Cannes 2021: Bye Bye Bye
This article appeared in the July 22 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethekul, 2021)
With his sixth sense for setting the vibe of his films with blasts of pop fanfare, Sean Baker delivered the perfect anthem for Cannes’ final stretch in the opening credits of Red Rocket, his first entry in the festival’s official competition. NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye,” with its soft rendering of breakup drama, captured with pristine clarity what most journalists and critics felt after more than a week of cringing during the first COVID-19–era Cannes. On day 11, Thierry Frémaux, Cannes’ General Delegate, announced triumphantly that over the thousands of PCR tests administered during the whole event, only 70 had turned up positive. So, in the midst of a new wave of the pandemic, with the Delta variant hitting hard in most European countries, Cannes managed to avoid turning into a superspreader event. Plus, with filmmakers like Paul Verhoeven, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, and Wes Anderson presenting major new works, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul premiering what may well end up being the film of the year (more on this at the end of this dispatch), the festival seemed to deliver enough reasons for delight. Accordingly, during the final days, channeling NSYNC, this critic could only think of howling bye to taking a PCR test every 48 hours, bye to the confusion of needing test results to access some screenings and not others, and bye to a festival world ruled by the aseptic laws of the new normal.
Red Rocket presented itself as a blatant paradox: a movie driven by the cleanest energies—pop music, a rom-com subplot, a deep sense of empathy towards its characters—but fully soaked in the grime of fossil fuels. And it’s not only that the oil refineries and petrochemical plants surrounding Texas City, the film’s Galveston County setting, serve as the sinister background for the ill-fated adventures of the film’s anti-hero, Mikey Saber, a porn star in decline who trips back home only to receive a harsh welcome. Saber (played by Simon Rex, an MTV VJ turned actor with a past in the adult film industry) embodies the film’s social chiaroscuro by adopting the roles of both victim and executioner. It’s not difficult to find oneself championing the character, whose crafty charm and artful charisma—he would fit right into a Safdies’ joint—turn him into the polar star of an impoverished, neglected community of misfits. But things get darker when a Little Red Riding Hood—the underaged cashier of a Donut store named Strawberry, played by newcomer Suzanna Son—wakes up the Big Bad Wolf in the narcissistic, opportunist Saber.
Red Rocket may not be Baker’s most successful endeavor—the narrative turns feel less organic than in his previous features—but his will to dive into his characters’ misery and find peculiar forms of redemption and solidarity made the film stand out. (Baker gets extra points for casting the wonderful Judy Hill, the star of Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire?, as a local drug kingpin).
Just above average in the official selection was Bruno Dumont’s France, a new variation on the French auteur’s late-career hybrid of silliness and solemnity, and a follow-up to his brilliant musical diptych devoted to the childhood and the trial of Joan of Arc. Dumont’s new martyr, the titular France de Meurs (played by Léa Seydoux), is a frivolous superstar newscaster who falls from grace and wakes up to the banality of her existence after knocking over a motorbike driven by a young, warm-hearted North African man with learning difficulties. In a striking stylistic pirouette, the chameleonic Dumont juxtaposes a flamboyant satire of contemporary media culture—in the vein of Armando Iannucci’s political caricature—and a ludicrous existential drama that rises toward transcendence in a series of long frontal shots of the suffering Seydoux staring rapturously at the camera. Soap opera meets religious art in this new (and seemingly never-ending, at 134 minutes) take on the Stations of the Cross.
The festival’s last days fashioned a menagerie of mentally unstable male protagonists. Caleb Landry Jones took home the Best Actor award for his lead turn in Justin Kurzel’s Nitram, a biopic of the eponymous youngster responsible for the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania. Lost in its own fascination for the young sociopath and his dysfunctional family, this elemental indictment of Australian gun culture made me miss the years when Cannes honored Gus Van Sant’s mysterious, elusive film-recollections of violent deaths: Elephant (2003), Last Days (2005), and Paranoid Park (2007)… those were the days!
To my mind, the Best Actor award would have been well-deserved by Damien Bonnard, who has long demonstrated his command of internalized and responsive acting in films like Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical and Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables. Now, in Joaquim Lafosse’s The Restless, Bonnard comes out as a proactive force of nature in the role of a painter suffering from bipolar disorder. As entrancing in his bursts of impossibly sustained euphoria as in depressive stasis, Bonnard is the crowning jewel of a film that aspires to the shape-shifting, emotionally inscrutable worlds of John Cassavetes and Maurice Pialat but is too black-and-white—too diagrammatic—in its dichotomies. In any case, at least Lafosse tried to explore the volatile side of human nature with some nerve, unlike Ildikó Enyedi’s monotonous The Story of My Wife, based on the 1946 novel of the same name by Hungarian author Milán Füst. A meditation on the sentimental myopia of a laconic sea captain (played with deadpan drabness by Dutch actor Gijs Naber), the film—a co-production between Hungary, Germany, France, and Italy—brings to mind the infamous Europudding, a term coined in the 1980s to allude pejoratively to films gathering funding and stars from several European countries, resulting in works lacking any sort of singularity.
If Enyedi’s visually lavish but emotionally inert costume drama marked the nadir of the Cannes official competition, the zenith arrived on day 10 with Memoria, a film in which just a long, static, wide shot of two characters exchanging memories—with few words—might inspire epiphanies in the audience. This serene climax of intimate transmission owes no small part of its magic to the entrancing commitment of both Tilda Swinton—who (under)plays the character of a British woman wandering through bewilderment and grief in Colombia—and Elkin Díaz, who makes his international breakthrough performance as an ultra-quiet man capable of remembering “everything.” (Some critics described him as a shaman.) I ought to add that, while the frame remains hypnotically unperturbed in this unforgettable scene, the soundtrack is haunted by myriad voices from different eras, some of which are hardly discernible.
Sound has always played an essential part in Apichatpong’s poetics, and Memoria highlights its aesthetic, physical, narrative, and conceptual dimensions. In fact, the film’s “plot” could be summarized as the story of a woman searching for the source and meaning of a mysterious sound—an explosion—that seems to take place inside her head. In a masterful scene set in a sound studio, she describes it as “a ball of concrete falling on a base of metal surrounded by saltwater” and “a bang coming from the Earth’s core.” A couple of Cannes colleagues suggested that Memoria could be read as Apichatpong’s take on both Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, though I would argue that the Thai filmmaker works against the sentimentality of the former and the religious dogma of the latter. A kind of spiritual follow-up to Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, with Swinton embodying the lost soul of Christine Gordon’s Jessica, Memoria is Weerasethekul’s most restrained and concise work to date. The colorful effluence, pop fugues, fabulist intertitles, and monstrous-mystical creatures which had spectacularized his past works seem to have dissolved here into an alchemy of austere mise-en-scène and delicate soundscapes.
Exposed to Memoria’s imagery, made of strangely mundane urban tableaux and semi-rural living frescos, the only non-Apichatpong film-memory I found myself recalling was my first viewing of Jacques Tati’s Playtime. In the boldest conceivable way, Memoria celebrates the magical dimension of the real with the same fearlessness with which Tati embraced the omnipresence of comedy in the human experience. Approaching a radical visual minimalism, Apichatpong turns all elements at hand—gesture, dialogue, atmosphere—into endless sources of lyrical expression, political commentary, surreal figuration, and ways of communication between all things being.
Manu Yáñez Murillo is a Barcelona-based film critic and scholar who has been a contributor to Film Comment since 2006. He is the editor-in-chief of the website Otros Cines Europa and the editor of the anthology La mirada americana: 50 años de Film Comment.