In September 2021, I attended the New York Film Festival. There, I watched Joel Coen’s Tragedy of Macbeth, Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, Joan Campion’s The Power of the Dog, Rebecca Hall’s Passing, and Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman. Here are some of my reactions.
The film festival kicked off with Joel Coen’s Tragedy of Macbeth, starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. All five theaters were completely booked for this.
The trio made the famous tragedy feel like film noir, edging on horror. Yet, it was also an homage to the form of the play: the stage was pared down like a theater’s. Shakespeare’s dialogue was left unmodified even if there were a few scenes that probably suffered for remaining faithful.
I later learned in the Q&A that choosing older actors to play the starring couple is a bold choice. The industry standard is to cast twenty-somethings because it is otherwise hard to sell their ambition. But McDormand and Washington show that the old could have ambition too. For them, “it is their last chance for glory.”
(Interestingly, like two other films I watched, Macbeth was produced by a streaming service. Coen was asked about his feelings regarding films going straight to cinema and streaming services. He said that he and his brother owe their careers to streaming. “When I first got into the movie business, the reason I was able to make movies with Ethan is because the studios had an ancillary market for risky films, which were cassettes, VHS tapes, which are basically television. So I’m not going to bust on the thing that made my career.” This take was particularly charitable.)
This Norwegian film is the best film I’ve seen in a long time. It is about Julie, a restless young woman and her struggles through the first adult years of life and love. I was instantly invested in her growth. The dialogue was raw and realistic, and yet its study of romanticism has affected me till today.
Power of the Dog is Jane Campion’s adaptation of the novel of the same name by Thomas Savage. It is Western thriller about two rancher brothers and an exploration of cowboy masculinity. This is probably Benedict Cumberbatch’s best acting, albeit him playing yet another type casted role of the misunderstood genius. I didn’t quite enjoy the movie as a whole as it felt slow and meandering. The movie takes a while to settle into the main conflict and characters.
Actress Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut is based on Passing by Nella Larsen. The film, starringTessa Thompson and Ruth Nega, is about mixed race friends, one of whom decided to pass as white. I’m a huge fan of Hall and Thompson’s acting and gasped when I saw them in person.
Black and white was artfully chosen to emphasize the differences in skin tone. Hall also plays with the focus of the camera so the black and white shapes evoke abstract expressionism. The recurring piano theme added to the dreamy nature of a character’s decision—we know that she has to wake up at some point. Unfortunately, Hall’s writing made the climax unrealistic. There was not enough leadup to the end, so the ending felt cheap at the moment.
I’m a big fan of Celine Sciamma, from Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and she has done it again. Watch as she portrays two eight-year-olds and makes you want to be a child again. She does so in 72 minutes, but it didn’t feel that short. The film was light and wholesome, while exploring memory and the bond between mothers and daughters.
Thanks for reading! If you want to read what my New York film festival experience was like outside of the screenings, read my blog post about it here.