Credit: Cannes Film Festival/Oh, Canada LLC
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Cannes Film Festival 2024: Dispatch 2 — Oh, Canada, Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point, Black Dog

May 24, 2024

Oh, Canada

The title gives it away. Before one even begins watching Paul Schrader’s latest, the tone is effectively set by a little writerly in-joke of changing the title of Canada’s national anthem from the holy “O” (or the Québécois “Ô”) of direct address, best reserved for the Lord in King James’s English, to the exasperated interjection of “Oh,” followed by a comma lest disappointment be misread as astonishment. Yes, Oh, Canada is about a series of disappointments, though it can also be about making peace with those disappointments — the familial “oh” as in the “oh, you!” uttered when a loved one’s forgivable eccentricities appear. The second part of the title is also a joke because the film was shot in New York.

But Canada still has a role to play here. It’s not, as the oft-repeated assertion in films about places goes, a main character of the story; but it is a myth, both in the sense that it represents something larger than the mundane life of our actual lead, Leonard Fife (Richard Gere), and it represents a pattern of those mundane, terrestrial lies. This Fife, a bed- and cancer-ridden man, was a celebrated documentarian working in Canada, shooting subjects nearly always of particularly left-leaning Canadian interest (seal clubbers, Catholic perverts). His former students Malcolm (Michael Imperioli) and Renee (Caroline Dhavernas) have decided to shoot a humble two-day interview with the dying American legend who dodged the Vietnam War draft to become Canada’s storyteller and whistleblower. But they, along with Fife’s wife (and former student) Emma (Uma Thurman), are unprepared for Fife’s story and the long line of disappointments that led him to Canada.

The rest of the movie is a steady diet of flashbacks, present-day commentary, asides, narration, unreliable narration, and even a few quips of film-within-film analysis that are so incongruous with the tone of the film that it can only be read as funny. Ostensibly, the flashback sequences (with a wide-screen aspect ratio to signify the past), where a young Leonard (Jacob Elordi) cheats on and leaves his first wife and aspires to be a great novelist, are peppered with another layer of straightforward signifiers (black-and-white sequences) that might place us further into the past where Fife’s memory may be slipping or unreliable. So says Emma, noting the bevy of medications he’s on daily. Schrader gives this assertion a bit of evidence by letting Fife’s perverse thoughts about the film’s PA, followed by extended reflections about being a perverted old man, run their course. But this may be a rare case where unreliable narration is much too simple a reading, as, if his story is played straight, then it’s unclear what elements are upsetting to Emma. Has she learned of the marriages and kids left behind for the first time? Did he never tell her that he may not have needed to dodge the draft or that he used an exorbitant sum of money, intended to buy a house in Vermont to settle down for the privileged American family life, to start a new life in mythic Canada? “If your past is a lie to those close to you, you didn’t exist,” declares the moribund Fife, no longer interested in the mythic Fife and willing to accept these disappointments.

While Schrader tinkers well with his inverted Liberty Valance story, the lengths he goes to formally display this complicated narration border on the absurd. Gone are the studied, Bressonian shots of the men-of-letters from First Reformed through Master Gardener — in fact, there’s even a joke thrown in about Fife’s not-writing, the real hallmark of a self-declared writer. Instead, the subjects of the shots of Oh, Canada matter less than the raw information delivered by aspect ratio, color grading, and narration that are carefully arranged such that the viewer can figure out the visual code to keep up with this stop-start story. This isn’t necessarily novel (and is perhaps a half-step down in intensity from the extreme compositional shifts in 2022’s Blonde), but the film doesn’t pretend like this is anything other than a helping hand. Meanwhile, Schrader throws a few more storytelling curveballs: an additional narration by Fife’s 30-year-old son in the ‘90s and a legerdemain of replacing Elordi with Gere in the flashbacks. The best of Schrader’s films and scripts often builds toward scenes of such holy violence and beauty with simple composition; here, in a furious rush to tell the story in every way, no image is sacred.

The vulgar portrait of Paul Schrader is as a doctor transfusing the existentialist fluids of postwar France into a lifeless Hollywood in order to leave his mark on what would be called New Hollywood. He’s certainly not shy in his own self-mythologizing as he sings praises of that existential exemplar Robert Bresson, prompting his commentators to search for and name any comparison they can, this piece being no exception. This portrait is somewhat fair as his works can be seen as constantly refiguring the central action of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, where a shooting happens first and meaning can only be applied later. From Travis Bickle to Yukio Mishima, Schrader’s pantheon of protagonists aspire to the masculine hubris of legacy-making, of trying to create meaning from the ashes of the disillusionment of the postwar world, no matter what they have to do to secure it. In this way, the Fife of Oh, Canada is not the opposite of a Bickle, for he, too, is obsessed with legacy; only that the wiser Fife knows the meaning of this legacy is out of his control.

The title is also the last thing one deals with in the movie, as a fumbling, corny, folkish rendition of Canada’s national anthem plays over the final sequences. Just like Fife, perhaps it’s best to accept some of the eccentricities expected in a Schrader film, though it’s tough if they long linger as disappointments. Oh, you. ZACH LEWIS

Credit: Quinzaine des Cinéastes

Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point

Now with three feature films under his belt, Tyler Taormina has become our premier chronicler of a certain kind of suburban dreamscape — opaque, occasionally oppressive, always mysterious, but also gentle and soothing, a cloistered enclave of familial ties and burgeoning hormones. Taormina traverses a very fine line — home is where the heart is, but the lulling sensation of a warm blanket can also become suffocating. Taken together, Ham on Rye, Happer’s Comet, and the new Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point chart a series of adolescent and post-adolescent experiences: Rye is an oblique metaphor for leaving the home, plus a eulogy for those that get left behind; conceived and shot during Covid lockdowns, Happer’s represents a kind of stasis, the home as a liminal space of life deferred; Christmas Eve is the “return,” a gathering of three generations of family coming together and taking stock of a moment in time. It’s Taormina’s largest canvas yet, involving a large cast of mostly non-professional actors congregating around an ancestral home and struggling to come to terms with the passing of time.

Working with co-writer Eric Berger and cinematographer Carson Lund, both longtime collaborators, Taormina conceives of a simultaneously specific and vague milieu — fittingly, there are confusing signposts as to when the film even takes place; the elaborate production design evokes picturesque photospreads from ‘50s, while kids play a video game with very modern graphics on an old CRT television. Several teenagers are shown texting via flip phones, while adults walk around with rotary phones with long cords. It’s a mishmash of signifiers, a jumbled chronology that suggests the non-linear flow of memories. As much as such a large ensemble piece could be said to have main characters, we spend the most time with middle-aged Lenny (Ben Shenkman), his wife Kathleen (Maria Dizzia), their son Andrew (Justin Long), and teenage daughter Emily (Matilda Fleming). As the film begins, they are arriving at the old Long Island house that Kathleen grew up in. Taormina depicts the car ride as a journey through abstraction, where crossing a bridge conjures a light show of streaking yellows and reds outside the car windows. Realism is, from the beginning, dismissed.

Upon their arrival, the rest of the family is already in the midst of holiday revelry. The house is bursting at the seams, a cacophony of activity and bustling bodies. This whirlwind of activity is rendered via wild zooms and extreme closeups, plus lots of insert shots of the lifetime’s worth of bric-a-brac that large families tend to accumulate. Eventually, a tentative narrative thread emerges: Kathleen’s brothers and sisters must decide what to do with Grandma Isabelle (JoJo Cincinnati). Matthew (John J. Trischetti Jr.) and his wife Bev (Grege Morris) live with his mother, and have decided to sell the house and place her in an assisted living facility. This doesn’t sit well with everyone else, but rather than tease out this conflict for the remainder of the film, Taormina instead lets it recede into the background. Instead, brief moments of sensory explosions take precedent. For instance, a sojourn outside for an annual parade of fire trucks bejeweled with holiday decorations becomes another abstracted interlude, a montage of smearing color fields and woozy waves of lights.

Eventually, after dinner is served and the adults drift into a more reflective mode (drunkenly sharing old home movies on battered VHS tapes), Emily sneaks out of the house to hook up with friends and go to a party, and much of the film’s second half follows Emily’s nocturnal adventures; echoes of Ham on Rye abound, as the local teens hang out at a sandwich shop and eventually make their way to a clearing and partake in a pairing-off ritual. It’s all very mysterious, although it never feels threatening in the way Rye is. The long night simply goes on, before everyone returns home, the next morning waiting in the wings. Nothing has been resolved, but it was never going to be anyway. Life is too unmanageable for that. But for brief moments we can bask in the glow of a fireplace and reminisce with our loved ones. But cozy as that may sound, make no mistake: Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point is too peculiar to become a new holiday classic. Taormina flirts with experimentation and eschews narrative to the point that is sure to scare off studios — unlike any number of Sundance alum, Taormina seems to have no desire to make a calling card for the MCU or a streaming series — offering a dizzier impressionism of the holiday season. All the better that his languid, deeply personal excursions into the heart of suburbia remain small-scaled and appealingly odd. DANIEL GORMAN

Black Dog

If dogs run free, then what must be
Must be, and that is all
True love can make a blade of grass
Stand up straight and tall
In harmony with the cosmic sea
True love needs no company
It can cure the soul, it can make it whole
If dogs run free

                                          — Bob Dylan, “If Dogs Run Free”

Guan Hu’s Black Dog is playing in the Un Certain Regard program at Cannes, so it isn’t eligible for the Palme d’Or, but it should be a strong contender for the Palm Dog, especially if that award had a special prize for ensemble work. The film begins in a desert, the edge of the Gobi in northwestern China. A bus traveling along a dusty road is charged by a herd of wild dogs, crashing the bus but thankfully injuring no one (dog or human). In the ensuing chaos we meet Lang (Eddie Peng), an ex-con returning home after doing time for something involving a wrongful death. It seems he was a local celebrity at one time, a kind of rock star, but now he’s turned inward and sullen, hardly ever speaking. In fact, he probably urinates outside more than he speaks during the film’s first 20 minutes or so.

On one of these micturition excursions, he encounters the eponymous Black Dog. Lang’s hometown has fallen on hard times in recent years, the oil operation that once powered it having moved on, and the town has become a dusty collection of abandoned Mao-era concrete structures: apartment buildings, factories, a zoo. As the people moved away, they left their dogs behind. Those dogs have formed massive roving packs, ruling the streets and the surrounding countryside. One in particular has become the target of fear: the Black Dog has reportedly bit several people and is thought to be rabid — there’s a hefty reward for his capture.

Thus begins a classic story of male friendship. At first, Lang, out to capture the dog, is his enemy and his victim. He does eventually capture the dog, but a friend, fearing that Lang has contracted rabies, forces the two of them to hole up together in Lang’s house (after a certain amount of time, if the dog’s still alive, then Lang too will be OK). Shut in together, the two bond and become inseparable buddies for the rest of the film, the plot of which revolves loosely around the uncle of the guy who Lang may have killed trying to get revenge on him and also a woman who works for the circus traveling through town, with whom Lang may spark a relationship (played by Tong Liya, from the Detective Chinatown movies).

Black Dog is a kind of return to form for director Guan Hu. A member of the Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers who got their start in the late ‘90s, Guan has only been able to complete one feature since his 2015 hit Mr. Six. That was the benighted war film The Eight Hundred, whose protracted, censorship-plagued release schedule was a topic of much speculation in 2019 and 2020. By design a propaganda film about Chinese resistance to the Japanese in the early days of World War II, the film ran into trouble because the soldiers it valorized were from the wrong Chinese army, representing the Nationalist Kuomintang rather than the Communist Party. The director is on surer ground with Black Dog, a light minimalist satire that revisits familiar Sixth Generation terrain; namely, the fraught situations of workers and small towns as China economically blossomed in the years leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Black Dog is set on the eve of those Games, which also happened to coincide with a total solar eclipse, the ideal location of which to observe was just outside of Lang’s hometown (the film gives the town the name “Chixia,” though two towns of that name can be found near the border of the Gobi on Google Maps, and it’s not clear which, if either, is the one Guan has in mind).

As Lang roams through his dusty town, Guan keeps his distance. Literally: almost the entire movie is composed of the kind of long shots that were the hallmark of a certain strain of early-2000s Sixth Generation filmmaking (especially those of Guan’s peer Jia Zhangke, who plays a small role in Black Dog (a variation on his “Boss Jia” persona from a few of his own films) as the man in charge of rounding up all the stray dogs. And speaking of, the Black Dog (played by a greyhound named Xiao Xin, who was adopted along with two other dogs that worked on the film by Eddie Peng) seems to actually get more close-ups than Guan’s human star, a somewhat perverse decision given that Peng is the most charismatic leading man Chinese cinema has produced in the 21st century. Originally from Taiwan (though he attended high school and college in Vancouver), Peng has been a competent action star in movies like Rise of the Legend and Call of Heroes, has played charming rogues in Ann Hui’s war film Our Time Will Come and Jiang Wen’s Hidden Man, and is excellent in a comic role in Han Han’s time travel comedy Duckweed. Guan’s long shots serve a purpose, of course, isolating Peng in the dusty, dilapidated landscape of the town (as well as the vast deserts and mountains of the areas outside of it), and providing ample space for the herds of other dogs to roam through the set. And it makes sense too for Peng’s character: withdrawn, remote, only really able to bond with a dog, denying us his movie star smile is necessary for the film to work at all.

And yet, Black Dog is most effective when Guan is at his most whimsical: a Chekov’s movie poster on the wall of Lang’s house looks ahead to multiple uses of Pink Floyd’s The Wall on the soundtrack; the abandoned zoo maintained by Lang’s father, featuring a handful of random animals that may have just wandered in from the Gobi (a camel, a monkey, a goat) but also a beautiful tiger, all of whom are eventually joined by many many dogs; and some magical eclipse and Opening Ceremony sequences. Black Dog isn’t particularly sophisticated or novel in its metaphor or social analysis. We’ve seen these towns and characters before, the detritus of one industry in the process of being plowed under for the next phase, with the people who live and work in those spaces forced to adapt as best they can or move on (like the circus) to the next town. But Black Dog works as well as it does because the minimalist camerawork and pacing creates an ideal tension with the film’s inherently goofy premise. And under it all is real love (of animals) and disappointment (in people). Guan inflicts all the violence and beauty of nature onto those forces of economic progress, the world itself joining the fight against the capitalist developers and petty gangsters (who amount to much the same thing) that try to run things. Earthquakes and hailstorms, wild beasts and snakes on the loose. Lang, in the end, can be redeemed by his friendship with the Black Dog. But the town, it’ll have to fend for itself.  SEAN GILMAN

Credit: Quinzaine des Cinéastes

The Hyperboreans

Following the critical success of 2018’s The Wolf House, directoral duo Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña have returned with The Hyperboreans, a papier-mâché melange of myth and mystery set almost exclusively in a world of artifice. A soundstage, brimming with props of oversized heads and surrealist viscera, first sets the scene — so to speak — before relentlessly disarming our senses; later, we find ourselves in video-game territory, embarking on some quest to retrieve a lost treasure amid a fantastical polar realm. Unlike the former film’s relatively straightforward use of fairytale allegory in documenting the violence of tyranny (having been modelled after the Colonia Dignidad’s internment and torture of political prisoners under Augusto Pinochet), The Hyperboreans offers fewer keys to its interpretation. Much of it bristles, instead, with the creative fluidity of a dissociated psyche, its fugue state repurposed into reflexive yet undeniably intuitive examinations of yet another chapter in Chile’s postwar history.

This chapter, somewhat trifling considering the infamy of Pinochet and his right-wing dictatorship from 1973 to 1990, nonetheless charts the overlooked and unresolved fracas of thought that spawned in the wake of Nazi Germany. Chile’s historical sympathy for Hitler — with the Nacistas forming a local fascist movement — lingered, most notably, in the figure of one Miguel Serrano, a diplomat and journalist who ventured that Aryan supremacy coexisted with Chilean supremacy and, taken jointly, were remnants of an esoteric origin myth. Positing the existence of a mythical prehistoric people called the Hyperboreans who, in Serrano’s retelling, settled in the ice under Antarctica, the myth enshrines an image of utopian purity as much as it inspires charges of delirium against its wild, perhaps Tolkienian flights of fancy.

Curiously, the directors give short shrift to the details, and instead undertake a sleight of hand in which they themselves become the villains in a film-within-a-film whose existence and making of become the essence of what we’re watching. León and Cociña hire Antonia Giesen, an actress and clinical psychologist in the scenario as in real life, to dramatize Serrano’s life and times; relying on an interplay of puppets and shadows, and wending through curtains and cutouts, their camera records the remaking of historical memory as distilled through fractured, unreliable consciousness. All the same, The Hyperboreans remakes recorded testimony, its Brechtian scaffolding continuously buttressed and usurped with metafictional interjections from both Giesen and her employers. “You have just crossed into the zone where the laws of logic twist,” proclaims the film several minutes in as its protagonist, having recounted her days treating a patient (Francisco Visceral), pursues him in her newfound persona as a police officer under the command of Jaime Guzmán, one of Pinochet’s closest advisers.

León and Cociña’s fourth-wall antics may prove grating at times, more so perhaps for those less acquainted with the vicissitudes of Chilean political thought. But their steadfast subversion of narrative norms, instead of capitulating to merely fashionable parodies of creative bankruptcy, captivates through the questions it raises. Representation as replicative mise en abyme, the camera as weapon against the silence of totalitarianism, myth as founding principles against other myths — within its brief 71 minutes, The Hyperboreans forswears dignified, unproblematic responses to these issues, rarely disclosing a single plane of praxis (whether as historian, artist, diviner, or lawmaker) upon which we shore up our reality. León and Cociña, having worked on the stop-motion alternate reality sequence in Ari Aster’s Beau Is Afraid, animate the second half of Giesen’s sojourn likewise, accentuating the uncanny dimensions of what might just be the directors’ futile vision of making “the true film about the Chile.” In its earnest quest for the illogical and absurd, the film cautions — with no little clarity — just how easy it is to lose oneself to myth: not just the person, but entire histories and images.   MORRIS YANG

In Retreat

In Retreat, the debut feature from Iranian-born Ladhaki director Maisam Ali, is the sort of film one hates to be negative about. It’s made on a small budget, and bears enough idiosyncrasies to indicate that it’s a very personal project. But one thing about first films is that it can take some time for an artist to articulate their worldview in a manner that others can access. While In Retreat is a 75-minute film about a relatively aimless wanderer, it feels very confined, even hermetic. It’s unclear what Ali wants an audience to take away from In Retreat, other than perhaps admiring its frequently lovely cinematography.

The film follows an unnamed man (Harish Khanna) who has returned to his hometown after a long but unspecified absence. He’s back because his brother has just passed away, and he clearly feels some imperative to see his family and pay his respects. But the man goes anywhere and everywhere aside from his nephew’s home, where what’s left of his family resides. A study of an avoidant personality, In Retreat is itself a deeply avoidant film, lighting upon various potential themes and ideas without ever really taking them on. Instead, we see the man eat a bowl of soup in a restaurant at closing time, get picked up by some party guys who take him to a ceremony where he’s absolutely unwelcome, and end up on the periphery of a local skirmish involving rival groups of men whose grievance, like so much in the film, remains ambiguous.

Ali seems to be taking his cues from the so-called “slow cinema” movement, and his nightbound, mostly static cinematography bears some resemblance to the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, an auteur known for skirting around matters of plot. But even by those standards, In Retreat is aimless and soporific, giving the viewer so little to hold onto that the experience becomes one of impatience and frustration. In theory, Ali offers an objective correlative to his protagonist’s experience, asking us to drift around the edges of a prodigal son’s return and its ensuing emotional fallout. But for a film like In Retreat to connect, the unrelated business in the margins — and In Retreat is nothing but margins — needs to be illuminating, or at least informative. The most intriguing parts of the film are recurring images of a young girl making a pencil drawing of the town. But these brief scenes float alongside everything else, offering neither a metacommentary on the action nor a cognitive map for the viewer. Ali demonstrates that he has a basic command of cinematic form, and perhaps in the future he’ll place those skills in the service of more robust, fully formed ideas. MICHAEL SICINSKI

Credit: Cannes Film Festival

The Village Next to Paradise

In Western countries, the dailiness in those “lesser developed” ones has long been abstracted by a dearth of artistic and cultural diffusion from one to the next. This has, in part, created a certain impressionistic distance from those living oceans apart, one transported by the communications of nonprofits and conventional media; one that has often functioned in harmony with military campaigns and foreign affairs that have reduced the deaths of innocent people to the disembodied “collateral damage,” which has for so long minimized calamity in a soothing, passive voice.

In his prescient essay, The Gulf War Did Not Happen, Jean Baudrillard alludes to the power structures that dictate the terms of our collective exposure to conflict, and the realities of war torn areas: “Just as wealth is no longer measured by the ostentation of wealth but by the secret circulation of speculative capital, so war is not measured by being waged but by its speculative unfolding in an abstract, electronic and informational space, the same space in which capital moves.” But with the advent and global expansion of mass photo-sharing apparatuses and social media, the devastation wrought by killing machines on uninvolved, unprotected children and women has been stripped bare for total exposure, creating a reduction of a different kind. Peter Singer’s now infamous essay Famine, Affluence, and Morality asserts that if we are aware of something bad happening, and it is within our capabilities to do something about it, then morally, we ought to. And while in certain circumstances, as with the rising civilian death tolls in Palestine and Ukraine, the moral imperative becomes clear, there are other instances where the perception that sows a pitying righteousness might reveal itself as a manufactured sanctimony, another product of the same kind reduction used to abstract the lives of those in different countries, with whom we share distinct cultural flavors of the same underlying humanity.

Mo Harawe’s The Village Next to Paradise is both a timely and timeless approach to removing these barriers of image-laden, simplistic communication with a nuanced portrait of an unconventional family in a desolate coastal Somali town. The film’s entry point is one familiar to Western viewers: a news report of an Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist who has been tactically killed by a drone. Typically, Westerners might meet such coverage with a faint feeling of excitement, a surge of celebration, or, with time, a numbing dispassion. But instead of maintaining that same perspective of those news anchors, or that drone, Harawe zooms in on the corollary of such interventions, the oft-forgotten people at the periphery of wars in which they are not involved.

The locus of this story is Mamargade (Ahmed Ali Farah), a single father living in a town called Paradise Village, bordered by desert and the Indian Ocean’s blooming turquoise water. He watches over his adult sister Araweelo (Anab Ahmed Ibrahim) and son Cigaal (Ahmed Mohamud Saleban), a precocious, sweet, and eager school-aged boy who idolizes his father. In the film’s second scene, Mamargade is tasked with burying the two people killed in the targeted strike reported during the opening. He buries the bodies under the watching eyes of the men who have brought them to a burial site, and he leads them in a group prayer. There is no mention of who they are or what they were killed for, only that it was a drone strike, something that is mentioned with a jolting degree of normalcy, as if the deaths were instead only of old age. Harawe’s camera lingers in these moments, indifferent to judgment or context. In a circle of death and rebirth, those who live deserve a burial, and it’s clear that those victims and perpetrators of attacks are treated with the same kindness in death, one that supports a small but burgeoning economy of diggers, affording workers like Mamargade and his son a chance at a better life.

After the burial, the teacher of Cigaal’s school goes missing, and without any teaching staff and a shortfall of donations, the school is forced to close. Mamargade is encouraged by the principal to send Cigaal to a boarding school in the city, and both father and son are resistant for different reasons: Cigaal does not want to be apart from his father, and Mamargade is concerned about the burden of private education. Likewise, Araweelo, who has moved in with her brother after a divorce, battles dueling motivations. On one hand, the school is a clear avenue for Cigaal to have the chance at some kind of socioeconomic mobility, and on the other, her need to financially contribute to his education will tithe the savings she has earmarked for her own sewing shop, which represents to her a step toward personal independence.

In fact, Araweelo is a silent hero in the film, almost invisible in most scenes, but possessed with a stolid stoicism that propels her against the patriarchal environment in which she is somewhat confined. At her divorce proceedings, it is revealed that she and her ex-husband had not been able to conceive, and for this reason, he had requested permission to marry a second wife. Araweelo firmly rejects the proposition, and is unswayed by the civil judge’s arguments in favor of remaining wed. Likewise, when she is thereafter incapable of receiving a small business loan reserved for married couples, she convinces someone to whom she’d sold khat to marry her in a sham union so that she might be capable of opening up her shop. In this way, Araweelo stands as a foil to the archetype of a femme fatale, a modest and quiet woman who leverages the allure of her femininity without discarding it. While her second marriage is indeed nothing more than a practicality, she shows a deep care and sensitivity for her partner, who is this time barely more than an acquaintance.

Once Cigaal is sent to boarding school, and Mamargade has taken to smuggling arms and liquor into the city on behalf of a clan to make ends meet, it’s revealed that his union with his since-deceased wife was not dissimilar to Awaweelo’s circumstance. She was impregnated by an itinerant, and fearing the reproach of her family and village, pleaded for Mamargade to marry her before the pregnancy was revealed. He did, and though he developed feelings that she never reciprocated, and even after she left him in Paradise Village six months after the birth of her child, he did not turn away her infant son when she died in a car accident only months thereafter; instead, he took Cigaal as his own.

The Village Next to Paradise is a quiet movie, one with little dialogue, sparse scoring, and rich in the ambient sounds of crashing waves, ringing bells, and threatening drones. With the same patient lingering of auteurs like Bresson, or more recent experimental minimalists like Antoine Bourges, Harawe makes use of a cast of non-actors that lends his film a transcendental, if-stilted, closeness to life. Like its predecessors, this realistic approach archives both verisimilitude and an artifice of a different kind, one of blank, wooden expressions, and a barrier to emotional transference. Yet despite these limitations, Harawe proves himself capable of cultivating a transcendental story, one absent media’s hyperbole and hyperstition, attuned to the connective universalities underlying the banal rhythms of quotidian life.CONOR TRUAX

Plastic Guns

Writing on Jean-Christophe Meurisse’s Bloody Oranges back in 2022, InRO’s Matt Lynch described it as a “glib little attempt at satirizing The Way We Live Now, the kind of thing that Really Makes You Think.” Two years have passed, and Meurisse is back with Plastic Guns, another Tarantino/Haneke pastiche that indulges the worst aspects — self-aware and on-the-nose dialogue, and a hectoring tone, respectively — of those particular filmmakers. It’s a painfully unfunny comedy full of stupid, unpleasant people doing ugly things. Indeed, the only thing Meurisse holds in more contempt than his characters is his audience.

The film begins with an immediate red flag — two coroners are performing a graphic autopsy on a nude body while bemoaning the state of true crime documentaries on Netflix, kvetching about how audiences demand a scene of violence every few minutes to jolt them back to attention. Get it? They then begin discussing the life and work of famed investigator Zavatta (Anthony Paliotta), apparently a figure of wild acclaim in the world of law enforcement. Meurisse then smash cuts to Zavatta strutting in slow motion through an airport, all cocky arrogance and clad head to toe in denim. The joke here is that it is immediately revealed that Zavatta is an incompetent blowhard, henpecked by a shrill wife who berates him for delaying their vacation and neglecting to help her pack. As Zavatta assists his small children in the restroom (and gets a face full of smeared shit for his efforts), he becomes convinced that he has spotted a fugitive, Paul Bernardin. Bernardin is wanted for murdering his wife and three children, so Zavatta calls in to the office and relays that the fugitive is traveling to Denmark. The authorities are waiting for him when he lands, except it’s not the murderer, but instead a totally different man, Michel Uzes (Gäetan Peau). Meanwhile, Léa (Delphine Baril) and Christine (Charlotte Laemmel) win a contest for citizen investigators (basically true-crime Internet sleuths), and they decide to take their prize money and investigate the Bernardin slayings. There’s yet another thread; the real Bernardin (Laurent Stocker) is hiding out in Buenos Aires, where he has started a new life and found love with a beautiful woman.

The film cuts artlessly between these various plot threads; Christine and Lea are largely incompetent, encountering racist landlords as they search Bernardin’s apartment for clues that the police might have missed and then promptly get drunk; Michel endures torture at the hands of the Danish police, while Meurisse introduces brief asides about the lack of international cooperation that has led to this case of mistaken identity (the French authorities want the suspect back immediately, while the Danish police, slowly realizing their mistake, try to prolong the suspect’s detention). The scenes with the real Bernardin seem to be intended as some kind of ironic counterpoint — look at this cold-blooded killer living it up in a tropical paradise! There’s even a moment where Bernardin saves a child during an unexpected seizure, leaving the locals to briefly beatify the man. It’s difficult to articulate just how ridiculous and shrill this film is; one suspects the filmmaker believes he is making a statement about the absurd vicissitudes of fate (or worse, making something Kafkaesque), but the film is so obnoxious, so stupid, as to be actively abject. A late pivot toward shocking ultraviolence is the final debasement, a cruel act from a terrible filmmaker who seemingly cannot imagine any other way to end the film. It’s an ugly film from an ugly director, which primarily leaves one with a burning desire that director’s jail was not just a turn of phrase but a literal place in which we could banish Meurisse. DANIEL GORMAN

Credit: Boku No Ohisama Production Committee/Commes des Cinemas

My Sunshine

The Cannes Film Festival has a reputation (not entirely undeserved) for skewing its selections toward the more abstruse, audience-unfriendly end of the international cinema spectrum. So it’s perplexing to encounter a film like My Sunshine, the sophomore feature from Japan’s Hiroshi Okuyama. Although the film ends up in a rather somber place, it’s a wholly conventional coming-of-age tale that could reasonably be called Billy Elliot on Ice.

As snow begins to fall in a small Japanese town, baseball ends and ice hockey begins. It hardly matters to Takuya (Keitatsu Koshiyama), a young lad who is equally poor at both sports. But something surprising happens as he’s leaving the rink. He sees Sakura (Nakanishi Kiara), a local figure skating competitor, training with her coach Arakawa (Sosuke Ikematsu, best known from Kore-eda’s Shoplifting). He himself was an award-winning skater in his earlier days, something about which he’s modest to a fault. His boyfriend (Wakaba Ryuuya) only happens on Arakawa’s old programs and clippings by chance, and the former skater seems vaguely embarrassed. “There weren’t many male skaters,” he avers, “so it was easy to be a champion.”

Takuya is transfixed by Sakura, and later Arakawa sees him alone on the ice, trying to perfect turns and spins. Seeing potential, he agrees to coach Takuya. Ironically, Arakawa observes that Takuya’s average hockey playing has made him a stronger skater, even if he must unlearn some bad habits. As he improves, the coach tries pairing him with Sakura as an ice dancing couple, with positive results.

My Sunshine is the sort of middlebrow film that typically gains little traction outside of Japan, and if it does, it’s usually at showcases specifically devoted to recent Japanese fare. The film is mostly by the numbers, with multiple training montages, including a sequence with the three principals acting silly to a Zombies song. It moves like Syd Field clockwork, with major incidents happening on the half-hour. And as per the title, My Sunshine is bizarrely saturated with hazy light, lending the entire film the soft-focus, pastel overtones we usually associate with hotel room art.

Then again, Okuyama shot the film himself, as well as handling its writing, editing, and directing. So there’s little question that My Sunshine is precisely the film he wanted to make. To be fair, it does have a few surprises. Most of Takuya’s family and friends are pretty supportive of his decision to figure skate, and the homophobia that eventually tanks the kids’ alliance with Arakawa comes from a source you wouldn’t necessarily expect. All the same, My Sunshine has a rather dated feel, like a gay-acceptance narrative from the early ‘90s. But considering that the global right wing is trying to roll social mores back to the Medieval period, we’ll probably be seeing a lot more films like My Sunshine, and we probably deserve to. MICHAEL SICINSKI