Given that Loznitsa’s A Gentle Creature was perhaps the most unfairly dismissed entry in last year’s competition, I’m glad to hear that Donbass proved rewarding. I missed it myself, having spent most of the third day trekking down the Croisette to the Quinzaine des réalisateurs (Directors' Fortnight) and the Semaine de la Critique (Critics' Week) festivals, the latter of which offered little worth discussing thus far. Still, I'm glad I made the short journey, since the two Quinzaine selections were challenging and compelling in ways I hadn't anticipated. But let's start with two competitions entries, both of which turned out to be quasi-musicals of a sort.
The first: Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto (Summer), centered around the burgeoning underground scene of the Leningrad Rock Club in the early 1980s—“a cardboard England in a Baltic swamp," as Mike (Roman Bilyk), the popular frontman of one of the club’s veteran bands, describes it. An elegantly choreographed long-take—the first of many—kicks off the film, observing two girls sneaking into the shambling venue, the camera surveying the seated audience, their feet tapping inconspicuously to the music, in marked contrast to the furious energy on stage. A makeshift poster with a painted heart is raised, then quickly lowered. (“It’s not allowed,” says a club manager.) What Serebrennikov offers is a reminiscence: of the formation of the Soviet rock band Kino, fronted by Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo), but also of the love triangle that forms with Mike and his wife, Natacha (Irina Starshenbaum), whose memories were the basis for much of the script. But it’s a reminiscence filtered through the kind of cutesy, winking irony that would be more at home in a lesser Sundance movie: A bus-set rendition of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” complete with animated chalk lyrics, should give an indication of what to expect. “This didn’t happen,” the audience is assured, as if to pre-empt charges of fraudulence. Granted, the tension between what was and what could’ve been should be the core of Serebrennikov’s fictionalization—a film that ostensibly toggles between lived-in existence and flights of fancy to locate a sense of melancholy and loss. But what results is a discursive, shambling portrait so divorced from a sense of emotional reality that it simply dissipates into non-existence.
Far more canny about its historical milieu is Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, whose title inevitably carries associations of an espionage thriller. And though there’s not a gun in sight, it certainly moves that way. Toggling between multiple locations (Poland, East Berlin, Yugoslavia, France), with various details (a martini, shaken, not stirred) and locations (jazz bars, dimly lit streets) as sharply deployed as cinematographer Łukasz Żal’s black-and-white, Academy ratio compositions, Cold War traces the troubled romance between Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a former musical director of a youth program in Poland ca. 1949, and Zula (Joanna Kulig), a talented young singer with more than a little charme slave. (“Femme fatale, eh?” a border agent says to Wiktor in Yugoslavia, years after the lovers' initial encounter.)
Pawlikowski’s previous film, Ida (in which Kulig appears as a bar singer), is a film both sensuous and suffocating; there’s a rigor to the Polish director’s style that seems to take the weight of history and place it on his characters' shoulders, so that rich human detail is traded in for the allegorical. And that’s true of Cold War as well. Tableaux of gorgeous idylls alternate with passages of music and dance; the lovers separate and reunite and separate again, beset by forces greater than themselves. But here, always, the music remembers. Far more than the deterministic closing passage, it’s Kulig’s desperate, yet joyous dance to Bill Haley & His Comets' “Rock Around the Clock”—a rare, bracing moment of liberation—that will linger.
Another resonant image, the mirrored bookends of Guillaume Nicloux’s Fortnight entry To the Ends of the World: Gaspard Ulliel, seated on a bench amidst the mud and fog of a French military outpost in Indochina. If Valley of Love (2015) was a mystical foray into Death Valley, this is a despairing plunge into the aftermath of Operation Bright Moon, the brutal Japanese coup of March 9, 1945 towards the end of the Second World War. Segmented by date cards, the film's flow is halting, its sense of time, slippery. Like Ulliel’s vengeful Robert Tassen, scenes are often terse and laconic, punctuated by grim, graphic violence—barbarous mutilations and bloody manglings that shake even the most hardened soldiers. The 35mm grain of the film stock gives its hazy, rain-soaked images a sense of opiatic unreality. “What now?” Tassen is asked after the Frenchmen of his platoon have died and he's surrounded only by turned Vietminh soldiers. What indeed, when one has reached the heart of darkness only to find the torment unended—the circle not broken, but completed? “Grief is a strange ordeal,” says Gerard Depardieu’s writer character at the close—and strangeness is what the French director forcefully, sometimes bafflingly locates within the ostensible parameters of the war genre. Nicloux’s is a film poised between retribution and love, and although its climactic passage traces a journey, its ultimate evocation is, as the original French title, Les confins du monde, suggests, of eternal confinement.
Well-trodden territory, rendered anew is likewise something that Jaime Rosales achieves with Petra, which bends both Greek tragedy and soap opera conventions into a superb formalist comedy. Across seven precisely arranged chapters, it covers lost parentage, sexual intrigue, suicide, coercion, and murder, among other sordid twists and turns. Yet Rosales frequently flummoxes expectations, rerouting, upending and distorting the rich human dynamics of the material and extracting insight from these very transformations. Like the massive creations of the famous and famously cantankerous sculptor Jaume (Joan Botey), who serves as a kind of origin and agent of chaos throughout, Rosales’ mise en scène is anything but flat. The camera moves in all directions, dollying in and out of doorways, moving across modernist, tastefully appointed spaces, craning above vertiginous cliffsides and striking cerulean shallows, chipping away, all the while, at the exterior of the film's aptly named title character (played with remarkable intelligence by Bárbara Lennie, also in Farhadi's Everybody Knows). “No truth, no beauty,” is the motivating utterance; rare, after all, is the film that can extract emotion from a stone.
Excited to hear about your various wanderings.