(Nie Yinniang) Hou Hsiao-Hsien, France/Hong Kong/Taiwan
My favourite film at this year’s Cannes – and arguably the critics’ – was Hou’s The Assassin, which was worthy of its Best Director prize. What’s so special about this oblique take on the historical wuxia epic are the long quiet sequences between the action, where the ability of trained murderer Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) to melt into the shadows creates a delicious dynamic between the sheer beauty of diaphanous, wafting curtains, billowing gauzes and waving tree branches and our anticipation that our gorgeous assassin will appear among them to stir things up. Its story, however, though well known to Chinese audiences, was not sufficiently clear for others to make a Palme winner.
Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt has waited 63 years for an adaptation, but this is a tender, devastating romance between Rooney Mara’s wide-eyed shop assistant Therese and Cate Blanchett’s Carol, an elegant socialite and mother with everything to lose. The influences of the brooding worlds of Edward Hopper and Saul Leiter, and the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, are still on show here but this is the film where Haynes steps out of their shadow. Surveying a battleground of power and control, the director knows all too well the potency of gesture and delivers some of his most devastating scenes in close-up: a possessive hand placed on a shoulder, a finger inching towards a phone’s hang-up button, and, most of all, the eyes of Carol and Therese, full of longing, staring out of car windows.
From humble, homemade origins, each Max movie has trebled in size, and Fury Road is the metastasised endpoint. The camera is almost perpetually in motion, and when it isn’t, everything else is; the dialogue, mostly shouted, is half-heard over the roar of a V8 engine… This isn’t haphazard storytelling: Miller knows that stopping off for exposition breaks will cost him valuable speed. Max, Furiosa and the others speak of their world – or rather don’t speak of it – as people who are accustomed to living in it might, and save their breath for matters of practical exigency, which is to say survival.
It is a movie of split-second decisions, cut-the-crap materialistic down to the very last particular, where every bullet in a clip (and the one in the chamber) and every centimetre of leeway counts. Given that the aesthetic of the Mad Max franchise has influenced visual culture every bit as much as that of Metropolis or Blade Runner (1982), it is remarkable that Fury Road manages to be at once familiar and yet consistently surprising, not to say astonishing.
(As mil e uma noites) Miguel Gomes, Switzerland/France/Germany/Portugal
The most ambitious, industrious undertaking at this year’s Cannes was Gomes’s quasi-adaptation of the classic Middle Eastern folktales, a 381-minute maze-like triptych. Gomes is one of only a few auteurs to tackle the financial crisis head on and this portrait of his native Portugal mixes fiction, documentary (informed by journalists’ extensive research) and absurdism where most would favour intimate social realism…
If his denunciations of government austerity can seem too smugly farcical at times and some imaginative stories drift on too long, there is always a deliriously surprising turn in waiting, along with moments of outré visual experimentation (split screens, double exposure, upside-down landscapes) and Gomes’s trademark wistful pop soundtrack. It’s a film about escapism that manages to mine the desperation and precarious lives of ordinary people too.
Like Arabian Nights [see above], Cemetery of Splendour is another film with political stories lurking beneath the surface. Weerasethakul’s remarkable and mysterious film centres on a middle-aged, lonely hospital volunteer Jenjira tending to soldiers who have succumbed to a sleeping sickness in a remote Thai city.
Like many of Apichatpong’s previous films, it conjures a present haunted by the past and did so with some of the festival’s most enchanting imagery; hypnotic, neon-tinged nocturnal landscapes in particular. The cemetery of the title is one of ancient kings rumoured to lie under the hospital building. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, it is mapped out in words in the hospital’s overgrown garden by a psychic whom Jenjira befriends and who provides the film’s delightfully comic moments, reading the thoughts and dreams of the soldiers to their loved ones.
Akerman’s No Home Movie was filmed in the spacious Brussels flat where her mother, a wartime refugee and Auschwitz survivor, had lived most of her life, often confined to it because of an anxiety disorder. Akerman recorded her as her health was starting to decline rapidly (she died in 2014).
On the surface, not a lot happens; we listen in to their conversations as they eat together, or overhear snatched fragments as they go about their daily routine, Akerman’s digital camera observing her mother’s slow, difficult movements. Sometimes we just see empty rooms, shot through doorways, or look out of a window down to the empty garden where a sunbed sits forlornly. Interspersed with this material are shots of an Israeli desert landscape filmed from inside a car; and occasionally Akerman captures her mother’s face on a computer screen as she Skypes her from some anonymous hotel room elsewhere in the world…
At one point Akerman’s mother asks why she is filming her: “I want to show that there is no distance in the world,” Akerman answers. Early in her career Akerman made News from Home (1976), in which, to haunting effect, she read her mother’s letters over images of New York, where she was then living. That film showed not only the physical distance between them but Akerman grappling with a sense of disconnection from her mother and the complex familial and cultural legacy she’d inherited…
Incredible tenderness and love is expressed between the two women – at times it feels as if Akerman has regressed to childhood, with her repeated cooing of “mami-coeur” – but there remains a gulf in life experiences, and a blazing anger on the younger woman’s part at the suffering inflicted on the elder. The same dynamic as the earlier film inheres, Akerman’s international lifestyle contrasting with her mother’s confinement (and shades of 1975’s Jeanne Dielman, too, in those kitchen shots?). It’s a hard film to watch, especially in the light of Akerman’s recent suicide, but it is fearless, formally controlled and magnificent in its self-exposure.
— Kieron Corless, reporting from the Viennale in our forthcoming February 2016 issue
Haigh’s present-day drama 45 Years wields a deadly form of gentility. As retired couple Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling) Mercer near their 45th wedding anniversary, Geoff gets a shocking letter from Switzerland which opens up an old love wound to match the heart bypass scar dividing his chest. The outcome sees him musing on his past in a way that makes Kate more sensitive about her own place in his affections. One or two off moments in the first 20 minutes notwithstanding, the film is a display of fine acting and quiet observation on a restrained cinematic scale that’s as unshowy, subtle and effective as Haigh’s surprise hit Weekend (2011).
One of the most terrifying radio dramas I have ever listened to is the soundtrack of events happening off screen in László Nemes’s Cannes Grand Prix-winner – a maelstrom of screamed orders, clanking machinery, grinding motors, brutal beatings and random shootings that almost never dies down.
The camera mostly keeps tight to the face or back of Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a resilient Hungarian Jew who has survived in a German concentration camp by becoming one of the Sonderkommando, tasked with helping the Nazis exterminate his brethren… with the big red Sonderkommando ‘X’ on his back, it’s as if he becomes a ghost while still alive; and like Ausländer’s life, every state of being Son of Saul puts us through feels very temporary indeed.
Anomalisa is an animation film directed by Charlie Kaufman and stop-motion specialist Duke Johnson. It’s about a motivational speaker (voiced by David Thewlis) who visits a Cincinnati hotel and has a liaison with a gauche young woman from Ohio (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh); everyone else is voiced in the same eerie leaden drone by Tom Noonan.
There are some characteristically surreal Kaufman touches, but the film’s brilliance lies above all in exploring the weary mundanity of the Western everyday, and the way corporatised discourse is eroding our souls. The closer the film comes to drab reality, the stranger it feels, not least because the puppets – which are very manifestly puppets – offer an eerie distorting mirror of the characters’ humanity. Anomalisa is a nightmare movie of the subtlest kind, and in a perverse way, trenchantly realistic.
Sexual awkwardness and non-straight desire in puberty are director Céline Sciamma’s recurrent themes, and few directors can rival her in portraying the emotional rip tides faced by young girls finding their way in the world.
Right from the opening game of American football being played mostly by Franco-African banlieue girls, Girlhood shows Sciamma employing her talents more acutely than ever. Yes, the cliché slow-mo touchdown is there, but she makes us as aware of the shiny too-big helmets and bulky padding as she does of the girls’ athleticism. Although ostensibly about a ‘girl gang’, the film centres on Marieme (Karidja Touré), an impassive figure who lives with her mother, her bullying elder brother and two younger siblings.
Sciamma is non-judgmental throughout as the girls hustle weaker kids for money and rent a hotel room to party in shoplifted dresses. Girlhood has heart-melting but tough performances from Touré and Sylla, seeing girls such as these as a vital force of the future. It’s also gorgeous to look at, and were it not for a slight faltering of momentum in its final quarter would be near-perfect.
A wry comedy of manners set in the confines of a car, Panahi’s Taxi was not only a worthy winner of the Berlinale’s Golden Bear but also an unusually small-scale big prize winner.
Panahi himself plays a taxi driver, looking gauche in glasses and a flat cap, and his pick-ups tend to recognise him as a local celebrity (a double bluff, since we twig they’re all his actors). Seemingly off-the-cuff, amusing and sometimes spiky conversations bubble up as he drives around Tehran, but when later Panahi picks up his sharp young niece, who also totes a movie camera and harbours her own ideas about cinema, what seemed at first like a gentle tribute to Kiarostami’s 10 (2002) becomes a delicious, affectionate multi-levelled parody. By the end, helped by Panahi’s own oddball charm and willingness to send himself up, this intricate revision of the what-can-a-director-under-government-restriction-make deftly turns its dilemma into a brilliant solution.