Stephanie Spray’s and Pacho Velez’ Ride to Nirvana


By Robert Koehler

Possibly more than the previous feature and short work produced by Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, which includes the groundbreaking Sweetgrass and Leviathan, Manakamana (distributed by Cinema Guild, opening today at Laemmle’s Music Hall) marks a crucial intersection of the three of the most interesting developments in contemporary cinema.

Stephanie Spray’s and Pacho Velez’ 16mm film (blown up to 35mm) embraces the essence of “slow cinema,” in which tempo and rhythm are intentionally geared to andante and beyond. Just as “slow food” allows the senses and palate to take time to absorb and appreciate flavors and textures, the slow cinema exemplified in Manakamana permits eyes and ears the space and time to explore, contemplate and get lost. The movie perfectly sums up “in-between cinema,” that vast realm between fiction and non-fiction where actual figures take on fictional and even mythical essence in front of the lens, where the real is viewed through an expansive perspective that obliterates old forms of televised, instructional “documentary.” It also stands as a supreme example of anthropological cinema, applying observational rigor to cultural groups and traditions, a direct inheritor of the early experiments of Jean Rouch but aware of the much older stream that extends back to Robert Flaherty, arguably the creator of the first anthropological in-between films.

Perhaps too much of the justifiably ecstatic praise heaped on this remarkable film has lost track of its anthropological roots. It’s not just that Spray and Velez (a CalArts grad) are, like J.P. Sniadecki (Foreign Parts, People’s Park), among the most gifted grads of S.E.L., but that Spray’s previous work especially provides the basis out of which Manakamana emerges. Before her collaboration with Velez, Spray made three mid-length films in Nepal observing the Gayek family; her third piece, titled As Long as There’s Breath, is the best known and has travelled to fine international festivals like FIDM in Montreal. Not only do the Gayeks gradually grow used to Spray’s subtle and unobtrusive camera (this is very different from the bravura, physical camera of S.E.L. co-founder Lucien Castaing-Taylor in his co-directed Sweetgrass and Leviathan), but the viewer can feel that she is coming to understand the family, their anxieties, even their darkest demons.


Fatalism seeps into the family discussion, and because this is ethnography, it must govern Spray’s film: It’s part of the content of what she’s recording, revealing textures of family life only possible through patient, time-consuming observation. Such an attitude doesn’t inform Manakamana, comprised of 11 fixed shots approximately 9 ½ minutes long observing visitors to Nepal’s Manakamana temple in the Himalayan foothills. But the same ethnographic rigor is at work, only in a more voluptuous, epic frame. The visitors are seen riding in an aerial tramway car, some arriving, some departing, some viewed from the temple side of the ride, some from the base side. Spray’s considerable experience in Nepal, her way of developing a second-nature relationship with people in this ancient, complex culture, allows Manakamana to open into a panorama of humanity in a particular place at a particular time. Departing from her previous intimate studies, Spray has found the ideal space for a wide range of folks to reveal themselves: In one shot early in the film, a serious-looking pilgrim holding a traditional bouquet of flowers in her lap cracks a smile for a moment. The sacred comes down to earth, even as we’re being transported into the clouds.


Velez’s camera is ingenious. He rests it at a comfortable distance from the temple visitors, more or less the distance that a fellow traveler might have if facing them. He uses the tram’s large windows as a way to turn the images into stunning 2-D moving shots, so while the visiting pilgrims generally sit still, the Himalayan background is in constant movement, receding or revealing depending on the camera position. There can be comedy going on in the foreground—a woman struggling with her dripping ice cream cone always gets a laugh with audiences—while the dynamic background is constantly unfolding, like a scroll. This works in tandem with sound designer Ernst Karel, a crucial collaborator in most of the important S.E.L. projects, who heightens Spray’s sound recordings of the tram itself. As part of a field recording series for the German-based label Gruenrekorder, Karel has made a CD recording, “Swiss Mountain Transport Systems,” that turns the weird grinding and cranking of aerial trams into rhythmic sound patterns, something close to music (Karel is a trained classical trumpeter) but not quite. The same quality runs through the soundtrack of Manakamana, completing a highly complex yet seemingly simple piece of integrated cinema, where the material, the spiritual and the absurd all get into a groove and go to Nirvana.


South By Southwest 2

Costa de Morte

By Robert Koehler

Last month, I served as a member of the jury for the international competition at FICUNAM (Festival Internacional de Cine de Universidad Nacional Autonomia Mexico), where most of the lineup was devoted to in-between cinema such as Luis Patino’s Costa da Morte, Denis Cote’s Joy of Man’s Desiring and Roberto Minervini’s Stop the Pounding Heart. Without identifying itself as such, much of FICUNAM’s programming (conceived mainly by festival director Eva Sangiorgi and the phenomenal Argentine-based critic-programmer Roger Koza) is interested in exploring the interstices of fiction and non-fiction, whether that may be a conversation between highly conceived mise-en-scène and moment-by-moment action (as with Costa da Morte) or a focus on actual people depicted cinematically as if characters in a fiction (as with Stop the Pounding Heart). FICUNAM understands that this is where the future of cinema lies.


Jumping across the Texas border to South by Southwest, the values are different. The detectable cases where fiction and non-fiction intersect rarely happens there, as in the visually symphonic conceptions of co-directors Edward Lovelace and James Hall for their fluid, dreamy portrait of former Brit pop singer Edwyn Collins, The Possibilities are Endless, or the ruptures of Detroit suburban and street life in Buzzard. Lovelace and Hall, who previously made Werewolves Across America, deploy a similar technique expressively used by Tatiana Huezo in her astonishing debut in-betweener, The Tiniest Place/El lugar mas paqueno, in which the subjects’ speech is used as off-screen voice-over accompanying complimentary images—not necessarily the literal image attached to the thing being described or discussed. The result is a two-dimensional experience, in which the spoken words function as a kind of music to the pictures; in the case of Possibilities, the intent is to take the viewer inside the damaged head of Collins (best known for the hit tune A Girl Like You with his group Orange Juice), who suffered a massive stroke in 2005. It nearly wiped clean his memory and speech functions, resulting in an interesting experiment for Lovelace and Collins to record Collins’ voice as he continues to rebuild his ability to speak, supported by his devoted wife Grace. They live in a remote corner of rural Scotland, a landscape made for widescreen cinematography and moody poetics, a perfect physical antonym for Collins’ gradually repairing mindset.

The reason why movies The Possibilities are Endless are outliers at South by Southwest is simple. Like too many other North American festivals, it assumes that the non-fiction movies that matter and that audiences care about are grounded in facts and some kind of journalism. It’s the single most hidebound aspect of North American festival programming, this notion that documentary cinema must be prose and not poetry. The work that passes the documentary gatekeepers at Sundance, South by Southwest, Hot Docs and Full Frame (the four major doc platforms on the continent) is almost never of the sort that Patino makes, in which an actual place and culture are observed but not explicitly explained or “reported.” Grounded in the Pompeu Fabra non-fiction school in Barcelona (whose great teachers include filmmakers Jose Luis Guerin, Joaquim Jorda and Ricardo Iscar, and graduates like Isaki Lacuesta, Abel Garcia Roure and Mercedes Alvarez), Patino does away with talking heads or “facts” about his subject, Galicia’s imposing and awesome northern Spanish coastline and its inhabitants. Instead he uses cinema: His camera is often at least a mile (or three!) away from his subjects, who are directly miked and heard close-up, resulting in a watching and listening experience that’s layered and only possible in a cinema setting.


Compare this with the disappointing (and prize-winning) Margaret Brown documentary about the 2010 BP/Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil disaster, The Great Invisible. Brown does a fine job with the facts of the eco-disaster, and draws out the gnawing, drip-drip-drip horror of the episode. She has access, and talks to a remarkably wide group of folks, especially the poorest Gulf victims frequently ignored by mass media outlets. This underlines the strength of Brown’s filmmaking, displayed in her best work to date, the 2008 The Order of Myths. Like Emile Zola, she has an acute eye for the panorama and nuances of class difference, the way systems govern and define us, almost beyond our ability to recognize them.

But there’s no poetics to Brown’s approach, no cinematic passageway to a greater perception, beyond facts, beyond issues, beyond the people in front of her camera. Like far too many of her North American colleagues in documentary (and I include filmmakers and programmers together, since both have created a kind of Sundancian cosmology of sorts), she takes on a headline-grabbing story but won’t rise above the factual into something more powerful, something that reaches art. This kind of transcendence was detectable in Order, especially in how she captured the rituals of young people in the Deep South. In the tiniest moments of Order lay its largest ideas and emotions; the Deepwater Horizon is so big, so titanic in its implications, that detail is lost, and the lure of burning issues (literally) seem to blow out the possibility of a poetic approach—say, the way Peter Mettler captured the Alberta Tar Sands complex in his stunning and, yes, poetic non-fiction, Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands. Like the hidebound teacher in Dickens’ Hard Times, Brown and her fellow documakers seem to insist on the “facts,” but they’re neglecting the greater possibilities of cinema.

South by Southwest 1

Buzzard (2014)

By Robert Koehler

Marty Jackitansky, a rather foul human being whom you can’t take your eyes off of in writer-director Joel Potrykus’ Buzzard—by many millions of miles the best movie yet screened at South by Southwest—is a feral, degenerated form of the classic grifter of the 1930s. He temps at a bank office, but can barely tolerate anyone around except fellow office staffer Derek (an amusing Potrykus) and finds innumerable ways to make petty cash by bilking people, or just by getting over, like grabbing equipment he’s ordered for the office and returning it to an electronics store for cash. Once he gets the terrible idea of signing over bank customers’ checks to his own name, Marty’s track is relentlessly downward, a course that traces from corporate America to homeless in Detroit until the final shot (worthy of a long post-screening discussion), a metaphysical transference of sorts. Potrykus casts his regular go-to “star,” Joshua Burge, from the first (the 2010 short Coyote) and second (the debut 2012 feature, Ape) pieces of his Animal trilogy, and by this point, the director and actor have developed a electrifying collaboration that recalls Lindsay Anderson (If… and O Lucky Man!) and Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange) allowing young Malcolm McDowell to let his id to run free. The connection is explicit: There’s a late sequence in Buzzard, an extended take of Burge’s bug-eyed Marty consuming a hotel room service plate of spaghetti, that deliberately quotes McDowell’s Clockwork spaghetti scene with Patrick McGee and the hospital finale. Buzzard is in fact a salad of cinephilia; the penultimate scene, an astonishing travelling shot following Marty running down a Detroit street, just as deliberately quotes from Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang. There’s not only the line from McDowell here; Burge can easily be viewed as Denis Lavant to Potrykus’ Carax, and more than in Ape, the expression of young male animality, stemming from unresolved anger and self-hatred, reaches the level of dance and unexpected ecstasy, perhaps even transcendence.

Looking Forward to Cannes


Only God Forgives

Heading to Cannes tomorrow, and here’s the list of films I’m looking forward to:

Heli (Escalante) Comp
Jimmy P (Desplechin) Comp
Grisgris (Haroun) Comp
A Touch of Sin (Jia) Comp
Like Father, Like Son (Kore-eda) Comp
Blue is the Warmest Color (Kechiche) Comp
Jeune et Jolie (Ozon) Comp
Venus in Fur (Polanski) Comp
Only God Forgives (Refn) Comp
Death March (Alix) UCR
Les Salauds (Denis) UCR
Notre, the End of History (Lav D) UCR
L’inconnu du lac (Guiraudie) UCR
L’image Manquante (Panh) UCR
La Jaula de Oro (Quemada-Diaz) UCR
Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Rasoulof) UCR
My Sweet Pepper Land (Saleem) UCR
Grand Central (Zlotowski) UCR
The Last of the Unjust (Lanzmann) Non-Comp
Blind Detective (To) Midnight
Seduced and Abandoned (Toback) Spec Screenings
Goha (Baratier) Cannes Classics
Manila in the Claws of Light (Brocka) Classics
Plein Soleil (Clement) Classics
A Story of Children and Film (Cousins) Classics
Le Joli mai (Lhomme/Marker) Classics
Charulata (Ray) Classics
Borom Sarret (Sembene) Classics
The Summer of Flying Fish (Said) Quinzaine
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Pavich) Quinz
The Dance of Reality (Jodorowsky) Quinz
Magic Magic (Silva) Quinz
Tip Top (Bozon) Quinz
Un Voyageur (Ophuls) Quinz
Shadow of a Cloud (Jude–short) Quinz
Solecito (Navia–short) Quinz
Swimmer (Ramsey–short) Quinz
The Dismantlement (Pilote) Semaine
3X3D (Greenaway/Godard) Semaine

With almost all of the Camera d’Or films, who knows? But many of those will be a primary focus of my daily blogs for Film Comment. I didn’t plan it this way, but I just noticed that I have exactly nine each in the Competition, UCR and Quinzaine. For the first time maybe ever, there are a whole bunch of French films that have me excited. That almost never happens, and that seems to be fairly overlooked in the pre-festival prognostications and coverage.

What’s your Palme prediction? Mine is Refn’s Only God Forgives, all things (Jury especially) considered. But though I love Refn’s cinema, I really want to see Jia win for A Touch of Sin. (A nice word pun on King Hu’s A Touch of Zen.) But that would be a miracle on a Spielberg Jury. And wouldn’t it be something if Polanski’s Venus in Fur wins? He’s the last one the Jury will see…

Post Sarkozy Cannes 8


By Robert Koehler


Palme d’Or: Amour (Michael Haneke)
Grand Prize: Reality (Matteo Garrone)
Best Director: Carlos Reygadas for Post Tenebras Lux
Jury Prize: The Angels’ Share (Ken Loach)
Best Actor: Mads Mikkelsen for The Hunt
Best Actresses: Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan for Beyond the Hills
Best Screenplay: Cristian Mungiu for Beyond the Hills
Camera d’Or: Beasts of the Southern Wild (Behn Zeitlin)

Michael Haneke can no longer have anything to complain about. Expecting to win the Palme every time he makes a film, Haneke has now broken general patterns and won two Palme d’Ors in four years—a rarity surpassed only by, yes, believe it, Bille August. (Cannes used to be even worse.) With plenty of amour for Amour, a film that reportedly was widely and strongly supported by nearly the entire jury, Haneke can go home and not worry anymore. He’ll then be back later this year and early next year to pick up more prizes from critics groups. The man may have to build a new wing to his house to hold all the awards still to come.

Meanwhile, Leos Carax wasn’t called back to Cannes by Thierry Fremaux, and he must be wondering what he has to do to get some of the Haneke Treatment. It’s Carax who should be throwing a hissy fit, since his astonishing Holy Motors should have won the Palme at the end of the day. It was, along with Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux, the competition film that marked out a new path for cinema’s future, and managed to completely revive the career of a director who was deemed by many to be dead in the water. To give nothing to Holy Motors seems like some kind of statement in itself, only slightly mitigated by throwing Reygadas the best director bone—maybe more than a bone, really, since the most divisive movie in Cannes looked like it would be completely ignored for the prizes. And to give nothing to Denis Lavant, the sui generis actor at the heart of Holy Motors, its Lon Chaney, Jr., is beyond reason and responsibility. If there was love, this feels like outright hate.

Meanwhile, yawn, Ken Loach takes home another Cannes (jury) prize, as if he needs one, this one for a movie I plan to never see: The Angels’ Share. More bad choices include two awards, which two too many, for Cristian Mungiu’s profoundly annoying drama, Beyond the Hills, which contrives characters’ silence and stupid decisions to propel the narrative. And for this, it wins best screenplay. Mungiu’s co-leads shared the actress prize, which must be a compliment for whispering your lines, and whispering them as flatly as possible. This from a jury composed of four actors.

It’s not the worst Cannes awards ever, since a far worse film than Amour known as The Tree of Life won the Palme last year. And Amour isn’t bad, and is a vast improvement on The White Ribbon. But it’s a safe set of awards, with the exception of Reygadas and perhaps for Matteo Garrone for his adventurous if overly schematic Reality. When the jury had the opportunity to support the dangerous in cinema, they preferred not to. No love for that.

Post Sarkozy Cannes 7

AMOUR (Michael Haneke)

By Robert Koehler

Having just turned 70, Michael Haneke appears to be turning a new leaf in his abrasive view of humanity as being, for all its attempts at civilization, barely out of the jungle. This view might in the end be correct, but Haneke’s particularly insistence on it and his habit for mechanistic and even sadistic methods for dramatizing it can sometimes be the work of an artist who’s effectively pinning down his characters like a butterfly collector secures his possessions to a board. In his displays of complete technical and dramatic control of his materials, Haneke accentuates the impression of an uber controlling artist who allows no oxygen into the room.

The fascination of Amour is that the oxygen tank is turned on by Haneke this time, although this or any other medical device will be enough in the end to save the life of dying piano teacher Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), who’s patiently and meticulously cared for in her Paris flat by her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). A film whose title permits no ironic reading, Amour is precisely what the title identifies: The response by one loved on toward another in dire conditions, in which precisely unconditional love is called for and acted upon.

At the same time, Amour is a bit too prim and proper, too buttoned-up, too designed to win end-of-the-year critics awards, too elegantly turned out to please. It’s a kind of art house movie parade, presenting all of the items that would directly please the Laemmle Theatre’s target audience (of a certain age, cultured, urban, old enough to recall Trintignant and Riva as A Man and a Woman). Haneke has made an honest film without sensationalism, but it’s also quite strategically programmed, down to the lust in its bones to win yet another Palme d’Or, which may very well happen.

The great, moving entity at the center of Amour is Trintingant, whose first perception that something is wrong with Anne—she simply shuts down for a minute or two over breakfast—produces not concern so much as peeved anger, as if she’s playing a game and he’s the butt of a joke. It’s a fascinating choice, and true to the emotional temperature that caregivers of ailing loved ones often feel. These are genuinely cultured people (like their audience), regularly attending concerts, conversing about the new biography on conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, whose last name is casually mentioned in the same way that NBA fans would mention Kobe. Their book shelves—always an important, revealing detail in Haneke’s dramas—are bulging with music and art books, literature, CDs, and the living room remains centered on the grand piano which is slightly out of tune. Yet this life of culture is about to retreat to the background as health matters become all-consuming.

Their only daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) is genuinely concerned that her father is taking on too much; Eva may or may not know that caregivers who give their all often die before those they’re caring for, but she grows increasingly perplexed at Georges’ efforts to completely control the situation (sort of like the way Michael Haneke directs his movies), down to locking the bedroom door so nobody can see Anne in her decrepid state. “You can’t stop me from seeing her,” Eva correctly tells him, and the movie can’t stop the viewer from seeing Anne in her final phase, verging on death, and finally refusing even to take water.

Amour doesn’t so much end in murder, but relief (Rick Santorum’s response, if we care, would be outrage, confirming his worst fears about those suicidal Dutch), though Haneke makes too fine a point of it by having Georges handle an errant pigeon which has flown in the apartment window not by killing it as would have happened in an earlier movie by the maker of Funny Games but by gently capturing and freeing it. The symbolism is obvious, the gesture is telling, even close to a direct message: I, Michael Haneke, am no longer into torture. At least, not until the next movie.

Post Sarkozy Cannes 6

THE HUNT (Thomas Vinterberg)

By Robert Koehler

The strange case of Thomas Vinterberg is a model of a director not to follow, lest you fall into the chasm known as Submarino (2010). The case, though, has made a new and unexpected turn. News flash (sort of): The Hunt is a solidly made, consistently coherent and steadily intensifying drama that extols the great Scandanavian theatrical tradition of the idea of a single conscience against the world. In one sense, The Hunt is Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, re-set for our era of fears (real and imagined) of pedophilia. But it’s also a case of a director who, since the vastly overrated The Celebration, has suggested the promise of making films generated by vital dramatic ideas, failed on that promise over the past decade, and yet now may have finally found his focus.

In this way, that clever promotional gimmick known as Dogme ’95, of which Vinterberg was a part, was the worst thing that could have happened to him. His best instincts are theatrical, not cinematic, and the trickery of Dogme with its pseudo-Calvinist self-abnegation and disposal of “production values,” proved a distraction. Re-positioned in the world of Ibsen, where he clearly belongs, Vinterberg finds a central idea and holds it close. Better, he plays it out to its logical conclusion.

The premise: What’s a lonely, divorced man to do when turned upon by a little girl who’s not his own but has great affection for him? Working as an assistant at a suburban Danish kindergarten, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is a favorite of the kids, even as he struggles with his ex-wife to get more visitation rights with his teen son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom). (This drama-within-the-drama echoes a similar charged dynamic at the center of Radu Jude’s superb Berlin festival film, Everyone in the Family.) Unexpectedly, after a pleasant stretch where Lucas gives a bit of extra attention to little, darling Klara (Annika Wedderkopp)—including walking her home—she imagines a sexual encounter with him.

People tend to believe children, as more than one character observes, and this universal tendency sets a trap for Lucas, who finds that not only the entire school staff, but much of the town suspects and turns against him. Vinterberg insists upon Lucas’ position, viewing the McMartinesque drift of the community as a pull toward collective madness that reaches a level of unhinged physical danger in a tense sequence in a supermarket. The movie increasingly becomes Mikkelsen’s: His hawk-like features soften under the continual blows to his sense of self and worth, his deflated body slowed by the weight of what’s falling down on him. Vinterberg, though, doesn’t exclusively privilege Lucas: When he’s finally arrested, The Hunt shifts for a time to Marcus as a way to illustrate the full human cost of what’s unfolding. Through this mechanism, it becomes clear that Vinterberg is fundamentally an actor’s director, and when he lands upon a naturally dramatic subject that can unlock buried emotions, the results leave a mark. Even what appears to be a facile finale (or as the supertitle on screen announces, “one year later”), the closing moments leave the viewer in a state of suspended uncertainty, once again disturbed and aware that what may have been resolved is only an illusion.

Post Sarkozy Cannes 5

PARADISE: LOVE (Ulrich Seidl)

By Robert Koehler

As the first part of a trilogy with the umbrella title of Paradise about three middle-aged sisters on some kind of vacation, Paradise: Love is Ulrich Seidl at his most unexpectedly emotional. A study of one of the sisters, Anna Maria (Maria Hofstatter), being seduced by the idea and then the reality of sexual tourism while on holiday in Kenya, Seidl’s movie attacks less an enchanting paradise than a fascinating paradox: Feminist Colonialism, or, if you wish, Colonialist Feminism. Beginning her getaway as the innocent abroad soaking up the rays, sights and sounds of a resort catering to the tastes and sensibilities of the European tourist (a condition that ideally serves Seidl’s highly developed taste for cool satire), Anna Maria finds herself drawn to the possibilities of abandoning conventional sexual morés and following other women into the same kind of business that Laurent Cantet attempted and failed to dramatize in Heading South: the exchange of female cash for young, black male sex. The desire for The Other—a pal describes the taste of the young Kenyans’ skin as “like coconut”—is played in the early sections for comedy, and then finally, as absurdly impossible. In the course of things, Anna Maria finds herself able to puncture an unspoken barrier, between closely held notions of proper and improper sex, interracial relations, and the sense of what money can buy. In a superbly sustained and staged closing sequence when the corpulent gals try play a contest to see who can get one of the “Negroes” (as the subtitles, presumably written in the year 2012, astonishingly state) to get it up first. The sequence encapsulates Seidl’s challenge to his audience, which is to make sense of women turning men into their playthings and performing as the sexually dominant partner, yet at the same time acknowledging that these women are playing out the age-old roles of European occupier of African space, still colonizing (the tourism business, the sexual tourism business) and maintaining the master-servant relationship of the European colonial period, which Paradise: Love suggests, is not over. Yet the enigmatic, dancerly closing image suggests yet another reading: In a long shot—symmetrical, as always with Seidl—facing the resort’s beach and the ocean, a woman who may be Anna Maria walks in one direction while a group of Kenyan youth approach in the opposite direction, passing in the middle, and doing cartwheels in an act of complete freedom.

Post Sarkozy Cannes 4

MEKONG HOTEL (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

By Robert Koehler

A sketch for the larger “Mekong Project,” which will include at least one other film, Apichatpong’s work dances between time zones, physical spaces, bodies and finally, the Mekong itself, a wide swathe of drifting water whose flow forms a steady, epochal background for several, lightly handled dialogues. Some of these involve chats between a woman named Phon and a guy named Tong, whose dog is eaten by a ghost called a “Pob ghost,” a unique Thai apparition that can infect its human hosts with the desire to gobble flesh. Ghosts are real in Apichatpong’s cinema, and they take on extremely carnal, almost Grand Guignol effect: At times, they munch on raw meat (it looks a bit like ground steak tartar), but the mood is never close to horror. Rather, Mekong Hotel is pitched more to the tone of a reverie, made even lilting by an element which Apichatpong has never deployed before: Constant music on the soundtrack, written and performed by classical guitarist Chai Bhatana, who describes on-screen to the director that it’s something like “Spanish blues.” It’s perhaps the right kind of music to listen to in order to salve the pain of the recent terrible floods in Thailand, which effectively shut down the country during the end of last year. The scars of the flood haunt the film—an exposed tree trunk at one point appears in the middle of the giant river, reminding one and all about the disaster. Many of the scenes offer glimpses of what could be a much larger film to come. But Mekong Hotel is more rounded than a mere sketch: The spectre of the flood gives way in the astonishing closing image to the river as a field of play and continuity. In a grand long shot from the hotel balcony, several people race around on SkiDoos, carving curves and circles and paisley patterns in the gray-blue current, and then a long boat emerges at the bottom of the frame, cutting a straight line against the current, an arrow of tradition intersecting with the whirls of modernity. It one-ups the magnificent river race sequence in Antonioni’s Il grido, where race boats are seen cutting lovely lines on the surface of another gray river, a set of images that draw great beauty from the interplay between the infinite flow of the river, the shift and shape of the water created by the playful boats. Apichatpong’s final image expands on this, with boats of the past and present brought together in an integrated pattern, history unfolding as the river flows past.

Post Sarkozy Cannes 3

RUST & BONE (Jacques Audiard)

By Robert Koehler

A straight, flat and blunt object, Jacques Audiard’s new movie sits there, like a dumb thing. It is literally what it is, and no more; that is, everything Audiard presents on screen is the sum total, with no subtext, no metaphor, no underbelly. Here it is: Bullhead star Matthias Schoenaerts plays Ali, an occasional petty thief and former boxer and kickfighter, who takes his little boy to the Cote d’Azur to live with his sister Louise (Celine Sallette), a grocery store checkout clerk. Finally landing a job as a club bouncer, Ali encounters Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a trainer of orcas at the local Marineland, where she experiences a terrible accident that leaves her without her lower extremities. Lured into the world of street fighting by the suspicious Martial (the intensely bearded Boulli Lanners), Ali wins some and loses some (including his teeth) while maintaining a relationship with Stephanie that’s both erotic and de-personalized: Ali can’t connect with people, while Stephanie, finding a way to walk with artificial limbs, revives herself. She’s light on her feet, and he is all bulk and punch and growl, impervious, willing to allow himself to be a player in human cockfights. Why he does this is apparently of no interest to Audiard, whose reason for making the movie is, in the end, a mystery. Ali’s son finally redeems him, but it’s through yet another water-bound, near-death accident, and the whole project seems irrelevant in its gestures and effect, the kind of film that King Vidor made far better 70-plus years ago. Audiard utterly lacks poetry in his filmmaking and direction, relying entirely on his actors to provide grist and blood and a pulse. Schoenaerts and Cotillard do this, but is this any surprise? They’re arguably not good but great actors, and they’re here to deliver, which they do. But, like all of Rust & Bone, there’s no surprise or shock in the performances, except for possibly the (highly digitized) sight of legless Cotillard, her thighs tattoed “Gauche” and “Droite,” astride Schoenaerts for some lusty sex. The images don’t last in this instantly forgettable melodrama.