by InRO Staff Festival Coverage Film

Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 9: Drive My Car, A Chiara, Sycorax

Credit: Cannes Film Festival

Drive My Car

Ryusuke Hamaguchi has fast become one of the more dependable filmmaker’s regularly working the international festival circuit, ever since he broke big at Locarno in 2015 with the sprawling, ornately plotted Happy Hour. Cannes quickly cosigned him, selecting his 2018 picture Asako I & II for a competition slot, and now, less than half a year after his remarkable Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy took the Silver Bear at Berlinale, Hamaguchi exits Cannes once again, this time with a Best Screenplay award for his adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short fiction piece, Drive My Car.

The premise and thematic interests of Murakami’s story remain mostly intact in this cinematic adaptation, but Hamaguchi has expanded the scope of this relatively brusque work (published as part of the Hemingway-inspired 2014 collection Men Without Women), transforming it into a nearly three-hour epic melodrama spanning the course of several years. Drive My Car plays out over two acts distinguished from one another by a time jump that takes us from an instance of disquieted domesticity and into another, though this time performed. Centering on sullen stage actor Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), Drive My Car first reflects on his marriage to actor/writer Oto (Reika Kirishima), strained and confused by the loss of their child, their union sinking into further dissonance at the revelation of Oto’s frequent infidelities. Years later, Kafuku still wrestles with unanswered questions about Oto and the truth of their relationship, questions he is forced to confront directly while guest directing a production of Uncle Vanya for a Hiroshima based acting workshop, provoked by the play itself and the participation of one of the actors who his wife had an affair with. 

And indeed, as suggested by the Cannes award, Drive My Car’s screenplay is an achievement to be experienced, an imaginative act of adaptation that takes great pleasure in revealing its characters to the audience and deflating the conflicts implied by its seemingly salacious plot. Hamaguchi handles his character with great care and respect, and while Drive My Car adheres to the melodrama’s tendency to build toward intense emotional crescendo, the screenplay does not angle at violence, but instead, a profound acceptance. It’s rare to encounter a film so committed to a belief in others, recognizing empathy as a transformative spiritual force, an embrace of the unknown that can shape our understanding of broader existence. Hidetoshi Shinomiya’s cinematography accentuates Hamaguchi’s existential musings, his compositions taking extra care with scale, lengthy monologues delivered in close up (acting/storytelling as a means of catharsis, a recurring theme for the filmmaker) are framed to make the speaker appear massive and all-important, but then are quickly countered with frames that position them as small figures juxtaposed against massive LED screens depicting grand celestial activity, representations of the greatness of human accomplishment but also the limits of our perception. Drive My Car pursues these huge subjects confidently, actually managing to make a film about “the human condition” that never condescends or deals in dishonesty; it’s clear Hamaguchi is thinking much bigger than most of the filmmakers he competes with at these festivals. 

Writer: M.G. Mailloux


Credit: mk2

A Chiara

A gangster film from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl, A Chiara, like The Godfather, begins with a party. That the most memorable mafia films often include a party — each film of Coppola’s saga begins with one, and Goodfellas’ wedding reception scene is among the most dizzying in a film that rarely lets up — is for good reason: gathering a whole milieu into one joyous space quickly introduces a cast at their most endearing and, besides, the environment is intoxicating. This is certainly true of Giulia’s 18th birthday party, which finds nearly every character in the film enjoying themselves in the blue-purple glow of the dance floor. The men at the party are clearly gangsters, carrying about with an unmistakable swagger and framed threateningly on the party’s margins, but this is a sweet affair better characterized by Giulia’s father Claudio’s inability to give a toast to his daughter out of guarded embarrassment. But this is the last time the family will be whole, the tender dance to a lame Ed Sheeran song perhaps the last moment Giulia will share with her father, as later that night he disappears.

Little sister Chiara, however, has no idea what her father does. She is thrown for a loop that night when the family car explodes and Claudio is gone. Days later, she’ll learn the truth from Instagram — unlike period-obsessed American gangster films, A Chiara is pointedly contemporary, marking the mafia as a current social problem rather than a seedy saga of the past — and sets about interrogating her family. Scarier than her missing father’s criminal history is that everyone around Chiara knew, like a familial conspiracy that she was left out of and made to be the only one left wondering where her father went. Remarkably, director Jonas Carpignano turns this into a recognizable portrait of adolescence: growing up is learning the secrets your family has kept from you, that your father is a gangster is just a particularly rough one. The repetition of his main formal approach — handheld shots following behind Chiara’s head — effectively grounds the film in her perspective, even if a more varied approach would have been welcome.

Chiara investigates her father’s disappearance, turning the film into something approaching a paranoid thriller, unraveling secret rooms and connections she wishes she hadn’t found. But as A Chiara becomes more plotted, it stumbles a bit, piling up incident and manufacturing needless drama to put Chiara at a crossroads. It’s not that it’s ever ineffectual exactly, but that the dramatic tension that starts to replace the confusion and frustration of the first half is not as potent but is twice as rote. That the film finds a mostly satisfying ending to its plotting is to its credit, but in providing too many answers, it extinguishes some of its more troubling and intriguing possibilities.

Writer: Chris Mello


Sycorax

The vastly different (if, at times, equally insular) worlds of theatre and cinema are two realms that usually best function when not entangled with one another. Both are time-based mediums, albeit in opposing contexts and settings — recording a live performance sort of defeats the purpose of it; showing the final product in a traditional movie theatre does the original experience even dirtier — and each does things that work best specifically within their own parameters. Sycorax, a playful new exercise from collaborators Matías Piñeiro and Lois Patiño, constructs itself around establishing a fluid middle ground amongst these distinct artistic methods, and concerns itself with the eponymous Shakespearean witch — but articulated from a perspective that attempts to conceptualize this figure within a contemporary context. The once unseen character, who as we’re told was “the first” on the island on which The Tempest is set, is here about to be cast in a production of the play that we never end up seeing. The other famed roles have already been designated — albeit to random bystanders, all assigned their characters (Prospero, Antonio, Caliban, etc.) via voice-over, a callow tactic that aims to imprint the original text’s relevance and significance onto the faces of present persons merely by association. 

The audition process for Sycorax herself proves more intellectually and thematically fruitful: each participant lines up to say their lines, going in an assigned order and given a number to distinguish themselves from the others there. “Wind, rain, fire, and fog. This island they want to steal. Ariel, this tree will take care of you,” they each recite with varying degrees of accuracy, moving off-screen after speaking and letting the next would-be Sycorax deliver the line with no interruption. After the final woman speaks, a slow dissolve transitions into an outdoors diegesis — an overlaying of fiction subsumed by the natural world, with classical music playing to reinforce the evanescent quality of the moment. But it’s also here where order gives way to something more intrinsically organic in its structure and development, and meshes these interior and exterior states of being. It’s here where another marking occurs: that of Shakespeare’s play onto the modern world, embodied by the traveling actors who are dwarfed in size compared to the lush vegetation of the forest they continue to traverse deeper into. Time ultimately seizes both the production and Sycorax as a whole, right before the light of day vanishes and ends that day’s festivities, fading back onto an image of yet another possible Sycorax lost in the darkness.

Writer: Paul Attard


Credit: Cannes Film Festival

Hit the Road

Sam Levinson, Jaden Smith, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maya Hawke, and Bryce Dallas Howard: the rise of nepotism babies is far from over. Gross, sleezy, and borderline unethical, nepotism has plagued both Hollywood and independent film spheres since their inception. The casual platforming of certain celebrity families and their questionable talents has made for rather fascinating conversation starters; though once in a while, admittedly, a nepotism baby does in fact make a dignified name for themselves, proving to be someone worth catching in the crowd. These cases are few and far between, but good parenting and enforcing a reasonable work ethic can often yield satisfying results. Such is the case for Panah Panahi, the son of famed Iranian director Jafar Panahi; Panah originally worked as an assistant cinematographer and director on smaller productions after graduating from the Tehran University of Art, where he would later collaborate with his father in different consultation and editorial roles.

With Hit The Road, the fruit of years of determination and hard graft, Panahi junior has finally broken free from the doomed label prescribed to him at birth. His debut feature is a seamless comedic affair, perfectly meshing the aimless and the heartfelt in a consistently amusing traveling venture. Its dusty landscapes and endless banter provide unique connections between each of the archetypal family members featured within: a frenzied father with a broken leg, a heartbroken mother, a bratty young child, and the ambivalent oldest son reuniting for one final road trip before the elder son leaves the country, wanted for mysterious crimes against the state. On paper, these four key roles appear rather simply sketched without the requisite political context, and yet there’s a more detailed thematic core present at the crux of the film.

Nothing is directly revealed about the elder brother’s actions in the film, though one can interpret a certain projection of the relationship between Panahi and his father through this singular role. In the past few years, Jafar Panahi has been labeled a traitor against the Iranian state; imprisoned multiple times and now banned from filmmaking of any kind. In some way, the brother’s timid personality serves as a quiet rendition of the Panahis’ relationship. Hit the Road presents its characters as archetypes for reflection, attesting to filmmaking as an act of forgiveness and understanding. It’s purely confessional in its expression of the fears and anxieties of multigenerational trauma against a state that frequently demonstrates dissatisfaction towards freedom of speech. Panahi’s onscreen family is one in exile, and cinema is the bridge for reconnecting with society.

At the end of the day, it’s perhaps the supposed nepotism that actually brings something profound to the table. Even with its slight narrative structure, there’s a beating and purposeful core nestled within Hit The Road, whose reduced dependence on high stakes or even conflict makes room for the self-projecting subtext that drives its emotional beats. Simply put, the phrase “like father, like son” has never been this endearing.

Writer: David Cuevas


Suprêmes

Promotional materials for Audrey Estrougo’s Suprême NTM biopic — imaginatively titled Suprêmes notes La Haine, Les Misérables, and Straight Outta Compton as reference points for its temper and content. As such things go, it’s actually not a bad triangulation, assuming you don’t overestimate any of those films. In detailing the rise of the rap duo/collective, the film’s initial section — a look at the early days when the boys’ primary artistic outlet was tagging and crime was a casual reality — approximates the grime of Mathieu Kassovitz’s landmark film, before veering hard in its back half into standard band-biopic fare (a development which also dogged the more singular pleasures of F. Gary Gray’s NWA effort). It’s a disappointing but predictable culmination, the destination of so many such middling treatments, but that’s not to deny any of the early charm. As is the case with most hip hop and punk rock origin stories, antiestablishment sentiment — often dovetailing into anarchic dogma, depending on the film — courses through the narrative, most fully realized in Theo Christine’s big performance as JoeyStarr, no doubt chewing scenery but also bursting with dangerous, manic energy, seeming perpetually pitched at a precipice from his first introduction (for his part, Sandor Funtek’s turn as Kool Shen is solid, maybe even better than that, but often feels overwhelmed by proximity to Christine’s archer characterization). For a while, Estrougo successfully rides this bullet-shot momentum, each scene bursting into the next, barely slowing down to take in the chaos of the come-up. 

But it’s unsustainable. Conflict must come, and it’s of the supremely generic variety here: present is the mere requisite, including ego clashes, divergent work ethics, parental expectations, etc. Effort is made to sketch contemporaneous commentary, and in fairness, it’s not a manipulative flourish; Suprême NTM’s found clear influence in groups like Public Enemy, and both their textual and extratextual language called out social ills including police brutality, intentional economic disparity, and systemic racism (this constitutes the whole of any Les Misérables comparisons). But as realized in Estrougo’s film, such incisive political commentary is left as window dressing; where Straight Outta Compton, despite other sins, refused to whitewash NWA’s rhetoric, Suprêmes is too easily distracted by interpersonal dynamics and unraveling myth at the expense of any real interrogation of this ideology, its cultural situation, and the way it’s internalized and changes characters. Sure, it concisely impacts the group’s righteousness as subversives, but given the otherwise anonymous narrative work here, it feels more like cheap virtue signalling than meaningful discourse. It’s tough to too vehemently object to this kind of flattened true-life take, as it has seemingly become the de facto mode of biographic filmmaking, conforming to traditional literary structures without any real imagination, but it’s perhaps more disappointing here for the gusto of its opening stretch. Few things are less reflective of Suprême NTM than the fervorless, anonymous slog Estrougo’s film ultimately becomes.

Writer: Luke Gorham


Credit: The Match Factory

Futura

How do you do, fellow kids? We’ve all seen that clip from 30 Rock, where a try-hard Steve Buscemi — adorned with a hoodie, backwards ball cap, and skateboard — which feels like an attempt at impressing the Gen Z crowd, even as it predates them. It’s a humorous clip from a rather mediocre sitcom that has since spread like wildfire across the internet; and also a perfect encapsulation of Futura; a collective work directed by three of the most influential Italian auteurs currently working. Rumor has it that Pietro Marcello, Francesco Munzi, and Alice Rohrwacher met together in late 2019 to pitch and collaborate on a unique omnibus film. After tackling various ideas and concepts, the three filmmakers decided on the participatory documentary format which we see today, with all three directors directly involved in each of the featured interviews and B-rolls. The topic at hand? An investigative work examining Generation Z’s fears, perspectives, and general outlook on society, alongside the dawning threats of the future.

It’s as pretentious as it sounds: a presumptively historical record already outdated, given its limited and selective outreach. There’s a penchant for data collection in nearly every interview, where Rohrwacher, Munzi, and Marcello attempt to put on display the dreams and aspirations of young Italian teens across the country through a mosaic of poorly assembled storytelling. Futura is a film so pedantically obsessed with its central thesis of articulating a specific generational archetype that none of the three directors even thought to think outside of the box and experiment with varying perspectives, both formally and thematically, in reference to the more heated political issues at hand. It’s a superficial portrait-cum-examination of industrialization and human movement, nothing but derivative for the Gen Z viewer.

Perhaps this might be a bit harsh of a reaction towards Futura, coming from a young, teenage writer born in the troublesome year of 2002. Yet, all that surfaces through the film’s 105 minutes is a blurred and pandering reflection of this writer’s friends and colleagues. Futura is the TikTok generation’s meager profile; a documentary that examines neither the interpersonal social lives nor external anxieties of Generation Z. It’s riddled with missed opportunities, where multiple discourses involving climate change, privacy, surveillance, corruption, fascism, terrorism, and even the pandemic appear only haphazardly and at random. All that’s left to savor is its beautiful 16mm aesthetic, curiously ironic for its utilizing of baby boomer technology against the backdrop of an iPhone-dependent world; a wonderful aesthetic choice representing generational symbiosis, only to be deterred by a less wonderful didacticism at its aging core.

Writer: David Cuevas

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