Among the secret pleasures of a film festival is the opportunity to catch a restored version of a famous film, maybe even a classic, you’ve never seen on the big screen. At Cannes, I watched — and was blown away by — Apocalypse Now. In Venice, I saw Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977), one of the great filmmaker’s greatest works, set just after World War II. It’s a movie about movies, a loving recreation of what Scorsese called “the warmth and the luster of the old Hollywood pictures”. It’s also a movie about relationships, something this filmmaker doesn’t get enough credit for. He’s so enshrined for his gangster sagas (and rightfully so) that his “softer” masterpieces like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Age of Innocence and, yes, New York, New York get reduced to a PS at the end of his storied filmography. Had this scenario made it to a Scorsese movie, there’d be a line with a dozen F-bombs in it.
New York, New York is the story of a saxophonist and a singer, Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) and Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli). Scorsese sets up long, flavourful scenes — in a nightclub, in a taxicab, in the lobby of a hotel — so we see not just these characters being developed but also their relationship. Jimmy is obnoxious and self-absorbed. Listen to his lines to Francine. “You don’t say goodbye to me, I say goodbye to you.” (This doesn’t sound like love. It sounds like a contest.) “Will you marry me? I don’t want anybody else to be with you.” (This sounds less like wanting to put a ring on her finger than a leash on her neck.) Why, then, is Francine drawn to him, to what would today be labelled his “toxic masculinity”? Because those times were not today, as simple as that.
But they split up eventually, and Francine really comes into her own. It’s hard not to see why if you’ve heard Liza Minnelli sing. She sings many songs here, but listen to Once in a While. The lyrics go: Once in a while will you try to give one little thought to me / Though someone else may be nearer your heart? Listen to the vibrato she brings to her phrasing, to the way she stretches out “heart”. That’s why it’s called an interpretation. Listen to her delivery of the title song and then listen to Frank Sinatra’s. They both make it their own, as though the song was sung not just with the voice but also a bit of the soul. Watching Liza Minnelli here (she looks as terrific as the film, stunningly shot by László Kovács), I was reminded of a review of the 1998 Broadway revival of Cabaret, with Natasha Richardson playing the role of Sally Bowles, who was immortalised on screen by Minnelli. The review said that Richardson’s lack of musical talent truly made her sound like a two-bit singer in a two-bit nightclub, as the story demands. Minnelli, on the other hand, would have been plucked away from this seediness and made into a big star.
Another attraction of New York, New York is a truly transcendent Robert De Niro performance. As an actor, De Niro can sometimes be like Meryl Streep. There’s so much obvious effort that goes into essaying a part that you sometimes end up seeing the acting rather than the character. This is one of the times he is utterly in sync with the material. He almost disappears into the role, much more than he does in the more celebrated films like Raging Bull. He plays every emotion a notch or two lower than he usually does — so when outbursts come, they are really scary, like a gunshot on a still night. As with his other parts, there are bits of actorly legend associated with his preparation for this film — he really learnt to play the saxophone. But as much as this shows his dedication, you don’t buy a character on screen just because he plays an instrument convincingly. You buy him because he has the ring of truth. That’s what De Niro has in New York, New York. That’s what this great and sadly underappreciated film has, too.
As an actor, De Niro can sometimes be like Meryl Streep. There’s so much obvious effort that goes into essaying a part that you sometimes end up seeing the acting rather than the character.
Dial back the period of New York, New York a few years and you’d get the setting of Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird, shot in black and white and based on the celebrated novel by Jerzy Kosiński. The story unfolds during the last days of the War. We are in unnamed Eastern European lands (the languages spoken are a mix of Slavic Esperanto, Czech, Russian and German), following the story of an unnamed Jewish boy. From the first frame, we know we are in for a series of horrors. The boy runs, clutching his puppy. Other boys (presumably non-Jewish) give chase. They catch up, snatch the puppy from the boy and set it on fire. Don’t quail yet. I haven’t come to the part where a man’s eyeballs are gouged out and the camera gazes at his empty sockets. Or the part where an empty bottle is inserted into a woman’s genitals and then kicked right in, with a whistling thwump sound.
The boy is handed over from one guardian to another, and each new place presents newer horrors. The director says, “The Painted Bird is not a war film, nor even a Holocaust film. For me it’s a completely timeless story. Of the struggle between darkness and light, good and evil and many other opposites.” There are stunning set pieces like the one where prisoners on a train jump off and attempt to flee, but are gunned down. Or the one where the boy is buried neck-deep in earth and is pecked at by crows. And gradually, the boy learns his lessons. He becomes cruel, too. He decapitates a ram. But what’s the point, the connective tissue? What’s new? That war is bad? That innocence is lost? At 169 draining minutes, surely we need more than just a series of relentlessly depressing vignettes that tell us little we don’t already know!
Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth is one of only two films directed by women playing in Competition. (The other title is Haifaa Al-Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate, which I sadly missed.) There’s a flavour you sense right from the start, in a chapter that’s titled “When Milla Met Moses on Platform 4”. It’s a self-consciously twee flavour. Moses crashes into Milla on that platform, and stops just in front of a train that’s coming to a stop. Her classmates get in, but she doesn’t. Is she intrigued by this man? He says her hair looks like bangles. He notices she has a nosebleed and takes off his T-shirt and stanches the blood with it, laying her gently on his lap. I wasn’t especially surprised to learn that Milla’s father is a shrink, and her mother is on psychiatric medication. Heck, the movie seems like it could use a prescription for psychiatric medication.
I mean this as a compliment… I think. The artisanal tweeness is certainly grating, as is the indie-handicam vibe. (The director would probably say that the floating camera mirrors the characters’ myriad moods, which refuse to be pinned down.) But I really came to like these people: not just Milla (who has cancer) and her parents and the wonderfully daft Moses, but also the music teacher, the child violinist, the pregnant neighbour who thinks smoking is totally okay in a particular trimester. And there are big laughs. After asking Moses to move in with them for Milla’s benefit, her mother exclaims, “This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine”. By now, I doubt if we can really be surprised by a dramedy about dysfunctional people, which is practically a subgenre of its own. But Babyteeth makes it all seem almost new. And that is no mean achievement.