CANNES, France — The great thing about film festivals is that they constitute a plate full of choices. The bad thing is that it’s all too easy to make the wrong one. One of the most hotly anticipated films at Cannes this year, Love — Gaspar Noé’s 3-D Parisian sex adventure, playing out of competition — was screened at midnight on Thursday. I should have gone, but, needing to make an 8:30 a.m. screening later that morning, I opted instead to catch the second Love screening, scheduled for 11. Forget it. The venue was filled before you could say “cumshot.”
I’ll manage to catch it, but for now I’m still floating on the sumptuous gold-and-lacquer cloud of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin, the Taiwanese director’s first foray into the martial-arts genre, and his first film since 2007’s The Flight of the Red Balloon. Hou favorite Shu Qi (who also starred in Millennium Mambo and Three Times) plays Nie Yinniang, a fierce fighter in ninth-century China who was kidnapped at the age of ten and trained as an assassin by the scheming nun Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi). Don’t you just love it already? Hou starts off with a gorgeous prologue: He sets it off, like a gray jewel, by shooting it in austere, elegant black-and-white, in the (squarish) Academy ratio. We see Yinniang expertly dispatch an enemy on horseback — the action is as swift and graceful as the snap of a silk flag in the wind. But when she fails to fulfill one of Jiaxin’s orders — she can’t bring herself to kill her next mark when she sees him with his young son — Jiaxin sends her away on an even more difficult mission. At this point Hou shifts to a palette of deep, rich, vibrant colors that mirror the subtle intensity of the action: Yinniang is forced to return to her home province, Weibo, which is embroiled in a struggle with the imperial court. She has orders to kill her cousin, Tian (Chang Chen), the governor of Weibo, though their family connection is even more complicated than it first appears.
I know some people who marched out of The Assassin fully confident they understood every angle of its somewhat labyrinthine plot, and others who lost the trail very early on. I’m somewhere in the middle, but I can assure you that you don’t need to be schooled in late-Tang-dynasty lore to be dazzled. Hou has always been a gifted visual stylist, favoring languorous takes that beckon you closer rather than hold you at a distance; The Assassin — shot by master cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin — may be his most resplendent film yet. There’s color everywhere: Princesses and concubines wear embroidered silk raiments in shades of pink and tangerine; rooms are dotted with bowls of peonies so bright they practically glow like lamps; gauzy patterned curtains let in just enough light, or provide subtle cover for cat-footed assassins.
The action is fleet and distinctive, quiet in a way that keeps you alert. Hou doesn’t have to beg for our attention; he favors naturalistic hand-to-hand combat, as opposed to the more fanciful traditional Wu-Xia wirework. And so even though this is a fantasy, the fighting feels disarmingly real: The characters bob and weave and dance, and you can hear and feel their feet hitting the ground. The Assassin explores the fringy divide between love and duty, and Shu carries its emotional weight deftly. Dressed all in black, she moves like a half-glimpsed shadow. Hou uses very few close-ups here, preferring to tell his story mostly through movement: combat, dance, the act of moving through a landscape of satiny green firs or silvery birch trees and just watching. Shu conveys complicated feelings — longing, regret, anxiety — with little more than the tilt of her chin or the set of her shoulders. The Assassin is the slowest martial-arts movie in the East, and that’s a wonderful thing.
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Though the festival still has a few days to go, my time here is coming to an end. So here’s the part where I dash through a few of the twenty-odd movies I’ve seen in the past eight days, disappointments and pleasant surprises alike.
There’s so much that’s right with Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, which follows a trio of recent Sri Lankan emigrants as they carve out a new life in a rough suburb of Paris. They also find they’ve left behind one civil war only to have dropped into another: Rival street gangs fight openly on the turf of their decrepit housing block, making any sort of peaceful, prosperous life impossible. But, uncharacteristically for Audiard, there are a few puzzling ellipses in the filmmaking, and the ending feels false and unearned — we want the best for this makeshift family, but we have so much invested in their potential happiness that we don’t just want it handed to us. Dheepan covers some pretty rough emotional terrain with sensitivity and even some humor, but its lapses are disappointing.
One of the more unloved pictures in competition this year is Maïwenn’s Mon Roi, in which Emmanuelle Bercot gives a finely shaded performance as a lawyer who falls in love with a highly unreliable charmer (a sexy-as-hell Vincent Cassel) — not to put too fine a point on it, but he’s just plain nuts. Critics here shrugged mightily over the film, but Maïwenn (director of Polisse, a hit of the 2011 festival) gets at some of the raw sadness of what it means for a woman to be deeply in love with an unstable guy. The movies are full of men who are obsessed with Betty Blue–type nut jobs yet just can’t stay away. Maïwenn turns the tables, and even though the film is slightly messy and far too long, she still claws her way to something candid and believable.
Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, in which Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel play old-timers killing some days at a Swiss resort, is one of three Italian competition entries this year, along with Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales and Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre. Even if it’s the most unshaped of the three, Youth may be the most satisfying. Sorrentino is like a master dessert maker who keeps piling sweets on a tray until they reach precarious heights: He just doesn’t know when to stop. But the movie has so many lovely moments that coasting along with it is easy. In fact, it contains one of my favorite images of any movie I saw at Cannes 2015: that of Caine, a crotchety retired composer, perched on a tree stump in a field, conducting a herd of placid cows in a makeshift symphony of ringing bells. It’s the kind of fanciful, inventive touch that makes you alive to the movies in the first place. Bellissimo.