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Cannes Dispatch: Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta,” Kogonada’s “After Yang,” Andrea Arnold’s “Cow”

Verhoeven’s nun love story fires up the fest, while Kogonada’s AI tale and Arnold’s bovine doc offer studies in inter-species communication.
Leonardo Goi
Sometimes it only takes one film to fire up a festival. That film, this year, came in the shape Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, one of a handful that had originally been selected to screen here in 2020, and handed another slot twelve months later. It was Verhoeven’s first film since Elle (also screened in the official competition here back in 2016), and it promised a period piece cribbed from a book by Judith C. Brown: Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. Which itself was based on the real-life story of Benedetta, a 17th century Italian nun-turned-abbess of Pescia, Tuscany, put on trial for a love affair with a fellow nun. Verhoeven has never shied away from in-your-face sexual content, so the marriage between director and story felt ripe for all kinds of excesses. But little could have ever prepared me for the wild riot Benedetta would ultimately turn into. 
Virginie Efira is Benedetta Carlini, a twenty-something nun with a preternatural gift for communing with the divine—the kind of talent that sends her recurrent visions where Christ comes down from heaven to profess his love for her. She serves in a convent ran by Charlotte Rampling’s abbess Felicita, whose quiet is interrupted by the arrival of a newcomer, Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia). Soon, Bartolomea starts seducing Benedetta, triggering all kinds of hallucinations in which the nun is visited by snakes and other devilish incarnations. Is Bartolomea one of those, too? Is their liaison a manifestation of divine love, or a mortal sin?
With all its unhinged eroticism, its forays into kinks and sexual fantasies (including a certain statuette of the Virgin Mary), Benedetta locates in the sexual tension between the two women its driving force. It is outrageous, bombastic, flamboyant—but the film makes no pretense at hiding that, and in fact relishes in all the madness with a contagious insouciance. Time and again, I found myself wondering if Benedetta’s excesses would ever plateau—only to confront a new scene that made all that came before pale by comparison. But the film isn’t just an exercise in provocation. I am still not sure what to make of Verhoeven’s penchant for nudity here (both Efira and Patakia spend ample screen time stark naked), or how to account for the possible voyeurism behind it. But Benedetta is resolutely committed to paint its heroine as a cunning figure struggling to fight against a calcified and corrupt establishment. In that, the film doubles as an all too timely study in female empowerment, where sex is couched as a life-affirming, liberating force.
And it’s often disarmingly funny. Co-writers Verhoeven and David Birke relish in pitting a foul-mouthed Bartolomea against the more cultivated and well to-do Benedetta. Frequent discussions of financial matters add an ironic worldliness to the spiritual questions the abbey should concern itself with (as Felicita warns Bartolomea early on, “a convent is no charity, you need money to stay”). And the reactions to the miracles Benedetta may or may not perform at times veer into a Life of Brian satire. Much will be written about Efira’s work, and indeed her ability to incarnate Benedetta’s ambivalences is gripping (she also adds a vulnerability to the most explicit scenes that strips them of their peeping tom-quality and casts them in a far more tragic light). But the film finds in Charlotte Rampling its crowning glory. Her performance is a triumph of understated gestures—a twist of lips, an eye-roll, a smirk, and her Felicita crystallizes all the defiant swagger Benedetta brims with. 
After Yang
After Verhoeven’s tour de force, the quiet, lyrical aura of Kogonada’s After Yang felt like opening your lungs to a different layer of atmosphere. Pitted next to his 2017 debut feature Columbus, After Yang—screening in the Un Certain Regard sidebar—may seem like a completely different oddball. We’re in the realm of science fiction, a universe humans share with “techno-beings” that tips its hat to recent AI fantasies à la Westworld or Ex-Machina. But while the stakes have grown, the scale remains small. After Yang is the story of a family of four: Jake (Colin Farrell), his partner Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), their adopted girl Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), and the android they’ve purchased to fill in the double role of baby-sitter and educator, Yang (Justin H. Min). For Mika is a child of Chinese descent, and Yang’s chief purpose is to ground her in her native culture—language, rituals, and “fun facts.” Except the robot (odd as it may be to call Yang so, given his striking human-like resemblance and mannerisms) suddenly stops functioning, throwing the family in disarray. Jake sets off to fix the android, only to find out that Yang was harboring an earth-shattering secret, the kind that further complicates his metaphysics and distance from humans.
Still, this remains a tale suffused in the same kind of humanism that made Columbus so riveting. And it adds further evidence of Kogonada’s knack for world building, as well as his interest in the relationship between characters and the spaces they inhabit. After Yang is set in an undetermined tomorrow—no dates are given—but all the futuristic, high-tech details (driverless cars racing down underground tunnels, hologram-like video calls, glasses used as computer screens) are reined in by a production design that feels surprisingly contemporary, if not outright anachronistic. It’s a temporal syncretism that finds an interesting parallel in the mélange of cultures populating the unnamed city Farrell et al wander into. And it also underscores what might well be After Yang’s chief preoccupation: a struggle to clutch onto one’s memories as the quintessential component of our being humans—the key distinction between “us” and “them.”
Not everything works. Despite its relatively compact running time—the film clocks in at 101 minutes—there are moments when After Yang struggles to keep up momentum. At a certain point, the meditative pacing and frequent repetitions in dialogue (especially as Jake and Kyra’s memories of their exchanges with Yang are juxtaposed with his own) stopped giving me new things to think about, and for a while I was just happy to bask in the atmosphere Kogonada conjured—a loneliness that haunts Jake throughout, and makes his detours into Yang’s memories feel like the unlocking of a new galaxy. But that as well can feel a little too one-note. Yang’s liaison with a clone, Haley Lu Richardson’s Ada, is meant to further blur the distinction between android and humans. Yet this is when the film stumbles a little, handing Richardson the kind of lines designed to challenge our anthropocentric gaze, but feel far more perfunctory and on-the-nose than the rest of Kogonada’s script. At its best, After Yang unfurls as an existential journey in the vein of Don Hertzfeldt’s stick figure World of Tomorrow trilogy. It’s an inquiry in inter-species communication, a cerebral film that never forsakes its emotional fabric, and ends with a chilling question: what if the things we love could love us back?
Inter-species communication is also one way of thinking about Cow, Andrea Arnold’s entry in the Cannes Premiere section. It’s a documentary redolent of Victor Kossakovsky’s 2020 Gunda, a close-up portrait of animal life inside a farm that works to problematize our understanding of non-human sentience. But where Gunda gave us what was essentially a multi-character portrait—trailing behind a sow, her piglets, chickens, and cows—Cow, true to its title, focuses on the latter only. It chronicles a few months in the life of a bovine and one of the many calves she’s birthed inside an English dairy farm. Working with cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk, Arnold narrows the gap between viewer and animals to a disquieting extent, as the camera meets Luma (our protagonist) and her baby at their eye’s level, moving and watching and breathing in synch with them.
People are virtually elided from the frame, their presence reduced to protruding limbs, or echoed in the voices and diegetic songs reverberating offscreen. But the farm is still unmistakably a human’s world, and Cow doesn’t waste much time in laying out the barbarities of the dairy industry. We are made to watch as bovines are tagged, pierced, pushed and dumped from one corral to the next, and we witness the sad spectacle of their udders plucked to vacuum pipes as the cows are pushed and rotate onto what looks like a cage-roundelay. It’s an unflinching, brutal spectacle, whose stomach-churning details Arnold never flinches from (even as you might—I myself did, time and again). But while Cow, more so than Gunda, often feels incendiary about its condemnation of all the cruelty we experience, it should not be written off as a vegan screed.
Cow’s single, greatest merit—what makes it so perturbing and indelible—is a lingering doubt Arnold instils: you’re never quite sure whether what you’re watching is a documentary, or a “silent” film told and felt through its protagonist’s point of view. Luma makes for a wonderful screen presence, but Arnold never quite exoticizes her, never reduces her to a “thing” to gawk at and keep at an arm’s length. We see her cry for her calf as this is stripped away from her minutes after birth. Glance at the sky, together with the camera, in a moment of short-lived respite. Lie on the ground, exhausted, after the umpteenth delivery. I sense there’ll be ample discussion about the ethics behind the film’s shattering closing shot. It’s devastating, sure, but it does not feel manipulative, or unearned. More like the inevitable conclusion of a journey designed to break down, if only for a short-lived moment, the invisible barrier between species. The shock Cow elicits is a measure of all the compassion it’s drenched in.


CannesCannes 2021Festival CoveragePaul VerhoevenKogonadaAndrea Arnold
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