Much of the discussion around Albert Serra’s monumental new film has centered around its incongruity: an uncommonly “accessible” film for the notoriously abstruse filmmaker of grotesque and minimal narratives, one embraced by even many of his usual detractors. Indeed, its late-breaking addition to an otherwise fairly anemic Cannes competition line-up felt entirely fitting, a bomb (nuclear or not) thrown into the traditional order. But what makes Pacifiction such an enrapturing experience is the mysterious ways it emerges as both hypnotic — maintaining the same mood and undercurrents of paranoia surrounding the possible resumption of French nuclear testing in Tahiti — and disruptive, marked by indelible scenes of sudden impressionism: a boat and jet-ski ride on enormous crashing waves, a visit to a decaying house at sunset, a nightclub that becomes almost monochrome in its deep hues. It wouldn’t be too much to say that there has never been a film that looks like this, somehow shot with Blackmagic Pocket cameras that yield a kind of lush, alien glow, where even the many lackadaisical scenes of petty interactions thrum with an unidentifiable anxiety. And at the center is Benoît Magimel, a performance as galvanizing an anchor as Léaud in The Death of Louis XIV, where the soft sleaze of his voice and his imposing white suit-clad presence lend the exact kind of empty swagger that guides the film along. In its invocation of colonialism’s past and present by way of nothing except suggestion and sheer style, it is nigh impossible to imagine a more fully assured, a more tantalizing film this year.
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Decision to Leave
Decision to Leave finds Park Chan-wook burrowing into, if not entirely new territory for South Korea’s preeminent crime filmmaker, then the foundations of his strongest aspects. The bifurcated telling of a detective’s (Park Hae-il) continuously shifting relationship with the wife (Tang Wei) of his latest investigation’s decedent, it operates almost polyrhythmically, letting the dead ends and often humorous tangents inherent to a bewildering murder case play out while remaining intently precise in its dealings with the beats from shot to shot. The visual schema constantly dazzles, employing bold diagonals, distorted and unexpected POVs, and superimpositions of digital information that playfully carries the film along its deliberately mirroring halves. But the true heart of the film rests in its potent riff on Vertigo, where identity is shaped along more ambiguous lines, and, above all, Tang’s performance, surely among the greatest by an actor not primarily speaking in their native language. Her capacity for simultaneous seeming total transparency and opacity molds the emotional tenors of the film, rendering it a tentative romance where the words — spoken in Korean or Mandarin — take on so many other unintended resonances. The entirely appropriate ending rings with such force because of the care and confidence placed in the proceedings, an exquisitely enigmatic dance which must end in the only way possible.
Triangle of Sadness
Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or-winning follow-up to his Palme d’Or winning The Square epitomizes a certain contradiction: he is a director who I wish I didn’t like as much as I do. In its tripartite narrative, which follows the disintegration of a relationship over the course of increasingly absurd circumstances, Triangle of Sadness does, all things considered, have little else on its mind aside from the skewering of the nouveau riche as their environments get turned upside down by machinery, unwelcome workers, and eventually the natural world itself. But while Östlund’s aims are fairly pat, aside from a late-breaking development which productively deepens the complexities of otherwise steadily declining relationships, his skill lies in the actual orchestration of his scenes, and in the touches of comedy that arise from carefully placed running gags. As might be expected from such a scattershot approach, the good and the bad (and the ugly) intermix freely throughout, often in the same scene. Östlund’s spare aesthetic, mostly conveyed in long shot, and his facility with actors as anchoring presences — in The Square Claes Bang; here, Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean, with Dolly de Leon coming to the fore in the last, crucially distended third — helps unite many of these sequences. And on some level, I find such devices as a woman who can only speak one German phrase, the elevation of aerosolized water to a necessary part of survival, and the sight of Woody Harrelson (as the Communist captain of the yacht which serves as the setting of the second act) and a Russian manure baron totally soused, reading Marx quotes back at each other over the intercom as the boat is battered by ocean waves irresistibly funny; your mileage will certainly vary.
Three Thousand Years of Longing
George Miller’s return to feature filmmaking after his career’s apotheosis Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) trades that film’s tactility and near-relentless narrative drive for something much more fantastical and circular, with largely mixed results. While Three Thousand Years of Longing takes as its jumping-off point the extended encounter between a narratologist (Tilda Swinton) and the djinn she unwittingly unleashes (Idris Elba), the film moves with uncertainty between their present-day hotel room and the simulacra of ancient times that the genie has experienced. Each of the three stories he tells revolves around the circumstances in which he was imprisoned, feeling free to meander through the massive, beautiful, and uncanny digital structures and the somewhat weaker stories, which vary between the joy of learning and the delight in grotesquerie. It truly is unfortunate that Miller’s worthy but limited effort — by his gleefully maximalist sensibilities that overwhelm the delicate tête-à-tête; by first too little, then too much footage of the present day; by a romance that, while affecting generally and carried out well by the two actors, feels schematic — came out just a year after Memoria. The fear and trembling in the face of the supernatural/extraterrestrial that Swinton conveyed so potently there reappears here in attenuated form; there is even a scene where the djinn acts as a radio receiver for all the noises of the modern world. Three Thousand Years of Longing and Miller himself are best in the moment, in little tricks and teleological progressions, which only inconsistently come to the surface here.
The Novelist’s Film
Something of a culmination of the love-story-as-narrative-arc that Hong Sang-soo has crafted with Kim Min-hee, The Novelist’s Film finds the two paired with Lee Hye-young, the latest major addition to his repertory ensemble. Unfolding mostly over the course of a day, the film tracks the novelist Jun-hee (Lee) as she pays a visit to the small town where her former friend resides. As she accumulates chance encounters with both familiar faces — a poet, a director — and new ones — recently reclusive actress Gil-soo, played by Kim — an idea for a short film comes to mind out of the small interactions she shares as both participant and observer. The film’s dynamic, and indeed that of Hong’s Kim films in general, is perfectly captured in Gil-soo’s introduction, walking briskly around a park in a leather jacket as Jun-hee happens to see her from afar: the character, the director, and the viewer are fortunate to find this remarkable woman at this time of life. She is nothing less than a burst of inspiration, an enrapturing person who in turn comes to absorb all of the incredible coincidences and hurtful memories that forms everyday life. With the coda, one of the most mysterious and moving scenes in Hong’s entire career, The Novelist’s Film enchanting and lovingly earnestness comes to full bloom.
Armageddon Time, James Gray’s dramatization of his childhood growing up in Queens in the year 1980, reads in many ways like the antithesis of Ricky D’Ambrose’s own Bildungskino released this year, The Cathedral: direct where the other is elliptical, far more overt in its reflection of the era’s politics (including pointed invocations of Reagan and improbable but true cameos from the Trump family), and concentrated in scenes of unsparing psychological detail. While Gray’s film seems in some ways like a reflection, conscious or unconscious, of the general structure of The 400 Blows — even opening with a scene where directorial stand-in Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is disciplined in class and structuring its climax around an ill-advised, youthful theft of a machine — its emotional tenor is closer to that of the agonizing pain of Pialat’s response film L’Enfance nue.
It isn’t accurate to say that Armageddon Time — shot in digital in a first for Gray, albeit with fantastic film emulation — wallows in its fraught family dynamic, brilliantly carried along by Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong as the mercurial, caring, yet abusive parents and a game Anthony Hopkins as the beloved grandfather. There are more than a few flights of melancholy fancy, especially a particularly moving sequence that shows Paul transported into a fugue state upon seeing a Kandinsky painting at the Guggenheim, imaging his own future success as a painter. But Gray does not shy away from the ugliness of his upbringing: the lively but unpredictable crowded family dinners; the racism directed towards his Black friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb), which the Jewish Paul unthinkingly perpetuates through his claims of having a rich family without understanding the pain that his own ancestors went through; the continual struggle between his artistic aspirations and the cold reality of classroom discipline in both public and preparatory settings. As hokey as some of its beats can skew, this is still richly etched and beautiful work, where deliverance can only achieved through the sheer pragmatism of those who cannot succeed and a dawning realization of the rules of the game.
Three Minutes: A Lengthening
Three Minutes: A Lengthening isn’t exactly an inaccurate title, but there’s a lack of engagement with that sense of duration in this dissection of home-movie footage shot in a Polish Jewish village in 1938. As director Bianca Stigter looks at these fragments over and over, proceeding in strangely disconnected leaps between subject, form and otherwise, I couldn’t help but think of Ken Jacobs’s Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son. I’ve never seen it, but its exclusive repurposing of a single film sequence sounds like it offers a much more formally incisive view. Stigter (in her directorial debut; the mid-length film passes by reasonably quickly) doesn’t necessarily avoid this: aside from frequent cut-ins, the only times the film veers from full-frame archival footage are larger grids of faces, isolated moments across these frames that attempts to connect a larger sense of these real people. But the frequency of voiceovers, the degree to which personal accounts fail to deal with the actual implications of these moments lifted out of time — not three continuous minutes, which dilutes a claim to Bazinian reality that might buoy this otherwise — makes this an unfortunately unilluminating experience.