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Cannes Correspondences #2: Magic Is in the Air

Some thoughts on three magic-infused Cannes titles: Marcello’s “Scarlet,” Alves Meira’s “Alma Viva,” and Davis & Holmer’s “God’s Creatures.”
Leonardo Goi
Notebook is covering the Cannes Film Festival with an on going correspondence between critics Leonoardo Goi and Lawrence Garcia, and editor Daniel Kasman.
Scarlet.
Dear Danny, dear Lawrence,
The blue-white-red smoke of the French Air Force aerobatic team is still smearing the sky as I begin typing, and for a moment there, as the planes packed the sky with noise to honor the Top Gun: Maverick premiere, I’ve had to pinch myself to remind me where I was. A welcome side effect of last year’s edition being held in mid-July was that the 75th Cannes Film Festival would take place only ten months later, but if there’s one thing the past two years have taught me is to handle my optimism and festival plans with caution. And yet, strolling around town on Day Zero, the eve of the fiesta, everything was right as I left it. The smell of jasmine and croissants billowing with the early morning breeze; the people walking around the city, sporting tuxedos at 10 am; the throngs of autograph hunters besieging the Palais; the luxury cars rumbling impatiently up and down the Croisette… There were a few things missing, too. The piazza nestled between the old town and the port, once a vast playing ground for local pétanque players, is now a fenced-off working site; the main COVID testing ground, which last July saw us spitting into plastic receptacles every 48 hours, is now gone, as are most of the pandemic-induced safety measures (no more compulsory testing this year, no more masks required inside theatres). Much more ominously, the giant billboard opposite the Palais de Festivals now advertises Cannes’ new partner in crime, TikTok (interestingly, the fest has teamed up with the platform to launch a TikTok short film festival scheduled to take place over the next few days—a venture that hit a rough patch as its jury president, Rithy Panh, resigned earlier today citing concerns for the initiative's lack of independence). The billboard's tagline, “this is not a film”—captioning a couple of screenshots designed to call that statement into question, I guess—left me with the inevitable rejoinder: what is?
Call me naive, but part of me wants to think that question is one of the reasons we keep coming back to this over-priced stretch of the French Riviera: that something we’ll watch over the next ten days here might yield us clues, or maybe only complicate the question further. I’m aware that the films that do make the cut here in Cannes aren’t everything, and that there’s something dangerously solipsistic about thinking that this, as far as cinema is concerned, is a cinephile’s equivalent to Heaven on Earth. But Cannes, if not everything, is still a lot, and after these two forsaken years, I can’t wait to resume our chats, hear what you liked and didn’t, and exchange impressions and letters again. 
One of my most anticipated titles was Pietro Marcello’s Scarlet. Slotted in the Directors’ Fortnight—a parallel sidebar once again poised to be a treasure trove, with new works from Mark Jenkin, Alice Winocour, and Mia Hansen-Løve, among others—the film marks Marcello’s return to fiction after last year’s documentaries Futura and For Lucio, and another book adaptation following 2019’s Martin Eden. Written by Marcello, Maud Ameline, and longtime collaborator Maurizio Braucci, Scarlet is based on Alexander Grin’s 1923 novella The Scarlet Sails, a classic of Russian literature here repurposed as a romance in post-WWI France. Unsurprisingly for Marcello, the first images to grace the screen are culled from archives, and archival footage keeps surfacing throughout, the film seamlessly waltzing between new and rescued images, enfolding its story in History. The year is 1918; among the hordes of shell-shocked French soldiers staggering home is one Raphaël (Raphaël Thiéry). A giant, sturdy man with cobalt eyes and hands the size of boulders, he returns to his rural hamlet a decorated veteran, only to find out that his wife died while he was away and left him a daughter, Juliette, raised in the interim by a benign matriarch, Madame Adeline (Noémie Lvovsky). Widowed, penniless, and heartbroken, Raphaël accepts to live rent-free at Adeline’s farmhouse in exchange for the occasional repairing task. But the man wears many hats, and “his hands can do anything,” as Adeline introduces him to potential employers. He can draw, tune a piano, craft toys, play the accordion, carve wood—all with a tenderness and delicacy that vie with his deceptively threatening looks. But Scarlet is ultimately Juliette’s story, not Raphaël’s. Played by Juliette Jouan as a young woman, she daydreams of fleeing the countryside but can’t bring herself to leave her father behind, especially as the whole village, following a series of accidents involving dad and daughter, persecutes both as pariahs.
Even at its most vivid, Juliette’s alienation does not register quite as lacerating as Martin Eden’s did, or how it was for the outcasts of Marcello's The Mouth of the Wolf (2009), loners pushed to society's margins by systemic forces—capital and power—they cannot control. This is not necessarily an indictment, but an invitation to look more carefully at the relationship Marcello establishes between his characters and the space they inhabit. Curiously, Scarlet isn’t moored to a specific, recognizable geographical setting—not to the extent of its predecessors, at any rate. Where Marcello’s previous drifters hailed from cities that seemed to fuel their restlessness and shape their psyches—think of what Naples was to Luca Marinelli’s Martin Eden, or Genoa to the protagonists The Mouth of the Wolf—Raphaël and Juliette inhabit a world that feels far more ethereal, of a piece with the fairytale energy the film emanates. The village they’re stranded in remains unnamed, as is the nearby city they turn to for solace and money (barred from working in his hometown by a mob of angry neighbors, Raphaël turns into a toymaker, selling wooden toys to city kids until his creations are made obsolete by new electric gadgets—among the few temporal markers in a film that deals in ellipses and never quite reveals what year we’re in).
Instead of streets, characters here roam fields, sauntering out of prairies, rivers, and forests in a manner that reminded me of Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette. There are times when Scarlet swells into a kind of pastoral, and the sight of Juliette singing on a river bank, her whole body bathed in lambent golden hour, transforms her into a vision from a Greek myth. Shot by Marco Graziaplena, the camera oftentimes glances skyward, tracing a path from the earthly to the magical. And magic is omnipresent. “You’ll spot scarlet sails,” an old woman-cum-oracle (Yolande Moreau) warns Juliette early on, “and they’ll take them with you.” Sure enough, a ship does eventually grace the screen, but it’s a pilot, not a sailor, who will try to persuade Juliette to flee her native turf. Played by Louis Garrel, Jean falls from heaven aboard a biplane like a Saint-Exupéry hero, promising endless adventures and never-before-seen places. Planes, ships, scarlet sails, myths and legends, curses and prophecies: Scarlet unfolds as a fable—hardly unusual in Marcello’s dream-friendly films, but to an extent that marks this as possibly his most enchanted to date.
Alma Viva.
Another title drawing heavily from the realm of fantasy—and which, coincidentally, I watch right after Scarlet—was Cristèle Alves Meira’s Critics' Week premiere Alma Viva. Like Marcello’s film, Alves Meira’s tracks a young girl, Salomé (Lua Michel), stranded in a remote town; like Juliette, Salomé too must wrestle with a xenophobic, reactionary community that’s declared her a persona non grata—along with her whole family. As we first meet her, Salomé has just arrived in a hamlet perched somewhere in Portugal’s mountainous north-east, where she’s to spend the summer holidays with her beloved grandmother (Ana Pradão). But no sooner have the two reunited that the old woman suddenly dies, drawing her estranged children back home for a funeral that keeps getting postponed—first by delayed flights, and then, as the film ambles its way to an apocalyptic climax, by wild fires inching closer and closer to grandma’s resting place.
Shot in Meira’s maternal grandmother’s town and starring the director’s own daughter as its pint-sized protagonist, Alma Viva doubles as a love letter to a matriarch and an ancestral belief system. But the film still relies on a number of influences to drive its points home. Unless I’m wildly over-reading, an early shot of Salomé wrapping herself with a window curtain is modeled off a similar one in Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher; the opening scene, the girl gawking at her grandma through frosted glass as the whole frame glows ochre, recalls a moment in Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, a touchstone throughout. To be clear, I’m not against the film borrowing from some of its seminal ancestors (I love those references, too), nor am I suggesting Alma Viva is only stashed with cinematic detritus. But for a story so intrigued by the lattice of secrets and tales hovering above Salomé—a film that ends up turning its young heroine into a kind of medium—Alma Viva only intermittently lives up to the child’s imagination, forsaking the uncanny for a series of clichés and hackneyed tropes, down to a final fourth-wall breaking shot that feels more like the ticking of a box than a revelatory, original choice. 
God's Creatures.
I had a lot more fun and much better luck earlier today, at the premiere of another small-town drama I’d been eagerly anticipating, Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer’s God’s Creatures. I knew of the two from their first collaboration, 2015’s fulminating The Fits, directed by Holmer and co-written and edited by Davis. Penned by Shane Crowley, God’s Creatures echoes its predecessor’s unsettling aura and escalating sense of mystery. A psychological thriller set in a windswept Irish seaside town, it centers on Emily Watson’s Aileen, a mother who’s suddenly forced to confront a soul-crushing dilemma—whether to stick to her moral compass or lie to protect her beloved son. That’d be Brian (Paul Mescal), a twenty-something who’s just returned home from a long stint in Australia; broke and restless, he tries his luck toiling in the family’s oyster farm and drumming up extra cash with some occasional illegal fishing. Brian and Aileen are tied by what feels like an indestructible bond, and for the first few minutes, Davis and Holmer craft scenes that crackle with contagious mother-son affection, as Aileen beams at her boy (“he’s different,” she gloats early on, “like he’s grown into himself”). But Brian is no prodigal son, and halfway through God’s Creatures he’s accused of a stomach-churning crime by longtime friend and old flame Sarah (Aisling Franciosi), who claims Brian raped her after a trip to the pub. Accusations that throw the young woman down a legal cul-de-sac; summoned in court, Aileen hands her son a fake alibi, and the case is closed.
It is here that God’s Creatures becomes more forcefully Aileen’s story, and the tension the film accrued along the way detonates. Davis and Holmer zoom in on Aileen as she finally wakes up to the life-shattering consequences of her son’s assault, an epiphany that leads their relationship to a U-turn. Chayse Irvin’s widescreen cinematography captures the rural environs in all their belittling, baleful beauty—an apt decision for a tale that draws much of its tension from the omnipresent threats of the elements (tides rising in the blink of an eye, the wind howling, the mist ebbing down the mountains). But God’s Creatures is as fascinated by the vastness of nature as it is by the secrets of the human face, and Davis and Holmer know how to turn a few close-ups into landscapes themselves, holding the camera on Brian, Aileen, and Sarah’s faces long enough to see them soak in the revelations and traumas the film unfurls. The cast is uniformly great: Franciosi’s turn reminded me of the anger and vulnerability she’d channeled in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, while Mescal’s Brian morphs into a strange, elusive creature, shifting from kindness to vindictive wrath with startling ease. But God’s Creatures lives or dies on the strength of Watson’s performance, and her Aileen is a small marvel. The startled look on her face as she suddenly realizes she no longer knows her son is the kind of scene the whole film works toward; when it happens, the camera seems to hold its breath, looking at the sky for a catharsis that never materializes. Not for Aileen, at least.
All in all, this is an arguably more straightforward affair than The Fits, which managed to upset its familiar indie trappings through a series of inexplicable seizures and near-supernatural events. There is very little magic of the sort radiating from the barren hills and muddy waters here. Yet the film still manages to conjure something disquieting from its desolate locale and its spiritually broken residents, and to hold that tone for a long time. We come to Cannes in hopes to find new voices and see older ones cement their status; two features in, Davis and Holmer are still expanding their stylistic range in ways that make me eager to see what they’ll be cooking up next—and glad to be here.
Over to you, Lawrence.
Leo

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