At Telluride, the Performances Speak Volumes Even if the Actors Can’t

Over a holiday weekend dedicated to labor, this year’s Telluride Film Festival attendees couldn’t help being reminded of striking workers: the members of SAG-AFTRA, the television and film actors’ union currently in a standoff with the Hollywood studios. It wasn’t merely the absence of performers at pre- and post-screening events — or at the restaurants, parties and public conversations conducted in the park right off the main street of the former mining town. It was more that their presence onscreen made such a strong argument for the gifts they have brought to what is fast becoming a vintage year in film.

The list of notable performances included but wasn’t limited to Andrew Scott’s aching turn in “All of Us Strangers”; Emma Stone’s meticulously wild embrace of her character in “Poor Things”; Paul Giamatti’s dyspeptic mood of a prep school instructor in “The Holdovers,” Colman Domingo’s flourishes as the civil rights maverick Bayard Rustin in “Rustin”; Gael García Bernal’s ecstatic donning of the tights of a gay, Lucha Libre wrestler in “Cassandro”; Annette Bening and Jodie Foster’s muscular tag-teaming in “Nyad”; and Leonie Benesch’s portrayal of a sympathetic elementary school instructor in “The Teacher’s Lounge,” which is Germany’s entry for the Academy Award for best international feature.

Vivid, intimate or both, the variety and quality of these performances made awards talk unavoidable. Not that Oscar chatter was the intention of the founders of the festival, which is celebrating its 50th edition and was dedicated to that instigating quartet — Tom Luddy, James Card, Bill and Stella Pence. (Bill Pence and Luddy died after long illnesses in the last year.) Even so, Telluride has a track record that makes it an attractive launchpad. Witness Netflix’s push on behalf of “Nyad” and “Rustin.” Together with the overlapping Venice Film Festival, it remains the gateway into awards season.

In a long-ago interview, the director Mike Nichols cautioned a nascent film reviewer to not mistake the dancer for the dance. At the time, he was reacting to the heated conversation around an actor in one of his films. A great performance can’t be severed from the movie in which it occurs. His warning may have been a tad auteurist, but it offers a helpful caveat for considerations of Telluride, where the performances have been remarkable, but the top of the A-list has always belonged to the directors. And this year’s installment upholds that tradition, out of necessity, yes, but also inclination.

All but two directors of the festival’s premieres were in Telluride, including Errol Morris with his John le Carré documentary, “The Pigeon Tunnel”; Jonathan Glazer with his Cannes Grand Prix-winning Holocaust film, “Zone of Interest”; and Steve McQueen with his four-hour documentary “Occupied City,” a consideration of Amsterdam during the pandemic but also during the Nazi occupation.

It’s rarefied company, a fact that the Oscar-winning documentarian Roger Ross Williams — making his Telluride debut with his first narrative feature, “Cassandro” — noted over tea. “I introduced myself to Steve McQueen and I was shaking.”

For “Poor Things,” Yorgos Lanthimos teamed up again with Stone (who starred in his drama “The Favourite”), repurposing the Frankenstein saga as a fable of liberation. A woman commits suicide in Victorian England. She’s reanimated by a scientist (Willem Dafoe) who raises her as experiment and daughter. To declare that this new being, Bella, was born is hardly an understatement since the scientist gives her an infant’s brain. Mark Ruffalo portrays the libertine lawyer and cad who takes Bella away for wild, sexual adventures that over time become misadventures. As Bella ages, she forges a path toward her own agency.

In capturing her character’s sexual appetites, budding curiosity and building frustrations, Stone (who is also a producer on the film) seizes a new level of artistic liberation. At the end of a Sunday-morning screening, after rousing applause, more than half the audience stayed motionless through the wise silence of the credit roll, as if to catch its collective breath. “Wow,” the viewer beside me whispered to no one in particular. “Wow,” she repeated like an expression of gratitude to the gods of filmmaking.

Lanthimos wasn’t the only director pushing boundaries formally and playfully. For her sophomore feature, “Saltburn,” Emerald Fennell proved that her debut, “Promising Young Woman” — full of provocations and tangled morality but also displaying a knack with actors — was not a one-off.

Telluride’s executive director, Julie Huntsinger, introduced “Saltburn” with a sultry voice, teasingly signaling the carnal pleasures in store for the sold-out audience. (On-set intimacy coordinators were exceptionally busy if this year’s selections were an indication.)

The awkward, first-year Oxford student Oliver (Barry Keoghan) finds a friend in the vaguely kind, ridiculously handsome Felix (Jacob Elordi), scion of an upper-class family, and is invited to their estate for the summer. Richard E. Grant and Rosamund Pike portray Felix’s parents. Carey Mulligan plays a family friend, or is that hanger-on? (Can the super-privileged ever really tell the difference?) Consider them the damaged adults in the very tony room.

With its class skirmishes, the drama pulls on the same thread as last year’s devour-the-rich films, “Triangle of Sadness,” “Glass Onion” and “The Menu.” If the estate’s name causes a wince, it should. The goings-on are infused with desires and affections (though that more tender feeling is tricky) that don’t quite speak their name but are apparent to the audience like fresh gashes and festering wounds.

Trauma and emotional scarring figure into Andrew Haigh’s “All of Us Strangers.” Based on a Japanese ghost story, the delicate drama was arguably the sleeper of the festival. Adam (Scott) meets Harry (Paul Mescal) in a weirdly underpopulated London high-rise. As they embark on a love affair, Adam also begins visiting his parents at his childhood home in suburban London. Only, his dad and mum (Jamie Bell and Claire Foy) have been dead for years. “All of Us Strangers” straddles two love stories: that of parents and child and that of presumptive boyfriends. Heartbreak and hope are palpable in each and unfold in a betwixt realm that feels utterly natural in its supernaturalness.

The school in Ilker Catak’s “The Teacher’s Lounge” is often as teeming as the high-rise in “All of Us Strangers” is eerily deserted. The film begins with the uncomfortable interrogation of two elementary school students, who are asked to give the name — any name — of a fellow student they might suspect of theft. The administrators’ nudging infuriates a new teacher (Benesch). The trap she sets to ensnare the real thief enmeshes her, her students and their parents, her fellow teachers and the school’s administration in a rending mess of conflicting intentions. The institution provides the perfect setting for a fraught, even nerve-racking, investigation of the intersections of innocence and coercion, big ideals and practical solutions.

Practical change drove Rustin, the architect of 1963’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Rustin’s friend the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., shared his dream. But it’s Rustin’s identity as a gay Black man that fuels this biopic about the contretemps within Black leadership that might have killed the historic gathering. Glynn Turman plays the Rustin ally A. Philip Randolph. Chris Rock is Rustin’s nemesis Roy Wilkins. Jeffrey Wright brings a smooth arrogance to his portrayal of the Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

Domingo reveals yet another dimension in his latest career-altering role. But as the film’s director, George C. Wolfe, told a packed screening, “Rustin” is also a celebration of activist spirit and strategy, of “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”

Even with the actors’ strike making star sightings rare, there were a few. Dakota Johnson (at the festival with the two-hander “Daddio,” featuring Sean Penn) was among the throng for the premiere screening of “Saltburn.” Ethan Hawke, who directed his daughter Maya Hawke in the poetic “Wildcat,” about the writer Flannery O’Connor, was everywhere.

But my own cherished sighting found the director Ken August Meyer standing with his wife near the entrance of the gondola. Meyer is both the maker and subject of the documentary “Angel Applicant,” which screened in the festival’s Backlot program.

Growing increasingly ill with scleroderma, Meyer finds a guiding spirit in the painter Paul Klee. Like Klee, Meyer is dealing with an autoimmune disease. His decline is wrenching, vulnerable, but his wrestling with its meaning is also unexpectedly exhilarating. In a festival with lots of movies to cover, it was a discovery.

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