There are only 36 plots in all of world fiction. Or 14, or seven, depending on whom you ask. (Roland Barthes once said that all stories are essentially reworkings of “Oedipus Rex,” but that may be pushing it a little.) So it should come as no great surprise that over the course of a large film festival, many commonalities emerge. A few years ago, the New York Film Festival boasted four separate films that depicted the end of the world. This year, there are two films that offer deliriously different takes on families coping with suicide and murder attempts.
It would be hard to conceive of two more dissimilar Jewish filmmakers than David Cronenberg and Martin Rejtman. The former is a Canadian crafter of edgy dramas whose fascination with the mind-body problem usually takes on dark, even gory tones, but usually with a bleak sense of humor leavening the frequent violence. The latter is an Argentine absurdist whose utterly deadpan wit gibes perfectly with his shaggy-dog-story narrative meandering. Yet the films that each has in this year’s festival — Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars” and Rejtman’s “Two Shots Fired” — seem to rhyme with one another in startling ways.
Cronenberg’s latest is drawn from an original script by Bruce Wagner whose teleplays and feature films (like “Wild Palms,” for example) suggest a strong affinity with the Canadian director. The plot is dizzyingly complex, with a mysteriously disfigured young woman named Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) turning up in Hollywood at the same time that fading star Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) is desperately trying to revive her career by playing her own actress mother in a remake of one her ’70s hits. At the same time, Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a 13-year-old child star is struggling to overcome a substance abuse problem and the career roadblocks it throws up. His father Stanford (John Cusack in a pitch-perfect but especially oleaginous performance) is a famous New Age-style shrink and self-help guru whose only concern seems to be his upcoming book tour. Agatha becomes Havana’s personal assistant, her “chore whore,” in the parlance of the industry, but the younger woman has an agenda of her own with more sinister import.
So, too, does Cronenberg. His lifelong attachment to the Canadian film industry is proverbial, and his disdain for the American movie factories and dealmakers of today profound. The first hour of the film is a relentless, corrosive and very funny send-up of the movie business. He depicts it as a world in which even Jews are prone to anti-Semitic name-calling, sexual peccadilloes are arcane beyond any normal person’s wildest imaginings, and everything and everyone is either for sale or already bought and paid for.
At the center of this demented merry-go-round is the mystery of Benjie’s sister, who may have tried to kill him with sleeping pills before burning down the family home and seemingly vanishing. Dead people keep popping up to challenge the living ones’ versions of the truth, everyone is in therapy, but there are still a few secrets left to uncover. Cronenberg creates a Hollywood in which the human presence in the homes of the rich is almost negligible, with the result that the shiny, highly reflective surfaces of their immaculate interiors are almost indistinguishable from similarly accoutered hospital rooms.
“Maps to the Stars” is a bleak escapade, turning more bitter than funny in its final third, and Wagner’s script seems a bit too clever for its own good, interweaving thematic elements in ways that become increasingly schematic as the masks drop. Cronenberg is too much of a smoothie to let the film get away from him but, ironically, his sheer technical proficiency seems to underline the deficiencies in the writing while adding another layer of froideur to the film. The result is more deeply felt than “Cosmopolis” but less rewarding than “A Dangerous Method.”
Martin Rejtman is usually lauded as the father of the New Argentine Cinema, but it is a decade since his last fiction feature, “Magic Gloves.” A few years ago, I suggested that his work is a powerful argument for the idea that the Jews invented the dry martini, so potent and oblique is his wit. His new film, “Two Shots Fired,” is another excursion into his brand of deadpan, droll minimalism. It is the sort of film in which one of the protagonists hooks up with a girl on the Internet for the sole purpose of adding her to his Baroque music quartet, in which the same young man keeps a perpetually malfunctioning cellphone at hand because “I must stay reachable.” (He will eventually stuff the endlessly ringing phone into an oven mitt and a kitchen drawer.)
“Two Shots Fired” starts with the sort of event that usually is a harbinger of a family melodrama. Mariano (Rafael Federman), a 16-year-old, comes home from a night of clubbing, goes for a swim, mows the lawn, then finds a pistol hidden in the garage and for no reason shoots himself twice. He apparently hasn’t even wounded himself seriously, although there is a running joke about the inability of his doctors to find one of the bullets in his body, which causes serious intonation problems when he plays the recorder.
When he returns home, his mother (Susana Pampin) sends him off to live with his brother Ezequiel (Benjamin Coehlo), in the hope that a change of environment will help him readjust. She has already buried the gun and all the kitchen knives in the backyard, but just to be on the safe side…
Gradually, the narrative unspools as a relay race, with the story being passed from Mariano to Ezequiel and his new girlfriend Ana, then to her cousin Laura, back to Mom and Margarita, Mariano’s music teacher, and so on in a drily witty dance that finally, improbably comes to rest on the disappearance of the family dog, Iago. Buenos Aires turns out to be even more overrun with psychoanalysts than Hollywood (or New York) and the family members’ sessions are a ripe source of laughs for the filmmaker. At times, though, the film seems a bit attenuated and at 104 minutes it nearly overstays its welcome but given that he has waited since 2004 to get back in the saddle and the result is frequently very funny, Rejtman can be given a bit of leeway.
In the final weeks of this year’s New York Film Festival, there are several more Jewish filmmakers on display: Mike Leigh’s much acclaimed “Mr. Turner” gives us the story of J.M.W. Turner, one of the greatest painters of the 19th century, portrayed by Timothy Spall, one of the most underappreciated actors on screen today; “National Gallery” is the latest work from Frederick Wiseman, in which the famed documentary filmmaker once again utilizes an important institution as a lens for a thoughtful reflection on the place of culture in a democratic society; “Time Out of Mind,” in which Israeli filmmaker Oren Moverman pitches Richard Gere onto the streets as a homeless man; and a comprehensive retrospective of the work of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, one of the legends of the old Hollywood.
Finally, there is “Seymour: An Introduction,” the directorial debut of Ethan Hawke. The subject of Hawke’s documentary is Seymour Bernstein, a classical pianist of considerable talent who gave up performing at the age of 50 and has devoted the subsequent 37 years of his life to teaching promising young pianists. The man who emerges from this affectionate portrait is a model of how to bring the best out of a musician, amateur or professional and, even more important, how to make a life of integrity, humor and gentleness. As a piece of filmmaking, it works almost entirely on the charms of its subject; happily, those are considerable. n
The 52nd Annual New York Film Festival 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.