While this year's Cannes premieres included major highlights like "God's Creatures," "Moonage Daydream," and "Top Gun: Maverick," other intriguing films landed with a thud. I adore both Danish and Icelandic cinema, so I went in with at least a modicum of faith that Hlynur Pálmason’s "Godland" would be more than pretty vistas and somber character moments. All the ingredients are there—windblasted plains, chilly glaciers, religious fundamentalism driving hubristic downfall—yet despite laudable efforts it never truly comes together. There’s an (inadvertent? self-aware?) line about an hour in when one character asks why a priest named Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) forced his retinue to take a land crossing instead of sailing around. It’s a more than fair question, as despite the travails and sacrifices it does seem a bit inane narratively.
That being said, the film is supposedly inspired by a series of “wet plate” photographs from the area. It seems that the filmmakers took inspiration from these images to craft a narrative that involves nascent relationships, the mental disintegration of the priest, a wrestling match and a yappy dog. I felt myself at times almost willing myself to fall for its charms, but in the end the disappointing film simply didn’t cohere enough.
No Cannes premiere hit me as poorly as Agnieszka Smoczynska's “The Silent Twins.” While her 2015 film “The Lure” had a mixed reaction, I found myself swayed by its floating charm and tonal collisions, with a horror/musical element feeling weird and strange, yet above all compelling. The same quirkiness is at play with her latest film, which collides stop-motion animated sequences and other lighter touches with a truly appalling story of mental illness, bad decisions, and assault after assault.
While the ambition to tell this complex story is sure to be applauded, I found it from the opening moments be totally lost in its telling. Despite committed performances from likes of Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance there’s just so little to recommend this film, one that even taken by its own rules fails to go beyond its quirky exterior. This is a truly dark story, and the audience surely must be granted some way of not simply automatically accepting the bizarre behaviors of the protagonists without some semblance of context. It’s as if empathy is expected rather than generated, so that when the twins turn to more sociopathic behavior it’s all not to be taken too seriously.
It’s this aspect that truly undermines the work, for if we are truly to look more closely into the institutional failures and mental health challenges of these individuals, the whole enterprise feels even more voyeuristic, manipulative, and incoherent. By the time the white savior author shows up to try and rescue her subjects (or at least the talented one) it all collapses into a maudlin heap.
A far more complicated failure is “Mariupolis 2,” the final images captured by Lithuanian filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravičius. I screened his 2016 film about life in the Ukrainian city of Mariopol, and retroactively that film has become a kind of time capsule for a city that fell to Russian troops only days before I wrote this article. Back then there were tensions rising and rifts forming, but life was going on, and the filmmaker’s keen eye and perceptive attention on specific characters and locations was evident.
Of course, the world wasn’t paying as much attention to the region, and despite some festival runs the film was for the most part forgotten by the international critical community. A large chunk of the first movie takes place in the city’s massive steel plant, and it was particularly surreal to watch these images from the distant past and have news alerts pop up just after screening about the horrors happening in real time at that location.
Kvedaravičius went back earlier this year to continue the story of this city, and was captured by Russian forces and killed for his efforts. Some footage was captured, and along with Dounia Sichov, who edited the first film, and his widowed fiancée Hanna Bilobrova, a one-hour-and-forty-five-minute assembly of images has been projected at one of the most prestigious festivals on the planet. In death Kvedaravičius is projected, but the result we saw doesn’t do justice at all to the precision and storytelling acumen of the filmmaker. Instead, we get a kind of macabre assembly of all the pieces that were shot, most of which would have inevitably been left on the cutting room floor if the film was to have been finished.
While the first film moves freely around the city, this so-called sequel locks itself in place, huddled within the confines of a church. The former movie gave us a sense of place, while this one simply gives a sense of quotidian boredom and dread, with the same smoke-filled shots over and over illustrating that war was coming close, but save for the bombed out houses nearby hadn’t quite made its way across town. The result is extremely frustrating and dull, and would have been served much better by screening as a brief addendum to the original film. It's the finished work of this remarkable filmmaker killed in the line of duty that proves a finer testament to his skill and bravery.
Then there are so-called masters that produced films that are middling at best. Hirokazu Kore-eda's excruciatingly banal “Broker” is a tale of a few hapless human traffickers pawning off abandoned children for cash. Set in South Korea, the film’s cast includes Song Kang-ho (now internationally renowned for his role in Palme-winner “Parasite”), Gang Dong-won, Bae Doona, and Lee Ji-eun. The character piece is meant to come across as charming as the misfit gang become a kind of ersatz family unit. Instead, it's a cloying, maudlin mess, ruined throughout by an appallingly cheesy score that makes it feel all the more like some middlebrow television special. Despite the charms of some of its performers, "Broker" fails to live up even to lowered expectations.
Another master of Asian cinema returned to Cannes with another middling effort. Just as George Miller’s film here showed moments from a master visual stylist buried within a lesser film, so too does Park Chan-wook’s latest falls frustratingly short of its goal. “Decision to Leave” is the story of a cop who falls in love with the subject of a murder investigation, and the sweeping narrative of deceit, betrayal, and passion is ripe for what this filmmaker can usually accomplish.
There are absolute bravura moments, including a final series of shots that underscore the central tragedy of the situation. It’s a film that absolutely deserves the time spent watching it, as is the case for all of this master’s works. Yet on first viewing it was a dry, dull affair, never quite getting its tone correct, never quite living up to its ambitions to navigate the various genre lines between noir and romance.
Naturally these missteps are amplified by films that are a joy to watch. I was a big fan of Ruben Östlund’s “The Square,” so I had mild hopes that his latest would connect once again. With a bigger budget and an English speaking cast this may be the film that finds even more international acclaim for this most acerbic of writer/directors.
“Triangle of Sadness” is nothing short of an excoriation of privilege, a deliriously wild ride infused with Marxism and Nietzschean nihilism interspersed with dirty jokes. It starts small and turns very big and bleak, and with each passing moment feels like a journey to hell. Despite the over-two-hour running time, it absolutely flew by, something that cannot be said for certain films half its length.
Any movie that starts with echoes of “Zoolander” only to end up somewhere along the lines of “Lord of the Flies” or even “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom” is going to find some detractors. But I found it an absolute joy to watch, with its mix of high and low, filth and profundity. The ensemble is absolutely stellar, including Woody Harrelson as the most A-list American involved in a brief turn as the hapless Captain. Above all there should be mention of Dolly De Leon as Abigail; her fierce turn gives the film its true moral bite. To see a movie about excess at an appallingly ostentatious festival such as Cannes provided a blissfully violent moral and aesthetic contradiction.
Finally, there’s “Holy Spider,” Ali Abbasi’s follow-up to his strange, lovely, and affecting 2018 film “Border.” The Iranian/Danish filmmaker sets his sights on a serial killer in early-1980s Iran, and the result is nothing short of astonishing. He unpacks with incredible precision the moral decay at the heart of everything, using the contrasting yet connected lives of an investigative reporter (Arash Ashtiani) and the killer Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani) to tell this powerful story.
Superficially this is a general crime thriller, and Abbasi wisely employs more than a few genre techniques to draw audiences in. It’s interesting that in a place like Cannes such “manipulations” are frowned upon, as if the only way to do cinema is to plop a camera down and let real life take place in superficially non-narrative ways. There’s no denigration in saying that Abbasi has crafted an entertaining film in the broadest sense about a very dark subject, coaxing from its true crime roots something that easily could play as fictional entertainment.
Yet there’s real political bite not so far under the surface here. Just look at certain character portrayals here, especially from the religious institutions of the city, and see how unlikely they would be represented in, say, some Farhadi or Panahi film. "Holy Spider" is very much an excoriation of the hypocrisies of fundamentalism, but it wisely shows that the system itself promotes such caustic injustices. For a nation too often captured in carefully calibrated metaphor it’s gratifying to see the dark streets littered with real-life dangers, and through the use of noir tropes and investigative journalistic structure we’re treated to a unique vision of Iran of both the past and present.
Abbasi and his terrific cast humanize even the most appalling of actions, showing the challenges of navigating these moments even for those committing the most outwardly heinous of actions. It’s a film about social, political, and religious rot, with a baked-in misogyny that’s only a public issue when it becomes so overt and obvious. “Holy Spider” may not be perfect, but it’s an exceptional addition to this year’s festival, capturing a mood, setting, and set of ideas like few others to play this year. Above all, Abbasi firmly establishes himself as a filmmaker to track. I cannot wait to see where he turns his gaze next.