Cannes 2016: La Tortue Rouge [The Red Turtle]

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

Studio Ghibli and director Michael Dudok de Wit combine to create this sometimes affecting but mostly tedious picture. The film is entirely without dialogue – it fudges with some grunts and yelps – but the story in itself is not strong enough to carry a wordless picture. The score must overcompensate for the lack of dialogue, undermining the agreeable simplicity of the animation. Themes of seclusion, love and family are time-worn, and there is little new or imaginative here to provoke more than a cursory interest. The illustration is quietly striking, but to the extent that the various terrains take on greater characterisation than any of the island’s inhabitants.

A man is washed up on an unpopulated island. He repeatedly attempts to escape on a raft; each time it is broken up by an unknown force. The third time the audience sees it: the red turtle. The great beast comes ashore after its latest act of destruction. A short conflict ensues. On its back, the turtle bequeaths a woman to the man. Emerging out of the shell, she bears a son. The family begins to live with and against the elements. As the boy grows older, the trio view catastrophe, a new beginning and the possibility of escape.

The film is subtle and the key ideas – love, protection, survival – are presented in the abstract. The man is a cross between Robinson Crusoe and Jesus Christ; the turtle embodies forgiveness and fertility. Some minion-like crabs provide comic relief, but this feels tacked on to provide snippets of vague amusement among the dreariness. The human inhabitants are expressionless. Perhaps this is deliberate: the film focuses on nature and our relationship with the land and sea. In hope, the son ultimately swims away, leaving the island behind. Breaststroke is the preferred technique. A panorama remains, a barren coast and demolished forest. There are some implicit references to environmental degradation, but the film is not able to justify our interest, presenting visual non sequiturs as if they were profound, sounds as if they were heart-rending. Such a story – condensed to its essence – has much to say about human nature and the passage of time. It is a shame this film barely attempts to articulate it.

Cannes 2016: Goksung [The Wailing]

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

This narratively unbalanced and frankly unhinged picture by Cannes favourite Na Hong-Jin includes frightful plagues, demonic possessions, gruesome zombies, appalling massacres – and mushrooms. The first act plays out like a surreal comedy, before the film descends into a thumping, incessant and horrific drama. Rain powers down, the bloodshed mounts and the wailing grows louder. For much of the end section, the noise is deafening. There is little time to take in the remarkable tonal shift, and by the point the battling shamans attempt to expel the devil it is easy to forget the buddy cop movie that was developing in the opening stages.

High up in the mountains of South Korea, cowardly policeman Jong-Goo (a permanently spluttering Kwak Do-Won) begins investigating a series of mysterious and grotesque murders. Previously upstanding citizens appear driven insane and possessed to butcher their families. The arrival of a Japanese stranger (Jun Kunimura) in the hills – a very explicit display of the other – causes concern among the villagers that this distant, taciturn man is behind the various attacks. Jong-Goo’s young daughter becomes possessed and begins wreaking her own special type of havoc. Under pressure from his mother, Jong-Goo employs a local shaman named Il-Gwang (in a ridiculous, fantastic, over-the-top performance from Hwang Jun-Min) to ward off the evil spirits that have overcome his child. Meanwhile, a mysterious young woman in white (Chun Woo-Hee), who ghosts intermittently about the wreckage, appears to have supreme powers of her own.

To make too much sense of the plot is perhaps a mistake. The enterprise, detail and expansiveness of Goksung is an experience to behold. The audio and visual effects are stunning, particularly in the shaman hex sequences, where the drumbeat and choreography merge to produce something resembling nausea. There is a tendency for the dialogue to tell you precisely what you are seeing – “there’s been a power cut again!” – and the film’s rapidly building insanity takes a large amount of goodwill to accept. But the dramatic denouement certainly resonates. Whether this is due to sensory overload or dramatic skill, however, is open to dispute.

Cannes 2016: La Fille Inconnue (The Unknown Girl)

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

Adèle Haenel brings subtle emotional depth and a dogged persistence to the role of Dr Jenny Davin in the Dardennes brothers’ newest offering of clinical Belgian social realism. Though the premise is suspect, and some plot convolutions jar along with an overall pace that is, to put it kindly, leisured, La Fille Inconnue studiously depicts the codes of practice and ethical quandaries of a medical career. Davin’s strident professionalism and moral righteousness are cleverly juxtaposed with an obsessive, sometimes invasive, pursuit of answers as she takes it upon herself to discover the identity of a girl killed after being refused entry into her doctor’s practice.

Davin and her intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) finish up at the surgery having already stayed an hour over time. Earlier, a young boy had suffered a fit in the waiting room. Julien is shaken, irate and wishes to quit. The buzzer rings but Davin tells Julien that there will be no more patients admitted. If it were urgent “they would ring twice”. The consequences of this decision play out almost immediately: a dead girl is found the next morning by the river. Davin probes and pesters policemen, colleagues and patients, wracked with a personal guilt that permeates those she interrogates. Of particular interest are patients Bryan (indigestion) and his father (slipped disc), respectively played by Louka Minnella and Jèrèmie Renier. The Dardennes invoke the traditional tenets of crime mystery and police procedural – investigation, deception, clues and red herrings – but where good detective work usually solves the case, here private guilt and external pressures become the faulty deliverers of justice.

Davin is the hero, her hair pinned back in a ponytail, her body wrapped in a blue tartan coat. She’s the strait-laced cousin of Frances McDormand’s police chief in Fargo. Haenel beautifully articulates the character’s mental toughness. Her reticence and response dovetail rhythmically in the face of provocations, appeals and rejections. The doctor who cannot save everyone is an admittedly well-worn trope, but the Dardennes imbue the film with a level of humanity and an understanding of people which makes particular scenes intensely moving. By the end, we appreciate what duty of care truly entails.

Cannes 2016: Aquarius

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

Aquarius is a large, stunning demonstration of what world cinema does so well: a novelistic, chaptered narrative coupled with an acute, engaged character study. Sonia Braga embodies Clara, a wealthy, ageing music critic with the righteousness and assurance of someone who has fought, succeeded and lived abundantly. Writer and director Kleber Mendonça Filho teases out a multitude of feelings, attributes and mannerisms from Braga’s lead performance, and he generally holds the film together throughout its nearly two-and-a-half hour running time (despite a short lethargy in the middle section). It rivetingly depicts the changes in some areas of Brazilian society since the developing country was labelled a BRIC. Globalisation and a growing middle class promise prosperity, but also deliver greed, displacement and architectural abominations.

Clara has been resident in the Aquarius apartment for most of her adult life. The film opens with a short flashback to her aunt’s party, held in the same block decades ago. The young Clara (Barbara Colen), returning after recent breast cancer surgery, is a permanently smiling figure, acknowledging the single-mindedness and compassion of her birthday relative and the fortune of her own convalescence. Forward to the present day, Clara’s smile has diminished. She is wise in some respects, stubborn in others: ‘I am an old lady and a child.’ All of the flats in the building have been sold off; the construction company want her apartment to finish the job. Diego (Humberto Carrao), a young business graduate with an easy grin and a pernicious agenda, leads efforts to remove Clara. He wishes to destroy and build over; whereas Clara obstinately desires to stay in her stylish, tastefully furnished home. This is a war of subterfuge, feigned ignorance, questionable motives and sporadic periods of détente. Clara’s grown-up children are concerned for her safety in the rotting building, and wonder about the implications that not selling-up would have on their own inheritance. Unstoppable forces meet an obstinate, though ultimately fragile, object.

The energy and subtlety of Aquarius are a wonder: it is brilliantly crafted. Braga gives Clara’s character a dizzying portfolio of emotions. The contours of her face display the shame of a single mastectomy, the pride of an esteemed career and the fear of an unknowable future, often within a single moment. The film gets away with an abrupt plot contrivance near the end due to the warmth, brio and ingenuity of the filmmaking on show. The final scene, however it comes about, is funny and triumphant.

Cannes 2016: Personal Shopper

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews on here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

Olivier Assayas has delivered a fundamentally strange, disquieting picture. Personal Shopper is neither truly horror nor thriller but Assayas creates an unaffected and consuming sense of unease that provokes and beguiles. It was booed at the Cannes opening screening. Kristen Stewart confidently dominates almost every frame as Maureen, the supermodel’s assistant torn between leaving Paris due to a job she hates and staying to exorcise – or come to peace with – the spirit of her recently deceased twin brother.

Maureen spends her time shopping for expensive clothes, jewellery and accessories for the demanding, generally ignorant Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten); this while attempting to contact her twin Lewis in their dilapidated childhood home. The grand house has all the familiar features of the gothic: large palatial rooms, winding staircases and antiquated furniture. Maureen’s modest attempts at séance are not overplayed, however, and reap results that are frightening and ambiguous. In the earthly world she meets Ingo (Lars Eidinger), Kyra’s recently spurned lover. He suggests Maureen work at Berlin Vogue. “That’s not me,” she understates. Maureen is waiting for her brother: one thump, sometimes two, depending on the question. Meanwhile, a mystery number texts her incessantly, leading her to respond to a set of increasingly cryptic demands. She is half-horrified, half-fascinated, all while traversing the liminal space between the fashion centres of Paris and London.

Personal Shopper is a complete oddity, and the better for it. Maureen is constantly conflicted: she is no new-age spiritual medium nor a cold-eyed realist. Assayas uses computer-generated effects sparingly, and the things that go bump are endowed with meaning rather than simple scare factor. The persistent depiction of smartphones and laptop screens becomes somewhat tiring, but the French auteur deserves credit for embracing the omnipresence of modern technology. Omitting these extended scenes would have been a loss, ultimately. The plot is patently ludicrous at times – the police seem to be slightly lenient addressing a major criminal case, for example – but the film is deliberately opaque in a way that intrigues rather than infuriates.

Cannes 2016: Julieta

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews on here daily. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

Reflecting upon the unexpected death of her husband, Joan Didion wrote in her devastating, stripped-back memoir The Year of Magical Thinking: “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.” Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta shows that death is only one cause of loss and emptiness. Factor in physical and mental deterioration, estrangement and silence, and the world becomes bare. Adapted from three short stories by Alice Munro, the film regularly hints at melodrama, but keeps a lid on both visible and invisible traumas, gradually emphasising the intergenerational experience of loneliness and rejection.

It begins with Julieta as an older woman (Emma Suárez), on the brink of moving to Portugal with late-life lover Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti). The following day she bumps into Bea (Michelle Jenner), the childhood best friend (or more?) of her hitherto unmentioned daughter, Antía, who has cut off all contact with her mother for 12 years. The chance encounter and accompanying revelation disrupts Julieta’s recent attempts at serenity: she cancels the trip to Portugal, sells her apartment and writes a long testimony to her daughter, illuminating and complicating the history of their lives. As a striking young woman (played by Adriana Ugarte), the film shows Julieta’s passionate relationship with Antía’s fisherman father Xoan (Daniel Grao) and her complex connection to her ailing mother and philandering father. This forms Almodóvar’s main narrative device, deliberately limiting the story to flashbacks, memoirs and letters. When the narration finally shifts back to the present, contemporary events appear to more than echo the past.

This picture is pure Almodóvar: a visual bombardment of primary colours against a backdrop of physical pain and emotional loss. Julieta’s wardrobe is a modernist art exhibition in itself, her wounds obvious despite the sartorial distraction. With Almodóvar’s camera often trained on their faces, both Julietas give powerful performances that articulate various degrees of grief and abandonment. Degenerative illnesses and comatose states excuse infidelities. Neglect and isolation are seen mirrored – quite explicitly at times – in mother and daughter, husband and wife. Almodóvar is trying to evoke the universality of guilt and dejection, and despite the reductiveness of the film’s narrative style, he largely succeeds.

Cannes 2016: Loving

Cannes has ennobled Jeff Nichols as its newest American auteur, and his latest entry to the festival, Loving, confirms a slightly perplexing precedent.

Emboldened by very strong performances from the two leads, Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, the film remains a by-the-numbers, triumph-of-justice historical drama, which has little in the way of visual imagination or narrative tension. Nichols’ direction is restrained but this should not be mistaken for nuance, and a rudimentary script cannot enliven the conventional plot structure. Edgerton and Negga are both excellent as Richard and Mildred Loving, however, bringing a deep characterisation to their roles from a limited resource of dialogue.

The story is based on the landmark 1967 US Supreme Court decision, Loving v Virginia, which invalidated the laws that prevented interracial marriage, declaring them unconstitutional. But this is not a courtroom affair. The film is more interested in the Lovings’ relationship and the affection between them, as nominative determinism would suggest. When caught in matrimony by state police, the couple are forced by a district judge to leave Virginia and move to Washington, where the marriage is legally accepted. Mildred has several children over the next few years, but struggles to accept her life away from home and family – unconvincingly, the deal-breaker involves a car accident and some apparently minor injuries. The family covertly relocates back to Virginia, living in apprehension of the authorities and those who do not approve of their marriage.

The Civil Rights movement has swelled by this time, and several lawyers wish to take their case to the Supreme Court, encouraging the modest, reluctant pair to raise their profile through media interviews and help affect the Court’s decision. (Nichols’ favourite, Michael Shannon, has a short but amusing cameo as a LIFE photographer.)

Edgerton is very believable as the almost-permanently hunched, taciturn, private husband, echoing shades of Heath Ledger’s performance in Brokeback Mountain, and Negga is outstanding as the ever-slightly more social, concerned wife, imbuing her character with first a quietness and then a resolve for not only personal justice, but broader social change. At times, the film states this in somewhat unwieldy language: “They’re talking about civil rights. Where are your civil rights?”. But Nichols generally pulls back from such heavy-handedness, focusing on the couple’s relationship rather than political grandstanding. Overall, I thought the film somewhat unengaging, but the talk here is of an early Oscar contender.