Laurent Cantet's L'Atelier (The Workshop) is about, among other things, the word "granular." Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) encounters it in a book written by Olivia (Marina Foïs), a famous Parisian novelist. He has enrolled in her summer writing workshop, where the aim is to craft a crime thriller based on their surroundings. Antoine wants to set his story in Boston or New York. At least in fiction, he wants to "escape this shit life." The others in the workshop are like him, from blue-collar backgrounds. This seems to be the flavour of French cinema today: haves and have-nots, locals and outsiders.
Olivia is the outsider here in the economic, social sense. She brings with her rarefied ideas about literature. When Antoine scoffs that no one would use "granular" in day-to-day conversation, she says writing is also about using words that feel right. In other words, we are witnessing the clash between life as lived through books and life as lived through… life. At first, the plot for the crime thriller is generic. A rich man is murdered on his yacht. That kind of thing. But soon, Antoine begins to infuse a strain of right-wing-ism into the proceedings. What if the perp is an Arab? Olivia is both repelled and attracted.
The former because Antoine is everything Olivia is against. The latter because she feels he could feed characters in her new novel. She has zero first-hand experience of the things he talks about. She invites him for a chat. He calls her a vampire, making money off his life. But is she also trying to understand him? This beautifully understated film uses literature as a springboard to examine Europe today, where (I'm paraphrasing) "politically correct EU bureaucrats have opened up borders and endangered local culture." The workshop consists of a black man, a Muslim woman. Antoine wants to fit in, get along. Yet he doesn't. He wants to remain… granular. He portrays a continent's confusion.
Naomi Kawase's Hikari (Radiance; Japanese) features a character I haven't seen on-screen before. Misako (Ayame Misaki) is an "audio descriptor." She narrates the non-dialogue parts in movies — "A frowning man waits for a taxi…", "A man in a hurry checks his watch…" — so the visually impaired can enjoy them. I loved watching the process. As Misako reads out the descriptions she's scripted, visually impaired "monitors" offer feedback. One monitor hears the phrase "black hair," and says she prefers "dark hair." But Nakamori (Masatoshi Nagase), a former photographer who's losing his vision, accuses Misako of being "intrusive." He objects to her subjective rendering of the film. Why should she determine how he will "see" the film?
And the critic in me sat up. How interesting. When both parties are sighted, a critic's interpretation of things becomes just one version of the film. If the reader disagrees, then he has his own version to go back to. But what if the reader were dependent on the version handed to him? A monitor says, "Cinema is part of an immense world. To have this immense world shackled by words is a crying shame." This would have made for a fascinating back-and-forth, but Hikari is content to remain a gauzy romance between a gruff blind man and a well-meaning but error-prone woman. (I was reminded of Sparsh.) It's all nice enough, but do we really have to come to Cannes for this?
Let me explain with the help of Abbas Kiarostami's 24 Frames, which (coincidentally) riffs on a beautiful quote from Hikari's Nakamori: "A photographer is a hunter whose prey is time." At the beginning, Kiarostami lays out his mission statement: "I always wonder to what extent the artist aims to depict the reality of a scene. Painters capture only one frame of reality and nothing before or after it. For 24 Frames, I decided to use the photos I had taken through the years. I included four minutes and thirty seconds of what I imagined might have taken place before or after each image I had captured."
The film opens with a painting of a mountain settlement. For a few seconds, it is just a painting: one frozen frame. Then, it becomes cinema, moving at 24 frames per second. Smoke begins to rise from a chimney. Crows begin to caw. Snow begins to fall. The film is multiple iterations of this conceit — and though beautiful to look at (the images are in black-and-white as well as colour), a sense of sameness sets in. When we see a photograph or a painting, we do the imagining, the extrapolating. Here, Kiarostami does our work for us. Also, had Kiarostami extended the same conceit to paintings we know — say, a Monet, or even, heaven help us, The Last Supper — we would have some context. But these images are Kiarostami's own. Only he knows about the afternoon he clicked the picture of plants outside the window. We see movement, but we aren't moved.
And yet, this is a vital film, exactly the kind the world's biggest film festival should be showing. 24 Frames expands our notion of art, plays with form, teases the mind with possibilities. Hikari just… tells a story. I am, not for a minute, scoffing at well-told stories, but we see enough of them outside, in theatres around us. As much as I loved Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories, it's a well-known type of film. Even with all the problems I had with Yorgos Lanthimos' The Killing of a Sacred Deer, there's an undeniable never-before-ness to it. It pushes you, provokes you. You feel it's worth making the Cannes pilgrimage for.
Watch a clip from Hikari (Radiance) here