While I cannot say the festival has started for me with the searing acuteness found day one in Cannes last year with Timbuktu, with Hirokazu Kore-eda's Our Little Sister the tone of my first full day on the Croisette instead began with the Japanese director's particular sensibility of refined, humane warmth and a complete absence of desire to impress.
A wonderful concept centers this picture and called back to me small memories of a Mikio Naruse film I loved long ago, Older Brother, Younger Sister (speaking now of Japanese masters, Our Little Sister also contains a poignant reference to Ozu's The End of Summer). Three single women, not young but also not middle-aged, sisters from their father's first of three marriages, adopt their teenage half-sister after his death strands her between his first and last broken family. So we get a kind of enclave or community of sisterhood, discreet, basic scenes of romantic aspirations and failings, careers and odd jobs, communal life at home, the echoes and influences of fraught family history through behavior, memories, and food. Though nominally structured around themes of forgiveness, honesty and the acceptance of upbringing, the picture is fundamentally anecdotal, Kore-eda carving out full slices of space and giving its inhabitants—his characters but also some precise locations inside the home and out—real presence. The best shot in the film, containing secondary characters crucial to the film's compassion, of a restaurant owner behind her counter and her beau relaxing in front of her, is characteristic: we get a very modest but nevertheless quietly precise feeling of how these people live their lives, work their jobs, relate to one another, of their routine and their everyday emotions—this all in their posture and faces, the oblique angle of the framing, the clean, cloudy whites and grays of the cinematography, Kore-eda's even, considerate attention. All in one unshowy shot.
This relaxed curiosity contests with more stylized qualities of the film that tip it towards a simplified melodrama or exaggeration not in tune with the images' clear-eyed vision. Namely, the sisters sometimes fall a bit too much into caricatures—the prim and repressed eldest sister and "dorm mother," the more promiscuous and flashy middle sister, the funky tomboy youngest, and the sensitive quietude of the "little sister." It's hard to know where the origins of this stylization are, perhaps because it's based on a manga—titled more appropriately, like the movie's Japanese name, as a "diary"—perhaps, more interestingly, that this all-women, all-adult group is an environment that encourages a kind of playacting, the exaggeration of personality common to high school reunions. Or perhaps it is simply Kore-eda, who admittedly includes maudlin music that also underscores this less subtle side of the film's observations. Yet the observations carry a serene, moving power, seen in the controlled, emphatic weight of a young girl's waving goodbye on a train platform, the ambient concern of the continually drifting camera, the careful, intimate arrangement of family members and strangers in the frame, and the passing, idiosyncratic detail of the names of local restaurants ("Sea Cat Diner," "Beach Muffin"). The film is wise; it feels wise, especially with its welcome languor, an unconcerned pacing that seems to slide forward in time without much friction. Yet without that friction, with the time it takes, and with these minor but unattenuated exaggerations, while I started the film very moved by what was unfolding before me, eventually my enthusiasm waned and I wished to recapture the wisdom of the film when it appeared fresh.
This fresh air, even dissipated, was sucked out of the theatre for me by Matteo Garrone's Tale of Tales, an adaptation of Giambattista Basile's 17th-century collection of fairy tales filmed in stiff, awkward English. It is not alone in this language preference: there's English-language actors sprawled across the competition: in (Italian) Paolo Sorrentino's Youth, (Danish) Joachim Trier's Louder Than Bombs, (Italian) Nanni Moretti's My Mother, and (Greek) Yorgos Lanthimos's The Lobster, as well as (Chinese) Jia Zhangke's Mountains May Depart likely including some English. If only this signaled something akin to the exodus of directors to Hollywood in the 1920s and '30s, coaxed with promises of studio resources. Based on Tale of Tales, whose costume costs must equal the entire budget of Philippe Garrel's opening night film of the Directors' Fortnight, it's less about jumping ship to America and more about a reverse courtship, international filmmakers culling foreign talent to broaden their own reach around the world. Garrone impressively also features ace imported "tech specs": David Cronenberg's cinematographer, sound guru Leslie Shatz, and Alexandre Desplat on the score. Hopefully the later English-American infected films in competition will seem less blatantly and arbitrarily opportunistic and more like an eager engagement with another culture.
But enough, let's talk about fairy tales. I think, for cinema, the possibility of turning them into moving pictures may have passed. It's something about their style of address, the way their moral-allegorical transformations into the fantastic, the morose, and the symbolic have a difficult time translating into the basic sense of realism communicated to an audience by moving images and sound. Before sound, such tales—princesses and ogres, giant beasts, the terribly rich consumed by irrational desires and humbled by cosmic-ironic punishment—were not only possible but common, the silent cinema with its intertitles and awesome iconography almost already addressing the audience as myths, legends, and fairy tales. When sound came and the cinema was "grounded" in the moment, it became harder to capture the magical distance of the world of fairy tales (not to be confused with straight fantasy, which is imagination ruled by realism). It was not impossible, of course; for many, Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast burns in our imaginations; later, Pier Paolo Pasolini literally grounded such tales in Arabian Nights and Decameron, bringing old stories right into the dirt on the ground and the skin of his actors.
Now what? Garrone's film takes no new perspective on how to make the cinema feel or move like a fairy tale. Surely these tales take far less time to read or tell than it takes to watch this film. A vigor is missing, as is the sense of a contemporary vernacular mixing with something older. Feigning stories-within-stories, the effect is of several full episodes of flat, internationally co-produced television cross-edited into one big narrative. It fails to commit to magic, to absurdity—though it is sometimes very funny, like a giant flea tenderly nurtured by a king; or Vincent Cassel's salacious introduction under two women's legs, his fellating a finger stuck through a keyhole, more often the humor is unintentional and awkward. Missing, too, is real darkness or sensuality. Tale of Tales neither removes itself far enough from us to feel as if we're somewhere else entirely, nor brings us so close as to rub our faces in the question of why bring to cinema these tales now. (Catherine Breillat faced similar problems with her two recent fairy tales, Bluebeard and The Sleeping Beauty, but they were far more sharply inquisitive of these old tales.) For Garrone, some actors, John C. Reilly and Cassel chief among them, are left stranded with bad line readings. Others, like a sensitive, distracted Toby Jones and a moon-faced, pie-eyed Bebe Cave, so forcefully, wonderfully address us that their charm takes the movie nearer to the desired idiom of storytelling, though overall a pale version of The Princess Bride, itself a postmodern try at re-inventing this kind of thing. Nearly 30 years later, there seems to be little re-assessment from Tale of Tales, which appears above all like that most dreaded of anti-cinema, the illustration.