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Cannes Report: Larry Gross on the Standouts

By Larry Gross on May 30, 2012 in Film Comment Featured

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As the festival wound down, many critics expressed a feeling of mild disappointment with this year’s Competition. Highly anticipated new films by Cannes veterans such as Hong Sang-soo, Abbas Kiarostami, and Carlos Reygadas met with uncomprehending shrugs or, in quite a few cases, outright hostility. This being Cannes, of course, they all had their defenders (I for one think that Kiarostami’s film was wildly underappreciated).

Post Tenebras Lux

But the most disconcerting experience at Cannes came with Post Tenebras Lux, which won Carlos Reygadas the award for best director. Reygadas’s film opens with an absolutely indelible sequence: a gorgeous 3- or 4-year old blonde girl runs through muddy grassland, ringed by mountains, and plays among frantic dogs and cattle. She keeps calling out to Mommy and Daddy; then landscape takes over, with scarily beautiful thunder and lightning.

That child happens to be the daughter of writer-director Reygadas, and the house in the countryside that is the film’s primary setting is the one that he built 80 kilometers from Mexico City and where he lives with his wife and kids. Post Tenebras Lux aspires to be as hermetically autobiographical as Tarkovsky’s The Mirror or Brakhage’s Dog Star Man. The radical subjectivity of what we are watching is stressed through the use of lenses to create doubled impressions and blurring at the frame’s edges.

The husband and wife who live in this house (in the film) are an enigmatically unhappy couple, played by Nathalia Acevedo and Adolfo Jimenez Castro. The film is partly an exploration of their sexual problems but is above all concerned with their uneasy relations with the working-class people in the neighborhood, whose poverty makes them prone to violence.

None of this is told in a conventional, linear fashion. The presentation of the lives (and fantasies) of the middle-class couple is interrupted by depictions of those who work for or serve them, but the link is often very elliptical and tenuous. The film’s visual style encompasses aesthetic extremes: some scenes are shot like a lyrical nature documentary, while at two points there is a fantastical rotoscoped apparition in the form of a scarlet devil carrying a toolbox and casing the wealthy couple’s home in the middle of the night.

Post Tenebras Lux feels like a meditation on living in a country that is in the process of succumbing to a state of violence and evil. In the course of an interview for The New York Times during the festival, Reygadas mentioned “the fact that it’s raining blood in Mexico.” Though not all of its surreal, Buñuelian juxtapositions work equally well, Post Tenebras Lux keeps growing on me. It’s a film that’s trying to push limits of cinematic discourse.

Amour

The film almost everyone liked, and rightly so, was Amour. Haneke’s often forbidding work has tended to combine the political misanthropy of Hobbes and the modernist, absurdist sensibility of Kafka. Life, in most of his films, is a mechanism that simply doesn’t work. You can’t always tell if the cruelty is a feature of a world objectively and fairly constructed, or the result of a filmmaker’s bitter will. Throughout, his imagery is elegant and controlled, and his actors often brilliant.

All of these qualities are present in Amour, which won Haneke his second Palme d’Or at Cannes in three years, but there is a wonderful new coherence between his method and subject matter that make this easily his masterpiece to date. Indeed, I don’t know of a past Palme d’Or winner that came as less of a surprise to those who attended the festival.

Haneke casts two iconic figures of European Art Cinema—Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Léon Morin, Priest) and Jean-Louis Trintignant (The Conformist, Z, Three Colors: Red)—as a happily married pair of music teachers who are introduced briefly attending a student’s concert performance and taking the bus home. It is the last time that we will leave their apartment. Shortly thereafter, Anne, the wife, suffers the first in a series of strokes. The film then details her husband’s patient efforts to keep his wife alive with some semblance of dignity and “quality of life” intact, and his inevitable, grinding failure.

In one sense, you could say this is simply more of the same dark stuff from Haneke. But that would miss the quiet heroism of this couple’s attempt to cling to life. Through sporadic glimpses of dreams and memories, their interaction with a visiting former student who has gone on to classical music stardom, and their dealings with their cool but affectionate daughter (played with superb modesty by Isabelle Huppert), we are given a simple, unspectacular vision of what has made life worth living for this couple. And that makes the slow, inexorable process of Life being taken away from them almost unbearably moving.

In other films, Haneke seemed to suggest that people deserved the awful narrative outcomes he was designing for them. Here, neither justice nor injustice is an issue. We are simply facing the stark facts of what Yeats calls “the discourtesy of death.” This time, Haneke’s calm, remorseless objectivity simply feels like the truth.

Mud

I liked Jeff Nichols’s simple, effective 2007 debut, Shotgun Stories, and I was impressed if not always persuaded by Take Shelter. But as interesting as both these films were, they didn’t prepare me for the complicated splendors of his latest film, Mud, which had its debut at the very end of the Competition. The logline—a 14-year-old boy comes of age—doesn’t begin to convey the full-to-bursting canvas of intrigues and characters that have been created here.

The main story concerns Ellis (Tye Sheridan), who, with his pal Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), learns life lessons from a mysterious escaped convict named Mud (beautifully played by Matthew McConaughey). There are echoes of Great Expectations and Huckleberry Finn. Ellis fixates on Mud’s romantic yearnings for his lost childhood sweetheart, Juniper (a very effective if only briefly seen Reese Witherspoon). He can’t help comparing their situation with that of his parents who are alternately silent or quarreling with one another, and heading toward divorce. And he makes touching, floundering overtures to his own, first “true love,” May Pearl, an older high-schooler.

But in addition to romantic love, the film is also about the vicissitudes of love between fathers and sons. Ellis’s father (Ray McKinnon) is losing his authority over his son and his wife, as well as his way of making a living on the river. Neckbone’s guardian is his goofy but sincere uncle, Galen (the reliably excellent Michael Shannon). Mud turns out to have a conflicted paternal figure in Tom, a mysterious recluse who lives in the houseboat across the way from that of Ellis’s family and played by Sam Shepard in easily his best performance in years. Finally, Joe Don Baker briefly but memorably brings to life the wealthy, murderous father of a man whom Mud killed in a quarrel over Juniper.

Ellis bounces between these disconcerting variations on patriarchal authority while trying to tease out his own early intuitions about sexuality and women. The result is a narrative more complex and nuanced than our genre expectations for coming-of-age stories would seem to allow. By the end, we feel that we’ve inhabited an entire world. Alongside a very different investigation of childhood and family in the watery parts of the South—Beasts of the Southern Wild, the deserving winner of the Camera d’Or—Mud is the strongest American narrative film of 2012 so far. The South, as perennially seems to be the case, is set to rise again.

Holy Motors

The biggest comeback of Cannes was Leos Carax’s first feature in 13 years, Holy Motors. Carax’s collaborator/muse/alter-ego Dennis Lavant stars as the mysterious Mr. Oscar, who is driven around Paris in a white stretch limousine on his way to nine different “appointments.” For each rendezvous, Oscar assumes a new identity, elaborately making himself up as a beggar, an old woman, a motion-capture porn performer, a dying old man, etc. (At times, the shape-shifting Russian-doll structure suggests the stunning Lynch-Dern collaboration, Inland Empire.)

Each episode also alludes to a movie genre: crime, sci-fi, family melodrama, romantic tragedy, and musical comedy are all invoked, as are numerous allusions to scenes and motifs from earlier Carax films. Oscar’s chauffeur is played by a white-haired Edith Scob, donning the mask she wore 50 years ago in Franju’s horror classic Eyes Without a Face.

There is no narrative progression to the episodes, nor does Oscar seem to have a strong emotional response to his adventures, beyond the weariness and sadness that hovers over the whole world of the film. What holds Holy Motors together is the sheer bravura of its imagery and tonal shifts, and the fascinating shifts and variations to Lavant’s performances, articulated most poignantly in a scene in which Oscar pauses between appointments and confides to octogenarian master-thespian Michel Piccoli: “I am carrying on as I started: for the beauty of the act.”

French, American, and British critics were delighted with Holy Motors. You could sense deep respect for Carax as a director facing career jeopardy yet choosing to take greater risks than ever. It’s perhaps useful for filmmakers to remember what “Fast” Eddie Felson says near the end of The Hustler: “Percentage players die broke, too.”

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