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Caught by the Tides (Jia Zhangke, 2024)

My first real shock of this year’s Cannes came courtesy of Jacques Audiard’s ludicrously misjudged narco-musical Emilia Pérez—and I don’t mean the film itself, though it certainly aims to inspire awe with its soapy subject matter and color-saturated bursts of song and dance. What flabbergasted me is that the film has champions, at least according to early reactions and the dubious measuring stick of the standing ovation (eleven minutes, among the longest of Cannes 2024 to date). Several prominent Francophone directors have dramatized the drug trade in Latin America—consider Olivier Assayas’s Wasp Network (2019), and Barbet Schroeder’s Our Lady of the Assassins (2000)—often with a kind of woozy mythologizing. Yet Audiard’s ham-fisted redemption tale plays directly into what Denis Ménochet, playing the French president in the spooky out-of-competition satire Rumours (co-directed by Guy Maddin), suggests as his nation’s defining stereotype: the French employ symbolism to a fault. 

Following a dysphoric cartel kingpin who undergoes a sanctifying gender transition (involving, at one point, a Busby Berkeley–esque spectacle in a Thai cosmetic-surgery clinic) to become the titular Emilia, a glamorous and newly benevolent socialite, Emilia Pérez is rooted in a crude essentialism, accented by the film’s cheap theatricality. The film revolves around Emilia (Karla Sofía Gascón); her lawyer and confidante Rita (Zoe Saldaña), who helps facilitate Emilia’s secret transformation and new life; and Jessi (Selena Gomez), Emilia’s wife pre-transition, who is told that her husband has been murdered, and whose own skeletons soon come spilling out of the closet. The film’s self-consciously bonkers proceedings parallel the intrigues of telenovelas, in which sex changes indeed appear as recurring twists and reliable generators of scandal. But where Pedro Almodóvar, for example, has repeatedly renewed this motif to build out sensitive yet productively ambivalent portraits of gender fluidity, Audiard simply foregrounds a trans woman (played by a real trans actor) and builds around her crisis with cartoonish intrigue and mindless visual razzle-dazzle. The result is a tonally disjunctive epic with the plastic emotions and dorky faux-edginess of a bad Broadway show. The performers, all speaking and singing mostly in Spanish, are energetic and committed (it doesn’t hurt that Gomez is a literal pop star and Saldaña has a background in dance), but this daft drama, caught between self-mockery and half-assed sincerity, ultimately treats Emilia’s plight as a spiritual venture so grand and lurid that it curdles into abjection. And the songs stink. 

By contrast, Jia Zhangke’s marvelous Caught by the Tides features lengthy interludes of song and dance that lend a palpable expressivity to the film’s flurried depiction of the inexorable changes wrought by the passage of time. As its title implies, this docufictional drama traces China’s transformation over the last quarter-century—a key feature of Jia’s work—as a kind of subliminal force, pulsing forward with disorienting momentum in the manner of a city symphony. Jia creates a jaggedly linear timeline from the early 2000s to the present day by weaving together digital video of his home province of Shanxi and outlying regions, clips and outtakes from his previous films, and more recent material shot during the COVID-19 lockdown. 

The relationship between Qiaoqiao (the formidable Zhao Tao, Jia’s frequent collaborator and wife) and Bin (Li Zhubin) gives Caught by the Tides its loose narrative through line and melancholic heart. Beginning with scenes from Unknown Pleasures (2002), in which Bin is ostensibly Qiaoqiao’s manager, the film tracks their separation and eventual reunion against the backdrop of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam (using scenes from 2006’s Still Life). This central romance, however, drifts in and out of focus, with Jia often redirecting his gaze outward via documentary footage. We spend time, for instance, with people sitting at bars, performing industrial work, and communing via (at first traditional, then increasingly pop-centric) songs. 

There’s an intriguing self-reflexivity to this sprawling, mostly wordless story that calls attention to the discrete visual styles and social conditions of the evolving times through the lens of the director’s own fictions, in which Zhao Tao remains a fixed presence. As Qiaoqiao, we see Zhao as a young model with blunt bangs; a barge-riding drifter in search of her missing love; and a weary, COVID-19–era cashier who passes through luxe commercial centers staffed by robots. She never speaks, giving her character a mime-like quality—a certain scrappiness and contained wisdom—that simultaneously distinguishes her from the masses and melds her with them in their silent unknowability. The film’s two strands work together to create a monument to Jia and Zhao’s body of work, while also revising the tragic visions that have so often defined Jia’s on-screen couples. 

Compared to Patricia Mazuy’s previous feature, the sumptuous serial-killer thriller Saturn Bowling (2022), her latest, Visiting Hours (which screened in the Directors’ Fortnight section), is appealingly low-key—a middlebrow women’s drama about race and class that adds needed depth to a familiar French pop-cinematic template about “unlikely” friendships. (2011’s The Intouchables, this subgenre’s lodestar, is bafflingly the highest-grossing French-language film of all time.) Opening on a stunning, sinuous shot of flowers reflected in the ceiling of a nursery, Visiting Hours tracks the relationship between two women: Mina (Hafsia Herzi), a North African laundry worker and mother of two, and Alma (Isabelle Huppert), a former ballerina living by herself in a magnificent townhome filled with fine art. Both women are married to men currently serving time in a Bordeaux prison. When security prevents Mina from seeing her husband without an appointment (tedious protocol, as Cannes-goers know too well, is another national pastime), she throws an impressively dramatic fit, catching the attention of Alma. In slightly deranged and quintessentially Huppertian fashion, Alma attempts to befriend the younger woman. With the sort of startling efficiency that only rich people can muster, Alma finds Mina a new job and takes her and her two children in, offering free childcare to boot. 

Mazuy’s sustained ambivalence toward the motivations and moral complexities of her characters, complemented by two engrossing lead performances, allows Visiting Hours to rise above its potentially patronizing premise: a benevolent white bourgeois woman forming a touching bond with a working-class person of color. Mina is rightfully wary of and annoyed by Alma’s blasé generosity, yet she inches toward a certain warmth and understanding for the older woman. Alma, for her part, is clearly charmed by her new roommates, but because of Huppert’s edge of insolence, her whimsical commitment to Mina’s desperate cause also reads as self-satisfied, careless, and rooted in boredom. Mazuy ultimately forgoes the expected sentimental climax for a falling-out that is banal and pathetic, a kind of tragic surrender to the realities of the two women’s identities. Visiting Hours plumbs the conditions of trust, power, and vulnerability at the heart of this improbable friendship, questioning the dreams that sustain such beloved narrative tropes. 

Beatrice Loayza is a writer and editor who contributes regularly to The New York Times, The Criterion Collection, The Nation, 4Columns, and other publications.