FQ editor-in-chief B. Ruby Rich reports from the 48th edition of the Telluride Film Festival. Unlike most of its peer festivals, Telluride opted not to hold a virtual edition in 2020, a decision entirely in keeping with its emphasis on the tactile and experiential aspects of cinema, and which made its return in 2021 all the more giddy for first-time attendees and long-term devotees alike. Rich reviews the many festival highlights, from Jane Campion’s reinvention of the Western in The Power of the Dog to Todd Haynes’ archival documentary The Velvet Underground. Childhood takes center stage in new films from Céline Sciamma and Kenneth Branagh while misunderstood masculinity emerges as a theme in Michael Pearce’s Encounter, Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero, and Mike Mills’s C’mon C’mon. Including a coda on the New York Film Festival, Rich concludes that the masterful riches of the two festivals augur well for the fall 2021 season.
“Tell-you-ride.” Slurred fast like that, it could be a motto for returning to life after seventeen months of COVID-19 realities, from lack of travel to loss of life, from fear and forced isolation to vaccination hope. For folks in the film-festival universe, the forty-eighth Telluride Film Festival ushered in a huge exhalation of breath and inhalation of image and sound and friendship—and tentative, yet very real, joy. The festival was its own kind of emotional vaccine, a promise that life might yet regain its momentum, and cinema, its IRT (in real theaters) audience. Kudos to festival codirector Julie Huntsinger for pulling it off.
Every screening started with some version of a proclamation of excitement at being together in the mountains again after two years away and cheering that fact. The 2020 festival had been canceled, as Telluride made the decision not to “go virtual.” Modeled from its beginning on the grand European festivals, it has always been very much about the tactile and experiential aspects of cinema, from the archival gem to the in-person auteur to the community feasts in the street. There was a palpable giddiness at the sight of its audience returning to its embrace.
For those in the know, there have always been two Tellurides: the one for the public—an event of carefully curated choices and democratizing inclusiveness; and the other one, about business—with private dinners hosted by distributors and producers, publicists testing pitches as critics prospect for discoveries, however mannerly. Somehow this bifurcated approach works, decade after decade, to maintain Telluride as an attractive option for both sets of attendees.
Of course, as always, festivals rise or fall based on the films—and this year, Telluride premieres did not disappoint. Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog and Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground were probably the best, most thrilling, most fully realized films on view; both are by masters of their forms departing from recent practice, and both are, ironically, big-screen theatrical films being offered up by streamers: Campion arrived thanks to Netflix; Haynes, courtesy of Apple TV+.
With her sublime return to the cinematic screen and embrace of the formal rigor of the two-hour feature, Campion here takes on genre and may well define the scope of the Western for years to come. The Power of the Dog is a sublime mash-up of Giant (George Stevens, 1956) and Campion’s own The Piano (1993). Like Giant, it is a fight to the death between brothers, with Benedict Cumberbatch (Phil) in the James Dean role and Jesse Plemons (George) in the Rock Hudson one. Like The Piano, though, it is the tale of a “good” woman stranded between a wilderness of male malice and an expectation of civilization. There’s even a piano.
Kirsten Dunst (married in real life to Plemons, widowed in the film) has a son, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, a fey wisp who wants to be a doctor, seen swishing around—and meticulously dissecting a rabbit in his room. Add the macho bonding of the pack of cowpokes, the erotic curiosity of Smit-McPhee, Cumberbatch’s cruel torment of his sister-in-law (who soon collapses with nerves and is driven to drink), and Plemons’s clueless oblivion, and soon enough the brothers’ prosperous ranch becomes a simmering cauldron of warped masculinity.
Through the precise plot turns drawn from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, and their exquisitely subtle staging, Campion shows her hand fully only in a delicious denouement. Until then, the audience is well compensated with narrative inventions and Ari Wegner’s gorgeous vistas of New Zealand wilderness—standing in for Montana. Those great masters of the Western, John Ford and Howard Hawks, are obvious touchstones, but Orson Welles comes to mind, too. Isn’t there a hint of Marion Davies (whom Dunst had played, of course, in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Cat’s Meow back in 2001) in Dunst’s performance, especially her piano recital in the parlor? And more than a touch of Mercedes McCambridge in Phil’s resentment of married bliss? The Power of the Dog shows a grand master at the top of her game, with queer desire in the mix.
Meanwhile, Todd Haynes, himself the master of melodrama and period genre, took on documentary for the first time, brilliantly creating a historical film that unspools as if entirely in the present tense. The Velvet Underground goes back in time, to olde New York City; instead of genre, Haynes has rediscovered sixties-era experimental film, in all its wild exuberance. With contagious delight, he delves into the archives of not only Andy Warhol but also Jonas Mekas, Jack Smith, Barbara Rubin, and newscasts, using them all to compose a living embodiment of the scene in which this Factory-engineered band formed and became an icon of its era. Constructing his homage with a fan’s obsessive focus but without ever leaving the propulsion of a contemporary work, Haynes finesses a dizzyingly bravura music film that’s also a film archivist’s dream.
No dusty attics make an appearance. While there are countless myths surrounding Warhol’s Factory, Haynes is almost matter-of-fact about them. He prefers to fix his eye on the survivors and the stories they’ve lived to tell, in riveting interviews framed by cinematographer savant Ed Lachman. John Cale is a revelation, forthcoming and candid and seemingly unfazed by it all. Jonathan Richman is hilariously amped up, eager to talk about his adolescent heroes. Maureen “Moe” Tucker remembers; the Velvet Underground’s underheralded drummer, she is no-nonsense in her assessments of their saga. Mary Woronov is entirely of her time and suffers no fools. And the esteemed film critic Amy Taubin is fantastic as Haynes’s designated voice of history, a wise woman holding forth.
Naturally, Lou Reed is the spirit that haunts everything, as ghostly as these reels of film, and (unsurprisingly) someone with whom you might not have wanted to spend quality time. Nico, the other spectral presence, remains a mystery. Even then, she was present yet absent, with a storied past: she was German, she’d already been in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), she had a real sense of her own musical trajectory; one wishes she’d left more of a trace.
Telluride’s highlights are often accomplished works by established figures, an emphasis that has long been the festival’s trademark. In this case, masters, even the newly anointed, can be surprising—and never more so than in two stories about childhood, one magical and one historic, that were both shot and conceived during COVID lockdown times.
Céline Sciamma, whose fame skyrocketed with Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Young Woman on Fire, 2019) a mere two years ago, returned to the postpandemic festival world with Petite Maman. More crucially, she returned to the domain in which she first built her reputation and in which she most excels: the universe of young girls and adolescents—a world of moods and fancies, where all is never what it seems—in submerged narratives that always surprise.
Petite Maman is a family drama with a twist. As a couple closes up the country home of the matriarch who has just died, their eight-year-old daughter, Nelly, wanders into the woods in search of a hut built by her mother, Marion, in her own girlhood, and there meets a live girl much like herself, by the name of … Marion. Soon the hut becomes a fairytale all its own, a portal to an alternate world (or is it?) where time is elastic. Although Sciamma’s film is of course a drama, its magic was reminiscent of the landmark animation Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009), memorable for a far less benign parallel reality.
Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast offered up a tender but romanticized view of a family in one neighborhood in Belfast in 1969, early in the Troubles—an era that evidently coincided with Branagh’s own childhood in the city. A starry cast surrounds what might be called “the new boy,” one landed by extensive auditions in search of the perfect unknown; here, Jude Hill as Buddy. Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds play grandma/pa, and the handsome Jamie Dornan (also from Belfast) is a young father. But the standout performance without a doubt is Caitríona Balfe in the role of his wife, Buddy’s mom, the family’s anchor. Balfe is utterly incandescent and engaging, sexy as hell, embodying her working-class character with credible grandeur; if Outlander (Starz, 2014–20) hadn’t already made her a star, this would—and will. Due to its black-and-white childhood re-creation, Belfast was being compared with Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2019), but its debt really is to a film closer to home, Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay’s memorable Ratcatcher (1999).
Despite the inherent randomness of curating a selection of films from one year’s production (or two, in 2021), patterns develop, like this year’s subset of films dedicated to a toxically gendered theme. There was a recurrent appearance on-screen of misunderstood, confused, violent, or lost, men (Riz Ahmed, Amir Jadidi, Joaquin Phoenix) saved by the love of a young son or nephew (Woody Norman, Lucian-River Chauhan, Aditya Geddada) and the support of a good woman (Gaby Hoffman, Sahar Goldoust, Octavia Spencer) in a carefully delineated supporting-actress role who believes in their redemptive goodness.
Michael Pearce’s Encounter, Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero, and Mike Mills’s C’mon C’mon would seem to have little in common otherwise. Pearce melds a sci-fi theme with a PTSD story of a vet who goes wrong, driven by voices inside his head to kidnap his young sons and hit the road. Farhadi shows the realities of debt in Iranian life through the story of a man driven to desperation by his inability to raise the money necessary to save his reputation—and marry his new love. Mills, on the other hand, eschews violence in favor of neurosis, yet sticks to the formula: unsympathetic journalist Joaquin Phoenix gains emotional depth while his nephew, wise beyond his years, tests his limits. As the lights came up after C’mon C’mon, there wasn’t a dry (male) eye in the audience, retroactively defining the film as a male weepie, one that would go on to win the universal acclaim of critics, who seemed to identify with an emotionally blocked radio journalist.1
The Lost Daughter marks Maggie Gyllenhaal’s assured director-screenwriter debut. Based on the Elena Ferrante novel, it upends gender expectations entirely as a brilliant Olivia Colman blazes a trail through a holiday resort as an unpredictable lady professor with hidden secrets, unwilling to put up with fools, bedeviled by an unresolved past (in flashbacks featuring Jessie Buckley). The flashbacks to the academic past contain the most hilarious use of theory as seduction technique seen on-screen since Yvonne Rainer’s The Man Who Envied Women (1985). And Colman whips up a fascinating force-field, holding her own in a world of mafioso menace, with Dakota Johnson in the role of a fiery gangster moll with whom Colman becomes enmeshed. In Gyllenhaal’s hands, the Ferrante tale takes on a Patricia Highsmith tone, though no human is harmed (physically, at least) while the film toys literally and narratively with its audience. It’s so rare to see a woman character like this on-screen—sexual, selfish, unrepentant—and Colman is pitch-perfect in the role.
Telluride wouldn’t be complete without a requisite dark European drama. Razzhimaya kulaki (Unclenching the Fists), by Russian director Kira Kovalenko, filled that slot. Fresh from a triumphant Cannes debut, her film is set in a grim dead-end mining town where a family gives new meaning to the term “dysfunctional.” A sister and brother live in fear of their warped, controlling, violent father, and place their hopes in an older brother who finally returns (from where is not clear) to rescue Ana. No deus ex machina, he struggles to make any dent in the warped family dynamic. And Ana, who wants to be saved until she doesn’t, is so damaged that it’s not clear how any happy ending can be extracted—until it is, in a transcendent hallucinatory road trip. Unclenching the Fists is so well made that the audience sticks with it, no matter how great the urge to slit one’s wrists may get, and in exchange, is treated to some of the most bravura camerawork (by Pavel Fomintsev) seen in any film in 2021, with set pieces that stun and surprise, and compressed shots that contain a universe in a single frame.
For whatever reason, there were more documentaries shown in 2021 than ever before. Emilie Mahdavian’s Bitterbrush was a perfect counterpart to the Campion Western, as it looks at the workaday lives of two women cattle ranchers, hired hands who are self-sufficient and seasoned and proud of their skills. They travel from isolated ranch to ranch at cattle roundup time, but they are not lovers: one has a male fiancée, the other a Bible. In Mahdavian’s compassionate, restrained tale, more Nomadland than Brokeback, they live out lives of noble poverty in spectacular rural settings, still young and full of hopes and dreams.
Films set in the West always play well in Telluride, where the audience exits theaters into views of the mountains. This year, coming out of COVID times, the town itself was embroiled in local struggles over affordable housing. One café even posted a sign explaining its reason for closing, adding extra pathos to Bitterbrush and its protagonists.
Of the documentaries about celebrities that were shown, two in particular stood out for their subjects: each a titan in their times, each with remarkable staying power across the decades.
John Hoffman and Janet Tobias’s National Geographic documentary, Fauci, looks up close at you-know-who across his lifetime, in private (wife, daughters), public (all the presidents and protests), and work (National Institutes of Health for over forty years). And do they have news footage! To give a sense of the whiplash nature of his crises, the filmmakers turn periodically to a split-screen format juxtaposing AIDS and COVID, the two world-changing pandemics that define his career (while a third segment deals with Ebola). What comes across most persuasively is the remarkable character of this “Tony” Fauci, who possesses an uncommon optimism and openness that propel him through life.
Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s Julia is the other celebrity documentary that fits the bill. This portrait of the pioneering public-television “French chef” Julia Child polishes a Cohen-West trilogy (so far) of documentaries on outstanding women: RBG (2018), their just-in-time portrayal of Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg; and My Name Is Pauli Murray (from this year’s Sundance lineup), the biography of the brilliant Black activist-lawyer-priest who should have already been famous but wasn’t. Julia follows their winning formula of thrilling archival footage enlivening conventional documentary filmmaking. Their films are always worthy, but now that they have three under their belt, perhaps they will dare to be more formally adventurous in future films.
Ry Russo-Young brought her epic autobiographical documentary, Nuclear Family, to town on the eve of its HBO premiere as a three-part series. The term “longitudinal documentary” was developed to describe documentaries that follow particular individuals or communities over a long period of time (most famously, Michael Apted’s Up series), following their evolutions across the course of their lives.
Now, imagine the longitudinal documentary that could be made by a trained filmmaker with unlimited access to her own family as subject, and with news archives from her entire life and back to the time before she was born. Nuclear Family is that film, and what a wild ride it is. Its era encompasses the early days of LGBT activism around reproduction, with hand-drawn leaflets explaining turkey-baster fertilization procedures, lesbian mothers conceiving with known-donor sperm helpfully brokered by a friend, and an absence of legal frameworks that might have prevented the ensuing custody fights and parental rights from New York City to San Francisco. The presence of the autobiographical documentary’s still-battling protagonists (the mothers and their erstwhile friend, speaking at alternate screenings) added to the riveting experience of a family formation rent asunder.
Finally, there are two men who merit special mention this year.
Telluride’s guest director for 2021, Barry Jenkins, grew up in the festival. He was a hired hand behind the scenes who stayed involved in curating shorts even after his own film career took off.2 As guest director, he showcased his superb taste with a fine slate of six classic films that bear listing here for posterity: Med Hondo’s West Indies (1979), Claire Denis’s Chocolat (1988), Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989), Garden (Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash, 2003), Russian Ark (Alexandr Sokurov, 2003), and selected works by Kahlil Joseph. It became well known after Moonlight that he was a Claire Denis fan, but the rest are likely to be surprising choices to most of those familiar with Jenkins’s work. With his aesthetic eclecticism, range of genres, and mix of race and queer themes, Jenkins as curator did himself—and Telluride—proud.
Tom Luddy was the missing presence at the heart of the festival—the first edition that he’s missed since founding Telluride in 1974 with James Card and Bill and Stella Pence. With Card long deceased and the Pences retired for fifteen years, Luddy has remained the lodestone around which the festival revolves, magnetically pulling his pals (Werner Herzog, Peter Sellars) to the mountains every year, while his partnership with codirector Julie Huntsinger has ensured its continuity. Health issues prevented his attendance, which must have been as great a sadness for him as it was for everyone else at that late-summer convening of film folk.
With Telluride just two years short of its fiftieth anniversary, it is a testimony to Huntsinger and her advisory board—which includes Noah Cowan, formerly head of the San Francisco International Film Festival and ex-TIFF honcho, as part of the team—that this year’s edition so seamlessly continued its unique style of in-person events, film discoveries, the signature “Big Feed” on Main Street, and unbroken panoramas of promise.
And After: The New York Film Festival
There were two films that did not play at Telluride but merit inclusion here. Key components of the fall film season, they mirror the opening of this report: both are accomplished works by grand masters breaking with prior habits while maintaining their signature styles. I was able to see one in person, one in a virtual screening, and though neither had festival energy, both were thrilling.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, his first film in English, is the first he’s made outside Thailand and the first to depart from his established cast of Thai actors. It had its US premiere at the New York Film Festival.3 Memoria was shot in Colombia, with Bogotá as an apt stand-in for Bangkok—a place where it is always raining, soldiers patrol the roads, the jungle is just a breath away, and nothing is quite what it seems. What is most obviously and radically different is the appearance of Tilda Swinton in the lead role: she’s Jessica, a woman in search of a cure to the noises in her head (perhaps exploding head syndrome, or ESH, a nightmarish illness that plagued Weerasethakul himself in recent years) and to some unexplained legal matters.
Swinton characteristically brings her own gravitas to the role, gliding through a series of encounters with a guise halfway between purposeful and sleepwalking, her body always positioned within the frame with precision. She consults a sonic engineer in a studio where he may or may not work, lies down on the ground with a man who may or may not be alive. As in Weerasethakul’s earlier films, the mysticism of place breaks through any semblance of the ordinary. It’s wonderful to see the two renegades (who first met at Cannes in 2004 when Swinton was on the jury that gave his Tropical Malady a prize) working together to startle the audience out of its complacency.
Pedro Almodóvar has adored the New York festival since his beginnings, and it served as the US launch for his new film, Madres paralelas (Parallel Mothers) starring long-time favorite Penélope Cruz as Janis, a fashion photographer, and longtime Almodóvar collaborator Rossy de Palma as Elena, her best friend and commissioning editor.4 “Look at me,” Janis purrs to Arturo (Israel Elejalde), the forensic archaeologist whom she easily convinces to dig up the mass grave holding her home village’s long-dead residents, killed by Franco troops at the very beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Naturally, the two end up in bed together long before any grave is excavated.
In between sex and Thanatos, there’s a pregnancy. But it is what happens next that turns the film around, and on which it turns. In the maternity hospital, Janis meets Ana (newcomer Milena Smit); they are roommates who will go into labor side by side in an Almodóvar send-up of childbirth that had one friend (and mother of three) screaming “Nightmare!” There’s something unreal about this entire setup and its maternal-instinct-denying aftermath, and the tone soon takes a turn into noirish melodrama. Ana’s mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), for instance, abandons her supposedly natural role as grandmother for a chance at stardom; this is a Mother Teresa who turns her back on her young.
Soon Ana appears, entirely transformed, in Janis’s neighborhood, and the wheel of fate begins to turn. Since this is an Almodóvar film, narrative twists and turns are accompanied by colors and sets onscreen that never fail to delight. Janis’s apartment patterns are dazzling in every shade of green, with bursts of yellow and blue, orange and maroon, as appliances and furniture and outfits pop in and out of frame. The colors and style evoke Spain’s La Movida Madrileña, the movement that erupted at the end of the Franco dictatorship and inspired Almodóvar’s earliest work. The chronology is no accident. Here, for the first time, Almodóvar has turned his attention to Spain’s brutal history and commits himself to an anti-fascist position never marked so clearly in his work before.5
Telluride’s riches plus the pair of masterworks from the New York Film Festival made for an eminently satisfying start to the fall 2021 season. For those who don’t care for the awards prognostications and campaigns of winter, the two festivals also offered a welcome window into the glories of film experienced first-hand, with all the vibrancy of a shiny newness, cinema reborn.
Note: All films are 2021 releases unless otherwise noted.
It seems that 2021 was not the first year that Telluride highlighted such a theme. In 1997, the novelist Russell Banks attended and saw so many films with that focus (including those based on his own novels) that he christened it “the Bad Dad Festival.” See Terry Pristin, “The Festival That Tries to Dodge the Spotlight,” New York Times, August 30, 1998, www.nytimes.com/1998/08/30/movies/film-the-festival-that-tries-to-dodge-the-spotlight.html
Full disclosure: I was a past guest director for Telluride—in its 1996 edition. The highlight was presenting a career tribute to Maggie Cheung in person along with the US premiere of Irma Vep (Olivier Assayas, 1996).
I was able to view Memoria in Paris, thanks to a preview screening presented by Cahiers du Cinema at the Pompidou Center accompanied by a video conversation between Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tilda Swinton about the film’s genesis.
Thanks to Sony Pictures Classics and the New York Film Festival for making Parallel Mothers available to festival press through an excellent online portal.
Parallel Mothers has emerged at the very moment that Spain is grappling with its past anew, with an intense fight being waged over the excavation of mass graves and the call to come to terms with the country’s fascist crimes. See Sam Jones, “Old wounds are exposed as Spain finally brings up the bodies of Franco’s victims,” The Guardian, October 9, 2021, www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/09/spain-bodies-franco-victims-dictator-mass-graves