Apart from the dazzling visual offerings of Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine (see next month's ED) and Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters (covered in November TCI), the 36th New York Film Festival was fairly short on sumptuous design. For the most part, movies in the festival, held September 25 through October 11, 1998, and sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, were on the stylistically subtle side.
Todd Solondz's Happiness, for example, is a deadpan tragicomedy of lives in a contemporary wasteland called suburban New Jersey. Marginally centering on three sisters, the film spreads its net to take in a collection of sad and sordid souls who live on the periphery of their vision, sometimes under the same roof. Production designer Therese DePrez, a fixture on the American independent scene, emphasizes the bland anonymity of the settings--a comfy tract home, a sterile apartment house, Florida condos--and costume designer Kathryn Nixon helps keep a series of extreme characters firmly in the realm of ordinary.
Wes Anderson's Rushmore, which Touchstone Pictures will release sometime in early 1999, is droll in a different way. This tale of a 15-year-old boarding school student and budding entrepreneur is characterized by widescreen compositions of almost comical clarity. Production designer David Wasco and costume designer Karen Patch provide strong fields of color to the proceedings, which were shot at the director's Houston alma mater.
The festival's opening film was Woody Allen's Celebrity, a black-and-white take on its crucial place in our culture. The movie manages to encompass a bit more of the New York scene than is normally on view in the director's Upper East Side-focused world, but the design elements are typically pristine. The costumes are by Suzy Benzinger, taking over for longtime Allen collaborator Jeffrey Kurland, and the production designer is Santo Loquasto.
Black and white is also the palette of choice in John Boorman's The General, the true story of Dublin mobster Martin Cahill. Boorman worked on the film with local talent like costume designer Maeve Paterson and production designer Derek Wallace. A working-class milieu also provides the setting for Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe, a Glasgow-set (and helpfully subtitled) story of marginal lives with production design by Loach regular Martin Johnson.
The minimalist credo implicit in so many festival films, like Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple, was made explicit in Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration. This story of a family reunion turned poisonous was the first release of Dogma 95, a Danish collective also including Breaking the Waves director Lars von Trier that sets for itself certain restrictions gathered under a "Vow of Chastity." Among the tenets: "Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found)." Artificial sound and lighting are also prohibited. Consequently, The Celebration credits no designers.
The New York Film Festival's closing-night entry, Erick Zonca's The Dreamlife of Angels, was not quite so self-effacing, listing Jimmy Vansteenkiste as art director and Francoise Clavel as costume designer. But this lyrical story of two lonely working-class women in the north of France, which Sony Pictures Classics will release in Spring 1999, was shot in Super 16 all on location. Zonca, making his feature debut, cleared away anything that might distract from his lead actresses, Elodie Bouchez and Natacha Regnier, who shared the Cannes Best Actress Award for their performances. In this case, minimal is beautiful.