Notebook is covering the Cannes Film Festival with an ongoing correspondence between critics Leonardo Goi and Lawrence Garcia, and editor Daniel Kasman.
Dear Danny and Lawrence,
I’m a bit more ambivalent than you, Danny, about Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future. The film’s scope is immense, and for all the futuristic tech and patois, the issues it deals with strike me as timeless: humanity’s evolution and obsolescence, artistic creation, and ecological catastrophes. And yet, while its atmosphere cast a spectral and engulfing spell—with dark streets and dank interiors calling to mind, of all things, the locales of Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela—the characters’ penchant for long and lofty conversations around bodies did not quite live up to disquieting allure of scenes where material bodies took the stage—to be opened, played with, and pushed to new extremes. In a movie where, as you yourself pointed out, discussions around bodies carry almost as much weight (and share just as much screen time) as the bodily organs and surgeries-cum-performances themselves, the overall effect was, for me, a little too stilted. Much as I don’t like to admit it, I fear that Cronenberg’s pre-premiere interviews—in which he prophesied a ghastly spectacle and endless walkouts—might have subconsciously fueled my tepid response (for the record, I don’t recall anyone leaving my screening). Instead of shocking and stunning me, the film kept me at an arm’s length, and the power of its images seemed partly sacrificed to the film’s theories, intriguing as they may be. All that said, I look forward to revisiting Crimes in less stressful times, which is not something I can say for many other titles unveiled in this year’s official competition.
As far as explorations of the human body go, I found Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica (The Fabric of the Human Body) far more startling. The latest documentary from the Harvard Sensory Ethnographic Lab duo borrows its title from a 1543 seven volume anthology on human anatomy by Andreas Vesalius, among the first physicians to rely on autopsies. While Vesalius opened up the human body to science, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor open it up to cinema, and the result is a voyage in turns stomach-churning and spell-binding into a world that feels as otherworldly and removed from us as a vision from outer space. That, in essence, is Fabrica’s ultimate goal: the film makes the case for the human body as the last frontier, not just a vessel but a repository of wonders and beauties we seldom get to see—not with such unbearable vividness. The title itself gives clues as to the scope of the directors’ project: the word “fabric” doesn’t apply (just) to the human body, but also to the kind of institutions we’re beckoned into. Filmed across different hospitals in France, Fabrica is as committed to uncover the mysteries of our anatomy as it is in documenting the places where such explorations routinely take place. We begin trailing after a security guard and a German shepherd roaming a maze of underground corridors, and end with a party on a hospital’s rooftop before plunging back inside a cafeteria, a journey that feels almost Dantesque in its spiraling unfurling. Throughout, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor waltz between surgeries and everyday scenes of hospital life, occasionally trailing after patients stranded in geriatric wards, strolling in wide-eyed stupor around empty halls. Shot with a modified version of a lipstick camera, designed to mimic the aesthetic of medical lenses, human flesh and organs gobble up the whole screen—a disorienting effect not dissimilar to what one felt while watching the directors’ Caniba (2017).
I must confess there were moments—an eye surgery, a penis squirting blood, vertebrae hammered and screwed back together—when I found it impossible not to look away. But much as I initially longed for a break from all the ER footage, the few times the directors turned their cameras to the elderly, Fabrica seemed to lose some of its momentum. Whether or not these seemingly oblivious, shell-shocked-looking patients realize they’re being filmed is beside the point; in the long run, the few hyper close-ups of their vacant, fragile faces felt much more disturbing than the surgeries themselves. Still, as the film unfurled and the surgeries progressed, the bodies and body parts dissected onscreen ceased to look like bodies at all, taking on shapes and colors that turned them into eerily beautiful vistas, alien landscapes that made even the goriest details suddenly more bearable. This tension between familiarity and alienation makes for an interesting paradox: the idea that the human body needs to be stripped of all that makes it recognizable as such for one to reconcile oneself with all its gory, terrifying secrets.
Unlike the directors’ 2012 Leviathan, whose astonishing power derived from an apparent lack of directorial intentionality, its collage of images recorded by fishermen who were too busy working (and trying not to fly overboard) to mind what the cameras attached to their bodies were actually filming, Fabrica feels like a much more structured and carefully designed project. But the two films are after something very similar, an attempt to elicit an enveloping and disorienting effect by filming the world from a myriad of different perspectives, combined together to achieve a multiplicity that our eyes, in our everyday experiences, would hardly ever grasp. I left Fabrica with my senses agog, my mind activated. With only three days to go, I’m yet to find a film that made me tear up, and I’m both surprised and happy to report that the closest I’ve come to was halfway through Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s film, when Fabrica follows a C-section, and an obstetrician plucks a newborn from a woman’s womb and rushes to check the baby’s vitals—life and death rolled into one indelible, heart-shaking sequence.
Bodies were sliced open in another Directors' Fortnight entry, Alex Garland’s Men. Calling it the director’s most nakedly horror film to date feels somewhat misguided; his first two features, Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018) also flirted with the genre, conjuring a crippling dread that seemed to emanate both from those films’ ominous moods as well as from the ideas they orbited around. But ideas and moods, in those earlier works, struck an organic balance, which ensured musings on artificial intelligence and consciousness (Ex Machina) or self-destruction and evolution (Annihilation) never jeopardized but complemented the films’ unsettling vibes. In Men, that precious amalgam is shattered, as the film forsakes the thrills and delights of the genre for some heavy-handed, on-the-nose metaphors. Jessie Buckley plays a woman whose countryside retreat grows into a nightmarish torture. Her Harper recently witnessed the suicide of her abusive husband, who leapt to his death from their London flat as a twisted retaliation for her repeated threats to divorce him. The memory is still vivid as Harper arrives in a luxurious mansion somewhere in the English countryside. She’s to spend there two weeks, but won’t get to stay more than a couple of nights; no sooner has she strolled down the verdant woods around the house than a naked man starts stalking her.
The freak is played by Rory Kinnear, as is every other man in Men, and he saunters through the film in different permutations—a vicar, a cop, a troubled kid, and a whole horde of other baleful looking figures. That’s the oversized metaphor Garland dishes out, the message upon which the whole film rests. Harper’s tormenter is both singular and multiple, and in filling a whole village with a small army of male doppelgängers, young and old, Garland tips his hand just a few minutes in. If the monster Harper’s up against is an interchangeable, protean entity, that’s because she isn’t fighting a human being so much as a concept. That would be misogyny, and one of its most cancerous declinations, the tendency to blame women for everything. (Notice Kinnear-as-vicar, early on, turning the table on Harper after she recalls the day her husband beat her and then threw himself off a window: “…but did you give him a chance to apologize?”). The bloated allegories give way to equally on-the-nose imagery—like an early shot when Harper plucks an apple from the mansion’s garden only to be chastised by its owner, “forbidden fruit!”—and trite, unimaginative exchanges that only serve to hammer home the film’s Big Message. Grief will only cease once you overcome guilt; and if you’re a woman, men—yes, all men—are bound to make that process a lot harder. Far be it from me to argue with that, but it’s the kind of faux profundity that’s so close to the surface, so obviously parceled out, you kind of wonder if the film has a right to call that a sub-text at all.
Which is all the more worrisome when one’s working in the horror genre. Men’s capital sin is to let its metaphors supersede and undermine the film’s scares—so much so that, even at its most supposedly terrifying, the film blunts its dread. I say this as someone who really enjoyed the sinister energy radiating from Annihilation and Ex Machina, and longed to catch some of the same here too. But Men is a far cry from both—if anything, it seems to ape some of its predecessor’s most inventive moments, with Harper’s showdown with Kinnear’s blokes modeled off of Natalie Portman’s far more riveting, awe-inspiring encounter inside Annihilation’s lighthouse. It’s a film full of passageways (a railroad tunnel, an eye socket of a putrefying deer the camera sneaks in and out of) in which nothing and no one seems to be moving, the kind of horror that’s so busy unpacking its thesis it seems to forget the best ones in the genre are those who operate beyond the realm of reason.
Moving from a film transparent to a fault to one as sinuous as Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave was a shock possibly greater than anything Men packed. Slotted in the official competition, the director’s follow-up to The Handmaiden, unveiled here in Cannes back in 2016, is a tragic romance dressed as a detective thriller. Park Hae-il plays Hae-joon, Busan’s youngest detective, a man with a near fetishistic obsession for the most scabrous aspects of his job (“I think you need violence and murders to be happy,” his doting wife muses). Luckily for him, Busan teems with all kinds of vices, and Decision opens with the detective rushing to the footsteps of a mountain where a middle-aged climber lies dead, having fallen from the peak. Accident or murder? As Hae-joon interrogates the dead man’s wife, a Chinese-born eldercare worker, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), things get murkier. There’s something sinister in the nonchalant way she reacts to the news, as if the tragedy wasn’t just inevitable, but also somewhat welcome. Unmistakably smitten with the gorgeous, enigmatic widow—and determined to uncover her role in the accident—Hae-joon starts tailing her, until the cop-and-suspect dynamic morphs into something far more intimate, and their bond swells into a forbidden liaison. The crime story on which Decision pivots is perhaps less compelling than the self-destructive dance between the Hae-joon and Seo-rae, a toxic waltz that reminded me of the poisonous games in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, and Hitchcock's own Vertigo, a key touchstone throughout. But Tang—in a chameleonic, inscrutable turn—complicates Seo-rae’s femme fatale stylings, gifting her equal parts duplicity and vulnerability. Her Korean isn’t great, she tells the cops, but the giggling she succumbs to whenever words don’t come out right carries a haunting echo, and Tang walks a fine line between menace and affection throughout, leaving you always unsure as to the exact nature of her interest in Hae-joon. Does she love him, want him dead, or both?
You know the love story is doomed long before the film’s heart-rending finale; as Hae-joon reminds Seo-rae, “nothing changes the fact that I’m a cop and you’re a suspect.” But Park and co-screenwriter Chung Seo-kyung intersperse the script with moments of levity. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a comedy, but there are times when Decision makes light of Hae-joon’s clumsy flirting and the clumsier work antics of his partner. Still, that’s mostly early on; as an ellipsis propels us thirteen months into the future and another crime takes place, once again with Seo-rae at its center, Decision sheds much of its lightness to embrace a more lacerating and lugubrious aura. New victims and new leads come to the fore, complicating an already very convoluted plot. Still, the film’s arresting charm lies in Park’s ability to seamlessly untangle the narrative’s many knots. As it was for The Handmaiden, the narrative here unfurls as the network of a flower, slowly but inexorably peeling away detours and dead-ends and unveiling itself as the details pile on.
Most of all, the success of Decision comes down to the way Park metes out information visually. As Hae-joon’s proceeds to spy on Seo-rae in a series of relentless stakeouts, Park teleports him inside her flat and workplace, turning the man into a kind of ghost, quietly watching her as she goes about her day. Such visual flourishes encapsulate the strength of Hae-joon’s desire, the same way other dazzling camera angles dexterously employ screens and subjective POVs to blur the gap between who’s watching and who’s being watched (in one particularly morbid low-angle shot from inside the eyeball of the dead climber, we stare at Hae-joon and his partner as the look down at us from the mountaintop, while an ant crawls across the pupil). In a film where recordings and tapes play an essential role in propelling the narrative, Park mines an interesting tension between the immutability of our digital debris and the fluidity of our desires. People change and harbor multitudes; few directors working today can pay justice to and unveil those contradictions with such effortless ingenuity.
Back to you, Lawrence.