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Cannes 2024: It's Not Me, Filmlovers!, Misericordia

In his freely associative, furiously introspective “C’est Pas Moi” (“It’s Not Me”), which played in the Cannes Première sidebar, Leos Carax pays homage to the late Jean-Luc Godard, along with an assemblage of other influences, through a rapid-fire cinematic “self-portrait” that, within just 44 fleet minutes, articulates not only some sense of the auteur’s relationship to his own body of work but also a deeply personal vision of cinema’s history and what possibilities remain within its merging of image, sound, and time into a medium for philosophical interrogation.

Carax’s project was assembled at the behest of the Pompidou Center, which planned to present it within an exhibition that to date has not occurred; those familiar with “Sans Titre,” the 9-minute short film that Carax made for Cannes in 1997 to “give news” of himself and his then-current project, “Pola X,” will find that “C’est Pas Moi” serves to massively magnify its transtextual style and extend its same lines of cinematographic inquiry. The project started, according to the filmmaker, with a question posed by the Pompidou Center: “Where are you at, Leos Carax?” 

The film he made by way of response recalls late-stage Godard, especially his experimental sound-image montages “Histoire(s) du cinéma” and “The Image Book” (even utilizing the latter’s font to serve up similar on-screen text and intertitles that comment on both archival and newly shot footage). Broadly speaking, it provides an elliptical personal history of Carax’s engagement with cinema, colliding together scenes from his own work with footage from his life, staged scenes shot by cinematographer Caroline Champetier, cogitations in whispered voice-over, and a vast range of cine-historical quotations (from Carax’s own filmmaking, especially “Mauvais Sang” and “Holy Motors,” as well as cinema he links to the historic significance of moving images, such as F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” and Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic studies). 

There are also montages that reach back into European history to establish echoes between the rise of Nazism, its cinematic depictions, and modern authoritarians Vladimir Putin, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Donald Trump; a most curious sequence contrasting public perceptions of Roman Polanski; scenes that find Carax regular Denis Lavant reprising the role of Monsieur Merde from “Tokyo!”; and—most poignantly—the director’s personal footage of his daughter walking along the Seine then, later in life, playing a piano concerto by candlelight as flashes of lightning threaten to tear the image asunder. 

It’s clear that Carax is troubled by questions of how cinema evolves in the present day, amid the deluge of glancing visual representations that make up our modern media landscape. Even within the explosion of ideas that he playfully detonates in “C’est Pas Moi,” the questions he’s asking reflect larger existential concerns. Not even a triumphant late-breaking performance of “Modern Love” (linking “Mauvais Sang” to “Annette” and in doing so collapsing two poles of Carax’s career into another kind of animal locomotion) can completely assuage the sense of a filmmaker who feels nothing less than the image itself is under threat in our modern times.

Equally exultant but far more reverential in its lyrical, golden-hued tribute to the cinematic experience is Arnaud Desplechin’s “Spectateurs! (“Filmlovers!”), presented as a Special Screening at Cannes this year. 

Emotionally overwhelming in its embrace of the collective audience, of the community that forms in a theater once the lights go down and images projected on a screen transport us to another place, Desplechin’s novelistic docufiction is awash in cinematic and literary references but offers up each with a extraordinarily light touch; here, the viewers of the images matter more than their creators.

Desplechin effortlessly shifts through layers of fiction and reality in order to explore the fluidity with which great filmmaking, and our experience of it, blurs boundaries between the two. To that end, Desplechin’s own relationship with cinema is reflected through the narration of his recurring character, Paul Dédalus (who previously appeared, played by Mathieu Amalric, across “My Sex Life,” “My Golden Days,” and “A Christmas Tale”). 

His name an allusion to James Joyce’s alter ego in “Ulysses,” Dédalus has existed in Desplechin’s cinema as a distancing device, a fictional surrogate for the director himself, and a common man with whom any audience member can identify. Amalric appears at the corners of Desplechin’s frame, delivering introductory voice-over in English and taking on a cameo at the film’s conclusion; instead, Paul is played as a child (Louis Birman), a teenager (Milo Machado-Graner, from last year’s “Anatomy of a Fall”), in his twenties (Sam Chemoul), and in his thirties (Salif Cissé), at each age reflecting on formative experiences of spectatorship. 

In one early scene, a six-year-old Paul and his younger sister (Flavie Dachi) go to the movies for the first time, brought by their grandmother (Françoise Lebrun) to see “Fantômas,” and Paul is entranced, no sooner than the film has started, by the beam of light emanating from the projector booth, as if ghosts are dancing overhead in the darkened room. In another, a 14-year-old Paul travels to Lille and lies about his age to see “Cries and Whispers,” and Desplechin, beginning his scene on the screen, pans out to the audience to capture the film from Paul’s awestruck vantage point. It’s a viewing that changes Paul’s life.

Collaborating with “Anaïs in Love” cinematographer Noé Bach, Desplechin permits these scenes a warm amber glow, conveying the romance of moviegoing and how bound up our memories of specific viewing experiences are in our recollections of youth (and vice versa). With more academic digressions into theories of realism, by way of Bazin and Cavell’s ontologies of film, as well as a lengthy dialogue between Desplechin and literary critic Shoshanna Felman on acts of witnessing and testimony in Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” “Spectateurs” side-steps self-indulgence and instead, earnestly and with rich emotion, reflects Desplechin’s sense of himself as a lifelong spectator, searching for meaning between himself and the silver screen.

Just over a decade ago, Alain Guiraudie won Cannes’ best director prize in the Un Certain Regard section—along with the Queer Palm—for “Stranger by the Lake,” a spellbinding erotic thriller in which sex and death swirl together at a gay cruising spot. With “Miséricorde” (“Misericordia”), debuted in the Cannes Première section, he has crafted another elegantly haunting dissection of the power dynamics shaping queer sexuality, this time in the form of an fantastically tender, alluring, and peculiar small-town tale of murder, desire, and repression.

In the rural village of Saint-Martial, the death of a local baker prompts the return of his one-time protégé Jérémie (Félix Kysyl), who comes to stay with the baker’s wife, Martine (Catherine Frot); this in turn arouses the suspicions of her son, Vincent (Jean-Baptiste Durand), who seems unusually stirred by the return of this former acquaintance. Whatever the nature of their past relationship, Vincent would prefer it stay buried; keeping the details vague, Guiraudie insinuates that they might have once been romantic partners, and for that matter that Jérémie may have also been sexually involved with Martine’s late husband.

A picturesque hamlet in the Ardèches, Saint-Martial is another one of Guiraudie’s cloistered worlds, a labyrinth of slate roofs and cobbled streets that soon gives way to chestnut groves and holm oak forests. It’s in the privacy of the woods, away from prying eyes, that a chance encounter between Jérémie and Vincent one afternoon turns aggressive, though for most of their grappling around in the undergrowth it’s anyone’s guess—including perhaps theirs—whether they’re about to make love or war. As police look into Vincent’s subsequent disappearance, Jérémie finds himself concealing the truth of what happened from investigators. Most of the townspeople seem already aware or at least suspicious of Jérémie’s involvement, though they’re content to observe rather than intervene.

It’s with the entrance of a local priest (Jacques Develay), who has his own reasons for wanting to help Jérémie, that “Miséricorde” assumes form as a philosophical treatise on the absurdity of guilt, redemption, faith, and desire in a world where stranger things than sin carry the day, from mushrooms that sprout up around a body to police who surreptitiously appear in suspects’ bedrooms at night as if checking on the children. Shot by the talented “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” cinematographer Claire Mathon, this is a beautiful-looking film, overcast and autumnal; it comes alive at night but limns dusk and dawn as well with a sense of secret possibility. As in “Stranger by the Lake,” Guiraudie derives both comedy and tragedy from closeted compulsions and the communal silence in which his characters conceal their enactments, even as the church’s ambiguous presence adds a fresh element to the filmmaker’s latest meditation on all that’s predatory and sacrificial about our most pathological desires.

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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