Film critic Jesse Hawthorne Ficks has returned to the theater to experience the New York Film Festival, which runs September 24 to October 10. Here’s the third spoiler-free Ficks’ Picks for the upcoming end-of-the-year onslaught of high profile international films — check the first installation here, and the second installation here.
GASPAR NOE’S VORTEX (FRANCE)
Like every other film by Noe, his latest 142-minute mind-melter is a harrowing endurance test, as it follows an elderly couple through their often mundane, daily routines. That isn’t to say that Noe has traded in his cinematic antagonism; it’s just manifested into something more relatable, balancing the blurry line between neo-realism and surrealism. Using a continual split screen to track the aging husband and wife’s ups and downs, Noe has constructed a tender-yet-overwhelmingly-suffocating existence for his confused protagonists. Italian horror giallo director Dario Argento is downright haunting as a filmmaker obsessed with writing a book about the intersection of cinema and dreams, while Françoise Lebrun (of Jean Eustache’s 1973 The Mother and the Whore) plays an ex-psychiatrist and gives one of the sweetest acting achievements I have ever witnessed. This “dream within a dream” feels akin to Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie (2015), Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012) and David Lynch’s Straight Story (1999), all of which side-step the usual romanticism of aging and capture the uncomfortable ambiguity of getting old. The film is theatrically distributed in the US by Utopia, with no set release date as of yet.
RYÛSUKE HAMAGUCHI’S DRIVE MY CAR (JAPAN)
As any avid readers of Haruki Murakami will tell you, it is an incredibly difficult task to both adapt the nuanced writing of the author as well as translate the warmth and depth of the characters he’s created. Now, both Norwegian Wood (2010) by Vietnamese master Tran Anh Hung and Tony Takitani (2004) by Jun Ichikawa achieved the nuanced aesthetics beautifully. Yet, director Hamaguchi has achieved the seemingly unattainable, primarily by practicing what Murakami’s writing preaches: “pay attention to details that others don’t.” Drive My Car is easily one of the most treasured films of 2021 for me, and though it has been picked up for US distribution by Sideshow and Janus Films, one should seek out a rare screening in the biggest movie theater possible. Based on a short story from the 2014 collection Men Without Women, this 179-minute opus gently follows a myriad of characters stuck in their own emotional trappings. Using Anton Chekov’s 1899 play Uncle Vanya as a meta-catalyst for both the characters in the story and the audience members watching the movie, Drive My Car will find its way into the deepest parts of your emotional spectrum, if you allow it. It was the winner of Best Screenplay, the FIPRESCI Prize, and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, and plays on Sun/10 at CinéArts Sequoia and October 17 at BAMPFA.
JOEL COEN’S THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (US)
Finally, Joel Coen delivered his stunning new film, his first project completed without his brother Ethan since they started making movies like Blood Simple (1983). While Ethan seems to be totally devoted to writing stage plays, Joel took William Shakespeare’s tragic morality tale to a truly new aesthetic height, showcasing Stefan Dechant’s jaw-dropping production design and Bruno Delbonnel’s striking black-and-white, academy ratio (that’s 1.37:1) cinematography. Stripping away almost every excessive distraction to make sure to focus on Shakespeare’s text, Coen spoke in the press conference about taking aesthetic cues from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1966).
He also confirmed that the casting of life-partner-in-crime Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth was the reason why he decided to make the project in the first place. McDormand shared that her very first memorized speeches as a 14-year-old was that of Lady Macbeth, and to be able to play this role exactly 50 years later at the age of 64 felt like she had truly come full circle. In fact, she even started crying during the press conference out of the sheer emotional power it all was for her. Denzel Washington, who was expectedly riveting in the title role, reached over to console her and acknowledged that being true “elders” (he turns 67 this December 28), he and McDormand bonded to their tragic characters on a much more profound level. The film is jam-packed with extraordinary performers from Brendan Gleeson to Corey Hawkins, and just you wait for Kathryn Hunter’s terrifying portrayal of all three witches — she played Arabella Figg in the fifth Harry Potter film The Order of the Phoenix (2007) — along with a show-stopping soliloquy by Stephen Root, who played Milton in Mike Judge’s Office Space (1999). Picked as the opening night film for NYFF, I couldn’t help but sense on an ominous air looming over both lead actors’ careers. Perhaps the feeling was accentuated by the fact that the Coen Brothers have now broken up. The Tragedy of Macbeth might be truly symbolic that the times… they are a-changin’.. Perhaps The Tragedy of Macbeth is truly a symbol that the times, they are a-changin’. The film is theatrically distributed in the US by Apple/A24 and will premiere on December 25. It will then begin streaming on Apple TV on January 14, 2022.
Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, teaches adjunct at Chapman University, is part of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle and curates/hosts “MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS,” a film series celebrating underrated & overlooked cinema in a neo-sincere manner.