Hungarian auteur Kornél Mundruczó has produced an undoubtedly confrontational, high-concept refugee thriller, but the persistent religious symbolism and heavy-handed Christ metaphors don’t quite come together to make a satisfying whole. It’s a picture for Cannes: grand, sometimes beguiling and momentarily overwhelming. But Mundruczó’s direction lacks control, and it’s hard to be sure whether this mishandling concerns the film’s moral clarity or broader sense of purpose. This is certainly a display of lofty ambitions – how do we locate meaning in contemporary, Godless Europe? – but the plot mechanics do not provide the trajectory to meet them.
Events start claustrophobically and encouragingly. Migrants hunch together in a truck, chickens squawk among them, and next – the heaving mass are on boats, split apart, with stark dystopian echoes suggesting an imminently grim future. The boats take incoming fire; men, women and children go under. Panic and survival. Silence and death. The intensity, close-ups and sense of disorientation of this opening sequence resembles the unbearable Son of Saul, directed by fellow countryman László Nemes. Among the migrants is the significantly named Aryaan (Zsombor Jéger), a wide-eyed young man who survives drowning and several gunshot wounds to the chest, courtesy of the odious, corrupt policeman László (György Cserhalmi). Panting uncontrollably after a few long-distance sprints, Aryaan begins to defy natural law, while László, wrought with disbelief and fear, stalks him onwards. The objectionable Dr Stern (Merab Ninidze), who enters the ad hoc camp to ostensibly provide medical relief for refugees, offers Aryaan some conditional help. Dr Stern’s motivations range from the financial to the self-serving. The good doctor – proponent of Enlightenment rationality yet morally grotesque – must assist his miraculous newfound cash-cow as László and the government forces close in.
The gravity-defying technical effects are breathtaking, and twirling Aryaan high above the sprawling city is an image difficult to eradicate. The film builds tension like a thriller in quite conventional ways: in chases, near misses and ominous pursuits. A late act of terrorism is indicative of the film’s genre splicing and to a certain extent its waywardness. The motivation for the scene is intellectually dubious. Metaphysical talk of religion, God, the nature of existence and the assertion of value are sometimes achieved with a bit of a twinkle – Aryaan’s father is a carpenter, after all. But Mundruczó largely takes it seriously, and well he might given the range of themes: the refugee crisis, tyranny in Hungary, police corruption and the modern loss of morality. Such seriousness requires control and focus, however, and while the film constantly grasps for the celestial outer reaches, the angels of restraint and profundity remain firmly within Earth’s atmosphere.
The quantitative extent of Takashi’s Miike’s prolific output is nothing if not stunning, and Blade of the Immortal, reportedly the Japanese director’s 100th film, also stuns in its particular way. It’s difficult not to leave the cinema with your body slightly heavier, your head a little lighter. The pace is relentless and the violence consuming. To be comprehended, the death toll needs reducing to the power (much like Miike’s filmography). Aside from the mathematically disposed, most will struggle with exponentiation on such a scale.
This is a revenge tale with two interwoven trajectories of redemption. Manji (Takuya Kimura) is a better-than-average samurai who, for reasons which require little courtesy, is cursed with immortality by a crooked old woman – Manji prefers the terms “bitch” and “cow”. She forces hideous parasitic worms into his body, for context. The Faustian pact is set as the wriggly maggots heal the warrior’s wounds and reattach any mutilated limbs. This happens a lot. In fact, the same thing happens a lot: sword fight, death, anguish, repeat. It’s quite endearing and seeing the poor man near the end, barely standing and quietly perplexed at the umpteenth battle, is a symbol for human empathy the world over. The monochrome opening sequence, the only aspect which differentiates the film from the subsequent nonstop bloodletting, depicts the grim death of our protagonist’s sister. Manji’s guilt-ridden quest for his own demise brings him into the path of a young girl named Rin (Hana Sugisaki) who seeks to avenge the death of her parents, murdered by the merciless and slightly androgynous Anotsu (Sôta Fukushi), leader of an ISIS-style, ideologically pure death cult. The explicit mirroring of Rin and the sister Manji failed to protect isn’t original, but as a device to propel the action along and ground the characters’ motivations it offers just enough substance.
Based on a series of Manga comics, the film captures the cartoon violence and humour of its source material. The admirable choreography of the fight scenes result in regular heaped masses of the dead, providing an amusing counterpoint to the intensity of the preceding free-for-alls. The cinematography is uniformly excellent, and the fallen regularly look like figures in a sombre Brueghel scene. Miike has a stab at cerebral concerns, interrogating the morality of the various combatants – how can one legitimise their murderous wrongs, while damning others for similar crimes? – but, on the whole, the film aims for the viscera – this is incessant, silly and entertaining fare.
Opening the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar at Cannes, Let the Sunshine In is a strange, disjointed picture. It trundles along without much cohesion, but there are some perceptive moments among the anxious interactions and wordless exchanges. Few love lives are more interesting for contemporary cinema than those of the depressed, wealthy, metropolitan middle class. Director Claire Denis firmly focuses on this never-neglected cadre of the self-absorbed. We get to see pity, aggrandisement and righteousness across several fraught romantic encounters. We rarely see much else.
Juliette Binoche is excellent as an exposed, overwrought artist working her way through a litany of briefly flickering and quickly souring relationships. In the explicit opening we see Isabelle (Binoche) reaching the rapid denouement of a conventionally contorted sexual encounter. As we are affronted by their nakedness from the beginning, the characters look somehow more grotesque with their clothes on. Isabelle produces acclaimed artwork and we once see her staple a canvas to the floor. She has a young daughter who briefly flickers onto screen through a car window. The film does not linger on these elements, both aspects hovering indiscreetly as faltering inconveniences in Isabelle’s love life. Denis instead centres on the protagonist’s search for a relationship with depth, or at least with understanding. By marginalising Isabelle’s other lives the film seeks to methodically unpick her hapless engagements with men. And what a roster this is: bastard, hypocrite, philanderer, coward and pleb. A comprehensive topography of male awfulness! Almost no one is likeable – a friend seems reasonable and cheery and she is summarily dismissed within two minutes of screen time. Isabelle soldiers on, seeking either dignity or satisfaction, never both, and the film engages when depicting her quest for fulfilment. Such quests are rarely sentimental. Near the end, grand French thespians Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Gérard Depardieu make seemingly improvised cameos as quarrelling lovers, and the film’s appendix consists of a hilariously staccato and slowly evolving seduction scene with Depardieu’s therapist-cum-psychic.
Loosely based on Barthes’s fragmented A Lover’s Discourse, the film is co-written by Denis and novelist Christine Angot. Some of the dialogue is sharp but it’s often difficult to care about these characters. Perhaps this is Denis’s satirical point, and the circuitous conversations, beset by extended awkwardness and grating repetition, invite us to laugh rather than empathise. Binoche lies at the fulcrum of the film and she gives us the full range: frustration to melancholy, tearfulness to fury. Depression is difficult to depict, but there is a truth to Isabelle’s stubbornness and vulnerability. Eventually, and not unexpectedly, we glimpse a prosaic form of happiness.