Over the course of the Gilles Jacob regime, the Cannes Film Festival‘s two most prominent programs have experienced a shift in power. Over this fifteen year period, the Main Competition, ostensibly a selection of work by the most prestigious directors in international cinema, has slowly been usurped by the Un Certain Regard strand, a slate of more adventurous fare that for one reason or another Jacob and his committee feel unworthy of competing for the festival’s top prizes. Even a cursory glance at some of the recent Un Certain Regard premieres (everything from Hong Sangsoo‘s The Day He Arrives to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake to Lav Diaz‘s towering Norte, the End of the History have premiered here) confirms a compromised, potentially dubiously motivated, selection process. This imbalance is now understood by most cinephiles, and nowadays you’ll likely find enough to coverage of all sub-strands of the festival to render such designations essentially useless. Nevertheless the phenomenon continues and will likely continue to do so, as the highlights in this year’s Un Certain Regard films have, on the whole, handily trumped the work of the established Competition guard.
Of course such bold programming brings its share of drawbacks, which in this case is an unfortunate penchant for work favoring sheer provocation or genre indulgence rather than well considered experimentation. Thus, while this year’s UCR has indeed provided for some of the fest’s most audacious and flat-out best films, it is also home to some of the very worst. Near the top of the latter list would be both Keren Yedaya‘s That Lovely Girl and Panos Koutras’s Xenia, two films by directors with decent enough track records to warrant UCR nods, but ones which likewise accentuate their most unfortunate directorial qualities. Yedaya’s father-daughter incest drama is particularly trying, and one that doesn’t warrant, let alone earn, much consideration, so blunt are its tactics and so cynical its outlook. Needless to say, a film of such unwavering pessimism, in which an abortion constitutes a happy ending, is by its very nature an uncomfortable proposition. But Yedaya exhibits little of the formal or narrative nuance that a film such as this requires. It is, perhaps intentionally, a punishing experience, but one that offers little revelation about its characters or subject.
Xenia, for its part, is of equally low quality, but for much different reasons. Essentially a Grecian road comedy centered on two brothers in search of their biological father, the film is a wildly atonal journey that mixes fantasy, thriller, and coming-of-age elements to exhausting effect. Koutras continues to utilize animation and CGI sequences to punctuate his narratives, and while they’re less jarring (and may in fact be the least egregious moments here) than in the past, they’re nonetheless indicative of his lack of restraint. More tolerable is Party Girl, the debut from Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger, and Samuel Theis, a trio French filmmakers who unexpectedly received the call to open this year’s UCR. The film follows Angelique, an sixty-year-old bar hostess whose lifestyle choices—essentially drinking, dancing, and seducing men for pleasure and/or payment—jar with not only her age but also her family, whom she attempts to reconnect with after an unexpected marriage proposal from a regular client. If the film suffers from anything beyond narrative familiarity (it bears more than a passing resemblance to the recent, slightly better executed Gloria), it has to be stylistic anonymity; this handheld, realist mode of filmmaking has become shorthand for stories featuring characters who suffer their way through their prescribed narrative arcs. The fact that, in then end, Angelique may not be any better off than when we meet her, further suggests a lack of substantial thematic ideas on the part of the filmmakers beyond a basic grasp of archetypes.
Another debut hampered by a lack of surprise is July Jung’s A Girl at My Door, an earnest tale of a young girl attempting to escape the abuse of her father by befriending a female law enforcement officer. Produced by the great Korean director Lee Chang-dong, the film is unapologetic in its debt to its handler. But whereas Lee traffics in overt melodrama, July takes a more restrained approached, with soft music cues and a nearly imperceptible sense of style. It’s an oddly polite approach to a subject that, while a slight relief from the overbearing trauma of something like That Lovely Girl, could use a little more of its mentor’s moxie. On the other hand there’s Mathieu Amalric‘s formally sterling The Blue Room, the French acting icon’s third effort behind the camera and the first to feel stamped with by his authorial hand. A morality tale depicting a sexual rendezvous gone mortally wrong is a B-grade device and only lurid-by-half. But Amalric, shooting in Academy ratio, expertly composes and calibrates each shot, creating a disorienting spatial field, all blue-hued and glistening, through which to send these characters spiralling toward their inevitable destinies. It’s a promising look for a side career in directing that could have easily turned toward vanity (see Asia Argento’s UCR entry Incompresa, an oppressive, tone-deaf coming-of-age story or, by all accounts, Ryan Gosling’s Lost River).
Such disparate programming can be overlooked, however, in light of the legitimately great films, which, while far from outweighing the forgettable titles in quantity, usurp with such command that the Competition lineup can’t help but look safe by comparison (and due to scheduling conflicts I wasn’t even able to see Jessica Hausner’s Amour fou, one of the fest’s most talked-about titles). Ruben Östlund’s Turist is a particularly egregious example of programming miscue. One of the fest’s most humorous, entertaining and accomplished films, the Swedish director’s fourth film is simultaneously his most dynamic and strikingly fluid work yet. Set at and around a remote ski resort in the Swiss Alps, the film charts the slow dismantling of a marriage in the wake of an avalanche, an event which prompts a wife’s reconsideration of her husband’s commitment to the well-being of their family. Still composed with an exactingly precise eye—and with a hypnotic sense of movement when the camera does move—the film is reminiscent of Östlund’s previous film, Play, in all but register. Despite its subject, Turist is comedic in its approach to this material, contrasting its formal qualities with an uncomfortably scathing sense of humor. Östlund stages each quarrel with the same playfully obtuse approach as he does the outdoor skiing sequences, which creates an internal dynamism that such rigidly constructed films usually forgo. In it’s own hermetically sealed way, it’s an entire world unto itself, and one inviting enough to likely catapult Östlund into a new phase of his career.
Judging by her productivity alone, director Pascale Ferran‘s creative process has never been dictated by prospects, trends or expectations. Bird People, her first film since 2006s very different D.H. Lawrence adaption Lady Chatterley and only her fourth since 1994, is in conceptualization alone perhaps the most inventive film to play Cannes this year. Split into two sections—one dedicated to a male character, the other a female—Bird People at first appears to be a simple day-in-the-life allegory for our simultaneously plugged-in and disconnected lives, as well as our technology-dependent times. But things quickly turn heavy when Gary Newman (Josh Charles) decides to leave not only his wife, but also his job, career, and country—and all without directly communicating to any of the affected parties face-to-face. This first section, which lasts a full hour, is banal and bitter in equal measure. The way Ferran approaches the couple’s breakup, and specifically a lengthy scene wherein they converse via Skype, is seemingly straightforward—unadorned, nondescript locations abound—but it isn’t until a mid-film break with reality that these sequences begin to fully reveal and reorient themselves as potential keys to unlocking the fantasies of its second half. Outlining the details of this schism would rob the viewer of much of Bird People’s magic, but needless to say, what begins as a bravely elemental setup takes flight with breathtaking abandon. It’s a brave leap from one of France’s most unpredictable filmmakers.
But not even Ferran’s foray into the unknown could touch Jauja, the latest from young Argentinian master Lisandro Alonso and the most radical of this year’s UCR features. Previously the foremost amongst contemporary realist auteurs, Alonso takes a sharp but purposeful turn toward the mystical and potentially pagan with Jauja, a by turns sedate and surreal period drama with distinctly esoteric overtones. Starring Viggo Mortensen as Captain Dinesen, an engineer traveling with a nomad troupe of soldiers along the anonymous South America coast, the film establishes its characters in a brief succession of early seaside scenes before setting Dinesen off on not only a journey to find his missing daughter but also a spiritual quest which only grows clearer and more opaque as the film splits, redefines, and refracts its own internal elements.
In a break from his previously observational mode of documentation, Alonso here stages his actors as a theater director might, positioning them in an array of counterintuitive stances that break every rule of traditional narrative cinema. It’s a technique indebted to a previous generation of Portuguese filmmakers, with frequent references to Manoel de Oliveira in particular, as well as arch conceptualists such as Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet. But rather than simply emulate this style, Alonso internalizes the ideological perverseness and disorienting formal theologies that have defined these filmmakers for decades. He also shoots the film in a full-frame aspect ratio, though he takes the conceit one step further than even Almaric did with The Blue Room, allowing the soft corners of the frame to remain visible throughout. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, all this stylistic self-consciousness would likely remove the viewer from the equation. But in actuality Jauja is not only Alonso’s most involving film yet, but a work of such pictorial beauty, religious density, and thematic intrigue that it offers a seemingly infinite number of ways in and out of its constantly collapsing and protracting universe. It is, in all likelihood, the film from this year’s Un Certain Regard with the greatest potential to prove a watershed.