I mentioned intense jet lag in my day one Cannes dispatch, and while an early press screening of Wes Anderson’s heartfelt Moonrise Kingdom found me relatively fresh, if disoriented, from a day-and-a-half without proper rest, an evening screening of Yousry Nasrallah’s After the Battle saw me finally succomb to the laws of nature. Sure enough, I was dozing during the opening credits, and from there was forced to submit to my body’s need for sleep. From the sound of it, I didn’t miss much. Indeed, After the Battle has been roundly maligned, and judging from the over half dozen folks who kept waking me up as they walked out on the film, my body may have made the proactive choice, particularly with a day two slate of films holding interesting potential waiting in the wings.
Along with the new film by the legendary Alain Resnais, France itself is represented in the Competition strand at Cannes by the increasingly popular Jacques Audiard, who’s last film, A Prophet, set the Croisette alight in 2009 and turned out to be quite the crossover success in the States. Audiard’s new film, Rust & Bone, parlays some of that goodwill into his first star vehicle of sorts, with Oscar winner Marion Cotillard co-starring in his latest machismo-infused melodrama, which lends some much needed estrogen to his decidedly muscular filmmaking style. Beyond that, however, Audiard stays the course with his latest. Blunt, wrenching, and about as subtle as a brick to face, Rust & Bone embodies it’s title in both style and substance. It’s a film even my energy-sapped self would find difficult to sleep through.
Cotillard stars as Stephanie, a whale trainer at a local water park, who, after being escorted home one night by the bouncer of a club following a drunken physical confrontation, suffers an even more horrific accident as she performs at work, leaving her a double amputee and wheelchair bound. For those concerned about that detail giving too much away, rest assured that this all occurs in about the first 15 minutes, and from here it would be most difficult to guess where Audiard takes his characters. Mattias Schoenaerts (who made a strong impression last year in Bullhead) plays the bouncer, who jumps from security job to security job as he moonlights as a bare-knuckle boxer. His Alain is a volatile ball of aggression who only shows any semblance of humanity to Stephanie as he attempts to help her adjust to her new life of paralysis — even his five-year-old son doesn’t receive much more than verbal and physical tirades from his father. Together, the two form an unlikely pair, and there are moments of genuine emotion and unexpected humor between the budding couple.
Unfortunately, Audiard can’t let the energy between his two leads exist naturally, and instead resorts to aesthetic shortcuts and his by-now-to-be-expected stylistic maneuvers, robbing the audience of a more intuitive sense of narrative development. Putting your characters in these types of situations (though the film has source material, it’s based on multiple short stories by the same author, which may have led to this restlessness) often times leads to standout performances, particularly when well cast, as Audiard films tend to be. Rust & Bone is no exception. Both Cotillard and Schoenaerts are wonderful here, but Audiard’s overly fussy exploits work counterintuitively to his presumed goals. For every moment of heart-stirring emotion, there’s an equally draining slow motion montage or musical cue to accentuate the pain. And when late in the film Frank’s son suffers his own unfortunate accident, it plays less as tragedy than narrative thread-weaving, one last way to bring these characters just that much closer together.
On the other end of the narrative spectrum is Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, arguably the single greatest young filmmaker and a director with little concern for conventional narrative, let alone overt stylistic flourishes. Apichatpong won the Palm D’or at Cannes in 2010 for his Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, one of the few genuine masterpieces of the young decade so far and definitive evidence that aesthetic boundaries are still being pushed through organic means. His short-form follow-up, Mekong Hotel (the film runs just over an hour), received a Special Presentation screening at Cannes this year, and it’s a thematic addendum to a career that has preternaturally reflected the interconnectedness of the human soul and our animal instinct, the realm of the spirits and the transience of our day-to-day existence. But it also stands strongly on its own accord, a slippery existentialist musing on our violent breeding and its embodiment in our future selves.
Apichatpong based the film on a early screenplay he wrote but was never able to film called Ecstasy Garden. But for Mekong Hotel, he enlisted a handful of actors from his stable of performers and rehearsed/improvised portions of the script in front of a number of static camera setups. The result is a docu-fiction hybrid (Apichatpong himself appears on couple of occasions to proffer questions) that ties together nearly all of the director’s preoccupations. The compositional strategy and affectless dialogue recitals recall the late work of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, while the touches of cannibalism that these human-animals partake in seems like a logical continuation of the undercurrents of tension that the monkey ghost’s in Uncle Boonmee clearly pointed toward. Mekong Hotel offers a rare chance to witness Apichatpong work out his artistic process on camera, blurring the lines between gestating script, various stages of rehearsal, and even a finished, full-length picture. That it’s got something tangible to say about it’s director as well as our fleeting/recurring existences feels like a small, personal gift from the man himself.
The films of severe Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidel, meanwhile, feel less like gifts than demoralizing shots of depraved reality administered directly to the eyeballs. His previous films, which included Dog Days (which won the Grand Jury Prize at Venice in 2001) and Import/Export (one of the more controversial titles to play at Cannes in recent years), have depicted the lower end of the moral spectrum, painting Austrian society as perhaps the world’s most derelict subset of humanity. His latest, however, finds him implementing a few new ideas which significantly lighten the tone. And thank god for that. Seidel’s prior work was admirable (Dog Days, to my mind, is the one most worth defending) but almost confrontationally austere and inflammatory — the majority of his characters could make the collected personalities in the catalogues of Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier seem well adjusted. Paradise: Love, the first in a proposed trilogy of films, imbues some genuine humanity and humor into the despair.
Anchored by a towering performance from Margarete Tiesel (already hotly tipped to take the fest’s Best Actress prize), Paradise: Love begins in pure black comedy mode, as Hofstätter’s Anna and her three middle aged friends vacation in Kenya, generally tanning and poking fun at the help when not trying to lure one of them back to the bedroom. From their the film turn towards Anna’s intense attempt at making a connection with a male — any male — even if it’s one from a third world country whom she has more than a little trouble communicating with. The intimate encounters that Seidel stages between Anna and her suitors, instead of being exploitative and depraved as in the past, are often times funny and occasionally tender. Of course, this being Seidel, not everyone is as they initially seem, and the film ends as bleakly as one might fear. But the presence of a genuine character — someone to not only root for but truly care about — propels Paradise: Love through some of it’s late sequences, which grow more tedious while still serving the story enough to justify their inclusion. It gives one hope that if even Seidel can find a heart (no matter how small), then even some of the least appealing remaining Cannes titles could turn up equally unexpected surprises.