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October 11, 2007

Hoping Against Hype

Reeler reviews editor Michelle Orange on NYFF's hot-ticket Baumbach, Breillat and Coen selections

Great expectations: Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Margot at the Wedding (Photo: Paramount Vantage)

My last round of New York Film Festival selections was heavy with expectation -- the new Catherine Breillat film The Last Mistress, Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding and, carrying loads of Coen Brothers buzz over from its Cannes premiere in May, No Country For Old Men. But expectations are a funny thing: Largely ephemeral and vaguely based, they refuse to bend before they break. High expectations are inherently unfair, in a way, and yet extremely difficult to untangle from one's final analysis of a film. With these final three, I gave it my best shot.

No Country is the Coens' first film since the mixed reception greeting The Ladykillers in 2004, and though one would hardly say they had something to prove, pairing a Cormac McCarthy adaptation with Tommy Lee Jones, Texas and copious amounts of blood is certain to invite high hopes. In fact, Javier Bardem's bizarre pageboy haircut seems determined to be the film's real star. Wielding a Spanish Dracula accent as the wanton killer Anton Chigurh, the first murder Bardem's character commits finds him strangling a man with a look of abject ecstasy on his face as the life drains from his victim. He's definitely not just in it for the money.

But there is money, of course, lots of it. A heroin deal gone wrong in the desert is discovered by Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who appropriates a black bag filled with $2 million from the scene. It's a decision that puts him in Anton's predatory sights, though it's not altogether clear why, nor is it clear where Moss got his mad MacGyver skillz, which he puts to use when eluding/defending himself from his hunter. Lee Jones figures in as local sheriff Ed Tom Jones, whose mediocre efforts get mediocre results. The Coens set the stage for a grand showdown, shooting the stand-in New Mexico landscape in iconic tableauxs that present the horizon like a rolling proscenium. And indeed, tropes of the Western (sometimes self-consciously referred to in the script) match wits with those of the thriller, the gangster pic and the... Coen brothers movie, in which murder can be played for morbid laughs.

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It all works well enough for the first half of the film, when every click and jingle against the prevailing silence and whistling wind sets your nerves on edge, and Bardem enthralls as pure evil -- the man in black. But as No Country moves on (and on) and into idea after idea (about genre, Vietnam, violence, immigration, American dreamers) with what feels like only passing attention, I found myself wondering if I cared where the film ended up. Woody Harrelson shows up, briefly, in a non-descript and ultimately needless role that divides attention once again from the three central characters. Some ham-fisted philosophizing closes the film and feels wholly unsatisfying in its dropping of some dimestore, 10-gallon, sheriff-rific science.

Catherine Breillat, fierce French film/troublemaker and astonishingly acute salonista (yes, I made up a word for her particular brand of deeply romantic intellectualism, tortured dogma and pop philosophy), returned to the screen for the first time since her 2004 brain hemorrhage with The Last Mistress, an adaptation of Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly's Une Vieille Maîtresse. Breillat defies almost every expectation possible by making her first period film, a fussily costumed chamber piece of love, desire, obsession, faith and fidelity starring Asia Argento as the mistress in question (La Vellini) and Fu'ad Aït Aattou (whose obscenely fat lips and bedroom eyes she apparently found in a Paris restaurant) as the smitten Ryno de Marigny. Still, she integrates her trademark attitudes about the transcendent properties of sex and sensuality into the story of Vellini and Ryno, whose bond is one that the platinum shackles of a more traditional love (to Ryno's angelic young wife) cannot shake. Which one is the purer connection, the film seems to ask, and base love gets most of the play, if not the favor. Breillat's back!

Asia Argento and Fu'ad Aït Aattou in The Last Mistress (Photo: IFC Films)

And yet the director does bristle at times under the strain of simply keeping such a traditional narrative afloat, lingering for minutes at a time on the admittedly extraordinary face of Ryno as he tells his side of the affair; the moments where her deliciously perverse sense of humor (reaction shots of the elderly matron listening to Ryno's white-hot confession are priceless) seem too few and far between. Argento is excellent as the snarling, one-earring-ed, unstoppable lover (I imagined the second earring had always just been fucked away), though her synthetic and much bared breasts prove highly distracting for a film set in 1835. Breillat fans will see Breillat films regardless -- as they should -- and this one, despite pacing problems and a prolonged third act, has much to offer for the uninitiated as well.

Noah Baumbach returned to the festival with Margot at the Wedding, the follow-up to his 2005 breakthrough The Squid and the Whale. Casting Nicole Kidman as the titular short story writer and Jennifer Jason Leigh as her sister Pauline, the bride, upped the ante right from the marquee -- the increasingly plasticine Kidman, in an earthbound Baumbach film? It turns out she is chillingly well-suited to thin air and middle-aged anxiety of the Baumbach world, playing the monstrously self-centered Margot as completely un-self-aware, a writer as blood-sucking cipher who seems to exist only to mine herself and others for material. Pauline resides in the seaside family home, the seat of the family lore and treasure trove of issues, and is about to marry Malcolm (Jack Black), a chubby, sweaty disaster of a man whom Margot doubts is a suitable candidate for her sister. Accompanying Margot is her son Claude (Zane Pais), with whom she shares the almost uncomfortably marital relationship that single parents tend to develop with their children of the opposite sex.

Baumbach's camera follows the newly reunited family around the decaying grounds of the home like a fifth wheel, trudging behind them as the flag for the passive-aggressive Olympics is raised. Margot traffics mainly in unsayables and specializes in diagnoses: she can spot autism, depression and bipolar disorder from across the table, and she isn't shy about telling you. Using the same drab, color-diffusing lighting as The Squid and the Whale inside the home -- full of mismatched furniture and peeling paint -- Baumbach recreates that film's feeling of family as claustrophobia. The complicated relationship between Margot and Pauline, however, never fully jells, though Margot and her son are rendered in heartbreaking, psyche-cauterizing detail. Relationships are generally held to be awful traps -- ones you either fall or are born into, and who can say which is worse. Young Claude is not fleshed out enough to gain our sympathy -- more like pity -- and by the time the family tree is (literally) being cut down, it's more of a relief than requiem.



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