Koslofsky’s Corner: Jonah’s back from NYFF, and he’s seen some of the year’s best

October 4, 2019

Transcendence. The feeling that’s triggered when a piece of art goes beyond mere expression, what’s felt when a blend of ideas are executed to perfection. At least, that’s how a guy talking to me outside Lincoln Center explained it last Friday. But transcendence is an inherently subjective experience, and every time a critic proclaims that they’ve had something like it, the word loses value.

Still, two movies I saw at the New York Film Festival qualify for this high praise. They are the best of the best, movies that had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish. But more importantly, they’re movies I won’t do justice to—in an ideal world, I would’ve immediately written about both, doing my best to bottle my reactions into an honest, full expressions of how I felt as soon as possible.

That’s not what happened. I had other commitments, other priorities that took precedence as I shuffled between coffee dates and commutes, interviews and assignments. So I’m going to do these movies dirty. I’m going to try to sum up their brilliance, and I’m going to fail. That’s ok. I’ll try again later, and I’ve produced no shortage of good writing during this festival—it’s about time I deliver some sub-par stuff (I’m also right up against my deadline on Hoot-night, a big no-no).

Anyway, how are you supposed to put yourself back together after watching something like “Portrait of a Lady on Fire?” Directed by French auteur Celine Sciamma, we follow just four characters, our attention squarely focused on Marianne (Noemie Merlant), a painter, and Heloise (Adele Haenel) her unwilling subject. Set in late eighteenth-century France, Heloise refuses to pose, as a portrait would eventually mean marriage, with her image being sent to potential suitors.

Marianne and Heloise come up with an alternative. It’s an excruciating exploration of desire—one I’d rather not mansplain (aside from a handful of moments, men are almost completely absent from this narrative). In the early moments, you can feel “Portrait of a Lady” aching to become something like the lackadaisical “Call Me by Your Name”—only its subjects are facing a society that’s both homophobic and suffocatingly patriarchal. Still, a romance does eventually bloom between our pair, after a genuinely breathtaking meet-cute.

Stumbling out of the theater, I couldn’t help but think of last year’s “The Favourite,” another queer story that dared to look at history through a feminine gaze. But “The Favourite” was, at its core, a comedy–“Portrait of a Lady” is an unabashedly sincere and sentimental piece of filmmaking, a crushing blow to the soul. When the lights in the theater re-ignited, I sat dumbfounded, wishing the film could’ve lasted just a little longer. But even if Marianne and Heloise’s story has to end, I know I’ll remember it for years to come. Opening in select theaters Dec. 6, I implore you—take a glance at this “Portrait.”

My other favorite from the festival was Bong Joon-Ho’s “Parasite.” This is another tough one to sum up because of just how many twists the South Korean feature packs into its two-hours-and-ten-minute runtime. Things start simple enough: We meet the Kim family living in deep poverty, crammed into a tiny semi-basement apartment. But things start to turn around when their college-age son Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) gets a job as an English tutor for the wealthy Park family.

That the Park family emerges a grotesque mirror of the Kim family is no coincidence—nor is this the first parallel to Jordan Peele’s “Us.” I really like the latter film, so know I mean business when I say that “Parasite” is a slicker, tighter and all-together superior version of a lot of the same class conscious ideas.

I also like a lot of Bong’s prior movies—“Snowpiercer” became an unlikely hit in the United States for good reason, and “The Host” is a rollicking critique of the Iraq-war politics and lies of its time. But I’ve always felt something holding me back from truly getting into this filmmaker’s work, some nagging sense that there was room for improvement.

Not so with “Parasite.” Reader, I have not stopped thinking about this film since my screening. I’ll be engaged in some other activity and find the film worming around in my brain. I’ll be thinking about something else and suddenly come to a realization about a certain camera angle or line of dialogue. I can’t spoil anything here nor can I say much more. But like the creatures it’s named after, “Parasite” has attached itself to my brain in a way few movies ever have. Thankfully, you won’t have to take my word for it much longer: the film opens in Boston on Oct. 18. Expect more coherent thoughts then—for now, I’ll be here (back at Brandeis) mulling this movie over.

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