Family values, New York style

The 39th Film Festival is awash with melodramas about dysfunctional families. But only one of them gets to the heart of the matter, writes Alissa Quart
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The Independent Culture

Is the family melodrama about to make a comeback? Some predict that it will, as a balm to our troubled minds in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the United States. One could start with the films showing at the 39th New York Film Festival, running until 14 October; especially the family romance and festival movie of the moment,The Royal Tenenbaums, from young Rushmore director Wes Anderson.

Tenenbaums stars Gene Hackman as the family's leathery paterfamilias Royal, Anjelica Huston as his abandoned archaeologist wife Etheline, and Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson as the couple's three unspeakably gifted brats. Needless to say, growing up absurd (and trapped in an Anderson-style advertising campaign for antique Gotham glamour) has clearly taken its toll on the Tenenbaum offspring. A former playwright prodigy, Margot (Paltrow) is married to an Oliver Sacks-ish fellow twice her age (Bill Murray) and hides out from his remonstrations, dallying with Eli (Owen Wilson), a drug-addled Sebastian Junger type. Chas (Stiller), a teen business whizz, now organises elaborate fire drills for his two sons, Ari and Uzi, and insists that all wear red Adidas track suits.

Anderson's preferred blend of glib idiosyncrasy extends from the domestic to the urban as well. In the film's mythic Manhattan, there are no yellow taxis, only battered mini-cabs, the hotels are lousy with bellhops in full regalia, and pet hawks can be kept on the roof of the Tenenbaums' brownstone. As with Rushmore, Anderson's interest in families and their prodigies is also a fixation with prohibition. This time, however, the prohibition is not on romantic love between a whizz-kid and an adult woman, but on sibling incest and forgiveness for an abusive father (among his sins, Royal pretends to have terminal stomach cancer in order to get back into his family's graces).

In truth, the film doesn't really care enough to delve into these issues. The narrative device of impossible love is merely a deep cover for an artful prohibition on feeling. The film is concerned with amusing set pieces and quirks – Chas sues his father for stealing his money, Margot has a wooden pointer finger and chain-smokes secretly all day in the bathtub, eyes kohl-rimmed like Edie Sedgwick on tranquillizers, and Eli prefers his author photos half-nude and his AA sponsors to be Native Americans. It is not concerned with characters' transformations or relationships although, even more than Rushmore, it gestures toward a more sentimental register. Ultimately, Anderson is too trapped by his casual, New Yorker magazine sensibility to represent the messy emotions of familial yearning, betrayal and iniquity.

In Lone Scherfig's Italian for Beginners, also at the New York Film Festival this week, family presents an altogether different saving grace. This first women-helmed Dogme 95 film depicts a group of unhappy singles. They meet at an Italian language class that ostensibly provides some of the richness of life they are deprived of in their dismal Danish hamlet.

The film, while ultimately a cheery paean to Mediterranean tourism (the finale is a class trip to Venice), has some unexpectedly horrifying sequences that seem to have floated in from The Idiots. Old, dying parents browbeat their single daughters into annihilation; drunkenly, one mother tells her daughter that she is nothing and that her hairdressing work is pathetic, and throws cold water on her. A good thing, too; I tend to think that Dogme is no longer Dogme if it extends to twee accounts of bumbling lovelorn ministers and fumbling hotel managers and sloppy bakers with hearts of gold. But if the rapturous reception of Italian for Beginners at the festival is any indication, Dogme's brutish domesticity may already be on its way out.

If it's tormented families you're after, the superb Time Out, directed by Laurent Cantet (Human Resources) has one on offer. This has been the best film so far at the festival. Vincent (Aurélien Recoing), stars as a bald 40-year-old man. At first he appears a bland cipher; just laid off from his consulting job, he remains unable to tell his pleasant middle-class clan of his woes. Driven by secrecy and pathos, Vincent starts to sleep in his car near hotels where other, still-employed middle managers stay. Dressed in business attire, he peers into glassed-in offices, eavesdropping on meetings about investment and development in Africa. Soon, Vincent learns to fake his way through meetings with family and strangers – all he needs to do is throw out some International Monetary Fund-style babble about "emerging markets" and few press him on the details.

At bottom, Vincent sells a scam investment scheme to old friends, which provides a window into a more generalised depression and quality of imposture among those of his ilk – all these management team members are like Vincent. They want out of their petty jobs and are willing to suspend disbelief when offered a chance to transcend the daily grind.

Cantet is an unblinking portraitist, rendering the false consciousness of upper-middle- class professionalism and the compromises of global investing while also connecting this to the falsehood of the "happy family" and the pressures that breadwinning place on it.

The film also happens to be gorgeous, offering the starkest of pastoral visions – Vincent drives on the French Alps and on snow-covered hillsides and these geographies have rarely seemed so unconsoling. It is as though we are seeing them through Vincent's eyes: every natural scene of beauty also resembles the bleakest office cubicle. Depressing? Perhaps. But Time Out's rendering of a man who wakes up to the anomie of corporate life seems the right thing, right now.