by Zhuo-Ning Su
Art inevitable imitates life and at a place like Cannes, where films from every corner of the world are shown, we don’t just get to be wowed by the fine storytelling, but to sample cross-culturally the hopes and fears of our times, take a collective pulse.
Screening in competition, the courtroom procedural/revenge thriller IN THE FADE tells the story of Katja (Diane Kruger), whose Turkish-German husband and child are killed in a nail bomb attack. The horrors of losing one’s family to such cold-blooded cruelty aside, Katja is stunned, momentarily confused even, when the first questions coming from the investigators are about his husband’s religious and ethnic backgrounds. What does that have to do with anything? Unfortunately, where you come from and what you believe in can actually be enough to get you killed in 2017’s hateful, violent reality.
In the second part of the film’s coolly sensible three-act-framework, Katja learns that the perpetrators are a young neo-Nazi couple. The prosecution makes a solid case of hate crime complete with forensic evidence and a damning testimony from one of the defendants’ own father. But ultimately the alibi provided by far-right ally from Greece precludes a conviction. Devastated by this second blow of injustice, Katja must consider what options she’s left with to achieve some semblance of peace of mind.
Squarely told with its moral outrage worn plainly on the sleeve, IN THE FADE is not a particularly artful movie. That said, there’s something about the blunt emotionality it speaks in the face of deadly extremist aggression that feels sadly appropriate. As indicated in the film’s end credits, neo-Nazis have taken many lives in Germany over the last few years simply because of the victims’ foreign origin. It’s an alarming reminder that the time for tact might well be over and that people need to voice their fury before tragedies like this become normality. Fans of Akin’s forceful yet delicate writing of yore may be disappointed. Kruger, on the other hand, impresses in her first German-speaking role. It’s a performance that’s more brutal than it is nuanced but in a couple of heart-wrenching moments she certainly delivered.
Another ostensibly political film is the French drama-turned-thriller THE WORKSHOP, which premiered in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. Crime novelist Olivia (Marina Foïs) from Paris goes to the Mediterranean countryside to lead a writing workshop for high schoolers. One of the participants Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) stands out for his unusually graphic portrayals of mass killings and provocative statements about getting inside murderers’ head. As Olivia finds out the far-right propaganda her pupil has been exposed to and confronts him about it, the murderous plot they’ve been working on gets more and more real.
Laurent Cantet, who won a Palme d’Or for his school drama THE CLASS (Oscar nom’ed), writes and directs those talky scenes with multiple perspectives exceptionally well. The kids in the workshop are articulate and argue with righteous passion. Through densely, thoughtfully composed debates between them, the film touches on a variety of hotly topical subject matters including race, national identity and terrorism. It doesn’t shy away from inflammatory opinions to paint the compelling picture of an anxious, divided generation unsure of where to go next.
In a year that just saw France elect a centrist political rookie president while support for right-wing extremism soars to historic heights, Cantet’s observations feel direly relevant. What turns an intelligent young man radical? The answer it suggests welcomes interpretation and is not without controversy, but as meticulously conceived by Cantet and authentically performed by Lucci, it extends an invitation for you to think you can hardly refuse.
On the other side of the world in rural Russia, a woman finds the parcel she sent to her jailed husband returned for no reason. To find out why, or if her husband is still in prison at all, she embarks on a bleak, enigmatic, fantastical journey that’s captured in Sergey Loznitsa’s 143-min opus A GENTLE CREATURE.
Unsparingly critical of a paternalistic regime that shows no interest in serving its citizens, the film reveals life of the underprivileged in today’s Russia as a series of frustrations and abuse. The impenetrable bureaucracy plays by its own rules and it’s hopeless to even attempt seeking information anywhere. People are paranoid and coarsened. Those who haven’t joined the ruling class or the mafia drink themselves silly, fearful of what unpredictable government wrath might befall them at any time.
Loznitsa’s direction is masterful, filling the simplest scenes with details and intrigue, cutting from full-blown provincial rowdiness to something hypnotically still and suspenseful without missing a beat. That we’re essentially made to watch somebody deliver a parcel for over two hours and it never gets boring is testament to his incredibly textured storytelling. The last half hour or so of the film suddenly jumps from the ultra-realist to the surrealist. It’s a huge gamble that will turn many people off. But those willing to look past the theatrical farce and see the bitter irony behind shall be rewarded with the most pointed indictment of a dehumanized regime.
If these films are anything to go by, we don’t exactly live in merry times. To further consider JUPITER’S MOON, in which refugees are being chased and shot down by Hungarian police Holocaust-style, THE FLORIDA PROJECT, where hidden homelessness eats away the American dream for children born in impoverished households, and LOVELESS, a cautionary tale that sheds light on issues of abandonment and toxic selfishness seen in: no wonder everybody just wants to die in HAPPY END?