It was a clash between Yomeddine, the Egyptian Competition entry about a man cured of leprosy, and The Eyes of Orson Welles, the latest documentary from Mark Cousins — and after a bit of conscience wrangling (Am I avoiding potentially disturbing subject matter for something aesthetically… easy?), I chose the latter. It opened the Cannes Classics section, and I told myself this was a consolation prize for not being able to see the Welles-directed The Other Side of the Wind (which is owned by Netflix, and is not showing after the big dispute). The screening began with some light comedy. Cousins came on stage to introduce his film, and the Festival’s artistic director, Thierry Frémaux, performed translation duties. All was going well, until Cousins called his film “a spyhole into the soul of a great artist.” Frémaux was momentarily stumped. What’s a spyhole? Cousins made a circle with his thumb and forefinger, and brought it close to his eye — it looked more like a monocle. But it worked. And we proceeded to peer into the spyhole.
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. Taking the long-dead director on a tour of the modern world he missed, Cousins stops at two men using their smartphones. “Ah, what would you have done with the Internet, Orson?” And then, this wry reminder that Welles was ahead of his time not just in terms of cinema: “And now we have a president who thinks he’s Charles Foster Kane.” In an interview, Cousins said, “I’m interested in a more personal voice, in what happens when you look someone in the eye, as it were, and address them directly. It’s more subjective. You’re not trying to say you’re the expert.”
The documentary was born when Cousins was granted access to hundreds of private drawings and paintings by Welles — and his conceit is that Welles, the artist, informed Welles, the filmmaker. He makes his case by comparing the sketches to many stunning images from the Welles oeuvre (not just Citizen Kane, but also The Magnificent Ambersons, Chimes at Midnight, The Lady from Shanghai, Othello, Macbeth, and, especially, The Trial). He says — and this sounds quite reasonable — that the reason Laurence Olivier fans don’t care for Welles’s Shakespearean adaptations is that Olivier’s films are more faithful to the text, while Welles’s used the text as a takeoff point for his staggering visual imagination.
The non-filmic connections Cousins makes are sometimes a stretch — say, about Welles’s politics, his loves — but the lovingly excavated and assembled footage is never less than fascinating. A recording from a masterclass shows a student asking why Welles changed Kafka’s ending in his version of The Trial. “Because of the Holocaust,” Welles thunders, in the very historian’s voice Cousins has so assiduously steered clear of. “Because post the Holocaust, the old ending will not stand. I am not a Jew, but after the Holocaust, we are all Jews.” After so many books on Welles, so many movies about him, there’s apparently still a lot of material. Analysing Welles’s work may be to cinema lovers what analysing Shakespeare’s is to students of literature.
Film festivals are a great time to rediscover the magic of black-and-white cinematography on the big screen. The most stunning image in Leto is from a get-together at a beach, at sunrise. Instead of the golden glow we are so used to, in colour cinema, the sea turns into a sheet of silver foil. 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.
The film is equally unreal — as in, the sort of obsessive, tortured, doomed-relationship drama you find only in the movies, and is, by now, practically its own genre. (Has there ever been a happy romance between two musicians?) Beginning in Poland in the 1950s, the story keeps jumping across Europe — with the Iron Curtain posing a major hurdle. When the film opens, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is auditioning folk singers, to put together a programme for the powers that be. The peasants sing without sophistication, but from the heart. “You’re not afraid it’s too monotonous and primitive?” asks the man who is driving Wiktor across the countryside. “No,” says Wiktor. The man shrugs, “In my town every drunk sounds like this.”
But Zula is different. At the audition, she asks the woman next to her, “What will you sing?” The reply. “A mountain tune. And you?” Zula replies, “I don’t know.” And then we see that, even unprepared, how phenomenal she is. She stands before Wiktor and sings in a strong, silvery voice that scales registers with ease. In roughly two seconds, they aren’t just in love or lust, but in the throes of an unknowable, untameable passion that makes Wuthering Heights look like a playdate between two kindergarten classmates. Cold War is exquisitely paced and shot, and the music is gorgeous — the a capella songs sung by the large group sound like a heavenly choir befitting this divine love.
With his compelling actors, Pawlikowski does something brilliant. He knows that we know this story from other movies (A Star is Born, New York New York), so strips away the externals and trains his spotlight on the bare basics. Except in the distant background, there are no hurting spouses or ignored children, or cautioning friends. This type of love is, above all, self-centred, and Pawlikowski focuses largely on its burning purity. He presents a series of snapshots: now in Paris, now in Yugoslavia, now in a Polish prison. Every now and then, we may lose the arc of the story — the dots that connect the place and time of events — but we never lose the arc of its emotional intensity. And unlike La La Land, this isn’t a pastiche or throwback. The film is as pure as the madness that drives it.
Joe Penna’s Arctic begins with a man (Mads Mikkelsen; the character is never named) hacking away at snow, the way you would to clear a path in front of your house in a Chicagoan winter. Then, the camera pans around, and we see it’s all ice. The man isn’t clearing a path. He is carving out a sign. An overhead shot shows us what it is: a giant SOS. He catches a fish and as it thrashes about in his hands, the camera observes his face. Is it relief at finding food? Is it disgust at having nothing else to eat? Is it pity for ending a life that, unlike him, thrives in these climes? There’s no answer. His expressions, too, are frozen.
Arctic is a survival tale. The man’s 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. When the man finds a stove and holds his hands over a flame, after months of cold, a warm burst of strings erupts from the soundtrack. The real survival tale is mine — not because this is a bad movie, but because I didn’t have to come all the way to Cannes to catch it. Some version of it is already playing on HBO.
Lead image courtesy of Cannes Film Festival