Matías Piñeiro, The Princess of France, 2014, color, sound, 66 minutes. María Villar and Julián Larquier Tellarini.
IN MATÍAS PIÑEIRO’S elating The Princess of France, the precise attachments, romantic or otherwise, among the constellation of characters may be deliberately confusing, but the performers themselves, all part of the writer-director’s regular troupe, are exceptionally vivid. The third of Piñeiro’s ludic riffs on Shakespeare, following Rosalinda (2011) and Viola (2012), The Princess of France loosely revolves around the reunion of Victor (Julián Larquier Tellarini), who’s recently returned to Buenos Aires after a sojourn in Mexico, with the cast he directed in Love’s Labour’s Lost a year ago; he now has the funding to do the comedy as a radio play. Mounting this production becomes secondary, though, to the voluble players’ own tangentially related dramas, unfolding in the theaters—a street, a museum, a bed—of their choosing.
The protean nature of not just allegiances but also identities is a hallmark of Shakespeare’s comedies, of course, and Piñeiro cleverly signals this fluidity in the film’s opening minutes. A bravura fixed long take of a coed soccer match played on a concrete pitch—the game shot from a city rooftop and scored to the first movement of Schumann’s First Symphony—reveals two teams distinguished by neon yellow or orange vests. Although the number of brightly hued opponents is equal at first, by the scene’s end only one saffron-suited footballer remains, chased—perhaps menacingly, perhaps teasingly—by nearly a dozen competitors sporting lemon jerseys. This pursued athlete, named Lorena (Laura Paredes), removes her identifying garment in an alley, where a young man announces, “Come! It’s started,” and then whisks her into a theater to watch a rehearsal, well underway, of Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Viewers of The Princess of France will likewise feel that they are often witnessing incidents in medias res, though the sense of being unmoored from the mechanics of plot and backstory proves exhilarating, not confounding. As a web of current lovers, former girlfriends, and soon-to-be exes is spun around Victor shortly after his homecoming, the spectator remains utterly absorbed by losing herself in the cascade of utterances—whether digressions on the French nineteenth-century salon painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau; reflections on the inconstancy of desire; or dialogue from Shakespeare’s source play, considered his most linguistically dense—flowing forth from the performers. What makes these words so vital is that those delivering them rank among the most distinctive sounding in contemporary cinema; the actresses (who, as in Viola, are the main focus here, despite Victor’s prominence), especially possess deep, alluring timbres.
One of the most seductive speakers of español rioplatense, Elisa Carricajo, who plays Carla (and who set in motion Viola’s slinkiest moment), fittingly voices, while recalling her character’s first meeting of Victor on a crowded dance floor, the film’s sexiest line: “It was clear that we were going to kiss, but there was no hurry.” A similar atmosphere of languid or suspended eroticism permeates The Princess of France, which, during its fleet sixty-six minutes, performs a miraculous balancing act: In its liberating destabilization of time and action, Piñeiro’s film paradoxically draws viewers in closer, making them feel like co-conspirators in this intricate theater of intimacy.
The Princess of France opens Friday, June 26 in New York at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Mia Hansen-Løve, Eden, 2014, color, sound, 131 minutes. Paul and Louise (Félix de Givry and Pauline Etienne).
IN MIA HANSEN-LØVE’S EDEN (2014), a story based on her brother Sven’s life as a DJ, communication often gets lost in “the mix of machines and voices” that, as another DJ says early on, make garage and house music special. The year is 1992; the city is Paris. A teenage Paul (the very decent Félix de Givry) grows up in the night. Entranced by the flavor of club jam that will come to be known as “French Touch,” Paul all but lives in basements and warehouses, returning to his family’s apartment only to sleep. He dreams of doing something like Daft Punk, so he and his friend Stan (Hugo Conzelmann) become a duo named Cheers, like the bar. Their artist friend Cyril (Roman Kolinka) draws them a logo, their promoter friend Arnaud (Vincent Macaigne) spreads the word, and Paul gets a bachelor pad and turntables instead of going to college. Soon it’s the night of their debut. The year is 1994. In the morning, Paul comes home to a note from his American girlfriend Julia (played by Greta Gerwig at half-speed) saying she’s sorry, but she “had to go back.” Since we already know that Julia has a husband in Brooklyn, the narrative purpose of the note isn’t to explain why she’s leaving; with no other exceptions, goodbyes are nonexistent in Eden. The note is here to leave Paul in silence long enough, for once, to get a message.
What the message is depends on the angle you watch from. If you’re older, it may be that life goes on outside the party, even when the music stops the world. Or that at some point it does become too late to go back, as Julia knows and Paul either doesn’t or ignores. If you’re younger, it may be that nothing pure lasts. Underground music is such a pure thing, and first love is another. So is ecstasy, the dangers of which are warned by Le Monde and Paul’s mother, but his drug of choice is cocaine. Without ever saying so, he seems to dread the irreversible loss of the present—or control over the present—that comes with ecstasy, and to embrace as protection the permanent awakeness of coke.
Awakeness is not like mindfulness, though, and if Paul doesn’t get talkative on drugs, nor does he get introspective. Lyrics like “I was a man who didn’t have any direction” are supposed to stand in for Paul’s epiphanies, but it’s unclear whether he’s having them. Eden is a diary in that it follows a single person through linear but not continuous time, somehow crossing two decades in the space of two hours; it is also an antidiary in that it doesn’t stick to red-letter days, skipping across the high points of a life, preferring to settle in the lulls. (Maybe I mean it’s the anti-Facebook time line.)
Sarah Manguso laments, in her new book Ongoingness (2015), the way she used to diarize or not: “So much apparent nothing I ignored, that I treated as empty time between the memorable moments.” Ongoingness is a memoir of a diary, which sounds dementedly meta—she’s writing about her life spent writing about her life?—until you learn the diary is twenty-five years and eight hundred thousand words long. It’s more like a memoir of addiction, written with the terminal honesty, or ethical commitment to not romanticizing, that’s so often praised in the genre. Her addiction, of course, is the diary; she herself calls it “a vice.”
Paul’s habits are easier to see as vices, yet his addiction to coke is also an addiction to making time—to working more, which means staying up later, which means staying up later still to party, which means working more to afford more means of working, staying up, and partying. Mostly Paul is happy when he’s working, which is to say working for himself. When a lover who’s also a DJ asks him to come see her gig, the way he says “maybe” for “no” is breezily cold and self-absorbed. “No hot water, but you buy Paul Smith shirts?” the same girl asks over breakfast. “Priorities,” he responds, kidding but not.
Halfway through Eden, in the summer of 2001, Cheers play PS1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1) in New York. Paul goes to see a pregnant Julia, who tells him, with her husband in the shower, that she wrote him all these letters she never sent. Louise (Pauline Etienne), who has now been Paul’s (very French) girlfriend for several years, completely freaks out about what she means to him. Offscreen, one of their friends commits suicide; Paul and Stan find out at an electronic music station, moments before going live. They go live anyway. There is an awful beat of radio silence before the song comes.
At home in Paris, Daft Punk are suddenly everywhere. The years are 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006, exploding on screen in a half-minute montage of parties and boats, and then the second half of Eden begins with the fall. It’s a very slow fall. Actually, the second half has the same exact pacing as the first, but because a fall is supposed to be so much faster than a rise, this one feels torturously slower. The symmetry of the film becomes predictable, as it substitutes for the peaks of euphoria a series of flatly significant “after” shots that mirror the ones “before.” Colorful balloons are filled and float to the ceiling for the first Cheers album party at Respect; eleven years later, after another regular but unsuccessful Cheers night, black and white balloons are pricked one by one. On two separate occasions, a generation apart, Daft Punk are denied at a club because no one, including the bouncer, knows what they look like under their helmets. It was sort of funny the first time, but not the second. Ditto a lot of things, actually: Paul’s money problems, the lies to his mother, the lazy way he often has with women. “Now I won’t make the same mistakes, time and time again,” sings Julie McKnight for the Kings of Tomorrow in “Finally,” Paul standing motionless in a crowd.
Even when he stops playing music the clubs want and starts playing music at weddings, Paul can’t stop playing music, the same way Manguso couldn’t stop writing a diary that no one will read. Paul needs the money, but the money is also a ruse. He doesn’t want to lose his place in time. Only after a drug-induced breakdown does he quit, find a job, and join a writing workshop, where he meets yet another young woman (they never get any older in twenty years). She gives him a book of poems by Robert Creeley, and that’s how Eden ends, with the suggestion that Paul was to Daft Punk as Creeley was to William Carlos Williams, or else with a poem that just fits.
“You understand so much in life that nobody explains to you,” Hansen-Løve tells the writer Durga Chew-Bose in Filmmaker magazine. “I try to make movies like life, where nothing is really said, and it’s there without needing to be explained.” Her camera is shy and hyperattentive yet usually easy to ignore; her script, which her brother helped write, is sometimes so light it’s like gossip. “I want to write sentences that seem as if no one wrote them,” a friend tells Manguso, who in turn puts the sentence in her book without naming the friend. Hansen-Løve, likewise, makes scenes as if no one is watching them. Yet with all the time Paul spends in emptiness, it becomes an emptiness as ornate, as detailed and unreal, as a cathedral’s, where neither machines nor voices account for the music you can hear.
Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden opens Friday, June 19, at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York.
THE SEVENTH ANNUAL BAMcinemaFest begins with a Judd Apatow veteran impressively portraying a beloved, bandanna-ed dead author and ends with two newcomers who are naturals in front of the camera—at least that of the iPhone 5s. In between these bookends are twenty-one other feature-length works (both narratives and documentaries), plus four revival screenings, a handful of shorts, and, just announced, a sneak preview of Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America. Its titles plucked, as in previous editions, mainly from Sundance and South by Southwest, BAMcinemaFest offers a distillation of American-independent cinema, a corpus that, even in the highly curated sampler presented here, remains wildly disparate in theme—and quality. Trend-sniffers will note only the number of times that Kickstarter thank-yous dominate closing-credit segments.
“I lived this incredibly American life,” Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace tells Jesse Eisenberg, playing a Rolling Stone reporter who’s trailing the author, in James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, the festival’s opening-night film. It takes a while to grow accustomed to Segel’s inhabiting of Wallace, captured during the final lap of promoting 1996’s Infinite Jest: At first DFW’s signature long, lank locks crowned by a kerchief seems like an absurd costume for the star of such regressed-bro vehicles as I Love You, Man. But Segel delivers lines like that above—and even quotes Saint Ignatius—with wrenching earnestness, his performance honoring a writer whose boundless compassion was ultimately outmatched by his despair. Yet no matter how intelligent and surprising, Segel’s take on Wallace still cannot make Eisenberg’s trademark clipped speech and twitchiness more tolerable.
There’s no such lopsidedness in Sean Baker’s Tangerine, the trashily buoyant BAMcinemaFest closer; its stars, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, both making their feature-film debut, are equally charismatic in their roles as transgender prosties. Set during Christmas Eve in the seedier intersections of Hollywood, Baker’s film tracks Sin-Dee (Rodriquez) as she storms down Santa Monica Boulevard in search of her cheating pimp boyfriend, her bestie Alexandra (Taylor) reluctantly aiding the motor-mouthed wronged woman in her enraged quest. As in his previous movie, Starlet (2012), a tale of an improbable intergenerational friendship between an aspiring XXX actress and an octogenarian widow, Baker again evinces genuine admiration for his unconventional heroines, his warmth never curdling into mawkishness. Enhanced with anamorphic adapters, the smartphones that Baker used to shoot Tangerine proved extremely versatile, enabling both widescreen visions of shapely, fishnet-stockinged legs furiously in motion and more intimate two-shots of extreme acrimony in doughnut shops or tender reconciliations in laundromats.
The friendship between Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston) is beset by an even more fraught, if quieter, push-pull dynamic in Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, the festival’s centerpiece. A besotted yet spiky homage to New Hollywood exemplars of female unraveling, like Robert Altman’s Images (1972) and Woody Allen’s Interiors (1979), Perry’s movie opens with a tight close-up of Moss’s teary, mascara-smeared face as her character demands of her off-screen, soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, “Why are you doing this to me?” Though never articulated again, the query becomes the film’s theme: Nearly all conversations between Catherine and Virginia are poisoned by simmering hurts and resentments. That these increasingly dark, aggrieved exchanges take place amid the effulgent glory of the Hudson Valley, where Catherine retreats after her breakup—and her father’s death—to spend a few weeks in the airy country home owned by Virginia’s parents (and where the two engaged in more passive-aggressive banter the summer prior, a time smoothly rendered in flashback), only heightens the dread of this domestic horror story. Although these acts of psychic sabotage can occasionally seem strained and overwritten, the lead actresses are always fascinating to watch: Moss, in her second film with Perry after last year’s Listen Up Philip, mines the odd humor in her character’s mental disintegration, and Waterston, last seen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1970-set Inherent Vice, has an uncanny ability to appear at once an of-this-moment performer and a throwback to American cinema of forty years ago.
American television from eras past is the subject of two fitfully informative docs. Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s Best of Enemies recounts the ten debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal that served as the linchpin of ABC’s coverage of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions of 1968. An army of talking heads weighs in on the contentious colloquies between the National Review founder and the author of Myra Breckinridge, this gabbing too often privileged over the far more revelatory source material itself. Both forty-two at the time of the debates, their orotund speech a product of their Brahmin upbringing, these class-consonant, politically discordant public intellectuals make no attempt to conceal their mutual animosity, infamously reaching its lowest point when Buckley, who had just been branded a “crypto-Nazi” by his opponent, retorts by calling Vidal a “queer” and threatening, “I’ll sock you in the goddamn face.” But even this potent moment in network news is diluted by the excess of commenters dissecting the fracas, which Best of Enemies then rushes to proclaim as a harbinger of today’s nonstop bloviating. Similarly, Jon Nealon and Jenny Raskin’s Here Come the Videofreex, an amiable chronicle of the alt-media collective that launched the first pirate-TV station in a Catskills hamlet in 1972, uncritically embraces this assertion by one of its interlocutors: “Set up a camera and you can change the world.”
I risk making my own fatuous pronouncements about then and now in discussing Larry Clark’s Kids, the twentieth anniversary of which BAMcinemaFest is celebrating with a post-screening Q&A with the director, writer Harmony Korine, and stars Chloë Sevigny, Rosario Dawson, and Leo Fitzpatrick. (The film marked the inaugural big-screen effort of all those mentioned.) Revisiting Kids for the first time since its summer 1995 release, I felt the same profound unease mixed with queasy admiration for Clark’s graphic depictions of adolescent lust and predatory smooth talkers as I did during my initial viewing. My appreciation for Clark’s provocative project, however, only grew once I considered the ludicrously sanitized versions of teenage sexuality that have dominated big screens for the past two decades.
The seventh annual BAMcinemaFest runs June 17 through 28 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.
Stephanie Gray, You Know They Want to Disappear Hell’s Kitchen as Clinton, 2010, Super 8, black-and-white and color, sound, 17 minutes.
AVANT-GARDE FILMS, as Jonas Mekas often explains, are to narrative movies as poetry is to prose. Mekas was a poet before he ever picked up a camera. Now ninety-two, he continues to both write and film. Stephanie Gray, roughly half Mekas’s age, is also both a poet and a filmmaker. Poetry informs the place from which she speaks as a moving-image maker and her camera-eye informs her words. “Super 8mm Poetics: The Films of Stephanie Gray,” a three-evening retrospective at Anthology Film Archives, coincides with the publication by Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs of her second poetry collection, Shorthand and Electric Language Stars.
Spanning fifteen years, the retrospective confirms Gray’s commitment not only to celluloid but specifically to the narrow-gauge medium of Super 8. She has mined its particular expressive qualities—graininess, smeary color or low-contrast black-and-white, limited focal range, on-the-fly sync-sound recording, and, especially, the fragility and instability of the film strip itself during shooting, editing, and projection. Like the places and people she has filmed, Super 8 has all but disappeared. Most of the filmmakers who briefly explored it turned decades ago to video and digital technologies. But for Gray, whose work is defined by its stubbornness, Super 8 is the artisanal medium where she celebrates handmade imperfection and mourns its passing.
The third program in the series is devoted almost entirely to short films that memorialize —although that’s too grand a word for Gray’s images—places that made daily life in New York unique until they fell victim to so-called gentrification: More Bread Forever (2004) shot the day before Zito’s Bakery on Bleecker Street closed; I Bought the Last Four Bagels at Jon Vie Pastries, New Year’s Eve 2004 (2004); Magic Couldn’t Save Magic Shoes (2010); You Know They Want to Disappear Hell’s Kitchen as Clinton (2010). The titles are more straightforward—punchier even—than the film images, where Gray’s deliberate refusal to focus her lens except for brief scattered moments makes the places that one took for granted till they were gone look as if they were already misted memories even before they breathed their last. All of Gray’s films suggest the difficulty of focusing on anything—even what we most love or hate.
The paradox is that these extremely fragile films comprise a cinema of personal and political grief and outrage that is unsparing of its audience. Gray speaks from the position of a working-class, lesbian, and severely hearing-impaired woman, a voice from the margins that refuses to be silent, indeed finds no justification for marginalization of any kind. Gray makes no attempt to seduce a potential audience, although several films in this retro are ironically humorous in their wordplay, most notably Close Yr Hearing for the Cap(Shuns) (2000). Her voice-overs are repetitive in pitch and rhythm and reedy in timbre—they reflect the way she hears her own voice and the voices of others, but more crucially they express a struggle to be heard at all. And while Gray’s vision is not disabled, her handheld camera often seems to replicate the seeing of a nearly blind person as it gropes its way toward the object of her attention, circling and zooming until finally for one or two seconds it focuses only to move away and repeat the same movement patterns over and over again.
There is one film that is an exception to the Spartan rules of Gray’s filmmaking. Kristy (2003) consists of clips of the actress Kristy McNichol, her lovely face filmed off a TV screen and “processed” in various ways. The television loses sync so the image is sometimes in vertical roll as Gray films it; the film itself is scratched and torn, the editing splices visible. McNichol, who came out in 2012, twenty years after she retired and nearly a decade after Gray made Kristy, was already a lesbian icon in the 1980s when she played a teenager on Family. Gray’s portrait film collapses the filmmaker’s desire into the desire she projects onto McNichol. Naked in its longing, Kristy takes possession of a beauty that will not be denied.
“Super 8mm Poetics: The Films of Stephanie Gray” runs June 12–14 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Live spoken word and musical performances accompany films in all three programs.
MAHOGANY, THE DIANA ROSS VEHICLE from 1975 that has launched a thousand drag tributes, is the first and only film directed by Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, which financed the movie; it was originally slated to be the seventeenth feature helmed by Tony Richardson, the British New Wave stalwart. According to an article in the New York Times from February 1975, Richardson—best known for Look Back in Anger (1959), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), and Tom Jones (1963)—was sacked midway through Mahogany’s production because the Motown impresario, who had managed Ross’s career while she was the lead singer of the Supremes, “did not feel Richardson was capturing the feeling of ‘blackness’ necessary to the story of a girl from the Chicago ghetto who achieves success as an international fashion model and designer.”
That “girl” is Tracy Chambers, played by Ross three years after her screen debut as Billie Holiday in the highly successful 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues and five years into her career as a solo recording artist. Tracy works as the secretary to the priggish head of the display department of Marshall Field’s, though her off-hours are devoted to fashion classes; the El ride back to her South Side walkup provides the precious few minutes needed to complete the sketch of a design begun in night school. That lavish garment, and several others, will be realized about halfway through Mahogany, as Tracy leaves Chicago for Rome at the invitation of Sean (Anthony Perkins), the sociopathic fashion photographer who discovers her on a shoot at the upscale department store.
In leaving the boot-strapping Windy City for the decadent Old World, Tracy is also abandoning Brian (Billy Dee Williams), a community organizer running for alderman who’s disgusted by his girlfriend’s profession (“Baby, I don’t understand this whole trip”). Williams, once known as the “black Clark Gable,” also played Ross’s love interest in Lady Sings the Blues; in Berry’s film, the actor must revile the other “feeling” necessary to a project about fashion: queerness, which Mahogany simultaneously celebrates and repudiates. Visiting Tracy on a surprise trip to the Italian capital, Brian, whose preferred attire consists of Shaft-inspired ensembles of thick turtlenecks and leather coats, is treated by his lady to a bespoke suit, though the outfit makes him uncomfortable: “I feel like an ol’ sissy walking around in this thing.” He squirms even more at a party thrown by Sean—whose sexual deviance is confirmed by his inability to get it up for Tracy—after a gender illusionist tries to finger-feed Brian a canapé. Butch guest and effete host will soon be tussling in Sean’s gun room; despite the tricked-out, macho redoubt, even here the photographer shoots blanks.
Perkins, who died of complications related to AIDS in 1992 (one year after Richardson’s death from the same illness), had played a queer character before, albeit a far more sympathetic one, in Frank Perry’s adaptation of Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays (1972), in which he acted opposite Tuesday Weld as B.Z., a tormented bisexual movie producer. Yet the gayest signifier in Mahogany is, of course, Ross, who also served as the film’s costume designer. (Perhaps the most lavender moment in ’70s cinema occurs when Tracy shows her designs to an indifferent dress manufacturer played by Bruce Vilanch.) The outré japonaiserie that makes Tracy an haute-couture superstar isn’t quite as outlandish as her outbursts at her nonbilingual staff in her atelier: “Don’t give me that ‘non capisco’ shit!” And in the string of rhetorical questions that make up the bulk of the movie’s theme song, which became a number-one hit for Ross, is embedded a query that could have served as a salvo for homosexual intifadists forty years ago: Do you like the things that life is showing you?
Mahogany screens Monday, June 8, at the IFC Center as part of the series “Queer/Art/Film: Black Summer Nights.”
THE CENTRAL QUESTION of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which made headlines for banning selfies and reportedly insisting that women wear high heels at evening galas, was one of inclusion and exclusion. In other words: What does and doesn’t belong on this hallowed red carpet?
The nucleus of Cannes has always been its official competition, a closely watched shortlist of twenty or so titles that compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or. An annual snapshot of the state of the art, this is historically where the firmament of world cinema is established. The competition consumes the festival’s media oxygen and dictates the schedules of most festivalgoers. Competing titles are guaranteed press conferences and reviews in the daily trade publications. They are also granted the defining accolade of the Cannes red carpet, a ceremonial black-tie walk past the throng of photographers and celebrity rubberneckers up the steps of the Grand Theatre Lumiere. It is along that same carpet, scuffed and stained in the harsh morning light, that the sleep-deprived, lanyard-clad festival proletariat scramble en route to 8:30 AM press screenings of many of those films. The competition, in short, is synonymous with Cannes. But this may well go down as an edition in which a recurrent observation of recent years took hold as an indisputable fact: The competition is not the be-all and end-all of Cannes, and to treat it as such does a disservice to the most significant films in the festival.
This year’s official selection, widely and correctly dismissed as lackluster, included the usual pantheon auteurs, a few new names, and many red-carpet-ready movie stars. But the omissions became even more glaring when the Directors’ Fortnight, the parallel event down the Croisette founded in the wake of the 1968 shutdown, made a show of poaching titles known to have been rejected by the main festival. (These included Philippe Garrel’s generally liked In the Shadow of Women and Arnaud Desplechin’s near-universally loved My Golden Years, which failed to make the cut for a nineteen-title competition that included five French films.) But if the core selection left much to be desired, the festival as a whole offered some truly memorable high points. By my count, there were no fewer than three extraordinary films: Cemetery of Splendour, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first feature since his surprise Palme d’Or for 2010’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives; Miguel Gomes’s three-volume, six-hour-plus Arabian Nights, each part premiering on alternate days, a Scheherazade-like exercise in deferred gratification; and the Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien’s reinvention of the martial-arts genre, The Assassin, his first film in eight years. Of these three—works so rich, and richly pleasurable, that I opted to expend precious festival time on repeat viewings of each—only one, The Assassin, showed in the competition.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Rak Ti Khon Kaen (Cemetery of Splendour), 2015, HD video, color, sound, 122 minutes.
Cemetery of Splendour was a late addition to Un Certain Regard, the festival’s secondary competition—shabby treatment for a recent Palme d’Or winner, and even less explicable after the film screened to a rapturous response. Set in and around a hospital ward full of narcoleptic soldiers who may be waging war in their sleep on behalf of long-dead feuding royals, this sun-dappled waking dream is immersive and enveloping, suggestive in many ways of Apichatpong’s recent forays into the art world. The soldiers are hooked up to dream machines with glowing fluorescent tubes that resemble Dan Flavin sculptures; the shifting colors that fill the room and saturate the frame approximate the perceptual magic of a James Turrell light installation. This was a festival with its fair share of afterlife stories, some more interesting (Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Journey to the Shore) than others (Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees), but all sentimentally invested in closure and redemption. To slyer and sharper effect than ever, Apichatpong merges supernatural phenomena and mysteries with Thailand’s historical phantoms and present-day national traumas.
Gomes, who is said to have passed on a spot in Un Certain Regard for the Directors’ Fortnight, took an increasingly common subject—Europe’s ongoing economic woes—and reimagined it wholesale. Filmed during Portugal’s recent plunge into austerity, Arabian Nights strives for what its opening titles call “a fictional form from facts.” For a full year, Gomes and his cowriters worked with a team of journalists and a lightning-quick production crew to transmute actual events into the stuff of fable, all of it channeled through the epic shaggy-dog form of the classic folk tale. Scheherazade mastered the teasing art of the cliffhanger as a hedge against death, and Gomes’s film is, accordingly, both urgent and playful, commingling documentary material about the unemployed, local elections, and working-class bird trappers with visions of exploding whales, talking cockerels, ghost dogs, and erection-bestowing magic potions. An immense work of exhilarating freedom, it attempts just about every storytelling device and narrative mode imaginable, veering from political satire to Brechtian theater to tear-jerking melodrama, always conscious that its fantasy dimension is a license for directness, a path to a more meaningful truth.
Even when they conjure the past, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films exist fully in the moment—which accounts in part for the singular force of his historical dramas—and The Assassin, a hypnotically beautiful evocation of Tang Dynasty–era imperial intrigue, is no exception. An early fight—filmed first as an abrupt flurry of close-ups and then from afar in a long take—sums up Hou’s commitment to rethinking, moment by moment, the rules and, in particular, the staging of the wuxia film. The plot concerns a highly skilled female assassin (Shu Qi, in a near-wordless, brilliantly gestural performance) dispatched to kill a provincial governor (Chang Chen), who also happens to be a cousin to whom she was once betrothed. It’s true, as some predictably complained, that Hou’s fondness for narrative ellipses and disdain for close-ups makes it tricky to diagram the relationships among the characters. But the masterful layering of sensory effects—the caressing camera movements and trance-inducing sound design, the startling shifts between mythic landscapes and opulent interiors awash in gauze and brocade—has the effect of sharpening a sympathetic viewer’s subliminal attention. As always in Hou, what remains unspoken—the invisible forces and secret passions governing the characters—emerges with a stealthy clarity. Readable as an allegory about present-day China-Taiwan relations, The Assassin is above all pure cinema: a hallucinatory interplay of color, movement, and light and a mesmerizing study of bodies in space.
Miguel Gomes, Arabian Nights, 2015, 16 mm and 35 mm, color, sound, 379 minutes.
The jury, led by Joel and Ethan Coen, awarded Hou the Best Director prize in a closing ceremony that concluded with the unexpected bestowal of the Palme d’Or to Jacques Audiard’s indifferently received immigrant drama Dheepan. While it was hard to imagine anyone getting too passionate about Dheepan—the decision smacked of a split jury’s compromise vote—the competition did produce what are almost certain to be two of the year’s biggest critical causes. Todd Haynes’s midcentury lesbian romance Carol, which had reviewers swooning, is an immaculate, purposefully muted Patricia Highsmith adaptation that dares to romanticize the illicit pleasures of the closet. The jury passed over Cate Blanchett, poised as ever in the title role, for her costar, an excellent Rooney Mara (who shared the Best Actress prize with Emmanuelle Bercot for Maiwenn’s My King). The runner-up Grand Prix went to the competition’s most talked-about film, first-time Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes’s Son of Saul, which follows a Sonderkommando on a mission in an extermination camp, sticking to his circumscribed perspective via a camera that is practically affixed to the protagonist and rendering the surrounding horrors as a shallow-focus blur. Nemes is without question a gifted technician, but this brazen act of showboating seems less a considered challenge than a glib response to the vast body of writing and thinking on the representability of the Holocaust, beginning most obviously with Jacques Rivette’s attack on the use of the tracking shot in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapo. For better or more likely worse, Son of Saul is a film that will spawn a thousand think pieces.
The most conspicuous trend was the shift toward larger-scale English-language productions by some of world cinema’s most prominent auteurs. This often meant all-out spectacle, even bloat, as with the Italians Mateo Garrone (Tale of Tales) and Paolo Sorrentino (Youth). In Louder than Bombs, the young Norwegian director Joachim Trier (Reprise) brings his signature empathetic intelligence to the somewhat Sundance-y material of a bourgeois family paralyzed by grief. A more ambitious and altogether successful bid for mainstream attention, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster finds the Greek director honing his specialty—the reductio-ad-absurdum social satire—to a fine, gleaming point. Set in a rulebound world where singles are turned into the animal of their choice if they fail to mate within forty-five days, it won the third-place Jury Prize. Globalization has been a recurring theme for the great Jia Zhangke, and his latest film, Mountains May Depart, although shut out at the awards, already looks like a pivotal work. It unfolds in three parts: a love triangle in coal-mining Fenyang province in 1999, redolent of vintage Jia; a catch-up with the protagonists in booming present-day China; and a flash-forward to Australia, a decade in the future, where some of the principals have landed. Jia has often focused on those cast aside by convulsive change; this film, which expands the horizons of both time and space, and follows characters who have been swept up in the modernizing tide, is perhaps his most emotionally direct yet, held together by an enormously moving performance by his wife and regular star, Zhao Tao.
For a sizable sector of the cinephile contingent, the most anticipated work at Cannes was a film made in 1982 but unseen since: Visit, or Memories and Confessions, by the venerable Manoel de Oliveira, who died at age 106 in April. Oliveira stipulated that this film, due to its personal nature, be shown only after his death, and the Cannes screening followed a premiere at the Cinemateca Portuguesa in Lisbon two weeks earlier. Oliveira’s improbable filmography is full of memento mori; Visit assumes the rare form of an auto-elegy. A prowling camera finds Oliveira in the Porto house where he has lived for four decades and that he is preparing to leave. He addresses the audience directly, setting the film’s droll, convivial tone: He recounts his family history, shares some home movies, reenacts a run-in with the military dictatorship; holds forth on cinema, on men and women, on agriculture and architecture. Oliveira’s late career took the form of a long goodbye, but this actual farewell in no less touching in its simplicity and lucidity. Oliveira made this film at age seventy-three, presumably expecting that he was near the end of his life. He would live another thirty-six years and make another twenty-five or so films, some of them among his greatest, in an extended twilight that was also an artistic prime unlike any other.
The Sixty-Eighth Festival de Cannes ran May 13–24.