Much of what we think of as “art house” cinema has been defined by the Cannes film festival, perhaps the only institution capable of creating ‘auteurs’ as opposed to discovering them. When a relatively unknown filmmaker graduates to the Competition, they're work is immediately bestowed with a perceived minimum value. Careers have been made this way. Despite their apparent mediocrity, Xavier Dolan, Naomi Kawase, and Jacques Audiard find a way to sneak into the selection year after year, receiving exposure disproportionate to the the level of their craft.
If Cannes has pet filmmakers, it also has a preferred style: austere realism, a type of slow, arduous, and politically engaged filmmaking encapsulated in the oeuvres of directors like Cristian Mungiu, the Dardenne brothers, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Rather than describe this aesthetic by its formal traits—which vary widely across these films and filmmakers, from the handheld camerawork and unobtrusive editing of the Dardennes to the deliberate and painterly compositions of Ceylan—we might consider the unifying connection between them to be a social and political awareness that pre-supposes their own importance. All of these films rely on a roughly similar strategy: to “authentically” portray characters who will be the cyphers on which we can project the malaise of whatever epoch or political issue is being exhumed.
The latest from Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War, fits this traditional mold while recalling celebrated works by Bergman, Dreyer, and Tarkovsky (less so)—the holy trinity for the quasi-transcendental art cinema that often occupies the Competition. Pawlikowski engages his influences rather than simply gesturing toward them. The questions contemplated here could very well apply to a number of films by the above directors: how, in a post-War Europe torn between the utopian aspirations of communism and capitalism, can we experience spiritual satisfaction? Is romantic and agape love still present, or have they been lost to the ages?
Our two seekers are composer Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and singer-dancer Zula (Joanna Kulig), a Polish couple who first meet when he scours the countryside recruiting talent for a troupe of traditional folk artists. Zula instantly dazzles Wiktor, even though she lacks the earthy look he is looking for; unsurprisingly, he invites her to join anyway. As power switches hands in Poland and Stalin takes a firm hold of the country, strict censorship is imposed on the group. After performing propaganda pieces and showing signs of disenchantment towards his project, Wiktor hops the border into West Germany. Zula, caught up at a party, never meets up with him, and this fracture will be the defining characteristic of the couple’s romance for decades as they fall in and out of love, travelling aimlessly between the borders of Germany, France, and Yugoslavia.
As the times and locations change, so too do the tunes. In a film where music cues dramatize a European identity crisis, the most heartbreaking and euphoric moment has to be Zula’s drunken swing to “Rock Around the Clock.” Such a sudden burst of energy is quite the change of pace from Ida (2013), the director’s previous film, also set in post-war Poland. In that film, Pawlikowski keeps the camera static for almost the entire film—until the final shot, that is, where Ida emancipates herself from the trauma of her past, and a climactic tracking shot follows her leaving the convent that housed her previously ascetic life. Cold War jives to the freewheeling rhythm of its rock and jazz soundtrack, and inverts its predecessor in doing so. Where Ida was mostly about going back and slowly reconstructing WWII history, Cold War is about getting away from that history as fast as possible, dancing its way past decades of milestones in under 90 minutes.
Unlike Cold War, Jaime Rosales’ time-warping Petra is the kind of film that might be too funny and brisk for the Competition, premiering instead over at the 50th annual Directors Fortnight. The story is told in seven chapters that play out of order. In Chapter II, the one that starts the film, Petra arrives at the home of an eccentric and jaded artist, Jaume. While there, she falls for his mildly successful son, Lucas, a photographer cataloging grave sites from various countries and periods. A contemporary Greek tragedy ensues with revelations as preposterous as they are clever. Try to distinguish between the deception of the characters and the trickery of the filmmaker, and you'll soon realize this is perhaps Rosales’ most ingenious lie: he's made a film primarily about itself, and you've willingly played along with his game. No question, though: if I could erase my memory and dupe myself all over again, I would happily do so.
A few blocks down the Croisette from where Petra played in Fortnight, Paul Dano’s debut feature Wildlife had its international premiere, arriving here in Cannes with rave reviews from Sundance earlier this year. Living in Montana circa 1960, Joe (Ed Oxenbould, who is very good at looking sad) is young, awkward, and poor. His mother (Carey Mulligan) does the best with what she has, especially considering that her mentally ill husband has recently lost his job. Joe, his mom and dad (Jake Gylenhaal) will likely go their separate ways, and Wildlife exists almost exclusively to make us feel something for this transformation. What this sympathy ultimately produces the film does not know. In this way, Dano’s film is also about itself, looking inward rather than outward. Say what you will about the prototypical Cannes film, but at least they try to be about something.