Competitive Edges

Hou Hsiao-hsien, The Assassin, 2015, color, sound, 105 minutes.

THE CENTRAL QUESTION of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which made headlines for banning selfies and reportedly insisting that women wear high heels at evening galas, was one of inclusion and exclusion. In other words: What does and doesn’t belong on this hallowed red carpet?

The nucleus of Cannes has always been its official competition, a closely watched shortlist of twenty or so titles that compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or. An annual snapshot of the state of the art, this is historically where the firmament of world cinema is established. The competition consumes the festival’s media oxygen and dictates the schedules of most festivalgoers. Competing titles are guaranteed press conferences and reviews in the daily trade publications. They are also granted the defining accolade of the Cannes red carpet, a ceremonial black-tie walk past the throng of photographers and celebrity rubberneckers up the steps of the Grand Theatre Lumiere. It is along that same carpet, scuffed and stained in the harsh morning light, that the sleep-deprived, lanyard-clad festival proletariat scramble en route to 8:30 AM press screenings of many of those films. The competition, in short, is synonymous with Cannes. But this may well go down as an edition in which a recurrent observation of recent years took hold as an indisputable fact: The competition is not the be-all and end-all of Cannes, and to treat it as such does a disservice to the most significant films in the festival.

This year’s official selection, widely and correctly dismissed as lackluster, included the usual pantheon auteurs, a few new names, and many red-carpet-ready movie stars. But the omissions became even more glaring when the Directors’ Fortnight, the parallel event down the Croisette founded in the wake of the 1968 shutdown, made a show of poaching titles known to have been rejected by the main festival. (These included Philippe Garrel’s generally liked In the Shadow of Women and Arnaud Desplechin’s near-universally loved My Golden Years, which failed to make the cut for a nineteen-title competition that included five French films.) But if the core selection left much to be desired, the festival as a whole offered some truly memorable high points. By my count, there were no fewer than three extraordinary films: Cemetery of Splendour, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first feature since his surprise Palme d’Or for 2010’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives; Miguel Gomes’s three-volume, six-hour-plus Arabian Nights, each part premiering on alternate days, a Scheherazade-like exercise in deferred gratification; and the Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien’s reinvention of the martial-arts genre, The Assassin, his first film in eight years. Of these three—works so rich, and richly pleasurable, that I opted to expend precious festival time on repeat viewings of each—only one, The Assassin, showed in the competition.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Rak Ti Khon Kaen (Cemetery of Splendour), 2015, HD video, color, sound, 122 minutes.

Cemetery of Splendour was a late addition to Un Certain Regard, the festival’s secondary competition—shabby treatment for a recent Palme d’Or winner, and even less explicable after the film screened to a rapturous response. Set in and around a hospital ward full of narcoleptic soldiers who may be waging war in their sleep on behalf of long-dead feuding royals, this sun-dappled waking dream is immersive and enveloping, suggestive in many ways of Apichatpong’s recent forays into the art world. The soldiers are hooked up to dream machines with glowing fluorescent tubes that resemble Dan Flavin sculptures; the shifting colors that fill the room and saturate the frame approximate the perceptual magic of a James Turrell light installation. This was a festival with its fair share of afterlife stories, some more interesting (Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Journey to the Shore) than others (Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees), but all sentimentally invested in closure and redemption. To slyer and sharper effect than ever, Apichatpong merges supernatural phenomena and mysteries with Thailand’s historical phantoms and present-day national traumas.

Gomes, who is said to have passed on a spot in Un Certain Regard for the Directors’ Fortnight, took an increasingly common subject—Europe’s ongoing economic woes—and reimagined it wholesale. Filmed during Portugal’s recent plunge into austerity, Arabian Nights strives for what its opening titles call “a fictional form from facts.” For a full year, Gomes and his cowriters worked with a team of journalists and a lightning-quick production crew to transmute actual events into the stuff of fable, all of it channeled through the epic shaggy-dog form of the classic folk tale. Scheherazade mastered the teasing art of the cliffhanger as a hedge against death, and Gomes’s film is, accordingly, both urgent and playful, commingling documentary material about the unemployed, local elections, and working-class bird trappers with visions of exploding whales, talking cockerels, ghost dogs, and erection-bestowing magic potions. An immense work of exhilarating freedom, it attempts just about every storytelling device and narrative mode imaginable, veering from political satire to Brechtian theater to tear-jerking melodrama, always conscious that its fantasy dimension is a license for directness, a path to a more meaningful truth.

Even when they conjure the past, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films exist fully in the moment—which accounts in part for the singular force of his historical dramas—and The Assassin, a hypnotically beautiful evocation of Tang Dynasty–era imperial intrigue, is no exception. An early fight—filmed first as an abrupt flurry of close-ups and then from afar in a long take—sums up Hou’s commitment to rethinking, moment by moment, the rules and, in particular, the staging of the wuxia film. The plot concerns a highly skilled female assassin (Shu Qi, in a near-wordless, brilliantly gestural performance) dispatched to kill a provincial governor (Chang Chen), who also happens to be a cousin to whom she was once betrothed. It’s true, as some predictably complained, that Hou’s fondness for narrative ellipses and disdain for close-ups makes it tricky to diagram the relationships among the characters. But the masterful layering of sensory effects—the caressing camera movements and trance-inducing sound design, the startling shifts between mythic landscapes and opulent interiors awash in gauze and brocade—has the effect of sharpening a sympathetic viewer’s subliminal attention. As always in Hou, what remains unspoken—the invisible forces and secret passions governing the characters—emerges with a stealthy clarity. Readable as an allegory about present-day China-Taiwan relations, The Assassin is above all pure cinema: a hallucinatory interplay of color, movement, and light and a mesmerizing study of bodies in space.

Miguel Gomes, Arabian Nights, 2015, 16 mm and 35 mm, color, sound, 379 minutes.

The jury, led by Joel and Ethan Coen, awarded Hou the Best Director prize in a closing ceremony that concluded with the unexpected bestowal of the Palme d’Or to Jacques Audiard’s indifferently received immigrant drama Dheepan. While it was hard to imagine anyone getting too passionate about Dheepan—the decision smacked of a split jury’s compromise vote—the competition did produce what are almost certain to be two of the year’s biggest critical causes. Todd Haynes’s midcentury lesbian romance Carol, which had reviewers swooning, is an immaculate, purposefully muted Patricia Highsmith adaptation that dares to romanticize the illicit pleasures of the closet. The jury passed over Cate Blanchett, poised as ever in the title role, for her costar, an excellent Rooney Mara (who shared the Best Actress prize with Emmanuelle Bercot for Maiwenn’s My King). The runner-up Grand Prix went to the competition’s most talked-about film, first-time Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes’s Son of Saul, which follows a Sonderkommando on a mission in an extermination camp, sticking to his circumscribed perspective via a camera that is practically affixed to the protagonist and rendering the surrounding horrors as a shallow-focus blur. Nemes is without question a gifted technician, but this brazen act of showboating seems less a considered challenge than a glib response to the vast body of writing and thinking on the representability of the Holocaust, beginning most obviously with Jacques Rivette’s attack on the use of the tracking shot in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapo. For better or more likely worse, Son of Saul is a film that will spawn a thousand think pieces.

The most conspicuous trend was the shift toward larger-scale English-language productions by some of world cinema’s most prominent auteurs. This often meant all-out spectacle, even bloat, as with the Italians Mateo Garrone (Tale of Tales) and Paolo Sorrentino (Youth). In Louder than Bombs, the young Norwegian director Joachim Trier (Reprise) brings his signature empathetic intelligence to the somewhat Sundance-y material of a bourgeois family paralyzed by grief. A more ambitious and altogether successful bid for mainstream attention, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster finds the Greek director honing his specialty—the reductio-ad-absurdum social satire—to a fine, gleaming point. Set in a rulebound world where singles are turned into the animal of their choice if they fail to mate within forty-five days, it won the third-place Jury Prize. Globalization has been a recurring theme for the great Jia Zhangke, and his latest film, Mountains May Depart, although shut out at the awards, already looks like a pivotal work. It unfolds in three parts: a love triangle in coal-mining Fenyang province in 1999, redolent of vintage Jia; a catch-up with the protagonists in booming present-day China; and a flash-forward to Australia, a decade in the future, where some of the principals have landed. Jia has often focused on those cast aside by convulsive change; this film, which expands the horizons of both time and space, and follows characters who have been swept up in the modernizing tide, is perhaps his most emotionally direct yet, held together by an enormously moving performance by his wife and regular star, Zhao Tao.

For a sizable sector of the cinephile contingent, the most anticipated work at Cannes was a film made in 1982 but unseen since: Visit, or Memories and Confessions, by the venerable Manoel de Oliveira, who died at age 106 in April. Oliveira stipulated that this film, due to its personal nature, be shown only after his death, and the Cannes screening followed a premiere at the Cinemateca Portuguesa in Lisbon two weeks earlier. Oliveira’s improbable filmography is full of memento mori; Visit assumes the rare form of an auto-elegy. A prowling camera finds Oliveira in the Porto house where he has lived for four decades and that he is preparing to leave. He addresses the audience directly, setting the film’s droll, convivial tone: He recounts his family history, shares some home movies, reenacts a run-in with the military dictatorship; holds forth on cinema, on men and women, on agriculture and architecture. Oliveira’s late career took the form of a long goodbye, but this actual farewell in no less touching in its simplicity and lucidity. Oliveira made this film at age seventy-three, presumably expecting that he was near the end of his life. He would live another thirty-six years and make another twenty-five or so films, some of them among his greatest, in an extended twilight that was also an artistic prime unlike any other.

The Sixty-Eighth Festival de Cannes ran May 13–24.