Being my first time at Cannes, I’ve quickly come to find out that half (if not all of) the secret to a satisfying festival experience is quite simple: pacing. There are too many films for any one person to physically be able to see anyway, so why not do your body a favor and not rush anything — work, play, relaxation, anything. Granted, there hasn’t been a whole lot of time to relax since the fest began, but as assignments pile up and activities present themselves, it’s become easier and more practical to space things out and enjoy the two weeks as it comes to me.
I’ve inevitably had to cut some titles from my schedule — apologies to Lou Ye, Darezhan Omirbayev, and Matteo Garrone — as obligations and, I’ll just be honest, less academic possibilities came calling (come to find out France doesn’t have the greatest beer, but I don’t mind continuing the search for a winner). Luckily, if one doesn’t feel the need to be at the very first daily 8:30am press screening or evening Red Carpet premieres of certain Competition titles, then the programmers have us relatively covered. Most films screen multiple times at different locations and on different days (which is how I plan on attempting to catch Garrone’s Reality late next week). But then trying to shuffle your schedule too much leads to overlap, and certain films I just won’t miss, leaving some interesting looking titles left waiting for my attention.
It kills me, for example, that the newly restored, original version of one of my very favorite films, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time In America, has to take such a sizable chunk out of my Friday (this cut restores 45 minutes of footage, bringing the running time to a brisk four-and-a-half hours). It’s inevitable Blu-ray release ultimately made the decision for me: Needing to see (at least from my perspective) both hyped Berlin alumni Tabu and Pablo Larrain’s anticipated conclusion to his loosely-outlined Pinochet trilogy, No, left Leone’s final film on the chopping block. In the end I had to drop the proverbial axe, and while both films turned out to be worthwhile in their own way, one in particular towered over the first three days of the festival. And as it happens it’s not even technically a Cannes title.
Winner of the FIPRESCI prize at this year’s Berlinale, Miguel Gomes’ Tabu is, not to put to fine a point on it, something of a new cinematic landmark, but one that playfully utilizes one hundred years of the medium’s tools to reinterpret a handful of it’s most classic tropes. Forbidden love story, nostalgic fever-dream through exotic locale, and noir-leaning melodrama — but oh so much more — Tabu updates and blatantly riffs off Fritz Lang’s 1931 film Tabu: A Story of the South Seas. But this touchstone is just one of just many such reference points, which come cloaked in Rui Poças’s sumptuous black and white photography. To chalk this up as mere pastiche would be unfortunate, however, ignoring the the strides and deliriously brave risks Gomes takes with narrative and established aesthetic conceits.
Framed as a two-part interrelated tableau, Tabu drifts serenely and hallucinatory in it’s first half, foregrounding what would normally be construed as narrative asides and re-contextualizes such details via a second part flashback which illuminates the gravity and longing at the heart of it’s seemingly (and soulfully) transient characters. Part One, sub-headed “Paradise Lost”, and Part Two, simply designated as “Paradise”, offer further refraction than traditional disclosure would normally allow. Indeed, nothing about Tabu is traditional. This a radical piece of backward-looking/forward-thinking cinematic text, tantalizing in it’s oblique take on the form of old Hollywood yet concrete in it’s rendering of the same period’s romantic trappings (it’s also firmly a product of modern world cinema, bringing to mind everyone from Pedro Costa to early Leo Carax). That this is all displayed with such a lightness of touch, rather than an academic display of formalism, and an enormity of heart is the film’s most surprising hallmark, particularly coming after his last film, the great but very different and most difficult Our Beloved Month of August.
A mysterious prologue segues in Part One to a seemingly half-remembered series of moments between the elderly Aurora and her housekeep Pilar, who mostly sustains a vague dedication to her employer, who herself whittles away her remaining years gambling and generally arousing suspicion about the character of local minorities. When Aurora’s fate confronts her, Part Two reconstructs her life through straightforward, if sly, voiceover narration as Gomes outlines a love sonnet of sorts behind Africa’s indigenous borders. But plot summation continues to be all but futile as one considers the worlds of possibility in the work of Gomes, who’s stylistic and narrative exploits constitute a revision of, initially, one’s expectations, but more importantly one’s engagement and continuing sense of reconciliation with his deeply reverent yet subtly subversive brand of cinematic discourse.
A different sort of reverence is evinced in Pablo Larrain’s No, the rising Chilean director’s latest and most direct indictment of the Augusto Pinochet reign yet, which had taken more abstract form in the first two parts of this loose trilogy. Tony Manero, from 2009, used its title character and his attendant Saturday Night Fever obsession to symbolically paint the Chilean society as not only repressed, but sucked of all humanity, while this year’s excellent Post Mortem turned this same society into a country of living dead, human apparitions wandering amongst the churning machinations of political upheaval (it’s final, unforgettable eight minute shot is one of the most hopeless, dire conclusions to any film in recent memory). No, for it’s part, is far less bleak, and in fact offers up verisimilitude in place of symbolism, addressing the era head-on with a historical tact that’s admirable as an end in and of itself.
Which, curiously, is just about the extent of the finished film. Set in 1988 and based on the ad campaign that sought to entice negative reactions to Pinochet’s continued dictatorship of Chile, No employs admirable stylistic and narrative tracts, the former seemingly utilized to buoy the latter. Shot on period appropriate video stock, washed out and contrast-inhibited, the aesthetic model Larrain constructs is impressively authentic, never coming across as modern technology facilitating an older mode but rather like an archival documentary re-imagined with some of Latino cinema’s best actors in the roles of real people. It turns out to be No’s most interesting attribute, as Pedro Peirano’s screenplay never courts high drama or, save for a few humorous sequences stretched across it’s two hours, even dynamic expositional contrast.
The result is a dry but valiant docu-drama (the actual archival footage is bracing), acted in top-notch fashion by a cast that includes Gael Garcia Bernal and the star of Larrain’s prior two films, Alfredo Costa, rendered so accurately and acutely that energy seems to naturally fall by the wayside as the agency works through cheeky campaigns and vote counts continue to rise in their favor. No, therefore, doesn’t climax so much inevitably resolve itself, documenting life in a manner more familiar as day-to-day living than dramatic storytelling. But No does tell an important story, and does so with a pride and intelligence rare in fact-based cinema. It can’t claim the harrowing portraiture of Tony Manero or Post Mortem, but in confronting his chief thematic concern with such aplomb, Larrain may have finally completed the circle, leaving him in a position to move on to even greater things in the future.