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Cannes Day 4: The Shrill and the Serene

The day started, early, with Good Time, an entry in the Offical Selection, which is an interesting film to watch at 8.30 am. It is directed by the Safdie brothers, whose previous work I didn’t know, and in attendance there were bunches of teens in tuxedos who were kind of together but looking intently at their phone screens, maybe even communicating with each other through their devices.

The film is exciting in the same way so many movies today achieve excitement: shaky camerawork, huge blurry close ups, fast editing, unrelenting, deafening score, lots of running around, and a structure based on episodes that don’t seem to flow naturally. The film is a bit dizzy, made up of substantial set pieces, and displays elements of the ethos the tuxedoed teens are likely to relate to (kids are clever and try hard even, adults are all dumb, and a relaxed attitude towards drugs and sex) and visits the kinds of places they might find exciting, like game arcades and adventure parks.

Although basically an action flick, it does have a heart. The plot moves from one scene to the next following Connie (played by Pattinson) who wants to support his weaker brother and rescue him from jail, even if he has to go to extremes. But the heart is too hidden in the flash and it is not easy to empathize with. It is also a very male affair. Women are connectors, means to an end, who are there either to provide money, grumble or help males to get together so that they can continue their criminal pursuits.

Film festivals create odd juxtapositions, and the contrast between this and the day’s second offering could not have been sharper. Suddenly it was like diving under water and feeling the world becoming quiet. La novia del desierto, an Argentinean-Chilean co-production directed by Cecilia Atán and Valeria Pivato and starring the wonderful Paulina García, is an emotional road movie about a woman finding her way after losing everything.

García plays Teresa, who, after a lifetime serving a wealthy family in Buenos Aires is asked to move to San Juan, and has to cross the desert. Everything she owns after decades in which she helped bringing up the family’s only son, all of her possessions fit into a small grey handbag, which she loses. In her search she will be assisted by a chatty traveling salesman (an engaging performance by Claudio Rissi).

It is a convention of the road movie that Teresa will find herself after losing everything, but the film does not make this too easily predictable. The episodes are subtle, tentative, as befits the character’s thoughtful, sensitive nature, and it is only little by little that she becomes more open to life around her. This sounds more clichéd than it actually feels: the changes are believable and there is nothing easy or predictable about the scenes. And the landscapes have not just epic beauty, but somehow become key references in the changes Teresa will experience.

En attendant les hirondelles, a film from Algeria directed by Karim Moussaoui, also in Un Certain Regard, is a similarly spare, introspective film that deals with time and changes in post-war Algerian society. It is made up of episodes about key issues, with a particular concern for the tension between generations and the role of women in a patriarchal society. Although basically realistic, it has expressive flourishes set to music, and at one point a band seems to come out of nowhere to help a young woman make up her mind. Another episode turns around the consequences of wealth and economic progress in traditional societies.

The last episode tells the story of a doctor whose past during the war, when he witnessed a rape without doing anything to stop him, comes to haunt him. The film moves quietly and subtly and at all times avoids simplifications or strong statement. It is aware of the need for change, but also that change takes time.

And finally I attended Sergei Loznitsa’s Krotkaya/ A Gentle Creature, a Russian film from the Official Selection which turned out to be one of the unexpected cinematic revelations of the festival. The programme summary suggests, yet again, a road movie structure, concerning a woman (Vasilina Makovzeva) who wants to visit her husband in a remote prison, and one could guess shades of Kafka. But nothing prepared me for the stylistic flourishes Loznitsa (who also directed the excellent In the Fog) brings to the basic story. Imagine a Berlanga film visualized by Hogarth, a cross between early Mikhalkov and late Kusturica, filled with Dickensian characters channelling gogolian spirit (it is one of those texts full of many other texts), that seems to be set both in the Stalinist past and in Putin’s Russian Federation.

Although the film is explicitly set in 2016 you might think this is middle period Soviet Russia. The joke is of course to insist on how a lot of that period is still very much alive in contemporary Russia: the rickety trains, the old cars, derelict buildings, dusty unpaved roads, buses that seem to be about to fall apart, wooden houses… it is only halfway into the film that we begin to see examples of more contemporary technology. It uses the kind of saturated colour films of period used, and the characters and attitudes reflect that.

Of course Soviet films could not be critical with the goverment, and this fantasy can only express criticism by moving away from reality. The woman in the title is the quiet center of the situation, with inflexible vindictive bureaucrats, violent policemen and basso profundo train passengers. As in Berlanga’s Plácido, El verdugo or Kusturica’s Underground Loznitsa is interested in characters who might not be relevant to the plot but that will have their say or even burst into song. These people can’t stop talking, sometimes uttering the banalities reminiscent of Communist slogans, sometimes closer to our times. Still, nobody helps. It’s as if language was a conspiracy to keep the protagonist from reaching her simple goal: send some food to her husband.

Although well received in the screening I attended, the film was booed, Iˋm told, at the Theatre Lumiere, which suggests it might not make it to the award list. No matter. It is a strange and unusual film, but not in the sense of Haneke or other Cannes regulars. Its strengths are satirical and its outlook very Russian: it is after all a central trait of Russian art from Gogol this mixture of tragedy and comedy. This may not go down well with this particular jury, but to me it is certainly the most enjoyable film I’ve seen in the festival.

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