We’re living through very strange times. Typically in the month of May, you’d hear orgasmic raves of cinematic masterpieces and discoveries beaming from the south of France on a near-daily basis, accompanied by red carpet photos shot against the iconic backdrop of the Cannes Film Festival. This year, however, none of that happened as the world’s most celebrated film festival, just like everything else, was put on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The organizers did announce an official selection with notable stoicism, but it remains to be seen what this seal of approval can actually do for the films selected. It’s a particular shame for emerging filmmaking talents in the lineup, considering how a proper Cannes premiere could have instantly put them on the map.
First case in point: Swedish director Magnus von Horn with his Warsaw-set sophomore feature SWEAT. The film centers around motivational fitness trainer Sylwia (Magdalena Kolesnik), a young woman whose job consists equally of teaching people how to stay in shape and sharing her private life on social media with her army of followers. Sylwia trains like a machine and works a sweaty, adoring crowd like a pro, but it’s her carefully curated digital presence that brings in the sponsorship deals and makes her a star. Rendering oneself so constantly available to the masses has its perils, however, as Sylwia finds out one day when a fan shows up in her life uninvited.
In case that gave the wrong impression, SWEAT is not a stalker thriller. Instead, it’s a rivetingly sober, incisive investigation of loneliness and intimacy in the Instagram era, a psychological profile of an influencer. Von Horn observes with involving, nonjudgmental frankness the efforts that go into the maintenance of an appealing online persona. How someone brands their own personality, milks every waking moment for content, spends hours at the gym for one perfect butt selfie. It’s a full-time job when you’re supposed to seduce, surprise, inspire millions of strangers every day.
Such self-made celebrities are often dismissed as vain, superficial bubbleheads. But is there really nothing beneath the painstakingly manicured surface? Through the introduction of the stalker character, von Horn shakes up Sylwia’s enviably instagrammable existence and all the darker, uglier bits come out. The reflex repulsion and disgust she shows when she first confronts him slowly morphs into an interest if not outright obsession over time. Does she pity him? Is she frightened of him? Or can it be that the famous, beautiful cover girl actually see a kindred spirit in this overweight, dirty middle-aged man?
In a scene that recalls the quietly sinister tone of Michael Haneke’s CACHÉ and moral ambiguity of Ruben Östlund’s THE SQUARE, Sylwia watches from afar as someone “takes care” of the stalker at her request. It’s a strikingly envisioned turn of events that reveals much emotional depth to the protagonist. A scene that’s even more indicative of the complexity of the character is a morning show interview towards the film’s end, where a visibly derisive moderator grills Sylwia on a confessional video of hers that has gone viral. Having just lived through a long day at her mother’s birthday party where unresolved abandonment issues resurfaced and a long night that ended with realizations at the emergency room, Sylwia’s reaction to the condescension betrays a sophistication seldom attributed to internet personalities. Sharply written by von Horn and performed with great subtlety by Kolesnik, SWEAT would most likely have been a hit on the Croisette.
Another film that sadly did not get the full Cannes treatment is the feature debut of French directing duo Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh. Entitled GAGARINE, the social drama with distinct fantastical elements is set around the eponymous housing project on the outskirts of Paris, an enormous communist-era apartment complex named after renowned cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Among its thousands of residents is Youri (charismatic newcomer Alséni Bathily), a 16-year-old boy with dreams of traveling to space himself. When news comes that the authorities are demolishing the old, run-down Gagarine, Youri refuses to leave and hides inside a space shelter he builds deep within the bowels of this architectural beast he calls home.
An obvious point of reference here would be last year’s Cannes Jury Prize winner LES MISÉRABLES. Both are first features set in the predominantly black Parisian suburbs characterized by poverty and racial tension. But the comparison stops there more or less. While Ladj Ly’s Oscar nominee is a hard-hitting, ultra-realistic crime action drama, GAGARINE is an altogether tender, freely romanticized affair. In part a coming-of-age story, the film touches on Youri’s friendships with other marginalized kids and his first love with a Romani girl. We’re not spared any details about the neglect and mistreatment these characters are exposed to, but the unspoken resignation and rage are expressed through a creative charge that helps them re-imagine, spiritually escape from their circumstances.
DP Victor Seguin crafted a hypnotic visual language that juxtaposes the depressing and magnificent, the dire and transcendent. Grand panoramic shots of Gagarine evoke a sense of silent, awestruck despair while the beauty of hope and salvation can be found in the fanciful recreation of Youri’s freewheeling dreamscape. Production designer Marion Burger also did a great job bringing the two worlds seamlessly together. In a late sequence that depicts the countdown to Gagarine’s implosion, the imagination literally takes flight and you can’t help but feel your heart soar as well – would have been a wow moment on the big screen.
GAGARINE is an example of indigenous filmmaking at its most localized. By capturing the look, sound, sense of community and history of a housing project that has hosted generations of inhabitants, it illustrates how a home is so much more than just a place. It’s also the collective dreams, memories, joys and regrets that live inside the walls. Liatard and Trouilh’s celebration of the extraordinariness of one’s roots is inventive and sincere; in this way the film is reminiscent of Benh Zeitlin’s BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD and should prove popular with general audiences.
The two films just had their virtual premieres at the Cannes Film Market today and we’ve been fortunate enough to catch them. Barring further lucky breaks like this, we probably won’t get to see more films from the Cannes official selection 2020 in the near future, so this first dispatch (we’re keeping the heading for sentimental reasons) also concludes this year’s Cannes coverage. Strange times indeed. Let’s see how the fall festival landscape will turn out in a couple of months. Stay tuned.