As a major festival like Cannes wears on, my notebook accumulates more scrawl than I can translate into full blog posts. So, behold! The first of likely several notebook dumps, with thoughts on John Hillcoat's bootleggers-with-hearts-of-gold vs. sexually-ambiguous-evil-fed and weak-ass local lawmen Western Lawless; Xavier Dolan's tranny-coming-out epic Laurence Anyways; and Cristian Mungiu's follow-up to The Romanian Abortion Movie, Beyond the Hills.
“Hi, I'm Shia LaBeouf's Big Fake Hillbilly Accent. Harvey Weinstein said he wouldn't release Lawless, the movie I was invented for, unless I recorded a bunch of narration to be laid over music montages, explaining what Prohibition was, so that my built-in post-Transformers fan base can keep up. Enjoy!”
Never-not-fun junk food enlivened by good actors (what Tom Hardy can do with a librarian sweater and a grunt!) and a thin ghosting of Hollywood-style “relevancy” (i.e.: the Depression-era rebel impulse to live outside a crooked system and broken economy draws parallels to today), but only barely enough actual substance to keep the shoot-'em-ups interesting. “Why was Jessica Chastain cast in a thankless girlfriend role?” is a frequent refrain from critics; the better question is, “Why bother writing a thankless girlfriend role to begin with?”
My big issue with 23-year-old French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan's second feature, Heartbeats, was the lip service the film paid to defining a generation's mating habits, while in practice devoting what seemed like 70 percent of the running time to music video-style montages of his hyper-stylish characters looking really fucking terrific. Dolan's third feature, Laurence Anyways, is the longest film playing in any of Cannes' programs — two hours and 39 minutes — and it would probably be more like two hours if all the slo-mo enhancing the many, many sexy montages set to early-'80s club tracks (oh, right — Visage was a thing) was run at regular-mo instead. And Laurence Anyways is also a little too loud in its claim to generational summation — one character actually announces that her generation (the film is a period piece, tracking 30-somethings from the late '80s to the end of the millennium) is the first “ready” for alternative sexuality to be treated as a lifestyle mode, like punk, rather than a social aberration. What redeems the film, sort of, are the way in which that proclamation is later called into question by soap operatic, but almost realistically complicated, human behavior.
Dolan is still crazy self-indulgent, but in Laurence (Melvil Poupaud), a straight man who tells his straight female fiancee, Fred (Suzanne Clement), that he wants to live as a woman without ending their relationship, he's also created characters who contain multitudes, within an unwieldy narrative that doesn't always work but is at times genuinely affecting, and not just affected. If anything, it's a bold manifesto aimed at critics like me who have slagged the filmmaker off as all style and no substance. At one point, Laurence is asked if looks matter to him. He responds, “Are you serious? Does air matter to your lungs?” Well, all right then. Fair enough.
Beyond the Hills
Alina (Cristina Flutur), sharp-featured and laser-gazed, joyfully greets Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), her former orphanage roommate, whom she's lived agonizingly apart from for several years. Voichita is less ardent, wriggling out of Alina's too-long hug on the train platform. With her somber silent-film-star face and all-black attire, at first Voichita scans as goth; then a bell rings in the distance and she reflexively crosses herself — she's not goth, she's into God.
Alina has set the two up with jobs as waitresses on a German boat, and Alina thinks she's only temporarily staying with Voichita at the secluded Romanian monastery where Voichita has become a nun — in a few days, they'll leave together, and will never have to be apart again. But whatever Voichita has allowed Alina to think, the devout young woman is too deeply tied to her newfound faith to run off with her old friend, whom she meekly acknowledges she doesn't “love” the way she used to. Alina responds to Voichita's coolness by having some kind of breakdown — which, because she's a nonbeliever at a rural Romanian monastery, is interpreted as demonic possession.
Cristian Mungiu's long-awaited feature-length follow-up to his Cannes-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days — known colloquially as The Romanian Abortion Movie — is something of a disappointment. The initially fascinating, ambiguous relationship between the two young women — were they lovers? Were they ever as close as the unstable Alina remembers or imagines? — is overwhelmed by the hysteria spawned by her unflaggingly intense presence at the monastery. In the two-and-a-half-hour film's saggy midsection, it seems like the same scenes repeat over and over again: Alina confronts Voichita about their relationship/their continually delayed departure and Voichita demurs and defers to her “papa,” the monastery's priest; a covert conversation about what to do about Alina is interrupted by a screaming nun, come to say something along the lines of, “Come quick, the heathen's freaking someone out again!” Rinse, repeat. Then the congregation decides the only thing to be done is to give Alina a lo-fi exorcism, and shit gets crazy intense, culminating in vintage neo-Romanian dry tragedy.
Given Mungiu's past work and documented interests, there's surely a larger allegory about his country at work here, but on first viewing I couldn't quite piece it together. While there are a few rich, exquisitely observed moments (a scene set in a government office in which men who use computers talk casually about the existence of witchcraft; a visit to Alina's former foster home, where she was apparently a quasi-servant, easily replaced), a larger thesis never really coheres. Even if there isn't one, you're left with Flutur and Stratan's performances — both haunting and heartbreaking.