In alphabetical order:
2001 looks like a 50-year-old movie — but also one that’s somehow timeless. And the sound — oh, dear God, the sound! (Nolan, who introduced the restored print, said this was one of the few theatres in the world that was equipped to play this print.) It crashes over you like waves in a stormy sea. And suddenly, you’re enveloped by the ghostly silence of outer space. Very few films are a must-see on the big screen. This one’s right up there.
Se Rokh begins like a mystery (is Marziyeh alive?) and slowly transforms into an observational portrait. (What does it say about the mayor of the village who exiled the former actress but sends a few men to make sure a male director — Panahi — feels at home?) Panahi worked as Kiarostami’s assistant. He echoes not just his mentor’s work (the suicide angle and the driving around from Taste of Cherry, the ‘city people scrambling to get cell phone reception’ gag from The Wind Will Carry Us), but also the delicateness with which things are laid out, without pushing a message.
Arctic is a survival tale. The man’s (Mads Mikkelsen; the character is never named) plane has crash-landed here. As in Cast Away, he gets “someone” to speak to but doesn’t speak back. As in The Martian, he undertakes a long, dangerous journey towards being saved. The material is so familiar that the audience laughed at the supposedly “dangerous” moments: when a nearby copter crashes while trying to rescue the man, or when he keeps quiet when a polar bear sniffs around but someone else coughs. It’s like a game. We don’t take it seriously. The filmmaking, too, is familiar.
Jianghu. That’s the word that drives Jia Zhangke’s Jiang Hu Er Nv (Ash is Purest White). It refers to the underworld and its codes, and it explains at least some of the head-scrambling decisions the characters make. The film follows a gangster and his girl — Bin (Liao Fan) and Qiao (Zhao Tao) — from 2001 to 2018. As China changes, so does the relationship.
This is a “social issue” movie that wants you to pinch its cheeks. It’s fairy-dusted neorealism, which isn’t ashamed of four-handkerchief melodrama (an 11-year-old girl forced into marriage, a toddler left dangerously close to speeding cars on the road). It’s a Dickensian survival story, replete with a glass-eyed villain. It’s Oscar bait.
In Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War (Zimna Wojna, in Polish), cigarette smoke curls upwards in thick coils, like a winding stairway to heaven. And when the heroine, a singer named Zula (Joanna Kulig), floats in a stream, with only her head above water, the image becomes an otherworldly visual — framed by ripples, the weeds on the banks, and a spot of sunlight. The surrealism is transfixing. Colour would have made it too… real.
I ducked into Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass (Russian, Ukrainian), for about an hour, between other engagements. While it was clear that the film was making a bigger societal point about war and today’s society, I wasn’t able to pull it all together till I read the press notes. I try to resist knowing too much about a movie before watching it, but in this case, a crash course isn’t just useful but absolutely necessary — and not just to figure out what the title means. It is an industrial region in Eastern Ukraine, developed in first half of the 20th century, employing the free labour of gulag prisoners. Their descendents have settled here now, and criminal gangs have taken over. The film is essentially a collage of frighteningly absurd sequences, linked by characters who slip from one episode to the next.
If you’ve ever wondered about the question “what does a director do?”, watch Matteo Garrone’s Dogman. Almost every shot — varying between static and handheld — is meticulously composed and held for precise durations that sweep us ineffably into the world he sets up, into the psychology of the characters.
For the first time, Farhadi’s plotting comes off like formula. But what’s really surprising is how off the film is tonally, how insistent it is in preparing the audience for what’s to come. The problems begin with the writing. The wedding sequence that opens the film rivals, in length, the one in The Godfather, but all that’s conveyed is a series of character introductions and an overdone air of familial happiness that makes it clear tragedy will follow. Farhadi’s strength — character psychologies revealed through genre mechanics — deserts him here, despite moving performances by Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz.
At home, Lara (Victor Polster) stares obsessively at her flat chest, practically willing breasts into being. Even worse is the way she treats her penis, taping it inwards, so that it doesn’t bulge in her ballerina costume — ripping off the tape, later, results in raw, red welts. Lara’s difficulties with her body are contrasted with the ease with which the girls in her class inhabit theirs. In a scene set in a pool, they frolic like mermaids, while Lara hovers around hesitantly. And in ballet class, they enjoy themselves, while Lara’s lips are pursed in grim determination. The director isn’t after cheap drama. He doesn’t stage a reveal, where the kids in Lara’s class gasp when they find out about her. They already know, and are reasonably okay (if understandably puzzled) about it. But Lara is so uncommunicative about her feelings that we know it’s only a matter of time before an explosion. When it came, the whole theatre winced.
Eva Husson’s Les Filles Du Soleil (Girls of the Sun, in French, English and Kurdish), set “somewhere in Kurdistan,” is easily the most puzzling Competition selection this year. I knew I was in trouble when, in an early scene, Mathilde (Emmanuelle Bercot) explains her eyepatch (“shrapnel from a shell”), and in exchange, Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani) explains the tattoo on her hand (the names of her husband and son). This painfully earnest film spells everything out.
I can’t say I was overly taken by the monotony and repetitiveness Köhler pushes his protagonists through, but that is the point. In My Room turns Hollywood’s survival formula on its head, and becomes a nihilistic what-if variation: What if your ingenuity can only take you so far? What if you have all the freedom in the world, but no civilisation to impose rules? What if no salvation is in sight?
Walking into the film, I was surprised to be handed a pair of 3D glasses. The note at the film’s beginning was even more surprising: “This is not a 3D film but please join our protagonist in putting on the glasses at the right moment.” The audience laughed. If you’ve seen Bi Gan’s earlier film, Kaili Blues, you know the tone: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s trance-like narration meets Wong Kar-Wai’s neon-drenched dreaminess.
You expect a film about a great writer to be built around his great writing – and in Manto, writer-director Nandita Das finds ingenious ways to weave together the life and the literature of Saadat Hasan Manto. One story (Dus Rupay) opens the film, and segues into Safia (Rasika Dugal, playing Manto’s wife) reading it out in the present. Another story (100 Watt Bulb) erupts when Manto’s (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) cigarette is lit by… a character from the story. Much later, Manto’s close friend, the 1940s star Shyam (Tahir Raj Bhasin), snaps at him for being unable to separate real life from his writing. They’ve just heard the horrific experiences of a man who was attacked during the Partition, and Manto’s mind is already writing the “dialogues” of a story. And when the story Khol Do begins to unfold, you aren’t sure if Manto really saw the man he based it on (though we see him), or merely imagined him. The marvellously fluid editing (Sreekar Prasad) keeps us off balance.
There’s an androgynous quality to Kena that doesn’t instantly let on that she’s a girl. She’s the way some gawky teenagers are — tall, skinny, drawn to jeans and tees. The boys treat her like one of the gang, including her in football games. But when Zika asks to join, they smile sheepishly and say she’d be a distraction. For Zika is a girl girl. She’s curvy. She wears lipstick. She has long braids. She wears dresses. Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki (Friend; in English and Swahili, and the first film from Kenya to be screened at Cannes) is about the relationship between Kena and Zika — and this is no spoiler. You know what’s coming right from the early scene where a gay man is mocked as a “faggot” by the guys Kena hangs out with, and she looks away, as though feeling guilty about not being able to defend and protect “one of her own.”
Whatever the opposite of “hard-hitting” is, that’s the flavour of Rohena Gera’s miniature-size drama, Sir. I mean this as a compliment. A lot of Indian filmmakers get into festivals by pushing the right buttons — and Sir (which played at the Cannes Critics’ Week) does tell a story that touches on cities and villages, the contradictions in Shining India, the plight of widows, class structure, and so forth. But the director’s success is in making a film first.
The narrative trajectory of Sorry Angel sounds a bit like The Accidental Tourist: inward-looking man is drawn out of his shell by a younger, extroverted person. But instead of a sequential journey, together, we get snapshots of two separate lives. Honoré’s staging is beautiful — watch out for the long walk where Arthur follows Jacques, and the dance-like cruising sequence — and the result is a not-always-easy but rewarding film about what the heart wants… or doesn’t.
Imagine someone monitoring your enjoyment at a rock concert. Actually, you don’t have to. Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto (Summer; in Russian), set in Leningrad in the early 1980s, opens with girls sneaking into an indoor concert at a state-permitted space. (The cinematography is marvellously agile, giving us the sense of being a curious, yet cautious, bystander.) But when the camera pans from the stage to the audience, we are treated to the strangest sight. Everyone’s seated in chairs arranged in neat rows — had we not seen the act on stage first, we could be fooled into thinking we are at the venue of an Economics lecture. There’s no screaming, no wild dancing — only a light drumming of fingers on thighs. A girl holds up a heart sign. A security officer runs over and says this is not allowed. Mother Russia has deemed it: They can’t get no satisfaction.
Eyes is a feature-length love letter, narrated by Cousins in a tone that eschews a historian’s stentorian authoritativeness for a lover’s caressing whispers. Cousins frames his narration as though he is talking directly to Welles, and he practically swoons.
In The House That Jack Built, Lars Von Trier comes closest to an autobiography. In an interview published in University Post, the director said, “My opinion is that if you can think it, you should be able to show it.” And the film, set in 1970s USA, is about a serial killer (Jack, played by Matt Dillon) whose motto might well be: “If you can think it, you should be able to do it.”
Godard is free-associating to a tune that only he can hear, based on a narrative that exists only in his head — but you could hang a frame around it, that his thesis is the manipulation of sound and image in the post-truth world. Slowly, I was hooked. Images of modern-day brutality are counterpointed by movie images, sometimes bunched together in “themes.” For instance, we get a series of visuals from train scenes, beginning with the tracking shot that introduces us to the characters in Jacques Tourneur’s Berlin Express. And then, another scene over which we get a line that sounds like this: “The words of Goethe had become terrible when heard in the small cars of Russian railways.” It’s hypnotic. It’s like poetry. Writing about it is difficult, and risks banalising the work. It demands to be experienced, to be felt.
It begins wonderfully, with a frustrated filmmaker named Toby (Adam Driver), who is taking his second stab at a Don Quixote movie. (The first was during his film-school days.) We get it. Making a movie is like tilting at windmills, a thought echoed in the best-known song from Man of La Mancha, the Broadway musical based on Cervantes’s cracked hero: “To dream the impossible dream… To run where the brave dare not go…” This madness – this movie-madness – sticks to the film like dye.
Sinan (Aydin Doğu Demirkol) – the protagonist of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Ahlat Agaci (The Wild Pear Tree; Turkish) – comes home after college. It’s a big thing in his smallish town. Sinan wants to be a writer, but he wants, even more, to escape these “narrow-minded people.” He complains to a friend, “If I was a dictator, I’d drop an atom bomb on this place.” The film follows Sinan through a series of precisely calibrated conversations – with his parents, grandparents, a councillor he approaches for a loan to publish his book, a girl he knew in school.