New York Film Festival Early Bird Highlights

A sneak peek at The Forbidden Room, Experimenter, The Assassin and Mia Madre.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

The Blue Room director Mathieu Amalric stars in The Forbidden Room and Arnaud Desplechin's The Golden Days
The Blue Room director Mathieu Amalric stars in The Forbidden Room and Arnaud Desplechin's The Golden Days Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Michael Almereyda's Experimenter stars Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder with Jim Gaffigan, John Leguizamo, Lori Singer, Taryn Manning, Kellan Lutz, Anton Yelchin, Josh Hamilton, Dennis Haysbert and Ned Eisenberg supporting the research. Margherita Buy, Giulia Lazzarini, Beatrice Mancini and John Turturro in Nanni Moretti's Mia Madre (My Mother) explore private emotions and public movie work. Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson's The Forbidden Room will haunt your dreams and submarines with Louis Negin, Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, Roy Dupuis, André Wilms, Geraldine Chaplin, Adèle Haenel, Maria de Medeiros and Mathieu Amalric. Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Assassin (Nie Yin Niang) engages blow by blow with Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Sheu Fang-yi and Hsieh Hsin-ying.

Here are four early highlights of the 53rd New York Film Festival that dazzle with their superb ensemble casts.

The Forbidden Room
The Forbidden Room

The Forbidden Room

A house one visits in dreams, or movies, can effortlessly contain a variety of landscapes with palm trees, trains or windmills and Guy Maddin, master of the indoors, has not much use for the sky anyway. In the tale Bluebeard, the murderous husband does everything to entice his bride to open the forbidden door - by telling her not to and by handing her the key. Maddin and his co-director Evan Johnson show us the dreams that come when the door is not opened and the murderous mystery remains a mystery, thus turning even more pungent and concentrated.

The Forbidden Room is the heads to Maddin's Séances tails, which he filmed as an imagined resurrection of abandoned and lost films from the history of motion pictures. The stories told here and those lost treasures may very well resemble the film's Janus bust, auctioned off and desired by a man and his double. At first glance, we might think the bathroom is the forbidden room of the title, as it is for so many dreamers who stage a battle between their desire to keep on sleeping and answering the call. Water links the two first frame narratives, both equally daring in their unpleasantness.

Public screenings: Monday, September 28 at 9:00pm; Tuesday, September 29 at 8:30pm

Experimenter
Experimenter

Experimenter

"The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness." The first line of Vladimir Nabokov's sublime autobiography, Speak, Memory, is read directly to us, the audience, by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, as played wisely by Peter Sarsgaard in Michael Almereyda's thrilling Experimenter. He jumps straight into the experiment, which over half a century later, is as fascinating and timely and important as ever. The original staging details were already cinematic in nature. Sarsgaard's silky Milgram voice-over lets us in that they decided to "make the lab coat grey" for the person explaining the procedure, because a white one would look "too medical."

Poignant vignettes illustrate Milgram's private life. He meets his wife, Sasha (Winona Ryder's reactions convey splendor and surprise), in an elevator - "I teach social relations. I study the way people talk in elevators." The shortcuts taken are witty and smart and never come across as heavy-handed. He talks about his "daughter who is yet to be born," and knows the time of his death, because this is cinema and anything goes. By so freely utilizing all that the medium allows, we become acutely aware of the shackles so many filmmakers put themselves in.

Public screenings: Tuesday, October 6 at 9:00pm; Wednesday, October 7 at 9:00pm

The Assassin (Nie Yin Niang)
The Assassin (Nie Yin Niang)

The Assassin (Nie Yin Niang)

The Assassin is the Taiwanese 2016 Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film. It's the story of Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), who returns to the province of Weibo after having been abducted as a little girl and trained by a nun, Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi) for many years as an assassin. She masters the sword like no other, but her head and heart are not free of pity yet. Hou Hsiao-hsien not only reveals an order, a code of behavior as the genre suggests, he goes straight to the heart, that "to overcome human sentiment," might not be so essential after all.

Her conflict resembles that of Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid, who, dagger in hand, has to decide between the beloved man's fate or her own immortal soul. In a fascinating sequence, Yinniang watches her former betrothed from behind gauze curtains, fluttering in and out of focus. The cinematography by Mark Lee Ping Bing is hypnotizing and the rhythm of the images perfectly in tune with the landscapes we are offered to devour with our eyes. The production and costume design by Huang Wen-ying combine historical accuracy with a revelation of detailed splendor, from the sturdy and elegant construction of roofs to the rope that ties the embroidered silk pouch holding two vitally important pieces of political jade - not a facet seems un-thought through, not a crimson saddle trim out of place.

Public screenings: Friday, October 9 at 9:00pm; Saturday, October 10 at 1:00pm

Mia Madre (My Mother)
Mia Madre (My Mother)

Mia Madre (My Mother) "Work for all," the striking employees of a factory chant during the demonstration that starts the film. It turns out to be the film within the film, directed by Margherita (Margherita Buy) who at that point in time is worried about Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), her mother in the hospital. Mia Madre coolheadedly spirals into and out of dream sequences and scenes from the movie being shot as Nanni Moretti boldly uses the unconscious to link meaning. Often we do not know right away what is what.

Moretti cast himself as Margherita's brother Giovanni. His mindfulness evokes admiration. Things turn from complicated to ridiculous with the arrival of American actor Barry Huggins (John Turturro). "I'll kill you," is one of the first sentences we hear him mutter, three-quarters asleep on the backseat of Margherita's car who picks him up at the airport herself. He almost fulfills this promise although he jokes it was all a dream about Kevin Spacey trying to kill him first. Everything Barry does is an affectation.

Public screenings: Sunday, September 27 at 3:00pm; Monday, September 28 at 9:15pm

Tickets go on sale to the general public starting on Sunday, September 13.

This year's New York Film Festival runs from September 25 through October 11.

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