NYFF58 At-Home Dispatch #3: Michelle Pfeiffer, Scene-Stealing Cats, and More Steve McQueen

The problem with doing festival dispatches more or less organized by your watch schedule is that you inevitably wind up feeling like you left something out. This year’s missed opportunity: When I caught up with The Woman Who Ran, it seemed like an obvious companion to The Calming. The latter, as covered here, is about a woman traveling around and retreating into solitude where she can find it. Hong Sang-soo’s The Woman Who Ran is about a woman (Kim Minhee) in a similar state, but with a more socially oriented structure: Spending time apart from her husband for the first time since they were married, she visits three different figures from her past. The scenes are long, chatty, sometimes awkward, and sometimes revealing; the best one only tangentially involves the lead character, as one of her friends has a polite but strained disagreement with a new neighbor about whether it’s reasonable for her to feed stray cats. (Great cat acting forms a punchline that somehow felt unexpected even though it’s the natural endpoint.) It’s less aesthetically pleasing than The Calming, as well as less, well calming, but it also generates some minor, compelling mysteries from these glimpses into the characters’ lives. (It’s also even shorter, at 80 minutes! Lots of below-90 runtimes in this year’s NYFF, as if the programmers knew viewers might be fitting in their viewings into an increasingly tricky jigsaw puzzle of at-home viewing.)

I Carry You With Me is a more ambitious travelogue, following a gay cook from Mexico who decides to cross the border in order to provide for his young son–even if it means not seeing his child for a long time. His decision is complicated by his new relationship with a teacher, more socially secure in his own homosexuality. Director/cowriter Heidi Ewing is doing her first fiction film after working in documentaries, and there’s a major flip in the movie’s presentation that takes advantage of that background, while also exacerbating the movie’s problems. I’ll go ahead and issue a spoiler warning for the rest of this paragraph so I can discuss it: About two-thirds of the way through, I Carry You With Me makes a time jump and switches from gritty drama to documentary, revealing its “fictional” first hour-plus as the actual story of its subjects, who Ewing proceeds to profile. It’s a fascinating gambit, and the moment it happens feels something like magic. It also makes the movie feel, ultimately, like a tedious palindrome that flips on a well-engineered axis, because neither part of the movie is as satisfying as that realization of what Ewing is up to (and which I’ve just spoiled by describing, ugh). The drama is a kitchen sink full of predictable miseries, heartfelt and immediate and sometimes downright eye-rolling. The doc side is sweet but insubstantial; it arrives and then has very little to add about its subjects except that they are real people. 

Red, White and Blue, the third entry in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series to screen at NYFF, is a more effective docudrama, in large part because it doesn’t play like one. It’s more of a character study of Leroy Logan (John Boyega), a researcher-turned-cop who winds up fighting racism within the ranks at the London Metropolitan Police. The real-life Logan eventually became superintendent of that organization, but the movie is about his transition from lab work to patrolling duty, and his struggles to reform the police from within. It’s the most streamlined movie of McQueen’s three NYFF entries, burrowing into Logan’s point of view even as he’s surrounded by systemic rot. It’s also a powerful showcase for Boyega, who grappled with similar issues in Detroit but here doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of history. If Mangrove and Lovers Rock have the fullness of community, Red, White and Blue, appropriate to its first-act story, feels like a building block. It’s rock solid.

The closing-night attraction of NYFF was French Exit, and while there’s usually something a little splashier on the docket, I did feel one of my only Virtual Festival pangs over not seeing this one with a crowd. Then again, the reaction to this one sounds pretty split, so maybe my imaginary audience would have been as stone-faced as I was during Toni Erdmann a few years back. All I know is I laughed way more at French Exit than any other NYFF movie this year; a small feat, perhaps, but it’s also funnier than plenty of broad comedies. Director Azazel Jacobs (Terri) and screenwriter Patrick DeWitt adapt DeWitt’s novel, unread by me; I had the material pegged as a stage-to-screen translation, because much of the dialogue has a particular, sometimes stiff sense of phrasing that I associate with playwrights. But Jacobs doesn’t overplay his hand, and keeps the material, following a formerly rich widow on her possibly-suicidal move to Paris, brisk and droll. The movie gets better, funnier, and more poignant as it goes, powered by a terrific Michelle Pfeiffer performance (though maybe cool it on “role of a lifetime” talk; let’s call it one of her best roles since Hollywood lost interest in her circa her 50th birthday and leave out the Batman Returns slander). I’m less certain about what the hell Lucas Hedges is doing, playing her son; he seems to be aiming for Wes Anderson but his affected opacity misses the mark–especially strange as he’s appeared in two previous Anderson pictures. Valerie Mahaffey, though, steals multiple scenes as an earnest busybody desperate to make friends, and Tracy Letts voices Pfeiffer’s departed husband, now possibly inhabiting the body of a black cat. There’s something comically purgatorial about where French Exit ends up, yet the movie has a certain oddball warmth, too. For a year of online film festivals, making a go of it while we mostly hope that next year’s NYFF won’t be quite like this, it’s just about right.