As blessed as New York filmgoers are, each year a legion of excellent films that are feted at Cannes, Venice, Locarno, Toronto, and Berlin somehow never make it here. First Look, a new showcase at the Museum of the Moving Image, attempts to fill in the gaps that other festivals and series in town have neglected. The festival celebrates the latest work from respected auteurs such as Chantal Akerman (Almayer’s Folly) and Johnnie To (Life Without Principle) alongside debuts by new talents, like Valérie Massadian (Nana) and Théo Court (Ocaso). Narrative films—Christoph Hochhäusler’s The City Below and Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Elena, among others—are as well-represented as more challenging work, like Raya Martin’s Buenas Noches, España, and Pietro Marcello’s The Silence of Peleshian. Some choices shine particularly brightly, but all are deserving of their overdue exposure to New York audiences.
In It’s the Earth Not the Moon, Portuguese filmmaker Gonçalo Tocha dispenses with the myth of the invisible documentarian and lets his enthusiastic presence pervade his love letter to the isolated volcanic island of Corvo. His shadow looms over shots of scenery—his conversational voiceover guides the action—and his subjects address him directly as they peer into the camera. Over the course of an absorbing three hours, Tocha explores the northernmost island of the Azores, “a place with one of everything.” It is also an uncommonly lovely place, riddled with dramatic cliffs and waterfalls, populated by rare birds and picturesque locals. While Tocha roams into the craggy hills and spends a few moments with a dancers residency program and some birdwatchers from the U.K., he is most drawn to the townspeople of Vila do Corvo. Tocha forms an affectionate, familiar relationship with them, especially one motherly old woman—the film is built around the progress she makes on a hat she knits for the director. The old customs and industries that once flourished in Corvo have almost vanished, and the people on the island seem to see this film as their last chance to preserve something of their lifestyle. As the woman knitting the cap tells Tocha, “Someday when you wear this cap you’ll say ‘It was an old woman of 75 years that made it for me in Corvo.’”
Chantal Akerman’s much anticipated Almayer’s Folly, an interpretation of Joseph Conrad’s first novel, unfolds in a similarly cloistered environment. European exile Kaspar Almayer rots away on his Malaysian jungle estate, sunk in malarial madness and obsessed with the future of his mixed-race daughter, Nina. Determined that she be accepted into European society, he tears her away from her mother and sends her to boarding school, where she is taunted and abused. Despite his centrality to the plot, Almayer is kept at a distance, seen as a faraway figure in saggy, unwashed clothes, his face often turned away—only in the last shot of the film is his ravaged face fully confronted. Akerman focuses instead on the caged and damaged Nina, repeatedly framing her in dead center close-up. As played by newcomer Aurora Marion, Nina has an unsettling, feverish intensity, a mesmeric presence that anchors the film. Almayer’s Folly proceeds in a stately rhythm, with virtuosic camera work moving with ease through menacing undergrowth and along congested city streets, creating a space oppressed by unseen forces, inhabited by characters who sleepwalk and soliloquize, unable to escape from their self-made prisons.
In Papirosen, director Gaston Solnicki composes a documentary portrait of a more endearing patriarch—his own father, Victor. Generous and loyal, Victor is caught up in his large and tumultuous Jewish family, whose story is sketched through scraps of home movies on Super 8, VHS, and digital video as the film swings backward and forward in time. The Solnickis fled from Europe to Buenos Aires in the wake of World War II, and although they successfully rebuilt their lives in Argentina, much was lost along the way. Victor isn’t sure where he was born, and his own father committed suicide at a young age “out of sadness.” Yet the family has a dark and incisive sense of humor: A little boy, about to blow out the candles on his birthday cake, wishes for his cousin Gaston to “stop filming”; Victor, prostrate on a massage table from back pain, says, “I feel like I hope Hitler would feel.” In a slight 74 minutes, Solnicki manages to use his most personal experiences to explore both universal familial dynamics and major 20th-century events. And while Papirosen lingers over old wounds and ponders the weight of history, the ending credits are so crowd-pleasing that the final mood is a celebratory one.
Family legacy is also at the heart of Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s dreamy film Palaces of Pity. Part The Saragossa Manuscript, part Heathers, Palaces of Pity juxtaposes bold, visionary imagery with black comedy. A grandmother wants to “live eternally” through her granddaughters, and pits them against each other when she dies before completing her will. While the first half of the film concerns philosophical ruminations on adolescence and death, set against expansive backdrops, including a soccer stadium, medieval ruins, and a rococo estate on a hill, the second act is more absurd, involving a doctor with the head of a St. Bernard dog, and an inventive explanation of the term “ghosting.”
Ostensibly operating on a more conventional narrative level, Christoph Hochhäusler’s The City Below nods toward yuppie erotic thrillers, as Svenja, the alluring wife of an upstanding new employee at a Frankfurt business firm catches the eye of the boss, Roland, instigating a dangerous affair. Controlled tracking shots slip over chilly glass office buildings where displays of power are muted yet firm. But despite the icy veneer and rational plot machinations, certain jagged elements refuse to fit in with the assumed genre. Svenja isn’t the average femme fatale—she has a spacey, emotionless affect, and weird quirks, like fabricating her resume and taking pills from strangers. Roland is similarly peculiar, paying mysterious visits to a drug addict and constructing an elaborate, pointless lie about his family background. The City Below closes with an upending of everything the plot has built, questioning the eventual importance of affairs and bad business deals alike.
Other worthwhile films in First Look include Nana, a winner at Locarno for Best First Film, which observes the exploits of a very young child who constructs her own intricate world out of toys and dead rabbits after being abandoned by her mother. A little girl operating without adult guidance is comedic but disturbing subject matter, made palatable by Kelyna Lecomte as the determined Nana, who gives the best performance by a French child under five since Victoire Thivisol in Ponette. A minor work by a major director, Philippe Garrel’s That Summer follows the turbulent relationship of Italian actress Angele and French artist Frederic, who invite Elizabeth and Paul, a calmer and less stunning couple, to stay with them in their apartment in Rome. Even if the narcissistic romanticism of Frederic and Angele can seem like frivolous posturing, it is a thrill to see Monica Bellucci and Louis Garrel scream at each other: In one of their best fight scenes, Bellucci mashes Garrel’s face with one hand to a point that it looks like he’s actually in pain. Unlike Garrel’s depressive husbands and wives, the buoyant young couple in Raya Martin’s Buenas Noches, España share a mutual thirst for exploration as they tumble through their television into an elastic world of looping time and malleable space. A cinematic palate cleanser, Buenas Noches, España is a sensory immersion of flashing primary colors bleeding into a hypnotic soundscape, and also, unexpectedly, a love story.