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Cannes 2022: Tirailleurs, God’s Creatures, Enys Men

With all the self-awareness that I’m not schlepping bricks for hours at a time, or breaking my back on anything other than cushy, padded seats and poorly designed Scandinavian megastore pullout couches where I get a modicum of rest, let me take a moment anyway to say that, yes, this shit isn’t always easy.

Let’s start with the cognitive impairment of jetlag’s insidious effects, coupled with the practical need to be up each morning at 7am to procure tickets to four days hence. Then you watch films one after the other, taking in each as their own island of experience yet feeling as if each day is full of fitful waking dreams. You become a bit delirious with all the imagery, drunk on disparate tales that seem to interweave within your very soul. 

Quoth Norman Bates “We all go a little mad sometimes.”

Basically, this is the milieu of fest bubble, one fueled by the quickly-grabbed snack or, given that this is Southeastern France, the occasional Truffle-infused indulgence. With the electronic ticketing system carried over from last year’s COVID-a-thon it’s smoother to access, but some of the community is lost, where you’d see the same sad sack individuals baking in the hot sun every day based on your badge level, a bleary-eyed retinue that would serve as a forced form of human contact between the visits to virtual worlds. The anxiety about getting in has been replaced by different levels of dread, and there are always ways of being made to feel that everything is slipping away, or that the great discovery of the festival has been inadvertently skipped, with every decision made or ticket pulled.

Yet here we are in Cannes. The weather is particularly glorious this year, yet we crawl into darkened rooms, still grateful for the privilege of attending this glorious celebration of cinema. The greatest salve, beyond the aesthetic, is a sense (delusional as it is) that we are back to a form of normalcy. We learned over the last few years what could be lost, not just in terms of those who were physically affected but the social upheaval of disconnection, that the in-person random meet has a visceral thrill that’s amplified by recent abstinence.  

I caught Mathieu Vadepied’s Tirailleurs,” whose English title “Father and Soldier” alludes to the central characters. Anchored by another fine performance by Omar Sy, this World War I drama delves into the experiences of those of African descent who were cajoled if not kidnapped into service by the French colonial forces that controlled their lands, taken from the African plains they called home into the fiery hell of trench warfare.

The film has an interesting hook, with the family drama interposed upon the catastrophe of war, and I applaud its intentions to shine light on a very different complexion of France’s war history. It’s certainly an undertold tale, and while the end result may be a mild, middling affair, there’s enough commitment of performance and provocative setting to make it worth checking out.

I was less a fan of “Harka,” Lotfy Nathan’s debut feature also playing in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. Adam Bessa plays Ali who must return home to care for his two sisters after his father’s death, resulting in a decidedly predictable if desperate tale of making ends meet and shifting his own dreams to assist others. While the Tunisian setting is compelling, it’s hard to be engrossed in the aimless Ali’s quest, with moments of stillness feeling less contemplative than Nathan simply padding the film’s running time between scenes.

I’m also one of the few it seems who found James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” a bit of a mess. It plays as an apology for a childhood of privilege, attempting to echo the likes of “Roma” but instead feeling forced and frustrating. Anthony Hopkins delivers with appropriate benevolence and gravitas, but both Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway, fine performers in general, seem wildly out of their element here. Hathaway in particular seems lost, her accent somehow flowing into amateur production of “Fiddler on the Roof” territory, while Strong’s take as the father figure with wild mood swings never settles into anything coherent.

Paul (Michael Banks Repeta) is the avatar for the director’s own childhood. Along with his token Black friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb), the two get into trouble in class, and then split apart as their social circumstances change. I felt creeped out by how it all neatly was tied together; Johnny’s journey in particular is two-dimensional and disheartening.

"Armageddon Time" attempts to make a larger political point with its connections to future presidents and the decade's rising tide of conservatism, but it all feels more like an excuse rather than an actual interrogation of the contradictions as play. That said, a special shout-out to Andrew Polk playing the frustrated, frustrating teacher Mr. Turkeltaub. A veteran of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” his was the one character, perhaps along with Hopkins, that I truly, fully believed in their humanity and presence.

One of the major films that changed my life was released at this festival in 1996. It was from a country I’d not seen a film from before, a director I’d never heard of, an actor no one had seen on screen, and I knew nothing about. Throughout, where chapter breaks scored with needle drops from the likes of David Bowie blasted at the Palais, there were standing ovations mid-film. I didn’t know one could do that at the theatre, I didn’t know a film could affect me in that powerful a way, and it remains one of my greatest moments in a movie theatre. The film, of course, was “Breaking the Waves” from Danish director by Lars Von Trier and it introduced the world to the luminous talent Emily Watson.

Decades later, it was a personal pleasure to see her in attendance at the Quinzaine debut of Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer’s devastating “God’s Creatures.” Like with Von Trier’s film this is a story of assault and the effects of small mindedness in another windswept environ, and it again rests heavily on the ability to draw in audiences with the immensely empathetic and powerful performance of its lead actor.

Watson plays Aileen, the manager of a local fish processing plant. She has a new grandchild, and seems at first to be comfortably managing her circumstance. When one of the oystermen is swept away by the tide there’s a surprise during the wake, with her absent son (Paul Mescal) returning from Australia. His absence is never explained, nor the cause of his return, but it sets the stage for the film’s central drama.

Paul seeks to resuscitate some oyster beds, and we see him cutting corners, along with Aileen’s assistance, to make things work. Rules don’t seem to apply to Paul, and the results of the prodigal son's corner-cutting makes for deeper moral compromises for his mother. When a connection is made with the clear-voiced Sarah (Aisling Franciosi), even darker moments occur, and the quandaries pile up like oyster shells.

While there are few true narrative surprises in the telling, it’s still intoxicating to watch Watson navigate all her character’s emotions on her immensely expressive face. She is truly one of the most remarkable performers to appear on screen, and if “God’s Creatures” does nothing else but remind the world of this fact it can already be considered a triumph.

One of the inadvertently comedic elements at a post-screening Q&A for Mark Jenkin’s “Enys Men” was when he casually admitted it took a whopping three days to write the film's script. Taking nothing away from the stylish, at times captivating, at times infuriating end result, it’s surprising that it took that long for something with no more than a dozen lines of dialogue or disparate scenes. The title refers to “Stone Island” in the Cornish language (“Men” is pronounced as “Mane” or “Main”), and it’s perhaps best described as part of the folk horror tradition from likes of “Wicker Man” on down.

This is a ghost story of sorts, but not one with too many genre tropes to hold onto. When they do come, they feel forced and arbitrary, almost breaking up the strange, dreamlike mood with the occasional bit of middling jump scares and the like interspersed. If anything, it’s about the horror of time never being able to move forward, to be stuck in an unending repetition where our very sedentary presence results in being locked into place, lichen literally growing as we are prevented from moving forward. As a COVID lockdown metaphor it may be redolent, and plenty will swoon for both its non-narrative style and archaic, film-grain fueled aesthetic and blown-out color palate in a 4:3 frame.

“Enys Men” is a fine 20-minute film that overstays its welcome, but it may work for others desperate for movies that make them feel as rooted in place and time as the central protagonist, untroubled by such plebeian vagaries as conventional plot or story.

As an antidote to non-narrative, we find George Miller returning to Cannes with a story about storytelling itself. “Three Thousand Years of Longing” is also a COVID-influenced film, this one even more overt in its telling. Yet it is also fundamentally a tale of how story transforms our experiences, delivering wider worlds, and helping us make sense of the universe in ways that are both satisfying and impactful.

Tilda Swinton plays the musically named Alithea Binnie, a narratologist by trade who has eschewed most human companionship for the life of the mind. When shopping with a colleague at a conference she finds a bottle, handblown with such force as to embed blood from the lungs of the glassmaker into the object itself. Such deliciously pregnant metaphors abound in this tale, where, as expected, this magic-lamp object ends up being the container for a Djinn (Idris Elba), the granter of wishes who can only be freed once three have been requested.

Based on a short story by A.S. Byatt, the narrative provides an interesting thought experiment—what happens when a Djinn encounters a story expert who knows all the machinations of historical wish tales? How can a trickster fool one who knows all their tricks? The result is less a combat of wits than an exploration of relationships, and certain universal elements unfold through the Djinn's tales.

There are moments of visual flourish that show Miller continues to be a master of style. Pre-pandemic this was meant to be a globetrotting adventure, but the plague forced production to rely heavily on greenscreen reproductions of settings. The result is mixed at best, and it would have been fascinating if the scope of artifice approached something like “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” with which this film has a passing resemblance.

That said, much of the movie takes place in a single hotel room, both Alithea and her wishmaster sitting in bathrobes telling stories to one another. It’s this collision of grand spectacle and intimate discussion that drives the film’s central conceit, the connection between the two helping us glean genuine messages from the its greater, more bombastic moments. 

Miller’s tale is the story of love told through the love of story, a flawed film that is nonetheless a welcome reminder of the true joys of collective, shared storytelling. It’s as fine a reminder as any to have at an event such as Cannes. 

Jason Gorber

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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