It's been a glorious couple of weeks at The Walter Reade Theater. I know I always blather on about how much I love attending The New York Film Festival and how it simply wouldn't be autumn if I weren't scrambling every morning to get the D Train to Columbus Circle, timing it just right to maximize the dual concerns of a good night’s sleep and having time to check in, grab the tender half of a blueberry muffin and find a seat before the festival trailer rolls. This has been a particularly interesting year in my opinion, if only because I have been able to see every single film on offer so far, which really has allowed me a comprehensive look at the programming sensibility of the festival this year. I have to say, I am rather envious of both the festival’s process and its refusal to waiver from its mission and vision; In a city like New York, always in flux and where change is sometimes mistaken for progress, the Film Society’s decision to stay the course and deliver a thoughtful program that rewards deep exploration with an overwhelming ratio of success to failure.
This year, doubly so; The inclusion of the Janus Films 50 Year Anniversary sidebar, as well as screenings of lost classics like Alberto Lattuada’s Mafioso and the festival’s salute to Alejandro Jodorowsky has deeply enriched the festival’s program. Having seen three of the Janus prints (Knife In The Water, Summer With Monika and Fires On The Plain, all spectacular), Mafioso and Jodorwsky’s insane and glorious El Topo, I am more convinced than ever that showing classic films, both lost and canonized, is a truly wonderful way to deepen a festival program and bring clarity and context to the new films. Perhaps the one filmmaker whose influence is most deeply felt at this year’s festival also has a day in the sun on the horizon; As part of the Janus retrospective, Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana screens on Thursday, October 12th and Friday, October 13th (of course!). Last year, it seemed like the entire world had tuned into the work of Robert Bresson; This year, of all of the filmmakers who have influenced the films at The New York Film Festival, it is Buñuel whose name keeps popping up, for better or worse.
The first film that immediately jumps front and center in this discussion is Manoel de Oliveira’s Belle Toujours, created as a sequel (and perhaps a love letter) to Buñuel’s 1967 classic Belle de jour. That film, which explored the sexual dysfunction of a housewife turned prostitute named Séverine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve), is one of Buñuel’s masterpieces of psychological and sexual insight, and the thought of de Oliveira’s theatrical, patient storytelling being used in the service of placing an addendum to the story made me a little leery of the possible result. Yes, de Oliveira has earned the laurels he has received; the man so much as sneezes on a 35mm camera and the results show up in festivals from Cannes to New York and beyond. But as he has grown more concerned with the experience of aging (and rightly so), his films have become more and more preoccupied with loss, both physical and emotional, and I wasn’t sure that the same sensibility that recently gave us a film as obsessed with mortality as I’m Going Home would bring the proper levity and perversion to a Belle de jour sequel.
Once More, With Feeling: Michel Piccoli reprises the role of Henri Husson in Manoel de Oliveira's Belle Toujours
I was half-right; While primarily a reunion of fictional characters (Michel Piccoli reprises his role as Henri Husson while Bulle Ogier replaces Deneuve as Séverine) for the purpose of uncovering the great, unresolved mystery of Buñuel’s original (did Husson reveal Séverine’s transgressions to her husband?), de Oliveira’s film is as light and nimble as a spry old couple waltzing to a long-forgotten love song. What the film is short on is Buñuel’s playful cocktail of perversion and guilt, and so, Belle Toujours is less a sequel in terms of being an extension of the original film as it is a chance to dress up the original characters in their regrets, longings and unanswered questions and have a little fun. In that sense, the movie is not unlike a tender Proustian pastry, light, fluffy and a reminder of a deeper primal experience. Of course, the film has its own delights; the reunion dinner between Séverine and Henri is hilarious and includes a perfectly random nod to Buñuel’s own brand of surrealism (a rooster, completely from left-field), while de Oliveira has the good sense not to allow his film to serve as a corrective to Buñuel’s decision to leave some things unsaid. Fans of the original will get a kick out of de Oliveira’s exercise, while I assume those unfamiliar with the original will probably wonder what all the fuss is about.
After seeing Piccoli having a time of it in de Oliveira’s film, it was a good deal of fun to watch him romp around the screen in drag in Otar Iosseliani’s Gardens in Autumn, another film that seems almost in dialogue with Buñuel’s work. Unlike de Oliveira’s film, however, Iosseliani takes the Buñuelian path of surreal satire down what is ultimately a dead-end; Gardens in Autumn is probably my least favorite film in the festival which, despite its intellectual origins in films like The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie and L’ Âge d’or, is a single bad idea stretched to an interminable 115 minutes. This is a movie that desperately needs a second idea and a second layer of meaning, but Iosseliani seems incapable of recognizing that even its best assets are finite (i.e. Piccoli in drag) and beats its single joke and idea about French politics into the ground within 45 minutes. The film is more like a joke about surrealism told by someone who couldn’t be bothered to try and understand the form, and try as I might to open up to the film’s charms, Iosseliani brings in doses of casual racism and stereotype which, instead of subverting the ideas on display, ham-fistedly end up reinforcing the worst in his characters. Unlike Buñuel, it seems Iosseliani doesn’t really know the world he is describing and has even less to say about it. I’m not sure how the film made it into the NYFF line-up, but watching it felt like witnessing the first mistake at the festival so far.
Uh, Yeah. Cough: Michel Piccoli In Drag Can't Save Otar Iosseliani’s Gardens in Autumn
Leave it to a classic film to rescue Buñuel from the clutches of sentimentality and misunderstanding; Alejandro Jodorwsky’s El Topo landed with the force of a hurricane on the spare industry audience that showed up to watch it last Thursday, and seeing the film on the big screen, its bold, eye-popping colors restored to their proper glory, has been one of the true delights of the festival so far. I first saw El Topo as a teenager on a VHS tape at a friend’s house and I was in no way prepared for it. Even seeing it again, this time as a college student (again on VHS), I wasn’t sure I ‘got it’. What a difference adulthood makes; Watching the film again, it seems in perfect concert with its time, the filmmaking ideas of 1970 and the decade beyond, and with a deep understanbding of the surreal international bifurcation (war and pacifism) which defined its age. For the uninitiated, imagine an episode of the TV show Kung Fu set in Mexico, re-cast to star Klaus Kinski and directed by the love child of Buñuel and Sam Pekinpah and you might begin to touch upon the glory of El Topo.
Crazy World, Crazy Times: Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1970 Classic El Topo
Essentially the story of a gun slinging, revenge-minded cowboy who seeks to become the best gunfighter in Mexico, Jodorwsky’s film takes a hard turn into the spiritual redemption of his murderous protagonist when, having mastered the world of the gun, our bandito humbles himself in an underworld of disabled people and seeks to liberate them from their suffering. Jodorwsky gets the surrealism of social relations absolutely right by confronting power on its own ridiculous terms; Where a film like Gardens in Autumn shows the absurdity of political life as being essential banal, El Topo confronts sprituality and redemption as life and death, blood, violence and the painful quest to remake oneself into something noble. Despite being an absurd joyride into the abyss, El Topo is deeply serious and has the courage of its convictions, making it a graphic, worthy heir to the cinematic surrealism Buñuel described as early as Un Chein Andalou.
With Viridiana on the horizon, I am very much looking forward to bringing the circle to a natural whole, but even without seeing it again, its clear that Buñuel is having a major revival at the New York Film Festival. It’s more than deserved; Who better to show us how to understand the absurdity of our own times better than the master himself?