Down the couture-chain outdoor mall of the Croisette, the Directors' Fortnight opened with French intimist Philippe Garrel's In the Shadow of Women, of which Marie-Pierre has already written. It is one of a set of films by major filmmakers, the others being Arnaud Deplechin and Miguel Gomes, seemingly passed over by the Official Selection of the Festival de Cannes and promptly scooped up by the festival's unpredictable and often more rewarding younger brother. As if to underscore the difference between these two strands—in fact, separate festivals in the same city at the same time—the Fortnight preceded Garrel's new feature with an old short of his, a moving, on-the-ground actuality from the May '68 protests in Paris. Actua 1 is, in the director's words, a kind of "revenge on the news," that is, on the conservative newsreels seen in cinema's at the time. The prescience of the images, the danger they contain, and the directness of the urging of the man-and-woman's commentary—recorded so intimately as to hear them swallow—prompted one audience member to later ask the director if the voiceover had been recorded recently.
Shown on 35mm in luminous, etched black and white, Actua 1 connected the past to the present moment, especially leaving a United States horrified and fascinated by recent events in Baltimore, and it too connected the Fortnight's history, founded in '69 partly in response to such protests as those recorded by a young Garrel. Finally, of course, Actua 1 provided a through-line from then to now for this director so embedded in and a conduit for the political, emotional and moral tenor of his era. At the age of 20, a short shot on the streets declaring we can not do nothing about police ubiquity and violence; and now, at age 67, In the Shadows of Women, a slim novella of a film, light and even sometimes funny, on the movements of love and the consciousness of love between a middle-aged married couple scored by double infidelities.
Despite or perhaps because it is fundamentally a film about and deeply sympathetic to women, we must begin with the man, Pierre, played by Stanislas Merhar. There's no way around it: the man is a jerk. Outdoors walking with an insular lope, inside always reclined, seated or drooped, silent in love and identical so in anger, his face is a vacuum which sucks up the life immediately around it. And yet somehow Manon (Clotilde Courau, in an incredible, rich performance) loves him, you can see the adoration in her eyes even as she looks upon his impassive face lost in thought. He is a filmmaker, an artist supposedly, and you see in the repressed smolder and spark in his eyes an aggrieved and deeply interior soulfulness. Perhaps this is his appeal, the forlorn intensity of the artist. How wonderful, without questioning it, the film accepts his wife's love for him and her suppression of herself to serve with love him and his work as a filmmaker. When you see them watching footage of the French Resistance for their project played back on film on an editing deck, they hold hands, and both things—the film, the held hands—feel ancient and very potent.
While working on this footage a younger woman—of course—emerges from the film archive, drawing the filmmaker's attention, inspiring a beautiful, silent walk that begins as a favor and ends up as an affair. Elisabeth, played by Lena Paugam, has an irrepressible smile, and a rare scowl equal in measure. Pierre also treats her poorly, and she too is in love, in her own manner, perhaps as he is in his. After she discovers Pierre's wife is in fact herself cheating—a relationship whose beginning Garrel seems unable or unwilling to imagine, which I found touching and honest—this young lover weighs telling the man. In her tiny flat she cradles a grapefruit thoughtfully, re-organizing the space in anticipation of an important question she may ask, an intersection in their relationship.
Some scenes are connected by a voiceover from Garrel's actor son, Louis (whose feature debut as a director will later show in Cannes' Critics' Week), telling us some exposition, some interior thoughts, and in general capturing a feeling a bit akin to early moral short films by Eric Rohmer, or, as Marie-Pierre suggested to me, the narration in Truffaut's Jules and Jim. That is to say, this is not the intensely claustrophobic director that can be found sometimes in darkened bedroom corners, lonely walks on night-clad streets, and in a desperation almost suffocatingly intiate and shared—no. This film steps back a bit, has more light, more daylight, shot in black and white by Renato Berta. (After the screening, Garrel remarked the choice of palette was entirely dictated by what he could afford, that filmmakers like himself, his friends and others are forced to do with less, and that "crisis cinema" isn't just a cinema about wars but is the cinema made in a state of ever-declining production abilities.)
Pierre is such a morose asshole it would be hard to take if he were not juxtaposed with such love as these women reveal in two sublime, full-bodied, open-faced performances. They and the film's sympathy to them somehow makes In the Shadow of Women a bit easier, I think, for those new to the director. When the wife walks to a rendezvous with her lover, her glowing face is matched by the elation of the camera's smooth track in front of her, both so full of anticipation. Later, walking to break up with him, the camera is no longer in front but behind, no longer smooth but jagged, handheld. It's the small things, the sympathetic touch, the bareness of the drama and its small world, spare and personal but not overly private. When the husband and wife split, their misery is told through plates of plain rice eaten alone and phantom orgasms heard at night. "He was just...just...moments," the wife says, struggling to explain her time with her lover, and alone that's the limit to their pleasures and suffering; yet Pierre and Manon together, uneven though they are, in pain often, they still have something else.
Garrel's opening short Actua 1, in its commentary spoken over a long tracking shot of prevalent patrolling police, aspires for a future where things aren't perfect, but rather the aberrations. A future where the small spurts of cruelty and violence are no longer endemic but instead suggest that the end, the utopia, is near. "Like everyone, I'm not perfect," the wife tells her husband in In the Shadow of Women, upon the revelation of her affair. "But I thought you were different," he sullenly responds, and it's like the voice from 1968 has been brought into the present and confronted with the fact that this possible, hoped for, better world of the 1960s may be akin the to faith one places in the perfection of one's love. Indeed, as the husband puts his faith in the stories told to him for his film project by an aged Resistance fighter—an old man with his own woman lingering, unacknowledged, at his side, and his reminisces based on writings by the director's father—Pierre too puts a naive faith in his wife, and her in him. After he first sleeps with the woman who will become his mistress, the man comes home and slips into a bed with his wife. The two appear mummified in bed by the shadows, a repression and a comfort at once, death and eternity in one. The two are held there by the dark, and hold each other, and it is hardly a perfect relationship, but it certainly is a real one, very real.
A different kind of realism could be found in One Floor Below, Romanian director Radu Muntean's follow-up to his excellent but somehow not often remembered Tuesday, After Christmas (2010). Like that film, the camera here places the characters in the middle ground, the space between them and us empty, and the space between them and the world surrounding them soft and out of focus. The camera pans, left and right, to follow the main character's movement in this myopic vision, a subjective realism of people living in their routine, open to the world and movement through it, but somewhat calmly contained by their lifestyle.
This normal daily living is called into question when Sanu Patrascu (Teodor Corban), a middle-aged man living on the top floor of an apartment building, overhears a couple below fighting. A short time later the woman turns up dead. Patrascu tells the police nothing of the fights, that this woman on the first floor was having an affair with the young married man living above her. Above them all, married father Patrescu strangely keeps quiet, and a mystery starts to grow within his routine: training his labrador retriever, living with his wife and teenaged, video game playing son, and working as a kind of middle man helping people register their cars in what must be a bureaucracy so complicated that even though the film send a good one third of its runtime on this activity, I'm still none the wiser on what exactly the man does, or why. Did Patrascu know this dead young woman more than we're shown? Why does he not tell the police, or confront her married lover? This lover, Patrescu's and our prime suspect, hangs around the upstairs family, helping their son with his computer and games, and while saying nothing directly, the distain Patrescu exhibits because of his withheld opinion is magnificent.
The themes here are very quiet, lurking as they are behind the film's quotidian exposition of this man's day to day life lived while simmering with a subtle mixture of guilt, suspicion, hatred and secrecy. In other words, despite Ceaușescu and his era long gone from Romania, somehow a culture of spying, distrust, keeping secrets, and the skepticism of one's own neighbors still can be brought to light through such a normal but nuanced occurrences and interactions as those between a building's inhabitants, or a businessman and his clientele. The murder merely reveals this subtle, psychologically twisted underbelly.
From this you might think this film would carry with it the oppressive pall of such films as Beyond the Hills or Aurora, other major follow-ups to breakthrough Romanian festival films, yet One Floor Below is notably without the dourness or morbid, plodding detail of some of the more tedious films grouped under the description of the "Romanian New Wave." Indeed, it's not dissimilar to yesterday's Hirokazu Kore-eda's Our Little Sister in its even-handed approach to everyday interactions and its casual but precise manner in staging drama and tension unobtrusively but still with an edge. This seems, however, not only its main thrust but perhaps its only one, and for a while as Muntean carefully cradled this mystery of why his man keeps his maybe-secret to himself. As I watched him live his normal life with this morbid taint, I went back over details however seemingly inconsequential, small snatches of dialog, behavior perhaps a bit off or darkened in retrospect, all seeking insight into why this man is doing what he is doing, and what he is thinking. But eventually this draught ran out and the film kept going, and I felt like I was watching something too single-minded, is one very good idea maintained very well, but not something complex enough to carry the weight of an entire story.
This single-mindedness also beset a remarkable debut found in competition, Laszlo Nemes's stunning and cripplingly problematic Son of Saul. It locks us onto its protagonist in a much more aggressive and stylized way than One Floor Below, holding Hungarian concentration camp Sonderkommando Saul (Géza Röhrig) in the frame as the horrific world of gas chambers and dead bodies surround him. This work unit must do the most reprehensible work in the camp, assisting in the logistics of mechanized genocide: leading victims in, pilfering their goods, moving their corpses. The camera is handheld, the takes very long; Nemes worked as Bela Tarr's assistant director on The Man from London and his tutelage under the master of grim, formally audacious art house films is apparent. Once Saul spies a boy he thinks is his son among bodies in the death house, his pursuit and that of the nearly conjoined camera is but one: to secure this boy a proper, rabbinically observed burial.
With this goal and this technique, the film appears like a holocaust video game, our character watched in third person as a maelstrom of horror whirls around him and we barely glimpse the world, its people and its occurrences outside the blinkered, down-trodden vision of a man crushed in spirit and humanity. The process of death and labor around him is in state of frantic, exhausted and persistent bustle, for any less from the workers will be punished, yet nearly all this activity in the camp, of the victims and fellow Sonderkommandos, is out of focus, barely glimpsed, only heard. It is an immensely assaultive movie in this way, shot and projected on 35mm in a color palette of weird, gross ochres in the manner of Michael Curtiz's two-strip Technicolor Doctor X, with the bobbing profile of Saul in the center dragging the frame this way and that. My eyes were sore for a long time after watching, such is the effect of this intense requirement to hold onto a single figure in the frame as he pushes through the world with a camera latched itself onto him, careening into and around camp's monstrosities.
Saul's objectives are dolled out like waypoints in a game: find the body, bring the body into hiding, find a rabbi, bring the rabbi to the body. From moment one the man evinces a brow-furrowed, obstinate obsession that grows more contemptible and crazed as the movie progresses. While no doubt an argument could be made that his labor has reduced him to such a state, his irrationality makes for an additional unpleasantness taking us through something already grueling, a tour guide of teased atrocities whose detachment from reality only takes us further, shows us less and yet shows us more. We figure out almost at once that, as the signposting and objective-laying other inmate in the film directly says, Saul is "forsaking the living for the dead." Still, so much detail and labor is gleaned on the margins of this terminal, desperate escapade—ashes of the dead pitched in the river are a particularly jolting reveal—with the intense, spatially confused delirium of the handheld travels up and down and around, that Son of Saul brutally, obscenely conveys a truly demeaned existence, and a profound, ghastly psychic energy.