Cannes Film Festival: Lawless, Laurence Anyways, Beyond the Hills


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” (ie: 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?”

Laurence Anyways

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
thirty-nine 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 milennium) is the first “ready” for
alternative sexuality to be treated as a lifestyle mode, like punk,
rather than a socail aberration. What redeems the film, sort of, is the
ways 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 (Melvin
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, alright 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,
who 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 non-believer at a rural Romanian monastery, is
interpreted as demonic possession.

Cristian Mungui’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 mid-section 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 Mungui’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.