The 2001 New York Film Festival was dominated as thoroughly by new French cinema as the 2000 edition was by Asian movies. The 39th annual festival, held September 18 to October 14 at Lincoln Center, and sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, opened with Va Savoir, the latest work of 73-year-old French New Wave director Jacques Rivette; it closed with In Praise of Love, which is technically a Swiss production, but is directed by New Wave master Jean-Luc Godard (now 71). One might almost be back at the first festival, in 1963.
In Praise of Love is also significant for being Godard's first film shot in Paris since the 1960s. The first half, photographed on black-and-white film by Christophe Pollock, is composed of wintry, contemplative scenes along the Seine, in many of the locations familiar from Godard's 1964 Band of Outsiders. The narrative, which is typically elliptical and non-linear but has something to do with a director trying to make a film about World War II Resistance fighters, then shifts modes to supersaturated digital video, shot by Julien Hirsch. Both visual modes are breathtakingly beautiful.
Va Savoir, photographed by longtime Rivette collaborator William Lubtchansky, is a much more straightforward portrait of contemporary Paris, following a group of characters as they change romantic partners and appear in a Pirandello production. The Lady and the Duke, a story of the French Revolution directed by another New Wave veteran, 81-year-old Eric Rohmer, is more radical: The filmmaker eschews three-dimensional detail in favor of painted flats and other minimalist techniques. Director of photography Diane Baratier provides what is undoubtedly the viewer's first glimpse of 18th-century life on digital video.
Other Gallic highlights in the festival included Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl, photographed by Yorgos Arvanitis; Laurent Cantet's Time Out, shot by Pierre Milon; Damien Odoul's Deep Breath, with black-and-white cinematography — this time of the French countryside — by Pascal Granel; and I'm Going Home, a graceful study of mourning directed by 93-year-old Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, and shot by Sabine Lancelin. One of the festival's most visually stunning works was Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang's What Time Is It There? which was photographed by the French virtuoso Benoit Delhomme, and takes place partly in Paris. And French director Patrice Chereau made his English-language debut with the sexually explicit Intimacy, which was feverishly photographed by Eric Gautier.
From this side of the Atlantic, one of the brightest offerings was Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron's sexy road movie Y Tu Mama Tambien, photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki; both director and DP were previously known for the colorful stylization of A Little Princess. “Alfonso and I decided to reinvent ourselves, and this movie was the vehicle for that,” says Lubezki, whose other recent film, Michael Mann's Ali, is profiled on page 76. “It was just natural light most of the time. In a way, it was a workshop for Ali.”
Apart from a restored print of Charles Laughton's 1955 The Night of the Hunter, with dazzling Expressionist lighting by cinematographer Stanley Cortez, the most acclaimed American film in the festival was David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. Originally shot as a pilot for an unrealized TV series, this dreamlike portrait of contemporary Hollywood was reworked by the director for theatrical release. DP Peter Deming's imagery may have been conceived for the small screen (with lots of close-ups and slightly murky backgrounds), but it works to hypnotic effect.
Former Lynch collaborator Frederick Elmes shot another festival entry, Todd Solondz's Storytelling. This two-part feature mostly created a stir because of an explicit sex scene self-censored by digital pixelization, and because of a brief, uncensored shot of the pre-9/11 World Trade Center. Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, which had its world premiere at the festival, is a much cheerier work, featuring an offbeat — and literally rose-hued — vision of New York, shot mostly in unfamiliar uptown locations by director of photography Robert Yeoman.
Perhaps the most unusual film in the festival from a visual standpoint was Richard Linklater's Waking Life. The Slacker director shot his movie, mainly comprising vignettes of Austin, TX, residents holding forth on the meaning(s) of life, on video. The footage was then animated by a team led by Bob Sabiston, using a digital rotoscoping software. The animation style is what's distinctive: The edges of the figures are in constant movement, wobbling and floating as if weightless. If Godard ever made a cartoon, it might look something like this.