by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 2: Bergman Island, Unclenching the Fists, La Fracture

July 12, 2021

Bergman Island

Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island is, quite literally, an insular film. Set almost entirely on the island of Fårö, where the legendary Swedish filmmaker lived and shot a number of his most celebrated features, it looks at a place that has become a focal point for all things Bergman, playing host to fervent devotees and idle tourists alike. But over its runtime, the film also raises a number of concerns more specific to, well, an artist such as Hansen-Løve: the familiar anxiety of artistic influence, the relationship between art and (family) life, not to mention the pleasures and perils of a creative partnership. The latter inevitably brings to mind the director’s former relationship with Olivier Assayas, who not too long ago directed Non-Fiction (2018), a film that covered similar thematic territory. Indeed, the film’s French title, Double vies, would work pretty well for Bergman Island, too, a film that, over its runtime, presents parallels and doublings aplenty, continually folding in on itself in unexpected, if not always productive ways.

In Bergman Island’s first hour, we mainly follow Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth), a filmmaking couple invited to do a residency on Fårö courtesy of the Bergman Foundation. Both express some admiration for Bergman, but the former’s position is undoubtedly the more complicated one, the director’s real-life cruelty and neglect of family (specifically his nine children) frustrating her desire for “a certain coherence” between life and art. This ambivalence understandably informs much of her stay: Bergman’s presence all but shadows the film’s locations, and the island thus presents Chris with a kind of crisis, a creative confrontation given physical form. This in turn informs the film’s second half, which brings to life a script idea that Chris narrates to Tony, about a young woman, Amy (Mia Wasikowska), who reconnects with a former flame, Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), while attending a wedding on Fårö. We return to the Chris–Tony A-story periodically, but the Amy–Joseph B-story is clearly meant to develop the same anxieties in a different context.

What Bergman Island offers, ultimately, is a kind of riddle in a mirror: much of its interest lies simply in the opportunity to step into and out of the looking glass, as it were. Trouble is, this canny framework comes at the expense of the behavioral ambiance and conceptual tension that usually animate Hansen-Løve’s work. Her best films, such as All Is Forgiven and Things to Come, present a kind of linear development augmented by a kind of perpendicular perspective. Here, though, the conceit presents something more like two parallel trajectories, which negate rather than reinforce each other. The film is, to be sure, not short on ideas, and it does contain at least one perfect line delivery (Roth’s “Bergman Safari, babe”). But the final impression is of an intentionally ephemeral, frictionless meta-fiction — conceptually justifiable and all the more frustrating for it.

Writer: Lawrence Garcia

Credit: Cannes Film Festival

Unclenching the Fists

One of the biggest pitfalls of depicting and representing trauma arrives precisely and most insidiously in what appears to be its greatest strength: by grafting inordinate quantities of both rational context and emotional pretext onto the backdrop of a larger social milieu, many films realize, instead of the catharsis they so desire, a nagging quality of artifice, having been engineered to prove a point. A work like Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, for instance, throttles the viewer’s independent capacity for imagination with its manifold schematics; not just of its heroine’s character development, whose predictability the film instead embraces as genre accoutrement, but also of her very raison d’etre as a toxic avenger against misogyny. Thankfully, Fennell’s film announces itself early on as a manifesto — providing a manicured outlet for the hashtag-trending, media-saturated crowd — and stakes little claim to a realism that eludes it, unlike, say, the overwrought histrionics of Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman, which proves especially grating in its leveraging of Vanessa Kirby’s maximalist delivery for audience sympathy.

It is in this light that Kira Kovalenko’s sophomore feature makes for such a welcome and exciting discovery. Set in the cinematic terra incognita of North Ossetia, a federal subject in Russia with its distinct language and identity, Unclenching the Fists masterfully surveys through its character study of one Adadza (Milana Aguzarova) — a woman trapped in the clutches of her father Zaur (Alik Karaev) — a broader topography of economic and cultural alienation. Working as a cashier in a small-town general store, she lives a life of deadened routine, circumscribed by her father’s unquestionable control and supervision; after she and her brother Dakko (Khetag Bibilov) return home in the evenings, Zaur locks the door with a key whose sole copy he safekeeps. An unassuming young man named Tamik (Arsen Khetagurov) pursues her doggedly, each time rejected less by disdain than out of fearful necessity, while Adadza longs instead for the return of her older brother Akim (Soslan Khugaev), who escaped their stifling household a while back to work in a neighboring city. None of them offer much solace in her father’s possessive grip, that of a man whose gentle façade nurses the ominous hints of an unspoken past.

This unspoken past forms the film’s pivotal point of absence around which are structured its peripheral developments, each frustratingly brought into motion yet simultaneously arrested by their unassailable inertia. Adadza suffers from a mysterious condition that Akim insists needs immediate treatment at the nearest out-of-town hospital, which Zaur refuses to consider. “I still pee myself like a baby,” she reveals in a moment of heartbreaking vulnerability to her brother, whose only response is to embrace her tightly. Unidentified scars litter her abdomen, which she attributes to burns from a hostage crisis in school. On the surface, however, the overwhelming sense of malaise reveals neither outlet nor origin, its patients littering the mountainous backwaters, both idle elderly and aimless youth caught up in a glacial stagnation. Following the footsteps of her mentor Alexander Sokurov, as well as her contemporary Kantemir Balagov, Kovalenko fashions from their blueprints of contemporary Russia a narrative indebted to the psychological specificity of her characters equally as it articulates a larger and ossified patriarchal reverence for tradition and community.

In fact, much of Unclenching the Fists recalls the harshly suffocating atmosphere of Balagov’s Beanpole, set in the aftermath of World War II and likewise fixated on the act of assembling from the ruins a promise of the future. The bleak brushstrokes of Leningrad in that film mirror Kovalenko’s own frames here, each densely packed with the weight of events submerged and precariously left unexamined by the dim light of present day. Refuting the bastardization of melodrama that countless soap operas have imposed on filmmakers and filmgoers alike, her direction espouses ambiguity, not for its own sake, but artfully and tactfully; where her debut Sofichka disappointingly exhumed Soviet history through an uncertain narrativization of biography, Unclenching the Fists assuredly portrays the subjectivity of personal experience without resorting to the easy satisfaction of unraveling it. That the cast, especially Aguzarova and Karaev, appear muted in their performances, speaks not to a lack of ambition; but in capturing Adadza’s childlike precarity alongside her father’s physical and vocal frailty, Kovalenko amplifies the airless menace coursing through her sweltering drama, relentless in its openness to interpretation. The scars potentially run deep in Adadza’s family, and it would take more than the unclenching of fists — if and when that happens — to heal and be free.

Writer: Morris Yang

La Fracture

The titular fracture, between Marina Foïs and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi’s lesbian couple Julie and Raf, is one of three divides uniting La Fracture’s anxious reality. Physically, it’s an elbow fracture that sends Raf to the hospital waiting room after an argument pushes her ten-year relationship with Julie, with whom she has a son, over the edge; for the waiting room’s other occupants, it’s more an ideological fracture of Paris, a city divided by over-policing, class warfare, and a collapsing healthcare system. Far from the sweeping novelistic flourishes director Catherine Corsini has trademarked in recent years, with La Belle Saison and more notably in Un Amour Impossible, her latest embraces the frenetic, pivoting away from well-trod emotional formalism and into an unlikely blend of cringe comedy and gritty realism that finds its footing through her lead couple’s sheer emotional resolve. Perpetually wailing and almost cartoonishly histrionic, Bruni-Tedeschi’s screaming and thrashing bad patient carves out a delightfully obnoxious presence, a perfect foil to Foïs’ recently-typecasted grumpy lesbian. Sending thirty-four angrily abusive messages in the wee hours demanding a break-up, and then begging to be taken back the next morning, Raf evidently struggles to repair their romantic rift, its inter-spousal malaise paralleling her own social disconnect with the rest of France and its working classes with whom her spaced-out mind (on painkillers from the very painful dislocation of her arm) attempts several shrill and comically disconnected arguments on politics, identities, identity politics, and so on.

This frantic sensibility underscores La Fracture’s politically-charged undercurrents, but lest they be misconstrued as homilies, it should be noted that Corsini predominantly attunes her sympathies toward the beating heart of the emergency room — an otherwise struggling and dysfunctional environs whose injured occupants exhibit varying degrees and dimensions of stress, each exemplary of some moral conundrum and therefore immune to easy sympathy. Over the course of one long night, amid the violence of the Yellow Vests movements, the patients alternate between restlessness and lethargy; on the whole, however, the collective entropy soon balloons into a panic attack as indeterminate voices holler over one another, protestors from outside seek refuge within the hospital’s sterile walls, and the severely understaffed nurses wrestle with cases in order of severity and necessity. A trucker from the Yellow Vests, Yann (Pio Marmaï), wheels in from the Champs-Élysées with a gunshot wound to the leg, right as Raf’s bourgeois instincts — though she denies they exist — kick in and she accosts him over politics, lobbing Le Pen and Macron’s names back and forth in an accusatory circle-jerk of virtue-signaling. Elsewhere, a mentally ill patient has his paranoia dialed up to eleven with the threat of the police, trained to hunt down the remaining protestors, injured or otherwise, even outside of protest hours (synonymous with the former’s 9-to-5).

Firmly cognizant of the political background behind the material disorder at hand, La Fracture smartly avoids submergence within the dialectical waters of taxation increases and fuel price burdens, but neither does it preach (as what its middle-class leads’ presence might imply) a cheap brand of César-baiting humanism. Instead, Corsini synthesizes both her surveying of pent-up political anger and the oft-invisible diversity of after-effects this anger exerts on most bystanders, especially the silent and vulnerable ones within their midst. In our case, it is Kim (Aissatou Diallo Sagna), a Black nurse, who holds the tectonic pieces together as its moral center, a rare voice of reason in spite of the heightening emotional tensions around her. Resisting the angry crowds clamoring for treatment outside while suffering the irresponsible blame of patients within, she proves the most resilient and unjustly exploited character of all, the victim of an overburdened healthcare system who nonetheless must sacrifice greatly for the world outside to hobble along its fractured path. Sagna’s empathetic yet hardly self-pitying performance accompanies the hot-button social realities of a city on edge, which La Fracture leans heavily on (mostly for humorous effect), accentuating a steady pulse beneath the film’s otherwise kinetic anxiety — most prominently addressed in Robin Coudert’s dissonant score, which bears little resemblance to his work on Rebecca Zlotowski’s Planetarium, the latter’s sparkling romanticism replaced by harsh strings blended with sirens from incoming ambulances; and in Jeanne Lapoirie’s camera, realizing, through swift and sudden changes in frame rate, the fluidity of movement over an aesthetic appeal. For that alone, the film stands out among its cynically hackneyed ilk: it’s unrelenting, exhausted, but persists as oddly charming in places.

Writer: Sarah Williams

Credit: Atoms & Void

Babi Yar. Context

Beginning in September 1941, German soldiers massacred somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 people at the Babi Yar ravine outside of Kiev, capital city of Ukraine, including Jews, Soviet prisoners of war, communists, Ukrainian nationalists, and Roma. The first documented killings transpired on September 29 and 30, claiming an estimated 34,000 Jewish residents rounded up from the city, with more following throughout the two-year German occupation of Kiev. This is widely-known information, quickly accessible on Wikipedia, but in his new documentary Babi Yar. Context, Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa wants to paint a broader picture of these events, here piecing together a loose chronological narrative using only found and restored archival footage showing the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of this horrific act. In an interview with Screen Daily, Loznitsa details the impetus of the project; that he was conducting research for a fiction film on the same subject when Covid shutdowns struck the world, after which he was approached by the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center to construct a proper documentary about the event. A fortuitous happenstance, perhaps, but one that fits squarely with much of Loznitsa’s recent work, including other films constructed entirely from historical found footage, like The Event (2015) and State Funeral (2019), as well as works engaging directly with how we remember atrocities, like Austerlitz (2016) and (more obliquely) Victory Day (2018).

Using German, Russian, and Ukrainian archives, Loznitsa and his team have restored reams of footage while constructing an almost entirely new soundtrack, adding aural effects and even dubbing voices. It’s quite visceral, adding immediacy and urgency to the largely black-and-white (with some color) footage of tanks, planes, bombings, explosions, and crumbling buildings that are otherwise overly familiar from countless mediocre History Channel programs. Loznitsa finds striking moments of calm amongst the ravages of battle, sometimes focusing on wide-open clear skies and bucolic landscapes before zeroing in on charted corpses, or focusing on a plume of black smoke that cuts across an otherwise pristine horizon line. The film uses occasional title cards to convey specific information as it charts the German army’s onward march toward Kiev and its eventual occupation, with Nazi soldiers patrolling the streets, mingling with the citizenry, and even freeing prisoners from the jails (of course, Loznitsa includes a quick shot of people tearing down a huge banner of Stalin). Eventually, there are a series of bombings that rock the city, and although it’s unclear who carries out these attacks, the German forces use them as an excuse to whip up resentment against the city’s Jewish population. Soon, notices go out informing all Jews to report to specific areas with warm clothes and any valuables they wish to bring with them. Of course, we know that these people aren’t being sent away, but will instead be transported to the ravine, executed, and their bodies buried. There’s no actual footage of the killings, but Loznitsa shows the chilling aftermath — a haunted landscape littered with debris, the belongings of all these people left in piles on the ground like makeshift gravestones, echoes of human lives now lost. The Soviet Red Army takes back the city in 1943, and the final third of the film details a kind of miniature Nuremberg trial against captured Nazi soldiers and officers, culminating in their conviction and execution. The testimonials from survivors are all the more horrible for how matter-of-fact they are, and the testimony of a German soldier is pure banality-of-evil stuff. It’s remarkable footage, a true contribution to the historical record.

Loznitsa has been both praised and derided for refusing to directly comment or otherwise editorialize in his found-footage films, instead relying on subtle editing cues and oblique juxtapositions to “nudge” audiences (even as erudite a thinker as J. Hoberman wondered if State Funeral would be better served by an opening rather than closing epigraph contextualizing Stalin’s crimes, or by viewing it in conjunction with the fictional The Death of Stalin). Loznitsa makes clear in interviews that with this project, he wishes to pull back years of Soviet obfuscation as to what really transpired at Babi Yar, as various USSR policies first neglected the event, then honored the site of the massacre while refusing to mention lost Jewish lives specifically. But, in the finished film, we get only a final scene of color footage from the 1950s that shows construction crews filling in the ravine and building new structures around it, and it’s hard to grasp that Loznitsa means to show the literal and metaphoric erasure of the site without any additional context offered. There’s certainly political and historical background to the long, fraught relationship between Ukraine and Russia that Westerners might have little or no knowledge of, context that might further implicate complicity on the part of Nazi collaborators that helped engender this monumental crime (to be fair, there is passing reference to Russian and Ukrainian onlookers who did nothing to curb the slaughter, although the point is not belabored). Curiously, additional restored footage from the Babi Yar project is available on YouTube, leading to questions about what was and was not included in the final project, and why. For instance, after years of filling the ravine with sewage and waste, it eventually ruptured and flooded the city, killing over a thousand people. This curious note is documented via footage on YouTube, and might have made a fitting capstone to the film proper, a kind of darkly poetic bit of karmic payback, but it’s not clear how viewers would be expected to know about these addendums short of seeking out specific interviews with Loznitsa. In the end, Babi Yar. Context represents an important act of remembrance that nevertheless requires yet still more context. Loznitsa is reportedly still working on his fictional account of these events; perhaps that project will fill in certain aspects left frustratingly vague or unaddressed here.

Writer: Daniel Gorman

Train Again

As InRO contributor Brendan Nagle once observed, the image — 24 of them needed per second to produce the illusion of movement and also produce sound — of a charging train has certainly been linked to the birth of cinema with L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat in 1896, but perhaps the legacy the Lumière brothers’ locomotive has become more known for is the historically inaccurate hoopla regarding audience members being absolute dumbasses for thinking they were about to be run over by a train. This myth’s endurance and popularity over the years isn’t surprising, considering the romantic notions such a fable provides: that of spectators being so instinctually moved and astonished by what they were witnessing that they wholesale believed the supposed fiction on screen. More importantly, it speaks to the general power of cinema’s instinctive nature to teach: these viewers had never seen moving images before in their lives, and had to thus become accustomed to how to actually watch them.

It’s from this pedagogical inception point in history that Peter Tscherkassky — surely the finest Austrian avant-garde moving image artist currently working; watch the haunting Outer Space and then try producing another name — has recaptured this feeling of ecstatic discovery with Train Again, albeit with more modern techniques and technological apparatuses. He’s still using celluloid film like the Lumières, but he hasn’t done any filming himself — instead, Tscherkassky exclusively assembles found footage from a variety of media sources and submits it to a meticulous re-exposure process in a darkroom, all before transferring his final project to digital. It’s been six years since his last short, 2015’s The Exquisite Corpus, and the attention to detail displayed in Train Again immediately makes one aware of its prolonged creative gestation period and materialist inclinations — one of many dazzling moments includes a sequence of multiple overlapping film strips that race over one another, swerving left and right on the screen to create a sequenced pattern comprised of kino — while also effectively structuring itself toward its own perpetual internal collision of sorts with a rapid editing style that initially suggests impulsiveness. Tscherkassky’s images here are what we’ve come to expect from him by this point in his over four-decade career as a master chemist of photochemical means: beautiful, aesthetically impressive, transcendental, and where the compact, overwhelming onslaught of montage is always commendable for just how stimulating the end results are. But it’s long-time collaborator Dirk Schaefer’s discordant score that intensifies the experience nearly past its breaking point, best experienced in the final movement which brings everything to a shrieking crash: looping one 10-second scene of flying wheat grain mixed with scraps of metal from Unstoppable (another fine flick about choo-choos) and visually and aurally layering as many versions of said scene on top of one another, the duo achieve harmony through shrill derangement. Even after all of that, things never actually fly off the rails: much like a well-oiled machine wherein the internal mechanics have been made transparent before our very eyes, we return to our starting image in cyclical fashion, not unlike the slow crawl to a final stop on an especially long railroad line.

Writer: Paul Attard

Credit: The Party Film Sales

Returning to Reims

Jean-Gabriel Périot‘s films center around archival footage, crafting stories from multimedia video and grafting them in and out of multiple contexts. Best known for the post-war generation documentary A German Youth, which features fellow left-wing filmmakers Helke Sandler and Harun Farocki, Périot now takes on philosopher Didier Eribon’s 2009 memoir, Returning to Reims, with his signature curatorial style (actress Adèle Haenel, last seen in Deerskin, Heroes Don’t Die, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire premiering back-to-back-to-back at Cannes in 2019, and currently focusing on stage work in Gisèle Vienne’s L’Etang, lends her steady, slightly husky voice to the narration). A history of France’s working class, Returning to Reims (Fragments) is more concerned with personal narrative than political timeline, utilizing anecdotal stories of and centered around Eribon’s family to mark the passage of time across a broader society.

The early chapters of Périot’s film constitute a revolutionary mini-canon, drawing from the history of French cinema to act out its source text. Most recognizable are segments from Germaine Dulac’s Celles qui s’en Font and Dimitri Kirsanoff’s Ménilmontant, filling in for the unarchived years. As with the cinema of Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard, of motion pictures painted from history textbooks, Returning to Reims (Fragments) arranges and assembles clips of the past with a fluid, not ungainly lyricism. (Some sequences, in particular those of French women accosted on the streets after being accused of sleeping with German officers during the war, have previously appeared in his 2006 short Even If She Had Been A Criminal…). Spanning nearly a century, these archival gems are less a coalescence of events into straightforward narratives than a family tree’s montage — hence the titular “fragments.” The motion picture history that Haenel’s voiceover accompanies is gradually whittled down, evolving from a more passive narrativization toward an activist consciousness whose records of both domestic and public demonstrations culminates in an epilogue on modernity, flashing through today’s myriad civic causes, from “Justice pour Adama” to climate change. Crucially, Périot notes the frequently intersectional nature of social justice, reviewing its diversity of working-class emancipation, women’s liberation, and racial equity; though arguably its backbone adheres closest to the materialist feminism of Marxist writers Monique Wittig and Christine Delphy, centering women as the class most essential to social liberation of the masses.

While Périot’s adaptation of Eribon isn’t the latter’s first (a 2017 stage play exists), his filmed version comfortably complements the text, explicating the story of an intellectual lamenting the betrayal of his working-class roots with the much-needed verve of recognizable and contextualized images. With most filmic assemblages, the worry is of their theoretical and potentially impenetrable nature, which can leave viewers averse to discovery, despite whatever emotional core the subject matter may possess. Happily, Returning to Reims (Fragments) bucks this trend as a deft, generation-spanning anatomy of community, one full of hope for the “liberty that the chance to study may have given her”: a liberty that many a mother of the past has wished for, and, for those in the fight for justice today, still do.

Writer: Sarah Williams