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NYFF 2020: The Human Voice, The Woman Who Ran, French Exit


The 58th New York Film Festival is officially done. Circumstances beyond our control forced a fully virtual presentation peppered with public screenings at several drive-ins. I questioned the plausibility of arty showcases appearing at the outside venue usually reserved for automobile-based rumpy-pumpy. Then I remembered Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers” was originally part of a New World Pictures drive-in double bill. I was also reminded that John Waters designed the superb poster for this year’s festival. Appropriately, everything makes sense now.

To say goodbye to NYFF, here are a few highlights, and one godawful movie, to close things out. Special mention to “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” a fantastic spirit-lifting collaboration between the singer and director Spike Lee, the intriguing and meditative Helen Keller documentary “Her Socialist Smile,” and Sam Pollard’s superb “MLK/FBI,” which I’ll be reviewing later.

First up is “The Human Voice,” a very tasty slice of high melodrama courtesy of Pedro Almodóvar, Jean Cocteau and Tilda Swinton. Working in English for the first time, Almodóvar “freely adapts” Cocteau’s 1930 play as a tone-shifting monologue that Swinton voraciously devours in exactly half an hour. The director’s trademark colors pop in José Luis Alcaine’s cinematography with their usual reckless abandon; reds, blues and greens fight for dominance while Swinton stalks an invisible presence in her giant loft. Initially, Swinton appears in a dazzling red dress with a huge skirt that evokes a Victorian-era ghost story—indeed Alberto Iglesias’ dramatic score implies that a specter is late for its appearance. And then the phone rings, beginning the type of phone call-based drama they just don’t make anymore.

Throughout, Almodóvar teases us with impending doom and potential horror. “The Human Voice” opens at a hardware store. The camera observes many dangerous tools with the same ominous gaze a woman (Swinton) uses on a wall full of axes. The salesman wraps her selection in brown paper before the woman comically shoves it into her purse. She returns to the loft she shares with a concerned dog named Dash. It’s Dash who wakes her up when the phone rings, and though she misses the call, the mysterious caller tries again later. The woman answers the phone and the game is afoot.

Swinton plays a range of emotions as she pleads with, terrorizes and occasionally submits to the voice on the other end of the line. Almodóvar frames her for maximum effect, sometimes close to us and sometimes so distantly that she feels unreachable. Half-shadowed in darkness, Swinton’s long neck has never looked more regal nor her image more like a manifestation of David Bowie. The director leaves his lead to her own thespian devices, only once fully announcing his presence in a very effective spinning of the room as Swinton bares her character’s soul. Almodóvar also reminds us that Chekhov’s rule about guns appearing in the first act also applies to axes.

At one point, the woman says “clients love my pallor, that mixture of madness and melancholy.” You have to agree that also sums up Tilda Swinton perfectly. While she is fantastic here, I’m not completely sure what to make of “The Human Voice.” I do believe it depicts a haunting, though not the kind we were originally led to believe. No matter. As usual, Almodóvar hit all my melodramatic sweet spots with a vengeance.

When Sisqo wanted to tell us “what guys talk about,” the result was “The Thong Song.” When director Hong Sang-soo wants to tell us what he thinks women talk about, we’re gifted with “The Woman Who Ran.” Here, he creates three conversations between Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee) and the female friends she visits on her first solo vacation in five years. In each vignette, Gam-hee’s friendly chitchat is interrupted, or bookended, by the interruption of a man. The things the men say are as irrelevant and useless as Sisqo’s revelations. As a result, they are told to either get lost, shut up or get used to an existing situation they obnoxiously think they can alter.

Even when men aren’t onscreen, they’re a presence the women are happy to get away from for a little while. Gam-hee tells each of her friends that, until this excursion, she and her husband haven’t spent one day apart in five years. This was his decision, citing togetherness as the ultimate expression of love. Each time Gam-hee utters her spouse’s mantra, she sounds less convincing. Meanwhile, the two women drink and ramble on about things that sound mundane and banal on the surface but may hold deeper meaning upon introspection.

When the men show up, the conversations take on a strangeness that heightens the comforting normalcy and repetition of the other dialogue scenes. Gam-hee’s own confrontation, and subsequent self-reflection, are saved for the final story. Before that, her friend Su-young (Song Seon-mi) has to deal with a poet neighbor who shows up on her doorstep to make an aggressive play for gaining entry into her apartment. The poet is casually eviscerated with words and sent away. Afterwards, Su-Young tells Gam-hee that the guy was a one-time, drunken hook-up who cannot get through his head that he can no longer make withdrawals at the Bank of Booty Call.

This sequence is the most effective use of the male/female communication divide, but the one I couldn’t stop thinking about dealt with cats. Gam-hee’s first stop is to visit Young-soon  (Young-hwa Seo), whose apartment complex is frequented by the stray cats she feeds every day. When a new neighbor interrupts the two women, he asks Young-soon to stop feeding them so they’ll go away and his wife can roam the neighborhood without fear. The entire scene is fraught with a comic tension as the duo politely yet firmly state their opposing positions: She’s not going to stop feeding them because they’re special to her. He counters by saying repeatedly that they are “robber cats,” a term I’ve never heard before but will never stop using now that I have. The scene ends with the appearance of one of the so-called robber cats, a chubby furball that stands in the corner looking very pleased as the camera lovingly zooms in. I could have sworn I saw the same look of satisfaction on Gam-hee’s face in the final shots of “The Woman Who Ran.”

I can apply the “robber cat” designation to Small Frank, the feline star of the NYFF’s closing night film, “French Exit.” Because after Michelle Pfeiffer’s husband Frank dies in the film, Small Frank hops on his body and repeatedly licks his face until Frank’s soul is stolen and transplanted into the cat. Fans of  “Batman Returns” should complain that, by that film’s rationale, Frank should have turned into Catwoman instead. That would have been a lot more interesting than this astonishingly awful tale of privileged, hateful rich people based on a book by Patrick deWitt (who also adapted the screenplay for director Azazel Jacobs). It features garbage characters we’re supposed to love because they’re “quirky.” The entire affair is played as a whimsical symphony. 

Pfeiffer’s Frances Price yanks her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) out of prep school and takes him on a whirlwind journey that only makes sense to her. Before the trip is over, you’ll be reminded of Auntie Mame, “Brewster’s Millions,” any number of movies about séances, door-slamming farces, the infinitely superior mother-son movie, “20th Century Women” and “Life Without Zoe,” the Francis Coppola/Sofia Coppola segment of “New York Stories” that everybody pretends isn’t there.  

This movie’s idea of “going broke” is Frances being forced to sell everything she owns before moving to a gorgeous apartment in Paris. She’s accompanied by stacks of 100 euros, which she sticks in a closet. When the money runs out, Frances plans to kill herself, leaving her son not only alone, but penniless and in a foreign country. Not that I’d care. Malcolm is the toxic type that movies constantly throw in our faces, demanding we cleave to him when our instincts tell us to run like Hell. His girlfriend certainly sees this in him, cursing him out and breaking up with him when he won’t tell his mother that they are engaged. Yet, she shows up later in Paris with her new fiancée in tow, supposedly confused about her relationship with Malcolm. Eventually, the two men arm-wrestle using her as a prize.

This is also the type of movie where people in less privileged situations are stripped of their humanity. Twice, Frances offers money to displaced people; she’s depicted as some kind of saint while these people are treated with the same level of disgust “French Exit” has for anyone who isn’t the two leads. Victims include supporting characters played by Valerie Mahaffey, whose lonely, loquacious older woman is the source of a cruel joke involving a frozen dildo, and Jim Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankolé as a private detective hired to hunt down a clairvoyant played by Danielle MacDonald. Her character’s named Madeleine, but Frances constantly refers to her as “the witch Malcolm fucked.”

Believe it or not, I completely bought that Small Frank was indeed shepherding the spirit of Frances’ dead husband. Especially since the gorgeous black kitty is voiced by Tracy Letts. Yes, the cat talks, and I’m down for that because Letts’ voice is so good at expressing how much contempt he has for the family that keeps bugging him through séances. Plus, Letts and his kitty incarnation distract us from Pfeiffer’s fourth rate imitation of Gena Rowlands. Frank dislikes Frances now, and you would too if, upon discovering your dead body, she left you there to rot under a black cat while she went on vacation to Vail. Small Frank hates Frances because (spoiler alert!) she tries to kill him.

In the 29 years I’ve been attending the New York Film Festival, “French Exit” is the worst thing I’ve seen there and yes, I’ve seen “Wonder Wheel.” Still, this was a festival full of some very good films overall. I hope to see next year’s batch in person at Lincoln Center.



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