An event like the Festival Lumière, with its wide remit that sees classic films and retrospectives rub shoulders with the very latest and chic-est new titles, is always going to boast a thicket of hidden connections and surprising collisions. This year, for example, you could go from watching “8 ½,” Federico Fellini’s 1963 metafiction about his relationship with filmmaking, straight into “The Hand of God,” Paolo Sorrentino’s 2021 autofiction about his relationship with (among other things) Fellini. You could gorge yourself on Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, and then find yourself watching Gaspar Noé’s “Vortex,” featuring a superb Francoise Lebrun, who is best known for her role in Jean Eustache’s “The Mother and the Whore,” where she starred opposite… Jean-Pierre Léaud.
Such coincidences and congruities are part of the joy of a film festival, but occasionally they can also point to something deeper. This edition features rediscovered and restored classics from Japanese director Kinuyo Tanaka, who appeared in films by Ozu, Naruse and Mizoguchi, playing alongside a selection from previous Lumière honoree Ida Lupino, while elsewhere you can find the striking recent directorial debuts from Rebecca Hall and Maggie Gyllenhaal, giving a definite sense that Lumière 2021 is the festival of the actress-turned-director.
Hall’s “Passing” premiered at the beginning of the year in Sundance; Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter” bowed in Venice, where the first-time writer-director won the award for best screenplay. Both films deal with themes that are vitally personal to and deeply felt by their directors, but neither is autobiography; in fact both are based on books by acclaimed female novelists (“Passing” is adapted from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name; “The Lost Daughter” is a 2006 book by Elena Ferrante). But while they may be kindred spirits in some ways – especially in their focus on the fraught nature of female friendship, the films are radically different from each other in approach and execution, while still leaning into the received wisdom about actor-directors getting extraordinarily embodied and intricate perfromances from their stars.
In “Passing,” shot in luminous, lustrous black and white, a rivetingly charismatic Ruth Negga plays a young, light-skinned Black woman in 1920s New York, who opts to “pass” for white, dyeing her hair and cutting her ties with her past. It’s only when she happens to bump into an old friend, played with lovely, watchful wariness by Tessa Thompson, that her homesickness for her Harlem childhood starts to wear on her, and sets the clock slow-ticking toward tragedy. Hall’s approach is gorgeously delicate; with “The Lost Daughter,” Gyllenhaal opts for a spikier, less classical style that still yields another brace of performances that must rank among the best of the year. Olivia Colman plays Leda, a middle-aged academic who goes on a solo holiday to a Mediterranean island and develops an odd fixation on a glamorous young mother (Dakota Johnson). And just when you think no one but Colman could play such a contradictory character, Jessie Buckley shows up to prove you wrong, playing younger Leda with such an accurate emotional similarity to Colman’s portrayal that the actresses’ physical dissimilarity doesn’t matter at all.
Both these wonderful films are about women negotiating with the shadows of the past, and so it’s appropriate and heartening to see them contextualized alongside Tanaka and Lupino. It makes a quiet but persuasive statement that cuts both ways, bringing the older films to a new audience, and creating for the new movies some continuity with a film history that has traditionally struggled to recognize the contributions of women, as soon as they move from the front of the camera to behind it.