Few titles on my way to the Lido had me as intrigued as A Couple. Pre-premiere headlines had billed it 92-year-old Frederick Wiseman’s first foray into fiction. It isn’t. Twenty years back, in The Last Letter (2002), the documentary maven followed Comédie Française’s icon Catherine Samie as she recited a missive from a chapter in Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate (1980), an account of life in a Ukrainian ghetto fallen to the Nazis as told by a Jewish mother to her son. A Couple also pivots on another letter, this one read by Sophia Tolstoy to her husband, Leo. Wiseman, now with over forty documentaries to his name, has long cemented himself as the doyen of American cinéma vérité. His works—fly-on-the-wall excursions into American institutions and the people who orbit around them—have an almost reverential appreciation for faces, on which his camera focuses as they spill out words, often with unbearable candidness. There’s a tremendously moving contrast between the filmmaker’s monastic approach and the rawness of the confessions he captures. As I found a seat in a packed Sala Darsena (which erupted in an applause the second Wiseman’s name bobbed up on screen), the question for me was how would he adjust that style to the demands of fiction? And what would he be looking at this time?
For a while during A Couple, it wasn’t the changes that struck me, so much as the continuities. As it was for The Last Letter, Wiseman is here drawn to the same stylistic austerity that’s served as bedrock for his nonfiction projects. Barely an hour long, the whole film unfolds as a monologue delivered by Nathalie Boutefeu and punctuated by shots of the verdant garden her Sophia strolls around. She’s the only performer. Tolstoy is never seen, yet he haunts A Couple as a structuring absence; all through her performance, Boutefeu glances offscreen, as if Sophia’s husband was standing a few feet behind the camera, listening in silence. She speaks of the anxiety she felt as she was handed over to Tolstoy (Sophia was only eighteen when the two married, he was twice her age), when she was convinced she was “unworthy of such a big and noble being.” We hear about the relentless abuse—verbal and physical—he subjected her to, the fatigue she experienced as she carried their household (and nine children) on her shoulders. Much of A Couple unfurls as a visceral j’accuse; Wiseman, who penned the script with Boutefeu, fished from Sophia’s private journals, her autobiography, as well as Tolstoy’s own letters, snippets of which she quotes amid her own thoughts, giving way to a strange form of ventriloquism.
Wiseman employs different set-ups, toggling between close-ups of Boutefeu’s face and bucolic long shots. Her Sophia roams an Arcadia-like world; stops to ruminate on her pain, her loneliness and unrequited love; then walks again. This is all there is to A Couple, and it is plenty. The thirst for visual stimuli is understandable, but Wiseman offers lots to look at. Where the setting of The Last Letter was barren—an empty stage illuminated by single-source lighting—the backdrop in A Couple is everything but. The glimpses of the garden Sophia ambles through (ponds and lawns that could be pulled out of a Monet painting), function as a kind of punctuation, breaking the letter into distinct paragraphs. But there’s an ominous aura to these shots. Death lurks everywhere in the garden, echoed in the scuttling and buzzing of the insects and creatures Wiseman singles out. (Of all things, these moments reminded me of Werner Herzog’s musings on “the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder” of the Peruvian jungle in Les Blanc Burden of Dreams). Whatever else it may be, A Couple is a study of a woman’s face, and Boutefeu’s has an outstanding capacity to channel immense grief as well as fierce resilience, with eyes that look forever on the brink of tears, but never give in to them. And that may be the film’s biggest proof of continuity, the one aspect that, more than any other formal choice, aligns it with the rest of Wiseman’s body of work. Here as in his other projects, the source of the A Couple’s cumulatively harrowing power resides in the strident clash between the filmmaker’s formalism and the unbridled, sprawling material he captures. His static shots and rigid compositions aren’t cages. They’re portals through which Sophia’s life can move freely, testing their limits and spilling out of them.
Coming out of A Couple to venture into Athena was quite the shock. Romain Gavras’s third feature is a thrilling, dazzling chronicle of an all-out urban war that rings both unnervingly topical and ancient, a present-day catastrophe couched as a Greek tragedy. It’s set in Athena, a fictional housing project nestled in the banlieue of some unidentified French city, home to hundreds of first- and second-generation Black and Middle Eastern immigrants. And it kicks off with the most breathtaking sequence I’ve seen at the festival yet. Private Abdel (Dali Benssalah) is called back from the frontline to mourn the death of his youngest brother Idir, murdered in what people say was a police altercation. What he finds is a civil war; shepherded by Abdel’s younger brother Karim (Sami Slimane), the residents of Athena have taken up arms to retaliate against police brutality, and in the film’s first uninterrupted ten-minute shot, Abdel watches in sheer horror as Karim leads a platoon of balaclava-clad youngsters into the local police station, ransacking the place and driving a van back to the hood before staring defiantly atop the barricades like heroes in a Victor Hugo novel.
It’s an extraordinary preamble, and while the rest of Athena doesn’t quite match the goosebumps-inducing oomph of these first minutes, it retains much of their breakneck speed and visual bravado, courtesy of cinematographer Matias Boucard’s Steadicam work and Benjamin Weill’s peekaboo editing. Gavras wrote the script with Elias Belkeddar and Ladj Ly, whose 2019 Les Misérables hovers above Athena like a spiritual father. Here too, the film locates its tension not just in a clash between cops and marginalized youths, but in one of incompatible allegiances. Abdel is “a French Army whore,” Karim hisses as the soldier tries to cajole him into surrender, while the eldest of the siblings, Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), is too busy worrying about his drug business to care about picking sides. Athena teems with characters and subplots, but it’s Benssalah who stands at its center, and it’s his spiritual U-turn, as casualties pile up and the siege grows into a state-wide pandemonium, that gives the film its tragic scope. And yet, magnetic as he may be in his conversion, his growingly primal and bloodshot performance, he’s not the most haunting figure here. That would be Slimane’s Karim. A long-haired lad with hollow cheeks and charcoal, incinerating eyes, he patrols Athena as its commander-in-chief and prophet, brewing a deep-seated fury that imbues each scene he’s in with an electric charge. Entrancing as the opening is, it’s a quieter moment that stands as Athena’s most disturbing, when Karim wanders into his family flat, alone and silent, glances at Idir’s photo, and the picture suddenly rekindles his anger, sending him hurtling into a pack of cops.
One may argue Gavras is here aestheticizing a very timely wound, a malaise that stretches well beyond France. It’s a legitimate point, but I suspect Athena is after something larger than a banlieue revolution—or an exposé on police brutality. The film unspools as a myth, which accounts for its epic quality and its cartwheeling between moments of unremitting violence and others when this comes cloaked in a sort of ecstasy. Seductive as it can be petrifying, Athena turns an uprising into a tale as old as time itself.
I left Argentina, 1985 thinking of Gavras—not Romain, but his father Costa. At its best, Santiago Mitre’s engrossing journal of his country’s most tumultuous year brought me back to the pulse-pounding Z (1969) and State of Siege (1972). The film doubles as a paean to Julio César Strassera, the chief prosecutor who, in the early 1980s, oversaw the seismic Trial of the Junta, which led to the indictment of a handful of the country’s top military leaders for atrocities committed during the 1974–1983 dictatorship. He’s played by Ricardo Darín, who’d already starred as Argentina’s President in Mitre’s 2017 The Summit, and here stands as a distant relative of Jean-Louis Trintignant’s judge in Z. Like that film (and, in a way, Athena too), Argentina strives to turn politics into cinematic myths, and if the end result can feel a little too formulaic and conventional in its scaffolding, the cast (led by Darín and graced by rousing performances by Peter Lanzani as the prosecutor’s assistant and the several victims who take turns to reveal their traumas) douses the film with gripping energy.
Argentina is not a whodunit, it’s a who-made-it-possible. Its tension doesn’t so much reside in the repeated warnings Strassera and his team received by secret agents and army men. There may be countless death threats, and a few chases down empty streets at night, but the overarching feeling is one of outrage, not fear. What Mitre stages is a blunt confrontation between truth-seekers and gate-keepers, between an ostensibly “new” society and an elite hellbent on ensuring the country will be rebuilt in the selfsame image of the one that preceded it. Mitre and La Flor’s director Mariano Llinás, who together wrote the script, punctuate the film with moments of levity, which largely draw from the comic bickering between Strassera and his family and colleagues, and give more flesh to a pantheon of secondary characters. Yet they also feel somewhat perfunctory, detracting from the overall pathos and reinforcing Argentina’s populist aura. This is, after all, a crowd-pleaser, and in the most literal meaning of the word: a film where an entire nation engages in an against-all-odds battle for justice, and renews itself in the process.
Most significantly, Argentina works through omissions. The stomach-churning details of the systematic tortures and human rights violations civilians were subject to under the dictatorship are never shown, only relayed, confessed, and remembered. Mitre and Llinás have a way of translating abstract notions like Truth and Justice into a game of verbal fencing, and there’s something almost utopian about the film’s unwavering faith in the power of words. People talk plenty in Argentina, and Mitre’s drama particularly stands as a testament to the catharsis and cleansing of oral testimony. It’s no coincidence that the most affecting scenes all feature people listening, whether in court, at home, or in Strassera’s office. By the time the prosecutor delivers his electrifying conviction, Mitre has bridged the gulf between the audience in the film and the one watching it. For a moment there, as a whole court clapped and cried in unison before the final cards revealed the trial’s aftermath (the incarcerations it led to, and the ongoing struggles to bring others to justice) their exaltation was mine, too.