#NOFF2020 Ranked and Reviewed

When reviewing the few feature films I caught at this year’s (mostly virtual) New Orleans Film Festival, I found myself constantly writing about how the context of the COVID-19 pandemic shaped my experience with them. It’s been a long nine months since I last attended a film festival in person (French Film Fest, which was snugly slotted in between Mardi Gras and the city’s initial coronavirus lockdown orders), so it was impossible to not compare & contrast this year’s NOFF with similar events in the past.

To the festival’s credit, the programmers addressed this unavoidable preoccupation head-on, platforming a wealth of short films that directly commented on COVID-era New Orleans culture. They also adjusted the scope & structure of the festival to offer as safe of an experience as possible, including an online streaming option for most of their selections as well as a few outdoor, socially distanced screenings for in-person events.

COVID undeniably reshaped my usual New Orleans Film Festival experience this year, at the very least in how it limited the range & volume of movies I could make time for during the fest’s short window. It didn’t halt the ritual entirely; it just hung over it as an unignorable dark cloud.

Here’s a list of the four features I’ve reviewed from this year’s New Orleans Film Festival. CC & I will record a more fleshed-out recap of our COVID-era festival experience on an upcoming episode of the podcast, in case you’re interested in hearing about our favorite shorts from the line-up or our thoughts on the ways the fest had to adapt to the constrictions of a pandemic. This list is a more bare-bones kind of recap: a best-to-least-best ranking of the features we managed to catch at this year’s NOFF.

Each title includes a link to a corresponding review. Enjoy!

To Decadence with Love, Thanks for Everything

A local documentary that captures how drastically different the New Orleans drag scene is now vs. the traditional Southern Pageant Drag scene I remember growing up with. It was great to see a community I love (including a couple friends who perform) documented for posterity, but also bittersweet because the very last in-the-flesh social event I attended was a drag show in March and I miss it very much.

Nobody May Come

A local documentary about avant garde zydeco-turned-new-wave musician Valerie Sassyfras, who’s a very specific kind of New Orleans eccentric. It’s a jarring mix of fun outsider-art punk aggression and severely upsetting social & mental dysfunction; the exact kind of niche-interest no-budget filmmaking you only see at festivals.

The Giverny Document (Single Channel)

A conceptual art piece about Black women’s relationships with their own bodies and the meaning of “feeling safe.” It’s a little impenetrable the way a lot of experimental essay films can be, but it also packs a powerful wallop when it feels like going for the jugular. There’s also some incredible Nina Simone footage interspersed throughout.

Undine

Christian Petzold’s latest is Good, but not entirely My Thing. I can’t imagine being the kind of person who watches The Lure and thinks “What if this was a quiet, understated drama instead?” but apparently that kind of person is out there.

-Brandon Ledet

Undine (2020)

The last time I saw a movie in public with a live audience was The Invisible Man back in March of this year, at the start of the COVID-era lockdowns. I recently ended that drought eight months later at the New Orleans Film Festival, which included a few outdoor screenings among the virtual at-home viewing options that comprised most of this year’s fest. The projection was a little hazy, mostly due to the lights of passing cars and my own glasses fogging up from my mask. The mosquitoes were out, and they were thirsty. The movie was solidly Good, but not entirely My Thing. And yet I treasured every minute of the experience, if not only for the novelty of being part of a moviegoing audience again instead of watching everything alone on my couch. It felt like cinematic therapy, a necessary break in routine.

The movie that dragged me out of the safety of my home for a low-risk outdoor screening was Undine, Christian Petzold’s follow-up to the consecutive critical hits Phoenix & Transit. If Petzold has a particular calling card as a director (at least based on those two prior examples), it’s perhaps in the way he treats outlandish, high-concept premises with a delicate, sober hand. I probably should have known to temper my expectations for Undine, then, which on paper sounds like it’d be catered to my tastes but in practice is maybe a little too subtle & well-behaved to fully warm my heart. Its IMDb plot synopsis hints at an aquatic horror fairy tale: “Undine works as a historian lecturing on Berlin’s urban development. But when the man she loves leaves her, an ancient myth catches up with her. Undine has to kill the man who betrays her and return to the water.” Filtering that modernized Little Mermaid thriller premise through Petzold’s normalizing, prestige-cinema eyes, though, the movie somehow lands under the Breakup Drama umbrella instead.

I can’t imagine being the kind of person who watches the glammed-out disco horror musical The Lure and thinks “What if this was remade as a quiet, understated drama?,” but apparently that kind of person is out there. Meeting Petzold halfway on those terms, Undine is a smart small-scale romance, the exact kind of Adults Talking About Adult Issues filmmaking that has been abandoned by Hollywood movie studios and now only exists on the indie festival circuit. While it treats its fairy tale premise with a quiet, restrained sense of realism, the drama it seeks in the relationship dynamics at its core is both wryly funny and passionately heartfelt. It’s difficult to make sense of what all of its lengthy train rides & lectures on the urban planning of a reunited Berlin have to do with the aquatic-horror myth of its premise, but the breaking-up and falling-in-love cycles of its two opposing romance storylines are engaging enough to prop up those intellectual indulgences. The chemistry between actors Paula Beer (Undine) & Franz Rogowski (Undine’s next potential lover/victim) is especially potent & worthy of attention.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I probably would’ve been more enamored with this film if it were a little messier or a lot more over the top; that’s just not Petzold’s deal. Still, it’s easy to picture a dumber, less nuanced American remake of this exact screenplay (starring Nicole Kidman & Joaquin Phoenix as the central couple), and there’s no way it would be half as thematically rich or dramatically accomplished. Besides, American studio movies don’t offer many COVID-safe venues for public screenings right now, so I couldn’t have enjoyed the outdoor film fest experience that Undine had afforded me if it were a mainstream genre pic. I’m very thankful for that therapeutic break in pandemic-constricted routine, even if I overall found the film itself to be Good Not Great.

-Brandon Ledet