Cannes 2016 reviews round-up: The Unknown Girl, The Wailing, It’s Only the End of the World, Bacalaureat
Simon Kinnear | On 21, May 2016
With Amazon Studios having snapped up the US streaming rights to six films screening at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, we head to the Croisette to check out some of the other movies on offer, including the latest from Xavier Dolan and Cristian Mungiu. Will they be a VOD service’s next big acquisition?
The Unknown Girl
Much like Two Days, One Night , the Dardenne brothers’ latest – playing In Competition at Cannes – sees a major French actress (rising star Adèle Haenel) on an anxious mission. The hook here is the death of the titular woman, who knocked on the door of Dr Jenny Davin’s practice but didn’t get an answer. That sparks a crisis in conscience in Jenny, who sets out to find out the girl’s name not for justice but to assuage her own guilt.
The result is a neo-realist procedural, at once a reliably detailed portrait of a professional at work and a sort-of thriller, in which the doctor-detective uses her Hippocratic oath to seek clues from patients and neighbours. The Dardennes’ effortlessly fluid, handheld shots unifies the potentially awkward schism by ensuring that Jenny doesn’t break stride when she takes a call while she’s investigating a clue, or vice versa.
While the plotting is a little too tidy (the support cast alone gives major hints as to the direction the mystery is headed), Haenel makes this work with a tough/tender performance that nails the film’s tone of a street-spiritual quest.
Villagers are being infected with boils, causing them to turn on loved ones with homicidal rage. There are rumours circulating about a feral man eating raw meat in the woods, and suspicion alights on a Japanese stranger in the community. Are these signs of poisoning by magic mushrooms, or is there a demon lurking? As bumbling sergeant Jong-Gu (Kwak Do Won) investigates, things get personal when his daughter is possessed.
Even by the standards of South Korean genre cinema, The Wailing – a special out-of-Competition screening at Cannes – is notable for its excess. A police-procedural-cum-ghost-thriller, it consists largely of scenes that topple into a cacophony of crazy. Impeccable craft by director Hong-jin Na (The Yellow Sea) makes the creepy/funny set-pieces enjoyable enough – one fight with an infected zombie is full-on bonkers – but after two and a half hours, it’s downright exhausting.
Tonally, too, it never quite reconciles the jaundiced jollity with some genuinely unnerving moments, mostly from with an extraordinarily, intense, Linda Blair-worthy performance by Kim Hwan-hee as the daughter. The more you laugh, the greater the likelihood you’ll be suckered by the encroaching darkness of a bleak final act.
It’s Only the End of the World
Xavier Dolan is still only 27 – an age when most directors haven’t shot their first feature – but is in Competition at Cannes with his sixth movie. But in its mix of already well-ploughed themes with his most high-profile cast to date (French all-stars Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard and Lea Seydoux), it’s tempting to see this as a second debut, a chance to take stock of his career to date.
It certainly has the modest scale of a first timer, an adaptation of a stage play about a prodigal son’s return to his family that mostly stays confined to a single house and has only five characters. The compression extends to Dolan’s shooting style: an ultra-claustrophobic close-quarters in which everybody is locked in their own frame and seldom share the screen. Only in the occasional series of flashbacks does Dolan cut loose, the music throbbing, the imagery a dreamy reverie.
But if we’re truly regarding this as a debut, let’s say there’s room for improvement. The performances are broad to the point of hysteria and the material is weak, an endless succession of spittle-soaked squabbles. On this evidence, Dolan must try harder; the really sad thing is that he already has.
Romania is hell; that’s the abiding message of so much of the country’s superb New Wave of filmmaking. With In Competition entry Bacalaureat, previous Palme D’Or winner Cristian Mungiu shows how the taint of corruption and cronyism left over from Ceaușescu’s days infect even the well-meaning and try to poison the hope of the next generation.
Roman (Adrian Titieni) and Magda (Lia Bugnar) are a middle-class couple intent on sending daughter Eliza (Maria Drǎguș) to a British University. But first she must pass her final exams – and the day before, she’s assaulted. As the pressure and shock affect her performance, the attack sparks a desperate scramble by Roman to use his connections to have the exam board pass her papers regardless.
From here, Mungiu draws out an agonizing, complex voyage into the moral abyss; if Roman success, it will have the ironic effect of undoing everything he’s fought for in making Eliza a beacon of hope for the future. Mungiu shoots in long takes, more mobile than his Palme D’Or-winning masterpiece 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days, but that only reveals that there’s nowhere to hide. Whichever way Roman turns, at some point he’s going to have to face the judgement of others – and himself.
For more on Cannes, including VOD acquisitions, interviews, keynote speeches and reviews of Amazon’s big hitters, click here.