This year’s New York Film Festival, which kicked off September 28th at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, does not include a record number of woman-helmed features—in fact, it has only about half as many as last year’s lineup, a disappointing statistic that may be an offshoot of the festival’s more exclusive lineup (this spring’s Tribeca, with about three times as many features, did a lot better with regards to gender parity). What NYFF does have, especially in the first few days of the festival, is a number of movies starring women that are directed and written by men, which isn’t much for behind-the-camera representation, but can create an interesting tension between filmmakers and stars.
The most lady-centric of the bunch I’ve seen is Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell, his latest collaboration with Elisabeth Moss, a highlight of his Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth. Perry tackles his subjects—literary-world narcissism, toxic female friendships, and now punk rock of the ’90s—head-on, heedless of his intermittent ability to depict actual human relationships. Moss has been instrumental in giving some of those past relationships a real pulse, and she’s even more central to Her Smell, in which she plays the unstable frontwoman of an influential ’90s rock band. (It would be impolite to suggest she’s mostly playing Courtney Love, but the Hole singer-songwriter is an obvious model.) Moss isn’t in every frame of this 135-minute movie, but even when she’s offscreen, her character, stage-named Becky Something, defines scenes via her unpredictable absences.
Perry stages the movie not like a biopic, but like a distended, sometimes punishing version of the micro-biography structure that’s become popular over the course of the decade. Apart from some home-video snippets of Becky Something and her bandmates in their heyday, the movie takes place over the course of five extended scenes. Three are of Becky falling apart—behaving monstrously after a gig, impossibly during a would-be recording session, and barely bothering to show up for another gig—while two take place during an extended aftermath, where she teeters on the edge of sobriety, financial solvency, and the ability to parent her young daughter.
Perry has never met a state of mind he couldn’t depict with uncomfortable close-ups, but he does modulate his discomfort-inducing style as Becky pulls back from her life of obnoxious hubris (heavy drinking, heavy drunks, picking fights, placing chips on her shoulder and goading everyone she knows into knocking them off). In Becky’s first post-meltdown scene, the camera stays stationary for longer than it has at any point in the previous hour-plus, and the scene quiets way down, muting the Paul Thomas Anderson-style soundtrack of dissonant score. In a moment of startling tenderness, Perry stops the movie cold for Moss to play the piano and sing a Bryan Adams song to her kid.
Tellingly, it’s the most impressive sustained musical performance in the movie, which ultimately lavishes more attention on its end-credits album-cover mock-ups than on the dynamics of performing rock music (a much-ballyhooed late-movie gig turns out to be a “set” of exactly one song). To his credit, Perry seems more aware than ever of Moss’s skill as a performer; she makes his work, which often comes out stilted or mannered, feel rawer and more truthful. A version of Her Smell about a male rock star would be very, very similar, except that it might be unwatchable.
Paul Dano’s Wildlife is, technically speaking, not told from a woman’s point of view, at least not exclusively. His adaptation of the Richard Ford novel, co-written with Zoe Kazan, examines the fracturing of a modest family in 1960, as teenage son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) bears witness to his father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his mother Jean (Carey Mulligan) fucking things up in their new Montana town. Joe is the nominal entry point to the story, but Dano, while an exacting framer of his actors, lets his attention wander in terms of point of view. Jean has some scenes of her own, and early on Dano assembles a sharply edited sequence cutting between all three family members failing at the seemingly simple but actually elusive task of fitting in.
It’s rare to see a movie family, even a small one, get such equal weight on screen, and if anyone is given less to do it’s Jerry, whose departure to take a job fighting forest fires frustrates Jean and spurs her interest in Warren Miller (Bill Camp), as her son watches with a kind of muted, helpless horror. It’s the kind of literary, interior portraiture so few indies feel comfortable enough to indulge—can’t there be a stronger teenage love interest, a fiery monologue, a little more incident, some quirk? Instead, Dano and Kazan underline a moment in time when a polite middle-class (and white) family can’t simply thrive by behaving as they’ve been told they should. Throughout the movie, Dano’s frames and actors feel still and reserved, even when they’re moving, as if the movie is trying its best not to startle them, and they’re doing their best not to be startled.
If anything, the movie is still a little too firm in its underlining; Dano and Kazan repeatedly make implications about characters’ actions and motivations, only to affirm or confirm them a few scenes later. Maybe that’s the downside of the film’s great fortune: having Mulligan at its disposal. Jean makes a number of terrible decisions, and Mulligan has such a strong handle on her character’s attempts at patience and warmth that her missteps involving her son become, if not necessarily justifiable, at least vaguely understandable. Dano gives the movie over to her carefully and quietly, even when, as with Moss, she’s not actually on the screen.
There’s less of a balance in Non-Fiction, a reunion between Olivier Assayas and his Clouds of Sils Maria star Juliette Binoche. The new film isn’t as Binoche-focused as Clouds; this is more of a mini-ensemble piece in the vein of (sorry) Woody Allen. That is to say, it’s a talky story about a couple of couples: Alain (Guillaume Canet), a book editor married to actress Selena (Binoche), and Alain’s not especially successful novelist Léonard (Vincent Macaigne), who is married to political strategist Valérie (Nora Hamzawi). Alain cheats on Selena with Laure (Christa Théret), a younger and more digital-fluent publishing professional. Selena cheats on Alain with Léonard. Mostly, though, they talk about the publishing industry, about the role of the artist, about the role of social media, about whether anything is lost when books make the transition to digital-only products, whether that transition will ever happen for good, and a dozen or so other topics you have doubtlessly discussed with people without turning the pontifications into a feature film.
It’s probably not fair to compare Non-Fiction to Personal Shopper, the last Assayas film, which has a decidedly different tone and subject matter. But I’m going to do it anyway, because that film made such perceptive yet ambiguous study of a young woman’s grief, that to see him return to the blather of Clouds of Sils Maria, winning points for reproducing conversations that, indeed, sound realistic to the point of familiarity is hard. Sure, it is invigorating to see the publishing industry depicted on screen without a layer of cinematic gloss, but not enough to sustain a full movie. Binoche, as usual, is quite good, but it’s a little uncomfortable to realize how much better the recent Assayas films have served Kristen Stewart (who starred in Personal Shopper and co-starred in Clouds). Assayas has Stewart lean into her natural ambivalence to play with both openness and emotional opacity. He has Binoche, uh, mostly just talk about what it’s like to be an aging actress (this comes up again in Non-Fiction, even as most of the characters talk endlessly about e-books and that hot 2010 topic, bloggers). She can do this well; she can also do a lot more than just make winking jokes about her industry and, later in this film, herself. Maybe next time, Assayas can dispense with the musings and just write her a character as interesting as the ones that Mulligan and Moss get to play.