All the buzz here at Cannes about the jeers greeting divisive films like Neon Demon and It’s Only the End of the World has, unfortunately, taken attention from some of the best films to play this year’s fest.
Case in point: The Unknown Girl, the latest from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian filmmakers who already have two Palmes, was met with a somewhat tepid response, at least compared to the rapture that often greets their work. I suspect its reputation will grow. The story of Jenny Devan (a fantastically driven Adèle Haenel), a young doctor who discovers an unlikely link between herself and an unnamed young African woman found dead near her office, the film is another of the Dardennes’ portraits of the unspoken, subtle connections between us. The directors have always shucked subtle genre elements into their work, and The Unknown Girl could be their version of a mystery: Obsessed with a person with whom she has only an unfortunate chance connection, Jenny goes through the town of Liege trying to find out — the girl’s name.
This may be one of the Dardennes’ most spiritual works in some time, suggesting an almost mystical dimension to guilt. When one character, late in the film, protests Jenny’s efforts by saying of the unknown girl that “she doesn’t care, she’s dead,” our heroine’s response is striking: “If she was dead, she wouldn’t be in our heads.” At the same time, it’s not as shattering as some of their other works. But the film is about the inability to connect and the impossibility of emotional catharsis. It’s not just that Jenny feels a queasy sense of guilt; it’s that the dead girl’s story reminds her that, as a doctor, she can mend bodies, but not souls or communities. Knowing the unknown girl, feeling something for her, would allow Jenny – and, by extension, us, the audience – to maintain her illusions about the world.
The Dardennes are listed as co-producers on Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, which makes perfect sense. It’s yet another understated but profound drama about how we live in the world. Mungiu’s abortion drama, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, took the Palme in 2007, but this latest might be his best work yet. It follows a doctor who tries to take measures into his own hands when he starts to fear his daughter won’t score the high grades she needs on her final exams. Believing that a scholarship to a British university is the girl’s best chance to flee the corruption and despair of their own country, he finds himself becoming what he hates most – someone who tries to game a corrupt system.
But this is not a man who suddenly finds his worldviews compromised; rather, he fancies himself an idealist, above deceit and graft until misfortune suddenly strikes his family. Mungiu’s characters are never really clean, however. The system around them sucks, but they’re part of that system, too. In Graduation, that realization slowly sneaks up on you. The film pulls you into the characters’ competing webs of lies, but it never loses sight of their self-justifications. It might be the saddest, most suspenseful film I’ve ever seen about educational bureaucracy.
Unlike the Dardennes and Mungiu, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda doesn’t have a Palme, but he’s come close: He won a Jury Prize in 2013 for Like Father, Like Son, and many believe he should have won the big prize in 2004 for Nobody Knows. In his latest, After the Storm, he follows a divorced dad, Shinoda (played by Hiroshi Abe in one of the fest’s best performances), a failed novelist and gambling addict looking to put his life back together. When we first meet Shinosa, it’s not going well; he’s raiding his mom’s apartment and searching his recently departed dad’s possessions for anything he could sell. Unfortunately, his father was also a gambling addict and pawned just about everything. Shinoda is too proud to take on writing gigs that will pay, even though he spends his days working part-time for a private investigation firm. He can’t stop gambling, nor can he resist using his job to spy on his ex-wife and his son, who are moving on to a better life.
It would be easy to make such material into a tragedy, a judgmental look at a man’s agonizing downfall. But for Kore-eda, this is just a glimpse of ordinary humanity. Shinoda’s setbacks aren’t all that different from the infidelities and failures he documents at his private-eye job. “For better or worse, it’s all part of my life,” says one woman who’s just discovered her husband is cheating on her. That gentle respect for human fallibility shines throughout After the Storm, as Kore-eda patiently charts the process by which Shinoda comes to understand that he will never become the man he wants to be — and learns to reconcile aspiration and acceptance.
Kore-eda’s stories, such as they are, unfold in unlikely ways. He doesn’t play so much with structure, but with focus: He’ll allow a scene to go on and on before slipping in a crucial bit of narrative information that leads to something else. In the hands of a lesser director, that could result in tedium, but Kore-eda’s love for his characters, his ability to imbue an exchange or glance with warmth and humor, keeps us watching. You can lose yourself in his films — wondering what’s around every corner, and what’s going on in the mind of even the most minor of characters. Kore-eda won’t win a Palme this year — his film is playing in the Un Certain Regard section of the fest — but he remains one of the best filmmakers the world has.