Cannes Review Round-Up: Paradise: Love; Reality; Laurence Anyways; Mystery; and Beyond the Hills
Ulrich Seidl's polished, well observed and highly discomfiting film screened last night and I'm still only getting over its various traumas. In taking an unflinching look at European sexual tourism in Africa - in this case, a group of middle-aged Austrian women in Kenya - the film creates many moments bursting with such intolerable tension that the spectator can only squirm. By the end of the film, testimony to its strength, I was just about ready to cry with sheer misery.
But don't let this put you off. If Paradies is able to be so affecting, it is because Seidl constructs his narrative very cleverly, quietly building his set-up in the beginning, with deft observational touches, some welcome glitches of laugh-out-loud humour, and beautifully composed shots of Kenyan beaches, so as to provide a solid platform for shit to get completely out of hand in the remaining two thirds of the film.
The picture tells the story of Teresa, a middle-aged, fat and silly Austrian single mother, who travels to Africa ostensibly for a relaxing break by the sea but actually to pick up one or several young black men. She joins a group of friends out there, who also lust after the nubile black guys in ways which, to begin with, are inappropriate but rather pathetic and depressing. The film gradually shows their descent from longing and objectifying the young men to preying on them, degrading and angering them, in scenes that become increasingly graphic and long. Ulrich is great at the social and racial divide, and has a nice line in visual absurdity, which provides some welcome relief. Increasingly though, as Teresa becomes involved with one young man whom she lusts after and uses for his body, who then exploits her financially, the humour changes from absurd to scabrous and uncomfortable. It is superb film-making: in highly symmetrical fixed shorts, Seidl maintains a forensic perspective, showing his main character with all her racism, patronising attitudes and sadness in plain view - also, the basically sweet-natured longing for sex and affection which is the impulse behind her actions. It's an entirely fearless performance from Margarete Tiesel, who shows herself naked in every possible way, creating an enraging but fundamentally sweet and mistaken main character in an interesting, sometimes misanthropic film that is well worth a watch.
Reality - dir. Matteo Garrone
Matteo Garrone's new film, Reality, was one of the most awaited pictures on the Croisette this year, after a few years break for the director who had so bravely and excitingly taken on the Mafia in his previous film, Gomorrah. In his last film, he tackles another problematic aspect of contemporary Italy: its addiction to tacky reality TV shows in the vein of Big Brother. Reality tells the story of Luciano, an amiable chump whose dreams of being selected to appear on the TV show and hitting the big time begin to derail his life as a kind father and respected member of the community in a small town near Naples.
Of the many things to retain from this extremely uneven film are its just depiction of Italian family life, his magnificent cinematography, and the fable-like quality of the story, which soon takes on the vibe of an old Jewish morality tale. As Luciano becomes increasingly paranoid and deluded as to his chances of appearing on the show, and his family's initial enthusiasm and support for him wane and are replaced with weariness and despair, I think Garrone loses a little of his control over the film's tone, which instead of going for the jugular of Italy's obsession with showbusiness and money, gets a little bogged down in metaphoer. Nevertheless, it begins with a sensational aerial shot of the valley of Naples which then pans across the city to follow a horse-drawn cart along a lane to a wedding of disgusting lavishness, and ends with a terrific scene of Luciano breaking into the Big Brother house (or is this a fantasy) and walking around, observing the Faustian wannabes going about their air-headed business, and for these two moments of greatness you see Garrone's abilities as a director. His way of rising above the minutiae of his story and giving a bigger, skewed picture, make him a real original. Also, the parallels he draws between consumerism and the Catholic church suggest that he's up for another controversy, so props to him for that. But Reality is not quite the masterpiece it could have been.
Xavier Dolan is the darling of Cannes. Aged only 23, he is presenting his third film on the Croisette, a stunning achievement in itself. Laurence Anyways sees the infuriatingly handsome and talented young bastard stretch himself, being as it is a full-blown melodrama of over two and a half hours, with proper movie stars and everything. Showing all of Dolan's directing hallmarks - great use of music, bold shots, vibrant colours and witty dialogue - the film nevertheless exposes some of the weaknesses which must stem from being still so young, and is at times too indulgent and messy.
Melvil Poupaud, an actor never previously associated with feminine qualities, plays the main role - a young poet and lecturer who suddenly reveals to his alternative girlfriend and steely mother that he wants to have a sex-change. Over the course of the film, Dolan shows how all his relationships are forced to change forever, as the burden of re-thinking him in terms of his new gender becomes too much of a burden for his girlfriend, but counter-intuitively brings him closer to his mother. So far, so excellent. I think the premise is great, and Dolan tackles it with sensitivity, with his outsider's eye as a gay man clearly identifying with this increasingly marginalised and fraught couple. His script is, as usual, almost casually laced with guffaw-inducing wit, and his verve as a director is clear in every frame.
The problem of the film is that Dolan clearly believes this story has a greatness to it that makes it appropriate for a full 160-minute treatment, whereas in fact these characters as they are presented here never seem to warrant that amount of exploration. In the final third especially, the picture devolves into a rather tiresome screechiness, with excessive speechifying by both protagonists.
A further problem which, being a right-on, progressive sort of fellow, I'm loath to mention, is that Poupaud never gives a sense of wanting to be a woman and doesn't inhabit the part after the transition in a credible way. Of course, I'm well aware that there are all sorts of trans types, but - well, put it this way: after one shot reminded me of Adam Sandler in drag, I was unable to concentrate on him fully as a woman, something not helped by people constantly telling the main character she's beautiful when, I'm sorry, she's hulking and not-great-looking. Would it have harmed Dolan's film to make the character just that touch more femme-y, even by mere cinematic convention, in order to make the character's journey feel more convincing?
Ultimately, Laurence Anyways maintains Xavier Dolan on the 'extremely promising' level that he had already attained with his terrific second film, rather than lifting him completely into the big league which is obviously his due at some point in the near future.
Mystery - dir. Lou Ye
Mystery is showing in one of the sidebar categories of the festival, the "Un certain regard" selection, which is perhaps unjustly seen as the also-ran stable for films that weren't quite spiffing enough for the main competition.
Lou Ye, whose films Suzhou River and Summer Palace have screened in the main competition here in previous years, may feel slightly aggrieved, since his latest film is a terrifically accomplished film in terms of its visuals, storytelling and the excitement of its narrative - but there are weaknesses here that may reveal why he has been somewhat sidelined.
The film opens with a brilliantly conceived scene in which two young couples race their cars along a rain-battered road, only for a terrible accident to occur and claim the life of a young woman who suddenly appears, out of nowhere, on the motorway in front of one of the cars. The film then dials the story back a few days - but in a way that is not explicitly mentioned, which increases the suspense and makes the road accident feel mysteriously connected to these events - to tell the story of Lu Jie and Shang Qi, who discover that their partner and father of their children is leading a double life and not only has a separate partner they had not known of, but is having affairs all over the place. The film then proceeds to tie these stories together, using thriller techniques adapted that are interestingly adapted to this seemingly commonplace story of adultery.
The film feels very exciting during the viewing, and later (half an hour later in my case) begins to seem a little empty of character and depth. The conclusions of the film come to feel a little pat, and the turn it takes into the murderous is a trifle heavily done. Nevertheless, the film is made with a great deal of flair, particularly in the way it marries the mundane - the lives of the protagonists, their interaction with their kids - and the horrifying (the descent of the women into despair, the manipulative behaviour and dubious sexual politics). There is also some brilliant camera-work, including two glorious overhead tracking shots over a dry plain by a motorway, that shows how masterful Lou Ye can be.
Overall, I'd probably give this a B+ but ask Lou to come up with something a little less contrived next time, in which he can give himself space to breathe a little more; it would be interesting to see him tackle a serious subject perhaps on more sober terms, since his mastery of the form makes him a prime candidate to direct a sweeping drama, as opposed to the interesting experiment with genre he has gone for here.
Beyond The Hills - dir. Cristian Mungiu
While I've seen some very good films in the main competition selection at Cannes, the festival really took off for me with the screening of Cristian Mungiu's Beyond The Hills, which is for my money the first true masterpiece to have shown so far. With this picture, showcasing Mungiu's terrific film-making skills and a deeply intelligent treatment of his subject, the Romanian director has to be considered a real contender for the Palme d'Or, five years after winning it for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.
Alina (Cristina Flutur) is a twenty-something Romanian woman returning from Germany to her hometown to meet her former lover, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), with whom she grew up in an orphanage. The problem is that Voichita has now become a nun in an Orthodox christian convent: her faith comes between the two women, and Alina's questioning of the order begins to wreak havoc on the community in tragic ways.
The film is directed very brilliantly from beginning to end, with superb editing, wonderful landscapes and, as the story of Alina's rebellion begins to take a turn for the dark when the Father and nuns crack down on her, the film reflects the claustrophobic nature of its story in busy shots full of activity. What is thrilling about it is the formidable intellectual and technical rigour of Mungiu, in his analysis of religious subjugation of women and sexuality. More than this, the film touches on human responsibility and culpability, and our duty of care towards one another: through the prism of this nunnery, he quite brilliantly shows a society that is unable to accept difference in others, and that folds in on itself and rejects the difficult foreigner. He also presents a caustic look at contemporary Romanian society, in its seemingly torn state between progress and strict orthodoxy: hospitals fare scarcely better than the rigid church, seen here as incompetent and uncaring, and in a brilliant scene where Alina returns to her foster-family who are willing to welcome her back for pay, the world as a whole is castigated for its money-grubbing greed.
None of this begins to cover the genius of the film, which is there in its excellent depiction of character, subtly conveyed through delicately captured glances and minimal exposition; it's there too in the narrative structure of the film, as it moves from being a story of sexual loss to being one of active repression; it lies, too, in the film's dark humour, its excellent use of religious imagery to drive its points home (the nuns at one point, in a bid to control her, tie Alina to two planks; enough said), and the way it has of creating its own peculiar universe which becomes our world also. This is so much the case that at the end, as the outside world comes crashing in, it feels like a monumental rupture.