Cannes, Day 3: early in the festival, late in the night.
I began my first dispatch wondering what the films here would have to say about the past two years, and already a few seem to raise questions that we’ve all been forced to wrestle with in these pandemic times. What is it that makes up a community? What does it mean to exist without one? In Nadav Lapid’s incendiary Ahed’s Knee, screening in the official competition, the dilemmas take place on a national scale. Avshalom Pollak plays Y, a Tel Aviv director in his forties who travels to a remote village in Israel’s Arava region for a screening of his latest work. There, he’s greeted by Yahalom (Nur Fibak), a young officer for the Ministry of Culture who’s there to make sure the Q&A will only touch upon a list of “sanctioned” topics. There’s very little mystery around the autobiographical subtext here. By Lapid’s own admission, this encounter really did happen: the film he brought to the Arava was his 2014 The Kindergarten Teacher, and the young civil servant, like Yahalom, did hand him a list of government-approved themes to pick from, lest he should get in trouble with the powers that be.
This likely accounts for all the rage and fervor the film bursts with. Lapid’s cynical takes on Israel’s current state of affairs have been a staple of his filmography long before a PTSD-riddled Tom Mercier tried to abjure his fatherland to embrace another in the 2019 Berlinale winner Synonyms. But Ahed’s Knee finds Lapid at his most vitriolic and lacerating. For Y is engaged in two Sisyphean, impossible struggles: one against the inevitable death of his cancer-stricken mother (whom he sends iPhone clips from the desert) and one against the death of freedom in his country. Here in writer-director double duty, Lapid never loses focus of the power relations governing Y and Yahalom’s pas de deux. Critical as the woman may be of her own ministry, she still belongs to the censorship apparatus against which Y has wrestled all his life. But her unexpectedly candid assessment of the government’s grip on the arts (“everyone who dissents here is crushed,” she admits early on) triggers a desperate attempt at bringing down the establishment. Encouraged by an editor of an independent news outlet, Y wants to secretly tape Yahalom confessing all the dirt the ministry is responsible for, and make the recording public.
For all the vast, humbling immensities of the Arava desert Y and Yahalom wander through, there are moments when Ahed’s Knee seems to unspool as chamber drama. Such is the intensity of the exchanges between man and woman that the film, despite its wider canvas, often feels claustrophobic—a sensation amplified by Shai Goldman’s handheld camerawork—shaky, extreme close-ups that echo Y’s PTSD. It’s an assaultive piece of filmmaking, a film that aims to shake you, and does, throbbing with a desperation that finally erupts as Y opens up about the traumas suffered during military service and his alleged role in perpetuating them. But there are other moments when Ahed’s Knee abandons its virulent tones to embrace an altogether different register. This being a Lapid film, dancing is de rigueur—and though the numbers may not be as contagious as they were in Synonyms, some of the surreal choreographies staged by IDF recruits brought me back to those in Samuel Maoz’s 2017 Foxtrot. But it’s in the video dispatches Y sends his mother that the film conjures its surprisingly delicate moments—all the more powerful for the bilious fury the story’s suffused in.
I wonder what those clips of barren deserts and color-scrubbed skies would have amounted to had they been stitched together into a standalone film. Whenever Lapid lets us peek at them, Ahed’s Knee seems to gesture to the cinema of Chantal Akerman, morphing into a curious hybrid between No Home Movie and Là-bas, dancing between the domestic and the national, between a travel diary and something far larger. Superlatives can be fatuous (and on the festival’s third day, all the more risky), but I wouldn’t be surprised if Ahed’s Knee were to rank among the most indelible memories of my time here.
It was interesting to couple Lapid’s film with another where the debates around community and country took on a life-or-death urgency. The year’s opening film of the Un Certain Regard sidebar, Arthur Harari’s Onoda: 10000 Nights in the Jungle follows the real-life story of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier who, sent to an island in the Philippines to fight the American offensive in 1944, refused to believe in Japan’s surrender, and continued fighting in the jungle until the early 1970s. I went in expecting a gory spectacle in the vein of Fires on the Plain, Shinya Tsukamoto’s 2014 remake of Kon Ichikawa’s classic, but Onoda trades grisly displays of violence for something perhaps less gruesome, but no less haunting. Which is not to suggest the film isn’t devastating or horrific—only that the dread here takes on a distinctly existential dimension.
That’s because the overarching dilemma Onoda orbits around is one of self-sufficiency: just how long can you hope to exist (and resist) entirely on your own? Onoda (played by Yûya Endô as a twenty-something lieutenant, and by Kanji Tsuda as a wizened man) was sent to the Pacific front after a brain-washing training at an academy designed to introduce selected youngsters to “secret warfare.” The key motto? Everyone is his own officer, no one has a right to die. Thrown into the jungle, Onoda watches as the platoon he’s been ordered to lead against the Americans shrinks amid desertions, deaths, and disappearances—until the man will be left to fight a war of his own making, all by himself.
But the film works to debunk the academy’s teachings. Underpinning Harari and Vincent Poymiro’s script is a tension between the instructions Onoda’s been inculcated, and the natural, inescapable urge to find solace in others, in the very idea of a community. Clocking in at nearly three hours, Onoda isn’t an even journey—yet the film somehow manages to never really drag, thanks in large part to Harari’s ability to flesh out the dynamics between his hero and the three fellow soldiers who’ll be the last to abandon him. In a world orphaned by almost inexpressible solitude and grief, the rare moments of compassion they share feel astounding, bringing to Onoda a feeling of sudden expanse. The story might be drenched in psychological and physical violence, as it must, but it knows the heart-shaking power of empathy, something Onoda himself wrings out when he comforts a crying soldier, among the last ones to stick with him: “does a family ever abandon its children?”
I was still recovering from Harari’s film when I rushed to catch what was possibly the Directors Fortnight’s most anticipated title: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir: Part II. Ever since her 2007 feature debut, Unrelated, Hogg has traversed critical debates under the banner of Britain’s foremost upper middle class portraitist. It’s a fitting title, but it carries a dangerous side effect, suggesting her entire filmography could essentially be written off as a universe of spoiled patricians and bourgeois ennui. This isn’t just unfair to the multilayered characters she’s brought to life—it’s also to downplay another crucial leitmotiv in her oeuvre: art as a vehicle to heal. Watching her films back to back ahead of my trip here, I was stunned by how crucial a role art plays in bringing Hogg’s protagonists to a place of self-understanding. From her 1986 student film Caprice all the way to The Souvenir, Hogg’s universe has been dotted with young people struggling to find their bearings, overcome traumas, and start anew. I guess that’s why The Souvenir: Part II felt at once so familiar and definitive. It’s the most eloquent and harrowing summation of themes Hogg has woven into her work since the very start, the kind of sequel that doesn’t just complete a diptych, but makes its predecessor far more meaningful and visceral.
So where were we? At the end of Part I, we’d left Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) mourning the death of her lover and drug-addict Anthony (Tom Burke). And that’s how Part II kicks off, as the young woman pads around the couple’s sepulchral haunts and seeks refuge in her mother (Swinton Byrne’s real-life mother Tilda Swinton) and father (James Spencer Ashworth). But the film, haunted as it may be by Anthony’s specter, never really wallows in miserabilism. This remains a Künstlerroman, a portrait of a director as a young film student caught between the need to grieve and the equally pressing urge to Find Her Voice. No mean feat. Julie’s graduation film has changed; the new script she shows her skeptical film school professors promises a retelling of her love story with Anthony. Which means Part II essentially morphs into a kind of Russian doll of film-within-films. We watch Julie as she instructs her small crew to recreate her Knightsbridge duplex, the very same flat we’d been ushered into in Part I, and the very same choice Hogg herself had made ahead her own shoot, recreating the apartment in a disused hangar. And we witness Harris Dickinson’s transformation into a fictional Anthony, opposite Ariane Labed as a stand-in for Julie. It’s a move that sheds light on the young director’s creative struggles and self-doubt (and in that, the film doubles as an unflinching and often humorous portrait of what filmmaking is, warts and all). But it also achieves something of supreme importance: it brings Julie and Hogg closer than they’d ever been before.
The Souvenir diptych is Hogg’s most personal work to date. It chronicles the real-life romance that tied her to a heroin addict for the best part of her twenties. So to watch Julie retrace the director’s steps, to watch her exhume and wrestle with past traumas, feels twice as harrowing, and the catharsis she achieves twice as liberating. Here’s the source of the film’s arresting power: it’s a lesson in accepting that art will never fully mirror life, but will yield us a kind of solace nothing else might. It’s about finding a way to make peace with the terrifying realization that no idea that you bring into the world will ever live up to how it manifests in your mind, and still muster enough courage to go on and create. In a final, glorious meta-rupture reminiscent of the ending of Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, the barrier between fiction and personal history is made invisible. It’s a miraculous moment, the kind of scene all of Hogg’s previous films seem to have worked toward: a young director finding her voice, and an older one finding peace.