On the steep, cobbled street leading down from the GranRex cinema in Locarno, soon after emerging from El Rio y la Muerte (Luis Buñuel, 1954), a deeply engrossing account of a bitter blood feud nourished by generations of Mexican machismo, I thought about Radu Jude's Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World. This was hardly an isolated incident. I had thought about Jude's movie while taking a bus to the other side of town the day before. I would be thinking about it again on a Zoom call the following week. Conversations with colleagues, a sandwich lunch on a bench, even some of my crisp-hotel-bed dreams were colored by the film, glancing off it, bumping into it, minding their own business only to be startled by it leaping out of a nearby shrubbery. When the guy in the Coop supermarket with the blank name tag reset the glitching self-serve checkout with quick, bored hands in front of me, there it was again in my head: Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World.
This is not to suggest that the 2023 Locarno Film Festival felt apocalyptic. August on the Swiss/Italian border is too pleasant, the lake too flecked with little white sailboats, the sky too dotted with paragliders, to be an appropriate setting for the End Times. And it doesn't seem likely that Campari corporate would OK the sponsorship of such a downer event. Nor is it to hint that the 76th edition was devoid of other finds in what proved to be a markedly more robust competition lineup than those of many other years. It's simply to say that Jude's film, his cacophonous, brilliant sneak attack on the status quo, was the only one that seemed in chatty, wisecracking conversation with all the others, and the world beyond: the life and soul of the party, as well as its mischievously forecasted death.
So, the best film In Locarno—no diss, given it will very possibly end up the best film of the year—follows a couple of days in the life of thirtysomething production assistant Angela (Ilinca Manolache, inhabiting the role the way that a current inhabits a fizzing neon sign). Rising groggily before dawn, Angela zips around Bucharest, picking stuff up, dropping stuff off, and having an amusing encounter with Uwe Boll, who is filming on a nearby soundstage. But her chief job today is to tape short interviews with men and women who've been maimed in workplace accidents, auditioning them as spokespeople for a workplace safety video. The Austrian company that has commissioned the promo is represented by Ms. Goethe (Nina Hoss), a politely authoritarian corporate ghoul pegged precisely by the fact that, of her famous ancestor's works, she has only read OG soul-selling fable Faust. Perhaps because she's lived it.
Jude incorporates two other elements into the first and longer of the film's two chapters, making it far more than a simple slice of gig-working life. Just as his movie talks to the rest of the Locarno selection, so its first half self-consciously is "a dialogue with" Angela Moves On, a 1981 Romanian film by Lucian Bratu about another Angela (Dorina Lazar), a Bucharest cab driver in a fraught relationship with one of her fares (László Miske). Fragments of the older film are worked in so that its vintage color imagery, sometimes artificially slowed down to a stuttering halt, meshes with and bounces off the textured black-and-white of modern-Angela's scenes.
And then there's Bobita, the grotesque social media character Angela has created as a parody of noxious influencer Andrew Tate, who is currently in Romania awaiting trial on rape and sex trafficking charges. Barely disguised by a vulgar Tate filter which gives her a bald dome, bushy eyebrows, and a goatee that never moves as quickly as her motormouth, Angela records satirical rants of sexist, racist, conspiracist hatespeak for her online following. So even before the delightful surprise of Lazar and Miske, now in their eighties, showing up as their aging Angela Moves On characters in modern-Angela's storyline, and long before the more sedate second chapter unfolds in one long, locked-off on-set shot, the forced collision between then and now, and between real, fictional, and meta-fictional, has given off the intellectual heat and light of a small cinematic supernova.
It was an inspired decision to play such an extraordinary film so early in the festival: Do Not Expect screened for press on day one, following Quentin Dupieux's Yannick. Together, the films mark one of the more enviable one-two festival punches in recent memory, with Dupieux's movie a perfectly acidic amuse bouche for Jude's, settling the audience in to be unsettled. As a chamber piece set entirely inside a theater, where a dull-looking play is first disrupted, then derailed by the vocal disgruntlement of a strange social maladroit (an exquisitely discomfiting Raphaël Quenard), Yannick is less overtly wacky than the proud French flimflammer's recent output, which encompasses giant flies (Mandibles), tobacco-fueled superheroes (Smoking Causes Coughing), and psychotic suede jackets (Deerskin). But it does mark the continuing maturation of Dupieux's sensibility, while delivering an uncomfortably funny-sad poke in the eye of the complacent viewer. Where in Do Not Expect, "Bobita" launches into a pro-Putin tirade so offensive that, even understanding its satirical framing, you suck in your breath wondering if anyone can actually be allowed to say that, Yannick's humor, insight, and seesawing sympathies hinge on the bourgeois reaction to a man doing much the same: saying things we forfeit the right to say the moment we sign the social contract.
Given their take-no-prisoners attitudes, Yannick (in which he actually does take some prisoners) and Do Not Expect could be seen as a rebuke to the kind of filmmaking represented by Bob Byington's Lousy Carter. But while infinitely cozier and slighter, the Austin stalwart's movie is not without its pleasures, chief among them David Krumholtz, investing the schlubby title character—for yes, Lousy is his name—with a rueful likability that it's doubtful his sadsack-jerkoff English-lit professor had on the page. A failed animator who somehow attained tenure jadedly teaching The Great Gatsby to small seminars of unimpressed college students, Lousy has the unfortunate knack of cracking hangdog jokes about getting a terminal diagnosis, or having his best friend discover his affair with his wife, that almost immediately come true. Certainly the most why-isn't-this-in-SXSW film to premiere in Locarno this year, Byington's lolloping comedy, peppered with acerbic zingers that don't zing too hard and amiable indie presences like Olivia Thirlby, Stephen Root, Martin Starr, and Macon Blair, feels almost as self-consciously past-it as its eternally disappointed antihero. But to say it lacks bite also kind of misses the point, like it would to accuse a sweet old slobbering doggie of the same thing.
Lousy Carter has one mildly #MeToo-adjacent subplot (Lousy's masculinity is too apathetic to earn the descriptor "toxic") and certainly it contains nothing as pointed as a sequence Do Not Expect when 1981 Angela and her cab-driver brethren enact vigilante justice on a fare who'd been harassing a female driver. But another unexpected inversion of socially ingrained sexism occurs in teen drama Excursion, the debut feature from Bosnian director Una Gunjak, which premiered in Locarno's Filmmakers of the Present competition. Here, 15-year-old Sarajevo schoolgirl Iman (Asja Zara Lagumdzija) reacts unexpectedly when a rumor circulates that she's had sex with a local boy: she confirms the unfounded gossip as true. It's a shame Gunjak's screenplay then becomes more interested in the spiraling consequences of Iman's lie than in the peculiar motivations behind it, but as a snapshot of the social-media generation navigating a new landscape of gender expectation, it's a promising, if low-key, first feature.
Back in the main competition, Sofia Exarchou's second film, Animal, is much more forthright in its psychological portraiture. Revolving around the magnetic Dimitra Vlagopoulou, one of the competition’s joint-winners for Best Performance, the film tracks dancer Kalia's ninth season as an entertainer at a low-rent Greek hotel. The lifestyle of hedonism and hard graft is starting to take its toll and we watch Kalia try increasingly desperately to pretend that she's still enjoying it all, right up until a tearful, brutal karaoke rendition of "Yes Sir, I Can Boogie," of all songs, makes it abundantly clear she isn't. The parallels with Do Not Expect's Angela, another lithe, overworked blonde with a fondness for sequins and casual sex, are evident. The only moment that Angela indulges in anything that could be called a personal life is when she pulls into a car park for a pre-arranged quickie with a lover (whose face we never see). It happens so fast and she's already so late for her next errand that she doesn't even have time to wash off the semen that spackles her glittery T-shirt minidress—perhaps 2023's most iconic stroke of kitsch-costuming genius after Ryan Gosling's fur coat in Barbie.
Do Not Expect is about almost everything, but it's especially about the exploitation of the worker under late capitalism. With fewer outright jokes, but a sly sense of humor all its own, Ena Sendijarević’s terrific Sweet Dreams mounts a similarly scathing attack on an earlier incarnation of the market economy, here set against the beautifully photographed backdrop of turn-of-the-century Dutch-colonial Indonesia, where cultural, racial and patriarchal prejudices also come into play. The aging owner of a sugar plantation dies suddenly, but not before fathering a young child by his enigmatic Indonesian housekeeper, Siti (Hayati Azis). His embittered widow (a superb Renée Soutendijk, the other Best Performance awardee) summons her grown-up son and his pregnant wife from the Netherlands, only to discover they've been disinherited in favor of Siti's boy. The machinations of the white family, emblems of waning colonialist power, inevitably lead to various tragedies, including a death-by-drowning-in-sugar which is one of the most strikingly poetic, ironic movie suicides I've ever seen.
The collisions with Radu Jude’s film go on and on. Laura Ferrés's playful but soulful The Permanent Picture is an inventively told story of maternal estrangement and later-life quasi-reconciliation. These are themes Jude's film echoes not only in the moment where the two Angelas, born of different generations, unexpectedly meet, but also in the detour during which 2023 Angela accompanies her mother to her grandparents' graveside, which is about to be disturbed by a luxury apartment development. Nelson Yeo's Dreaming and Dying, which won the Filmmakers of the Present top prize despite feeling to me like a rather pallid xerox of an Apichatpong movie, is saturated with heavy awareness of the cruel passage of time, an idea Do Not Expect has much more fun with, whether intercutting old and new footage of urban Bucharest, or pointedly showing a clock on an apartment wall that has no hands and bears the slogan, "It's later than you think."
Ali Ahmadzadeh's daringly off-kilter Critical Zone, which won the Golden Leopard, and for which Ahmadzadeh has been banned from leaving Iran, has even more evident resonances. Here another freelancer—this time Amir (Amir Pousti), a drug dealer with an unusually active social conscience—goes on a nighttime odyssey through the little-before-seen underbelly of Tehran. It features quasi-demonic drug trips and a female client snorting coke off an iPhone, then masturbating to a squalling, squealing protracted orgasm. And even aside from its blatant transgressions, the movie reinvents the grand Iranian tradition of car-based filmmaking in endlessly surprising ways. Mounting the camera on the steering wheel. Tracking urgently illicit rendezvous through strip-lit traffic tunnels. Having all the journeys narrated by a sultry-voiced GPS who coos to Amir about avoiding police checks. There are quite a few stretches in Do Not Expect when Angela, too, is simply driving her car. She chews gum and listens to loud music to stay awake, negotiating Bucharest's traffic, occasionally glancing over to the passenger side as though looking to make a right turn, accidentally catching the camera's eye and glancing away again. The car used to be a symbol of freedom; for Amir and for Angela, it's more like mobile captivity, a tiny box in which to live, work, sleep, and have sex, on a hamster-wheel journey that moves faster and faster and never gets anywhere.
Many times during this well-above-average Locarno, with Sweet Dreams or Critical Zone or Tulio Demicheli's delirious 1955 melodrama Más fuerte que el amor (The Stranger on the Stairs), from the Mexican cinema retrospective, I was wholly transported into another world, only to find Do Not Expect waiting for me as soon as I left the theater. But it proved a generous festival companion, opening up new ways to think about films, not just their themes, which flash off Jude's lens like car headlamps off sequins, but about the work of them, the labor they represent, the means and motivations of their creation. Might there not, Jude asks, be a better way to create, one that doesn't entail the exploitation or immiseration of anyone involved in the process? The film is scabrously funny and deadly serious, but for all its punk-rock energy and prog-rock digressions, it's also strangely plaintive in what it asks of us: not to expect too much from the end of the world, just please, please, please try to notice that it's happening.