The Reeler


October 5, 2007

Center of Gravity

Reeler reviews editor Michelle Orange surveys another of round of hits and misses at NYFF's halfway point

Portrait of the artist as a young woman: A scene from Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's Persepolis, the closing-night selection of the NYFF (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

I felt like a kid again during my middle stretch of the New York Film Festival, when my selections all seemed to take place in the joining part of a youth-and-perpetuity Venn diagram. Only when you think you'll either live forever or die tomorrow do you make the kind of mistakes or stumble into the kind of experiences that will shape you for however long you do live. Only in youth are you as daring with your own image, your identity, forging new creation myths like tunnels through your mother's mashed potatoes.

Being an artist may have had something to do with Marjane Satrapi conceiving of her girlhood self as an illustration, but in Persepolis, the adaptation Satrapi's graphic novel, form conforms to function so beautifully that it leaves no doubt that her story could be told any other way. Closing the festival Oct. 14, Persepolis is the most extraordinary of coming-of-age stories, set in Iran in the late 1970s, when Satrapi was a girl, and following her and her family through a revolution and an eight-year war with Iran.

Lovingly detailed in its stark, layered and wonderfully expressive animation (at times reminiscent of Edward Gorey, with a little Yellow Submarine thrown in) and featuring the voices of Chiara Mastroianni and her mother Catherine Deneuve, Persepolis is history lesson, family drama, war story and young adult picaresque in one, handling its considerable dark elements with the same wary, worldly steady hand as the lighter ones. I was saddened to hear that the film is being re-dubbed in English for the Stateside release, as Mastroianni's voice is wonderfully inflected, even in the French, the nuances comes through. Combined with Satrapi's endlessly inventive, expressive animations, Marjane becomes one of the most compelling, endearing heroines of the year, offering in two dimensions what many ingenues can't manage in three or four: genuine ingenuity.

Trading so explicitly in ingenuity that it almost inverts itself into a jumble of navel lint (though belonging to whom is a good question), Todd Haynes's colorful I'm Not There is an exquisitely, almost self-consciously mature work. The idea is one that caught attention as soon as it was cast -- a Bob Dylan "project" in which the Nasal One's various personae would be played by different actors, including a young black boy (Marcus Carl Franklin) as farmer/folkie/Woody Guthrie-wannabe Dylan and Cate Blanchett as media-vexing, Donovan-swallowing, Dont Look Back-era Dylan. Blanchett astonishes, bringing the mixed blessing of overshadowing all of the other more conceptual realizations with her startling resemblance and inhabitation of the role.

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While it is frivolous fun to play connect-the-character-dots with stand-ins for people like Edie Sedgwick (Michelle Williams), Joan Baez (Julianne Moore) and Dylan's first wife Sara Lownds (Charlotte Gainsborough), and Haynes has a ball playing with literary and filmic references (Moby Dick and Fellini loom large) and absorbing quintessential Dylan-alia into biopic conventions only to re-wire and jump-start them before our eyes, I'm Not There veers with a kind of aesthetic bravado between cohesively experimental and generically incoherent. Richard Gere's storyline as Billy the Kid, in particular, gets lost in itself, or in the film's formal ideas, which are much more successfully married to Dylan's other iterations. Haynes's conviction throughout, however, assures that everything went meticulously according to plan; it certainly all worked in his head, and perhaps that means it will work in those of at least a few others -- particularly those of dreamy Dylan-ographers. It just didn't work in mine.

Gus Van Sant has completed what is being referred to as his "youth trilogy" with Paranoid Park, an adaptation of the YA novel by Blake Nelson, a writer known to any Sassy magazine aficionado worth his or her salt. Set in Nelson's hometown of Portland, Ore., the title refers to a sketchy skate park where "guitar punks, throwaway kids and skater drunks" hang out and sometimes live. Van Sant rearranges Nelson's narrative into the zen puzzle that is quickly becoming his signature, telling the story of Alex (Gabe Nevins, a newcomer cast via MySpace), a teenager and remedial skater drawn to the park and then into a random world of trouble. Nevins is a handsome kid with soft, open features, and cinematographer Christopher Doyle photographs him in the moments around a moment that so fascinate Van Sant with a patience that is at once dreamy and invigorated; together they perfect the slow-motion heart attack on-screen. The moment in this film is an act (and an accident) of violence so swift and absolute that it changes everything before you can register that it has happened; Alex's shock and disaffection, from the interview with a detective to his blank interactions with his girlfriend, become more insidiously frightening than the images of actual horror. At least that is real, at least you can look at it. Teenagers don't just have secrets -- they are secrets, and Van Sant is becoming a maestro at effecting that concept on screen, particularly in this latest, impressionistic meditation on the (often dangerous) tension between the transience of youth and its utter eternity to those still locked in its suburban grasp.

Anamaria Marinca in 4 Months, 3 weeks and 2 days (Photo: Mobra Films)

Cristian Mungiu brings his 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days to the NYFF with a Palme D'Or pedigree and a timely twinning with the release of Tony Kaye's abortion documentary, Lake of Fire. Set in Romania in 1987, the title refers to exactly how far along college student Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is in her pregnancy when she enlists her roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) to help her through an illegal abortion. "Don't you understand Romanian?" the ornery desk clerk at the hotel where the deed was supposed to be done asks Otilia, and it's a question Mungiu's film raises -- and answers – over and over: This is how it works here. The simplest tasks are met with a stubborn inefficiency, every interaction has an ominous protocol; the tension this builds around the execution of an event as complicated as a hotel room abortion becomes almost unbearable.

In the hermetic ecosystem of their dorm the girls barter cigarettes for soap, powdered milk for birth control; once the roommates get out into the real world, and mixed up with a shady, freelance abortionist, the bartering stakes can only be raised, though neither girl imagines how high. Mungiu's long, immobile takes mingle with handheld urgency and steady framing to create a gorgeously contained negotiation of space, time and turbulence. Marinca is extraordinary as the best friend you'll ever have who gets in way over her intensely level head. During an incredibly loaded dinner scene, Mungiu settles on a perfect, crowded frame and stays there, letting the story of worry and woe play out entirely on Marinca's face. This is what people who love to be in-the-know will call a "tough" film, and it's definitely got the pedigree: Communism, abortion, '80s haircuts. But the final shot of 4 Months is devastating in its summation of what the film is really about: the tenuous bonds of youth -- the friendships and love that are rumored to never again be so strong -- that when tested will either snap along with what's left of your innocence or cement you together forever.

Next week I'll be back with the word on No Country For Old Men, Margot at the Wedding and the latest from batshit bad-ass Catherine Breillat, The Last Mistress.

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