June 15, 2023

Film

Cannes Film Festival 2023 highlights: part two

By Shane Danielsen
A young woman in a nightclub, heavily made-up and heavily sweating, stares at something out of frame with a pensive expression

Mia Mckenna-Bruce in How to Have Sex. Image © Nikolopoulos Nikos

Rodrigo Moreno’s transfixing drama ‘The Delinquents’, Molly Manning Walker’s unsentimental coming-of-age film ‘How to Have Sex’ and Spanish veteran Víctor Erice’s ‘Close Your Eyes’ were among the best of the Cannes sidebars

On balance, 2023 was a good year at Cannes. Thanks in part to a more user-friendly press schedule, plus a week of advance screenings in London, I watched 58 films from the line-up and, unusually, didn’t find myself walking out of very many. Sure, the opening night film, Maiwenn’s Jeanne du Barry, was a dud. (Or at least, so I heard: I can’t take Johnny Depp seriously enough to watch him in anything these days, and certainly not as Louis XV.) But otherwise, there were few outright howlers, and only a handful of proper disappointments. (The biggest, for me, was Along Came Love, a borderline-silly relationship drama that ended Katell Quillévéré’s unbroken run of excellence.) Even so, the compensations were plentiful. In my first report I concentrated on Competition titles. Here, I’ll discuss what was most noteworthy in the sidebar programs. 

In Un Certain Regard, the big discovery was Rodrigo Moreno’s The Delinquents, from Argentina, which recently made its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival. Beginning in genre territory – a bored bank clerk sees the opportunity to steal from the vault, however his plan requires the cooperation of an initially reluctant co-worker – it soon transforms into a bifurcated love story of surprising tenderness, and, finally, a metaphysical inquiry into the nature of identity itself. A friend said afterward it was like reading Julio Cortázar – another Argentine – and they were absolutely right: it had the same boundary-exploding sense of possibility as his novel Hopscotch. And while the ending here is ambiguous, it should confound no one who’s paid attention to the very precise clues Moreno has scattered along the way. A puzzle box in the shape of a movie, it held me transfixed for its three-hour duration.

I also admired How to Have Sex, Molly Manning Walker’s bracingly unsentimental take on the female coming-of-age movie, in which three British girls (two sisters and their queer best mate) go for an end-of-exams package holiday in Malia – a Ryanair bacchanal of packed discos, bottomless daiquiris and ephemeral hook-ups. (I like to think I’ve seen some stuff, but one of the party games shocked even me.) Our focus is Tara, the shyest of the trio, and a virgin eager to be relieved of that social stigma. As played by Mia McKenna-Bruce, she’s a complex, contradictory character, her surface bravado concealing a sensitivity that she seems to be actively trying to expunge from her personality. (To better fit in? To prepare herself for the world ahead? We don’t know.) And McKenna-Bruce’s performance, largely reactive, is nothing short of remarkable, a masterclass in interiority and implication.  

On paper, this could be formulaic stuff, a little vision of alcopop hell. But writer-director Manning Walker – a cinematographer making her directorial debut – manages to be generous as well as rigorous in her approach. The opening half-hour is surprisingly funny, but the tone darkens as Tara wavers between available fuckboys – loud, boorish Paddy, or dim, sweet Badger? – before making a singularly ill-advised choice… whereupon the film becomes, at least in part, a treatise on consent. Yet it’s never didactic or simplistic. Casual sex, in this milieu, is a game where everyone loses. And though I slightly preferred The Delinquents  which, more sui generis, seemed a greater achievement – I could hardly complain when this film won the Prix Un Certain Regard. It’s a terrific movie, from a naturally gifted filmmaker.

Alas, I can’t say the same for Warwick Thornton’s The New Boy, which recently opened this year’s Sydney Film Festival following its world premiere at Cannes. Its selection in Un Certain Regard rather than in Competition had confused people, but made absolute sense once the film had been seen. Set in World War Two–era Australia, it follows the titular boy – another of Thornton’s blond-haired, nearly wordless black kids, à la his feature debut, 2009’s Samson and Delilah – as he’s rounded up by local authorities like a stray dog, and placed in an orphanage run by Sister Eileen, a cantankerous, boozy nun (Cate Blanchett, also one of the film’s producers). There, he’s to be given a Western name, a “Christian education”, and prepared for work at a sheep or cattle station. But Sister Eileen sees something in the newcomer, some odd, possibly otherworldly aspect, which first challenges and then reinforces her faith.

Thornton, working once again as his own cinematographer, is a remarkable maker of images. Many of these frames are breathtakingly lit and composed. (The opening shots, in particular, are remarkably powerful.) But he’s neither a writer nor a gifted director of actors. His dialogue is stiff and his storytelling rudimentary, subordinated to the flow of images and the mood (it’s all mood, here) of individual sequences. He’s seemingly uninterested in the nuances of character or the development of ideas; consequently, the film’s central question – are these colonising authorities responding to something special in the new boy, or snuffing out precisely what’s special about him? – is badly muddled. Blanchett is fine, if occasionally a little broad, but her co-stars are barely accorded characters to play. Wayne Blair, in particular, just lumps around in the background, scowling. Maybe wishing he was in a better movie.

But by far the most baffling exclusion from Competition was Close Your Eyes, the likely final film from Spanish veteran Víctor Erice, which screened as a “Cannes Premiere”. Now 82, Erice has made only three previous features, all of them masterpieces, and his 1973 debut, The Spirit of the Beehive, is widely regarded as the greatest Spanish film of all time. Close Your Eyes was his first feature in 31 years, and between that fact, his impeccable reputation and Cannes’ much-documented fondness for putting Old White Men into Competition, the film’s selection looked all but certain; it had even been tipped as an outside favourite for the Palme d’Or. So why had it been shunted into this sidebar? Was it not up to scratch? 

On the contrary, it turned out to be another triumph, very different to but no less impressive than any of his other films, and the second-best thing I saw at the entire festival (behind Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, which it could not resemble less). The story of a film director trying to track down an actor he worked with decades earlier, who’d vanished without explanation in the middle of a shoot, it’s both a meditation on memory and a poignant elegy for the medium. (It even features Ana Torrent, the young star of Beehive, in a supporting role, as the daughter of the missing man.) Gently paced and unabashedly digressive, its power builds incrementally across three distinct acts and 169 minutes, culminating in a final sequence in an abandoned movie theatre, which, in attesting to cinema’s importance as a repository of collective experience, proved extraordinarily moving.

An odd note was struck at the film’s premiere, where Erice was conspicuously absent – the only major no-show at the festival. But things got really interesting a day later, when in an open letter to El Pais he criticised Cannes director Thierry Frémaux for ghosting him about the film’s inclusion in Competition, thereby causing him to refuse offers from Venice and Locarno – and even Cannes’ own Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, which had reportedly promised him its opening-night slot. (Erice claimed he only learnt that his film was not in Official Selection at the festival’s press launch. Which is, as they say, huge if true.) The ensuing scandal didn’t reflect well on the festival, but it also didn’t answer the most fundamental question around the whole affair – namely, how could Frémaux (and his selection committee) not have recognised the quality of this submission? How could you possibly watch this film – so beautifully crafted, so patient and moving – and not invite it immediately into Competition? It’s like drawing a royal flush and then folding – an extraordinary, inexplicable misreading of one’s position.

Over in Directors’ Fortnight, meanwhile, critic and distributor Julien Rejl put together a strong first selection. Among the highlights was the latest from Michel Gondry, The Book of Solutions, which tackled my least favourite genre – movies about making movies – with acerbic wit and gentle affection, as well as Gondry’s customary lo-fi visual invention. The story of an emotionally stunted young auteur (Pierre Niney) who retreats to the countryside in an attempt to finish his latest film, only to be distracted by his lack of discipline (he can’t bring himself to even watch the latest cut) and his comprehensive inability to get along with others, it’s charming and humane in a way that much of Gondry’s recent work – too self-conscious in its cleverness and too scattershot in approach – has struggled to achieve. It’s also extremely funny, right down to a surprise cameo from Sting.

Hailing from Russia (though sailing under no flag at its premiere, presumably in protest at the country’s invasion of Ukraine), the debut feature Grace, by Ilya Povolotsky, was not only one of the best films at the festival, but will also rank high among my favourites of the year. It finds an unnamed man and his teenage daughter traversing the country’s hinterlands in their van, a travelling cinema they bring to the remote villages of the northern Caucasus, where they eke out a living projecting DVDs and selling pirated porn flicks to locals. Their relationship is flecked with mutual resentment – the girl, grieving the death of her mother, is enraged by her father’s string of casual pick-ups along the way – and is complicated further when they encounter a teenage boy, whose arrival permanently shifts the balance of power between them.

Dialogue is sparse, and the tone bleak; the action – such as it is – takes place mostly in dismal truck stops and on muddy backroads, a desolate, wintry landscape populated by exhausted sex workers, lonely widows and hard-bitten black-marketeers. But Povolotsky, best known for a prize-winning documentary about life on the coast of the Barents Sea, depicts this sordid no-man’s-land with lyricism and a meditative, at times almost mystical, intensity. Shooting on super 16mm, Nikolay Zheludovich’s grainy, richly hued images have an almost physical weight and texture, and the director’s preference for long takes (reminiscent of Theo Angelopoulos’s Landscape in the Mist) demonstrates a rare mastery of classical mise en scene. It’s magnificent filmmaking, and the finest Russian debut since Kantemir Balagov’s Closeness.

From France, Delphine Deloget’s debut Rien à perdre came saddled with a terrible English title: “All to Play For”. (What, you wondered, was wrong with the literal translation: Nothing to Lose?) This was a shame, because the film itself was excellent. Virginie Efira plays Sylvie, a working-class single mum from Brest, still a bit of a party girl, whose youngest son Sofiane, left alone at home while she’s at work, accidentally burns his arm while making himself dinner. His subsequent hospitalisation serves to alert child protective services, who step in and separate him from his mother “for his own protection”. 

Thus begins a bureaucratic nightmare, as Sylvie attempts to regain custody of her child, placed first in a care facility and then in a foster home – a problem compounded by her inability to ever shut up. Arrogant, impatient and defensive, Sylvie makes things worse for herself (and, by extension, for Sofiane) with her every attempt to right the ship. Writer-director Deloget, a former documentarist, favours an unfussy visual style and lengthy, dialogue-heavy exchanges; the attention is focused squarely on the performances, where Efira and her co-stars, both adult (Arieh Worthalter and Mathieu Demy) and juvenile (Felix Lefebvre and Alexis Tonetti), uniformly excel. Noticeably less bourgeois than traditional French fare, it nonetheless reveals the country’s abiding fidelity to representing ordinary quotidian life on the screen – something Australian filmmakers could learn from – and also makes a powerful case for the virtues of human-scale storytelling.

In a similar vein, I was moved by the opening film for Critics’ Week, the French–Cape Verde co-production Ama Gloria, a semi-autobiographical feature from Marie Amachoukeli. Cléo (Louise Mauroy-Panzani) is a six-year-old French girl, all curly hair and huge spectacles, who’s been raised mostly by a Cape Verdean nanny – the titular Gloria – since her mother died of cancer. But when Gloria’s own mother dies, she must return home and raise her young son, César. To ease the transition – because she knows Cléo will be devastated by her absence – Gloria proposes to the girl’s father that Cléo spend the summer with her in Sao Filipe. However, when the child arrives, she finds Gloria distracted by a new business venture, and César actively hostile to the little white girl who has commanded so much of his mother’s time and love.

Cléo’s realisation that other people have complex, fully inhabited lives of their own makes for a wrenching transition. And Amachoukeli and cinematographer Inès Tabarin frame the ensuing action mostly in close-up, aware that in the young Mauroy-Panzani they have the kind of secret weapon that turns a good movie into a great one. By turns selfish, funny, affectionate, cruel and conniving, Cléo is a showstopper – perhaps the most vividly drawn child character since Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon  – and Mauroy-Panzani’s performance is a thing of wonder, so finely shaded and so deeply felt as to put most adult actors to shame. By the end, I felt like I’d witnessed something precious: a sort of parable about the twinned nature of love and sacrifice.

Iris Kaltenbäck’s The Rapture, meanwhile, saw Parisian midwife Lydia (Hafsia Herzi), recently dumped by her long-time boyfriend, taking an unhealthy interest in her best friend’s new baby. So much so that, when minding the child, she begins passing it off as her own, the supposed product of a one-night stand with a local bus driver. This unwise decision soon traps Lydia in an escalating series of lies, and the result is as gripping as any slasher flick. An early, extremely tense sequence – in which Lydia insists on making her friend deliver the baby “naturally”, persisting long past the point at which a doctor should have interceded – tells the viewer everything they need to know about the lengths to which she’ll go. (“I didn’t want to let her down,” she later tells a horrified colleague.)

It’s Raining in the House, from Belgium’s Paloma Sermon-Daï, operated well in a familiar genre: provincial Euro social-realism à la the Dardenne brothers and early Bruno Dumont. A brother and sister founder when their alcoholic mother disappears without trace – the former drifting into petty crime with a buddy, the latter, a few years older, into a makeshift job as a hotel cleaner, postponing the studies she longs to undertake as a path toward leaving this life behind. 

It’s a tough story, set in a hardscrabble rural milieu, yet perhaps due to Sermon-Daï’s background in documentaries, the result never played like poverty porn. Rather, it felt simultaneously truthful and transcendent, the latter sensation enhanced by the opulent, jewel-like tones of Frédéric Noirhomme’s cinematography. One shot – of the siblings swimming while holidaying city kids are seen cavorting on yachts and jetskis in the distance – encapsulated their predicament in a single, well-chosen frame. They’re close enough to glimpse a better life, but too far away to possibly join it.

Similarly strong was a film in the festival’s parallel ACID section: Maxime Rappaz’s Let Me Go. Jeanne Balibar stars as Claudine, a village seamstress whose days are spent either working or caring for her nearly adult son Baptiste, afflicted with cerebral palsy. Once a week, however, she leaves him in the care of a friendly neighbour and journeys to a ski resort in a nearby town, where she picks up a tourist at a hotel and sleeps with him, satisfying her hunger for intimacy (mostly: sometimes the lucky bloke turns out to be a dud) while also maintaining the carefully delineated boundaries of the life she’s chosen. But then she meets Michael (Thomas Sarbacher), a visiting German engineer, whose courtly charm beguiles her enough to start imagining another kind of life. Despite the grandeur of the Alpine setting, well captured by cinematographer Benoit Dervaux, it’s a chamber piece – a small, sad movie about loneliness, sexual appetite and the bonds (or chains) of maternal duty. Balibar, now 55, essays her role with a stunning lack of vanity; she’s naked psychically as well as physically. 

Finally, from Iran, directors Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami teamed up for Terrestrial Verses, a terse, tough slice of agitprop showcasing nine fictional vignettes about various individuals confronting (off-screen) authority figures, faceless representatives of the sclerotic Khamenei regime. Written and shot in haste, as a frontline response to the ongoing protests following the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini last September, it was powerful stuff, made even more urgent by the directors’ impassioned speeches introducing it (“We didn’t simply want to make a film saying, ‘There’s a fire going on.’ Because we are in the fire”), and by the presence of two of the film’s female cast, each bravely appearing onstage sans hijab. For at least one session, the festival felt like it was about things more important than mere aesthetics.

Shane Danielsen

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

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