The Cannes Competition line-up is traditionally an exclusive gathering of established auteurs or rising young filmmakers who have paid their dues competing in other strands of the fest’s vast official selection. It can therefore take someone like Hong Sang-soo multiple Un Certain Regard selections before he finally gets invited to main competition (as he finally did this year with his very fine In Another Country). Meanwhile, there are directors like Ken Loach, who, once having breached the Competition, get a seemingly free pass to future births, no matter the quality of the submitted work. By these standards, then, one of the more unexpected inclusions in this year’s line-up was Jeff Nichols, a young American director who’s previous CV includes only two films, the under-seen Shotgun Stories and last year’s Critic’s Week winner, Take Shelter. But I certainly don’t begrudge Nichols or his new film, Mud, this opportunity: Based on the excellent Take Shelter alone, a fighting chance at some legitimate Cannes hardware is more than appropriate, even without working his way up the proverbial totem, cutting his teeth multiple times over in less visible line-ups.
Mud was the final Competition film to screen for both critics and audiences this year, premiering on the 11th and final official day of the Competition, and it played like a sharp gust of fresh air after ten days of heady art films (Like Someone in Love, Post Tenebras Lux), unfortunate Hollywood star vehicles (Lawless, Killing Them Softly), and whatever you want to call Holy Motors. That it’s ultimately a few strides behind the still chilling Take Shelter is of no grand consequence when true storytelling acumen seemed to be at something of a premium throughout the festival. What Mud should do, then, is finally establish Nichols as a prominent American indie craftsman and a young auteur worthy of taking small risks on in return for sharply observed character pieces disguised as genre outlets. If Take Shelter was the manifestation of one deteriorating man’s inner turmoil writ large across a thriller template, then Mud is the naive expression of a child’s curiosity streamlined across the same turbulent format.
Starring the recently focused Matthew McConaughey as the title character, a convict on the lam along the islands of the Mississippi who tasks a couple of young local boys with helping him accomplish his goal of escape and reconciliation with his girlfriend as he’s violently pursued by the family he wronged, Mud takes small town family dynamics and bleeds tension from it’s conventions and nascent danger. One of the more rewarding aspects of the film is Nichols’ way with unraveling his story, slowly and with little fanfare, only to burst with moments of earned expression. He does lean a little too much on foreshadowing here, robbing some of his late plot developments of the surprise factor they might normally carry, and some of the characters (Reese Witherspoon’s lightning rod girlfriend, for example) can feel like little more the devices to get us from Point A to Point B, but Nichols’ sense of atmosphere, keen eye for detail, and ear for authentic dialogue carry the film to satisfying lengths. And the acting throughout is top notch (the performance by Tye Sheridan, best known as one of the lesser seen brothers in Malick’s The Tree of Life, should, if all was right in the world, be a star-making one), furthering confirming Nichols’ broad skill set. And he’s made well enough on the Competition risk that future invites back to the Croisette seem inevitable.
Coming out of nowhere to win the Palme d’Or your first time in Competition is another, even more surefire way of garnering attention from the Cannes selection committee any time you return with a new film. In 2007, Romania’s Cristian Mungiu brought to the Competition perhaps the most universally agreed upon title and unanimously received Palme winner in the last couple decades. His harrowing 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, in addition to continuing to all but represent the then-budding Romanian New Wave to those less inclined to follow such movements, also triggered a reestablishment of the rules utilized by the Documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for selecting nominees, having snubbed what everyone had penciled in for the eventual Oscar, let alone as a qualifying nominee. Of course, it’s taken him five years to emerge with a follow-up, further stoking anticipation for what looked to be yet another emotionally draining experience.
Beyond the Hills
Mungiu’s latest, Beyond the Hills, premiered about midway through the fest. Its 150-minute runtime forced me to reschedule the film for the last day of the festival, when all Competition titles play one last time in case of you’ve missed something potentially important along the way. So by this point I’d heard reactions to the film, which ranged from malicious to indifferent to exuberant, not helping curb my curiosity. Based on it’s lengthy runtime, severe premise — a young women slowly crumbles, courting theories of demon possession, as she visits an old friend at her convent, attempting to remove her from the presumed oppression of her Priest and return home to Germany — and the austerity employed by the New Romanian guard had my interest piqued for a difficult follow-up to a comparatively accessible debut — another Aurora to Cristi Puiu’s widely celebrated The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, so to speak.
Turns out I made the right decision to see this film and only this film on the final day of the festival, just hours before it would take home multiple statues during the evening’s awards gala. An epic, shattering indictment of religious orthodoxy and a poignant cross-examination of two souls drifting opposite each other towards potentially similar fates, Beyond the Hills expands Mungiu’s already rigid formalism and interest in the female psyche to a fascinating new dimension. It’s not, as anticipated, an oblique, challenging follow-up like Aurora, but rather a rich and more ambitious journey through the emotional tremors stoked by faith and friendship, and the psychological release precipitated by love. Mungiu, for all his aesthetic ingenuity (and this film is truly a marvel of compositional prowess, design, and staging), is proving to be this movement’s most natural storyteller. Indeed, there’s little respite offered throughout Beyond the Hills, as from moment to moment we’re rarely given pause from dialogue or a development in narrative intrigue.
The two young actresses at the heart of the film, Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur, are both marvelous (they ended up sharing the Best Actress prize, in a bit of an upset over Amour’s Emmanuelle Riva), balancing both the symbolic as well as the human aspects of their characters, taking each to different yet equally tragic ends. The way Mungiu separates, contrasts, and mirrors the two within the frame at any given moment pits the two in a quiet tug-of-war through which film gains subtle power. The deep focus compositions enable Mungiu to tell multiple stories and impart subtle details as he stacks the compositions with layers of characters and objects, one on top of the other, his mise-en-scène speaking for outlying characters and at times engaging in a dialogue with the audience itself. Meanwhile, Valeriu Andriuta’s towering Priest is an intriguing figure of contradiction, his thought to be well meaning decisions continually sending his remote religious community further into wells of conspiracy and controversy. Beyond the Hills is fascinating in all the ways you can’t tell at any one moment who’s in the wrong or who’s pursuing the most morally upright motive. It unravels something like life itself: slowly, and with escalating intrigue, before individual plights become intertwined and we can’t take back whatever questionable decisions may have sent us careening into despair. It’s plays as an near-overwhelming discourse on organized religion and the human condition, and it could come to be seen as one of the key works of the still-vital Romanian New Wave.
And with that, it comes to an end. I honestly couldn’t think of a more appropriate way to end an exhausting 12-day festival than with an equally exhausting work of the sort that Cannes traditionally specializes in. It was an untraditional festival in a lot of ways, though, and perhaps a curious one to call my first, but with three films that I would qualify as major works in contemporary cinema, a fruitful one. Beyond that it felt more deep than top-loaded or thin, and there are certainly worse things than seeing a dozen or more solid films in the greatest locale in the world (even the bad films — and there were some outright bad films — illicit significantly softer blows because of this). But nonetheless the best standout, and I’ll utilize these closing words to rank what I feel are the ten most significant achievements to play at the 65th Annual Cannes Film Festival. As a note, I’ve excluded both Miguel Gomes’ Tabu and Christian Petzold’s Barbara (both of which I reviewed in these pages) from consideration here, as each premiered in Berlin earlier this year and were not a part of the Cannes Official Selection. Therefore, a rough outline of the ten best from the 2012 Cannes Film Festival:
01) Like Someone In Love (Abbas Kiarostami)
02) Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas)
03) Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu)
04) La noche de enfrente (Raoul Ruiz)
05) Amour (Michael Haneke)
06) Student (Darezhan Omirbaev)
07) Paradise: Love (Ulrich Seidl)
08) In Another Country (Hong Sang-soo)
09) You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Alain Resnais)
10) Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
In the end I only missed a few films I really wanted to see, and many of those decisions we’re facilitated by the fact that they’ll be seeing U.S. release in due time and, more directly, because Cannes is just a glorious place to experience a different kind of life away from the movies as well. But each of these titles has resonated with me for different reasons: Like Someone in Love’s audacious foreplay with real-time narrative; La noche de enfrente’s heart-stirring ruminations of a man reconciling a life even as he confronts death; Student’s paradoxically bold yet subtle character disclosure and stylistic ellipses; You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet’s infectious celebration of Resnais’ own career and the acting troupe that’s seen him through him 90 years; and even Holy Motors, unexpectedly haunting the outskirts of my memory with images of Denis Lavant soulfully removing the day’s makeup only to reembark on a nighttime waltz through some vividly imagined set pieces. This may prove to be the fest’s one true grower, and while it may also, in the end, be not much more than a two-hour gimmick, it is without a doubt an original one and one I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt right now. But like any art worth debating, these and many other of this year’s Cannes titles are open to interpretation, and in every case are worthy of the conversations they have and will be provoking as they (hopefully) open around the world. So it’s an ongoing conversation, then, and one we’ll be having with many of these films for years to come.