Cannes Dispatch: Shapes of Things

New films by Todd Haynes, Rodrigo Moreno, Joanna Arnow, and Justine Triet uncover new rhythms in timeless genres.
Lawrence Garcia

Lost in the Night (Amat Escalante).

The more familiar one becomes with Cannes, the less one comes to expect anything like aesthetic coherence from it. Even if one accepts its nominal (or self-proclaimed) status as the standard-setter for international arthouse cinema, there’s still a fair amount of variation within its vast program. Which is to say that while one can lament the general calcification of festival-circuit aesthetics, the arbitrary programming decisions of Thierry Frémaux, or the often perplexing set of awards handed out each year, there are always films worth seeking out. In 1982, the French critic Serge Daney remarked that Antonioni’s Identification of a Woman and Godard’s Passion were part of cinema’s “secret factory”: that is, films which wouldn’t receive awards, but from which future directors would draw inspiration in years to come. The challenge with each edition, of course, is to discover which films those are.

For a while, Mexican director Amat Escalante’s Lost in the Night, playing out of competition in the Cannes Premiere section, seemed like it could fit the bill. From the jump, the film impresses with the physicality of its visual style and its lucid, wide-angle compositions, courtesy of cinematographer Adrian Durazo (Robe of Gems [2022], Our Time [2018]). By the end, though, it becomes clearer why the film might have been excluded from the main competition. Despite a strong narrative thrust reminiscent of a hardboiled detective novel, in which a young man Emiliano (Juan Daniel García) gets involved with a wealthy family while searching for his activist mother, who disappeared after protesting the local mine, the film loses power in a rather ungainly final act. 

All the same, Escalante’s direction remains impressive throughout. Of particular note is an early scene observing the setup for a concert promoting the local mine, which showcases the director’s control of tension and mood, and his ability to use extreme physical turns to redirect narrative expectation. Escalante’s evident taste for brutal subject matter, on display throughout the film, may sometimes be difficult to distinguish from slick productions that take cruelty as de facto virtue. What distinguishes Escalante’s films, though, is that the relationship between their violent extremes and story progression is not always straightforward. In Lost in the Night, the narrative’s momentum is often tied less to character psychology than behavioral instinct, less to deliberate action than impulse. (In this sense, Escalante does not present us with realist but naturalist violence.) Lost in the Night courts risibility during its climax, and its closing note feels somewhat abrupt and out of place, but the film has a clarity and force that lingers beyond its narrative particulars.

The Delinquents (Rodrigo Moreno).

Operating in a much gentler key than Lost in the Night is Argentine director Rodrigo Moreno’s Un Certain Regard standout The Delinquents. Although the film is nominally about two bank clerks, Morán (Daniel Elías) and Román (Esteban Bigliardi), who become involved in a relatively low-stakes heist, Moreno makes immediately clear that his film will not be contained by a conventional genre framework: The Delinquents is a long way from the crime-thriller template established over a century ago by Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922). The film’s opening images of Buenos Aires do not function as establishing shots but are rather keyed to the rhythms of a city symphony; across its languorous three-hour runtime, Moreno opens up his film in ever-surprising ways, introducing tangents and meandering interludes, each of which undercut any sort of narrative expectation. In particular, two pastoral digressions involving a woman named Norma (Margarita Molfino) each give Morán and Román (note the anagrams), both oppressed by the drudgery of urban existence, time to take in the scenery. 

The film’s Argentine provenance, its free-flowing fictional pleasures, and the presence of Laura Paredes in a minor role as a bank auditor: these elements may evoke such reflexive projects as Mariano Llínas’s La Flor (2018) and Laura Citarella’s more recent Trenque Lauquen (2022), and Moreno does share with those directors a taste for genre play and narrative riffing. As for Moreno’s penchant for isolating the pace of a gesture within a deliberate composition—for instance, the time it takes for a man to peel a single orange, or to fill and drink a glass of water three times in succession—I often thought, however improbably, of Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma (1970). In the main section of Frampton’s film, which is structured around the Latin alphabet, one-second visual units standing in for letters are gradually replaced by moving images of notably different temporalities—for example, a man painting a wall, a pedestrian walking down a sidewalk. Of course, the context of The Delinquents’s plot makes a world of difference. But what one likewise notices watching Moreno’s precise and ordered découpage is the multitude of ways by which one can mark time, and the extent to which what we call narrative is, at bottom, a question of rhythm.

The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed (Joanna Arnow).

A similar endeavor to transform the viewer’s sense of temporal passage was New York–based director Joanna Arnow’s The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed, a highlight of this year’s Directors’ Fortnight slate. If the post-screening Q&A was any indication, the film, which follows thirtysomething Ann (Arnow herself) as she navigates a series of casual relationships with various “masters,” is likely to get notice for its frank portrayal of BDSM. Arguably more impressive, however, is the way Arnow weds this subject matter to an assertive narrative structure and a visual plan of mostly static compositions. In Ann’s sexual encounters with various men, Arnow deliberately obscures the precise dynamics of the relationship, preventing us from assembling these scenes into a larger trajectory of disappointment or fulfillment, while also challenging our ability to understand her behavior and personality. This approach extends also to the other facets of Ann’s life (home, work, family), from which Arnow excerpts in scenes notable for their unusual brevity and limited context. A mid-film montage set to music, which in a different film would stand in for the protagonist’s large-scale transformation, is memorable for its distinct lack of forward momentum. The overall project, it would seem, is an attempt to unsettle a linear timeline by denying us the usual markers of personal change, and thereby restricting our capacity to make sense of the protagonist’s behavior.

“I mean, my faces reflect how I feel, too,” Ann remarks toward the end of the film But it’s a mark of the film’s canny construction that she remains difficult to read throughout, which has the auxiliary effect of heightening our attention to even the smallest, most ostensibly insignificant aspects of her behavior. At the core of the film’s structural play is the understanding, as Arnow herself put it in a post-screening Q&A, that the entirety of a person’s life is present at every moment—that each of their gestures is, as it were, informed by their whole history. Although The Feeling That… was, for myself, sometimes funnier in theory than in practice, Arnow’s ability to give novel shape to this insight should not be undervalued.

Anatomy of a Fall (Justine Triet).

The notion that a person’s actions are informed by their entire history can, of course, take a myriad of cinematic forms. Nevertheless, if there’s a genre where this idea takes on especial force, it’s the courtroom drama, where the central task is precisely to show how a person’s past is (or is not) involved in a present action. Last year gave us Alice Diop’s Saint Omer (2022). Not halfway through this year, we already have two additional French courtroom dramas, both scripted by actor-director Arthur Harari. The first of these, Cédric Kahn’s Fortnight opener The Goldman Case, revolves around the 1976 appeal trial of Pierre Goldman (Arieh Worthalter), a notorious Jewish intellectual-cum-revolutionary, who was convicted for a series of armed robberies (which he admitted to) and the murder of two pharmacists (which he denied). The appeal of the film derives mainly from its temporal and spatial concentration; Worthalter’s embodiment of a fascinating, contradictory persona; and the neutral perspective Kahn maintains with respect to Goldman. The end result is consistently entertaining, but the film’s intentions seem as opaque as that of its central figure.

More pointed in its irresolution was Anatomy of a Fall, Justine Triet’s second competition title after Sibyl (2019). The basic setup has an admirable simplicity: a German writer Sandra (Sandra Hüller) is accused of murdering her French husband, Samuel, who falls to his death from their isolated house near Grenoble, and whose body is found by their visually impaired son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner). The film opens on the day of the death, without showing Samuel onscreen, and depicts some of the investigation that follows, up to Sandra being charged with murder. But making good on the title reference to Anatomy of a Murder (1959), the bulk of the film comprises Sandra’s trial. The quest to evoke Preminger’s masterpiece is bound to be a losing game for any courtroom drama. Fortunately, Triet does not court the comparison too strongly. Although there are shades of Preminger in the way she keeps Hüller’s Sandra at a somewhat chilly remove, limiting our identification with her, Triet does not generally attempt to replicate the American director’s fluid camerawork. Indeed, a more apt cinematic precursor may be Claude Chabrol, particularly his use of structure to destabilize the certitude of ostensibly objective images, as in films like Violette Nozière (1978) and The Color of Lies (1999). Of note in Anatomy of a Fall are two key flashbacks involving Samuel (who otherwise goes unseen), the second of which is tied to a late-game identification shift to Daniel, whose belief in his mother moves to the film’s narrative center. It may be questioned whether Triet has actually built up sufficient context for this move, but its clear intentionality suggests that a second look at the film may prove worthwhile.

May December (Todd Haynes).

More immediately invigorating was May December, Todd Haynes’s first Competition entry since Wonderstruck (2017), and an expert rendering of a deliciously campy logline. Two decades after a middle-aged housewife Gracie (Julianne Moore) and her much-younger husband Joe (Charles Melton) first got together amid a media firestorm, when she was 36 and he all of 13, the couple share a seemingly placid suburban life, with two well-adjusted kids about to head off to college. The unstable equilibrium of their relationship is threatened, however, when they are visited by Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a well-known actress who’s looking to play Gracie in an upcoming film about the couple’s scandalous encounter. In premise alone, May December marks a return of sorts to Haynes’s earlier, concept-forward films such as Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), Dottie Gets Spanked (1993), and Far From Heaven (2002). In this case, the reference points are not pop-music iconography, mid-century suburbia, or the Technicolor melodramas of Sirk, but less cinematically respectable forms of media: tabloid news articles, gossip magazines, cheap dramatic reenactments, and tawdry true crime. What remains consistent is Haynes’s tendency to use camp artifice to get at emotional truth, his belief that authenticity can emerge in the process of holding the pose, and his core conviction that consciousness of genre is essentially self-consciousness of genre. 

Accordingly, May December opens in the key of grotesque parody, with a crash-zoom into Gracie opening her fridge and wondering whether she has enough hotdogs for a barbecue, but quickly refracts the central concept in a variety of registers, allowing the concept to take on emotional depth, even genuine tragedy, in a range of productive (and productively discomfiting) ways. Haynes’s films are sometimes criticized for being overly intellectual, and not always without reason. But like the best of his work, May December demonstrates that conceptual audacity does not exclude emotion, that abstraction is compatible with both pathos and humor.

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Festival CoverageCannes 2023Amat EscalanteRodrigo MorenoJoanna ArnowCédric KahnJustine TrietTodd Haynes
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