As I prepare to attend my 30th Cannes Film Festival, I can’t stop fretting about Little Joe. Or, more properly, Little Joe, Jessica Hausner’s film in this year’s Official Competition, which marks the Austrian director’s graduation from the festival’s sidebar, Un Certain Regard, where her previous work, Amour fou, debuted five years ago.
One of the great films of the decade, Amour fou extended the precisionist tendency of Hausner’s early work – Lovely Rita, Hotel and Lourdes – in its fastidious tale of the last years and suicide of 18th-century German Romantic Heinrich von Kleist and of the ailing woman he convinced to join him in death. The film’s painterly aesthetic – every composition derived from Vermeer, Ghirlandaio or Villers – and its masterly control of tone, appear entirely at odds with the premise of Hausner’s latest.
On the basis of its synopsis and cast, Little Joe seems both a reversion and a departure for the mid-career Viennese director. A reversion in that it returns her to the contemporary world and to genre filmmaking in its “body snatcher” mystery about a genetically engineered flower that guarantees happiness but turns malevolent; a worrisome departure in that it is Hausner’s first English-language feature. (It stars Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox and Emily Beecham.) I can only hope that the anxiety many of us experienced as word emerged that the peerless Argentine auteur Lucrecia Martel would depart from her familiar terrain with Zama will similarly prove unfounded when Little Joe screens in Cannes.
The reverent anticipation of films by the Dardenne brothers and Terrence Malick I leave to their believers, while greatly regretting that, for whatever reason, The Manor House by Cristi Puiu – the genius of the New Romanian Cinema – did not make the Cannes cut. But it’s more than a consolation prize to have instead a film by Puiu’s equally adept compatriot Corneliu Porumboiu. In The Whistlers, the soccer-besotted director returns to the territory of his superb Police, Adjective in a portrait of a Bucharest police inspector who travels to the Canary Islands to learn a language of whistles that will aid him and his girlfriend to pull off a €42-million heist.
In the less prestigious but more adventurous sidebar of Un Certain Regard, Albert Serra, that Catalan connoisseur of twilight, libertinage and the peripatetic tale, returns to Cannes after his glorious The Death of Louis XIV with Liberté, of which the trailer indicates an excursion into total artifice in the operatic style of German kitsch-meister Werner Schroeter. A transposition of a stage play that Serra recently directed for Berlin’s Volksbuehne, the film is set shortly before the French Revolution at a German lakeside where carriages disgorge lavishly peruked Parisian aristocrats who, intent upon exporting sexual freedom to the uptight Prussians, indulge in carnal excess with the locals.
Also high on my list is Beanpole, the latest from Kantemir Balagov, whose first feature, Closeness, the harrowing true account of a Jewish family’s struggle to pay the ransom for their kidnapped son in 1998 North Caucasus, exhibited formidable maturity and tonal command from the young director born in the Kabardino-Balkar Republic.
On the other end of the Croisette, the Director’s Fortnight, under new directorship, has foregone the usual salon des refusés approach to programming, ignoring titles rejected from the competition in favour of neophyte or unknown filmmakers. One veteran auteur in the selection, Filipino Lav Diaz, is capable of greatness, as in his Dostoevskian epic, Norte, the End of History, or of grinding attenuation and allegorical obviousness, as in From What is Before. So, his new film, Ang Hupa, an apocalyptic saga set in 2034, could go either way. Alas, Diaz long ago adopted the oceanic mode as an aesthetic imperative, equating importance with length, so his latest will claim more than four hours from my Cannes schedule.
Then again, the best film of Cannes last year, Wang Bing’s Dead Souls, took an entire day to view, so Diaz deserves the benefit of my beleaguered doubt.
The Cannes Film Festival runs May 14-25
James Quandt is the senior programmer for TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto
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