Note: This is the first of two articles on Jewish-themed works in this year’s New York Film Festival.
Homeless heroin addicts and Hitler: Sounds like a typical opening week for the New York Film Festival, huh?
When this year’s edition opens on Sept. 26, there will be plenty of Jewish-themed films and films by Jewish filmmakers on display, but in the first week of press screenings, two are worth shout-outs. Happily, “Goodbye to Language” by Jean-Luc Godard and “Heaven Knows What” by Josh and Benny Safdie set the bar pretty high for the rest of this year’s festival.
Godard’s fascination (some say obsession) with the Second World War, the Holocaust, the Resistance and the Jews is proverbial. His new film, “Goodbye to Language,” continues that interest, albeit more in passing than in some of his previous work. Bu the result is provocative nonetheless. A casual remark links the election of Hitler as Reichschancellor and Zworykin’s invention of the television, both of which occurred in 1933. A young woman retells a chilling anecdote about a boy being herded into the gas chambers, and Godard’s narration indirectly but warmly invokes Emmanuel Levinas and his ethics based on compassion for the Other (and we see one of Levinas’ books on a sales table, alongside a volume on usury by Ezra Pound). And there is a sinister, business-suited German running around throughout the film, shooting people for no apparent reason.
What makes the film thrilling to watch, though, is that it is Godard’s first foray into 3-D and, as one might expect, his manipulation of the illusion of depth is dazzling, funny and frustrating. At several key moments in the film, he uses the bifurcated visuals of the audience’s polarized glasses to create two different images that can only be understood by blinking one eye and then the other in succession; when the two images are reunited in a single frame, the result is weirdly exhilarating. He also uses the three-dimensional image to bounce texts around (metaphorically, not literally) with results that will tickle anyone who has followed his highly logo-centric cinema in the past.
This is the most playful Godard film in recent years, a rumination on the never-ending battle of genders that is at the center of most of his work, but one that is daffy enough to include — believe it or not — fart jokes. Visually pyrotechnic, verbally convulsive, frequently funny and always provoking, “Goodbye to Language” left me absolutely at a loss for explanations but thoroughly delighted by the experience. Even more than usual with Godard, this is a film that demands multiple viewings, and I suspect it will reward them richly. (Happily, the film will open theatrically on Oct. 29).
Josh and Benny Safdie have been the center of a collective of talented young filmmakers based here in New York, and their own highly variegated work has been a prominent part of the output. They dabbled in documentary most recently, but their last fiction feature, “Daddy Longlegs,” was memorably intense, working its way from a light-hearted family saga to something much darker and troubling. Needless to say, they should be on the radar of anyone interested in contemporary film. And with their new film “Heaven Knows What” they have made a great leap forward.
“Heaven Knows What” is a harrowing trip through a brief period in the life of a homeless junkie, played with astonishing nuance by writer Arielle Holmes. Holmes is not an actress, but the film is based on her memoir and she clearly has achieved the necessary distance to remember and recreate the hellish life she has left behind. Not, perhaps, recalled in tranquility, but certainly recalled in vivid detail.
Harley (Holmes) is madly, damningly in love with Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), a fellow addict who is only interested in his next fix. When she offers to commit suicide to prove her love, he encourages her to make good on the threat. She survives and is soon back on the streets, hanging with a motley gang of drug fiends, drunks and losers, led by dealer-user Mike (Buddy Duress, apparently a legendary street character himself). Then it’s the agonizingly repetitive life of getting high, searching for the next fix, getting high again and on and on.
The Safdies make this material profoundly compelling. Using a visual style that echoes the quasi-neo-realist drug movies of the early ’70s (think “Panic in Needle Park” but with even less gloss), but without recourse to hand-held camera; they rely instead on long lenses and static set-ups, which give the film a distanced, occasionally hallucinatory look. And they find a striking balance that eschews both voyeurism and preaching. There are a few moments of dark humor, as in the scene in which an oddly supportive chasid offers Harley money so that she can stay high; she replies quizzically, “I’m not Jewish or anything.”
But mostly this is a bleak world in which a recurring scene of Harley and Ilya embracing in extreme close-up is so ambiguous that one cannot tell whether they are making love or trying to strangle one another. Such is the chilling reality that the film captures so adroitly.
The 52nd Annual New York Film Festival opens Friday, Sept. 26 and runs through Oct. 12. Screenings will take place at Alice Tully Hall, Walter Reade Theater, Elinor Munroe Bunin Film Center (all at Lincoln Center). For details of the schedule and venues, go to www.filmlinc.com/nyff2014.