Cannes Film Festival 2014: Dispatch Two
By Jordan Cronk

David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars is in many ways a quintessential Cannes film. At a glance an outrageous send-up of Hollywood artificiality and indulgent celebrity lifestyles, it is, from another vantage, an indictment of our age of technology-enhanced entitlement and the commodification of identity. It’s star-studded event movie and subversive art-house film all at once. It simultaneously fulfills and deflates the inherent contradictions of glamorous film festivals such as Cannes, and does so with a gloriously macabre sense of humor. The irony is surely not lost on Cronenberg, who has of late been directly engaging with the infrastructure of mainstream cinema in the postmillennial era.

Maps to the Stars is no more beholden to the perspective of its screenwriter, Hollywood satirist Bruce Wagner, than A Dangerous Method was to Christopher Hampton’s prestige preoccupations or Eastern Promises was to Steven Knight’s televisual brand of storytelling. This is lurid, frankly ludicrous material, which Cronenberg excavates for situational salaciousness and topical provocation, conceiving a vividly heightened (though not inaccurate) impression of contemporary Los Angeles; this is a city fueled by pleasures of the flesh and hampered by the inadequacy of the human vessel to maintain its own autonomy. Following Cosmopolis, another vision of an urban landscape on the brink of apocalypse, this is further evidence of Cronenberg’s position on our simultaneously operative and vacant times: fascinated by mass media’s cyclic corrosion but also frightened of its accumulating influence, these films bear witness to an inexorable push toward extinction we may have inadvertently set in motion.

Starring the festival’s best actress winner Julianne Moore as Havana Segrand, a second-generation, middle-aged actress desperate to secure the lead in a remake of a film synonymous with her mother’s fame, Maps to the Stars offers a constellation of characters that also includes Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a self-help/enlightenment guru; his tormented wife, Christina (Olivia Williams); their son, Benjie (Evan Bird), a kind of smug hybrid of Justin Bieber and young Justin Timberlake; and estranged daughter, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), scarred and stoic and who, as the film opens, is arriving in Los Angeles to intentionally disrupt the plasticized facade of her parents’ lives. Shooting with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky in a dreamily fluid, tonally uneasy style, all phosphorescent blues and mirrored surfaces, Cronenberg contorts what could have been staged as a satirical melodrama into a typically grotesque meditation on physical extremes and psychological foreplay. If this is satire then it’s delivered with cold, steely determination, under a guise of perverse humor and pessimism. A cinematic slipstream, Maps to the Stars moves Cronenberg ever closer toward our everyday reality even as it portends to an oblivion Hollywood itself has yet to conjure.

Another Cannes competition film that directly comments on the industry is Clouds of Sils Maria, the latest from French filmmaker Olivier Assayas. Starring Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders, a respected international actress being courted to star in updated film adaptation of a play which launched her career decades earlier—only this time as the older of the two female leads—and Kristen Stewart as Valentine, her precocious assistant, Clouds of Sils Maria is Assayas’s most cinematically referential and psychologically stimulating film in many years. In talks to play the part that made Maria a star is Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), an allegedly stage-taught thespian caught in an early career cycle of superhero franchises and paparazzi scandal. Assayas exploits the real lives of each of these actresses to wonderful, meta-cinematic effect, in many instances commenting outright on similar decisions or professional-artistic discrepancies (there’s even an X-Men parody prompting an instantly iconic Binoche reaction). The camera appears enthralled with every move of Binoche’s sculpted frame within the carefully modulated mise-en-scène, while at the same time the narrative allows for convincing deliberations on the evolution of acting and genre hybridization in contemporary filmmaking, topics which echo critical discussions regarding Assayas’s own rebellious past with such progressive works as demonlover and Irma Vep, the latter a particularly useful thematic corollary for his latest.

Much of Clouds of Sils Maria is given over to rehearsal scenes between Maria and Valentine, and in these moments much of the latter’s unspoken reverence for her boss’ stature is most deeply felt. Valentine is casual but professional, respectful but opinionated; Maria’s possible attraction to—or at least unspoken interest in—Valentine seems due at least in part to the younger woman’s resistance to indulging Maria’s ego, a far cry from Jo-Ann’s exalted proclamations of her elder. Where the film takes on greater intrigue and resonance is in its suggestion of dual personas and alternate states of awareness. There’s a late scene that seems to collapse multiple realities, effectively eliminating a significant character with a simple move of the camera—it’s something right out of L’avventura (the cloudy canyons amid the eponymous Swiss countryside even betray an eerie calm worthy of Antonioni). In an instant Assayas’s many texts fold into one another, leaving Maria and the audience, whom up to now have been led to sympathize with her guarded compliance, with the cold realization that each new step in life must ultimately be taken alone.

A similar sentiment is expressed in far more visceral terms in Two Days, One Night, a typically efficient work from Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. In fact, efficiency itself is a central subject of their new film. In two stealth, single-shot opening scenes, the Dardennes lay out their basic narrative conceit: Sandra (Marion Cotillard), informed by her boss of her impending termination, must convince her coworkers to side with her in a vote to retain her job at the expense of their yearly bonuses. She’ll have the weekend to complete the task and she’ll have to rely on nothing more than goodwill and persuasiveness to accomplish it. The Dardennes’ brand of socially minded, realist filmmaking has for well over a decade been one of the most recognizable in contemporary cinema. Each film’s distinguishing nuances lie in its uniquely implemented narrative devices—not as variations but as a subtle protraction of a specific working-class plight.

Two Days, One Night utilizes its temporal strictures to build tension via elemental means: handheld camerawork, infrequent but purposeful editing, and situational drama, all delivered through dialogue or dramaturgy. Sandra spends the majority of the film essentially restaging the same scene for an audience of one: a colleague with the ability to leave this woman and her husband (who can’t support the couple on his own) without immediate financial recourse. What’s fascinating about the film is how perspectives continuously shift; as a viewer we’re ostensibly asked to sympathize with Sandra—who we learn has recently suffered some sort of breakdown and is now taking prescription Xanax, which she pops incessantly throughout—and yet each successive encounter presents to the viewer an entirely new dilemma, with implications that could affect more than just this one couple. Many of these men and women are worse off and in greater need of a bonus than Sandra—who, if nothing else, is young and experienced—no matter the immediate repercussions on her life. The way the Dardennes foster this empathy, without allowing Sandra to wallow in self-pity—if anything, she refuses to beg, never resorting to negotiation—granting her the strength to exhibit grace during a final moral crisis of her own, further confirms their unyielding faith in human resilience and righteousness.

In a festival of considerable quality, if few surprises, two wild card filmmakers accrued a lion’s share of intrigue for unique projects that take their skills in unforeseen directions. That both prodigious young experimenter Lisandro Alonso and defiantly aging iconoclast Jean-Luc Godard, by most accounts, exceeded expectations with their new works is proof enough of their timeless cinematic spirits, ones not even close to being exhausted, let alone extinguished. Alonso, previous purveyor of intensely procedural realism, takes a decisive shift into ascetic formalism with the Un Certain regard standout Jauja, a hallucinatory account of a 19th-century engineer named Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen, Alonso’s first professional actor) who sets out into the Patagonian wilderness to find his daughter, Ingeborg (Viilbjork Malling Agger), who has fled into the night to elope with her lover, a young soldier whose military troupe is charting unexplored territory along the coast. The setup reasserts Alonso’s preoccupation with the physical indexing of the male body through indigenous landscapes, while its accruing mysticism adds an existential dimension that brings Jauja closer to the fantastical than he’s ever dared tread.

Shooting in Academy ratio, with the edges of the frame exposed to produce a picture-boxed look, Alonso turns his various aesthetic choices into consciously arcane signposts that point toward both influence and ideal. An entire school of bygone Portuguese masters (Oliveira, Reis, Cordeiro)—not to mention likeminded Chilean (Ruiz) and French (Straub-Huillet) formalists—are referenced in Alonso’s highly analytic and logistically arranged compositions. In the film’s opening scenes, characters are situated at odd angles, occasionally speaking off camera or looking at unspecified off-screen space rather than the character with whom they converse. It’s a disorienting, carefully modulated technique abetted by an unexpected amount of dialogue, setting these characters off on their respective journeys before settling into a wordless mid-film reprieve as we simply observe Dinesen on his quest to locate his daughter. The highly tactile textures of the 35mm cinematography imbue even these moments of serenity with a sense of unease, which Alonso slowly actualizes first as foreboding occurrences, then as potentially pagan personifications. A third act shift into a new dimension dissolves temporal boundaries and turns the film on its head, and in its brave willingness to intelligently recalibrate its own narrative constituents, the film offers Dinesen, his daughter, and indeed, Alonso himself, an entirely new plane of consciousness to explore.

Godard’s career-long explorations, meanwhile, continue unabated with Goodbye to Language 3D, a bracing, humorous, and poetic mediation on the limitations of memory, imagination, and the spoken word, rendered in the most contemporary of formats via the most elemental of means. With little of the (appropriately) oppressive dynamism of his most recent work, particularly Film socialisme, Godard’s latest is deceptively bright and often whimsical in its approach, couching semi-profound sentiments in juvenile speech (“Thought regains its place in poop”) just as often as it ties itself in philosophical knots (“I am speaking subject. I am listening object.”). Godard’s interest in the contours and boundaries of language is contrasted by the activities of a dog named Roxy (Godard’s own, in fact), one of the film’s major characters, along with a quarreling couple. The man and woman’s arguments, which occur in a variety of vulnerable positions (most frequently while naked or on the toilet), veer from the insightful to the mundane. Rather, it is through the unguarded, infectiously passionate perspective of Roxy that Godard attempts to visualize a thematic dialectic, which is outlined in two movements, “Nature” and “Metaphor,” and further reduced to a primitive dialogue between words and images, thoughts and visions.

In Godard’s hands, the 3D visuals (which were first glimpsed at Cannes last year in the short essay Les trois désastres, footage from which he appropriates during one crucial segment here) become a spectrum of revelations unto themselves. Colors are highly saturated to the point of bleeding into abstract shapes; depth is stacked layer upon layer until objects lose referents and become optical furniture for Godard to rearrange within the frame; while vertical and horizontal axes are exploited for maximum sensory pleasure. (In one virtuoso shot, Godard allows one of his cameras to pan across an outdoor space while the other presumably remains stationary, creating the effect in motion of two figures meeting, morphing, and then splitting back into their original configuration, a kind of optical sleight of hand.) But these techniques, as groundbreaking as they are, never distract from Godard’s inquiries or recriminations. “Words, I don’t want to hear about them,” goes one indicative line of dialogue. But far from the exasperation which climactically punctuates Film socialisme (“No Comment”)—or even the brash proclamation closing Weekend (“Fin du cinéma”)—the final moments of Goodbye to Language are serenely playful in their resignation, attuned to the rhythms of life, death, and quite possibly, rebirth. In lieu of such dramatic gestures, Godard seems to be wishing us, simply, adieu.