With a healthy mixture of provocative and cheerful films in competition, and higher-calibre entries than last year in the other strands of the Official Selection, Cannes 2011 was in many respects one of the most exciting and adventurous editions in recent memory. A good handful of titles, especially those of a significantly darker variety, stood out in the usually strong Un Certain Regard strand. But it was films like Urszula Antoniak’s Code Blue, screened in the Directors’ Fortnight, and Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter, which deservedly won the International Critics’ Week Grand Prix, that truly raised the bar for any new and emerging directors setting out to infuse the bleak reality of psychological drama with something deeper, richer, more mysterious and profoundly unsettling.
Despite the rather grim and gloomy subject matter of the best titles on show, there was a sense of buoyancy about the future of US indie cinema, owing to the fine quality of the films and some magnificent performances, most notably the one by Michael Shannon in Take Shelter, his second collaboration with the director since Nichols’s acclaimed 2007 debut Shotgun Stories. Shannon plays the troubled construction worker Curtis LaForche, a loving husband and father, who slowly looses touch with reality as he becomes haunted by nightmares and apocalyptic visions about a fatal cyclone whose exceptional strength causes devastation on an unprecedented scale. Being the son of a paranoid-schizophrenic mother, Curtis decides to seek the help of a doctor, but as the hallucinations grow, he scraps the advised psychological treatment and instead takes out a risky bank loan to rebuild and fully equip the shabby storm shelter in the family’s garden. Shannon makes the story work, with support from an equally convincing Jessica Chastain as the caring wife who is desperate to understand her husband, while Nichols’s remarkably assured directing style creates a deep sense of unease about an unsettling near-future, in the vein of Todd Haynes’s Safe. Shot with a careful eye for colour, light and framing, and refined with an array of stylish visual effects, the film impresses most in the way Nichols manages to keep the tension at a nerve-racking level in a film that deliberately refuses to give much space to hope and optimism.
The hot tip from Sundance, and hence eagerly anticipated, was the debut feature from writer-director Sean Durkin. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha, a young woman who escapes from an abusive cult’s commune somewhere in the woods, and tries to re-connect with her previous life while staying with her well-off older sister Lucy and Lucy’s husband in their expensive lake house. Deftly balancing past and present, and withholding any information that is not absolutely necessary to our understanding, Durkin slowly builds an air of dread and panic around Martha, who might simply be so scarred that she is beyond the help that she’s been offered. Although the story is not highly original, and is at times a little clichéd, overall Martha Marcy May Marlene is a subtly horrifying film, and one of the highlights in the Un Certain Regard section.
Less subtle, yet with a confident, fiercely restrained handling of the material, Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown (screened in the Critics’ Week) was a powerful, intense, but tough-to-watch portrayal of Australia’s most notorious serial killer, John Bunting, who killed 12 people between 1992 and 1999. Shot on location in Adelaide and with a disturbingly charismatic Daniel Henshall in the lead role, Kurzel has crafted a brutally naturalistic, stomach-churning, small-town drama so rich in psychology and attention to detail that tension fills nearly every scene. There is no denying that the film is brutal and sadistic to the extreme, as it does not claim that there was ever a deeper emotional or factual reason behind Bunting’s actions other than his sheer pleasure in killing. Consequently, quite a few people left the screening towards the end, but as the festival went on, this turned out to be a good sign: the same happened at almost all the films that impressed the most.
Walk-outs were also the general reaction to Code Blue, Urszula Antoniak’s dark, chilling drama about a middle-aged, emotionally sealed-off nurse, played by a disturbingly excellent Bien de Moor. Afraid of intimacy, she ultimately gives in to a dangerous and overwhelming longing as she engages with a neighbour after they witness a crime. It didn’t help that the director’s notes gave warning that Antoniak’s intention was to make her audience uncomfortable. However, everyone who managed to sit through the thoroughly compelling 81 minutes of one woman’s desperate struggle to connect to the world around her left the cinema safe in the knowledge that Antoniak clearly is a talent to watch.
There were, of course, a number of established directors on view, and among them Terrence Malick gave us one of the most enigmatic, yet ambivalent films of the competition. Much has been said about The Tree of Life since the very first press screening, and even more so after the film received the Palme d’Or at the end of the festival. However, there were other films in the Official Selection that deserve a mention here, and I don’t mean Lynne Ramsay’s eagerly anticipated but ultimately disappointing We Need to Talk about Kevin, or Lars von Trier’s latest offering, Melancholia, which, sadly, I missed. One of the most intriguing and endlessly disquieting films I did see was first-time Austrian filmmaker Markus Schleinzer’s Michael, about the everyday life of an outwardly normal paedophile who keeps a little boy imprisoned in his basement. Featuring great performances and giving a real sense of how bizarrely ordinary the situation appears to this couple, the film neither judges nor dismisses its central figure. Instead, Michael builds on small, often uneventful, yet subtly affecting scenes that progress towards an appropriately restrained climax. Schleinzer isn’t afraid of throwing in some well-placed moments of humour and irony in what turns out to be a deftly crafted, intelligent thriller that conveys a quiet, visceral intensity similar to Michael Haneke’s early masterpieces.
While the Un Certain Regard section was patchy, there was more room for excitement and an overall much stronger selection than last year (although in retrospect that didn’t seem difficult to achieve). Nonetheless, it has to be said that although Gus Van Sant’s Restless, which headlined the section, might go down in history as a guilty pleasure for some critics, it certainly didn’t live up to its expectations for most of us. By contrast, Miss Bala, Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo’s follow-up to I’m Gonna Explode, was an unexpectedly sophisticated, yet thrilling drug-related crime drama, despite the fact that it was slightly overlong. Also worthy of note was Oslo, August 31 by Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier, whose debut feature Reprise impressed me five years ago. Vaguely inspired by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s 1931 novel Le feu follet, Trier’s second feature feels much more mature, not only because of the time that’s passed, or the film’s melancholic subject matter: a day in the life of recovering drug addict Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), who is only two weeks away from leaving rehab and re-entering the real world. In fact, with the help of cinematographer Jakob Ihre, who has done a brilliant job painting a haunting portrait of Oslo in early autumn, Trier has pulled together a curious and skilful blend of gloomy, slow-burning art-house lyricism and a raw, intense character study to form an accomplished whole.
No film, however, weirdly enthralled and puzzled me as much as Sion Sono’s latest offering, Guilty of Romance, which screened in the Directors’ Fortnight section. Divided into five chapters, the film focuses on three main characters: Izumi, an unsatisfied, bourgeois housewife who is diving in and out of forbidden worlds of sexual pleasure; Kazuko, a married, lower-middle-class cop; and Mitsuko, a highbrow professor by day who turns into an uninhibited prostitute by night. All three become dangerously involved in the mysterious murder case that Kazuko is called in to investigate. In spirit, Guilty of Romance seems closest to the extravagant Love Exposure, although visually and rhythmically it is very much of a piece with all his work so far. Cruel, darkly funny, dazzlingly imaginative, flagrantly absurd and strongly compelling, Guilty of Romance remains an exaggerated conceit, but one I’d happily see again.