2011 Tribeca Film Festival: NEDS, Black Butterflies, L’amour Fou, Artificial Paradises

The Tribeca Film Festival returns to New York for its tenth edition from April 20 through May 1, screening this year mostly at venues in the East Village and Chelsea.  Ninety feature films from 40 countries will screen at the festival.  Below are reviews of a few of this year’s selections; ticket information for all screenings can be obtained at www.tribecafilmfestival.org.

“NEDS” (directed by Peter Mullan)

The title of “NEDS,” actor-director Peter Mullan’s third feature, is an acronym which stands for “Non-Educated Delinquents,” a term of adult derision that the youth gangs of 1970’s Glasgow would probably adopt as a term of pride.  Delinquency and gang violence is the dangerous trap that even the brightest and most promising children are prone to fall into, and in “NEDS,” this seems to be a sadly inexorable fate.

The film follows John McGill (Gregg Forrest plays John at 10 years old, Conor McCarron at 14), who has ambitions to go to college and to be a journalist, but is ultimately done in by his rough, violent, and impoverished home environment and a school system that rigidly sorts kids into hierarchical categories.  John’s older brother Benny (Joe Szula) is a recalcitrant gang member, feared around the neighborhood and boss of the local gang Car-D.  Their father (Peter Mullan) is a barely seen presence, other than his nightly drunken rages.  John goes to school with a strike against him from the start, since Benny’s reputation has preceded him with the other teachers.  He is even downgraded one class level, and forced to prove to the teachers that he will not end up like his older brother before he is allowed to enter the level that he feels he deserves.  John does indeed prove himself, but this initial unfair guilt by association plants a seed that comes into full flower during an idle summer, when John slowly sinks into the sort of life that consumed his older brother.

Mullan resolutely refuses to offer easy explanations for John’s abandonment of his ambitions or to paint him as a simple product of his environment.  Benny’s reputation, as much as it harms him at school, also protects him on the street and offers him cover and protection from the predation of the other street kids and gives him a sense of power and agency that seduces John and offers far more excitement than academic study.  Mullan’s cast of young non-professional actors are engaging screen presences who lend an authenticity to their roles that capture the complexity of their relationships to each other and the violent impulses that consume them.  “NEDS”proves to be a horror film of sorts, in which the monster is social marginalization and the resulting criminal behavior that swallows all in its wake.

“NEDS” screens on April 28 at 6:30 p.m.

“Black Butterflies” (Paula van der Oest)

“Black Butterflies,” based on the life of Afrikaner South African poet Ingrid Jonker, has handsome visuals but is ultimately sunk by the overwrought dialog provided by screenwriter Greg Latter and the histrionic drama of its director, Paula van der Oest (“Zus & Zo”).  The laughably literal, expository dialog (e.g.: “I can’t live without you.” “I can’t live with you”), defeats the valiant efforts of the actors to transcend the material they have been saddled with.

Based largely on the diaries of Jack Cope (played in the film by Liam Cunningham), Jonker (Carice van Houten) is portrayed here as a brilliant poet, but also a sexually impulsive, needy wreck who constantly seeks the attentions of older men, not the least her stepfather Abraham (Rutger Hauer), a member of Parliament and head of the censorship board, who clashes with his daughter over their differing political views.  Abraham upholds the racist policies of apartheid, while Ingrid is resolutely on the opposite side.  Ingrid’s scandalous sexual life, in which she beds many of her literary peers, also does little to endear her to her father.  Nevertheless, she still craves his approval and tries to get him to accept her poetry.  Jonker’s most famous poem, “The Child Who Was Shot Dead By Soldiers in Nyanga,” was read by Nelson Mandela in his first speech to Parliament in 1994; the film concludes with audio of him treading the poem.  As depicted in the film, this poem was inspired by a demonstration that Ingrid and Jack happen upon.  This scene points to yet another problem with the film: the black South Africans who Ingrid cared so much about are pushed to the periphery, as simply an oppressed and undifferentiated mass.  The film’s avoidance of politics is perhaps defensible as a result of its emphasis on Ingrid Jonker’s artistic and sexual life, but unfortunately this causes everything to be little more than glorified soap opera and flat-footed melodrama that fail to convince on any level.

“Black Butterflies” screens on April 26 at 3:30pm and April 29 at 10 p.m.

“L’amour Fou” (Pierre Thoretton)

Built around the sale of the late fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent’s art treasures, Thoretton’s documentary details the “crazy love” affair (as per the title’s literal English translation) between Saint-Laurent and his lover/business partner Pierre Bergé.  Making poignant use of a recurring elegiac piano score, “L’amour Fou”concerns two of Saint-Laurent’s departures.  The first is his departure from the world of fashion, a world which had irrevocably changed around him.  “The business had been turned over to tradesmen,” Bergé says, and true artists such as Saint-Laurent no longer had a place.  His second farewell occurred through his death, which occasioned the dismantling of his art works, overseen by Bergé, which included masterworks by Picasso and Matisse, as well as African sculptures.

Similarly to “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” another great documentary about a fashion icon, “L’amour Fou”eulogizes both an artist and the era he embodied.  The film details Saint-Laurent’s rise as a designer under Christian Dior and then setting out on his own, jetsetting to Morocco with other famous friends at the height of his fame, as well as battling drug and alcohol addiction.  This is all filtered through the eyes of Bergé in the beautifully filmed expanse of their home, and the film concludes with the profoundly sad image of Bergé following the sale, left alone with the memories of his great love and his great love’s legacy.

‘L’amour Fou” screens on April 28 at 2:30 p.m. and April 29 at 9:45 p.m.

“Artificial Paradises” (Yulene Olaizola)

Luisa (Luisa Pardo), Salomon (Salomon Hernandez), and many of the other characters in this film seek, or have sought, the “artificial paradises” of drugs and alcohol as a means to alleviate their desolation and loneliness.  Luisa is trying (not very hard, it seems) to shake her raging heroin addiction by herself, without the help of the rehab clinics she hates because of their “spiritual crap.” Salomon, an older man she meets in this empty resort town, smokes weed incessantly, gets drunk, sings, and talks about the deceased wife he misses greatly.  On the periphery are mostly unsupervised kids who play around the addicted adults.

Olaizola makes very nice use of languorous long takes and extended stretches of silence to relate her sad tale.  This is a very different kind of junkie story, not set in urban back alleys, but instead among lush greenery and open vistas.  This environment, as depicted in the film, nicely convey the moody haze most of the characters in “Artificial Paradises,” seem forever doomed to be trapped within.

“Artificial Paradises” screens on April 25 at 3:45 p.m.; April 27 at 10 p.m.; and April 30 at 2:30 p.m.