Seen at the Movies:

Agnès Jaoui’s Look at Me, which opens the 42nd New York Film Festival tonight (October 1), is the kind of graceful ensemble piece which the French excel at, and which American filmmakers rarely even attempt. It presupposes a certain cultivation and attraction to nuance in its audience, but lest that make it sound precious, it should be added that the film also, at times, cuts deep. Look at Me centers on Lolita (Marilou Berry), the overweight grown daughter of a famous novelist Etienne (co-writer Jean-Pierre Bacri). Lolita, an aspiring classical singer, simmers with anger at her narcissistic father, who seems to wreak thoughtless havoc in the lives everyone in his orbit—including Lolita’s voice teacher Sylvia (Jaoui) and Sylvia’s up-and-coming writer husband Pierre (Laurent Grevill). There are several other major characters making their way through the movie’s complicated tangle of connections, and Jaoui keeps it all flowing elegantly while making her points—about female body image and the cult of personality, among other issues—with a superb sense of delicacy. The cinematography, by Stéphane Fontaine, finds a consistent dark undertone that perfectly suits the mood of the film, while Olivier Jacquet’s production design and Jackie Budin’s costumes convey the tastefully well appointed lives of the characters with just a hint of satiric awareness.

Look at Me - Sony Pictures Classics

Also showing in the first weekend of festival, which is sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and runs through October 17, is the exceedingly cryptic though beautiful Thai filmTropical Malady, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The first half of the movie details the growing romantic bond between a soldier and a young man from the country, and fascinatingly juxtaposes the rural and the urban, the ancient and the modern, as they exist in contemporary Thailand. At the midway point, the movie suddenly switches gears and dives into the realm of myth, as the soldier enters the forest and tracks a wild animal that contains the imprisoned spirit of a shaman, and that bears more than a passing resemblance to his young lover. Tropical Malady immerses the viewer in a world where the sensual and the spiritual merge; crucial to its effect are the evocative cinematography by Vichit Tanapanitch, Jarin Pengpanitch, and Jean Louis Vialard, and the incredibly rich soundtrack, designed by Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr.

Tropical Malady - Strand Releasing

If you’re looking for a complete change of pace, the unclassifiable Tarnation is in the don’t-miss category. Jonathan Caouette’s sort of docu-diary is made up of various forms of footage the 32-year-old filmmaker shot since the age of 11. Using Super-8, Betamax, VHS, Hi-8, and mini-DV formats, Caouette documented his dysfunctional family environment, including a mentally ill mother and the grandparents that possibly helped make her that way. He also documented his own growth as an actor and creative artist, camping it up for the camera and shooting scenes from his high-school musical adaptation of Blue Velvet. At some point a few years ago, Caouette started compiling his hundreds of hours of tape and film on his Macintosh computer, creating a sometimes hallucinatory collage out of the fragments of his life. At one point, Tarnation was advertised as having a budget of $218.32, though postproduction work at Skywalker Sound and elsewhere has raised that a bit. The film is dazzling, if inescapably self-indulgent. It will be interesting to see where Caouette goes from here.

Tarnation - Wellspring

It’s not in the New York Film Festival, but David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees is, in its own way, every bit as experimental as Tropical Malady or Tarnation. It’s also, to my mind, something of a colossal mess. The plot is nearly indescribable. An environmental advocate (Jason Schwartzman) takes on Huckabees, a Wal-Mart-style corporation, and for personal solace hires a couple of "existential detectives" (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin); the detectives are in a rivalry with French nihilist Isabelle Huppert, who has taken firefighter-in-crisis Mark Wahlberg under wing; meanwhile, Huckabees spokesmodels Jude Law and Naomi Watts are also having identity issues. The movie is wild and frenetic, nonsensical and occasionally hilarious. It is guaranteed to gather a small and fiercely devoted following. But can anyone tell me what it means? After the live-wire visuals of Russell’s last movie, Three Kings, I found the determinedly bland look of I Heart Huckabees to be disappointing; cinematographer Peter Deming and production designer K.K Barrett have proven track records, so I don’t think they can be faulted. Costume designer Mark Bridges and the makeup/hair team do get to have some fun with the characters, coming up with a Beatles-style gray pageboy for Hoffman and a ridiculous Amish bonnet for Watts’ character, who just wants to be loved for her inner beauty.

I Heart Huckabees - 20th Century Fox

Somewhat more direct in its comic spirit is John Waters’ A Dirty Shame the Baltimore bad taste maestro’s return to NC-17 territory. The story is of sexual prudes (or neuters, in the film’s parlance) who become voracious sex fiends after a knock on the noggin. Tracey Ullman plays Sylvia Stickles, a drab middle-aged drudge who is the chief recipient of this concussive sexual bounty; along with hugely endowed daughter Caprice (Selma Blair) she becomes apostle to sex god Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville), much to the consternation of her conservative husband, played by Chris Isaak. This may sound like more fun than it really is; as prone to outrage as Waters remains, the juice has seeped out of his filmmaking over the years, so even a movie like A Dirty Shame can seem like a relic. It does have its moments, however, and it has Mink Stole, who is goddess for all eternity. Longtime Waters collaborators Vincent Peranio (production design) and Van Smith (costumes) do their best to uphold the director’s standards of bad taste, while DP Steve Gainer does the kind of serviceable work generally seen in a Waters movie.--John Calhoun

A Dirty Shame - City Lights Pictures

Seen in New York City: One of the most fun events to take place in a while is the Fall For Dance festival at City Center in Manhattan (September 28-October 3). Produced by Arlene Schuler, CEO of City Center, with Elise Bernhardt as artistic advisor and Ellen Dennis as associate producer, this week-long festival included 30 companies in a wild array of styles and eras (the works presented ranged from the 1950s through 2004).

And what a smorgasbord it was! From Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company with their nude dancers in a reworking of the 1978 piece, Continuous Replay to Elizabeth Streb's extreme athletes/dancers flying straight at the audience in Wild Blue Yonder and slamming into a Plexiglas wall in Ricochet to the exotic setting by Isamu Noguchi for Martha Graham’s Embattled Garden to the street scene setting for Rubberband Dance, a great discovery hip hop group from Montreal with lighting by Caroline Nadeau and Yan Lee Chan and street-wise costumes by Triple 5 Soul, the programs were wildly varied.

Rubberband Dance wowed the audience at City Center

The lighting supervisor for the festival was Clifton Taylor who pulled together the giant puzzle of 30 companies in six nights, working with other lighting designers or recreating plots as needed. The sound supervisor was Scott Lehrer who had live sound situations ranging from Merce Cunningham and David Vaughn reading short texts (totally deadpan and very funny, by the way. The Cunningham dancers also looked fantastic...) to guitar players and hand-clappers for Soledad Barrio in Noche Flamenca’s Solea... not to mention finding the proper microphone placement for her shoes! The list of designers who created the various works performed is too long to mention here, but with names such as Jean Rosenthal and Santo Loquasto it was every bit as much a designer’s showcase as a showcase for dance and dancers...Ellen Lampert-Gréaux