Credit: San Sebastian Film Festival
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

San Sebastián Film Festival 2023: Dispatch 2 — MMXX, Perfect Days, Evil Does Not Exist

September 30, 2023


Few directors have explored the implications of real-time continuity — or a reasonable approximation thereof — as resolutely as Romanian director Cristi Puiu. From his early Stuff and Dough (2005) to his more recent Malmkrog (2020), he has drawn out the myriad consequences of a restricted spatiotemporal frame of reference. In Sieranevada (2016), for instance, which transpires over an afternoon in which a patriarch’s commemoration ceremony is to be held, familial bickering sits alongside conspiracy theories and all manner of ruminations about current events. Along with its nonsensical title, that film gave the impression of a perspective on the universe from one insular vantage — a view from nowhere. The broader implication, of course, is that such insularity and solipsism are at play in any interaction, that each choice of perspective implies the existence of innumerable others which we are specifically not seeing.

Puiu’s latest, MMXX, so titled for the year the Covid-19 pandemic broke, transposes this interest to the early portion of the worldwide crisis, presenting a set of four daisy-chained vignettes, each of which explores the disjunction between the present-tense situation before us and the personal or material histories we are able to infer or project back from it. Call it: Four Interpretation Exercises. The first, which sees a therapist meet with a new patient (with whom she goes through a fixed questionnaire to establish a kind of psychological profile), effectively functions as a statement of intent. The dry humor of the scene, which lasts roughly 30 minutes and unfolds without a cut, mainly derives from the disjunction between the therapist’s distractedness — exacerbated by a surprise visit from her brother — and the patient’s absurdly verbose, possibly narcissistic answers. But the scene serves an additional function, too, in that it offers information that we could not, from the physical interactions alone, even begin to infer. 

The film’s second part ups the ante on the disparity between what we are and are not seeing. Closest in tone to the cramped, domestic chaos of Sieranevada, it follows the therapist’s brother from the first segment, now at his other sister’s house, as he gets absurdly aggressive about preparations for his upcoming birthday. Meanwhile, his sister tries to help a friend in lockdown get information about his pregnant wife, recently admitted to the hospital for abdominal pain, while also dealing with a minor apartment issue and a majorly unhelpful husband. The following segment, which again unfolds in one unbroken, half-hour long shot, now includes a diegetic motivation for its duration: it is the time the husband takes, from the previous segment, to run two Covid rapid-tests. As he lays down on a bed awaiting each result, a co-worker lounges on a couch next to him, rendering a tawdry love affair with a mobster’s moll the most unexciting story ever told. The isolated space in which this segment unfolds — probably a nurse’s lounge — accentuates the film’s already restricted purview, stymying our ability to determine a stable reality in which the scene takes place.

In the fourth and final section, a man driving down a rural road talks to his mom about the end of a poem. When he arrives at his apparent destination, he walks through what is evidently a mourning ceremony. In a nearby greenhouse surrounded by police tape, he is met by a man in shorts, with whom he talks about a colleague who recently committed suicide and about a marital affair that may or may not have contributed to it. Only later are we able to confirm that they are police officers, and that their real reason for being there is to get a witness statement from a woman caught up in a terrible human trafficking operation as both victim and victimizer. Even more extremely than in the prior segments, expectation and reality diverge.

How are we to make sense of all this? Puiu’s intentions, especially in the film’s obscure final shot, are not always easy to parse. But what MMXX demonstrates with such acuity is how its characters’ usual ways of getting a grip on the world have given way. The formal corollary of this is that neither spatiotemporal continuity nor proximity can serve as stable markers of truth. While all this is apposite to the film’s pandemic setting, such explorations are hardly new to Puiu’s filmography. And while the Romanian director continues to find fresh formal variations on his recurring interests, MMXX puts forward a framework that feels, for once, merely current. LAWRENCE GARCIA

Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Perfect Days

When Wim Wenders’ Perfect Days was announced to play in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, his first since 2008’s totally forgotten Palermo Shooting, it established multiple, willfully contradictory narratives in a manner almost unheard of. Few filmmakers still active today have endured a fall from prominence as marked as Wenders has; while his documentary work has continued to enjoy a certain recognition in the past few decades, it can be conceivably argued that, reclamation drives for previously underrated works aside, the German director has not received widespread praise for any of his fiction works since his epochal Wings of Desire, all the way back in 1987. Thus, advance expectations ran along two likely outcomes: that this was the unexpected resurrection of a great poetic filmmaker making a late period triumph, or that this was a token inclusion of a mediocre film from a festival notorious for its loyalty to its favorite aging auteurs.

The answer, as is typically the case, lies somewhere in the middle. Perfect Days — Wenders’ first fiction feature set entirely in his beloved Japan, where he filmed the Yasujirô Ozu documentary Tokyo-Ga (1985) and shot a significant section of Until the End of the World with Chishû Ryû himself — confines its focus solely to Hirayama (the always dependable and poised Kôji Yakusho), a middle-aged man living in Tokyo who works as a public toilet cleaner, charting his existence over the course of what appears to be a few weeks. He is, above all, a taciturn man of solitary and routine pleasures: listening to classic rock cassette tapes while driving to work, drinking several tall glasses of shôchû at a bar on his day off, taking photos with his Olympus film camera, reading a book before falling asleep each night, and so on. During the course of the film, these tendencies are both tested and bolstered alike by the people he encounters, including his mildly irritating younger coworker and his niece, the latter of whom stays with him for a spell after running away from home.

All of this is delivered in decidedly unemphatic ways, which gets to both Perfect Days‘ greatest strength and limitation: it is no more and no less than a simple observation piece that portrays its central character’s day-to-day life without diving much deeper than the surface. On the one hand, this avoids some of the narrative devices that even the most forthrightly quotidian films fall into: there is no grand crisis, no existential threat to Hirayama’s way of life that might feel contrived; each supporting character’s segment is neatly siloed into its own self-contained storyline; and while there are hints here and there about our man’s past, there is blessedly no big reveal, only a touchingly oddball encounter that serves as a sort of subdued emotional climax.

On the other, the viewer is left to contemplate Perfect Days‘ surfaces, for which mileage will certainly vary. Put bluntly, the viewer must be able to appreciate at least a little unironically the comically obvious and frequent songs that Wenders chooses to incorporate: this is a film where “House of the Rising Sun” is heard not just as the first cue, but during a bar scene where the owner sings it in Japanese while accompanied by acoustic guitar. Yes, Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” is played after an especially surprising and euphoric moment for Hirayama. As for the charges of Orientalism/exoticism that have been levied against this film, Wenders — in this critic’s view — takes his surroundings at face value, but the unadorned nature of much of the film renders it something of an odd Rorschach test, where something as simple as Hirayama’s constant gazes upwards at nature might register as satisfaction, resignation, or even a simple-mindedness that could be read as condescending.

Perfect Days, for its own part, is simple in ways that largely render it likable. While Wenders’ editing style may be a bit too choppy to allow the more pleasingly procedural scenes of scrubbing and cleaning to settle, there is still a clipped efficiency that gradually accumulates in moments of tension and release, giving way to the gorgeous black-and-white superimposition interludes that stand in for the hero’s impressionistic dreams; the film is shot in the in vogue Academy ratio without feeling like too much of an affectation. Often, behavioral detail — Hirayama’s penchant for taking his photos of a tree at lunch without looking through the viewfinder — and societal detail — the wildly varied designs of Tokyo’s public toilets, including an all-glass unit that automatically tints when the door is locked — alike carry the day. The fact that the well-acted and wisely held long close-up in the final scene of Perfect Days is scored to a song that literally spells out everything that is happening on screen is, in keeping with this film’s rhythms, entirely expected, and to be honest, at least a little cherished. RYAN SWEN

Evil Does Not Exist

Evil Does Not Exist is the sort of film one makes after winning an Oscar. Following the massive success of Drive My Car, which has all but guaranteed that his films will continue to play relatively widely, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has taken the opportunity to create an experiment in audience alienation. The film opens with an extended sequence through a forest, where the camera, pointed straight up, captures the shifting matrices of the tree branches cutting across a clear blue sky, accompanied by Eiko Ishibashi’s lush, though not entirely soothing, score. From there, we move to the sight of a man chopping firewood, who later goes to a stream to collect water, these repetitive actions protracted far beyond their obscure narrative function. Eventually, we learn that he is Takumi (Hitoshi Omika), a man respected in the surrounding village for his practical know-how. Reserved and somewhat odd in demeanor, he has an air of mystery about him: he doesn’t seem to do much other than help out various folks with different tasks, while also caring for his young daughter, whom he often forgets to pick up from school. Whatever circumstances led him to this point, Hamaguchi does not key us into them. For a while at least, the director’s main interest lies not in developing any sort of conflict, but in futzing around with the camera, introducing a number of conspicuously odd shot setups for no discernible reason.

A clear narrative through line does eventually emerge, and it proves to be familiar, almost archetypal, in its basic outline, observing how the village’s way of life is threatened by outside forces. A Tokyo-based company is looking to set up a glamping (“glamorous camping”) site in the village and turn it into a tourist attraction; the locals vehemently oppose the plan. The latter are not entirely opposed to the idea itself, but to the company’s transparently inadequate designs, which cut corners in ways clearly meant to turn a quick buck without accounting for the environmental consequences to the surrounding area. All this is conveyed in a lengthy town hall sequence where the locals — all presented not just as noble and altruistic, but also hyper-articulate — face off against a couple of corporate representatives who quickly realize that they are out of their depth. In an attempt to salvage their relations with the locals, they solicit Takumi for potential advice and promise to return with an updated plan. We then follow the pair as they return to Tokyo and try to get their bosses to modify the glamping project accordingly, only to be shot down and ordered to return to the village with the barest of concessions.

Summarized in this way, there’s nothing overly strange about Evil Does Not Exist. The decision to keep Takumi’s background obscure is not, in itself, unusual; and neither is the choice to follow the urban Tokyoites as they come to see things from the villagers’ perspective, or the subplot involving Takumi’s daughter wandering off into the woods alone. No, what’s genuinely odd about Evil Does Not Exist is how these disparate threads come together in its truly confounding finale — an unexpectedly violent act on Takumi’s part that comes across as completely senseless. The film’s title recalls the philosophical doctrine that evil is merely the privation of good. Perhaps the challenge of this ending, then, is to make sense of his actions as a positive act, one whose intentions go beyond the dramatic framework of the film. Those who are able to take up this challenge will find much to appreciate in Hamaguchi’s genuinely discombobulating closing flourish. For others, it will seem less productively confounding than lazily ambiguous: a last-act grab for profundity that resonates only in the abstract. LAWRENCE GARCIA

Credit: Locarno Film Festival

Camping du Lac

An artist and documentary filmmaker, Eléonore Saintagnan makes her feature debut with Camping du Lac, although such a biographical description does little to adequately describe the movie’s intoxicating tapestry of quirky storytelling traditions and “lightness,” in the Milan Kundera sense of the word. It’s a small, unassuming film that only gradually reveals itself, changing shape from quirky, fish-out-of-water comedy to lovely eulogy for old-fashioned notions of community and communion with the natural world. Camping du Lac functions like a winding, even meandering, tall-tale made out of non-sequiturs and tangents that eventually accumulate into something much larger than the sum of the film’s (very charming) parts. 

It’s a brief film with an inauspicious beginning; Saintagnan (playing a version of herself, one supposes) has decided that she must see the ocean. And so she sets off in her car, only for it to break down in the middle of Brittany, in the northwest of France. She narrates her own adventures in a sort of deadpan monotone, describing the people she meets as she hitches a ride with a farmer while her car is towed to the local garage. The mechanic says it will take several days to fix the car, but that Eléonore is welcome to stay at the local trailer park. It’s located on the banks of Guerledan Lake, and home to an odd assortment of local eccentrics. And so, Eléonore is thrust into this new but not unwelcoming environment; the film doesn’t so much chronicle the various denizens of the park as it simply peeks into their lives, each individual a tantalizing narrative thread that could conceivably anchor a different film. 

Visiting the local church, she hears the story of Saint Corentin, who stayed alive by taking one piece of flesh from the same fish day after day, which in turn was miraculously made whole when it was released back into the water. The fish eventually grew to an enormous size and, as the story goes, now roams the lake. This tale — part religious parable, part urban legend — becomes the main narrative thread by which Eléonore hangs her various observations, as she watches the locals and hikes through the woods. Eventually, believing the lake has magical properties of some kind, people begin taking water from it. It functions something like a low-key version of Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes, but as the water levels drop to dangerously low levels, ecological disaster looms on the horizon. By the time Saintagnan shows a giant fish stranded in the muddy shores of the now-receded lake, any lines between fantasy and reality are blurred to the point of meaninglessness.

Saintagnan clearly isn’t concerned about genre classification, as she steamrolls her way through different modes in search of something more obscure, but also more ecstatic. Some reviews have likened her style to that of Agnès Varda’s, an apt enough comparison given Camping du Lac’s gentle tone and easy-going fascination with local faces. But there’s a certain mystery here, as well: Saintagnan summons Apichatpong Weerasethakul in the sense that the lake and surrounding woods evoke a kind of mythopoetic playground of folklore — at one point she spies on a woman swimming with fishes while bringing herself to orgasm, a sequence destined to be compared to a similar one in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Notions of time break down and become diffuse; as Eléonore settles in and meets more and more people, it becomes unclear how long she has actually been at the trailer park, and eventually she decides that she must sell her car and stay in this wonderfully odd place. Let the mystery in, kick back and stay awhile: the water is great. DANIEL GORMAN

The Silence

After his disappointing 2021 film The Restless, a film in which a story of an artist’s manic episodes mostly provided an opportunity for actorly histrionics, Belgian director Joachim Lafosse returns with A Silence, a remarkably muted film about a topic that is more typically treated with lurid sensationalism. As Guy Lodge mentions in his Variety review, A Silence is likely to play quite differently in Belgium, where the film’s subject is no secret at all. This is a thinly veiled fictionalization of the case of Victor Hissel, a high-profile lawyer who was convicted of possessing child pornography while legally representing the parents of two little girls who were victims of a serial rapist and murderer. As A Silence demonstrates, the attorney’s involvement with the case allowed him to hide in plain sight, since he claimed that his computer files of images of child exploitation were simply “research.”

François, the attorney, played by the great Daniel Auteuil, is such a studied paragon of righteousness that it’s difficult not to suspect he is hiding something. A Silence is likely to prove a divisive film, since it initially plays coy with its audience. Based on the title alone, we expect there is some hidden truth that will eventually be revealed, and in the first 20 minutes, the allusions of this unknown bit of information can get irritating, as the characters — especially Astrid, François’ loyal wife played by Emmanuelle Devos — seem rather obviously to be playing cat and mouse with the audience. However, as the film progresses, this decision appears to be rather strategic. Before long, Lafosse reveals that contrary to what one might expect, the secret in question is a somewhat open one. Almost everyone in the family knows about the patriarch’s predilections, apart from his teenage son Raphael (Matthieu Galoux). What we learn is that Raphael’s own mental health has been compromised by François’ addiction, that the son has inherited the sins of the father to a profound, heartbreaking degree.

While speaking to the media about the serial killer case, François rails against the French legal system, claiming that it is rigged to protect the powerful and prevent victims from attaining justice. Lafosse demonstrates both the irony and the hypocrisy of François’ claims. Most viewers, for whom pedophilia is the worst possible transgression, are likely to find A Silence frustrating. The director puts the pieces in place for a standard legal procedural, but delivers something very different. Like many of Lafosse’s best films — Private Property (2006) and Our Children (2012) in particular — A Silence is a pitiless vivisection of a broken family, showing how people are capable of justifying the most egregious behaviors by convincing themselves that they are protecting those they love.

If there is one character who represents the viewer’s demand for justice, it’s the lead investigator (Larisa Faber) who pleads with Astrid to help her convict François. As we see, the detective’s efforts are largely thwarted. Again, this is part of the unsettling power of Lafosse’s film. As Astrid, Devos offers an affecting portrait of suppression and forced decorum, the tremulous mien of someone struggling to make unfathomable horror appear normal. Once we learn about François’ past and present behavior, we think we understand who the monster is. But it takes an entire network of enablers to allow evil to persist, and A Silence is an agonizing demonstration of the consequences of self-delusion. MICHAEL SICINSKI

Credit: TrustNordisk

The Promised Land

The virtues of Danish director Nikolaj Arcel’s new feature, The Promised Land, are those of old-school Hollywood studio pictures. The film is scrupulously well-constructed in the narrative sense — its main characters and conflicts are cleanly established within the first 10 minutes. It moves along at a steady pace that does not take the audience’s attention for granted over a two-hour runtime. It’s also well-photographed, well-acted by a cast of professionals, and well-appointed in its period detail. It would seem almost churlish to fault a film that, by all accounts, is a shining exemplar of the old adage, “they don’t make them like this anymore” — and yet we must. For all its notable merits, The Promised Land is also staggeringly conventional, devoid of novelty and surprise, and undistinguished in its anonymous competence. It doesn’t offer any deeper level of engagement or edification, beyond the surface-level pleasure of reasonably diverting viewers for two hours, and any interest it provides is ultimately not very different from the “content” spewed out by streaming services — only this is a European arthouse production and so might garner knee-jerk, unearned esteem.

Arcel’s film is set in 1755 in the Kingdom of Denmark, during which the northern regions of Jutland are a barren heath and the land has defeated even the most seasoned farmers that have attempted to cultivate it. A handsome allowance and the title of baron await any man who can successfully grow produce there, and taking up the challenge is recently retired army officer Ludvig von Kahlen (Mads Mikkelsen). He’s poor, of low birth, and could use the upgrade. Upon relocating there, Ludvig soon assembles a family of misfits consisting of a peasant woman, Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin), a young Roma girl (Melina Hagberg), and a local priest, Anton Eklund (Gustav Lindh, most recognizable for Robert Eggers’ The Northman). The group make considerable agricultural progress, but soon run headfirst into and afoul of local landowner Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), who covets the land himself and is afraid he’d lose his influence and standing in the region were von Kahlen to be successful. Consequently, he concocts all manner of villainy and stratagems to thwart Kahlen and his makeshift family.

Establishing credible high stakes necessitates creating a formidable villain, but Arcel overeggs the pudding by giving us an antagonist of superhero-franchise proportions. In fact, Thanos is afforded more nuance and humanity than Bennebjerg’s cackling, deranged supervillain. It’s no fault of Bennebjerg, who is undeniably committed and even charismatic here, but his cartoonish characterization lays bare the story’s artifice and reminds viewers that they are watching manufactured conflict — something engineered by overzealous writers more than anything that might reasonably transpire in real life. Which is ironic, given that at least some of the figures and events present in The Promised Land are historical ones. Kahlen and Schinkel were real people, and the former did relocate to Jutland to try his luck. But everything else has been freely imagined by novelist Ida Jessen, whose book, The Captain and Ann Barbara offers the source material for The Promised Land. (The book is not yet available in an English translation, which makes it difficult for this critic to determine if the flattened characters are native to it or are a result of the adaptation from Arcel and co-screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen.) It’s not a great sign that Arcel expressed regrets about the villain’s portrayal and posited that he might have thrown out the baby with the bath water during the rigorous editing process that saw him whittle down a 210-minute first cut to the two-hour runtime of the finished version.

For all the film’s struggles, the well-assembled cast contribute worthwhile performances with the material they’re afforded. Mikkelsen, with his famously impassive face and thin, pursed lips, effortlessly carries the picture; even while playing a low-born peasant, he retains a movie-star charisma and natural air of imperious hauteur. Lindh and Morten Hee Andersen (as Ann Barbara’s husband) both also make an impression in their smaller supporting roles, while Collin, ostensibly the female lead, is unfortunately saddled with an underwritten character, though she does at least end on solid footing in the film’s denouement. And Bennebjerg, looking distractingly like a Scandinavian Matt Smith, exudes genuine talent even through all the hammy mustache-twirling he’s asked to execute.

Elsewhere, the film is being styled as a David Lean-type “epic,” though that seems a stretch. There are hardly any scenes that boast upwards of 30 people in the frame, and the story and execution don’t offer much that would convince of such ambition; after all, the film had a budget of $8 million, perhaps expensive for a Danish production, but within the price range of a typical Sundance indie. The Promised Land does offer marginal interest owing to its niche historical setting, the details of which range from the fact that potatoes weren’t available in Denmark in the 1750s to the dark-skinned Roma people being believed to bring bad luck for farming endeavors. But for most, the chief reason to engage with The Promised Land will be to ride the rise and fall of its dramatic arc. To this end, Arcel said he wanted to create the feeling of reading a novel, and he has certainly achieved that — only it functions more as one of those ephemeral quickies that are read once to kill time, and then forgotten forever. ANKIT JHUNJHUNWALA

Last Shadow at First Light

Nicole Midori Woodford’s Last Shadow at First Light occupies an exasperating middle ground between heartfelt sincerity and hoary cliché, exploring generational trauma and survivor’s guilt in the most literal, least interesting manner possible. When we first meet teenaged Ami (Shirata Mihaya), she is clutching an old tape recorder, listening intently to a woman’s voice. It’s gradually revealed that this is the voice of Ami’s absent mother, who abandoned Ami and her father and returned to their native Japan some years prior. Ami has been told that her mother is dead, and this collection of old, pre-recorded cassettes is her only connection to an absent parent. But the discovery of a cache of old letters and postcards suggests that mom isn’t dead, or at least that Ami’s father has been lying to her about things for many years. After an aggressive conversation where Ami confronts her father about his deceptions, she convinces him to let her travel from their home in Singapore back to Japan in an effort to track mom down. 

These early scenes are dour, but opaque enough to keep things productively off-kilter; Ami seems withdrawn and even potentially violent — when a rude classmate steals her tape recorder as a prank, Ami repeatedly punches him in the face — while intermittent sequences of the camera prowling through a derelict, abandoned building suggest either visions or dreams. Indeed, the film frequently insinuates that Ami can “see” the dead, as she begins to walk through or otherwise interact with these mysterious liminal spaces. A visit to her elderly, bed-ridden fraternal grandmother expresses the girl’s gentler side; she seems deeply concerned about her fractured, disconnected family. But the oppressive mood gets repetitive, so it’s a relief when Ami arrives in Japan and meets her Uncle Isamu, played by the great Nagase Masatoshi. He’s gruff, a working-class guy concerned with weathering day-to-day life with little time or concern for Ami’s existential angst. Isamu also knows more about Ami’s mother — his sister — than he lets on. Ami is determined to see her mother’s childhood home, and so the mismatched duo embark on a road trip.

It’s here that the film doubles down on its theme of trauma, as the area they are heading toward was devastated in the 2012 Tôhoku tsunami. Ami’s visions of old abandoned buildings, detailed at the beginning of the film, are revealed to be very real places, all broken by gargantuan waves. Recovery has been slow, the scars of the cataclysmic event still very visible as the locals go about their business. Ami also learns more about her mother’s circumstances, given that she was in Singapore when the tsunami struck, killing her parents. All of this is relayed in the most somber, pensive tone imaginable, the film creeping along at a snail’s pace toward a foregone conclusion. Lovely cinematography and a nice sense of framing can’t mask how familiar this stuff is, and once Isamu begins falling prey to his own guilt (he’s got a dead wife, too), it all becomes too much — too much gray, too many slow camera pans, too many contemplative stares out the car window. Moments of real humanity do occasionally shine through; Isamu is steadfastly dedicated to playing the lottery, and a late-film visit to a pachinko parlor represents just about the only splash of color in the entire film. And Ami’s eventual reunification with her mother is genuinely emotional, thanks to a fine performance from young Shirata Mihaya. But by the time glowing lights begin emanating from the ocean, one is more likely to roll their eyes from the forced attempt at profundity than feel their heart swell. DANIEL GORMAN