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Cannes 2023: Fallen Leaves, Club Zero, Firebrand

It's easy to take certain filmmakers for granted. One of the easiest to take for granted is Finland's Aki Kaurismäki, whose films ("The Match Factory Girl," "The Man Without a Past," "The Other Side of Hope") are so consistent, and so instantly recognizable as his, that news of a new one can easily elicit a shrug. Which makes "Fallen Leaves" the surprise of the festival so far—not because Kaurismäki has deviated from the deadpan mode that's been his signature since at least "Hamlet Goes Business" (1986), but because he's brought it close to something like perfection.

"Fallen Leaves" packs so much into just 81 minutes and so effortlessly. It is a comedy that is sweet without ever tipping into sentimentality. It is a romance between two lonely people who, for a time, appear to have no hope of finding happiness. It is a political film—an expression of solidarity with frustrated working-class employees and Ukraine, broadcasts about which are heard several times. It is, occasionally, a musical, or at least a movie in which a man sings Schubert at karaoke, and a live band performs a song with comically bleak lyrics like "even the graveyard is by fences bound." And perhaps above all, it is Kaurismäki's salute to filmmakers who have inspired him. Some (Bresson, Godard, Jarmusch) receive overt acknowledgment. Other references (a rainy window bathed in Sirkian lighting, a plot point borrowed from "An Affair to Remember") have been fluidly integrated into the narrative and mise-en-scène.

The protagonists, Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), have their first date at a movie theater—the film they see should not be spoiled—and the venue becomes a fated location throughout their relationship. For a time, there's a sinking sense that the relationship might not come to pass. Holappa loses Ansa's number almost as soon as she gives it to him and begins a run of almost impossibly bad luck.

Both are barely rooted. Ansa has lost her job at a supermarket under absurd conditions, only to find that her next gig, at a bar called California Pub (on what must be Finland's least Californian block), is tenuous for different reasons. Holappa drinks excessively and loses his job at work after failing a sobriety test. At some point, he'll be forced to sleep on the streets.

Part of what is appealing about Kaurismäki's way of making movies is that he paints in such delicate strokes. To host Holappa for dinner, Ansa must first buy dinnerware she can barely afford. This is relayed in an offhand shot or two of her shopping, never spoken. Kaurismäki has put such care into every lighting arrangement as if each composition had to be perfectly measured to find the right balance of sadness and levity. His cuts are hilarious, even as they steer clear of the most obvious punch lines.

Walking the red carpet for his Cannes premiere on Monday, Kaurismäki, instead of treating the procession like a formal occasion, goofed around with photographers and even poked a little fun at the festival's head programmer, Thierry Frémaux, at the top of the steps. This is a filmmaker who delights in life.

"Club Zero," directed by Jessica Hausner ("Little Joe"), opens with a warning that its depiction of eating disorders might make it distressing for some viewers. In the first scene, Miss Novak (Mia Wasikowska), a new teacher at a posh private school, asks her students why they want to take a course in "conscious eating." (Google suggests this is a real concept, but the movie seems unlikely to win any adherents.) As taught by Miss Novak, conscious eating is a cross between a diet fad and meditation. The gist is if you take deep breaths and think really, really hard about what you're about to eat, and you cut your food into tiny pieces and contemplate them rather than putting them in your mouth, eventually, you'll eat less.

The students want to participate for personal, environmental, and academic reasons. But Miss Novak isn't one for half-measures. She looms over a student to tell him that a chunk of food is much too big. Soon she's instructing them to eat a "plant-based mono diet"—only one type of food at a time, preferably a vegetable. Whenever students push back at Miss Novak's instructions, she accuses them gently of not thinking the right way. Her methods are dangerous business for pupils who are diabetic or (already) bulimic. And how little does Miss Novak think her class can get away with eating? Well, there's a number in the movie's title.

So "Club Zero" follows Miss Novak's claque as they go to increasingly grotesque lengths to will themselves into starvation. There is a gross-out element to the movie, notably in a scene in which a girl insists on eating her own vomit. But "Club Zero" isn't a satire of nutrition flimflammery, partly because it barely qualifies as satire. (Very few of the gimmicks here appear to have been wholly invented for the film. Please don't try any of this at home.)

Since at least 2009's "Lourdes," Hausner has been interested in religion as a subject, and "Club Zero" becomes increasingly explicit about being a study of cult formation and of how Miss Novak manages to bring skeptics around to her point of view. (When someone asks if it's really possible to live on no food at all, Miss Novak replies, "The question is, why do we seek scientific proof for something that obviously works?" That sort of parry seems to play.) Even the principal (Sidse Babett Knudsen) gives her the benefit of the doubt.

Hausner's hyper-stylized approach—the color-coordinated costumes, the relentlessly geometric compositions—in some ways works against the film's power because the context is so obviously artificial that there's never a feeling that we're watching actual psychology. There's a sense that Hausner leaves her films open-ended as a provocation—or for comic purposes—rather than because she has something to say. When one of the students, Elsa (Ksenia Devriendt), insists to her parents (Mathieu Demy and Elsa Zylberstein) that she can use her willpower to make it rain, it rains, probably by coincidence. But maybe not? Does Hausner herself believe in the power of belief? Like "Little Joe," "Club Zero" is a precisely executed concept searching for a point.

"Firebrand" is a new film from Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz. In 2019, he won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard competition for "Invisible Life," which followed two sisters living separately in Rio de Janeiro over many years. I had assumed "Firebrand" would be another Brazilian film, so I was confused when the movie began and turned out to be in English. It also appeared to be about Catherine Parr (Alicia Vikander), the last wife of Henry VIII.

The opening scrawl was also perplexing. History, the text says, mostly tells us things about men and war. "For the rest of humanity," it adds, "we must draw our own—often wild—conclusions." That doesn't seem like the most responsible approach to historical research, but alright, wild conclusions it is. (The movie is based on the novel Queen's Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle.)

Most of all, I struggled to place the gargantuan éminence grise that someone had surely dragged off a West End stage to play Henry because he looked familiar (and was a startling likeness for the king). He probably had a closet full of Olivier Awards. And clearly, he had thrown himself into the role: This Henry is a monstrous presence—violent, lecherous, tossing his body over Vikander's and jamming his fingers into her mouth; forever oozing pus from a leg infection that somehow stubbornly refuses to kill him.

It was Jude Law. Jude Law, in the transmogrification to beat for 2023. How did he do it? Did the production feed him Henry VIII's actual 16th-century diet? But Law, along with some Rembrandt lighting by the cinematographer Hélène Louvart, is the only thing that gives "Firebrand" a hint of personality. Despite Aïnouz's belated efforts to shake things up with a P.J. Harvey needle drop over the closing credits, "Firebrand" is a stuffy, plodding historical drama that can't help but look ridiculous and safe in the context of the Cannes competition. The dialogue ("I've lasted longer than any of his wives since his first," Catherine helpfully explains) does not help.

Ben Kenigsberg

Ben Kenigsberg is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. He edited the film section of Time Out Chicago from 2011 to 2013 and served as a staff critic for the magazine beginning in 2006. 

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