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Cannes 2023: The Sweet East, The Book of Solutions, The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed

A thoroughly pungent, scabrously funny kind of nightmare picaresque, Sean Price Williams“The Sweet East” (which premiered at Cannes in the Directors’ Fortnight section) is set not against the wide-open expanses of the American West, as per the road movies of past generations, but rather in the diseased underbelly of the country’s East coast. There, trust-fund punks with studded penises and white-supremacist professors with Lolita complexes are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg regarding the all-American trash that the film so caustically caricatures. 

For rebellious high school senior Lillian Wade (Talia Ryder, of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”), who sneaks away from a field trip to the nation’s capital after a gun-toting Pizzagate conspiracy theorist (MTV comedian Andy Milonakis) enters the D.C. dive where her classmates are partying, the Eastern seaboard presents countless opportunities for reinvention. And Lillian, an enigma of a character who keeps filling herself in by co-opting other people’s backstories, will be whoever she needs to be to fulfill the fantasies of the crypto-fascist creeps, murderous neo-Nazis, bloviating independent filmmakers, and sexually repressed religious zealots she ends up hitching rides with. 

A film that opens with audio of schoolchildren chanting the Pledge of Allegiance over motorcycle stunt footage, “The Sweet East” sees subtlety as the enemy from the jump. But the script, by film critic Nick Pinkerton, never evolves past its preferred mode of apathetic, irony-poisoned burlesque, which is caught somewhere between archly comic nihilism and petty trolling. For all Lillian’s misadventures on the road, this leaves the movie around her feeling ideologically pre-determined. The only progression available to her is surrendering to the same sniggering disenchantment that the film initially espoused. 

Shot in urgent, careening close-ups and distinguished by Price Williams’ eye for grotty detail, “The Sweet East” is energized by the veteran cinematographer’s scuzzy 16mm grain, popularized through “Heaven Knows What,” and “Good Time,” high-wire collaborations with New York sleaze maestros Josh and Benny Safdie, whose early films “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” and “Daddy Longlegs” unspooled in Directors’ Fortnight. Here, Price Williams asserts film grain as the equivalent of Roddy Piper’s sunglasses from “They Live!,” his smudged frames exposing the heightened vulgarity of American tribalism as experienced through Lillian’s increasingly cynical, glazed-over gaze.

Eight years have passed since the last feature by “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” director Michel Gondry. His at least semi-autobiographical new comedy-drama “The Book of Solutions” (also in the Directors' Fortnight section) offers a slightly alarming yet endearingly whimsical pseudo-explanation for why it’s taken him so long to make another movie. 

Centered on a very Gondry-esque filmmaker named Marc (Pierre Niney), who’s struggling to complete post-production on “Anyone, Everyone,” a project he believes could be his masterpiece, the film opens as a meeting with Marc’s financiers goes precipitously south. He’s still obsessively tweaking the film’s fifth act, and they are unimpressed with the footage he’s produced thus far. Unwilling to admit defeat, Marc instead absconds with the hard drives and heads to a village in the Cévennes, where his aunt Denise (the legendary Françoise Lebrun, warm and wise beyond measure) has a house.

There, Marc believes he will be able to rediscover his creative genius and re-edit the film to perfection, in league with his long-suffering editor Charlotte (Blanche Gardin), assistant Sylvia (Frankie Wallach), video specialist Gabrielle (Camille Rutherford), and increasingly exhausted film crew. Standing in the way, of course, is Marc himself. Afraid to look at the footage, the director proves himself a master of procrastination, taking up one time-consuming task after another and ensuring his collaborators share in many of his self-inflicted headaches. For all his manic-depressive flights of fantasy, Marc’s not so practically minded, at one point telling Charlotte to put the footage together in reverse, at another demanding that Sting contribute to the film’s score. 

Throughout, the film’s cheerfully eccentric tone suggests a method somewhere in Marc’s madness; it’s titled after a daffy self-help guide he’s abruptly moved to write, featuring truisms such as “learn by doing” and “don’t listen to others.” Gondry’s troubled post-production process on “Mood Indigo,” a wackily surreal 2013 romance that bears similarities to Marc’s would-be magnum opus, seems a direct inspiration, and so scenes in which Marc’s frantic, borderline-abusive treatment of his fellow filmmakers reaches a fever pitch register, like the film as a whole, as both comically exaggerated and enticingly self-reflexive. 

Some of Marc’s more maniacal decrees bear delectably funny fruit, such as a sequence in which he assembles an orchestra to play the music in his head without giving them any score to read. Gesticulating wildly as the strings swell, stomping his feet to direct the percussion, never delivering so much as a single note, Marc conjures beauty from chaos, emerging from this childlike bodily display with the score of his dreams. “Note to self,” he reflects: “Remain humble after this transformative experience.” Such are the considerable delights of Gondry’s latest, which temper his trademark naiveté and lack of narrative discipline with a self-critical examination of his strengths and weaknesses as an artist if only to salute the survival of his child mind in a film industry as its own little wonder.

“The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” marks the audaciously raw, revealing, and excruciatingly funny feature debut of Joanna Arnow, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and comic-book writer who last turned the camera on herself in the boldly experiential shorts “i hate myself :)” and “Bad at Dancing.” Out of all the films this critic watched at Cannes this year, Arnow’s feature has surely the trickiest-to-remember title and also feels most like the arrival of a wholly unique and fully formed voice; it is the film that most crystallizes the open-ended promise of the Directors’ Fortnight section.  

As the lead actor, screenwriter, director, and editor of her own confrontational, cringe-inducing style of autofiction, Arnow puts herself out there in more ways than one. For thirtysomething Ann, who navigates a long-term casual BDSM relationship, a low-level corporate job, and agonizing interactions with her overbearing parents, life is one interminably long submission. But through Arnow’s performance as Ann, which requires of her an unusual degree of on-screen physical vulnerability—given Ann’s penchant for sexual degradation and a consistent emotional blankness, reflecting the tedium of Ann’s daily existence—a personality starts to emerge. Ann is witty and opinionated if stymied by the path her life has taken; it’s all she can manage to withstand the never-ending business meetings about nothing of value and adhere dutifully to the repetitive and self-serving sexual demands of her BDSM partner, a disinterested older man (Scott Cohen) who will never remember he’s already asked where Ann went to college.

Arnow’s bone-dry sense of humor is laser-focused on this banality of being, on the sense of mundanity that underlies millennial malaise. But it also documents the incremental progress of Ann’s relationships with men with the same acerbic impassivity. Slowly, Ann embarks on new relationships, takes on other lovers, and discovers unexpected sources of connection, even as she seeks to distill what appeals to her about her past dynamics into something comfortably hers. The film’s title speaks to a painfully relatable sense of dread, a fear of aging and regret that has no answer save acceptance. 

Elliptically structured as a series of sketch-like vignettes—some spanning the length of a single, droll non-sequitur (At a bar, as Ann’s friend introduces her to a trio of Brooklynite acquaintances: “Hey, everyone, this is Ann!”/ “We already talked to her”)—the film’s editing gives it a uniquely modern edge, evoking the sensation of scrolling through an Instagram feed or watching a parade of video clips on Vine. Consistently, though, the film is made cohesive by the flat, emotionless register in which its dialogue is delivered, which foregrounds the existential vacuity of one conversation after another, and by the formal rigor of Arnow’s filmmaking, which keeps the camera static, the frame artfully arranged, and the pace evenly slack. There’s a satisfyingly assertive type of withholding to Arnow’s design, demanding that audiences submit to its anti-climactic rhythms without the more conventional markers of character portrait to rely upon. Without unearthing her history or staging any grand dramatic revelation about her present behaviors, Arnow conveys that the entirety of Ann’s life is present in each of these seemingly perfunctory passages, not in some distant revelation that will propel the character into her next stage of self. 

Isaac Feldberg

Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Chicago, who’s been writing professionally for nine years and hopes to stay at it for a few more.

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