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Almodóvar, McQueen, Wenders

Pedro Pascal and Ethan Hawke in Pedro Almodóvar’s Strange Way of Life (2023)

On Wednesday, Cannes presented three Special Screenings, a half-hour western from Pedro Almodóvar, a four-and-a-half-hour essay by Steve McQueen, and from Wim Wenders, a portrait of German art world giant Anselm Kiefer shot on 6K and in 3D.

Strange Way of Life

Before Ang Lee made Brokeback Mountain, his 2005 adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story about two cowboys in love, the project landed on Pedro Almodóvar’s desk. As he’s often explained over the years, he gave it a pass because he knew he’d want to take the story places no major studio would want to go. Now, with the backing of Saint Laurent artistic director Anthony Vaccarello, he’s gone there with Strange Way of Life. It’s “the perfect movie to premiere at Cannes,” suggests Rolling Stone’s David Fear: “sumptuously cinematic, purposefully cine-meta, something that simultaneously breaks new ground and builds on the back catalog of a major world-cinema player.”

Silva (Pedro Pascal) rides across the desert—Almodóvar shot the short film in the south of Spain, where Sergio Leone made his landmark spaghetti westerns—and into the tiny town of Bitter Creek to drop in on the sheriff, Jake (Ethan Hawke). Twenty-five years ago, Silva and Jake were lovers, and before long, they’ve fallen right back into bed again. The next morning, they’ll find themselves on opposite sides of an inevitable showdown.

“The heated interplay between Hawke, doing his best gravel-voiced Clint growl and stern resistance, and Pascal, intensely direct, bristling with unashamedly romantic yearning, is delicious,” finds the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney. “That’s mirrored in the raw physicality of their earlier years, conjured in separate fireside memories, with Jason Fernández as the young Jake and José Condessa as Silva in a Mexican brothel, shooting holes in a wine sack and guzzling the resulting fountain of vino tinto before devouring each other with equal thirst.”

Almodóvar “doesn’t tailor himself for the western so much as he forces the western to tailor itself for him,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich. “All the genre tropes that squeeze their way into Strange Way of Life, from milky white skylines to Mexican standoffs, serve the tempestuous and typically Almodóvarian emotions that burn inside its characters.”

For the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, the film “flashes past, and feels quite minor as a result—much more so than Almodóvar’s recent (and briefer) English-language short with Tilda Swinton, The Human Voice. But what there is of it is easy-going, middlingly raunchy arthouse fun.” Vulture’s Rachel Handler reports that during the Q&A that followed the premiere, Almodóvar “wondered aloud whether he should turn the short into a full-length feature. ‘I should probably make it,’ he mused. The crowd applauded in agreement.”

Occupied City

While Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology is rooted in his memories of growing up in the West Indian community in London, the Turner Prize–winning artist and director has been living in Amsterdam for nearly thirty years. His wife, Bianca Stigter, an associate producer on 12 Years a Slave (2013)—which won an Oscar for Best Picture—and Widows (2018), made her directorial debut in 2021 with Three Minutes: A Lengthening. As Beatrice Loayza writes in the New York Times, Three Minutes is “more than a documentary about the Holocaust—it is an investigative drama, a meditation on the ethics of moving images, and a ghost story about people who might be forgotten should we take those images for granted.”

In 2019, Stigter put together a deeply researched book, Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940–1945, which now serves as the backbone of McQueen’s new film, Occupied City. Without resorting to talking heads or archival footage, 130 atrocities committed by Nazis and collaborators resulting in the decimation of the city’s Jewish population—out of eighty thousand, twenty thousand survived—are recounted by narrator Melanie Hyams while the screen is filled with shots of the crime scenes in the present day. “Often,” writes Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov, “there barely seems to be any relationship between what we’re seeing and hearing, even if there’s an obvious broader point in a psychogeographic vein: every square foot of earth has its own deep context, whether superficially legible or not.”

As Sheri Linden points out in the Hollywood Reporter, the narration “isn’t a commentary on the visuals; they’re two complementary but separate channels. Sometimes there are rhymes between them, but mostly there’s a fascinating and evocative friction that generates a third channel, one of contemplation. As McQueen puts it in the film’s production notes, ‘You kind of go onto another mode, and it’s okay to drift in and out.’”

For some, four and a half hours of this is simply too much. “The film is a trial to sit through,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, adding that “the whole idea of juxtaposing past and present settings was done—definitively—in Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1956), the most searing and indelible Holocaust documentary ever made (and it’s only thirty-three minutes long).” Writing for Little White Lies, Sophie Monks Kaufman notes that “there are many, many moments when so many stories have piled up on top of each other that one is numb, dazed, disconnected from the material. There has been a Herculean level of research in terms of respecting all the people mentioned here by including the bare minimum of their full name, meaning that there is a fleeting moment when the reality of who they once were holds the center your attention, but they are almost instantly replaced by the next person and the next one and the next one.”

Robbie Collin argues that “the epic duration is part of the point.” And in the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw reminds us of what most often comes to mind when we think of Nazi-occupied cities: “Flickering black-and-white newsreel footage, semi-familiar landmarks in monochrome, images of swastikas, an alien display of history, vacuum-sealed in the past. But McQueen shows us the modern world, in 4K resolution and there is a gradual realization that for those involved in 1940, the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam happened just like this: in living color in the here-and-now, with modern hairstyles and clothes.”

Anselm

Massive, weighty, often confrontational, and always, undeniably present, the paintings and sculptures of Anselm Kiefer on view in some of the world’s most prestigious museums conjure the ashen ruins of the twentieth century. Kiefer was born in a small town in the Black Forest just a few months before the end of the Second World War.

As Jonathan Romney points out in Screen, Wim Wenders’s Anselm “emphasizes Kiefer’s debt to three major modern German writers: Martin Heidegger and poets Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachman. We learn how Kiefer’s invocation of Germany’s past led him to become a divisive figure at home, suspected of being a neo-Nazi, whereas critics abroad celebrated his confrontation of historical taboos. Overall, Kiefer’s fascination with mythological and theological thought, and commitment to the ideas and images of nineteenth-century German Romanticism, clearly make him a kindred spirit to Wenders himself.”

Wenders “brings a certain awe, or even shock, or even a kind of reverently docu-dramatized PTSD to his film,” writes Peter Bradshaw, who finds a “fascination—and trepidation—in watching the master at work, strolling or cycling around his vast warehouse, with creations piled or stacked in every corner.” At the Film Verdict, Ben Nicholson notes that Wenders and cinematographer Franz Lustig have been working together on various 3D projects over the past twenty years. “Here,” writes Nicholson, “the stereoscopy is at its most effective when the camera is given free rein to glide around,” and “the dimensions of the image are not employed for the gimmick of something fizzing past the screen, but to immersively position the viewer inside the image.”

Nicholson notes that in dramatic reconstructions of Kiefer’s past, the director’s grand-nephew, Anton Wenders, plays the artist as a boy, and Kiefer’s own son, Daniel, plays him as a young man. In Variety, Catherine Bray finds that the “effect is intimate, like we’re trespassing in someone else’s core memories. This isn’t a portrait of the artist as a young, middle-aged or old man: It’s every past self overlapping, sometimes literally, as Wenders brilliantly overlays images to function as both eye and mind’s eye, simultaneously suggesting what is both seen and thought.”

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