All This Useful Beauty
Cannes, FranceWhile the official selection continues to find Great Aged Directors wading in shallow auteurist waters, Cannes's "Director's Fortnight"dedicated to unveiling new talent has become the place for discoveries. Relegated this year to the sidebar because of the supposedly strong British slate, Lynne Ramsay followed up 1999's Ratcatcher with the more idiosyncratic Morvern Callar. The talk of Cannes, though, was 31-year-old Mexican director Carlos Reygadas's debut, Japón, in which a gimpy city dweller descends into an isolated village to prepare himself for suicide. Japón won an honorable mention in the Camera d'Or competition and, much to the director's surprise, unanimous positive notices.
In truth, Japón cannot be deemed a Quinzaine "discovery," having debuted in Rotterdam. Since then, it has been clipped by 15 minutes. Over orange juice at the Hotel Carlton, Reygadas explained the reasons for the cuts. "While finishing the storyboards, I could calculate the duration of each shot, and I knew it was just over two hours. When it was longer, I was going too far, of course. I was scared, because I wanted to make an absolutely normal film!"
Normal? A no-holds-barred mix of the epic and the intimate, shot in Super 16 CinemaScope Japón-O-Vision, Reygadas's gorgeous canvas on salvation recalls the landscapes of Leone, the mise-en-scène of Tarkovsky, and thanks to a grueling three-month shoot that often resembled a military operation, the battle scars of Herzog. "The surroundings inspired everything. I was looking for beauty all the time. People don't understand that beauty itself is the most powerful discourse of all. Someone asked Picasso, 'Yours is a beautiful painting, but what is it about?' He said, 'When you see a beautiful flower, do you want to ask God what it's all about?' I feel so much power in some things I see and hear that I feel destroyed. When I was watching Sokurov's Russian Ark yesterday, I started crying. I felt completely touched in every part of my body."
Reygadas wishes to elicit similar sensations in his viewers. "In my life, I try to be the best human possible, but I know I cannot. I accept my limitations, my fits of bad humor and egotism. That's Japón, too. At the same time, there's pleasure, and the pleasure develops into horrible pain. You can pity all the characters, and also admire them. Some people won't tolerate that you won't accept your limits, but next I still will try and do the most beautiful film ever. I suppose I won't succeed, but I'll try."
Reygadas has some competition. When pressed for "the most beautiful film ever," he reluctantly opines, "Probably Ordet, that's pretty good." Though a Cannes trade paper dumbfoundingly compared the impressionistic Morvern Callar to Dreyer, it's actually Ramsay's Beau Travail. Adapted from Alan Warner's novel, it has something the other British Cannes entries lack: a personal, poetic vision. The film begins with the young titular Scottish supermarket worker finding her boyfriend dead on the kitchen floor. She experiences an intense disassociated reaction, plunging herself into rave culture. Her reaction is daringly given voice only through her mix tape. Ramsay suggests that Morvern's numbed inaction is an outgrowth of the character's lifestyle, one lending itself to escape. When Morvern, stunningly depicted by Samantha Morton, realizes the mundaneness inherent in her usual form of flight, she heads into nature. For 10 minutes in the Spanish countryside, with endless landscape and oversaturated imagery, the film becomes the Scottish Japón.
Morvern Callar also stands as a sly comment on female authorship. After discovering her boyfriend's unpublished manuscript, Morvern follows his instructions for submission, but substitutes her own name for his. When impressed London publishers press her for details on her next projectsurely a scene from Ramsay's life circa 1999Morvern's lost for words. The director was likewise unavailable for comment, as she skipped out on interviews to get married on a yacht moored in international waters.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.