The final days of the festival – and when you’re 30+ films in you just want it to be over – brought a mixed bag of films. And more weird and wonderful sensory pleasures. I also slept through my first one on day 11 – Viva, meaning I didn’t catch all 12 of the Official Competition. Read on for thoughts on Fire at Sea, The Red Turtle, Personal Shopper, Notes on Blindness, Under the Shadow, The Handmaiden, Psycho Raman and Gimme Danger.
Fire at Sea
Winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, Fire at Sea was the documentary about the refugee crisis on the Italian island of Lampedusa that hit the festival with a lot of buzz. The other about the same subject, Winter at Lampedusa, turned out to be more interesting. Director Gianfranco Rosi has also won the Venice Golden Lion for Sacro GRA in 2013, so his poetic documentary style is certainly celebrated around the world. Here, it was mostly lost on me.
While Winter at Lampedusa delves into the effect that the arrivals had on the community; the economical impact on their fishing enterprises, the administrative decisions, and the locals dedicated to processing their arrival and managing sickness and fatality, this keeps the two worlds (the harrowing rescue missions, and the colourful traditions of the locals) mostly separate; spending a lot of time simply observing the locals. While the footage of the rescue boats boarding the vessels and assisting seriously malnourished migrants to safety is very traumatic; very privileged footage that reveals the situation to be as horrific as you’d expect it to be, it is the footage injected in between that proved to be less engaging.
Rosi’s camera follows a charismatic local boy, as he gathers the tools to make a slingshot, has his eyes tested and gets used to wearing his new glasses, and eats dinner with his family. We also meet other locals: including a radio DJ, a fisherman, and a doctor. All of them seemingly at ease with being observed, as they complete even the most mundane of daily chores. Against this backdrop, the traumatic arrival of countless migrants is indeed shocking. I wish I were more engaged. At an exhausting 108 minutes it also felt like Rosi’s Lampedusa footage was just filler in between the rescues.
The Red Turtle
Studio Ghibli joined forces with award-winning London-based artist Michaël Dudok de Wit to create this visually mesmerising, dialogue-free, animated fable set on a deserted island. The outstanding creative team for The Red Turtle also includes Isao Takahata (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) as creative producer, Jean-Christophe Lie (The Triplets of Belleville) as supervising animator, French director Pascale Ferran (Bird People) as co-screenwriter, and Studio Ghibli’s revered Toshio Suzuki (Howl’s Moving Castle, SFF 2015) as producer.
With stunning hand-drawn illustrated animation, a tranquil, evocative score and spectacular dream-like sequences, this exquisite celebration of the cycle of life tells a simple, but profoundly moving story – drawn from myth, but incorporating modern fears – and brought tears to my eyes on several occasions.
A shipwrecked sailor washes ashore a deserted island and explores his new home. He finds a sandy beach fringed by palm trees, a swaying bamboo forest, freshwater pools, a rocky incline and some friendly resident creatures. Malnourished, lonely and desperate to leave, the castaway builds rafts from the bamboo forest, but finds his repeated attempts to escape thwarted by a mysterious creature. It is the final encounter with this creature, a red turtle, that alters his life forever.
I don’t have much to say because discussing the plot too much is a detriment. You want to go into this without knowing much. I was quite enamoured with the whole experience. It drew a lot of emotion; and I was really taken with its hypnotic pacing, its subtle visual charms and the elegant way it dealt with the rolling tides of life – survival, evolution, lineage and fate. The contrasts of day and night and the passing of time, too. Very beautiful. One question does hang over the entire film – and if can find a satisfying answer to that question, or at least an understanding of what de Wit is trying to say, then I think you will appreciate it as much as I did.
Olivier Assayas’ latest film, which re-unites him with Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria) was one of several films at Cannes this year to be met be boos. Despite dividing audiences – many weren’t keen on Stewart’s on-screen texting taking up so much of the runtime – Assayas was awarded co-Best Director by the George Miller-presided Jury. This provocative, genre-eluding psychological mystery/thriller is a strange one; dealing with identity, materialism, grief, murder, and seeking validation from not only the afterlife, but also surrendering oneself to the advice of the device-void.
There are some clumsy, heavy-handed moments – mostly due to Assayas’ smugness, and ignorance of his worst tendencies – but also a fascinating fusion of haunted houses and ghostly presences, and the vacuousness of the fashion world. With more top work from K-Stew (who is unstoppable right now), and some thought-provoking existential questions, this is an unsettling thriller that successfully gets the pulse raising, while leaving plenty of head scratching moments along the way. Assayas does struggle with the third act, and some developments simply serve no purpose.
Maureen (Stewart) is a young American woman living in Paris, working as a personal shopper for a celebrity. She spends her days perusing the city’s luxury designer stores, collecting clothing and accessories (that she is forbidden from wearing) and couriering them around. Alongside her isolating job, Maureen pursues her psychic ability to communicate with spirits. The only thing keeping her in Paris is her longing for a sign from her recently deceased twin, Lewis, who promised to send her a message from the other side (should it exist). After an encounter at Lewis’ old house, she discovers that she is being pursued by an unfriendly spirit, which threatens her already fragile mental state and leaves her vulnerable to coercion.
On the subject of the text messages; with Clouds Stewart has established herself as the best in the business at text-acting. But, her performance here is certainly near career-best. Her tics and stilted delivery lend an authenticity; flaws, fragility, and believable confidence. Here, she adds a touch of the scream-queen. Maureen is the victim of a 21st Century harassment; endless test messages, who she believes are from her ghostly stalker. She is initially both terrified and intrigued, but eventually starts to use the responses as an existential liberation; a validation to break rules and embrace her desires. Every time her iPhone buzzed (the Apple product placement is obtrusive, but this is a film full of ‘labels’) I held my breath; anticipating the next question, instruction or chilling observation. It is a very effective technique. Assayas also brilliantly utilises the dark, empty spaces and ominous sounds in the houses when Maureen senses she isn’t alone.
It is often a very silly film, but its great moments are GREAT, and it is always intriguing, and frequently suspenseful. I understand the boos but come on people, more films like this please.
Notes on Blindness
In the early 1980s, writer and theologian John Hull lost his eyesight after decades of steady deterioration, documenting his experience on audio cassettes that would later become the autobiographical novel Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness. In 2013, filmmakers James Spinney and Peter Middleton, working closely with Hull (who passed away at age 80 in 2015), made an award-winning short based on Hull’s experiences entitled Notes on Blindness: Rainfall.
From that success the pair transformed Hull’s profound life into a feature film – selected here for the Official Competition. A sensory-charged docu-drama/essay film that defies classification, the filmmakers used a clever technique of casting actors Dan Skinner and Simone Kirby to lip sync to Hull’s original recordings. The resulting film is a re-creation of the author’s thoughts and observations that unearths the interior world of blindness.
While I admired the idea and the presentation, and found Hull’s perspective on memory and conception of time especially fascinating, it was ultimately too fragmented in structure and plodding in pace to be completely immersive. The film plays with time in an indescribable way; actors lip syncing the spoken recordings – transcribed from John and his wife Marilyn’s memories of events – as if they are dialoguing in the present. Sometimes it is obvious that the pair are conversing with reference to the past, and to see this play out as a present conversation is a little odd.
But, to see Hull’s determination to understand blindness, and to continue to teach his students and live his life by embracing the strange new world, and integrating it into the norm, is very inspiring. It is a privilege to learn first-hand the psychological strain; and Hull’s commentary of the discoveries (both the inspiring and the debilitating) he makes along the way. One example; perhaps the most tragic, is when he hears his daughter cry out in pain and he realises he is incapable of helping her in his condition.
Spinney and Middleton take full advantage of the audio and visual possibilities, creating a striking canvas of images that often possess a dreamy glow – serving as representations of either Hull’s fond memories, or of the imagined scenario.
Under the Shadow
In Babak Anvari’s debut horror film – incredibly assured, considering it is Iran’s first horror film set in Iran – a malevolent entity, referred to as a ‘djinn’, terrorises a mother and her daughter in their apartment. I was very impressed by this late ’80s war-torn Tehran-set invasion horror as it wrings effective scares from the political climate, the supernatural and the psychological, complementing the mounting suspense with potent cultural commentary.
Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is a westernised woman in post-revolutionary Iran, whose past political affiliations have disqualified her from completing a medical degree. When her doctor husband is ordered to help in the long-running war with Iraq, the frustrated and somewhat contemptuous Shideh is challenged as a mother, left to care for their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone.
As bombs fall on the capital – actually penetrating the top floor of their apartment block – and residents start to flee, Dorsa and Shideh discover that the bombs have brought something sinister with them. When Dorsa claims that a demon has stolen her favourite doll and promised to find her a better mother, Shideh is forced to hold her ground and fight back against the suffocating infiltration.
This is a scary film; the mounting dread a product of the film’s patient pacing, the scares expertly executed. Comparisons to The Babadook are only in its favour; as Under the Shadow addresses the growing despair of a mother struggling to understand her child, losing her nerve and failing to keep the household under control. Her sense of suffocation in a conservative society is matched by her entrapment in her own home. The framing is especially impressive – one particularly shocking jump-scare moment got everyone in the cinema – and Anvari successfully expands the space; not limiting the story to the apartment, though it could have all been set there and worked, but cleverly incorporating the hallway staircase and basement garage.
Inspired by Sarah Water’s novel ‘Fingersmith’, Korean master Park Chan-wook (Joint Security Area, Oldboy, Stoker) cleverly transposes the story to 1930s colonial Korea and Japan to tell a twisty, kinky lesbian thriller. It premiered at Cannes and competed for the Palme d’Or. Though stylish, with exquisite costumes, production design and cinematography, this is a rather wild and grossly indulgent film from Park; working gleefully in a playpen of porn, sex, swindling and torture. The nutty curveballs are a shock and the cheeky sense of humour works more often than not, but the rigidly structured, flash-back style story felt forced to me.
Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) is hired as a handmaiden to the repressed and isolated Japanese heiress Hideko (Kim Min-hee, Right Now, Wrong Then), who lives with her domineering uncle. Though servile and charming on the surface, Sookee has been planted in the household by a swindler posing as a Japanese Count (Ha Jung-woo, The Yellow Sea). His plan is to seduce and elope with Hideko and take possession of her considerable fortune. It is Sookee’s role to coerce Hideko into marrying the charmer. But, not is all it seems – and when Sookee and Hideko develop an intense attraction, the allegiances shift in unexpected ways. Park plays around with point-of-view, using Rashomon-style flashbacks to reveal that not everything is quite as it has been initially presented.
This is a story of sexual liberation; two women, who are frequently underestimated and exploited by the men around them, uniting to take down them down. But, can a film about such empowerment still possess extended explicit sex sequences with a pervy camera? The women give brave and captivating performances – each of their characters are performing for the other, which makes their range even more impressive when we learn ‘everything’ about them.
In all its elegance it was the terminally silly story, that always seemed to have its toe in farce even when it was disturbing, that I never wholeheartedly embraced. The relationships never seem to be authentic or make much sense; there are big gaps in logic that Park gets around by showing us the other side of the coin, and shifting perspective. While the twists are a shock, they had to be. It was near-impossible to have interpreted these relationships as they are. Equally entertaining and disappointing at the time of watching, but it has certainly stuck with me.
A leading and controversial figure in independent Indian cinema, Anurag Kashyap has directed provocative landmark genre films such as Gangs of Wasseypur. His new film (also titled Raman Raghav 2.0) is a highly stylish, suspenseful and frequently disturbing cat-and-mouse crime thriller that he has declared to be inspired by David Fincher’s Se7en.
Set in contemporary Mumbai, Psycho Raman is broken up into eight chapters, detailing the parallel stories of Ramanna (the brilliant Nawazuddin Siddiqui, The Lunchbox), a homeless tire iron-carrying drifter and deranged psychopath inspired by Raman Raghav, a real-life 1960s serial killer who terrorised the city, and Raghavan (Vicky Kaushal), a psychologically tormented young cop, in pursuit. Raghavan, a violent drug addict who toes the line of justice, as protected by his badge, becomes the source of Ramanna’s fascination.
Though they are two men operating on different sides of the law, their very different moral consciousness – Ramanna knowingly kills, while Raghavan refuses to comprehend the impact of his career and relationship sabotage – result in them forging a similar path. This is nasty stuff, but its bursts of style (including an excellent opening credit sequence, and a recurring use of techno tracks) and total commitment to its idea are admirable. Siddiqui, and his character, are fascinating, but Kaushal’s ‘Bad Lieutenant’ is a gruesome concoction of cliches and his acting distractingly over-the-top.
Here is Jim Jarmusch’s documentary love letter to punk icons Iggy Pop and his band the Stooges. This clip-strewn account was a moderately entertaining time-passer for me, but for Stooges fans I can see it being essential viewing. The film delves deep into Iggy’s grungy glory – the guy doesn’t hold back with the anecdotes – and the success the Stooges’ first three groundbreaking albums, and lays satisfying groundwork so that their implosion just a few years later has an impact.
Michigan-born Iggy’s youthful music career wavered, until he found his Stooges soulmates in Dave Alexander (bass), and brothers Ron (guitar) and Steve Asheton (drums). All of these men, plus other members who would join later, are listed in the credits at the beginning. For Jarmusch, this is the story of the Stooges, and he wants us to know everyone involved. Iggy gleefully relates his story; from the crazy years of ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ all the way until the the 2010s when he, and several former members (who had moved on to regular day jobs), reunited for an epic comeback.
There isn’t to much to say about Gimme Danger. It is a mostly-conventional talking-head historical/rock portrait, but Jarmusch (who obviously adores them) adds fun flourishes – film clips and amusing visual accompaniments, in addition to live concert footage and archive photographs. Plus Iggy Pop is a simply fascinating man to listen to; his interviews are staged in ‘undisclosed locations’ – but one of them seems to be his own home, folded laundry and all.
We ended the final day with the awful Swiss Army Man that became, easily, the worst film of the festival. Rather than unleash a diatribe of hatred, I’ll just say that I was almost-immediately on a different wavelength and never recovered. It became a torturous experience, which is a shame because the committed performances are great.