The general rule at Cannes is to tune out the chattering white noise that, even more than the thudding Eurodisco that floods the Croisette nightly, constitutes the festival’s most grating soundtrack. But sometimes the received wisdom and idle blather that surround a given film can be revealing. Such was the case with Alice Rohrwacher’s second feature, The Wonders, one of the more striking films in this year’s Competition and yet persistently described, even by many of its admirers, as “slight,” “minor,” and “small.”
Like Rohrwacher’s debut, Corpo Celeste, a Directors’ Fortnight selection in 2011, The Wonders is a coming-of-age story. The focus is on a family in rural central Italy—German-speaking father, Italian mother, four girls, a young woman who may be their aunt—that keeps bees and produces honey. Two unexpected arrivals prove disruptive, especially for the pensive oldest daughter, Gelsomina: the father takes in a troubled teenage boy as part of a child welfare program and a television crew shows up to enlist the local farmers in a kitschy celebration of Etruscan culinary traditions (a slyly self-mocking Monica Bellucci plays the bewigged host).
Unlike countless movies of its ilk, The Wonders is neither precious nor predictable in describing teenage yearning and confusion. Rohrwacher grew up in a multilingual family with beekeeping parents and her sister, Alba, plays the mother. Whether or not the film is autobiographical in its details, it suggests a collection of sense memories, combining a documentary attention to daily ritual, including the arduous work of honey harvesting, with an evocative atmosphere of mystery. Family dynamics and backstory (are they doomsday cultists? political radicals?) surface only in partial glimpses, and as in Corpo Celeste, Rohrwacher conjures a richly concrete world that is nonetheless subject to the magical thinking of adolescence. The Wonders never announces its themes, which is probably one reason so many dismissed it, but it’s a film with plenty on its mind, not least the ways in which old traditions survive in the modern world, as acts of resistance or repackaged as commodities. (Bonus points for being shot, by veteran French DP Hélène Louvart, in the all-but-extinct 16mm film format.)
Rohrwacher won the runner-up Grand Prix, confirming the oft-repeated, rather patronizing assumption that at least one of the two women in Competition (the other being—who else—Naomi Kawase) would be rewarded by jury president Jane Campion. As frustrating as it was to see a film this accomplished reduced to the gender of its director, an equally chronic problem apparent in the conversation around The Wonders is the festival’s increasingly pronounced bias against the new. A film like this might not have seemed so out of place in the Competition if the gatekeepers were more welcoming to emerging voices. Instead Cannes clings stubbornly to an annual regimen of old masters and usual suspects. The ostensible reason, some say, is to protect the more challenging and delicate work—les films fragiles, as the French call them—from the unforgiving main spotlight. Whatever the intention, the impression left behind is of a festival that puts little stock in discovery. This year, Cannes had the opportunity to anoint two rising talents in addition to Rohrwacher: Israel’s Nadav Lapid and Sweden’s Ruben Östlund, who both had new films that confirm their wholly distinctive voices. But Cannes deemed neither ready for its pantheon. Östlund landed in Un Certain Regard while Lapid had to make do with an out-of-Competition slot in Critics’ Week.
Östlund’s previous film, Play, considers race and class tensions beneath the veneer of Scandinavian liberal democracy by observing the interactions of two groups of children on the streets of Gothenburg. In his new Force Majeure, the focus narrows to that beleaguered social unit: the nuclear family. On a ski vacation in the French Alps, a young Swedish couple and their two children have a close call with an avalanche that sends the father, Tomas, scurrying for his life, iPhone in hand, leaving behind his panicked kids and equally terrorized wife, Ebba. No one is harmed, but the foundational beliefs and expectations holding up the edifice of marriage and family have been shattered. As he digs into the aftermath of Tomas’s split-second transgression, there are some easy, queasy laughs at the expense of the emasculated patriarch, but the film is both sharp and serious in examining the conflict between social role and survival instinct. Among other things, Force Majeure functions as a viral thought experiment, which Östlund dramatizes by compelling Ebba and Tomas to replay the traumatic moment and examine its implications in front of one couple, and then another. The film ends with not one but two reversals—a faux-redemptive moment and another brush with fear—that suggest the impossibility of undoing what came before.
The Kindergarten Teacher
Like Östlund, Lapid is an analytical filmmaker who has earned comparisons to Michael Haneke. (Is it the dearth of rigorous, cerebral cinema or a lack of imagination among critics that causes any director with sociological interests and diagnostic ambitions to be automatically likened to Haneke?) Even more than his bifurcated 2011 debut feature, Policeman, which sets an elite anti-terrorism squad on a collision course with a band of young Israeli revolutionaries, Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher is a shape-shifting provocation and, un-apologetically, a film of ideas. The central relationship is between the fortysomething title character, Nira (Sarit Larry), a married mother of two, and Yoav, a 5-year-old charge of hers with a curious gift: every now and again, without warning, he paces back and forth and begins declaiming perfectly formed verses on love and loss that would seem far beyond the scope of his emotional life. (Lapid used poems that he himself dictated to his nanny between the ages of 4 and 7.) Where do Yoav’s words come from and what place do they have in this world? Nira’s prize pupil apparently awakens in her a protective impulse, but as her actions grow more extreme, the question of what exactly she’s protecting remains very much open.
This impassive prodigy, unwilling or unable to give up his secrets, becomes, for this ever more determined woman, a bulwark and a weapon in her fundamentalist rejection of a world that has no use for poetry. Trading the precise mise en scène of Policeman for reflexive, rupturing formal strategies, with a borderline-invasive camera that gives the film itself (and not just its characters) a searching and rapacious quality, Lapid sustains a multiplicity of possible meanings in this mordant, coolly ambiguous work. The Kindergarten Teacher may share the despair of its heroine, but there is something perversely romantic in the conviction that underlies the film: in an ugly world, beauty still has the power to drive us mad.