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Cannes Day 3: Distant places

Another day, another epic. In my badge category, getting into key Official Selection screenings is not guaranteed, so the day, no matter how carefully plotted ends up taking unexpected, sometimes frustrating, turns. For instance I waited for over one hour for the Cuarón masterclass only to realize, when we were all turned away, that no matter how much I waited it was always impossible for me to get in. Echoes of Kafka abound in any Cannes day. So about two hundred people actually wasted their time with no real hope when we could have tried to get into a real screening.

But the gaps in the day allow catching up with the press and listening in to conversations, and it sounds like Haneke is not hot anymore and, unless the Festival has a symbolic gesture, he will not be a front runner for the Palme D’Or. A Catalan critic close to me was saying Campillo’s 120 battements par minute was his favourite and might win, not just because it was so good, but also because “Almodóvar, you know, is gay”. Hmmm. As if. Unless the film is really extraordinary (I haven’t seen it) Almodóvar is unlikely to have a “gay” gesture. Quite the opposite. And international critics have praised Zvyagintsev’s artier, quieter Loveless, and right now that’s where the smart money is. Today’s key entry, Coppola’s The Beguiled is unlikely to change that.

The Beguiled is based on a novel by Thomas Cullinam, but director-scriptwriter Sofia Coppola also acknowledges Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp’s 1971 script as an inspiration. And since the cat’s out of the bag, why not start there. I know, comparisons are neither necessary, nor, really, pertinent in most cases. But I think in this case they can be helpful to bring into focus the film’s strengths and weaknesses.

Don Siegel’s film starred Geraldine Page and Clint Eastwood. Not sure if that was the order in the credits, but it is certainly the way I remember it. By 1971, Page had become the epitome of the Southern spinster thanks to a couple of Tennessee Williams adaptations, and it is difficult to erase memories of her performance, which defined “southern gothic”. It was neurotic, wound up, full of sharp edges, and almost breathlessly intense. The film was visually classical, and it relied heavily on plot turns, flourishes of violence, character arcs and all that repressed sexuality. The film was effective as a re-thread of the “neurotic woman” films of the previous two decades, but in 1971 not even Siegel could resist the force of feminism. And given our (male) hero is basically bedridden for most of the plot, he never gets his way, and decisions are made all the time by women characters, it was almost inevitable that the film gravitated in that direction. Yes, certain approaches to female sexuality can be patriarchal, but given the plot, patriarchalism was reduced to the minimum possible (which of course might still be too much, but that’s another story).

Sofia Coppola won’t have any of that. Her films are distinctly unneurotic, never camp, and a quiet feminist outlook pervades them without forcing itself into plot and character. Working as writer-director from an auteurist perspective, her point of view becomes somehow more important than story, and that can be tricky unless you have, besides style, a complex personal world. I’m not convinced she does. She has something in common with her father, or at least, the latter’s films of the 1970s: a sense of place precedes plot in her concerns, and character dynamics are more important than arcs. These two strengths work superbly in her version of The Beguiled.

Both the interiors and open spaces are gorgeously, precisely conveyed, from the avenue of magnolia trees at the start to the whole ghostly mansion flooded by a north light that recalls the paintings of Andrew Wyeth (one of the most influential for 1970s cinematograhers). The women dress in different shades of white, as fantasies that appear to wounded confederation soldier John McBurney.

These are not cartoon fantasies, though, or the stereotypical simplifications of the earlier version, these come across as very real southern young ladies: wide-eyed, eager, polite, curious, aware. One could be looking at each nuanced performance by the female cast and never tire of detail. We wonder about their gestures, their glances, every little gesture or the way their voices break into mumbles or stutters. These women live beyond the story, just as the house or the white clothes or the lush forest have their own sense of tenuous existence. You shall see few films as textured, few atmospheres as dense as those achieved by Coppola here. She can also recognize what goes on among younger girls and sees Nicole Kidman’s Martha as a necessary figure of order. She is clearly not a grotesque. She may have repressed sexual feelings, but does not expose them fiercely for all to see. That’s the way repression works.

On the other hand you might like your thrillers to be packed with thrills, you might like your southern gothic neurotic and you might like your stories paced traditionally for fuller effect. Or you might think that these qualities are particularly apposite to the rather tricky plot of emasculation the novel and the film tell. In that case, you, like me, may be wishing Coppola had written a couple of scenes more for Dunst, Kidman or Elle Fanning, that there were dramatic moments to help flesh out the characters as constructed in their quieter ones: the Siegel version is actually 15 minutes longer than this one, as it allows for those kinds of scenes. Good performers, after all, thrive in those big moments and audiences enjoy them and prize them.

Or this could be wrong and the story does not really require the theatrics the Siegel version included. Who knows. That film was more effective on first viewing, this one is closer to reverie.

Another good example of a film focused on the relation between spaces and people was Kantemir Balagov’s Tesnota/ Closeness in Un certain regard, another instance of a particularly strong year for Eastern European films.

Sometimes films seem to come in clusters, and after The Beguiled, I could see how both had a discourse that had to do with symbolic spaces and what they do to people. The anecdote in Closeness is simple: a young man from a Jewish community in the Caucasus is kidnapped, and getting the ransom together has an impact on his family and makes their ties to the close-knit ghetto they live in urgent, visible, a question of life and death.

I am particularly sensitive to the theme of community and its rituals, and felt I recognized many of the small events that keep the story together. The early engagement party reminded me powerfully of Cimino’s The Deer Hunter in its attention to detail and the interweaving of private and public moments. The “closeness” in the title refers to the ways families and communities develop ties of intimacy, but also to the way Balagov’s camera explores faces, hands and details. The Jewish community becomes a microcosm about the reasons why people are together, what constitutes a community, and the compromises it entails. At the heart of the story, there’s the character of the daughter, who is unwilling to accept compromises, even to get her brother back.

The film is also aware of space as an intrincate cobweb that determines the character’s lives beyond personal feelings. The house where the family is, the clubs, the streets that separate what in effect constitutes a ghetto from the Russian part of time, the rooms, the sinagogue, all are shown to have an impact on lives and behaviour. Closeness conveys very vividly the experience of inhabiting that cobweb.

And finally, Santiago Mitre’s La cordillera, an odd entry for Un certain regard, as “regard” is something the film really lacks. It is basically a thriller that starts as an episode of The West Wing and slightly veers towards House of Cards gerrymandering. At the start, a corruption scandal which might threaten a vulnerable Argentinian president, played by Ricardo Darín, seems set to explode just as a Latin American summit to put together an international oil company is about to start.

The summit takes place high up in the Chilean Andes, surrounded by magnificent mountains, and Mitre insists on the landscape as some kind of symbolic context to the protagonist’s situation: the president is called after all “Blanco” and snow-whiteness is all around him. Unlike the other two films today, the connection here seems a bit arbitrary: why this place for this story? It’s as if the layer of meaning was somehow forced into the plot.

At one point I wished the film had stayed with the West Wing plotting. It moves into an unexpected, supernatural, direction and rather than trying to say something too interesting on the conflict between our public decision and personal life, it fizzles out into melodrama. It is entertaining and works well as a thriller (Alberto Iglesias has written an overemphatic score that tries to make the comings and goings sound ponderous), but the current affairs section of any newspaper or even your Facebook feed might provide more convoluted and all encompassing conspiracy theories.

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