Cannes, France — My week in Cannes is just about half over, and while I haven't yet seen a film that I would champion without reservation, there have been a few near misses. Gerardo Naranjo is a hell of a director, but I'm not quite as high as Hoberman on Miss Bala. It's probably the most visually exciting film I've seen here, with more than one masterful, unbroken wide-angle steadicam shot in this deadpan violent saga that calls to mind Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend (an interesting trajectory for Naranjo, whose last feature, I'm Gonna Explode, recast Pierrot le Fou as a kind of punk romcom of class-crossed Mexican teens).
But Stephanie Sigman's would-be beauty queen character is barely developed, making it difficult to invest in her escalating punishment. As she's shuttled between increasingly bizarre stages of exploitation, her receding personality seems increasingly like a deliberate strategy to set up one woman's suffering as a stand-in for the rape of a nation — a suspicion bolstered by Bala's gratuitous film-closing on-screen titles, reminding us that The War On Drugs is, like, bad, especially for women.
Meanwhile, I'm not prepared to dismiss Poliss, a film crippled by its director/co-star's self-importance (the romance between Maiwenn's photographer and Joeystarr's hot-headed investigator seems to exist to amp up the filmmaker's own screen time), and marred by a ridiculous cross-cut “shock” conclusion, but still an impressive feat of improvised ensemble performance and directing.
And I don't think its humor is inadvertent at all — I would say that two-thirds of this self-reflexive study of sex crime investigators is an intentional In the Loop-style spoof on TV procedurals like Law and Order: SVU, and when it works, it's genuinely funny. The dramatic material is shakier, but in a single scene as rape victim in labor, Alice de Lencquesaing absolutely kills it, as does her father Louis-Do in a separate story strand.
The critics I tend to sit near at screenings have been making jokes about what a bad year it is to be a kid in Cannes. In addition to Poliss' exploited minors, We Need to Talk About Kevin's victims and the “cancer kid” of Restless, there's the title character of The Kid on the Bike, the latest study of ordinary morality from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Pre-adolescent Cyril was left at an orphanage by his fuck-up father (Jérémie Renier), who promised to come back in a month…and then disappeared.
Unable to accept that his father would abandon him, Cyril flees school in an attempt to track down his dad, and/or the bike he left at his dad's house. A literal run-in leads to a bond between Cyril and Samantha (Cécile de France), a hairdresser in Cyril's dad's old neighborhood who agrees to play foster mom to the lonely, scrappy kid on the weekends. This tentative new family is threatened when Cyril, desperate for male mentorship, falls in with a slick local thug.
Bike is unlike much of the brothers' previous work in a few key ways. Intended as a fairy tale, it's set in sunny summer; it's threaded with portentous, punctuational orchestral score; and it even resolves in what seems like a happy ending.
Still, the Dardennes' vintage themes are all here: revenge, redemption, the impossibility of practical change without psychological change, the ways in which moral compasses, belief systems adapt to fit any situation in the interest of self-preservation. Eleven-year-old Cyril is in some ways the uber-Dardenne protagonist, his youthful tendency to self-delude and inability to logically assess consequence making him the ideal test subject for the filmmaker's ongoing interest in the process of consciousness.
The Dardennes' deceptively simple, hypnotically immediate films are such intense emotional experiences that I tend to need to let them sit for a few days before taking them apart. A few other films I've seen over the past few days would similarly be sold short by an attempt to address them off-the-cuff, particularly a pair of high-concept romances: the Chilean Un Certain Regard entry Bonsai, and Declaration of War, an odd duck of an autobiographical quasi-operetta (with yet another sick kid!) from French actress/director Valerie Donzelli. Unfortunately the pace of Cannes doesn't allow for the luxury of reflection. As I type this, I'm late for another screening.