Cannes 2019

Melodrama, Debauchery, Comedy: Un Certain Regard

On Film / The Daily — May 28, 2019
Albert Serra’s Liberté (2019)

Seventeen years after he saw his debut feature Madame Satã premiere in the Un Certain Regard program, Karim Aïnouz returned to the Cannes sidebar this year with The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão—and won the section’s top award. Billed as a “tropical melodrama” and based on the popular 2015 novel by Martha Batalha, the film tells the story of two inseparable sisters, Eurídice (Carol Duarte) and Guida (Júlia Stockler), growing up in a conservative household in Rio de Janeiro in the mid-1950s. At twenty, Guida is two years older and eager to break out, while the quieter Eurídice practices piano and dreams of attending a conservatory in Vienna.

When Guida elopes to Athens with a handsome Greek sailor, she’s ostracized from the family, and the sisters write secret letters to each other, never knowing whether or not they’ll actually get delivered. “Anyone already familiar with Aïnouz’s work will know to expect a florid sensory experience,” writes Guy Lodge for Variety, “but even by the Brazilian’s standards, this heartbroken tale of two sisters separated for decades by familial shame and deceit is a waking dream, saturated in sound, music, and color to match its depth of feeling. From the first, jungle-set shot, the redoubtable DP Hélène Louvart gives the film the daubed, traffic-light palette of a ripe mango; were it possible, you’d expect it to have an aroma to match.”


Discussing his work with Louvart, Aïnouz tells Ela Bittencourt in the Hollywood Reporter that, because he’d never shot on digital before, “our challenge was to keep the mystery in a format designed to be close to reality, and to avoid elegance. Nothing’s as boring as elegance.” Variety’s John Hopewell tells Aïnouz that Eurídice Gusmão reminds him of the work of Douglas Sirk. Aïnouz agrees, but adds that there’s “something very prudish about melodrama. Fassbinder is a complete departure,” and “that was very inspirational, as was the work of a Portuguese filmmaker who I really love called João Pedro Rodrigues, who also works a lot with the genre. For me, the question was how to make melodrama relevant today, seductive to young audiences. How do you break some of the codes of classic melodrama which was very much produced in the McCarthy era?”

Oliver Laxe, a Galician filmmaker born in France who’s been living in Morocco, has quite a track record. His first feature, You All Are Captains (2010), won a prize from the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) when it premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight. His second, Mimosas (2016), took the top award from Cannes’s other independent parallel program, Critics’ Week. And now Fire Will Come has won the UCR jury prize. “There's an almost ethnographic detachment in Laxe's gaze, but a piercing sensitivity as well, which makes the rigorously unshowy drama feel like the work of a Spanish Kelly Reichardt,” suggests David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. Opening with an eerie sequence of giant eucalyptus trees being felled, Fire Will Come shifts to the return of a man from prison to his aging mother’s farm in Galicia. When the film delivers on its title’s promise, the “sense of danger, as well as the complicated economic stakes, are extremely present,” writes Blake Williams for Filmmaker, “real in the most Bazinian sense, elevating the picture to harrowing, almost biblical heights.”


Laxe tells Emilio Mayorga in Variety that Andrei Tarkovsky “helped me feel secure in the relationship between the artistic and the sacred.” His fourth feature, he says, will land somewhere “between a psychedelic road movie and a survival thriller. It’s about a group of punks and ravers looking for a party in Morocco . . . It’s a pre-apocalyptic Mad Max meets Easy Rider and Stalker.

Beanpole, in which two women in Leningrad struggle to rebuild their lives in the wake of the Second World War, has won not only the FIPRESCI prize for best film in the UCR program but also a best director award for twenty-seven-year-old Kantemir Balagov. Nadine Labaki, whose Capernaum won the jury prize in Cannes last year, presided over the jury that included directors Lisandro Alonso and Lukas Dhont, actress Marina Foïs, and producer Nurhan Sekerci-Porst. Honoring Balagov is a decision that’s been met with all but universal approval. One or two of the jury’s other selections, though, may be perceived by some as a bit more daring.

Albert Serra’s Liberté, awarded a special jury prize, “may very well be the most radical and uncompromising thing I’ve ever communally experienced in a theater,” writes Blake Williams. Following 2016’s The Death of Louis XIV, Serra returns to the eighteenth century, albeit a few decades on. It’s 1774 when French libertines venture deep into the woods to meet up with the Duke of Walchen, a—fictional, by the way—freethinker and seducer played by Helmut Berger, an actor best known for his work with Luchino Visconti. Berger, who turns seventy-five tomorrow, is not the only aging male member of the cast to cavort with younger women during a night of bewigged debauchery.

For the Notebook’s Daniel Kasman, Liberté’s “vulgarity carries the smack of calculated transgression because it is directed by Albert Serra, whose bold emphasis on stripping down his famous subjects—Quixote, the Magi, Casanova, Louis XIV—to exhibitionist essentials of the all-too-human body, unexpected proclamations and utterances, and opulent yet spartan period trappings, all caught in the stultifying, anti-glamorous passing of time, has allowed the Catalan provocateur to move with ease between the film and art worlds.” Liberté has been staged as a theatrical production in Berlin and as a two-channel installation in Madrid, and as Guy Lodge reports in Variety, this third part of the project, “which features graphic penetration, S&M, and urolagnia, prompted multiple walkouts during its premiere.”


A special jury mention goes to Bruno Dumont’s Joan of Arc, the second half of a project begun with 2017’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc. Two decisions set the new film apart from the first one. Dumont has replaced the aggressive soundtrack by the avant composer Igorrr with the gentler voice of pop singer Christophe. And Lise Leplat Prudhomme, who played Joan as a child in Jeannette before Jeanne Voisin took over to play her as a teen, returns for the chapters depicting her trial and martyrdom at the age of nineteen. Prudhomme is ten now, and writing for Screen, Jonathan Romney argues that it’s her “presence as an embodiment of innocent, unbending will that gives the film its most persuasive meaning. Joan has consistently been a figurehead for the French right, but here she very much embodies resistance to religious intolerance, while in terms of gender politics, there could hardly be a more extreme example of a woman’s persecution by the massed ranks of the patriarchy.”

Others have noted that this oft-told story makes for odd material for Dumont, a self-professed atheist. “Why does Dumont indulge in these distracted, negligent, and barely serious films about religious personages?” wonders Sight & Sound editor Nick James. “What is to be gained by making a ten-year-old non-actor or ‘model,’ as Bresson would have it, stand still in armor for ages, holding her halberd, visibly trembling from the effort, while we listen to Christophe sing falsetto and synth pieties on the soundtrack?” For James, it all adds up to “a dull experience.” But for Blake Williams, Joan of Arc, “even more than Jeannette, achieves grace through a startling rejection of illusionism and embrace of materialism.”


Comedy rounds out this year’s bundle of UCR prizes. Two special awards called the Coup de coeur go to Monia Chokri’s A Brother’s Love and Michael Angelo Covino’s The Climb. The former is the story of Sophia, a woman so devoted to her brother that she’s thrown out of whack when he starts getting serious about his girlfriend. Critics have been quick to point out that Chokri, lead actress Anne-Élisabeth Bossé, and producer Nancy Grant have all worked with Xavier Dolan. “At times,” writes Jessica Kiang in Variety, “there’s an ebullient freedom to Chokri’s filmmaking that recalls Dolan at his most fleet-footed and experimental: There are jump-cuts and repetitions in the edits, off-kilter angles and punchy close-ups in DP Joseé Deshaies’ saturated, bright cinematography and a great, often counter-intuitive use of surprising soundtrack cuts. But there are also headachey, borderline cacophonous argument sequences, gratuitous party scenes, and random side characters that do little but add length and complication to what is really a relatively straightforward story about a thirtysomething woman finally growing the hell up.” But for Rebecca Liu in Another Gaze, this is a “full and painstakingly humanizing character study” and “Sophia’s transformation still feels like a victory.”


In his debut feature, Covino plays Michael, one of two friends who’ve grown up together, in a series of vignettes that play out over the course of several years. Cowriter Kyle Marvin plays the other friend, Kyle. At RogerEbert.com, Ben Kenigsberg finds that “Covino’s strength is not only in the movie's strange comic rhythms—this is the sort of film that may seem unfunny initially but gets deeper, more horrified belly laughs as it progresses—but also in his an odd and original use of screen space.” In the Hollywood Reporter, Jordan Mintzer adds that, working with cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, Covino “poses each scene as a specific cinematic challenge, using sequence shots, extended takes, shifts in focus, and plenty of Steadicam to keep the action as fluid as possible, allowing the actors to work though their dialogue without interruption.”


The single award for a performance goes to Chiara Mastroianni, who plays Maria, an adulterous professor, in On a Magical Night, directed by Mastroianni’s frequent collaborator, Christophe Honoré. When her husband catches on to what she’s been up to, Maria moves out of her apartment and into a hotel across the street, where she’s visited by spirits: a younger version of the husband, the woman he almost married instead of her, and her own past lovers. “At times On a Magical Night almost feels like a soft-porn version of the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, only not quite as thrillingly kinky as that sounds,” writes Stephen Dalton in the Hollywood Reporter. For Ioncinema’s Nicholas Bell, Mastroianni is “formidably entertaining here as Maria, from a dynamite opening sequence in the dorm room of her collegiate lover (Harrison Arevalo), to strutting her way down Parisian streets as she arrives for dinner at her posh apartment shared with her husband Richard (Benjamin Briolay) of twenty-five years (they live above a seven-screen cinema, prominently showing the latest François Ozon film and oddities such as the fittingly titled WarGames, 1983).” As “a showcase for Mastroianni,” On a Magical Night “might be Honoré’s best role for her yet.”

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