Cannes 2012: Day 8 – ‘On the Road’ + ‘Post Tenebras Lux’

Fair or not, a couple films had targets on their back coming into Cannes this year. Depending on who you ask spoke with, either Walter Salles’ On the Road or Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy were ripe for disaster. Indeed, I was skeptical enough of the latter to skip it entirely (I opted for sleep — a lot of it. Which is why this dispatch arrives a little later than planned). Unlike most, however, I had no expectations whatsoever for On the Road, Jose Rivera’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s cult coming-of-age novel and one of many texts posited as “unfilmmable”. I’m not sure if I’d go that far, since the rough skeleton of a good film is evidenced sporadically in Salles’ version; but he and Rivera would have done well to to fortify the structure of their film, which goes all-in with the episodic nature of the novel. Yet in their resignation to it’s wandering gait, they’ve lapsed on cinematic translation, which may have, amongst other things, condensed the prose into more potent, less repetitive stop-overs.

The broad brush strokes of Rivera’s narrative is one of the reasons their 140-minute version of the novel eventually falters. Yet the runtime itself actually seems reasonable enough. I could envision a even dreamier version by, say, Terrence Malick or Kelly Reichardt, that could be twice as potent in an even longer transposition. What Salles and Rivera fall prey to that these filmmakers sidestep — the latter via literal condensation and the former via extended periods of transition — is allowing each narrative aside to take precedence over the last, tiring out a potentially daydream drift by punctuating each episode with either a punchline, a dramatic crescendo, or a cameo. By hour two, the structure becomes so predictable that each remaining reveal falls successively more flat, spinning a laid-back text into an exhausting visual tome (the cinematography by Eric Gautier is admittedly top notch).

As a result of all this, the gravitas and youthful ennui of the original story is left in the hands of a group of young, rising actors, all with their share of skeptics as well. Sam Riley (a British actor most recognizable as Ian Curtis from Anton Corbijn’s Control) stars and narrates, and much of the picture is seen through the eyes of his beacon of freedom Sal Paradise, all sepia toned and nostalgic when not wide-eyed and curious. Garrett Hedlund co-stars as Dean Moriarty, friend, lothario, and partner in crime, his one-dimensional character given all-too-brief glimpses of depth via Hedlund’s serviceable range. Kristen Stewart completes the restless trio, her Marylou a simultaneous fling and potential pairing for each of her male cohorts at various times throughout their journey across the dust-bowl and up the East Coast of the United States circa 1950. Together the three look the part, and though others seem to be having varying problems with any combination of the three, the lead casting is the least of On the Road’s problems.

Padding out this trio of up-and-comers is a virtually unending succession of cameos by bigger stars — Kirsten Dunst, Steve Buscemi, Viggo Mortensen, Elisabeth Moss, Terrence Howard — each one increasingly prone to numbing the novelty that such an approach can positively achieve when limited to one standout casting revelation. But by the time Amy Adams shows up halfway through the film, loopy and disheveled, sweeping lizards out of a tree, things become more humorous than possibly intended. And it’s in this second half where it beings to feel more like recycled or barely variegated story lines being regurgitated one after the other. Which is a shame since the first half of the film had me mostly entertained, Salles’ atmospheric, period-perfect locations and the actors’ jovial chemistry working to mask some of the narrative leaps and shortcuts. But by the time of Hedlund’s fifth sexual conquest, you’d be forgiven for wondering to what shallow lengths the film can recede as it simultaneously attempts to preach soulful, understated camaraderie. I had a nice enough time soaking up the worthwhile and, in some cases, baffling qualities of On the Road that it ultimately doesn’t strike me as the disappointment it surely has many Kerouac fans. But taking a kind of perverse joy in watching such a promising film careen off the rails is no recompense for generations of readers who continue to identify with these characters beyond the superficial.

To put it mildly, my anticipation was on the other end of the cinematic spectrum for Post Tenebras Lux, Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas‘ first film since taking home the Cannes Grand Prix in 2007 for his landmark Silent Light. Reygadas is one of those filmmakers whose career has borne witness to a sizable increase in quality with each successive outing. His stark, meditative 2002 debut, Japón, introduced an intriguing, uncompromising new voice to the landscape of world cinema. He upped the provocation for his 2005 religious allegory Battle in Heaven, tightening his aesthetic approach while stripping affectation from his characters’ actions. Silent Light, meanwhile, weaved a similar allegory through the cinematic ideology of Carl Dreyer, aiming for transcendence and achieving something as close to that goal as I’ve seen in the last half-decade. To say that his return had built-in expectations, then, would be an understatement.

What Reygadas has emerged with is, to these eyes at least, the most visionary film of the festival. Along with Holy Motors, this is easily the most original, audacious film to screen here. But unlike Carax’s alternately melancholy and cheeky return (which is resonating with me more than expected), Post Tenebras Lux is heavy and deeply saturated with grief. This is Reygadas’ most personal work by some distance, and that goes a long way toward imbuing the film with an uncomfortable, intimate feel, despite exuding a breadth of tone and a rush of lushly captured images that yearn with nostalgic warmth. It’s cinematic in the basest sense of the term, overflowing with intense imagery and moments of startlingly clarity that recede from reach just as one approaches meaning within Reygadas’ mesh of remembrances. He spoke in the press conference following the premiere that he attempts to make films that can’t be paraphrased and which don’t lend themselves easily to synopsis. And indeed, Post Tenebras Lux has about the barest narrative through-line imaginable, tracing a brief moment of evolution and subsequent revelation within a family on the brink of painful maturation.

In conventional terms, however, Post Tenebras Lux is non-narrative cinema in it’s most determinist mode. Searing images and intriguing aesthetic methods — Reygadas’ use of an edge-blurring, post-production framing experiment he calls “tilt-shift” has been one of the film’s biggest talking (and, for some, sticking) points — sensually intermingle, creating a dialogue at once more honest and impactful than character interaction could generate. Much of what is said in the film is marginal compared to the tension created by Reygadas’ images, which move intuitively to build an underlined force that reaches multiple moments of transcendence. The opening shot alone — a handheld traipse through a muddy field which follows the family’s young daughter as she stumbles her way amidst livestock, discovering elements and sensations in gleeful abandon — is one of for the canon, equal in eye-popping beauty to the hypnotically rotating, 360-degree finale of Japón as well the celebrated bookends to Silent Light, which captured both a sunrise and a sunset in real time. Post Tenebras Lux, then, can and I think should be read as a spiritual successor to Silent Light, the dawning of a language unique to Reygadas and a passionate, tactile renunciation of form in favor of feeling.

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