Notebook is covering the Cannes Film Festival with an on going correspondence between critics Leonardo Goi and Lawrence Garcia, and editor Daniel Kasman.
Dear Danny and Leo,
It is indeed very good to be back at Cannes—not just because it means seeing an entire slate of anticipated titles, but also because it means endless opportunities to talk about them, both in these correspondences and in person, which I'd missed more than I'd realized. Indeed, there’s so much to discuss that I’ll just dispense with the throat-clearing and get to the movies.
Like you, Leo, I found both God’s Creatures and Scarlet productive to consider in relation to each other, what with their shared folktale affinities and archetypal approach to character. The most impressive aspect of God’s Creatures was how Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer managed, for a time, to balance the film's appealing behavioral ambiance, established via ritualistic formal repetition, with the script's more conventional story demands; and while the film lost something as its narrative contours become more defined, with its potent community portrait giving way to one woman’s crisis of conscience, it retroactively demonstrates the extent to which The Fits' success was due to its relative lack of character differentiation. The appeal of Pietro Marcello’s Scarlet, meanwhile, was embodied by three key images: tinted archival footage of a busy Parisian street, which radiates a glow of subjective intensity like something out of silent-era Borzage or Murnau; a brief snippet of an animated bird which suggests that stories about village maidens composing songs, tending to forest animals, and falling in love with dashing adventurers ought not to be left solely to animation studios; and, finally, the sight a biplane on a field of grass, the absence of any clear markers of scale leaving the difference between a model and the actual thing, between dream and reality, up to the viewer's imagination.
Granted, the mind can only do so much, and consensus on the ground for these first few days was that the official selection got off to a slow start. To begin with, there was Michel Hazanivicius’s Opening Night Film selection, Coupéz!, which isn’t really worth discussing, if only because the film itself is hell-bent on justifying its own mediocrity; then came Kirill Serebrennikov’s Competition entry Tschaikovsky’s Wife, a technically impressive outing that aims for sensorial immersion à la Aleksei German but achieves something closer to László Nemes’s Sunset (2018), which is not a compliment, to my mind; and finally there was Charlotte Vandermeersch and Felix van Goreningen’s The Eight Mountains, a film that I have yet to hear anyone express real enthusiasm for. Still, it’s hard to complain when my own Cannes began with a screening of a newly restored version of Jean Eustache’s legendary The Mother and the Whore, which won the Grand Prix in 1973.
The film’s plot, as many probably know, centers on the volatile relationships between Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud), an inveterate womanizer with a constitutional aversion to work, Marie (Bernadette Lafont), the woman he lives off of, and Veronika (Françoise Lebrun), a casual café pick-up who quickly becomes entangled in their lives. (As Veronika succinctly puts it to Alexandre: “You love one woman, fuck another, and what a bunch of shit it all is.”) Likewise familiar is the film’s post-May ’68 context: Alexandre is at one point shown reading In Search of Lost Time, suggesting that for Eustache, as for Proust, the only possible type of paradise is one which has been lost.
Still, the benefit of making time for a film like Eustache's, which is over three and a half hours long and certainly doesn't lack for critical engagement, is that one should get some perspective on the festival's contemporary offerings. After all, many of the titles premiering over the next two weeks are unlikely to be remembered even a year from now, and only a select few, if any, are likely to become genuine classics—films that, much like Eustache's, can carry a seemingly infinite amount of commentary. Watching The Mother and Whore for a third time, I found myself thinking not of the film’s post–New Wave context or its considerable cinematic lineage but of Samuel Beckett, in whose work, literary critic Northrop Frye reminds us, there are two forms of failure for the ego: “the failure to possess, which may be tragic, and the failure to communicate, which is normally comic.” On previous viewings of Mother and the Whore, it was the former that came through most vividly, what with the characters' seedy solipsism and the film's ambient air of collapse; but listening to the characters’ endless blather this time, particularly in a packed theater with a responsive audience, it was the latter that made the strongest impression. In one of his many monologues, Alexandre relates a dream in which people leave the city with their possessions in bindle sticks, saying that it was like something out of a Chaplin movie. And listening to him, it occurred to me that Eustache, much like the Beckett of Waiting for Godot, is here parodying a dramatic convention of vaudeville, putting us face-to-face with a bunch of dreary figures who will say anything to put off leaving the stage.
Given how it was received back in 1973, it’s safe to say that The Mother and the Whore wasn’t exactly indicative of the festival’s usual offerings or the contemporary film landscape. One of the more instructive aspects of attending Cannes, though, is being immersed in a certain idea of what an arthouse film is "supposed" to look like, and in that respect the Un Certain Regard section is arguably more revealing than the Competition slate. Take for instance German filmmaker Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage, the most worthwhile of the three UCR films I've seen thus far, and which stars Vicky Krieps as Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Opening in 1877, around the time of Empress “Sissi”’s fortieth birthday, the film wastes no time laying out its main project: exploring the disjunction between the Empress as an objectified symbol of power and as a woman with desires, impulses, appetites. (In a way, the film complements German-born medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz’s notion of the king’s two bodies, in which the ruler is seen as a veritable double figure: both an incorporeal symbol of divine right, and a man who can get sick, die, and be succeeded.) For the most part, Corsage follows Empress Elisabeth’s travels to various locations (including the legendary castles of Ludwig II of Bavaria), which she goes on mainly to keep from becoming profoundly bored. All this Kreutzer renders with the requisite period detail—that is, apart from select moments when she ruptures the film's temporal coherence with anachronistic flourishes, whether through Krieps's arch performance or through the soundtrack. In the two most notable instances of the latter, we see in-film covers of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night” and Marianne Faithfull’s “As Tears Go By.” Kreutzer, though, saves her most forceful gesture for the very end, transforming the real-life Empress’ death by assassination in 1898 into a liberating act of self-determination.
Corsage is not, of course, unprecedented in its revisionist gestures. For its use of music, one thinks immediately of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, which played in the 2006 Competition; and for its lightly sardonic tone and darkly comic moments, I thought of Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou, from 2015’s UCR, which uses its period setting and meticulous mise-en-scène to explore similar thematic terrain. But those films, whatever their limitations, managed to incorporate their formal gestures into a genuinely organic whole, whereas Corsage ultimately feels assembled from an established toolkit. The film builds to a picture-perfect ending; but like so many contemporary arthouse productions, it leaves the impression that all of its efforts have been directed at engineering that final image.
Much more rewarding was Mia Hansen-Løve’s Director's Fortnight selection One Fine Morning, which is to my mind her best film since Things to Come (2016) and also my favorite film of the festival so far. Like so many of her films, it is transparently autobiographical, here centered on Sandra Kinsler (Léa Seydoux), a young translator who lives her life in the margins of a packed schedule, simply keeping up with those closest to her. There is her young daughter, presumably from her late partner, Julian, only mentioned in dialogue; an old friend, Clément (Melvil Poupaud), a married cosmo-chemist with whom she begins an affair; her father Georg (Pascal Greggory), a former philosophy professor suffering from a rare neurodegenerative disease known as Benson’s Syndrome; and her mother (Georg’s ex-wife) Françoise (Nicole Garcia), with whom she shares the burden of Georg’s care. By this point in her career, Hansen-Løve’s talent for behavioral naturalism—her easy direction of actors, her feel for ambient behavior, her ability to diffuse drama into small-scaled, often domestic activity—is practically a given. Watching her films, then, the question for me is what this keen attention to human behavior allows for? What kind of structural interventions are made possible by her films' naturalistic surfaces?
For a while during One Fine Morning, I wasn’t entirely sure. Hansen-Løve’s presentation of Sandra’s life is so uninflected that it's difficult to figure out where the tension of the film is meant to reside. Despite the number of decisions and problems that come up in relation to Georg’s care, none of them expand in a way that transforms the film. Likewise, in her on-again, off-again relationship with Clément, strained by his marriage, there is no sense that his absence will change the outcome of the narrative.
It was during an ostensibly minor scene, though, that things clicked. Having earlier arranged for Georg’s library to be distributed to his former students, Sandra at one point visits one of their houses to re-shelve the volumes. While doing so, she tells her daughter that these books are more her father than the person in the nursing home, that his body has in some sense already separated from his soul—at which point we get insert shots of some of Georg's books, volumes of Robert Musil, Thomas Mann, Hegel, and the like. The close-ups of these books add up to not more than a few seconds of screen-time, but in this context, they land with a force comparable to that of the eleven-year ellipses in Hansen-Løve's debut, All Is Forgiven (2007): Indeed, the scene practically breaks One Fine Morning in two, turning it into not just a film about Sandra with Georg in it, but also, in a much deeper sense, one about Georg as well. It is one thing for Hansen-Løve to give a character dialogue to about how a person "lives on" through others, but it is quite another to concretize that into the very structure of her film, such that the entire runtime becomes permeated with that person's subjectivity. From that scene on, One Fine Morning takes on a kind of bifocal quality, operating both as a naturalistic drama of Sandra's life and as an autobiography or philosophic confession as written by Georg. During one of Sandra's later visits to Georg, he asks her to turn off a Schubert record, once a favorite, but which he now describes as "too laden" with memories. The remarkable achievement of One Fine Morning is that it makes us feel this at every moment thereafter, immersing us into the life of a man whom we have never properly met.
Sandra later finds a notebook of Georg's, filled with fragments and notes about his illness and diagnosis, which she surmises was meant for an autobiography that he had always intended to write, and which he had titled "One Fine Morning." In one of the film's most moving passages, we hear Greggory's voice reading out these notes over a family gathering. The sequence brings to mind the opening passages of Alain Resnais's Mon oncle d'Amérique (1980), with its potted mental histories of various characters, and it is no statement of merit to say that for Hansen-Løve the scene's up-front conceptual dimension is somewhat atypical. But it is also indicative of the audacious, tricky balancing act she manages in One Fine Morning: an exploration of memory that delivers Resnais-like conceptual boldness without giving up anything of its surface naturalism.
Back over to you, Danny.