The New York Film Festival lands at a time when the film industry’s glamour has been dented. At the time I wrote this article, SAG is still on strike, while the WGA is about to end theirs. The promises of innovation within streaming have proven to be based upon a lack of transparency and exploitation of workers. Success has changed the streamers themselves, as they’ve become no more adventurous than basic cable channels. Film theaters still haven’t fully recovered from the pandemic. 25% of the audience for “Barbie” had not seen another movie in the theater since 2020. Relying on a few highly successful films, made for budgets of at least $100 million, and endlessly recycling IP will not pan out in the long run. The strikes may have the salutary effect of slowing down the treadmill of mainstream releases so that more adventurous films have a chance at making it into theaters.
In any case, the festival’s lineup reflects the presence of queer directors and themes: Gay director Todd Haynes’ “May December” is the opening night entry, while Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall” depicts the murder trial of a bisexual woman. Queer poet Nikki Giovanni is the subject of a documentary, while the festival reaches back to the past for gay director Paul Vecchiali’s 1970 “The Strangler.”
Taichi Yamada’s novel “Strangers” was already adapted into one great film, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1988 “The Discarnates.” Astonishingly, gay director Andrew Haigh has made another masterpiece out of it, “All of Us Strangers.” By making his protagonist Adam (Andrew Scott) gay, he changes the emotional tenor. Because his parents died in a car crash when Adam was 12, he was never able to come out to them and have them share his life as an adult gay man. One night, he meets his neighbor Harry (Paul Mescal) and begins a relationship, but around the same time, he returns to the London suburb where he grew up, going back to his family house and discovering that his parents live on as ghosts there. (Jamie Bell and Claire Foy, the actors who play them, are substantially younger than Scott.) “All of Us Strangers” relies on an ambiguity reflected in its many images of doubling in mirrors. It also keeps us guessing about how much of the film exists only in Adam’s head. Despite scenes in a crowded subway and nightclub, its world is almost empty — the four main characters are the only ones who appear much. “All of Us Strangers” finds a new twist in the coming out story, one that reflects the changes in gay life since the ‘80s and the fact that many people do wait till middle age to speak openly to their parents. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment is making Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s schmaltzy “The Power of Love” sound like a metaphysical declaration as it serenades the audience out the theater.
With “Orlando, My Political Biography,” trans philosopher Paul B. Preciado makes his debut as a director. His film takes bi author Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel “Orlando,” whose hero changes gender halfway through, as the founding text for non-binary and trans identity. Its theatricality, mixing fiction and documentary, bypasses the lecturing tone of so many films about trans people. Preciado assumes that his audience can identify with this material, rather than needing their hand held to understand it. Instead of being treated as “subjects,” almost every actor in the film introduces themselves by name and then says “I’m playing Orlando, a character in Virginia Woolf’s novel.” They freely mix their own experiences with Woolf’s, discussing the medical profession’s gatekeeping of access to hormones and desire to force them into a heteronormative binary. One of the most memorable scenes shows a group of trans and non-binary people sitting in their shrink’s waiting room. While the application of “Orlando” as a universal myth has its limits, despite Preciado’s choice of performers from varied backgrounds, “Orlando, My Political Biography” demonstrates that at times, real lives can best be depicted in their full complexity by fictionalizing them.
Gay French director Pierre Creton has devoted most of his work to unglamorous aspects of queer life, frequently depicting elderly men in rural towns. Despite making five features, he earns a living as a worker in agriculture. He claims that “A Prince,” is the first fully fictional one, but it feels like an adaptation of a memoir. Creton himself plays his alter ego Pierre-Joseph as a middle-aged man. He rarely moves the camera, shooting outdoors and relying on a constantly shifting voice-over. Creton casts two well-known actors, Françoise Lebrun and Mathieu Amalric, in voice-only roles, but most parts are performed by non-professionals. (Several characters are played by more than one actor, while their voices are dubbed by another one.) Growing up in Normandy, Pierre-Joseph finds his trade in horticulture, while he experiences a sexual awakening with Kutta (Chiman Dangi) and two elderly men. Creton’s gentle touch is appealing, as the film stands outside of time. (A reference to binge-watching every episode of “Game of Thrones” is startlingly contemporary.) But it’s also a bit too distanced. The soundtrack assumes an intimacy the images and performances deny. At best, this has an unusually homemade feel, with a welcome disinterest in fashion.
The soundtrack of Onyeka Igwe and Huw Lemmey’s 35-minute “Ungentle” tells a story, but its images do not. Inspired by the upper-class gay Englishmen who turned double agent in the early days of the Cold War and worked on behalf of the USSR, Lemmey, who co-hosts the “Bad Gays” podcast, wrote a monologue from the POV of an imaginary character who shared their background and also became a Soviet spy. In a meta twist, Ben Whishaw, who is both openly gay and an actor in the last few James Bond films, takes on this man’s posh voice. He recalls growing up in comfort and becoming radicalized after sleeping with a working-class boy and realizing the harm Britain’s class system had caused. As he recites his life story, Igwe and Lemmey juxtapose it with contemporary landscapes shot in Cambridge and London. In smooth pans, their camera lovingly films grass and trees. The natural beauty found by “Ungentle” seems distant from the tormented rebellion of its narrative. If the film has a major flaw, it’s that the voice-over completely dominates the visuals: it’s hard to lay out wall-to-wall narration over meditative images and have the latter compete in a fair fight. Yet “Ungentle” imagines a past whose traces can only be observed by staring carefully into the present.
It plays as part of the program “Currents 6: Site Specific,” with two other shorts.
61st New York Film Festival | Sept. 29th-Oct. 15th | Film at Lincoln Center | Check filmlinc.org for full lineup and schedule.