Film is a strange medium. It requires creating images and moments that must have the semblance of reality but which are totally fictional. At least, that’s the conceit — more often than not, a little (or more) truth bleeds into the material, consciously or otherwise, and the lines between reality and fiction become blurred. Several movies at the 57th New York Film Festival explore this merging, using it to comment upon the protagonists and their reality, creating a deeper understanding of their characters while sending them into pleasant (or troubling) oblivion.
In the case of Pain and Glory’s Salvador Mallo, that state of unknowing is almost welcome, a distraction from the retired film director’s true addiction. Pedro Almodóvar’s film is intentionally autobiographical in some details — not just the career but the apartment furnishings and the hairstyle of Salvador (as played by one of the director’s muses, Antonio Banderas) are Almodóvar’s. Beyond that meta level, the film is about Salvador facing a largely self-imposed creative exile, languishing in his home with a laundry list of physical ailments that he explicitly says impede him from working, and implicitly believes prevent him from having a meaningful romantic life.
Banderas is astonishingly good at portraying a person who has lived a wild life but is hopelessly lost and trying to find the spark within himself again. He loses himself in reminiscing about his boyhood, obsesses over his fraught relationship with his deceased mother, treats an ex-lover with both wistfulness and regret, and tries heroin with an old creative partner. All throughout, Salvador is creating new art from these experiences, slowly finding his way back to the world of expression that is his true addiction and savior.
Pain and Glory takes a while to come together, but as the pieces of Salvador’s life click into place it becomes more and more satisfying and touching. Almodóvar employs some clever stylistic techniques to blur the lines between the fiction and the reality of Salvador’s past, saying that exactly what happened and in what order doesn’t matter as much as how it impacted and informed Salvador’s life.
The protagonist of Lou Ye’s Saturday Fiction, Jean Yu (Gong Li), not only has a mysterious past, but a mysterious present as well. Taking place in Shanghai in early December of 1941, the film chronicles the Byzantine machinations of a web of spies who have flooded the island in search of elusive information about a planned major Japanese attack on a military target. Jean Yu’s cover (which is implied to have been her career before being conscripted) is as a major screen and stage actress who has returned to Shanghai to star in a play directed by and co-starring her ex-lover, Tan Na (Mark Chao). The play, entitled Saturday Fiction, is a dramatization of Tan Na and Jean Yu’s turbulent relationship, Tan having created the play in the hopes of winning Jean back.
Right from the opening scene, Ye glides back and forth between the play, rehearsal for the play, and reality, blending all three into a surreal stew. The effect is pleasantly intriguing at first, but as more and more characters enter the story, too many subplots are introduced, and the obfuscation starts to annoy and alienate rather than delight. Ultimately, Ye is presenting the world of spycraft as one where people are always lying on some level, where the truth about someone else can never be fully known, and where reality and fantasy exist in the same moment. It’s just a shame that the experience is as frustrating and emotionally cold as that concept.
Compared to the spy game, the world of international crime is much easier to navigate, though just as surreal and a lot goofier. In Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers, a police inspector from Bucharest named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) gets himself into hot water when his superiors discover he’s been on the payroll of a local crime lord. Even worse, the gangster’s former associates, including his lover (Catrinel Marlon), strong arm Cristi into working for them, using him as part of their plan to spring the crime lord from custody. The method they’ve chosen to coordinate and communicate during this prison break is a whistling language of the island of La Gomera, a language whose childlike quality and ridiculous methodology (one must put one’s entire finger in one’s mouth to get it to work) is played up for the absurdist thing it is by Porumboiu, who makes sure to get close-up shots of his cast standing around looking foolish with their fingers halfway down their throats.
On paper, The Whistlers is a fairly generic crime tale, featuring a lot of mysterious motivations and double crosses and so on, but Porumboiu gives it enough style to be a good time. The film gains some substance by making comparisons to the cinematic reputation of criminals and adventure versus the “real” absurd mundanity of it: a series of shady deals and murders go down in the Hotel Opera where opera is constantly heard, several characters watch movies within the movie that echo the proceedings, and one fantastic scene sees an American film director stumble upon the gang’s hideout on the island, thinking it’d be great for his new movie. It doesn’t end well for him, just one of many instances of Porumboiu’s stylish neo-noir being unsentimental (if not particularly surprising) when it comes to the characters’ ultimate fates.
Being intimately involved with the fate of characters (and not knowing whether they are characters) is an allure to the title character of director/co-writer Justine Triet’s film Sibyl. Played fantastically by Virginie Efira, Sibyl is a therapist whose real passion is writing fiction. On the day she decides to start working on her art again, a new patient comes into her life: Margot (Adele Exarchopoulos), an emotional and manipulative actress who draws Sibyl into her private life, revealing that she’s been made pregnant by a movie star (Gaspard Ulliel) who is publicly dating the director of their new film (Sandra Huller). Exploiting Margot’s life for her novel, Sibyl rationalizes that continuing and deepening their relationship is helping both women, when in fact it’s complicating everything — Sibyl is hired as a consultant on Margot’s film, acting as mediator between the unfaithful lovers while dealing with her own messy past, leading her to make all new mistakes.
The film becomes a little scattered as Triet cuts back and forth between Sibyl’s flashbacks and her present-day confusion regarding her reality, the tone and structure upended a bit too often. Overall, however, the film is a good mix of compelling, layered, funny, and sad, as the script and Efira’s performance remain sympathetic to the character while making her the antihero of her own story. Like the other films discussed previously, Sibyl creates a deeper portrait of its main character by giving the audience a subjective experience of the way reality and fiction blur together. In that fashion, these movies showcase the value of art, in that it can express the confusion, anxieties, and beauty of life in ways that reality in all its bland shapelessness cannot compete with.