Credit: Compass Film
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Cannes Film Festival 2024: Dispatch 1 — The Invasion, The Other Way Around, Limonov: The Ballad

May 21, 2024

The Invasion

Moral judgments in artwork tend to be tinged in shades of gray. This is sometimes expressed by citing Jean Renoir’s unofficial motto that “everyone has their reasons.” That’s not to say that works of art cannot take ethical stands. But generally, it’s accepted that true artists also subject themselves to moral scrutiny, refusing to exempt themselves from critique. When works of art fail to make even cursory gestures of self-implication, they are often dismissed as propaganda. 

The Invasion, the latest documentary from Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, poses a direct challenge to that cozy liberal notion of enlightened relativism. Serving as a bookend of sorts to his 2014 film Maidan, which provided an almost real-time documentation of the uprising against the pro-Russian regime of Viktor Yanukovych, The Invasion is an expansive portrait of everyday life in a nation at war for its survival. Loznitsa’s approach goes well beyond the Howard Zinn dictum regarding “being neutral on a moving train.” The Invasion is an unambiguously patriotic statement that fully embodies the collective chant heard throughout the film: “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!”

It’s not hard to see why, as Loznitsa opens on a funeral for four soldiers, presenting contemporary life in Ukraine as being continually punctuated with loss. Rather than showing daily existence grinding to a halt, The Invasion provides something more tragic: death and destruction becoming unavoidably woven into the fabric of normal living. Loznitsa strikes a distanced, observational tone while providing a panoramic vision of society as a whole. Funerals are followed by weddings. Church services and baptisms continue, interspersed with troop deployments and a search through the rubble of a bombed apartment building. Through it all, ordinary Ukrainians declare their faith in Jesus Christ and insist that their nation will prevail.

Loznitsa presents all these scenes without commentary, so it’s not completely certain he endorses everything we see in The Invasion. In one sequence, the film (and the Ukrainians) offer a challenge to standard liberal pieties. We see people working and shopping at an urban bookstore and notice that many of them are carrying bundles of books. “What do we do with Russian culture?” one customer asks, and then we see exactly what the Ukrainians plan to do with it. Hundreds of books in Russian are collected, discarded, and crushed into bales of recycled paper. Loznitsa makes sure we see that the trash includes both Russian works (Dostoyevsky, Mayakovsky) and other works in translation (Jack London).

For many, it will be easy to bristle at this chauvinism against literature, but Loznitsa’s clear-eyed depiction forces one to think again. The Ukrainians aren’t holding public book burnings, and what’s more, do these books really matter in the face of human destruction? If this act helps citizens feel less afraid, more empowered, maybe we must withhold judgment. As The Invasion depicts the ruins of schools, churches, and homes, we’re asked to really grapple with what it means for ordinary citizens to live with a war of aggression.

Overall, the picture Loznitsa offers of contemporary Ukraine is of a conservative society, one enfolding patriotism and religion, teaching preschool children songs about the fatherland and lionizing the nation’s fallen heroes. In fact, it resembles the country that MAGA types (most of whom oppose U.S. funding for Ukraine) claim they want to establish here. But it’s much more complicated than that. In the opening scene, at a water distribution site, we hear a passerby denounce Putin, but another person expresses his dislike for Zelensky. In a nutshell, this is the difference between Russia and Ukraine, the essence of why they fight: a conservative democracy permits dissent, whereas a totalitarian state violently squashes it. MICHAEL SICINSKI

Credit: Los Ilusos Films

The Other Way Around

When first introduced at the beginning of Jonás Trueba’s The Other Way Around, a couple, Ale (Itsaso Ariana) and Alex (Vito Sanz), have already decided to separate after some 15 years of marriage. Although we never learn the precise reasons for the decision, they repeatedly say that it was mutual and that they are on good terms. Indeed, rather than break up quietly, the pair resolves to throw a party, inspired by an oft-repeated mantra by Ale’s father that people would do better to celebrate separations than unions. Much of the film thus comprises conversations where Ale and Alex, sometimes separately, sometimes together, tell friends and family that they are separating, while at the same time inviting them to the forthcoming celebration.

This story hook alone is a gag worthy of a classic Hollywood screwball, eliciting reactions that run the gamut from bewilderment to tears to assertions that the couple will inevitably get back together. If the film also seems to suggest the makings of what Stanley Cavell once termed the Hollywood comedy of remarriage, where the central thrust is not to get a couple together, but to get them back together, together again, this is no coincidence. Already referenced in Trueba’s earlier The August Virgin (2019), Cavell’s genre study, Pursuits of Happiness, is even more prominently referenced here, when Ale’s father gives the book to her to read after she breaks the news that she and Alex are separating. Audio from The Philadelphia Story (1940), one of the seven remarriage comedies Cavell discusses, intrudes at one point, while a key musical theme from the film recurs toward the end. Even before these direct references, though, the potential for a reunion is already an active possibility. Despite their protestations to the contrary, neither Ale nor Alex ever seem entirely certain of their decision to separate. The decision to plan a party celebrating it, though, transforms this transitional period in their relationship into a kind of comedy of escalation, where any lingering uncertainty is covered up by doubling down.

Had Trueba done nothing but run with this setup, he would have done a lot. But he does more than that. Perhaps understanding that to simply engage with a tradition of classic Hollywood is to risk stylistic anachronism, he introduces a meta-fictional dimension that continually reconfigures our sense of the film’s central relationship — and, indeed, the film itself. We eventually learn that Ale and Alex work together professionally — she as a filmmaker, he as an actor. But apart from the personal complications that would result from their separation, Trueba adds a meta-fictional layer that suggests that we are seeing not just their present-tense break-up, but the film that Ale is making about it, in which Alex is featured — an impression that only intensifies throughout the film. Early on, the couple part ways after looking at a new apartment: we see Alex take a walk in the city, while Ale heads to the editing room, where, confoundingly, the footage of Alex walking shows up on her screen. In later sequences, we get the sense that what we are seeing, far from being a completed drama, is a film in the process of being made, featuring conspicuous edits, reframings, and title card placeholders that would not otherwise make it into a final cut. Across the runtime, subsequent scenes recursively reconfigure our sense of previous ones, as if the structure of Chronicle of a Summer (1961) were transposed into a fictional key.

While this meta-fictional ploy might initially come across as unnecessary or over-clever, it gradually builds in significance and meaning. For one thing, The Other Way Around is, refreshingly, less about the creative process than the temporal dynamics involved in reflecting upon a relationship, or really any long-term event. For another, Trueba uses this reflexive play to reconcile two divergent influences: the remarriage comedies of classic Hollywood, already mentioned, as well as the films of Éric Rohmer, whose 1948 manifesto “For a Talking Cinema” has clearly made its mark on Trueba’s cinema. When Alex calls his mother to tell her of the separation, for example, we get a series of quick jump cuts, which are somewhat unexpected given the naturalistic behavioral ambiance and long-take setups of prior scenes, but which are more in keeping with the rhythms of a screwball gag. When the meta-fictional dynamic later comes to the fore, however, the jagged editing is retroactively given motivation — as if an editor were scrubbing through the footage from on set. In this way, Trueba manages to harmonize the rhythms of behavior and conversation we find in Rohmer’s films, with their unparalleled realism of image and sound, with the overt narrative interventions of a classical Hollywood movie. The result is a film that goes beyond mere pastiche, demonstrating that often, the most inventive works are often those which display a deep understanding of the traditions they derive from. LAWRENCE GARCIA

Limonov: The Ballad

Cordoned to a cultural temperament that favors realism, based-on-true-stories, and the animated mythologies of men and women who have walked among us, the biopic has achieved a level of formal dominance, saturation, and now existential recalibration. Films tracing a figure’s lifetime have largely migrated to television (e.g., The Crown), and even isolated events have been stretched and sullied into an oft-belabored episodic form (e.g., The Offer, We Crashed, and the slew of other movies about tech failures). In recent years, biographical films — as a cheap subversion of the realist form they seek to take advantage of — have begun using formal innovations to add a surrealist layer of inexplicability atop otherwise rote dramas. This has resulted in such varyingly successful examples as Maestro, Spencer, and Blonde, all of which have been bemoaned by critics and viewers for their failure to maintain an allegiance to the truth, or the reality of events as they were. 

Formally, this trend almost represents a genre of its own: pseudo-biopics that are more interested in exploring the feeling, whether on behalf of a historical figure or their spectators, of that same historical figure’s representation, rather than the reality of events in an objective sense. The critics and casual viewers alike that have bemoaned the early entries in this canon have largely done so based on an inchoate ethic that says something like “people’s representation ought to be under their own control, and to use someone’s recognition as a starting point for fiction is exploitative, if not libelous.” The poignancy of this issue was brought to the forefront with the releases of both Blonde and Spencer, seeing as the focal personalities of both films were exploited by members of both their public and private spheres until their untimely deaths. Joyce Carol Oates, author of eponymous book on which Blonde is based, defended her fictionalization of Hollywood’s Golden Girl, saying that her process of “distillation” — condensing, conflating, rearranging, and inventing events — is done so in the interest of achieving a broader poetic and spiritual truth, to protest the authorial tyranny, perhaps more exploitative than any other, that the biased writers of history claim.

At face value, Kirill Serebrennikov’s Limonov: The Ballad would seem to fit in this mode, a superficial eschewal of the trappings of biopics’ conventions that makes study of the life and times of Russia’s (anti-)great poet-punk-laureate-cum-politician, Eduard Limonov. The film, which spans 50 years of the late Limonov’s life, is based on a biofictional novel about Limonov by the French autofiction writer Emanuel Carrère (itself based on one month of interviews with Limonov), as well as the Russian’s many “fictional memoirs,” including It’s Me, Eddie, His Butler’s Story, A Young Scoundrel, and Memoir of a Russian Punk. The result is a representation of a representation of representations, divorced from reality by the layers of reconstruction that grow into a distorted something-new. Ben Whishaw, most recognizable for playing meek, soft-spoken characters, metamorphoses into the untamed porcupine and generational hater that Limonov was, famed for lines like: “Most of all I hate the rich old ladies. Each one conceals some vileness. Lucky traders of their cunts. They lucked out. I hate them either with or without their puny dogs. And I hate them in the stores too. And when they eat.” Whishaw’s performance is something of a triumph, and he pushes the constraints of his script about as far as he can. Where so many other English-speaking actors fail, he is remarkably believable both as a Russian and as Limonov. 

In fact, it’s only by way of his consistent reckless abandon that any of Limonov’s complicated personality is actualized and total failure is avoided, seeing as Whishaw operates in the confines of a script with such little nuance that it approaches parody. The Limonov that Serebrennikov presents is a shadow of the whole, a distillation of the punk-poet’s rampant cynicism, but absent any of the playful humor that it outlined. After all, when it’s acknowledged by a KGB official that his pen name is inspired by the Russian word for “lemon,” he appears more embarrassed than riotous in his rebellion. Moreover, there is no mention of the duality of his pseudonym, a play on words that takes equal inspiration from the Russian Limonka, a lemon-shaped grenade. Serebrennikov’s narrow depiction — amplified by a playful use of light, handheld-tracking, surrealist choreography, and a shattered fourth wall — would have suited a more focused film fine, putting it squarely in the lineage of offerings like Spencer, Maestro, and Blonde. However, Serebrennikov makes the unfortunate decision to not only marry this whimsical subjectivity with a biographically exhausted portrait of Limonov’s life, but to attempt to do so by concatenating the monuments of biographical realism with the nonsensical stretches that form the film’s interstices.

The result is an episodic film that manages to be both too focused and not focused enough, glossing over many moments of biographical detail that it strains to include, and lingering superficially on its connective tissue. The general structure of each episode goes something like this: Limonov finds himself in a new setting, there is some level of rising tension, it is quickly and suddenly dissolved by some hastened violence or excitement (the veracity of which is unclear), and in a montage of music and chopped-and-screwed sets, he finds himself in a new setting, for the cycle to begin again. Not only does this general structure disallow the development of any sense of plot or place; its frenetic movement evades any emotional resonance beyond aggravation by forestalling the development of any character. This, of course, is most acute in the case of Limonov, whose portrayal does not only betray the man himself, but Whishaw, too, as he does all that he can to save this film

On a technical level, there is much going for Limonov, but its admirable production design, score, and lighting are scattered across a conformist film about a rebel wracked by visual cliches: the breathless run in the middle of an empty street; the whimsical lengthwise fingering of fence or pole; the despairing look through the tattered fence toward dusk or dawn; the splatter dance in puddles, and so on, and so on. And it’s all in service of Serebrennikov’s depiction of the recalcitrant poet as a rote depressive, self-destructive and angry at the world. Confoundingly, his humorless solemnity toward his subject is only alleviated when detailing the poet’s fascistic militarism, which continues, even in death, to materialize as real violence (members of Limonov’s party continue to fight in The Donbas). But Eddie, unlike his filmic double, had a sense of humor, and he tempered all his anger and hatred with a lighthearted self-deprecation. His spirit is lost somewhere in The Ballad, whose poetry is sullied by its (valiant, or asinine?) attempt to create a detailed lyrical biography of a different kind, one whose collapsing self-seriousness does evince an incidental source of humor — it’s a film that you can’t help but laugh at.  CONOR TRUAX

Credit: Compass Film

When the Light Breaks

The depiction of grief in films is as variable as film form. It can be outwardly melodramatic like in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors: Blue (1993), recklessly self-destructive as in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), or soul-cleansingly spiritual (see Terrence Malick’s 2011 film, The Tree of Life). But there’s one thing that binds all these drastically different expressions of grief together: their uninhibited expressivity. These films — sometimes crudely, other times sensitively — revel in displaying the pain, confusion, frustration, and anger our protagonists feel after losing someone incredibly close to them. Conversely, other films prefer to conceal. Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), for instance, does so to indict its central characters’ emotional vacuity; Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012) de-melodramatizes the grieving process to diminish the satisfaction we get from watching its glamorization on-screen. Lack, not excess, thus characterizes grief in these mysteriously elusive films: we have to fill in the blanks to reveal how — if at all — these characters express their pain in the aftermath of a tragedy.

Icelandic director Rúnar Rúnarsson’s cryptically titled When the Light Breaks, premiering as the opening film of the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes this year, seems most interested in revealing its protagonist’s grief as opposed to reveling in it. Conceptually and especially formally, the film evokes the guarded, hypnotic allure of fellow Icelandic filmmaker Hlynur Pálmason’s volatile Scandi-noir, A White, White Day (2019), a film about a grieving man whose life is turned upside down after he discovers that his recently deceased wife was having an affair with another man. That confusion, amplified by adherence to genre conventions in Pálmason’s film, is similarly central to Rúnarsson’s decidedly more melodramatic conceit in When the Light Breaks. Here, Una (Elín Hall), a young, carefree teenager, has to hide her pain after losing her boyfriend, Diddi (Baldur Einarsson), in what the film describes as the deadliest tunnel explosion in Iceland’s history because she is not “officially” his girlfriend. Diddi was supposed to break up with his long-distance girlfriend, Klara (Katla Njálsdóttir), but his untimely death brings Una and Klara face-to-face with each other. The film, then, captures and channels Una’s grieving predicament: she wants to cry uncontrollably but is forced to remain stoic because, for everyone else, especially Klara, she is nothing more than Diddi’s good friend.

Rúnarsson’s icily austere aesthetic — all static wides, long takes, and no background score — combines effectively with Hall’s equally frigid and largely silent central performance in the film’s first, Klara-free-half to reveal Una’s grieving process by highlighting her attempts to hide it. But once Klara enters the frame, Rúnarsson seems unsure if he should continue to underplay Una’s predicament or actively voice it. This confusion is, undoubtedly, representative of what Una herself is feeling: seeing “people feel sorry for Klara and not her” makes her feel jealous. But by voicing this to us soon after she sees Klara, Rúnarsson almost reveals too much about her. From then on, the film’s muted aesthetic seems at odds with the directness of the revelation made by our protagonist: the camera’s austerity feels overly self-conscious, the necessitated silence somewhat self-defeating, and, most of all, Hall’s performance ineffectively one-note.

It may seem odd, then, to suggest that When the Light Breaks is most hauntingly moving in two moments when it doesn’t feature any characters at all. Far from being abstract sequences, these mirroring moments, in fact, visually literalize the title’s contradictory meanings. Personal grief is most impressively expressed on a cosmological scale here: first, pre-opening-title, through tunnel lights, meant to help us find the way through the darkness and getting engulfed in flames. And then, pre-closing credits, through a sunset’s fractured reflections that gradually construct a beam of light to guide us away from our sea of darkness. DHRUV GOYAL

The Shameless

The Shameless feels very much like an art-sploitation entry from the mid-’90s, when directors thought that a frank depiction of lesbian desire, in and of itself, was some sort of radical subversion of the male gaze. Bulgarian writer-director Konstantin Bojanov, like many of the men depicted in his film, seems excited by the seedier aspects of life in India, where girls as young as 12 or 13 can be sold into sexual slavery. In the midst of this horror, a woman named Renuka (Anasuya Sengupta) murders a client and goes on the run, finding her way to a new brothel. It happens to be across the street from where Devika (Omara) lives with her embittered family, who have already sent her older sister (Kiran Bhivagade) to Delhi to sell her body. After a chance meeting, Renu and Devi fall very quickly into a forbidden relationship, one for which homophobia is only the most obvious obstacle.

The Shameless is overstuffed, hurdling from plot point to plot point with no attention to subtlety, character development, or plausible behavior. In short order, Renuka essentially grooms the virginal Devika, which is only the beginning of her psychological manipulation of the much younger girl. Devika, for her part, is hopelessly naïve when the film needs her to be, but suddenly wise and fierce when that suits the narrative. In fact, there is very little in The Shameless that articulates why these women are so hopelessly in love. They have little in common besides propinquity.

Bojanov has a habit of unexpectedly introducing new characters, most of whom come with some vague backstory that implies other layers of cruelty. Look! It’s horizontal violence, with women relying on outdated traditions to sustain generational trauma. Hey! There’s a political subtext, with a frequent john (Rohit Kokate) running for parliament on a Hindu nationalist platform. Hold up! Have we just been introduced to a crime family connected to one of the main characters?

To put it plainly, the filmmaker seems to think that throwing anything and everything at the wall will produce complexity or richness. In fact, it only shows just how little control he has over his material, and the extent to which he may not care. The Shameless is a film that revels in degradation on the pretext that it’s exposing the ugly conditions under which impoverished women must eke out a living. But there’s a sadistic tone running throughout The Shameless that suggests that its maker sort of enjoys staging these degradations, not even out of misogyny per se, but because he thinks they are the basic ingredients of compelling cinema.MICHAEL SICINSKI

Credit: Disney+

Jim Henson Idea Man

In 1969, in the same year that Sesame Street was born, Jim Henson wrote and directed a 53-minute dystopian Twilight Zone-style film called The Cube. After six years creating puppets and a local Emmy win for Sam and Friends on WRC-TV in the nation’s capital, Henson was just beginning to become known as the country’s most prominent children’s entertainer, a label that, apparently, terrified him; an artist of wide-ranging talent and ambition, Henson feared getting boxed in. The Cube was about a man (Richard Schaal) who awakes in a virtual reality cube, in which others can come and go as they please, while he is stuck, forever confined to mysteriously changing furniture and escalating bizarre challenges. The metaphor for Henson’s life is hardly subtle.

Though a relatively unknown film, Ron Howard seems to use The Cube as a touchstone in his latest project. Across the runtime of Jim Henson Idea Man, nearly all of the talking heads are interviewed on a set resembling the 1969 film, as archival footage and photographs are projected on the ever-shifting cube-like screens in the background. The suggestion seems to be that Henson spent most of his tragically short life in something of a prison: relegated to making puppetry primarily for children and their parents, yet dreaming of artistic ambitions far beyond the scope of what the general public allowed him to do.

Other than this slightly cynical thread, Howard’s documentary is otherwise a fairly paint-by-numbers affair. Jim Henson Idea Man charts Henson’s life arc from a boyish fascination with the magic of television in rural Mississippi all the way to his untimely death from bacterial pneumonia at the age of 53, along the way trailblazing a new path for the possibilities of puppetry and fantasy. Howard hits all of the main Wikipedia talking points: his Christian Scientist upbringing, his close friendship with his older brother Paul, his meeting of his wife Jane (and their tumultuous marriage), the band-formation of The Muppets’ early incarnation: Frank Oz, Jerry Uhl, and Don Sahlin, and their collective brief stint on Saturday Night Live. In explicitly hagiographic terms, the film also glowingly speaks of Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and Henson’s (moderate) diversion into the epic world-building features of The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986).

Idea Man offers a mostly topographical overview of Henson’s life and career, with illuminating, if all-together too brief, glimpses into his “sparkling inner life,” as Frank Oz suggests. Through interviews with Henson’s surviving children Brian, Lisa, Cheryl, and Heather, Jim is revealed as a tirelessly passionate and ambitious artist who frequently had difficulty putting his work aside. But the film is idolatrous almost out of necessity. It’s a film produced by Disney, made by Disney, and distributed by Disney, in what is ultimately an advertisement for Disney+ to assure its viewers that despite Henson’s passing, the brand is in strong stewardship. The last 10 minutes is nothing but brazen commercialism.

Regardless, it’s a nicely made commercial with elegantly edited sequences of rarely seen footage, amongst which is a segment from a never-aired, Orson Welles-hosted talk show from 1979 where Welles compares Henson to Rasputin. Howard takes care to show us that Henson was a more expansive artist than his most famous creations; here, there are clips of his experimental films, his explicitly leftist television documentary Youth 68, and tantalizing mention of Henson’s ambitions for unrealized Broadway plays, ballets, and operas. Yet, for a film called Idea Man, and which purports to give us access to such an unparalleled genius brain, Howard is still confined to the surface. It’s a good thing that the surface is still so mesmerizing, because, as Oz says of Henson, he had a “sophisticated understanding of nonsense and absurdity.” One just wishes Howard’s documentary did, too. GREG NUSSEN