggest how their experiences have shaped their personal and professional lives, and through this Robichaud creates an honest and frequently moving study of the challenges women face while juggling these separate lives. That Boundaries features jarring and experimental shifts in tone, making for what appears on the surface to be a disjointed construction and pace, only reflects the untidy side of life that the three women find themselves in. >>
By the Time It Gets Dark
Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark is obsessed by prismatic motifs, in which images are embedded within other images. One of the film’s first shots is of a window in a country home, composed of opaque panes that block out a view to the outside, except for a square in the top left that’s missing a pane, affording one a glimpse of a lovely tree. In this context, the tree suggests a hidden world, barely in sight, obscured by human-forged bric-a-brac. Later, a filmmaker observes to her interview subject that their reflections in the TV are beautiful, commenting on another prism. Mushrooms are a recurring symbol in this film as well—and what’s their nature? They’re industrious fungi, which grow and tunnel through a variety of surfaces, and some kinds are known for their hallucinogenic properties, which suggest yet another expansion of worlds within worlds via altered consciousness. >>
Contemporary tropes of luxury and ancient rituals coexist throughout The Challenge, Yuri Ancarani’s documentary about the art of falconry. Here the organic and the frivolously material aren’t oppositions or rivals, but partners in a spectacle for men’s eyes only. The centuries-old practice of falconry involves very expensive birds (a falcon can sell for up to $24,000 in televised auctions) and is partaken by unspeakably wealthy Qatari sheikhs, who are prone to bringing their pet cheetahs for rides in their Lamborghinis, zipping across the desert in their gold-plated motorcycles, and filling their private jets with falcons strapped with mini cameras. >>