Cannes Correspondences #6: Basic Instincts

Exploring the vagaries of human instinct and action in three Competition titles from Ruben Östlund, Arnaud Desplechin, and Cristian Mungiu.
Lawrence Garcia

Notebook is covering the Cannes Film Festival with an on going correspondence between critics Leonardo Goi and Lawrence Garcia, and editor Daniel Kasman.


Dear Leo and Danny,

Triangle of Sadness is the ideal sort of film to discuss in these correspondences, partly because it seems to actively invite snap judgments (so easy to come by in a charged festival environment), making it especially useful to get some reflective distance from that initial, instinctive response. In any case, the film was just one of a number of Competition titles that explored the relationship between action and impulse, providing different perspectives on how we as humans are bound up with bodily instinct.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, given its title and that of The Square (2017), Triangle is most interesting when showing how our actions are inextricably tied to a certain spatial awareness or understanding. There are of course the scenes where Östlund uses framing and camera movement for visual comedy, such as the early taxi conversation, where the camera metronomically pans from left to right, accompanied by the heightened sound of windshield wipers; or the subsequent argument in which the dialogue's rhythms are punctuated by the automatic movements of an elevator door. More significantly, perhaps, the film shows how behind all our ideas, concepts, and judgments lurk various spatial metaphors: Brands are seen as either “high” or “low” fashion; a person’s body language is either “open” or “closed”; political allegiances range from “left” to right”; the subconscious, as the term suggests, is typically thought of as "underneath" the consciousness. Triangle shows, in short, how spatial thinking—which informs our daily interactions, our social structures, and even our prejudices—is the only kind of thinking there is.

One way of seeing Östlund’s satirical tendencies, then, is as uncovering the structures and patterns that lie beneath his characters’ actions, no matter their social class. “Everyone is equal now,” goes one of the branding slogans in the film's first part, as if suggesting that we have managed to do away with all spatial metaphors and social structures. But what Triangle so vividly illustrates is the impossibility of this task—which is not to say that existing hierarchies are beyond criticism, only that there is a danger in pretending that one can do without any spatial understanding whatsoever. Indeed, it may ultimately be more useful to become aware of such spatial metaphors rather than try to eradicate them. As Barry Lyndon (1975) reminds us, a statement such as “They are all equal now” only really makes sense when everyone is dead.

Still, I have some reservations about Östlund’s talents as a satirist, which largely has to do with the film’s noticeable lack of behavioral continuity. (Even The Square, whose disjointed, episodic progression is in many ways similar to Triangle’s, was anchored by Claes Bang’s museum curator.) This is not much of an issue in Triangle’s first two parts, but it becomes more of a liability in the film’s third section, which hinges on a key relationship between two characters, and requires a more convincing dynamic than Östlund ultimately provides. Without giving too much of this narrative development away, I’ll just say that it brought to mind the relationship between the Matt Damon and Hong Chau characters in Alexander Payne’s Downsizing (2017), a film that came to mind more than once while I was watching Triangle. Payne's film, which I didn't take to upon first viewing, has only grown richer to me in retrospect; I can only hope that I’ll be able to say the same about Triangle eventually.

Brother and Sister.

In any case, it should be clear that Östlund, who constructs his scenes like behavioral experiments, is interested not so much in understanding his characters—“subjects” may be a more accurate term—as in uncovering patterns of action. Virtually the opposite may be said of French director Arnaud Desplechin, in Competition this year with Brother and Sister, starring Melvil Poupaud and Marion Cotillard as a pair of long-estranged siblings. From the very start of his career, with The Life of the Dead (1991), Desplechin has demonstrated a keen interest in people, and his Truffaut-esque formal play is often geared towards revealing his characters’ psychological specificity.

Take for instance Brother and Sister’s pre-title prologue. We open with a group of suited persons speaking in hushed tones around an apartment door, priming us for a dramatic entrance. When a man named Borkman (Francis Leplay) finally enters, he holds our dramatic focus—that is, until the scene shifts to Louis (Poupaud), who delivers a vicious monologue directed against the new, unwelcome visitor. From his speech we learn that we are witnessing the funeral of Louis’s six-year-old son, that Borkman is his brother-in-law, and that Louis has, because of his sister Alice (Borkman’s wife, played by Cotillard), been effectively exiled from his family for fifteen years. The scene then shifts to show Louis’s wife Faunia (Golshifteh Farahani), stricken and tear-stained, who pleads with him to leave Borkman be. He doesn’t, of course, and moves to throw Borkman out, directing our attention to the apartment entrance once more. The door swings open dramatically, revealing Alice waiting in the hallway, and we get a close-up emphasizing her face, streaked with mascara. Soon after, the screen fades to black.

This entire sequence is characteristic of Desplechin. There’s no denying his taste for melodramatic material, and the way he uses this to grab the viewer’s attention. The surface tone and emotional texture of the scene are immediately appealing, and there’s an added interest in how the symmetric staging, centered around the doorway—a dramatic entrance and exit driven by the two men, with emphasis on the stillness of two women on either side—explicitly ties the dynamics of the interaction to the space. More significant, however, is the way Desplechin’s style is geared not so much towards heightening the dramatic intensity of the situation as to shifting our understanding of (or perspective on) it. In other words, Desplechin's interest lies less in his characters’ actions than in their attitudes or postures, less in what they do than in the particular tendencies of their personality.

In Brother and Sister, the decades-long enmity between siblings Louis and Alice—a dynamic first introduced in his 2008 family drama A Christmas Tale—is the narrative’s clear focal point. Following that pre-credits prologue, we cut five years ahead, opening onto a car accident that sends the siblings’ parents to the hospital, forcing both Louis and Alice to acknowledge the other’s existence once more. Thus, Brother and Sister’s main through-line is the question of whether or not they will resolve their differences, and most of the film’s dramatic interactions—hospital visits, a morgue trip, encounters with their third sibling Fidèle (Benjamin Siksou)—are built around Louis and Alice’s inability to share the same space. While some reasons are given for the siblings' antagonism—mainly having to do with their respective artistic successes—there is no sense that the film's outcome depends on pinning down the supposed causes. Indeed, it becomes impossible to identify any specific event, and their outsized hatred for each other functions on one level as a reflexive exploration of storytelling demands, which Desplechin makes absolutely clear by the very end in a scene between Louis and Alice in a café.

Desplechin’s films are often characterized as messy and scattershot, which is understandable given their emotional outbursts, splenetic line deliveries, melodramatic dialogue, and formal maneuvers deployed with the boldness of direct address. Such judgments, though, tend to see him as a director interested in dramatic transformation via action. In Brother and Sister, by contrast, Desplechin reaffirms his interest in understanding his characters as they already are, and in reaching clarity about their mere existence.


R.M.N., Cristian Mungiu’s follow-up to Graduation (2016), takes an entirely different approach to action, psychology, and character. After a brief prologue which shows a young boy frightened by something he sees in a forest, R.M.N. establishes a couple of main threads, which Mungiu develops with his typically methodical attention to detail. The first follows Matthias (Marin Grigore), a butcher working abroad in German slaughterhouse under a three-year contract, which is cut short when, after being called a “fucking lazy Gypsy” by his foreman, he headbutts the man with a shocking suddenness and force. He subsequently returns to his hometown in Transylvania, where his estranged wife Ana (Macrina Bârlădeanu) lives with their son Rudi (Mark Edward Blenyesi), the young boy from the prologue, who has mysteriously turned mute. The film’s second major strand follows Csilla (Judith State), the manager of a local bakery, who is working to fill some additional positions in order to qualify for an EU grant, and whom we later learn was Matthias’s ex-girlfriend. Together with the bakery’s owner, Csilla eventually hires three Sri Lankan workers who are willing to work for wages which locals will not take. Their arrival in the town becomes the film's primary source of tension, inciting nativist anxieties from the villagers, some of whom engage in a series of increasingly violent acts: first by expressing racist invective on an online forum, later by refusing to buy bread from the bakery and barring the Sri Lankans from a Catholic service, and then by throwing a Molotov cocktail through the window of the workers' local residence.

Despite being arguably the most visible Romanian filmmaker since 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the 2007 Palme d’Or, Mungiu has always struck me as one of the lesser figures of the Romanian New Wave. R.M.N. is the closest I’ve come to fully embracing one of his films, and more than the film’s political heft, this has to do with how his particular brand of realism conveys the gap between action and impulse, exploring what separates humans from the instincts of an animal. Rudi’s temporary muteness is instructive in this regard, suggesting that we would do better to focus not so much on the words being spoken, as on the more expressive, non-verbal aspects of communication. Across the film, we get an impressive accumulation of small-scaled behavioral detail: the repeated shots of Rudi refusing to hug his father; Csilla’s body language when Matthias visits her house one evening; Csilla casually massaging her boss’ shoulders as they discuss work in the factory office; and, especially, a long, post-coital conversation between Matthias and Csilla, where he says he’s only comfortable saying “I love you” to her in a language other than Romanian. (The film includes Romanian, Hungarian, English, German, and French dialogue, and is attentive to the expressive qualities of using each.) This behavioral interest is also how we might understand why Mungiu shows Csilla not just listening to, but also learning to play Umebayashi Shigeru’s “Yumeji’s Theme” from In the Mood for Love (2000), a film entirely built around expressive, non-verbal gesture.

While potent enough in themselves, Mungiu's small-scaled observations are further heightened by his penchant for compositions dense with activity. This is clearest in R.M.N.’s tour de force scene: a 17-minute long take of a town hall meeting in which the mostly racist villagers gather to discuss what should be done about the foreign workers, a passage that clearly shows the limits of argument and rhetoric when faced with the animalistic energy of a mob. The scene is one of the most bracing things I’ve seen at the festival so far—and having just watched films from David Cronenberg and Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab duo Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, my list of memorable experiences is quickly growing.

Looking forward to hearing about yours.



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CannesCannes 2022CorrespondencesFestival CoverageRuben ÖstlundArnaud DesplechinCristian Mungiu
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