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Cannes Correspondences #12: Closing Time

Closing thoughts on the festival, and some words on Serra's "Pacification," Dhont's "Close," Belc's "Metronom," and Kline's "Funny Pages."
Lawrence Garcia
Notebook is covering the Cannes Film Festival with an ongoing correspondence between critics Leonardo Goi and Lawrence Garcia, and editor Daniel Kasman.
Pacifiction.
Dear Leo and Danny,
In my first correspondence, I wrote that the Competition got off to a slow start, and, well, maybe it never really did find its footing. Most critics, myself included, seemed to agree that the festival was on the whole an unmemorable one, especially in comparison to the strong 2021 edition, which no doubt benefited from a spate of pre-pandemic holdovers. There are of course exceptions. Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO was a genuine UFO, delivering images and sensations that I’d never quite seen or experienced, while Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castiang-Taylor’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica (The Fabric of the Human Body) played something like a journey to inner space to match the Discovery’s journey to outer space in 2001: Space Odyssey, even featuring a C-section delivery to match the climactic appearance of the Star Child in that film. Likewise, I’m unlikely to forget the spectacular scene you singled out from Albert Serra’s eleventh-hour Competition highlight, Pacifiction, of ocean waves cresting into a vertiginous wall of aquamarine blue.
Like you, Leo, I thought of Apocalypse Now (1979) while watching Pacifiction, though my mind wandered most often to a different Joseph Conrad adaptation: Chantal Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly (2011), another hallucinatory anti-colonial meditation made under the light of a tropic moon. For a time, though, Pacifiction proceeded much like Serra’s previous film, Liberté (2019), its movements mainly centered around a single location: the sleazy Paradise club, owned by a mysterious ex-pat named Morton, and often shrouded in spelean darkness and lurid neons. And as in that film, Serra’s efforts are mostly directed at orchestrating the movement of bodies, at observing the listless drift of the club’s sundry regulars—think of the zombie-like figures in Marguerite Duras’s India Song (1975)—all linked by various asymmetries of power and desire. In a way, though, Pacifiction is a more challenging proposition than Liberté, partly because, as you rightly point out, it is arguably his most narrative-driven film to date. Even as it creates a mounting sense of anticipation, protracted over its nearly three-hour runtime, the film's precise workings remain largely opaque, leaving the viewer adrift among conspiratorial whispers and portentous murmurings. Indeed, when Benoît Magimel’s Monsieur De Roller gives a toast to a French novelist, whom he praises for her lack of “obscurantism,” it resonates like a perverse joke. 
This is all to say that while I was hypnotized by Pacifiction’s purgatorial spaces—later summed up by De Roller when he says that “politics is like a nightclub,” populated by persons who arrive but never leave—I found myself unable, for a time, to give myself over to the film. But at some point during its last hour or so, Pacifiction went from opaque to thrillingly so. Its extended final movement, with its sublime sensorial immersion, unexpectedly brought to mind the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul—not just last year’s Memoria, but also Night Colonies, his short-film contribution to the pandemic-film anthology The Year of the Everlasting Storm. Moment to moment, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you exactly what was happening on a story level; all I know is that I'm eager to re-experience Pacifiction, which is the kind of bolt-from-the-blue vision I come to Cannes in the hope of seeing.
Close.
The Cannes competition jury, though, headed by Vincent Lindon, evidently felt differently. By now you certainly know that Pacifiction went home empty-handed, and that Ruben Östlund won his second Palme d’Or for Triangle of Sadness, joining a rarefied list of directors who’ve managed the same feat. In the couple days leading up to the awards ceremony, however, many were predicting that the Palme would go to Close, the second feature from 31-year-old Belgian director Lukas Dhont. How this particular rumor started is beyond me, but it probably has something to do with the warm reception of his debut film, Girl, which played Un Certain Regard in 2018, winning not just the Camera d’Or and a Best Actor prize for its star Victor Polster, but also the UCR FIPRESCI Prize and the Queer Palm. Girl has since received some deserved scrutiny for its casting of a cis-male actor in a trans female role, but its many awards suggested that Dhont could have a trajectory akin to that of Xavier Dolan, who likewise made a splash on the Croisette with his debut film, I Killed My Mother (2009). In fact, Dhont has one-upped Dolan: With only his second feature, he's already managed to share a major prize with a major filmmaker—Close shared the Grand Prix with Claire Denis’s Stars at Noon—a feat Dolan only managed when Mommy and Godard’s Goodbye to Language won the Jury Prize ex aequo in 2014.
In any event, Close dramatizes a relationship I don’t think I’ve ever seen on-screen before: between two 13-year-old boys, Leo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele), who share an easy intimacy with each other that is both emotional and physical but, as yet, non-sexual. The boys cuddle in bed, bike to school together, and cling to each other in public. More crucially, they have clearly not had any occasion to reflect on the precise nature of their relationship. This changes when the two attend a new school together and one girl asks them point-blank, “Are you together?” Leo says that they are not, and that they are more like brothers, but the question clearly flusters him. In his depiction of the school environment Dhont makes a point of showing that homophobic students are very clearly in the minority, and includes a scene where Leo’s classmates verbally defend him from a bully's taunt. Still, Leo begins to pull away from Remi, while the latter, for his part, is apparently unfazed by public opinion and carries on as before.
The film’s early rush of sun-dappled movement brought to mind André Téchiné’s Being 17 (2016)—though of course the main draw of Dhont’s scenario has to do with the boys’ younger ages, their pre-adolescence, and their amorphous sexual desires. The basic setup and its potential developments raise a number of thorny ethical issues and representational taboos that would discomfit even the likes of Gregg Araki, and for those very reasons, Close seemed for a time to be venturing into challenging territory. Without getting into the details, I’ll just say that Dhont takes his film in a very different direction, transforming it into a more familiar, less distinctive story of grief and guilt.
In one of your earlier correspondences, Danny, you wrote that large festivals seem increasingly wary of discomfiting attendees, which means that radical works of cinema tend to fall to the wayside, and I think that’s especially true of this year’s edition. This makes some sense in the context of the pandemic: This was, after all, a tentative return to normalcy after the cancellation of the 2020 edition and the rigid protocols of the 2021 edition, and so perhaps Thierry Fremaux and his programming team were reluctant to shake things up. Whatever the reasons, the result was a relatively staid festival. True, Arnaud Desplechin’s Brother and Sister premiered to some half-hearted boos, and Claire Denis’s Stars at Noon received a few bewilderingly negative responses, but on the whole few films inspired the kind of wildly divergent reactions which usually make Cannes such an electrifying environment. For the most part, filmmakers offered variations of things they’ve not only done before, but also, in many cases, done better. (In that sense, Coupez!, Michel Hazanavicius's middling One Cut of the Dead remake was a fitting opener.)
Metronom.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that some of the festival’s more worthwhile offerings were from relative newcomers. Deservedly taking home the Un Certain Regard prize for Best Director, Alexander Belc’s Metronom is the kind of film that inspires confidence from the get-go, its very first shot—a slow pan across a public square in Bucharest, observing a meeting between two teenagers from afar—balancing an up-front formal decision with a keen sense of narrative expectation. And throughout the film, Belc continually uses slow camera movement and skillful in-depth compositions to create visual tension—a fitting complement to the script's myriad dramatic reversals.
Set in Bucharest in 1972, Metronom centers on a teenage girl named Ana (Mara Bugarin), whose boyfriend Sorin (Serban Lazarovici) is set to leave for Germany with his family in the following days. Her friend group is throwing a house party one evening, and despite initially saying she won't attend, Ana later decides to go, resolving to sleep with Sorin as a kind of test to see whether he loves her. It is some time before he shows up; in the meantime, Ana and her friends smoke, drink, dance, listen to Western music, and, most importantly, draft a letter to the host of the radio show Metronom, which Sorin is supposed to deliver through some personal connection of his. This being Bucharest in 1972, however, the stakes of such a letter are fairly high, and in a twist involving Sorin, the film deftly shifts gears, the focus on Ana’s heartbreak giving way to a bureaucratic nightmare in which the group is detained by some Securitate officers. Ana’s despair, firmly established at the outset, initially sticks out amid the carefree activity of her friends; but as the action slows down to meet the demands of this narrative turn, her initial abjection harmonizes with the film's increasingly claustrophobic environment.
Funny Pages.
Owen Kline’s Funny Pages, which premiered in the Directors' Fortnight, was another promising debut—though even before its premiere, the film already stood out because of its impressive pedigree. The film’s producers include Josh and Benny Safdie, the film was shot by Sean Price Williams, while Kline himself, who has a small role in The Squid and the Whale (2005), is the son of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates. In any case, this context of privilege certainly resonates within the film itself, which follows teenage Robert (Daniel Zolghadri), an aspiring artist from an upper-middle class background set on working in comics, but who mostly favors raunchy, “subversive” fare. Setting the tone, the film's opening scene starts with Robert’s eccentric art teacher Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis) dispensing some advice about his portfolio, but at some point shifts to Robert drawing Katano in the nude. After Robert leaves, Katano goes after him in his car, offering him a ride in an attempt to make sure that everything is all right—at which point an oncoming car crashes into Katano’s and he dies instantly.
The appeal of the scene, like the rest of Funny Pages, is how Kline delineates character not via anti-naturalistic acting or comic exaggeration, but through shot selection and isolation of specific details; how he pares down situations, actions, and events to their bare essentials in the way a cartoonist or illustrator might. A plot development involving Wallace (Matthew Maher), a repeat defendant with various assault charges, whom Robert nonetheless gets involved with because Wallace was at one point a color separator for the comic book publisher Image, overwhelms the film by the end. But on the whole, Funny Pages effectively showcases Kline’s attempts to communicate a maximum of character information with a minimum of audio-visual detail, while maintaining a wry comic tone.
The question with regard to this year’s Cannes, I suppose, is what it will be remembered for? Danny, you mentioned in your opening dispatch that you didn't expect too many films to be directly engaged with "the teetering balances of power and injustices in the world." And with the exception, perhaps of Sergei Loznitsa's The Natural History of Destruction, that proved to be largely true. Then again, I tend to find the festival's up-front bids for political relevance—such as having Volodymyr Zelenskyy deliver a speech at the end of the Opening Ceremony, right before Hazanavicius's latest took the screen—to be dubious at best. To my mind, David Cronenberg's Crimes of the Future distills the ambient unease of our current era far more effectively than any other film at the festival: It occupies a world where desensitization to violence and suffering has taken on a literal aspect, where pandemic-era bodily transformation and bio-control finds a corollary in organ registration, and where urgent environmental concerns (such as the rather alarming statistic that we eat a credit card's worth of microplastic a week) are linked to the question of human evolution. More than just another body-horror entry, Crimes struck me as a film about what it means to live through vast historical changes—and so of course it went home empty-handed.
In the end, it's certainly a fool's game to want coherence from an event as large as Cannes, which in its 75th edition trundles forward by sheer inertia as much as anything else. And it is true that we do not know the future (of cinema, or of anything else) except by analogy to the past—that is, by analogy to the forms we already know. Still, there is such a thing as complacency, and watching this year's official selections, I couldn't help wishing for some sort of structural shake-up, one that would make more room in the festival for what we arrive on the Croisette in the hope of experiencing: the distinct pleasures of discovery, the sense that we are seeing something genuinely new.
Until next time!
Best,
Lawrence

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CannesCannes 2022Festival CoverageAlbert SerraLukas DhontAlexandru BelcOwen KlineCorrespondences
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