One Fine Morning
Stepping back from Cannes’ main competition in favor of the somewhat cooler (in 2022, anyhow), awards-less Directors’ Fortnight lineup, Mia Hansen Løve is already back at the festival with a follow-up to her 2021 entry, Bergman Island. That film, while certainly her highest profile to date (her first in English, starring Hollywood actors), was also unfortunately her shallowest, a handsomely shot domestic/filmmaking drama hindered by tropey and meta plotting that proved a lacking switch-up from Løve’s usual, grander designs. Now back in France with a French cast (headed up by currently unstoppable Lea Seydoux and Rohmer regular Pascal Greggory), Løve’s latest production, One Fine Morning, has the director reestablishing the rhythms and pacing essential to her best work, without quite breaking from the more conventional scope and wisdoms embraced by Bergman Island.
Assembled in a fashion similar to her masterpiece Eden and the (also major) films she did on either side of that one, Goodbye First Love and Things to Come, One Fine Morning concerns itself with a significant swath of its protagonist’s life, but moves through it with a sort of deliberate casualness that condenses and approximates our real world relationship with memory and time’s passage. A remarkable effect that can be credited to the longstanding collaborative relationship between Løve and editor Marion Monnier, who have worked together on every one of the filmmaker’s features, honing a style and approach to narrativizing via the edit that manages to shrink time while still resonating as expansive — even epic. One Fine Morning doesn’t really reach that latter status, but it’s nevertheless an appealing continuation of these formal considerations, this time in the context of an affair, carried out in semi-secret between Seydoux’s Sandra and Melvil Poupad’s Clément. Introduced while picking up their respective kids from school, Sandra is a single mother working as a French/English translator while Paul is a cosmochemist frustrated by his wife but bound to her for the sake of his son’s wellbeing. Meanwhile, Sandra’s father (the aforementioned Greggory) is slipping into a state of neurological decline, slowly losing his memories and personality, and thus forcing her to make some challenging considerations about the future of his care and housing.
It’s well-covered territory for both Løve and the Cannes Film Festival undoubtedly, and One Fine Morning never entirely eludes the sense that we’ve been here before, but the movie still manages a couple moments of surprise with some mild reworking of this narrative’s expected beats. “Mild” is in in fact the most efficient way to characterize One Fine Morning, a film that doesn’t avoid tragedy, but mostly forgoes histrionics, placing us besides Seydoux in this moment of slight emotional precarity, the tension building from its anticipated collapse/transcendence. A tale of a mid-life crisis basically, competently managed, One Fine Morning doesn’t immediately stand out as a peak in Løve’s already tremendous filmography, but there’s enough here that it has the potential to resonate in the long term, as so much of her work has proven to do.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
Will-o’-the-Wisp, João Pedro Rodrigues’ long-awaited follow-up feature to The Ornithologist, almost seems to take the form of a sketch. Running a slender 67 minutes and seeming to concentrate its action into a matter of days, the film’s structure bears a closer resemblance to Un chien andalou than anything else: it begins in the year 2069, before hopping back to 2011, then forward to “some years later,” then “one year later,” which is where the bulk of the film takes place. This purposefully ambiguous timescale feels right for a film that indulges so freely in alternate realities and surreal settings, an overflowing of incidents packed into a small container.
Will-o’-the-Wisp appears to take place in a version of Portugal where the royal family still reigns to at least nominal effect: the main character is Prince Alfredo, seen on his deathbed in 2069 and as a youth in the rest of the film, and the first quarter of the film — delineated by a title card calling this a “musical fantasy” — moves through three consecutive parodies of the royal family in private; in one moment, the film even acknowledges the proscenium stuffiness by having the queen acknowledge that people are watching, with a knowing look toward the camera.
Fittingly for such a short film, the first of just two musical sequences takes place before this intertitle. The two — one a cherubic children’s choir, one a highly choreographed group dance to non-diegetic music — couldn’t be more different, a neat summary of Will-o’-the-Wisp’s divergent but simpatico aims. It is both an oddly hopeful evocation of the changing tides of politics in the face of global warming and, in the style of Rodrigues’ previous work, a homoerotic exploration of a particular milieu.
Here, that milieu is the volunteer fire brigade, which Prince Alfredo is prompted to join by a spate of forest fires, including one amid the “royal pines” that his father so fervently admires; in response, his mother claims that he is confusing “the royal family and documentary cinema,” an out-of-nowhere connection typical of the family scenes that operate in direct contrast to the fire brigade’s pleasurable bluntness. A predominantly male unit, its members are exclusively hunks, who quiz the supposed art historian Alfredo on his (poor) knowledge by posing nude or in jockstraps in the manner of various paintings. These moments, a contrast from the rest of the film, are presented in striking chiaroscuro, a loving attention paid to the rippling muscles of these men’s bodies and the sensual absurdity of watching them reenact these paintings.
Indeed, sensual absurdity is a fitting phrase word for a film whose primary sex scene, between the White Alfredo and his mentor Black firefighter Afonso, features exceptionally fake-looking penises; it’s not as if Rodrigues is afraid of showing nudity, even displaying a slideshow of penises that each correspond to a forest in Portugal. But the limits of showing reality are openly challenged by Will-o’-the-Wisp, a film where firefighters are never actually seen in front of a blaze, where a supposedly disastrous simulation is a lighthearted form of hazing, where futuristic clothing is beautifully tacky, and firefighters seem to have amassed considerable power in the intervening decades.
Will-o’-the-Wisp even finds space to invoke the pandemic, a sudden cleaving force that brings the film briefly back to “reality.” But Rodrigues’ concentration of his plot, his ability to elide the parts that would prevent this from taking full flight as a musical fantasy, preserves the film’s strange and uncanny spell. The final image, of the acceptance of Alfredo into the fold despite his all-too-short time in the brigade, points to a certain optimism, one where the fantasy ends happily ever after.
Writer: Ryan Swen
Director July Jung’s first film, 2014’s A Girl at My Door, starred Bae Doona as a policewoman who gets transferred to a small fishing village as a kind of punishment for having a same-sex romantic relationship. There she befriends a young girl who is being beaten by her father and grandmother and, against all common sense standards of police procedure, takes the girl into her own home. Things get out of hand when the unstable girl develops an unhealthy fixation on Bae, who is too traumatized by her own life, and too determined to save the girl, to notice that she’s essentially adopted a sociopath. The somewhat fanciful dramatics belie Jung’s very real sense of the tangled web of exploitation that traps these women in a world beyond their control, one that is in fact openly hostile to them. Bae’s primary method of coping is numbing through self-medication: sneaking copious amounts of soju into big plastic water bottles to drink surreptitiously. By the end, the tortured logic of abuse and callous disregard for women’s well-being leads to another solution for the two women, one just as unlikely to work.
A Girl at My Door was acclaimed on its release, but it’s only now, eight years later, that Jung has released her second feature, Next Sohee, the closing film of the 2022 Critics’ Week at Cannes. Again Bae plays a detective, Yu-jin, investigating the abuse of a young woman, but the approach is completely different. The first half of the film follows Sohee, a high school student (played with pugnacious charm by Kim Si-eun) who is sent by her vocational school (she’s majoring in “pet care”) to work at a telecommunications call center. The job is to field calls from customers who want to cancel their service and do everything possible to dissuade them from doing so (offering incentives, threatening penalties, delaying service, transferring calls, extending callback windows, etc). This naturally leads to a constant stream of abuse from customers directed at the workers, most of whom are, like Sohee, high school students on “externships.” As if that wasn’t bad enough, the company also manipulates its workers wages with unrealistic goals and incentive schemes, which it then delays payment of whenever possible. Basically, it’s a pretty typical 21st century customer service job.
But it breaks Sohee just as it did her sympathetic supervisor before her. Like him, she eventually commits suicide, which is where Yu-jin enters the picture. Investigating the causes of Sohee’s suicide leads her into a thicket of institutional corruption, one in which every supervisor has their own supervisor to blame, and no one is actually responsible for anything because their jobs are all governed by metrics. The workers have to dissuade a certain percentage of callers or their bosses won’t get incentives because they won’t get contracts with big firms that subcontract the call centers. The externship advisors at the schools can’t report working conditions because they need to get their kids employed or their schools (and districts and states) lose their funding. There’s never any end to the corruption, there’s no one bad guy, the whole damn system’s out of order: the murderer is neoliberal bureaucratic capitalism.
A Girl at My Door contrasted the horrors of its women’s personal lives with the beauty of their natural surroundings, a bucolic setting of green hills, blue waters, and purple skies. But the world of Next Sohee, urban Jeonju, is relentlessly gray and beige, lit by fluorescents with only the occasional burst of pink (a drunken night of karaoke) or purple (a dimly glimpsed sunset). Sohee, in her final moments, is warmed by a ray of sunshine on her toes (she’s wearing sandals in the dead of winter) and wanders to her doom at a placid reservoir. Yu-jin sees the same ray sometime later, but heads back to work. It’s the only sunlight in the whole film. Instead, these women struggle through the grayness. The best they can hope for is mastering a K-pop dance routine all alone in the quiet of a basement dance studio.
Writer: Sean Gilman
Throughout modern history, pop and rock music have certainly played a crucial role in a broader socio-political history. Filled with joyful and energetic dynamism, the genres have provided many generations of teenagers across the globe with a sense of liberation and an epicurean amusement in identifying themselves against the restrictive and dominating discourse of the old order. For the youth in Western Europe, it was a sonic manifestation of revolt against the conservative structures of respective societies; on the other hand, for their counterparts on the East side of The Wall, it reflected a larger, more symbolic issue: the constant struggle against the oppression of communist regimes. Set in the October of ‘72 in Bucharest, Alexandru Belc’s debut feature, Metronom, delves into a similar context to depict its 17-year-old heroine Ana (Mara Bugarin) as she grapples with her impending adulthood. In the opening scene, we see Ana and her boyfriend Sorin (Serban Lazarovici) embracing in the middle of one of the city’s soulless, grimy squares. He has decided to leave for Germany to escape the suffocating, hopeless atmosphere of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania, which is firmly within the iron grip of its totalitarian government. She, seemingly even more than her same-age friends, appears to be a fragile, adrift dreamer who doesn’t ask for much. Heartbroken, she joins her friends in a small apartment listening and dancing to The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin, all before the secret police break into the party, arresting the bunch and taking them for further interrogation (because they have broken the state’s laws by sending a letter to a famous show called Metronom at Radio Free Europe station). From this point onward, perhaps predictably, the narrative takes on predominantly darker, even brutal paths.
It’s possible to think about Belc’s Metronom from various angles, perhaps mainly as a mix of a film like Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto coupled with the Romanian New Wave’s most (over-)familiar social realist traits from the past few decades. Unfortunately, this Romanian coming-of-age romance, rife with heartache and melancholy, tends more often than not toward the aesthetic and narrative clichés of the latter rather than seeking unique or novel alternatives. It’s understandable that Belc would here want to pit the kineticism of music and bodies in motion against the more dominant presence of the film’s deadly stillness and silence — in other words, its ambiance — as contradictory forces, but the problem lies in how he rarely finds a balance in terms of its narrative distributions and stylistic arrangements during the many long sequences (usually filmed in handheld and with neutral lighting and coloring), which results in a mostly monotonous and tedious experience.
It’s not hard to occasionally find sparks of impressive instinct or measured, technical execution in Belc’s work, but he mistakenly never tries to reflect the same liberation that the pop and rock music of the era presented to their audiences. In fact, because of an insistence on a mere “representational” approach in order to authentically delineate a valid historical perspective, Belc instead misses the bigger picture, which is definitively not to reproduce the same bleak mood, bleak and instructive agenda of the political climate that he criticizes — the film at least never goes far enough south to invoke something like the callous, harassing attitude of a film like 2014’s The Tribe. Which is to say that, lacking in any liberating or generous aesthetic and remaining fairly entry level in terms of a demonstrating a fresh artistic vision, Metronom is a largely featureless and mediocre film that is much more in tune with a withered expression of the old rather than any inspired articulation of something new.
Writer: Ayeen Forootan
Harkis is pretty much the sort of foursquare historical drama one would typically associate with Rachid Bouchareb (who was back in Cannes in 2022 with his own historical drama, Our Brothers). Serviceably directed by Philippe Faucon, Harkis chronicles the final months of the Algerian War, as experienced by the so-called harkis, those Algerians who signed up to fight on behalf of France and against the FLN. These men had many different reasons for doing so. Some, such as Saleh (Mohamad Mouffok), simply couldn’t find other paying work during the war, and thought that enlisting was his family’s best hope for survival. Others, like the Captain (Yannick Choriat), appear to have true faith in the French cause. Others just didn’t like the FLN for personal reasons. (Anyone who’s seen The Battle of Algiers, a frankly pro-FLN cine-tract, will recall that the group’s brand of Islamic revolution could be rather unforgiving toward those Algerians with more secular inclinations.)
But even as the harkis fought under French command, De Gaulle was working with the FLN representatives on a ceasefire and withdrawal. As Harkis makes painfully clear, these men were sold a bill of goods by the French nation, tempted by guarantees of full citizenship and resettlement in their adopted motherland in exchange for their service. Any student of history knows that casting one’s lot with the occupying colonial power seldom yields the desired consequences, but as Harkis demonstrates, these men were most often making the least-worst available choice.
In the end, France did not want them — “assimilation would be too hard,” one officer opines — and they were left behind in a society that viewed them and their families as murderous traitors. While there is nothing cinematically remarkable about Harkis, it makes its point with admirable economy (it’s a slim 85 minutes) and speaks frankly about a group of Algerians who were uniquely screwed by the false promises of colonial history, asked to betray their fellow Muslims in the name of some higher ideal that, as far as the Gaullists were concerned, evaporated as soon as these soldiers had outlived their usefulness.
Writer: Michael Sicinski