Audacity is not usually what one thinks of when imagining the first film to show at a new edition of Cannes, but indeed starting the festival with a restoration of Jacques Rivette’s rare L’amour fou (1969) was a daring choice. Over four hours long, its story is radically split between rehearsals for Racine’s Andromache (shot in 16mm by fictional television crew that Rivette let independently operate) and off-stage drama between its director and his actress wife (shot in 35mm, including scenes of the documentary crew filming the rehearsals). At the film’s onset, Bulle Ogier quits her acting role in her husband’s play and invents for herself a personal drama of infidelity and paranoia. Her husband, meanwhile, gets lost in his rehearsals and also seems infected—intellectually and emotionally—by his wife’s quite reasonable, albeit extreme, concoction. The dialogue between theater and life, fact and fiction, husband and wife is grueling and frequently despairing, yet its telling is dexterous and mysterious, a cast and crew working together in liberated, expansive play. They create a desperate energy that flings us through a paranoid dramatic maelstrom.
In an era when it feels like cinema is forever on the precipice of irrelevance or disgrace, choosing the opening film of a festival of Cannes's stature is no small statement. The misguided opening night film this year was Maïwenn’s pandering ego-trip of a costume drama, Jeanne du Barry, made to show the actress-director and her toxic co-star Johnny Depp throw the middle finger to 18th-century social conventions—and implicitly, our own. I want to believe that it is L’amour fou, which was screened at the outset of the festival onset before Maïwenn’s evening premiere, that signified what Cannes really stands for, and what’s to come.
Indeed, following Jeanne du Barry was another four-hour confrontation, Steve McQueen’s Occupied City, a powerful landscape documentary of historical crimes made in the tradition of Masao Adachi’s AKA Serial Killer (1975) and based on the book Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945 by Bianca Stigter, the director’s wife. In voice-over, Occupied City catalogs, with no obvious structure to this viewer, an at-first engrossing and then slowly and intentionally stultifying list of tragic fates and ignominious betrayals that Amsterdam suffered during its Nazi occupation. This soundtrack accompanies contemporary footage shot at the same locations, whether the buildings still exist or whether they are, as the flat voice states, “demolished.” Over time, street addresses and their small, human stories—each encapsulated in but a few sentences, discreet and mostly forgotten tales of resistance and hiding and bravery, then betrayal, deportation, murder, and execution—grow repetitive and indistinguishable. At the same time, the combination of the modern locations with this voice of history creates a past-present, dead-living, forgotten-now juxtaposition that frequently feels like it should be more charged with friction. Some sequences do achieve this dissonance: the daily routines of people in and around whose flats once sheltered Jews; buildings with dark histories that have been replaced by something unrecognizable; the rhythms and freedoms of a modern city, normal now but completely inconceivable during the war era. But there's never quite enough spark between the spoken litany and the images before us, and the film owes its considerable impact to its sheer volume, impossible to ignore.
Life after the Second World War also haunts Anselm, a new documentary by Wim Wenders about the postwar multidisciplinary artist Anselm Kiefer. The New German Cinema director’s sumptuous film—one of two by Wenders at Cannes—leans less on information and more on dimensional beauty. embracing 3D cinematography not to bring you closer to the reality of someone’s art, but rather to create an artificial, immersive mise-en-scène meant to glancingly evoke an artist’s mind, or his cavernous atelier, or his personal history. The visual field is filled with paintings that tower at unfathomable scales; spare reenacted memories captured and transmuted into later artworks; and Kiefer’s large sculptures, many pulled from his childhood experiences and later reconsiderations of German war history. Biographical information is deployed by simply quoting other documentaries about Kiefer from across the decades, composited in 3D on a television screen, and is enough to undergird what really matters to Wenders: the lyrical and sculptural filming of Kiefer’s art pieces, workspaces, and exhibition galleries by Franz Lustig’s gorgeous cinematography. Kiefer’s atelier-cum-exhibition-compound La Ribaute, in Barjac, France, is perhaps the ultimate vehicle for this: A spatial environment that, when explored in 3D, feels almost completely artificial, alien, or rendered, as if for a video game. Yet the film’s supple love for these visual textures can only point back to Kiefer’s origin point as the ruins of postwar Germany, in the shadow of fathers who fought in the war and who did not want to talk about the past. Wenders, a man of Kiefer’s generation, seems entranced by the artist’s response and its scale, and transmits that sensation to us.
The monumental scope and expense of Kiefer’s work served to underline the humility of another artist in the festival, the French director Pierre Creton, an artisan on the most modest of scales. With Creton’s A Prince, the Directors’ Fortnight—this year under a the leadership of a new artistic director Julien Rejl—premiered the kind of intensely personal and idiosyncratic film that makes festivals special and the art vibrant. Creton is an agricultural worker and filmmaker—an unusual description that encapsulates neatly, if simplistically, Creton’s poetic and nature-oriented work, often shaped by friendly collaboration. In A Prince, a wayward man (Antoine Pirotte in his youth, Creton himself in his middle-age) finds purpose training as a gardener, and as he gets closer to the earth and his calling he sleeps his way through the countryside of Normandy. A horny and almost idealistically queer film, yet one evoked in spare, direct simplicity, A Prince suggests a pastoral France where every man, young and old, is desirable and open to an embrace. The story is told through reflective voiceovers of multiple characters, coming together in an empathetic community collage of a person and the key people in his life. The film’s refreshing idiom is calm, erotic, and generous, which posits cultivation—in vocation, in pleasure, in bonds—as not only a kind of human labor but also the source for human development.
Such a lovely approach to the world stands starkly against another film with gardens on its mind: Jonathan Glazer’s chilling and ghastly The Zone of Interest, which uses the fulsome flowers in the garden of Auschwitz’s commandant—growing literally on a wall adjoining the camp itself—to represent the paradoxes and human compartmentalization of evil. A chilling formalist powerhouse, the film’s one-note concept is encapsulated in this floral irony: that someone can appreciate such beauty but perpetuate such horror; that someone can see one thing as itself and not see another for what it is. Such condescension to and cynical symbolism of plant life is a bitter contrast to Creton’s metaphor of a plant, like a life, being something transplanted, starved, fed, and, once loved, might thrive.
In need of nurturing are the teenagers and twentysomethings of Wang Bing’s Youth (Spring) who work in the arid environment of myriad identical small textile workshops in Zhili City, in the northeast of China. Youth is one of two documentaries in this year's Competition, the other being Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania's Four Daughters. Documentaries have been a notable absence in the Competition since 2008, suggesting that the most important premieres of art cinema, in the festival's eyes, are fiction films. (Nonfiction films do premiere here, but usually in sidebars. In contrast, the top prizes of the last Berlin and Venice went to documentaries.) The selection of the 218-minute Youth is a major step for the festival, even if it’s not one of Wang’s strongest works. Focusing predominantly on migrant workers from the Anhui province, their characters, places of work, and toil blur together in an intentionally numbing way; like Occupied City, Wang’s film embodies a certain aesthetic experience of repetition, duration, and tedium inherent in the banality of exploitation and systemic and marginalized suffering. The environment in Zhili City hardly seems a fertile one for these kids to grow, yet due to their youth, they constantly joke, flirt, fight, play with their phones, and sing. While the present may be a loop of manual labor for a pittance of rewards, this is poignantly a portrait of a group and a generation yet to be beaten down by the dire conditions that surrounding them.
The second documentary in competition is also a welcome inclusion, representing a fashionable strand of the genre which is based on a therapeutic collaboration with its subjects. Four Daughters works with a mother and two of her daughters to tell their family history and how it led to her other two daughters rebelling and leaving their hyper-protective home to join ISIS. The film is a slick-looking but muddled mixture of talking heads, reenactments with both the subjects and with actors cast as the younger mother and the two absent daughters, and the porous production itself, in which all participants constantly acknowledge the camera and the project they’re taking part in. That project is to exhume an intergenerational story of female seclusion and body-shaming in a Muslim and patriarchal society rocked by political turmoil, an ingrained ideology passed to the mother who despite her own pain and desire for independence and love, passes it to her girls. All three women are beautiful and luminous presences, which makes for a startling contrast with the daughters’ revelations of harsh repression from their mother, trauma from their absent father and abusive stepfather, and unresolved grief over their missing sisters. The subject could not feel more essential, nor the turmoil and emotions of the remaining daughters more pained. Yet the film’s premise feels ethically dubious, with its haphazard process of confrontation and testimony, begging the question of for whom it’s asking these women to recount their stories yet again before the camera. This imperative to open up may or may not be personally liberating for the subjects, but it also seems intended to prompt the maximum amount of conflict and tears for the camera, and for us, at their expense.
A better, less manipulative path towards collaboration is followed by The Buriti Flower, another excellent film by the Brazilian filmmakers João Salaviza and Renée Nader Messora. As with their previous feature, The Dead and the Others (2018), the duo works with Indigenous Krahô people to tell their own story, in their language, as participants both behind and in front of the camera. It recounts the Krahô’s modern history, with land stolen and hemmed in by colonizing farmers in the 1940s, and now encroached upon and invaded by politicians and poachers. The Buriti Flower has the surprising and organic shape of something made collectively with great sensitivity, allowing aspects to go unexplained, integrating documentary elements, reanimating stories from the past, and dramatizing the rearing of new generations. Its embrace of the unfamiliar and its sense of freedom coalesces with the spirit of Rivette’s L’amour fou, and like Paz Encima’s underappreciated EAMI from last year, it is working to push forward community-oriented ways to create Indigenous cinema. The Buriti Flower proves that cinematic language is evolving, and therefore living—and offers another seed from which fresh films can blossom along the Croisette.