It’s five days into the Cannes Film Festival, but today feels like the day when things finally hit their stride. There’s been a handful of very strong films (Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love, Raoul Ruiz’s La noche de enfrente) in the various line-ups, but until today, nothing that felt like a capital-E event, works to inspire intense dedication, fierce argument, and private contemplation in equal measure. Two of the three premieres I caught on Sunday, however, firmly stand in that elite category — and the other marks yet another strong addition to a subtly complex filmography.
Sight unseen, I’d imagine the two Competition titles most given to charges of probable irony were Paradise: Love and Michael Haneke’s Amour. The former, while certainly not a skip through the proverbial cinematic fields, was still uncommonly sympathetic, while the latter, one of the fest’s most cautiously anticipated titles, proved to be a near-total encapsulation of it’s title’s various implications. The follow-up to his masterful 2009 Palm d’or winner, The White Ribbon, Amour stands easily as the German pessimist’s most humane, heartbreaking work. Lest we think Haneke has softened — or, less likely, let the audience off the hook — the opening sequence presents a stark juxtaposition, cutting bluntly from a perfectly dressed dead body lying prone on a bed to the title card, slyly poking at expectations with a macabre, contradictory wink.
Little of what transpires over the next two hours, however, is nearly as grave, and in a surprising reversal of his typically unforgiving sense of implication, Haneke demands little more from his audience than sympathy for his central characters, an elderly couple confronting death in small but inevitable steps. In fact, that stark opening contrast of images and words reveals the fate of one of film’s characters right off the bat, cutting narrative tension in half but, conversely, stoking curiosity for the events that will take us from the serene marital discourse of the initial sequences to the ominously abandoned apartment of it’s conclusion. Whatever your assumption may be — regarding character, plot, motivation, etc. — is slowly left to dissipate as the intense love between this couple works toward transcending preconceptions.
Starring the legendary Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant as the elderly couple put upon by sickness and mounting anxiety, Amour charts, in very fine, methodical strokes, the growing paralysis of Riva’s Anna and the care given to her by Trintignant’s husband, Georges. What transpires is almost mundane on the page — feeding, cleaning, consulting — but Haneke imbues each moment with a soulfulness that his other films flatly refuse. But he still frames his compositions in strict, formal stasis, alternating long takes with more conventional shot-reverse-shot methods which place the emphasis squarely on his characters.
The presentation results in two of the finest performance in any Haneke film: Trintignant, confused but steadfast, plays Georges as a man with hidden regrets but a passionate present resolve (seen most severely in his relationship with his daughter, played by Isabelle Huppert, who takes the brunt of Haneke’s still-present discontent with the family unit), while Riva takes a potentially melodramatic part and subtly wrings real pathos and an almost too-convincing sense of physical and emotional pain (she will now be going head-to-head with Paradise: Love’s Margarete Tiesel for the Best Actress prize). By pulling back a significant degree on his finger-wagging tendencies and punishing moralistic lecturing and focusing directly on character and their inherent contradictions, Haneke has constructed one of his most devastating, mysterious — dreams play a potentially vital role in Trintignant’s ultimate fate, a question which Haneke leaves dangling in a succession of ambiguous closing scenes — and unexpectedly heartfelt works.
But sometimes expectations are key to grappling with a director’s work. Prolific Korean director Hong Sang-soo has thus far built a 16-year career by riffing on his own established themes and visual strategies. This can make his filmography seem like one singular idea pillaged over and over again, and on the surface, that’s an understandable observation. But Hong, like Yasujiro Ozu before him, gets an impressive amount of mileage out of a seemingly limited formula, richening the impact of his collective output while accentuating the specific charms of each individual outing. His 13th film (yes, 13 films in 16 years) and first to compete for the top prize at Cannes, In Another Country, offers something new and potentially important to continuing Hong’s run of strong work.
The film features not only Hong’s first non-Korean lead, but a star, French icon Isabelle Huppert, in a fish-out-of-water narrative which in every other conceivable way plays exactly as Hong’s prior work. But he continues to use his stylistic limitations to his advantage, utilizing Huppert in a variety of comedic guises as the film works it’s way through another of Hong’s recurring daydream narratives where actors play the same character in multiple variations on the same situations, commenting on and contrasting each successive scene in playful repose. Here, Hong’s career-long fascination with the male/female dynamic confronts jealousy and infidelity, as Huppert disrupts a variety of relationships and piques the interest of a multiple males, including a goofily passionate lifeguard which stands as one of his most entertaining creations. It remains to be seen if In Another Country marks the beginning of a more cosmopolitan strain of cinema for Hong or if this is just a one-off, but if so, he appears to be adept at synthesizing outside personalities.
A filmmaker now well on his way into a invigoratingly fresh, global approach to filmmaking is Abbas Kiarostami, who’s latest masterwork, Like Someone in Love, marks the Iranian legend’s second straight picture filmed outside his homeland, firmly reiterating a new phase in his career. With his last film, 2010s Tuscany-set Certified Copy, Kiarostami found a surprising vitality in not only his change of locales, but also aesthetic, utilizing lush digital photography and richly composed mise-en-scène to saturate a narrative which referenced both European art house classics and his own cinema of performance and deception. It also featured his first bonafide star in the lead role, with Juliette Binoche no doubt enticing Kiarostami’s biggest audience yet. Like Someone In Love retains all but the headlining star, enlisting a small cast of mostly unknowns in service of arguably his darkest, most bleak film since Taste of Cherry took home one-half of the Palm d’or in 1997.
Relocating this time to Japan, Kiarostami exploits his surroundings less for visual gain (though this is the most flat-out beautiful film to play at Cannes thus far) than societal implication and open-ended theorizing. The role of the female and their historical relation to that of the male is one of the film’s most prominent themes, contrasting as it does Akiko’s (actress Rin Takanishi) various encounters and historical obligations with and to her boss, her boyfriend, and her family. Akiko seemingly wants out of all these relationships, but Kiarostami carefully deploys key information regarding each in a nonchalant manner and in seemingly mundane situations, gathering power and tension through this dynamic via long, static takes of both calm contemplation and drawn-out dialogue. His been doing similar things for decade now, but the cryptic nature of Like Someone In Love usurps the tragic ambiguousness of the finale of Taste of Cherry, the docu/fiction reversals of Close-Up, and even the most elliptical passages of Certified Copy. He’s re-writing the text on narrative presentation, disclosure, and motivation here, using subtlety as means toward engaging intellectual discourse.
Kiarostami courts so many varying themes and potentially inflammatory ideas regarding violence and cultural archetypes — and in such a quiet, inconspicuous manner — that it’s unsurprising that the film was met at the fest with such bafflement and, in some cases, outright dismissal. The film builds for about 100 minutes toward what in a traditional movie would be a climax, only to abruptly cut short the visceral impact of what in any other work would be a concession to an audience’s base impulse for violence. Rare is the film that pivots so abruptly in its final moments, snuffing out expectations while simultaneously triggering an impulse to comb through individual moments in an effort to unravel the meaning behind each line of dialogue. In this way and many others, Like Someone In Love feels, in it’s own modest, non-didactic way, like a paradigm shift, a richly rendered, multi-character study with implications far greater than it’s characters have the capacity to currently understand. It marks Kiarostami as no longer just Iran’s most humane filmmaker, but world cinema’s most vital, engaged voice.