Credit: Petit Chaos
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Cannes Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 4: All We Imagine as Light, The Damned, Motel Destino

May 30, 2024

All We Imagine as Light

“This city takes time away from you,” says one of the seven disembodied voices introducing us to the wide-awake-at-night Mumbai city in the lyrical opening montage of Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine as Light. Clément Pinteaux’s jump-cut editing and Ranabir Das’ mobile camerawork enhance this feeling of poetic chaos: we’re always on the move, stumbling into overcrowded streets when not uncomfortably sat inside overcrowded trains and buses, our eyes, like the kinoeye, constantly looking for someone else who’s also grinding it out in the sticky heat of the night. And then, all of a sudden, the film slows down. The most transparently apparent reason for this is to introduce us to one of its central protagonists. But, stylistically, it’s also a cue to slow down: Kapadia, through her patient and soulful film, wants to restore some of the time people feel the city has taken away from them.

Is that a polite way of saying that the rest of the film is yet another exercise in slow cinema? Yes and no. Like Kapadia’s debut feature, A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021) — a hypnotically nightmarish documentation of India’s right-wing regime increasingly crushing any scope for religious and caste unity — All We Imagine as Light, too, is indebted to ‘70s European art cinema more than mainstream or parallel Indian cinema. In other words, Kapadia’s snapshot of Mumbai resembles Chantal Akerman’s alienating portrait of New York in News from Home (1976) more so than Anurag Kashyap’s gritty rendition of Bombay in Black Friday (2004). But Kapadia’s camera is also not as frozen in space and time as Akerman’s: it moves around the city relatively freely, actively seeking connections and interactions with people, not empty spaces. Dhritiman Das’ soothing score (and Kapadia’s repeated use of Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru’s simultaneously playful and melancholic “The Homeless Wanderer”), too, fills up the stasis imposed by longueurs of white noise or deathly silence with a flow; Light moves leisurely but never cumbersomely, then, always trying to find other faces and pockets of spaces in Mumbai that allow its characters some time to breathe.

Its search for other people and places, however, never comes at the cost of establishing the three faces around whom Kapadia structures the film’s drama. Perhaps it’s because they, like almost everyone in Mumbai, are consistently searching for something that proves elusive. Anu (Divya Prabha), the youngest and most desperately romantic of the lot, wants to find a safe space to spend the weekend with her Muslim boyfriend, Shiaz (Hridhu Haroon). Prabha (Kani Kusruti), the middle-aged and, hence, the most rational and least expressive, quietly seeks a romantic connection after receiving an unexpected gift from her estranged husband. And Parvaty (Chhaya Kadam), the oldest and fieriest, looks for a new home after wealthy developers blackmail her to empty her current house before they start demolishing it. None of these stories feel like manufactured plots designed explicitly in louder, socially conscious films to declaratively make a point about Islamophobia, patriarchy, or gentrification. Kapadia treats them as critical issues whose foundations may have increasingly started to define the city (one of the film’s most heartbreaking images shows Parvaty and her house pushed to the corner, almost “crushed” by high-rise buildings that lord over them in the background), but not its characters.

Or any of the working-class people in Mumbai. The film’s first hour, in particular, has this astonishing ability to work as an intimate character drama and an expansive city symphony without feeling like it’s prioritizing one over the other. Take, for instance, the film’s opening, which has Mumbaikars poetically recounting (via voiceover) their experiences in Gujarati, Marathi, or Hindi, highlighting the cultural diversity that co-exists in the city. Then, juxtapose it with one of Prabha’s sincerely awkward conversations with a fellow Malayali doctor who reveals that he’s facing trouble learning Hindi, throwing his plans of living long-term in Mumbai into considerable doubt: the initial freedom afforded to the flurry of diverse disembodied voices suddenly feels somewhat undermined. Most other times, though, Kapadia tries to connect her characters with those around her. This is apparent in the film’s many interstitial shots, whereby the camera slips away from our central characters to momentarily look out for other people similarly caught up in their mundane lives — and in sublime moments that turn the mundane into the poetic. Two instances — Anu expressing her love to Shiaz and Prabha expressing her longing for her estranged husband — begin by strictly focusing on the two women. But gradually, Kapadia zooms out: we don’t see Anu or Prabha saying what they feel; we hear their voices echo outwards. In other words, their specific messages become disembodied voiceovers: a hopeful connection formed between people feeling similarly in this sleepless city.

The second half’s shift away from the city comes as something of a shock, then. It’s almost as if the film thinks that the — sometimes silent, other times poetic — interaction between the city, its people, and its central characters has taken away time again from its three leads. So, the film overcompensates with character drama over city symphony: a noticeable step down from the first half’s delicate balancing act of the two, but, in no way, detrimental. This section of All We Imagine as Light, aside from its oversimplistic “rural is better than the urban” message, too works in mysterious ways: the time these women spend in forests, beaches, and ancient caves opens up their otherwise tied-down lives, but in ways that unexpectedly recall Uncle Apichatpong, whose films are all about finding time and spaces to facilitate the presence of present and past lives. DHRUV GOYAL

Credit: Les Films du Losange

The Damned

Across five feature films to date, most of which exist within a liminal space located between fiction and documentary narrative, demarcated with blurred lines, Roberto Minervini has engendered a number of comparisons. Sean Baker comes to mind if one is to look primarily at the subjects and subject matter that seem to preoccupy the Italian director’s mind, while Carlos Reygadas feels very much alive in Minervini’s ability to capture a place and a people divorced from our notions of modern living. The director’s latest, The Damned, which concerns a group of volunteer Union soldiers tasked during the Civil War with a patrol post in the western territories, foregoes the director’s usual mode of documenting off-kilter modernity and so at first glance offers something of a superficial pivot from the considerations that permeate his previous work. But in its spiritual dimensions, in its study of people lost in the unthinking performance of obligation or else contending with the battle between individuation and (cultural/familial/self-destructive) tyranny, The Damned feels very much a part of Minervini’s larger project. 

There’s a particular and pronounced romanticism that drives the war film, typically regardless of such trivial details as which war and which national cinema it belongs to. But as arguably the most jingoistic of nations and inarguably the most self-righteous, the American war film is practically the national cinema for the layman — just ask your dad his favorite film for confirmation. It’s a consideration very much on Minervini’s mind in The Damned, where he seeks not just to subvert the myth of war itself, but rupture our basic notions of the war film. For a director whose art has heretofore been consumed with the American south, it’s notable that he here follows Union soldiers, the ostensible “good guys” fighting a righteous fight according to a reductive sense of history, and fashioning a non-narrative that understands war to be both existential catalyst and ideological black hole. There is no nobility here, no righteous cause for the soul of a nation. There are only men, subjected to that which they should never have to endure, all in service of an unidentifiable something. The Billy Yanks here move through the West’s untamed wilds, engage in nighttime skirmishes with a darkness-shrouded foe, take pot shots from behind trees at either unseen or out-of-focus others, and all the while discuss their beliefs, motivations, and fears with increasing frequency as their numbers diminish.

People/audiences have been conditioned to consider war/war films in terms of the collective, but Minervini is at his savviest here in presenting the experience as an intensely, and at its root perhaps entirely, personal affair. As the company dwindles in number, it feels as if the camera zooms in on these men, each further realized as individuals in proximity to each other rather than as a communal body, almost as if there is the understanding that our time to come to know these men is waning. Earlier on in the film, Minervini tends to shoot the men as silhouettes against vast skies or as interchangeable bodies in the night, shapes in service of a cause. As the film progresses, more natural daytime light is used, faces blossoming in clarity, the camera alternately lending the impression of haunting, hunting, or hugging these men — we locate the individual only in time to watch him fracture. To that end, in fireside scenes and other moments of station, motivations are unveiled, interrogated, and undone, vulnerabilities shared in their harsh and unfathomable present. When one young soldier outlines his faith in God, and its role in his involvement in the war, another responds: “I hope it stays that simple for you.” It’s in this acknowledgment, in these moments, that we come to understand all these professions of beliefs, of purpose, to be mere words, swirling and blowing through this negotiated camaraderie, destined to soon melt like the snow that blankets the ground.

It’s also in these sequences that Minervini brings us closest to our present American moment, not only in our persistence as two nations under one flag, but in recognizing the mental gymnastics required to exist, regardless of “side,” in a country as demanding of unwavering patriotism as the United States; after all, God and America are practically interchangeable in much contemporary rhetoric. Minervini delivers a tremendous study of the dramatic burgeoning of self-awareness within circumstances that reduce men to binaries, and the ways the self struggles to exist alongside any forms of absolutism: of God, of country, of war. To the film’s detriment, much of the dialogue, in aggregate, can feel too self-consciously designed in service of the film’s thematic intent, giving rise to a notable sense of artifice and grafting the impression of historical reenactment atop The Damned’s otherwise striking minimalism. But Minervini affectingly undercuts any sense of contrivance through the poetry of his aesthetic, none stronger in conveying the spiritual collateral demanded by war than the film’s final shot: two soldiers, heads tilted heavenward, snow sprinkling their unkempt beards. The image fittingly invokes the famous Old Testament verse: “Though your sins be scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” But God is not here, and neither are their comrades; only the understanding that there is no end. “It’s so quiet,” one observes, and we are left only to ponder the collapsed boundary between peace and damnation. LUKE GORHAM

Motel Destino

The erotic thriller has encountered a resurgence in popularity of late, partly due to how well the genre plays at home, making it ideal escapism to explore alone during the pandemic. “Tropical noir” Motel Destino has director Karim Aïnouz returning to his native Brazil after a disappointing foray into English language with Firebrand (releasing in the U.S. in a few weeks). A small, slight erotic thriller, Motel Destino works to update classic noir narratives like The Postman Always Rings Twice mostly through its unique setting and vibrant color-palette. In fact, Motel Destino’s visual storytelling reaches inspiring heights in its opening act, though the following two hours never quite match. 

8mm footage introduces us to two men frolicking on the beach in speedos. They are brothers, not lovers, and if they are to leave this beachfront town together, they must complete one more job for Bambina, a local crime boss who is also a known regional painter. As last jobs go, it’s suitably dangerous, but what choice do the pair have? The night before the job, one of the brothers, Heraldo (Iago Xavier), irresponsibly parties at a club and takes a beautiful woman to a love motel (the titular Motel Destino) for a night of passionate sex. (This is the first of two instances in which Heraldo’s lovemaking inspires a woman to declare their love for him.) The next morning, she’s absconded, his wallet emptied and the room tab unpaid. Frantic, he escapes the locked room and rushes out to learn his brother was forced to do the final job alone, and was killed by the target’s armed security. The storytelling economy in this opening act is just disorienting enough to keep an audience on their toes as to what’s transpiring scene-to-scene.

From there, a distraught Heraldo makes the curious decision to go back to Motel Destino to lay low for a while, not as a patron but as an employee. The film then settles down in this motel, and the weird, sex-filled world it occupies, for the rest of the runtime. The distinctly Brazilian world of a love motel grants specificity to an otherwise routine neo-noir narrative setup, in which Heraldo falls for the motel co-owner Dayana (Nataly Rocha) and plots to murder her abusive husband Elias (popular Brazilian actor Fábio Assunção in a standout performance).

Xavier’s performance as Heraldo mostly centers on his role as a symbol of youth that others can project fantasies upon. Dayana and Elias quickly take to his lust for life, which can’t be cooped up, even when confined to the back hallways of the Destino. Xavier doesn’t offer much interiority to latch onto beyond wide-eyed passion, but the narrative doesn’t require much more from him. Rocha and Assunçãi bring more nuance to their roles as a married couple stuck in an unhappy co-dependent relationship, tied together by the little motel they run. 

After lensing Invisible Life and Firebrand, French cinematographer Hélène Louvart reteams with Aïnouz to bathe Motel Destino in fuzzy neon colors. In a clever reveal, Motel Destino’s muted exterior at night is revealed to be a vibrant magenta the next morning when Heraldo returns in daylight. Everything is so uniformly awash in this palette — like a grainy 16mm The Beach Bum — that it’s fair to wonder exactly how many exterior sets were painted for the film. Put more simply: combined with a pulsing techno soundtrack, Motel Destino is a very vibe forward film. 

With such codified archetypes and narrative tropes in place, the fun in noirs and neo-noirs comes in how they play with audience expectations and knowledge of these genre fixtures. It’s unfortunate, then, that there aren’t many tricks up Motel Destino’s sleeves. Dayana’s potential as a double-crossing femme fatale is squandered, and coupled with a 115-minute runtime and the one-location setting, Motel Destino forgoes what could be a tight, sleazy erotic thriller for something more shaggy, full of character motivations at key intervals that don’t always pass muster upon a little considered reflection.

Motel Destino does take care to hit every level of sex representation on screen: There’s discussion of sex. There are auditory depictions, in that the background audio track consists almost entirely of unseen people going at it, loudly moaning behind the private doors of this love motel. And occasionally, curiosity gets the best of them, with Elias and Heraldo peaking in on their clients through a latticed room service window, adding some old-fashioned voyeurism in for good measure. And then there is of course plenty of actual sex and nudity, the chief ingredient missing in contemporary U.S. cinema we often miscategorize as “horny.” Those movies often only include frank discussions of sex without the actual act itself (Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers offering a recent sexless example), and delivering sex across all these levels ensures a genuinely sordid ride that pushes up against the chaste conservatism of contemporary American cinema. Chastity has never been an issue for Aïnouz, and like 2019’s The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, Motel Destino demonstrates his affinity for a sweaty, sex-filled romp featuring working-class Brazilians. 

But despite its refreshingly liberated approach to sex, issues remain. Following a fully nude extended chase scene through the desert — one that reads a little too intentionally provocative — Motel Destino ends on Heraldo’s voiceover, which attempts to make a broader point about class survival in Brazil. But this sign-off feels merely tacked on in execution, an effort to grant the preceding serviceable, albeit slight, thriller more thematic weight than it actually earns. It’s a last-ditch attempt at poignancy that’s indicative of the film’s other littered ills, managing only to diminish some of the goodwill built up by the good-natured sex and violence Motel Destino otherwise trades in. CALEB HAMMOND

Credit: Bande a Part/Atelier de Production/France 2 Cinema/RTS Radio Television Suisse/SRG SSR

Dog on Trial

Dogs occupy a unique, almost sacred, space in our lives. They are not technically human, yet they embody qualities — loyalty, affection, intelligence — that resonate with us on a profoundly human level. Aristotle once relegated animals as beings without rational souls, classifying them closer to objects than humans. But anyone who has gazed into a dog’s eyes understands that they reflect the very best parts of humanity. This philosophical debate about animals as mere “things” is at the heart of Dog on Trial, actress Laetitia Dosch’s directorial debut. The film challenges us to reevaluate our relationships with dogs and the broader implications of how we categorize living beings. Are they simply creatures of instinct, or do they possess a deeper, human-like consciousness?

Dog on Trial centers around Avril Lucciani (Dosch), an idealistic but consistently unsuccessful Swiss animal defense lawyer. Despite directives from her supervisors to take on more serious cases, Avril agrees to represent Cosmos (Kodi), a dog accused of biting three women. One of whom, Portuguese cleaner Lorene (Anabela Moreira), has suffered serious facial scarring. Cosmos’ human, Dariuch Michovski (François Damiens), is a cantankerous social outsider who faces legal action, while Cosmos is at risk of being put down.

As Avril defends Cosmos, she argues that the dog is an autonomous entity that should be tried in its own right, marking the trial as the first legal proceeding against an animal since the Middle Ages. The film features a series of comedic and philosophical riffs on the idea of a dog’s legal status, including debates on animal ethics and the canine soul, and even a device designed to make a dog “speak.” Avril’s narration, running intermittently throughout the film, adds a knowing, albeit sometimes intrusive, commentary. As the case garners widespread attention and becomes a national cause, Avril grows closer to Cosmos and friendly dog handler Marc (Jean-Pascal Zadi).

Dosch’s first attempt at directing is a mostly successful blend of courtroom drama, humor, and philosophical exploration. The screenplay, co-written by Dosch and Anne-Sophie Bailly, is packed with witty dialogue and thought-provoking ideas, but sometimes struggles to balance its comedic and more serious elements. While Dosch’s narrative techniques (including Avril’s internal monologue as narration) and directorial choices keep the audience engaged, the humor can feel too manic and eager to please, and the philosophical discussions, though ambitious, can come across as heavy-handed when it attempts to be direct with its arguments, such as when Avril makes a cringeworthy comparison between dogs and enslaved people. The performances in Dog on Trial are likewise something of a mixed bag, but the standout is clearly the canine actor Kodi as Cosmos. Kodi’s expressive range, from soulful looks to rambunctious antics, adds a layer of emotional depth to the film’s central debate. And it should come as no surprise that Kodi won this year’s Palm Dog, the coveted prize awarded to the best canine performance every year at Cannes. 

But while there’s no denying that Dog on Trial can feel like a disappointment in some regards, including in its hit-or-miss humor and mostly surface-level philosophical discourse, it’s still an undeniably entertaining and moving project. It offers plenty enough charm, wit, and emotional resonance to paper over some of its weaknesses, and it’s easy to imagine it will inspire many viewers to question their perceptions of animals, urging people to see them not just as pets, but as beings equally deserving of empathy and justice as us. Dog on Trial is a stealthily bold attempt to shift our view of man’s best friend from simple loyal companion to fellow sentient being, no trial de novo needed.   EMILY DUGRANRUT

Universal Language

Universal Language opens on a static wide shot outside a French language school in snowy Winnipeg. We see the teacher grumpily trudge in late. Once inside, he proceeds to take out his anger on the young Persian students, telling them candidly they won’t ever amount to anything. This scene directly recalls Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s House?, but also draws to mind the more recent, similarly snowbound About Dry Grasses, in which teacher Samet (Deniz Celiloğlu) angrily tells his students they’ll never be anything but sheep farmers. This opening establishes the film’s playful tone, in which the students are less harmed by the rant and more puzzled and perhaps even concerned for the mental state of their kooky teacher. It also slyly sets up several threads that will intersect throughout the rest of the film, including one involving a glasses-stealing prized turkey.

Universal Language is a playful amalgamation of director Matthew Rankin’s diverse preoccupations with his home town of Winnipeg and classic Iranian cinema. If you aren’t familiar with the Iranian cinema references packed into this one — the two major touchstones being Children of Heaven and The White Balloon— it’s no matter, as one can still thoroughly appreciate the film’s absurdist humor, provided a willingness to meet the film on its unique wavelength. Rankin’s command of tone and frame (lensed beautifully in 16mm by DP Isabelle Stachtchenko) ensure it’s a cinch to tap into the surreal world he’s concocted — a world in which everyone in this sleepy Canadian town speaks Farsi and even the local Tim Horton’s is a classy establishment that serves Persian donuts and tea. 

One central narrative thread stems directly from a story Rankin’s grandmother told him about how as kids during the Depression they discovered a bank note frozen in water and concocted complex plans to extract it. This sparked Rankin’s imagination and reminded him of the Iranian cinema from the ‘70s he loved, in which children are faced with adult-sized dilemmas. That thread intersects with another here in which a character named “Matthew Rankin” (played by the director) returns home after working a soulless job in Quebec. Coming home and rediscovering its charm is essentially its own genre, and Rankin manages to further make it his own here, avoiding the overly-nostalgic trappings that often befall such a typically Sundance-esque narrative. For instance, Rankin, the character, finds his place at home fully taken over by a stranger. This stranger is a local tour guide who takes groups around a strange collection of dull Winnipeg landmarks, including a briefcase left at a bus stop years earlier, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage landmark. There’s a purity of human spirit throughout the film, evidenced by the key detail that no one has ever peered into the contents of said briefcase. A respect for one’s fellow man lingers, even when on hard times. It makes a specific betrayal toward the end of the film, regarding that frozen bank note, ring even more painfully for the two children at the center of it. 

Outside of the Iranian touchstones of Kiarostami and Panahi, Universal Language also recalls the controlled frames of Wes Anderson, Roy Andersson, and the stilted conversations and well-composed wides of Aki Kaurismäki. Universal Language is not some empty compendium of film references for cinephiles in the know, however — it possesses a real heart and lingering melancholy. It’s in this that the film hews closest to Anderson perhaps, in that both filmmakers possess a true understanding for how framing, score, and even line readings work together to elicit outwardly inexplicable emotional responses in audiences. 

Foreign cinema is at its best when it achieves two things: First, when it shows, as Rankin has pointed out, that the “there” is “here.” This is the universal language the title refers to, in which humans are humans everywhere, with similar desires, hang-ups, etc. But foreign cinema must also demonstrate something distinct about how specific cultures raise up these humans differently. Regional specificity, even within countries, can’t ever be lost. In Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the casualness with which the characters accept the presence of a spirit at their dinner table is a wholly un-American read on the situation, for instance. In Universal Language, a Tim Horton’s sign written in Farsi understands the mash-up as deeply surreal and an image only cinema can dream up. In Rankin’s youth, he traveled to Tehran to study film there, and he says cryptically this attempt was a “failure.” But like all good failures, he met lots of great people and returned to Canada inspired. On that trip he was struck by Winnipeg and Tehran’s shared brutalist architecture, and so Universal Language highlights these buildings, their grey and beige concrete jutting with real beauty against the winter sky. In this way, Universal Language frequently discovers a beauty in blandness, a whimsy in the everyday, and is a remarkable second feature from Rankin. CALEB HAMMOND