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CANNES, France — When it was announced earlier this spring that Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul — who commonly goes by the zippier but less wackily poetic name “Joe” — would be bringing a film to Cannes, many of his fans, including me, cheered out loud. But we were puzzled when we learned that the film would not be part of the main competition lineup — it was instead slotted into the Un Certain Regard program. Was the decision purely political? (Cannes is nothing if not political.) Was it possible the film just wasn’t that good? Joe’s 2010 Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was one of the strangest and most wonderful pictures of that year, a hypnotic meditation on life, death, and all that lies in between. Plus, it was just kind of awesome that a film featuring monkey ghosts and a catfish skilled in the fine art of cunnilingus could win the Palme d’Or, as Uncle Boonmee did that year.
Joe’s new film, Cemetery of Splendor, isn’t yet haunting me the way Uncle Boonmee did. But it’s been only 24 hours since I’ve seen it, and I’ve found that Joe’s movies sometimes need days, even weeks, to marinate, and a second or third viewing doesn’t hurt, either. Still, Cemetery of Splendor is growing on me. The film is set in a small Thai village, where a temporary shelter has been set up in a former school for soldiers suffering from a mysterious sleeping sickness: They lie placidly in their beds, each flanked by glowing, tubelike lights that shift through every color in the spectrum as the men snooze away. These lights are designed to soothe the soldier’s minds as they dream. I have no idea if these are a real thing or just a fanciful Joe invention, but either way, I wish the Sharper Image would start carrying them.
Jenn (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), a middle-aged woman with a leg deformity, has come to volunteer at the makeshift clinic; her special charge is Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), a sleeping soldier with no family to visit him. Jenn befriends Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a psychic who uses her powers to read the soldiers’ dreams, thus helping them communicate with loved ones.
Eventually, Itt wakes up — or does he? Either way, Jenn communicates with him in a language far more intuitive and expressive than literal words. Jenn also receives a visit from a pair of ancient princess goddesses, who appear to her in human form: They hang out with her at a picnic table for a few minutes, even helping themselves to some fruit she’s brought in a paper bag. The deities tell her the clinic stands on the site of an ancient palace, and that warriors fought battles on these very grounds thousands of years ago. The ghosts of those warriors are still fighting, drawing upon the sleeping soldiers’ energy. This could go on until the end of time.
I have no idea what any of this means, at least in any literal sense, but that’s the way it is with Joe’s movies: You really just have to breathe them in. It’s a bit strange, too, to try to assess a Joe movie in the context of a festival: His films glide along on vaporous streams of well-being and calmness, and when you’re seeing three or four movies a day (and sometimes more), it can be a little hard to slow yourself down enough to scramble onto your own personal lily pad. But I can tell you that Cemetery of Splendor is a lovely, beguiling picture — perhaps not as electric as Uncle Boonmee, or as sensual as Tropical Malady, but possessed of its own shimmering, sleepytime energy. It’s the chamomile tea of Cannes 2015. Nighty-night.