This is a pre-print of an article published in J Assist Reprod Genet (2020). The final authenticated version is available online at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10815-020-01938-9.
This was the 43rd annual Telluride Film Festival, and (about) our twentieth. Telluride was as beautiful as ever, and, except for an occasional brief sprinkle, the weather was perfect. Film stars abounded, including Tom Hanks who was here to introduce his latest film SULLY, the viewing of which we chose to defer until its screeening in our local cinema.
(Telluride at Dusk)
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 2
Since Kate, one of our traveling companions, had to leave the Festival early, we decided to skip The Feed, a standup food event on Telluride’s Main Street, and dine at the elegant New Sheridan restaurant. This left time for only one film, a late (10 PM) showing of WAKEFIELD. Directed by Robin Swicord, who wrote the screenplay for THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, and starring Bryan Cranston as Wakefield and Jennifer Garner as his wife Diane, the film traces Wakefield’s sudden, surprising and troubling decision to “drop out” of his own life. When his Metro North commuter train from Manhattan is delayed in a power outage, Wakefield chooses not to pick up Diane’s worried calls. Returning home, he secretes himself in a dusty attic above their garage, where for the next nine months he spies on his wife and two daughters as they slowly adjust to his inexplicable disappearance. Based on a New Yorker story by E. L. Doctorow, WAKEFIELD explores the perhaps universal desire to witness our own life as a means of self-understanding and recovery. Garner’s performance as the often-silent object of regard is excellent, but WAKEFIELD frequently drags while presenting its intimate portrait of one man’s emotional and physical descent. In the end this viewer remains puzzled about the nature of Wakefield’s anguish and his cruelly chosen means of renewal. RON’S GRADE: B
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 3
We rose early on Saturday to secure places online for a bound-to-be rushed tribute to actor Casey Affleck followed by a viewing of Affleck’s latest film, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. In retrospect, if it were necessary to rise at 1 AM to see this extraordinary film by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, it would have been worthwhile. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is composed of a multiplicity of crystalline present tense and flashback scenes, which together compose a narrative of overwhelming emotional power. Lee Chandler (Affleck) works in a dead-end job as janitor in a Boston apartment complex. Taciturn and withdrawn, he reveals his deep-lying anger in a series of barroom brawls. When Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies suddenly, leaving behind a will that makes Lee the sole guardian of Joe’s teenage son Patrick (wonderfully played by Lucas Hedges), we begin to see the horrendous tragedy that underlies Lee’s anger and guilt. A meeting on the street between Lee and his ex-wife Randy (also beautifully played by Michelle Williams) exposes griefs so deep that even love cannot assuage. Can parenting Patrick revive Lee’s haunted spirit, or will his despairing utterance, “I can’t beat this,” prove true? In images and story MANCHESTER BY THE SEA gives us an extraordinary portrait of life in twenty-first century New England—and America. But the emotion of this film rests on Affleck’s Academy Award deserving performance. RON’S grade: A+
(Right: Casey Affleck)
Next up was Irish director Aisling Walsh’s MAUDIE. The film traces over thirty years in the life of Maud Lewis (1903-1970), one of Canada’s greatest primitivist painters. Sally Hawkins plays Maud, whom we first meet as a young woman suffering from severe early-onset arthritis. Despite her handicap, Maud nevertheless chooses to leave the care of her nasty guardian-aunt to work for room and board as housekeeper for Everett Lewis (played masterfully by Ethan Hawke), a very poor Nova Scotian fish peddler. Beautiful austere northern coastal landscapes alternate with emotional scenes shot (at director Walsh’s insistence) inside a reconstruction of the twelve foot by twelve foot “house” in which Maud and Everett spent their lives. Everett has a brusque and overbearing nature (early on he tells Maud that in the household hierarchy she stands below the dogs and chickens) but he softens as he comes to appreciate the practical and emotional value of Maud’s presence. This erasing of hierarchy accelerates as Maud exhibits a gift for painting that eases their poverty and that eventually makes her world famous. Sally Hawkins delivers an outstanding performance as an outwardly unattractive disabled woman whose inner charm, beauty, and intelligence show through and grow even as she ages. Hawke never loses his rough demeanor but his mature love and respect for “Maudie” (whom he marries at her insistence as the price for sex) become evident. The scenes of him transporting Maud to town by pushing her in a handcart over the heath and his grief over her death show that a relationship of convenience has become a loving collaboration in the creation of beauty. RON’S GRADE: A
Later this evening we dined at Allred’s Restaurant on the Telluride gondola stop and had the opportunity to thank Ms. Walsh for this wonderful film. Here’s a photo of her.
My day ended on my own with a 9:15 showing of NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER. Israeli director Joseph Cedar’s previous film FOOTNOTE remains one of my all-time Telluride favorites, so my expectations for this, his latest film, were high. Norman, as played by Richard Gere, is an operator with a business card but no office who pretends to know everybody. In this role, he accidentally does a real favor for Michal (very well played by Lior Ashkenazi), an in-and-out of favor Israeli politician who soon and surprisingly rises to the post of prime minister. Norman thus faces new opportunities, but the challenges and commitments that come with them overwhelm him and threaten to once again thrust him to the margin. With Gere as its lead character, this film may well make it to the Cineplexes. It could be that I was tired with the late start, but, despite its informative depiction of how things get done in the world of politics, I found NORMAN’s presentation of its character’s ways to be repetitive and sleep inducing. RON’S GRADE B-
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 4
Sunday began with a tribute to Amy Adams followed by a screening of her latest film, ARRIVAL. The clips of Adams’ career to date revealed her transition from a youthful and innocent beauty (JUNEBUG, 2005) to a tougher mature woman (FIGHTER, 2010). Adams spoke of the changes being a mother have wrought in her life and the role of various directors in helping her avoid becoming identified with a single character-type.
ARRIVAL is the latest film by Denis Villeneuve, whom I regard as one of the finest directors working today. Since making INCENDIES (2010), which is very near the top of my list of favorite films, Villeneuve has transitioned to Hollywood with a series of outstanding genre films (PRISONERS 2013; SICARIO 2015). ARRIVAL is his exploration of the science fiction genre. Based on a story by Ted Chiang, ARRIVAL chronicles the appearance of twelve mammoth alien pods at locations all around the earth. Why are they here? Are they friend or foe? Linguist Dr. Louise Banks (very well played by Adams) is called on to establish communication with the visitors. Scenes of her daughter’s life and death are interwoven with those of her team’s visits inside the pod to the seven-legged alien heptapods. ARRIVAL becomes a fascinating narrative about language and its relation to time. It ends as we begin to unravel the puzzles it presents. We see that flashbacks are not necessarily flashbacks, and that what began as a sci-fi flick is really about the intensity of parenting and motherhood. RON’S GRADE: A
ARRIVAL was followed by GRADUATION, the latest film by Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, whose 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS is a Telluride great. It follows the difficult effort by a dedicated and ethical physician, Romeo (very well played by Adrian Titieni), to ensure that his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) pass her baccalaureate examinations with grades good enough to get her out of the country and into a promised scholarship in England. Romeo and his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) are on the edge of divorce and in despair over their decision, decades before, to return to Romania in the wake of dictator Ceausescu’s ouster. None of their dreams for the renewal of the nation have materialized, rendering their hopes for Eliza’s future both deeply personal as well as parental. But pursuing this new dream leads Romeo into the web of corruption that pervades Romanian society. This threatens to undo everything positive the doctor has accomplished in life. GRADUATION lacks the dramatic tension of 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS’ chilling exploration of the implications of illegal abortion, but it offers a compelling portrayal of the difficulties of middle-class life in contemporary Romania. RON’S GRADE: A-
Next up for us was THINGS TO COME, directed by Mia Hansen-Løve. It explores a seemingly more fortunate example of middle class life, this time in Paris, where we follow Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) a lycée professor of philosophy as she moves between her classroom, her comfortable Paris apartment, and a seaside Brittany summer home. But Nathalie’s life is not without its upsets. Her publisher wants her to agree to “more marketable” editions of her textbooks (or wants to replace them entirely with more trendy texts), her lycée-teacher husband informs her that he is leaving her for a younger women, and students are blocking entrance to her school on the grounds that reforms aimed at raising the retirement age (which disadvantage her generation) will further impede their access to jobs. When her husband departs, Nathalie decides to spend some time in the mountainous Vercors region where a student protégé has joined an intellectual commune whose members debate German philosophy and teach (part time) at the University of Grenoble. But communal life is not for her, “she has been there.” THINGS TO COME reflects the economic and demographic turmoil in contemporary French society as well as the turmoil inside an aging woman who watches her comfortable world unravel. Is there a positive message? Perhaps. Philosophy remains a strong support in her life, as does the arrival of a first grandchild. In many ways, this film mimics the many charming cinematic depictions of middle-class life in France during the “thirty glorious” years of the late twentieth century. But it also perhaps unintentionally undermines those classic depictions, by showing a society whose middle-class confidences have rested on uncertain foundations and now face challenges from all sides. I remain somewhat disturbed that this film repeats the conventions of the past and never quite gets past them. RON’S GRADE: B
My Sunday ended with a late showing of the 1970 made-for-Russian-television movie IT WAS THE MONTH OF MAY by director Marlen Khutsiev (to see what dedicated Communists his parents were, decrypt his first name). This was one of two selections of films by Festival guest director Volker Schlondörff celebrating the Soviet victory in World War II (the other was the East German I WAS NINETEEN).
IT WAS THE MONTH OF MAY begins with several minutes of ear-shattering newsreel footage of the battle of Berlin which then gives way to total silence. It resumes with a high shot of a troop of Russian soldiers in a hayloft awakening from sleep. Peace and victory. We follow the soldiers as they enjoy their bivouac on a German farm, whose pleasant “Bauer” and his buxom, pretty wife are eager to please. On one of their forays into the countryside, however, the troop comes across a vacated concentration camp with all its facilities of torment intact. They return to the farm to find that the Bauer and his wife have fled. The film concludes with graphic concentration camp footage. Marlen’s parents may have been good Marxist-Leninists, but in a coded way IT WAS THE MONTH OF MAY subverts Soviet propaganda by graphically showing that the camps’ inmates were not just “Russians” or “Poles” but Jews. Though this film sometimes drags and is naïve in its evident propaganda, it offers a unique Russian glimpse into the meaning and aftermath of the war. RON’S GRADE: B+ (I wish I had had the time to see the supposedly better made I WAS NINETEEN, a product of the German Babelsberg film city taken over by occupying Russian forces.)
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 5
Our final day began with a tribute to Chilean director Pablo Larraín. Selections from his deeply social-political films (NO, TONY MANERO, THE CLUB) and an interview were followed by clips from the forthcoming JACKIE, his first American-made film that stars Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy.
The tribute was followed by Larraín’s latest film, NERUDA, a semi-fictionalized biopic about Chile’s acclaimed poet, deposed senator, and communist activist. Charged with treason in the wake of the American-inspired anti-communist fever of 1948, the poet goes into hiding. Larraín presents these events through the eyes of a resentful cop (well played by Gael García Bernal) who obsessively pursues the poet. Luis Gnecco had to put on thirty pounds to play the sybaritic writer whom we see at once as both narcissistic and charmingly generous. The Javert-like pursuer, who is presented as possibly being Neruda’s biological brother, is a literary invention embodying the hatred of Neruda felt by his political opponents. NERUDA thus suggests that all our political types and antitypes may be the creation of our literary imagination. Frequent quotes from Neruda’s poems remind us that poetry is sometimes able to move historic events. Fans of Neruda’s poetry may very well appreciate this film, but I found its well-played lead character hard to like. RON’S GRADE: B+
(Left to right, Gael García Bernal, Luis Gnecco, interviewer, and Pablo Larraín)
Our afternoon was spent with UNA starring Rooney Mara, a troubling first-time film by Australian theater director Benedict Andrews that may well make it to the Cineplex. If it does, I predict that it will be controversial. Some knowledgeable viewers will see its cinematic adaptation as a degradation of the play on which it is based (even though the screenplay was written by the playwright, David Harrower). Some will see it as either too harsh or too forgiving of the sexual abuse of minors. I see it as a love story gone awry: two (in this case inappropriate) lovers whose lives are shattered by mistiming and misfortune. Mara’s performance is excellent as are those by Ruby Stokes as the thirteen-year old Una and Ben Mendelsohn as her abuser/lover. UNA shows why we have laws against sex with youngsters even as it tells us that such laws cannot always cope with the complexity of human emotions. RON’S GRADE: A
Our day—and festival—concluded with German director Ade Maren’s TONI ERDMANN. The film was a Cannes award winner and critics’ favorite there—with good reason. It is a constantly funny tour of a father-daughter relationship with many jewel-like scenes that you keep turning over in your mind once the film is over. Ines (Sandra Hüller) is an ambitious and wound up corporate consultant working in Bucharest where her father Winfried (wonderfully played by Peter Simonischek), a divorced, retired German septuagenarian piano teacher, makes an unannounced visit. Dad is an amateur clown, equipped with protruding false teeth, a crazy wig, and a fart cushion. Perceiving Ines to be on a self- and socially destructive trajectory, he assumes the role of Toni Erdmann, an unkempt, snaggletoothed, and totally unqualified executive coach. Intrusive incident by intrusive incident, he goes about deranging Ines’s life. Each incident is hilarious, and little by little Ines begins to recover her youthful mirth and humanism. One high point is a team building party hosted by Ines. After wrestling to don her costly dress, she throws it on the bed, and goes naked to the door, announcing to her shocked visitors that it is a nude event. TONI ERDMANN is a feminist-inspired exploration of modern corporate life and a touching celebration of father-daughter love. RON’S GRADE: A
Each year, we worry that the Festival under the leadership of Tom Luddy and Julie Huntsinger will not match up to the many years that it was under the direction of Dartmouth’s Bill Pence, and it is true that there have been changes, including a slight turn from world cinema to likely Oscar nominees. But this year, like those before, did not disappoint. Outstanding world cinema was present from MAUDIE to TONI ERDMANN, and the Hollywood offerings we saw, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA and ARRIVAL offered a privileged first glimpse at films that will occupy public attention during the months ahead. We look forward to next year.