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Death Trips

By Dennis Lim

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Outsiders with murder on their minds stole the show this year

Cannes’ unabashed reliance on its favored sons—and they are inevitably sons—has given the festival the feel of an old boys’ club, tougher than ever to break into. Case in point: Lav Diaz, the elder statesman of the New Philippine cinema and one of the most venerated (if least seen) filmmakers of the past decade, finally made his Cannes debut with Norte, the End of History a dozen years—and many, many hours of screen time—after his shift away from commercial production with Batang West Side (01).

Norte, the End of History

Norte, the End of History

Any discussion of Diaz must begin—and all too often ends—with his cosmic running times: his best-known films run anywhere from five to 11 hours. Many festivalgoers dismiss him as a slow-cinema ascetic, not to mention a scheduling nightmare. But for Diaz, duration is a marker of commitment and an instrument of empathy, a way of inviting viewers into the physical spaces and emotional states of his characters. A breeze by his standards at just over four hours, Norte, which screened in Un Certain Regard, came as a salutary shock to the system, a liberation from the manic overstimulation of Cannes.

Smoothing out many of the rough edges of his previous work, Norte is an ideal entry point for neophytes, following a streamlined, even classical narrative—with a strong debt to Crime and Punishment—where Diaz’s more digressive films have at times reflected the wayward circumstances of their shooting. In the northern province of Luzon, a law-school dropout, given to nihilist philosophizing, commits a horrific crime; a decent, gentle family man takes the fall and receives a life sentence, leaving behind a wife and two kids. Diaz’s deep-focus compositions are in rich, vivid color on this occasion (as opposed to his customary black and white); at times a vertiginous “heli-cam” floats above the action, suggesting by turns the fitful perspective of a dreamer and the troubled omniscience of an all-seeing eye.

As with kindred epics like A Brighter Summer Day and City of Sadness, the broad canvas accommodates both the irreducibility of individual experience and the sweep of time and space. In a Diaz film the wounds and defeats of Filipino history always loom large. Fabian (a terrific Sid Lucero), the would-be rebel turned tormented killer, may well be this innately political filmmaker’s most indelible creation: a haunting embodiment of the dead ends of ideology.

If Cannes seems increasingly averse to risk—a film like Norte being the clear exception to the rule—one exacerbating factor may be the festival-wide tilt toward genre. Laudable in theory, the shift has in practice meant sore-thumb Competition entries by Takashi Miike and Nicolas Winding Refn and the puzzling overhaul of the Directors’ Fortnight section, once an incubator for emerging radical voices, now more of a midnight-movie clearinghouse.

Jodorowsky's Dune

Jodorowsky's Dune

Two prime Fortnight slots were be-stowed upon that blast from the cult-cinema past Alejandro Jodorowsky. Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune uses animated storyboards and fan-boy testimony (from Refn, among others) to trump up the myth of El Maestro’s aborted stab at adapting Frank Herbert’s beloved sci-fi novel back in the Seventies. While it’s hard to buy the talking heads’ claim that Jodorowsky’s Dune, with the improbable help of Salvador Dalí and Orson Welles, would have changed the DNA of blockbusters, Pavich wisely keeps the focus on the happily jabbering Jodorowsky, as expansive as ever at 84.

That old psychomagic meanwhile surfaced in somewhat diluted form in The Dance of Reality, Jodorowsky’s first film in 23 years. An autobiographical memory piece, shot in his hometown of Tocopilla in the Chilean desert, it boasts cut-rate CGI, rampant Freudian undercurrents, some token circus grotesquerie, and a dignified performance by Brontis Jodorowsky (the filmmaker’s son, playing the filmmaker’s Stalin-like father) that keeps the sub-Fellini sentimentality at bay.

The closest thing to a discovery in the sidebar sections may well have been the festival’s slyest genre reinvention: first-time feature directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s Salvo, which took both top prizes in Critics’ Week. (Full disclosure: I served on one of its juries.) Seeking to take out the rival who has ordered a hit on him, a gangster named Salvo invades a Palermo home only to stumble upon his quarry’s blind sister, Rita (Sara Serraiocco), in the basement. The ensuing, 20-minute-plus cat-and-mouse game—resourcefully shot by Daniele Ciprì in low light, and with an enormously suggestive use of sound and off-screen space—sets the tone for a film that is plainly more interested in atmosphere than plot.

Mindful of the traps of the mafioso thriller, Grassadonia and Piazza obey the rules of the genre even while deranging them slightly. The skeletal narrative pivots on what Salvo should do with Rita, who, whether from shock or something more mystical, regains her sight. As the unsubtly named hit-man/savior of the title, Saleh Bakri, sporting crisp polo shirts and a steely squint, positively embodies the movie’s minimalist smolder. The final series of wordless shots—a man, a woman, and a waterfront, as day turns to night—wrings a surprising modicum of emotion from the predetermined romantic rapprochement between Salvo and Rita, the scenario’s biggest cliché. 

Stranger by the Lake Alain Guiraudie

Stranger by the Lake

Salvo had nothing on the blindsiding expression of amour fou that emerges in Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, an all but unanimous critical hit that was relegated to Un Certain Regard (where it won the directing prize). Guiraudie, who typically works in and around his home region of Aveyron, has long been a singular voice in French cinema: gay, anti-bourgeois, at ease in nature, a true regionalist, an outsider in almost every sense. Many of his films reconstitute fantasy worlds from partial views of France’s rural south, anchoring their shape-shifting, vaguely free-associative tales in fragments of social reality.

Much more focused, Stranger by the Lake unfolds entirely in the vicinity of a gay pickup spot that Guiraudie further reduces to a handful of locations: a lake, at once inviting and ominous; its circular shore, where nude, sunbathing men gather and gaze; the surrounding woods, where some lurk and others pair off; and the adjacent parking area, a fixed view of which the filmmaker uses as an establishing shot to mark the start of each day. Evocative of Hong Sang-soo in its balance of rigor and playfulness, and its precise, even geometrical structure, Stranger by the Lake brilliantly exploits the theatrical aspects of the cruising ground: an arena of exchanged glances and an outdoor stage for repetition and ritual.

Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a handsome young man, is a regular at the lake, where he finds various forms of companionship. He strikes up a tender platonic rapport with the portly, middle-aged Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), who sits, fully clothed, apart from the others. But it is the strapping Michel (Christophe Paou), with his Mark Spitz mustache and sharklike movements through the water, who stirs his libido. Peering through the trees at sunset one day, Franck sees Michel drowning a lover in the lake, which does nothing to dim his attraction—and in fact may have the opposite effect.

Guiraudie captures naked bodies and hardcore sex with the same matter-of-fact sensuousness that he brings to the ripples on the water, the leaves rustling in the wind, the fading light of dusk. This is a utopia, in its way, and as with all utopias, there is a dark side. The film is on the side of pleasure but also mindful that hedonism has a price. For all its sex-positivity, it is not so naïve as to decouple sex and death, or to pretend that the proximity of death doesn’t offer a way of feeling alive. The characters may end up in traps of their own creation but the film itself is free, which is to say, bold, open, and generous. Its ultimate point is simple but hard-won, easy to forget and sometimes difficult to admit: love exists in different forms. 

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