Film Comment Selects, now in its 13th edition, is a typically eclectic and wide-ranging selection of films chosen by the editors of Film Comment, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s magazine. Think of it as the rambunctious, unruly younger sibling of the New York Film Festival. With a program encompassing challenging art-house films, genre exercises, rediscovered and forgotten classics, as well as unclassifiable curiosities, there is almost guaranteed to be something here that will appeal to whatever your taste in film happens to be.
The opening night selection, Simon Killer, is both the latest from director Antonio Campos (Afterschool) and the Borderline Films collective that also brought us 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. (It opens in theaters this spring.) Like both those films, Simon Killer is moody and atmospheric, as beautifully shot as it is deeply unsettling. As the title indicates, Simon (played by MMMM’s Brady Corbet) is presented to us as a serial killer in the making, wandering the streets of Paris. (Call him an extremely ugly American.)
Simon is coming off the dissolution of a five-year relationship with a woman he continues to obsessively email, and he introduces himself to others as a neuroscience student writing a thesis about the connection between the eyes and the brain, a fact clearly meant to have some dramatic import here. Simon attempts to drown his loneliness in the pleasures of the flesh, which he satiates first by visiting online chat rooms, then by going to red-light district clubs, where he meets a prostitute named Victoria (Mati Diop). Their relationship graduates from hooker-client to a much more intimate relationship, which Simon eventually cheats on by taking up with Sophie (Lila Salot), a pretty French student.
Simon quite obviously has more than a few screws loose, and his relationships with women are neurotic and sliding into the psychotic, to say the least. Campos, who collaborated on the story with Corbet and Diop (a filmmaker herself), was inspired by the Natalee Holloway murder case, and based the Simon character on Holloway’s suspected killer, Joran van der Sloot. As much as Campos excels in creating an oppressively anxious mood, his film ultimately disappoints. Any sort of psychology or character motivation is so hazy and opaque as to be almost content-free. Despite its nicely rendered visual aesthetic (which eventually proves monotonous) and killer (pardon the pun) soundtrack, Simon Killer ultimately has very little to say about its main character, and what truly creates a murderer.
Dormant Beauty, the latest from Marco Bellocchio, weaves four fictional stories around the real-life case of Eluana Englaro, an Italian woman who existed in a vegetative state for 17 years following a car accident, during which her father fought for the legal right to take his daughter off life support to carry out her professed wishes. Englaro’s father eventually won his case, and she eventually died in 2009, but not before it became a media spectacle in her final days of life, with then-president Silvio Berlusconi spearheading an attempt to change the law to force Eluana back on life support.
Even though Dormant Beauty adds nothing new to the ongoing debate over euthanasia and the sanctity of life, with all its attendant political and religious issues, this really isn’t the film’s purpose. Rather, Bellocchio uses the controversy to hold a mirror up to Italian society, with great sensitivity to character and emotion as well as a dry, satirical wit.
We are privy to a panorama of characters who are also dealing in some way with the issues that the Englaro matter brings up. These include Senator Uliano Beffardi (Toni Servillo), about to vote in parliament on the side of Englaro’s father. He faces fierce opposition from his daughter Maria (Alba Rohrwarcher), who is very much on the pro-life side. A devout Catholic and former actress (Isabelle Huppert), listed in the credits as “Divine Mother,” gives up her career in singular devotion to praying over her comatose daughter (the titular “dormant beauty”), and a young doctor strenuously tries to talk a beautiful, suicidal drug addict from doing herself in. Though the multiple story lines sometimes smack of TV melodrama, Dormant Beauty still remains a bracingly watchable and fascinating look at how life, non-life, and media spectacle intersect.
As unassuming and modest as its plain, numerical title, Pablo Stoll’s 3 may be meandering and seemingly formless in structure, yet it’s beguiling in its setting of a laconic and deadpan comedic mood. The often hackneyed and misused term “dramedy” certainly fits the lives of the titular trio living in Montevideo, Uruguay: divorced couple Graciela (Sara Bessio) and Rodolfo (Humberto de Vargas) and their rebellious teen daughter Ana (Anaclara Ferreyra Palfy). Rodolfo, a soccer and houseplant enthusiast, lives unhappily with his new wife (whom we never see). Consequently, he spends more and more time at his old home making home repairs and sleeping on the couch, attempting to insinuate himself back into his old family’s lives.
Meanwhile, Graciela pursues a new relationship with Dustin (Nestor Guzzini), a man physically similar to her ex-husband who seems like a more charming version of Rodolfo, and Ana plays hooky from school and soccer practice in order to, among other things, seduce classmates as well as older guys. All three of them are dissatisfied with the direction their lives are taking, but seem at a loss as how to improve their situations. They sleepwalk through life in a numb muddle of emotions. Stoll presents it all with laid-back rhythms and gentle comedy that proves quite charming, made all the more effective by Stoll not imposing a contrived plot and letting scenes play in a way that approximates real life.
As sleek and efficient a machine as the cool cars that speed within its frame, Soi Cheang’s Motorway is a mightily entertaining, unpretentious genre delight. The latest product of the Johnnie To Milkyway production team, this Hong Kong-set cops-versus-robbers tale may be full of clichés—the brash hotshot young officer (Shawn Yue) is partnered with the grizzled veteran (Anthony Wong) on the verge of retirement—but it’s executed with slick precision and gorgeous nocturnal visuals. Wong especially impresses by lending a gravity that extends far beyond what is required for his role. The many car chases are visually dynamic as well as an elegantly shot prison break, and they are all married to a scenario that is initially lackadaisical but eventually yields rewards for the viewer by marrying compelling emotional content and superior action filmmaking.
And lastly, Sébastien Betbeder’s slim, beguiling Nights with Theodore follows the nightly romantic assignations of Theodore (Pio Marmaï) and Anna (Agathe Bonitzer) in Paris’ Buttes Chaumont Park. It begins as a fake documentary of the park and becomes ever more strange and mysterious as the film progresses. This film is bafflingly ethereal but gorgeously rendered, and an intriguing study of the places where nature, human psychology, and eroticism intersect.