June 9, 2022

Film

Cannes Film Festival 2022 highlights: part two

By Shane Danielsen
Image still from Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul

Still from Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul

Un Certain Regard’s outstanding selection included Davy Chou’s ‘Return to Seoul’, Hlynur Palmason’s ‘Godland’ and Thomas M. Wright’s ‘The Stranger’

One of the fun things at Cannes – which runs, at least in its professional capacity, on a diet of slightly manic speculation – are the rumours that flood the Croisette on the festival’s final day, as the hours tick down to the awards ceremony. Friendly publicists, sleep-deprived executives and loose-lipped hotel staff all report on the various actors and filmmakers being summoned back to accept an award. And so from breakfast until mid afternoon, the same two questions ping back and forth across town: What have you heard? Who’s been called back? 

That these tips frequently prove wrong is no barrier to their enjoyment. On the contrary, it lends the proceedings – so often strictly transactional – a sort of gossipy, Melbourne Cup Day gaiety. Usually, though, the list of names has some grounding in a common response, representing the handful of favourite films – and occasionally a clear frontrunner – most likely to stake a claim for the Palme d’Or. Not this time. Until the third-last day of this year’s festival, the only consensus among buyers and the press was that it had been the most disappointing Competition in many years, with a number of hotly tipped titles failing to deliver, and one or two entries inspiring only bemusement at what they were doing in Official Selection in the first place. 

Then Belgian filmmaker Lukas Dhont premiered Close, his tearjerker about a passionate young friendship cut short by death, and relieved critics were united in tremulous, damp-cheeked praise. (“I can honestly say that I have never cried at any film in my whole movie-going career as much as I did just now at CLOSE,” tweeted one British critic. “I’m still crying 12 hours later. Incredible filmmaking,” replied another.) Every year at Cannes a movie inspires praise that might, in a less hothouse environment, appear hasty or excessive. And this time, if only for a dearth of other suitable candidates, Close was it.

I have to say, I didn’t love the other critical favourite, Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave, which played like nothing so much as a 140-minute-long montage sequence. While Park’s narrative ingenuity remains formidable, his storytelling has long since been swamped by the baroque excesses of his style. Watching his new film, I found myself once again longing for the ruthless efficiency of his earlier work: tough, violent classics such as Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. And while I certainly didn’t hate Claire Denis’s Stars at Noon – her second film of 2022, and her second English-language feature after the disastrous High Life – it didn’t really hold me, either. Shot in Panama, here doubling for the Nicaragua of Denis Johnson’s novel, you sensed that the production had been deformed by the COVID-19 pandemic, its narrative reshaped on the fly to accommodate whatever locations and cast were available, while ditching the rest. Empty streets, masked police, lots of scenes between Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn in hotel bedrooms and deserted hallways… It all felt like a response to straitened circumstances, rather than a fully formed work.

Both films, however, walked away with laurels: Park with Best Director, and Denis shared the Grand Prix du Jury with Dhont, unexpectedly pipped for the Palme d’Or by Ruben Östlund and his thuddingly obvious “satire on capitalism” Triangle of Sadness. There are two things to say about this, the first being to note that Östlund, who also won in 2017 with The Square, now has two Palmes more than his countryman Ingmar Bergman ever won. (Watching, I was reminded of Jon Stewart’s line at the 2006 Oscars, when the Tennessee rap crew Three 6 Mafia scored with “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp”: “For those of you keeping score at home, I just want to make something very clear: Martin Scorsese? Zero Oscars. Three 6 Mafia? One.”)

But the second is to admit that, while Östlund is neither a deep nor an original thinker, and Triangle – like The Square before it – was an unworthy victor, I was relieved that Dhont didn’t win, because despite those critical encomia Close is not at all a good film and may in fact be a very bad one. A study of troubled rather than toxic masculinity, of male friendship buckling under societal pressures, it’s the tale of two 13-year-old boys, Léo and Remi, best friends since early childhood, whose easy physical intimacy leads their schoolfriends to suspect a homosexual attraction – which may or may not be true, but which nonetheless causes Léo to retreat, and results (this is not really a spoiler: it’s the engine of the entire film) in Remi’s suicide. 

It’s certainly beautiful to look at. Dhont aestheticises every frame, from the first sequence (of the lads, both handsome, running together through a field of flowers in Provence, accompanied by Valentin Hadjadj’s overripe score) to the climax: a confrontation in a forest so damp and richly hued that you can almost smell the peat coming off the screen. But it’s also about as deep as a puddle. Dhont takes the most dully conventional approach to his story – will Léo confess his feelings of guilt to Remi’s grieving mother? – and ignores all the other, far more interesting narrative possibilities the scenario generates. How does the friendship between the boys’ parents change after Remi’s suicide? Is Léo either consciously or subconsciously grooming a new friend, an ice-hockey teammate, to take his dead pal’s place? Does a girl in their class, who Remi befriended shortly before his death (and who’s set up as being significant via the framing of two ensemble shots), have a secret to reveal about him? All of these possibilities are hinted at and then completely abandoned, in favour of The Most Obvious Thing.

“It’s the perfect film for right now,” a friend sighed at dinner. “One with absolutely no subtext whatsoever.” Yet another friend, just minutes before, had almost burst into tears while telling me how it had “utterly wrecked” her. Each of them had excellent taste, and each had sons of their own – so why had the latter, so dependably astute, fallen so hard for it? For me, the film’s weaknesses were encapsulated in one especially heavy-handed choice: Dhont’s decision to make Remi’s mother a maternity-clinic nurse. She’s surrounded by new life, you see? Yet her own son has died! Oh, the irony!

The following morning, I shared a car to Nice Airport with a young Korean woman, a buyer, who was as unimpressed by Close as I, but rather more savage, in a very Korean manner: “This Dhont, he’s like Xavier Dolan, don’t you think? Pretty, gay, young and dumb.” 

Ouch. But, you know, not entirely un-true, either.

The three films I loved best in Competition – James Gray’s autobiographical Armageddon Time, Saeed Roustayi’s dense, gripping melodrama Leila’s Brothers (the best script in the line-up, and the best performances by its ensemble cast), and Léonor Serraille’s elegant Mother and Son, all left empty-handed. That was annoying, but not half as infuriating as the decision to give the Dardenne brothers – already two-time Palme winners – a special “75th anniversary award” for their lazy, borderline-exploitative social-realist drama Tori and Lokita. The equivalent of a participation trophy, it made you wonder exactly what hold these seemingly mild-mannered Belgians have on Cannes. Their seventh prize here, it arrives a good 15 years past their prime. But there they were, up on stage again, smiling with the unruffled serenity of men who considered the honour their due.

As disappointing as Competition was, its close cousin, the Un Certain Regard sidebar, was fantastic, with at least half a dozen outstanding entries. I think Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul might even have been my favourite film at the festival. Raised in France by an adoptive couple, Freddie (screen debutante Park Ji-min: incredible) returns to South Korea to confront her birth parents. However only her father will consent to meet her – and his needy urge to reconcile, to renew their relationship as if nothing had happened, only serves to drive her away. 

Told over the course of eight years, detailing three separate visits by Freddie to the peninsular – during which time her biological identity, her fundamental Korean-ness, is like a scab at which she can’t stop picking – the film is commendable not only for refusing to soften the edges of its sullen, often selfish protagonist (Freddie is frequently monstrous throughout) but for its unswerving belief that, despite these defects of character, she’s no less deserving of grace than any more conventionally likable heroine. Those tears I was supposed to weep in Close? I shed them for this.

If that was my favourite film, then Hlynur Palmason’s Godland was the Cannes entry I most admired. Set in the late 1800s, it sees a Lutheran priest, Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove), charged by his superiors with building a church in the remote north of Iceland, then a colony of Denmark. Gaunt and hollow-cheeked, Lucas has the thousand-yard stare of the fanatic, and while he could take a boat to his new parish, such is his hunger for physical privation that he insists instead upon traveling across country – a vainglorious quest that requires a team of local guides, all addressing him in a language he steadfastly refuses to speak. The journey, already arduous, quickly becomes an ordeal, as they battle the extremes of the elements and the vast, desolate terrain, not to mention Lucas’s own pitiless certitude. A savage indictment of colonial arrogance, the result played like Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo crossed with There Will Be Blood, and suffered not at all for either comparison.

Palmason shoots in Academy ratio, the screen almost a square. But anyone concerned by the lack of widescreen grandeur need not fear: there are images here of the Icelandic landscape that are as majestic as anything ever put on film, and sequences showing the dead bodies of men and animals dissolving into the earth – shot with a fixed camera as the seasons change – that from a technical perspective frankly beggar belief. Amid this harsh beauty, and using mostly natural light, cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff lights faces with a sfumato tenderness, as beautifully as John Alcott did for Stanley Kubrick in Barry Lyndon.

So why wasn’t this in Competition? Its exclusion seems little short of inexplicable.

Confusingly, there was also Joyland, the debut film from Saim Sadiq. (There were a lot of soundalike titles this year: Godland and Joyland; Mother and Son and Father and Soldier and Brother and Sister… all adding to the cumulative, what-did-I-just-see? disorientation of watching 40-plus films in nine or so days.) The first Pakistani feature invited to Cannes, it was the remarkably assured tale of one man’s belated sexual awakening, as the shy, picked-upon Haider (Ali Junejo) quietly rebels against the expectations of his stiffly traditional father and brother. His (arranged) wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) shares his liberal worldview – she’d much rather continue working than have a baby – but Haider’s sense of self-worth is shaken by his shame at being unemployed. In desperation, he takes a job as a background dancer in an “erotic revue” for a male-only crowd (in Lahore, audiences are strictly segregated), only to fall hard for its transgender star, the glamorous, acid-tongued Biba (Alina Khan).

The relationship that evolves between them proves fascinating – in part because we’re as unsure of Haider’s precise feelings as he seems to be. Meanwhile Mumtaz, left to her own devices, comes to realise that her entire comfortable life is a trap, and that her options are even more limited than her errant husband’s. The first two thirds of the film trades in a light, urbane comedy – the relative novelty of its setting aside, this is a real crowd-pleaser – but writer-director Sadiq saves a gut punch for the end. A sorrowful acknowledgment that, in a society as patriarchal and restrictive as this one, traditional gender roles are defied at one’s peril.

The Stranger, meanwhile, was that rarest of things: an Australian film I could love without reservation. The sophomore effort from writer-director Thomas M. Wright, it’s a significant improvement on his debut, Acute Misfortune, a chamber-piece that, though literate and admirably restrained, often played like a trailer for another, better movie. The Stranger is exactly that. An oblique take on the “Mr. Big” police operation that resolved the kidnapping and murder of 13-year-old Queensland boy Daniel Morcombe, it creates its own eerily self-contained world, one of false identities and ambiguous loyalties, its shadowy, conspiratorial air reminiscent at times of a Friedrich Dürrenmatt novel.

Alongside the reliably excellent Joel Edgerton, it stars Britain’s Sean Harris – who I recently described in these pages as my least-favourite working actor, and it’s a testament to Wright’s direction that even he’s fantastic in it: nuanced, recognisably human, never falling back on the lazy, quasi-method tics that usually define his performances. (Even his dialogue is audible, for a change.) Scored by Oliver Coates, in a blunt-force style that recalls Tim Hecker’s 2006 album Harmony in Ultraviolet, and boldly edited by Simon Njoo (who, I should disclose, is both a colleague and a friend), it thrilled me at a sensory level even as it fired my imagination. I can ask for no more. 

Luxembourg’s Vicky Krieps, best known for her breakthrough role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, starred in not one but two strong films in Un Certain Regard. Emily Atef’s More Than Ever was tough but (mostly) rewarding: a study of a woman confronting a terminal illness and deciding – to the dismay of her husband (played by Gaspard Ulliel, in his last role before his own death) – not to pursue treatment, but instead to simply await her death. Bracingly unsentimental, clear-eyed about the business of living and dying, the drama faltered only in its overlong, weirdly banal final act. Unlike its steely protagonist, you suspect the filmmaker didn’t quite know how to end. 

Better was Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage, a slyly subversive costume drama in which Krieps plays Empress Elisabeth of Austria (aka “Sissi”), a thoroughgoing narcissist these days remembered mostly for her 19.5-inch waist, and for being assassinated in 1898 by the Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni. Here, it is 11 years earlier. Enervated by her royal duties (which, unsurprisingly, include ruthless dieting), and badly unmoored by her approaching 40th birthday, Sissi decides one day to start doing precisely as she pleases – which in this case includes swearing at servants, shooting heroin and pursuing wildly unsuitable men. 

Unsurprisingly, Krieps makes the most of these opportunities, and Kreutzer, a coolly cerebral director, finds an elegant visual analogue for her journey, the formalism of the film’s early scenes loosening along with its heroine’s corsets. Not all of its anachronistic gambles pay off – a “contemporary” version of “As Tears Go By” landed with a muffled thud – but this is for the most part a witty and playful deconstruction of the genre, and one of the most purely enjoyable films in a frustratingly uneven festival.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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