NZIFF ’11: Love Story & Medianeras

nziff ’11: Love Story
dir. Florian Habicht | New Zealand/USA | 2011 | 91 mins.

Florian Habicht’s Love Story, which blurs the line between real docu-drama and cinephilic fantasy, is partly a tongue-in-cheek ethnography of the denizens of New York City (who are given a writing credit), and partly an invented romantic drama presented as pseudo-documentary. The film, Habicht’s fifth feature and the first film in which he has a presence in front of the camera, began when the director was on the inaugural Harriet Friedlander Arts Grant, for which a New Zealand artist is given the opportunity to travel to nyc and be inspired by what they might find there. With no obligation to make art or do anything creative at all, they’re sent to simply experience all that the city has to offer. (The catch? They have to come back home to New Zealand afterwards.)

Habicht wasn’t planning on making a film, but decided to concoct something in his final months in the Empire state. The film’s opening posits the following conveniently quirky situation: that he found himself on a subway train one morning and caught the eye of a woman holding a piece of cake on a paper plate. They both got off at the same stop, and, after hanging out for a bit, they start dating—which is where the ethnographic aspect of the film comes into play. Alternating between his relationship with Masha and vox-pop interviews with people on the street, Habicht asks for advice on what to do next—for example, one night he has to run to the corner store for condoms. Wearing nothing but a pair of zebra-striped long-johns, he asks whoever he bumps into what should happen next in the story—he wants something to go wrong while he’s having sex with her (a gaggle of scene-stealing acting students suggests that it turns out he can’t get it up).

It’s these to-camera dollops of real-life—and not the contrived-seeming, charmless, bizarrely chemistry-free ‘relationship’ he has with Masha—that provide some of the most interesting and touching (not to mention hilarious) moments in the film. Other highlights: Habicht asks a young boy and his girlfriend what he should do now that he’s been seeing Masha for a few weeks. Her advice? “Take it to the next level!” Elsewhere, Habicht returns to a fascinating rotund man with a very strong Noo Yawk accent who dispenses wisdom like McD’s dispenses French fries, and an encounter with a shrewd, fiery redheaded stockbroker in the back of a cab (he knowingly climbed in after she had) sizzles with more dramatic (and sexual) tension than any of the film’s other scenes. An auditory ode to cinema, the film is scored with nouvelle vague tunes and music from Fellini’s films—pieces by Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, Georges Delerue, and Mina. (Florian clearly adores Fellini, and in interviews at the start of the festival when asked what he was most looking forward to seeing, he always said Scorsese’s restoration of La Dolce Vita.) While this music is lovely—and about as romantic as you can get—some of it occasionally feels a bit overbearing.

Florian Skypes with his Dad back home in the Bay of Islands, which gives the film a nice local connection and a stylistic device to provide some semblance of grounding, but Love Story definitely suffers from a structureless made-on-the-fly style and lack of a cohesive aesthetic—although it’s certainly very nicely shot (digitally, by New Zealand-born visual artist Maria Ines Manchego). There are a couple of odd digressions that could have been curtailed or cut entirely during the edit, such as a Skype conversation with a Texan (called at random) that turns unpleasantly confrontational, and a few overly lingering Godard-like shots of the two lovers in bed. (Some thought the scene where Masha eats cereal out of Habicht’s hollow chest was discomfiting, but I was alright with it.)

At the film’s world première on the opening night of the film festival, the full house at Auckland’s majestic Civic Theatre erupted into applause and cheers when Florian rang Masha at 5am New York time to tell her it’d been warmly received. Steve Garden, writing at The Lumière Reader, remembers an anecdote from those festivities I don’t—and his retelling of it is, I think, particularly revealing:

Florian had everyone clapping and cheering down the phone-line, then one chap—so taken by it all—called from the balcony, “Tell her you love her.” Touché. What better endorsement could there be for a filmmaker than to be given such unequivocal proof of how successfully he suspended disbelief.

nziff ’11: Medianeras
Dir. Gustavo Taretto | Argentina/Germany/Spain | 2011 | 95 mins.

Gustavo Taretto’s first film blends a novel take on the city symphony with a fresh perspective on the rom-com—specifically, one in which “the lovers have yet to meet,” and in which the city is less a character than a presence to be observed from within. After a brief essayistic opening—an academic visual scribbling on how the makeup and construction of the architecture of Buenos Aires affects its inhabitants psychologically and physically—the film introduces its two main characters: a web designer (the guy) and a mannequin-wielding high-street window-dresser and aspiring architect. (She humps the mannequin at one point, but it’s more ‘funny ha-ha’ than ‘funny odd’ or ‘funny depressing.’)

They both suffer compulsions of some order. He’s a neat freak: the contents of his back-pack—including three Criterion edition JacquesTati films on DVD, and a laminated set of instructions on what to do in case of a panic attack—wouldn’t look out of place on the Things Organised Neatly tumblr. She, in the same vein, is obsessed with Where’s Wally? books, but can’t find Wally in the city—which is fodder for a cute (if telegraphed) sight gag at film’s close. The film is indebted to cinema: architectural sketches come to life in the mode of (500) Days of Summer, and portions of the film are reminiscent of the ambulant, freewheeling discoveries abundant in In the City of Sylvia. Woody Allen’s Manhattan is directly quoted in the third act when the characters watch it on tv. Light but far from vapid, Taretto’s début signals the start of what will hopefully be a lengthy, fruitful career.

Love Story opens around the country today. Check local listings for showtimes.

The New Zealand International Film Festivals ran in Auckland from July 14–August 3. They began in Wellington on July 29, and finish there next week, before travelling to Dunedin, Christchurch, Palmerston North, and Hamilton throughout the rest of August, then to Nelson, Tauranga, New Plymouth, Hawke’s Bay, Greymouth, Masterton, and, finally, to Kerikeri in November.

Full information on all films in the programme is at the festival’s website.

For more reviews, browse the “New Zealand International Film Festivals 2011
tag on this site, and check the Twitter hashtag #nzff.