For those of us who get to go to film festivals, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing great filmmakers doing what they do best—and this year at Cannes there was plenty of that. But there’s a different kind of satisfaction afforded by the revelation of an unforeseen knockout from an unfamiliar quarter. The treasure hunt for new discoveries always leads to the festival’s sidebars (Un Certain Regard and, at least in previous years, Critics’ Week) and satellite events (Directors’ Fortnight). This year’s two top finds were Cristi Puiu’s hilarious and horrifying Certain Regard prize-winner The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, from Romania, and Vimukhti Jayasundara’s Camera d’Or–winning debut, The Forsaken Land, from Sri Lanka.
From its opening images of a bare landscape and a dilapidated house, The Forsaken Land is unmistakably the work of someone in complete control of his material. Set in the hinterlands, Jayasundara’s film is a spare, poetically fragmented, and haunting look at life in the uneasy post-traumatic aftermath of decades of civil war. The main character is a Home Guardsman who lives with his young wife and older sister at a lonely outpost in the middle of nowhere. Apart from a little girl who takes the daily bus to school, everyone is stuck in a kind of enervated limbo, barely disrupted by the occasional passing tank or truckload of soldiers. The film’s pervasive sense of hopelessness and disconnection, with its pointless brutality, desperate sexual interludes, and semi-verbal domestic tensions, firmly conveys the way in which war blights the lives of all involved long after the fighting ends. What’s particularly striking is the way in which Jayasundara is able to fashion images—an arm protruding from a shallow pond, a blood-soaked patch of grass—that continually surprise and resonate long after the film is over, hovering just this side of the symbolic. On the basis of this first effort, great things can be expected of Jayasundara, who is only 27. And his film is a triumphant vindication of Cannes’s Cinéfondation program, of which the director is an alumnus.
Shane Black’s directorial debut may not be a revelation of the same magnitude as The Forsaken Land (and I have a feeling he passed up the Cinéfondation residency), but his engaging if exhausting Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang deserves its due. Famously ambivalent about his success as the screenwriter of action flicks like The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight, Black, as his film’s self-deprecating title promises, serves up a self-parodic riff on his signature combination of hardboiled whodunit, state-of-the-art overkill, and ultra-cynical dialogue. As a New York thief on the run who finds himself accidentally cast in a movie and then stumbles into a murder mystery, the normally insufferable Robert Downey Jr. has finally found a role he was born to play, with strong support from Val Kilmer as a gay Hollywood shamus and Michelle Monaghan as Downey’s childhood sweetheart turned aspiring actress. Clearly embracing the post–Fight Club vogue for narrative interruptus and subversive voiceover, Black jams the film into fast-forward and pushes the often hilarious non-stop Hollywood-plays-with-itself dialogue past the point of no return and beyond. Ultimately, though, the film is self-defeatingly manic—you get the feeling that you’re watching a nervous breakdown rather than a movie.