The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2019

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JUL-AUG 2019 Issue

Cannes 2019: The Push and Pull between Genre and Auteurism

Emily Beecham in Little Joe. Image courtesy of the Cannes Film Festival.

Following a couple of less-than-stellar editions, the Cannes competition returned to a degree of form this year, finding not just a more effective balance between expected quantities and intriguing newcomers, but also managing to assemble them around a loose theme—namely, the push and pull between genre and auteurism and how one can often resemble the other. Numerous directors bent familiar genres more or less to their will, setting up intriguing reverberations between existing predilections and fresh ideas.

Mapping the tensions between different types of expectation also offered the most satisfying way of engaging with some of the less successful works, including Jim Jarmusch’s opening film, The Dead Don’t Die. While the lines connecting the standard elements of the zombie movie and those familiar from the veteran American’s recent output (hip casting, a leisurely pace, and oblique observations on the state of the USA) are diverting enough, the combination ultimately saps them of their respective virtues, the potential thrills of the undead invasion hobbled by Jarmusch’s typical languorousness and his sardonic consumerist critique rendered tired by the walking dead’s over-familiarity as metaphor.

For their part, the jury also rewarded some of the more intriguing examples of these same tensions, with three of the major prizes going to unusual, exhilarating works whose grab-bag, synergistic approach to genre was a demonstration of directorial ambition. Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho teamed up with his production designer Juliano Dornelles to make Jury Prize winner Bacurau, another searing examination of contemporary Brazil, albeit one seen through the prism of the near future. As the film continually shifts between Western, hard-boiled thriller and science fiction tropes and their accompanying moods, it’s impossible to know quite what will happen next—a deliberate tonal unpredictability that could be describing the country’s current era.

Mati Diop walked off with the Grand Prix for her Senegal-set debut feature, Atlantics, which tells the tale of a young woman torn between her love for a construction worker seeking a better life and her arranged marriage to the son of a wealthy family. It drifts between romance, social commentary, detective story, and horror to hallucinatory, if occasionally disjointed effect. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, which became the first film from South Korea to take home the Palme d’Or, combines laugh-out-loud con-artist shenanigans, dollops of family drama, off-kilter home invasion dynamics, and stabs of violence into a typically sleek, fast-moving whole whose multilayered critique of class relations is only dulled slightly by an urge to play to the gallery.

Emily Beacham won the award for Best Actress for Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe, the Austrian filmmaker’s fifth feature and first in English. It was one of the more unusual and troubling fusions of genre patterns and directorial preoccupations to grace the festival. Beacham plays Alice, a single mother and successful scientist who is putting the finishing touches onto what will hopefully be her crowning invention: a genetically modified plant which, cared for properly, will reward its owner with feelings of well-being. But those who are exposed to the plant (named Little Joe) actually end up seeming more sullen, or even belligerent, than actually happy, even if these apparent changes in behavior could also have perfectly rational explanations—the pressures of juggling career and motherhood are enough to make anyone question how they perceive things.

Hausner sets this apparent spin on Invasion of the Body Snatchers in a seamlessly realized near-future Britain of perfectly oppressive design, where every feature has been made to match, with even the few shots of landscape appearing to have been pieced together from a self-assembly kit. Yet, while the plot initially seems to be building towards the moment when Little Joe’s powers are proven, the expected release never materializes, presenting the far more frightening prospect that a world capable of free will might look identical to one that has no free will to speak of. This insistence on ambiguity and ambivalence links the film back to the same questions that have always interested Hausner, which resonate differently in this new setting: does belief ever offer certainty? And why do women need to defend their beliefs whereas men do not?

Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu injected a degree of his own unorthodox sensibility into the heist movie with The Whistlers. The film takes a characteristically off-the-wall idea as its starting point: in La Gomera in the Canary Islands, the locals are able to communicate by whistling alone. Cristi is a lugubrious middle-aged police officer from Bucharest lured there to learn this whistled language by a femme fatale who just so happens to be called Gilda, the plan being that the two of them will eventually return home to use their newly acquired linguistic skills to carry out a robbery and share the loot with their Spanish associates. But Cristi is being watched and is also hardly the only one with flexible loyalties, as the path to the inevitable big showdown proceeds to twist and turn with tongue-in-cheek aplomb.

Porumboiu constructs The Whistlers like a set of Russian dolls in reverse, with the figure of Cristi forming the nexus around which each new character and new narrative layer is progressively added, with the brightly colored title card ushering in each fresh name serving to draw attention to the ever more intricate construction being put together. This is but one of the film’s self-reflexive flourishes however, as Gilda is by no means the only reference to cinema. Heist movies always seem to be playing on screens in the background, and the best hiding place for the loot is obviously a film set. While the sense that Romania is a country where everything is under surveillance and there’s no allegiance that can’t be bought or forced, any social critique proves less significant than the wonderfully entertaining workings of the filigree plot, as Porumboiu rises to the occasion of working on a larger and more accessible canvas. If The Whistlers resembles more of a pièce de résistance soufflé than anything more nutritious, at least there’s not even the hint of a sag.

The precise moment at which Terrence Malick’s filmmaking calcified into a veritable genre unto itself of swooning camera movements, whispered narration and endless sun-kissed prettiness is a moot point. With its period setting and greater interest in conventional narrative, A Hidden Life feels more of a piece with the earlier, less prolific period of Malick’s career than his recent output, even if the latter still casts a lasting shadow. The film erects a cinematic memorial of sorts to the real-life figure of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer and conscientious objector to the Nazi regime whose simple, religiously motivated refusal to swear allegiance to Hitler would cost him his idyllic rural existence with his wife Franziska and their daughters.

Aside from the odd jumps back to salient moments or moods, Malick traces this trajectory in more or less chronological fashion, passing from the village of St. Radegund in the Austrian Alps to an internment camp elsewhere in the country and finally onto Tegel Penitentiary in Berlin. If the twirling through the bucolic setting, soul searching in voiceover, and gushing classical music strikes an excessive tone from the outset, they at least serve a clear function this time around, as this earthly paradise will soon give way to comparative quiet and eventual ugliness, a perhaps simplistic contrast that creates an emotional impact nonetheless.

That willingness to engage with Malick’s box of tricks will likely be the litmus test as to what extent A Hidden Life connects with audiences, as there’s no forgetting the way they’ve been copied and co-opted everywhere from television series to high-gloss adverts. Context has always been key to the reception of Malick’s work: after all, how much of the love for Adrian Brody frolicking with the “natives” in the Pacific waves in The Thin Red Line stemmed from having been made to wait so long for it? Whether in relation to genre, known directorial quantities, or both at the same time, there’s no expectation that doesn’t eventually shift.


James Lattimer

JAMES LATTIMER is a film critic, festival programmer, and filmmaker based in Berlin.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2019

All Issues