February 22, 2024

This year’s Sundance concluded yesterday, and, though I saw some great films, I also thought about the cinematic economy that the festival fosters. The day before Sundance ended, I took part in a panel discussion about the French critic Serge Daney, as part of the Film at Lincoln Center’s series devoted to his work. The series celebrates the first appearance in English of his 1983 book, “Footlights”; the book’s translator, Nicholas Elliott, was also on the panel, along with Maddie Whittle, who programmed the series with him.

Our discussion turned to an interview with Daney that I’d read when it first came out, in 1977, and which contains an observation that now strikes me forcefully: “Until now, the big difference between France and the U.S.A. has been this: there is no bridge between American ‘underground’ cinema and the film industry, while there has always been one in France.” These days, there is such a bridge here: think of Greta Gerwig, Barry Jenkins, and the Safdie brothers. And Sundance, which celebrated its fortieth anniversary this year, is one of the bridge’s crucial ramps.

But the bridge, it turns out, runs both ways: the prospect of success has altered the very nature of independent filmmaking. Some filmmakers, working without commercial constraints, demonstrate great artistic originality; others make, in effect, calling cards, proving their mastery of the codes of commercial cinema, albeit on a scant budget. Much of the Sundance sweet spot lies in the intersection: enough originality to attract notice and enough populist touches to attract audiences.

The needle swings from year to year. Last year veered toward originality, with such offerings as “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” and “Passages.” For me, this year’s viewings seemed less original, though this may reflect what I was able to see. As always, I didn’t attend the festival in person and relied on the version that is streamed for the press, but, this time, online viewings didn’t start until seven days into the eleven-day festival. Several of the films I was most eagerly anticipating weren’t available, and there was less time for viewing what was available.

The movie’s protagonist, Ben Gottlieb (Jason Schwartzman), is the cantor of a synagogue in upstate New York. He’s on a first date with a woman named Leah (Pauline Chalamet), whom he met on the Jewish dating service Jdate. Raising her glass, Leah says, “L’chaim”—or, rather, “L’haim,” completely missing the distinctive Hebrew uvular consonant. For a second, I was shocked that Silver had the chutzpah to cast an actress whose pronunciation was so inadequate in the role of a Jewish woman. Moments later, though, Leah confesses to Ben that she’s not Jewish but “a hundred per cent Protestant.”

Ben is forty. He’s a grieving widower whose late wife, an acclaimed novelist, died a year ago. He seems not to have lost his composure, but he has lost his voice, literally; his job is to sing the liturgy in services, but he has had to take a leave of absence from the pulpit and can manage only the educational part of his job, preparing children for bar- and bat-mitzvah ceremonies. His two mothers—his biological one, Meira (Caroline Aaron), an artist, and her wife, Judith (Dolly De Leon), a real-estate broker—try to set him up with prospective spouses (Judith made his Jdate profile), but without his wife and without his voice he has lost his reason for living. Drowning his sorrows at a bar for what may be the first time in his life, he makes a scene, gets punched, and, while on the floor, cutely meets another patron, Carla O’Connor (Carol Kane), who, he soon realizes, was his elementary-school music teacher.

“Between the Temples” is full of such moments of illuminating awkwardness and vulnerable embarrassment. Ben is forty. He’s a grieving widower whose late wife, an acclaimed novelist, died a year ago. He seems not to have lost his composure, but he has lost his voice, literally; his job is to sing the liturgy in services, but he has had to take a leave of absence from the pulpit and can manage only the educational part of his job, preparing children for bar- and bat-mitzvah ceremonies. His two mothers—his biological one, Meira (Caroline Aaron), an artist, and her wife, Judith (Dolly De Leon), a real-estate broker—try to set him up with prospective spouses (Judith made his Jdate profile), but without his wife and without his voice he has lost his reason for living. Drowning his sorrows at a bar for what may be the first time in his life, he makes a scene, gets punched, and, while on the floor, cutely meets another patron, Carla O’Connor (Carol Kane), who, he soon realizes, was his elementary-school music teacher.