Tribeca Film Festival, Part 1

I don’t have much basis for comparison covering the Tribeca Film Festival. My experience of festivals consists pretty much of New York, the various Jewish film festivals at which I have spoken or that I cover and the dozens of smaller niche festivals that take place in the city. I haven’t been to Cannes or Venice or Berlin or Rotterdam . . . or fill in the blanks here. So the idea of a week and a half in which over 200 films are being shown both tickles and exhausts me. That said, I must add that the staff of the festival have been gracious and the films that I have seen so far of pretty good quality. (Of course, that is partly because I have been judicious in what I choose to see.)

At any rate, now that the event has had its official opening ceremonies, I feel comfortable in running down what I’ve seen so far, particularly since I haven’t hit any real bow-wows yet. In the order in which I saw them:

My Best Friend. Patrice Leconte strikes me as a sort of Gallic version of Henry Hathaway. He is a dependable director whose filmography is filled with excellent genre pieces, most notably M. Hire, Intimate Strangers and Ridicule. He’s much too skilled a technician and surrounds himself with too many good people to create disasters. And like Hathaway, his work doesn’t bespeak a strong stylistic or thematic identity, but the results are too damned likeable to ignore. The beauty of Leconte is that there just aren’t that many solid craftspersons working in either French or American film any more. I cannot think of a contemporary equivalent of Hathaway in America or Leconte in France.

That said, it must be noted that My Best Friend is one of his slighter works, a pleasant trifle about a cold, calculating antiques dealer (Daniel Auteuil) who is bluntly informed at his birthday party that none of his colleague particularly like him. Even his partner (Julie Gayet), who seems genuinely sympathetic to his bewilderment at this discovery, is not above accepting when he proffers a wager that he can produce his “best friend” within ten days. When he meets a cabbie (Dany Boon) who seems to have a real gift for friendship, he decides to study him in the hope of learning how to make friends. It’s a slender premise, aided immeasurably by Auteuil’s cool demeanor and Boon’s goofiness. The end result is predictable but, appropriately enough, amiable. My Best Friend opens theatrically in New York in mid-July

Half Moon. Bahman Ghobadi is as close to a Kurdish poet laureate of the cinema as you can get. In films like A Time for Drunken Horses, Marooned in Iraq and Turtles Can Fly, he has spoken eloquently for those landless people silenced by the governments of Turkey, Iraq and Iran. His new film continues in that vein, turning its attention to the desperate efforts of Kurdish musicians to keep their traditional arts alive in the face of deracination, oppression and dispersion.

For an embattled culture struggling to stay alive, the loss of any artist is devastating. Although it starts out as farce, sort of a Kurdish version of The Honeymooners with Kako (Allah Morad Rashtiani) as a sort of Ralph Kramden figure, a daft but utterly loyal retainer of Mamo (Ismail Ghaffari), the legendary Kurdish composer and musician who wants to make one last concert appearance in Iraq now that Saddam Hussein is gone. Kako commandeers a friend’s bus and, with one of his chickens and a defective video camera in hand, he sets out to help the old man collect and transport his ten “sons,” the musicians upon whom he relies to continue the traditions. For the first half of the film, then, the keynote is broad comedy, with even Mamo’s premonitions of disaster and death being played for uneasy laughs. But once the musicians are assembled and they reach the Iraqi border (with a female singer hidden inside the bus), disaster strikes and the film suddenly is transformed into The Lost Patrol, with the musicians being picked off one by one.

Ghobadi is a master pictorialist, and Half Moon is filled with startlingly beautiful images of small towns that look like they have been literally carved out of a mountainside and lush, mist-enshrouded valleys. Yet the film’s palette is surprisingly grim and the land seemingly unwelcoming, a gray and pallid place in which the women’s clothing provides the only splashes of bright color. Like Ford, to whom he owes an unspoken debt, I think, he plays off this seeming paradox to encapsulate the fading hopes of a displaced people in a world that remains deeply hostile to their dreams. I think Half Moon doesn’t entirely work; the shift in tone is rather disconcerting and one wishes there was a comparable formal shift accompanying it. But the film is memorable all the same. (Incidentally, Ghobadi has an excellent website of his own.)

Lady Chatterley. Where has Pascale Ferran been for the last ten years? Her first feature, Petits arrangements avec les morts, was a wonder, her second, L’Âge des possibles,, I remember as something of a disappointment, but I’d be lying if I said I could remember anything more specific about it. Then she vanished from the radar here. She has a 1997 screenplay credit, Eat Your Soup, directed by Mathieu Amalric, then nine years of silence. So it was with as much wonder as anticipation that I awaited her new film Lady Chatterley, which had already won five Cesars including Best French Film and Best Actress for Marina Hands in the title role. More significantly, the reviews were uniformly enthusiastic and I have to admit that the mere fact of that silence aroused my curiosity deeply.

I am happy to say that the wait was worth it inasmuch as the film is one of the best of the year to date, a really lovely, thoughtful and intelligent adaptation of Lawrence, based more on the second version of the novel, John Thomas and Lady Jane, than on the final one. Stripped of the verbosity of the latter, the film is constructed brilliantly as a dialogue between humanity and nature, with the passage of the seasons echoing the growing relationship between Parkin and Connie Chatterley. Intriguingly, Ferran’s version of the story is surprisingly sweet and almost chaste. We do not see the two lovers naked together until two hours into the film (which runs 168 minutes, although you’d never know it because the pacing is so adroit). Hands is quite fetching and her Connie sets the tone for the entire film, slowly blossoming and completely enchanting. And by forgoing much of the Lawrentian attitudinizing, Ferran moves the film away from his more absurd sex-and-blood-and-soil maunderings into something almost Wordsworthian in its natural ease and grandeur. Lady Chatterley opens theatrically in New York in June.

A full day of screenings today, plus I have to go to a class in the evening. As you may be able to tell, it's past 4 a.m. right now, so I will continue this later. Next up: a depressing stroll down memory lane to Attica, and a fraught taxi ride to Rotterdam in Vivere.