Postcards from Cannes, Part 7: Only God Forgives, Wakolda, Nebraska, Norte, the End of History

Features, Film Festivals, FILM
At the Festival de Cannes, Nicolas Winding Refn crashes and burns; Alexander Payne and Lav Diaz triumph.

In the lead up to Cannes this year, Only God Forgives was cited as one of the most anticipated films of the Competition—Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous film Drive having built its success in part on its controversial (but successful) Cannes reception. This latest film has provoked wildly divergent views: from those bowled over, and from those who booed. The one thing I have resented is the assumption that for those who disliked the film, it was on the basis they were offended by the violence. I wasn’t offended in the slightest. Admittedly, I did roll my eyes when Refn admitted in the press conference that he gets off on violence, but that wasn’t the reason why I thought Only God Forgives was a tedious superficial turd. It was, for every other reason, a tedious superficial turd.

Refn is making a name for himself as a director of style over substance, and the fact he thanks folks like Gaspar Noé in the credits suggests that he approaches filmmaking with a similarly juvenile M.O. Ryan Gosling plays Julian, a wounded gangster hiding out in Bangkok. His brother rapes and murders a girl, and is then killed by the girl’s father. His mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in town and demands revenge on everyone who helped in the killing of the brother. Meanwhile, someone who is apparently “God” (according to Refn) is fighting Julian.

Only God Forgives looks stunning, with Eyes Wide Shut cinematographer Larry Smith creating an immersive world. The music is also great. But that’s about it. The narrative is sub B-movie nonsense, lacking in thrills, resonance, or credibility. It’s full of portentous walking, slow motion movement, bluntness pretending to be dialogue. The Thai symbolism is used to patronising effect: it’s there to look cool but lacks any sort of engagement with Thai culture or acknowledgement of its otherness. It appears to have been written by a guy who spent a few days on holiday in Thailand, saw a few recurring images, and thinks that he’s got the place down pat. As for the overblown machismo…

Ryan Gosling displays a startling range, covering the full spectrum of emotions between moody and smouldering. He is fast turning into a parody. Kristen Scott Thomas plays the stereotypical Oedipal-bothering mother; her evilness reveals no depth or value. She gets to say “yellow nigger” and “cum dumpster” for the shock value; we are apparently meant to be impressed by her meanness. Only God Forgives is a remarkably gimmicky piece of work. Shocking? No. Vacuous? Yep.

Bariloche is one of Argentina’s most picturesque towns, nestled in the lakes area of Patagonia (it’s not too dissimilar to Wanaka/Queenstown). It also has an Alps feel, with the Saint Bernard dog its symbol, and chalets and chocolate a big part of its charm. But it also has a horrible history. Wakolda (Un Certain Regard) tells the true story of Auschwitz physician Josef Mengele’s hideout in Bariloche.

Mengele performed experiments on children in Auschwitz, and following World War II, he became one of the most wanted Nazis by Israeli agents. Director Lucía Puenzo (adapting her own novel) suggests that Mengele continued with his experiments on children in Bariloche, and that he was kept safe by many of the Nazi sympathisers in the town. (The school principal, for instance, was eventually extradited to Italy in the 1990s to face trial for Nazi war crimes—but Argentina resisted for a considerable period.) The story is structured around a family coming under Mengele’s spell, as he wins favour through his medical and genetic “expertise”.

Recent Argentinian cinema has tried to piece together its violent past, and get behind the continued silence around that past (Lucrecia Martel’s brilliant The Headless Woman a strong example). But while many have tackled the junta period of the ’70s/’80s, few have looked back at the country’s sheltering of Nazi war criminals in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Perhaps there is even a link between these two periods.

Puenzo’s film is assured and stately. The mood is unsettling, and the use of the Patagonian landscape matches the suppressed nature and secretive history of the town. The acting is also nicely restrained—Puenzo trusts in glances and silence, and doesn’t over explain things, something that could easily have been done given it’s based on her novel. Puenzo overdoes the symbolism and narrative contrivances somewhat—a famous doll does, however, come from the South, even if its use is a little heavy-handed. That aside, it’s a well-crafted thriller, and hopefully a historical cage-rattler.

Alexander Payne has built a respectable career around mid-life crises and small-time ennui. His critically successful The Descendants felt a little flat and contrived. With his latest, Nebraska, Payne strips it right back to a small cast, small story, and black and white photography. The end result is exquisite: it’s at once a lament for times past, and a gentle critique of the masculinity in the small towns that make up America.

Initially, it is set up as a rehash of Payne’s Sideways. Octogenarian Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is found wandering the road. He’s planning on walking over a 1000km to reclaim a lottery prize—the only problem being the lottery is one of those dubious Reader’s Digest sweepstakes. Nothing his two sons or his wife say can dissuade him that he’s not a millionaire. His youngest son, sad sack David (Will Forte), agrees to take him to “pick up” the lottery, justifying the road trip on the basis of father-son time and that everyone needs something to look forward to. Circumstances, however, mean things go awry and they end up in the Grants’ hometown, Hawthorn.

Many comparisons have already been made to The Last Picture Show, both for the crisp black and white cinematography (itself a clear allusion to a “golden” past), and the depiction of a town in decline. The fact that Payne casts two under-appreciated legends from the ’70s to duke it out—Stacy Keach and Dern (though Gene Hackman was first choice)—suggests a clear link to the American cinema of the same decade. In Nebraska, the focus is on the elderly—the very same people who would have been bored and repressed in Peter Bogdanovich’s milieu. Here, they’re irascible and flawed, far from the stereotypes of kind, wise old folk. Hawthorn is dying; its citizens have nothing to do, and most appear aged. When circumstances contrive to make the people think that Woody is really a millionaire, they both celebrate him as a rare success and approach him to line their pockets out of desperation. And while the streets and houses might still look the same, Payne shows that things change: the people who own Woody’s old garage speak Spanish, new graves have been added, and there are new regulars in the bars.

The film is anchored by Dern’s magnificent performance. He’s a taciturn, alcoholic mess. He prevents the film from becoming too mawkish or too obvious. He’s a flawed character, and the narrative’s drive is for the son to acknowledge his father’s failings, but also accept the flaws as a crucial part of who he is. Most of the its humour comes from a wonderful performance by June Squibb, one of the few characters who actually says what she’s thinking. Payne’s men are a useless lot; they built houses and helped build towns, but they are unable to account for themselves or explain why they’re unhappy. There is a clear tension throughout the film between stasis and escape, a common thread throughout Payne’s work. The end product, though, is life affirming and more than a little moving.

It takes a certain kind of masochism to want to see a four-hour film after having watched dozens of films in such a concentrated period. But there was no chance that I was going to pass up the opportunity to see Filipino slow cinema pioneer Lav Diaz on the big screen. His latest, Norte, Hangganan Ng Kasaysayan (Norte, the End of History, Un Certain Regard), has the long takes, leisurely pace, and extreme length that has seen him garner a hardcore aficionado reputation—and yet this magnificent new film felt surprisingly concise.

Diaz provides an excoriating and dense view of contemporary Philippines, with his inspiration appearing to come from Dostoevsky—in fact, you could say it’s Crime and Punishment meetsHouse of the Dead. The film covers two narrative strands. In one, a promising law student drops out to pontificate about the ills of the Philippines and debate philosophy and politics with his friends. In the second, a family struggles to cope economically because the father’s broken leg prevents him from working. Both rely on a pawnbroker, and her subsequent violent death spirals off into terrible repercussions for both.

Diaz focuses on guilt and repression; the wrong person is in prison, but instead of Diaz’s characters searching for atonement, they spill into more violent and shocking territory. There is a clear parallel drawn to Filipino history, as early in the film the characters pontificate about bringing a certain criminal political figure to justice. He asserts that the Philippines cannot progress without such a purging. But as the narrative continues, we begin to see why nothing has happened. Diaz presents a society governed by self-preservation, individualism, and arbitrary, insufficient gifts to the have-nots to make up for a lack of proper structural change. Meanwhile, the victims—those crippled by the ruthless capitalism on display in contemporary Philippines—find life harder and harder. Reliance on dignity or religion, while fine, barely seems to cut it in an extremely unfair and corrupt society. Diaz suggests that in any system, and despite any “revolution”, there will always be people left behind.

The images are frequently startling. Diaz is noted for his black and white visuals and rapid approach to filming. Here, the images are almost all perfectly composed and contemplative (it’s a big screen film if ever there was one). His images are constructed via diagonal lines. His characters are frequently static but the implication is clear: things are askew. It is only in the final shot, where the lines move forward as the young victims are forced to walk towards and beyond the camera, that you sense Diaz’s real pessimism with the Philippines’ future. It’s a devastatingly lucid film, and a clear highlight of the festival. Given how impressed critics have been, hopefully we’ll see a wider distribution of his singular oeuvre.

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You realise how seductive Cannes has been when you start to consider how you might do things differently next time around (if I was accredited again and in the neighbourhood, that is). You hear the dumb questions asked by various critics (the press conferences are largely top echelon critics’ affairs), and think you can do better. You focus on the Competition and Un Certain Regard films, rather than the potentially more experimental Director’s Fortnight and Critics’ Week selections (even though the latter two need the coverage), in part because of snobbery, but mostly because you want to be part of what everyone else is writing about. You count up how much time you lose being a neophyte and coming to terms with the singularity and the quasi-religious rituals of the festival, and then figure out how much more time you’ll have when you know the score. But most of all, you get the feeling, when you’re surrounded by people as passionate about film as you are, just how much you want to continue to be a part of it.

The 66th Festival de Cannes is Brannavan Gnanalingam’s last assignment as The Lumière Reader’s Europe correspondent. He has also covered international film festivals in Venice, Rotterdam, and Berlin. Previously based in Paris, he returns to New Zealand in the Winter.