In Cate Blanchett’s remarks as Jury President during the opening ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival, she exhorted her fellow artists to leave their preconceptions behind and focus on the stories being told, a statement that inevitably favors narrative cinema, movies whose pleasures are largely rooted in plot developments, shadings of performance and character, clever turns of dialogue, et cetera. That's understandable, given the awards that the jury is tasked to hand out and especially given that Cannes—like most international festivals—is, in practice, dedicated to furthering such cinematic modes. In competition, Godard’s The Image Book remains the sole aberration—a thrilling rebuke to the shapelessness of the competition you mention.
It would be too much to call Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Bi Gan’s sophomore feature, playing in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section, a non-narrative film. But far more than its noir-inflected story—about a killer, Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), returning to his hometown of Kaili to look for a woman (Tang Wei) whom he once loved—it is a triumph of pure sensation; there’s not likely to be a more tactile, transportive experience at the festival. As in Kaili Blues, Bi Gan’s arena here is that of time and memory, so the film evokes temporal, and thus spatial transcendence. The disorienting opening shot floats up along dots of light, red, green and blue, to a ceiling that then transforms into a floor. In the fictional world of Dangmai, the air is thick, smokey and humid; amber lights flash along rivulets of water cascading down the frame; darkened tunnels move characters in and out of the past. As in the films of Tsai Ming-liang, even the decrepit, blackened walls themselves seem to weep. Planes and surfaces shimmer and dissolve before your eyes. Always, a sense of unreality permeates, as if one were “trapped in a dream.”
Bi Gan’s inspirations range far and wide: the English title draws from Eugene O’Neill, the original Chinese (Last Evenings on Earth) from Bolaño; Chagall’s paintings and Modiano’s novels are acknowledged referents; a quivering glass of water draws a line to Tarkovsky’s Stalker. But Long Day’s Journey Into Night is less a pilfered melange than a daring fusion. About halfway through the film, Huang’s lonely wanderer heads into a darkened cinema and puts on a pair of glasses, which launches the film into its titular passage: an extended single-take entirely in (post-converted) 3D! (Seeing the title card and its superimposed planes had me practically floating out of my seat.) Luo searches for his long-lost lover, but instead finds a double with whom he wanders the far-flung village, as our sense of time itself seems to ebb away. A broken watch is traded for a firework; apples roll along deserted streets; a ping-pong paddle spins in the moonlight. Suspended between the transient and eternal, Bi Gan's is the kind of vision that fulfills that Lynchian exhortation for a film with “room to dream.” The world spins.
Transience and constancy are also the subjects of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s beguiling competition entry, Asako I & II. A Shigeo Gochō photography exhibit titled “Self and Others” offers the starting point for a brief romance between Asako (Erika Karata) and Baku Torii (Masahiro Higashide) in her hometown of Osaka, before he disappears without a trace; two years later, Asako meets a sake salesman, Ryohei, who looks exactly like Baku. As in his sprawling, but finely tuned Happy Hour, Hamaguchi demonstrates a pop-inflected sensibility, and an attention to relationships and narrative developments that wouldn’t be out of place in an urban TV melodrama, which may account for why Asako I & II feels so thrillingly open. More than any other competition film thus far, it didn’t just resist expectations, but also seemed to keep them from even forming. Like Karata’s unexpected performance, the film is opaque in ways both confounding and thrilling, as if internalizing one character’s advice not to over-interpret. Equally adept with subtle, naturalistic sketches (a visit to a seafood festival in a far-flung town) and well-timed bursts of emotion (an offered hand and a rising auto-tuned anthem to stop your heart), Hamaguchi observes as Asako navigates her relationships across an elliptical seven or so years. “Asako, you haven't changed at all,” a friend tells her, a statement that renders the notion of constancy in a threatening light. (In that regard, the film obliquely recalls Kim Ki-duk’s more scabrously-toned, high-concept Time.) A cutting betrayal and jarring reversal occasion a ravishing image: of Asako’s visage flashing in and out of inky blackness to melancholy, electric shades of blue. Innocence and experience, constancy and change are the twin poles of every relationship: Will this person be there when I wake up? Will they be the same? The resounding final shot—a conclusion rooted in a re-marriage template—looks squarely into an uncertain future.
Speaking of things to come: What is going to win the Palme d'Or? Will Godard finally get his due? Or will Blanchett’s jury award it to Panahi's or Rohrwacher's gentler visions? It's a fool's game to try and predict the outcome—and, based on recent winners, an even more foolish game to hope that the choices will be worth celebrating—but the question is on my mind because of another pair of divisive titles, one with strong chance at the top prize, another with none at all: Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman, his first film to play in competition since 1991’s Jungle Fever, and Lars von Trier’s The House that Jack Built, which screened out of competition.
Opening with footage from Gone With the Wind, followed by a racist retelling of U.S. history courtesy of Alec Baldwin (whose SNL caricature of Donald Trump serves as a telling connection), BlacKkKlansman retells an actual 1970’s undercover case in which a black detective, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan with the help of (primarily) Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). The political stakes are unmistakable, and if there’s one film from this year’s competition slate that I’m grateful to have seen without the baggage of months of forthcoming discourse, it’s Lee’s. Du Bois' ideas on “twoness” and “double consciousness” are voiced at one point, and Lee’s film embodies that to an astonishing degree, its most impressive passage cutting between a Klan initiation—complete with a viewing of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which resonates not only for its virulent racism, but also for its undeniable place in film history—and a meeting of the Colorado College Black Student Union in which Harry Belafonte speaks on the 1916 Waco lynching of Jesse Washington. But if BlacKkKlansman’s loose, shambling narrative seems to function less on its own terms than as an urgent impassioned work of rhetoric, that's an impression the epilogue, which works in recent footage of events in Charlottesville, clips of Trump's response, as well as a speech by the real David Duke (played in the film by Topher Grace), will do nothing to dispel. Which is not to say that the urgency of the film is in any way diminished. “You’re late,” Stallworth tells Zimmerman at a crucial moment and the resounding indictment—of both the left and right alike—is unmistakable.
Another astonishing, primarily dialectical work disguised as a narrative: von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, which unfolds over five chapters—each of which tells of a “randomly chosen” incident by the serial killer Jack (Matt Dillon), the ostensible von Trier surrogate—and an epilogue (katabasis). As in Nymphomaniac, each grim, comically dire sketch is interlaced with endless interlocutions, in this case by Verge (Bruno Ganz), a character whose function and presence is best left for discovery. Illustrative imagery and iconography abound: the scythe and wheel of Vampyr, the Elysian Fields, Goethe’s oaken tree, Glenn Gould (“He represents art”), and Nazi concentration camps, among others. “The material does the work,” says Jack, speaking of the way an optimal cathedral design minimizes the raw material used—and von Trier’s digressions, conversations, and provocations are here crafted into perhaps the most forceful, generative and challenging vision the director has produced to date: a summative opus, a “dark light” (the photographic negative) that draws equally from his own cinema and the annals of history. No mere exercise in sadism (or masochism), The House That Jack Built is an anguished attempt to stare into the pits of hell, to look at the most inhumane acts that mankind has ever produced and locate, if not beauty, then the source of suffering, or just some glimpse of understanding in the form of “extravagant art.” You asked about inspiration; with The House That Jack Built, von Trier offers a crucible that is as troubling as it is inspiring. It left me dazed and shaken—I can only hope that your viewings have had the same impact.