Film

Chloé Zhao’s Cowboys Are Still in the Spotlight

“The Rider” is the best of the fest — so far

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Though most of the attention at Cannes is directed toward the Official Competition titles — the ones vying for the Palme d’Or — there are films to discover everywhere. Directors’ Fortnight, for example, is technically a separate festival, one that makes its own programming decisions. As he was awarded a lifetime achievement award on the opening night of Fortnight, a very grateful and enthusiastic Werner Herzog recalled that his masterpiece Aguirre, the Wrath of God was rejected by Cannes itself but screened here. It was a fitting sentiment with which to kick off the event — since Fortnight’s opening night film was Un Beau Soleil Intérieur by Claire Denis, who, despite probably being one of the two or three best working directors in France, hasn’t been in Official Competition for decades.

The movie (whose title, for now, has been awkwardly translated as Bright Sunshine In) seems at first like the director’s attempt at something more conventional and light. Juliette Binoche plays a middle-aged divorcée hopping from relationship to relationship with men — there’s the businessman who likes to boss her around and whose shitty behavior she admits turns her on; there’s the handsome actor who seems to overthink and doubt everything; there’s her ex-husband, for whom she still has affection but who already appears to be moving on.

Denis takes the typical moves of a particular kind of romantic comedy — a woman tries to decide between potential mates, none entirely satisfactory — and imbues them with a patience and sexual frankness rare to the genre. (The opening scene involves Binoche encouraging one to achieve orgasm.) What Denis makes most vivid is this woman’s restless weariness — she falls for these men, even though they’re often unworthy, but she’s also quite self-aware. The film never judges her, but she judges herself.

This isn’t necessarily Denis at her strongest, but the ending is a genuine knockout. If the romantic comedy is practically defined by its journey toward resolution — by reassuring audiences that there’s always somebody out there for us — then Bright Sunshine In completely upends the formula, closing out instead on a delirious, hilarious vision of utter dissolution. To say more would be a crime. Suffice it to say that the movie’s mostly enjoyable, but its ending is immortal.

Directors’ Fortnight is also hosting the best film I’ve seen so far at Cannes, the small American indie The Rider, directed by Chloé Zhao (whom I interviewed). It follows a young rodeo cowboy of Sioux descent who’s been sidelined by a grave injury, the result of a ghastly fall off a horse. Told that he might die if he ever attempts to ride again, Brady (played by real-life rodeo star Brady Jandreau, whose own life and career-ending injury inspired the film) wrestles with the idea of a future devoid of the one activity that gives him meaning. Barely in his early twenties, the young man seems caught between the duties of manhood and a child’s helplessness — some of the most striking moments come in Brady’s arguments with his tough-guy father, who has instilled a macho code in his son but now wants him to stand down from the fight of his life.

Working with a cast of nonprofessionals who play themselves — this includes Brady’s autistic sister and his paraplegic best friend and fellow rodeo casualty, Lane Scott — and are often re-enacting events from their own lives, Zhao achieves a lovely balance between unflinching realism and the hauntingly lyrical. The grit and poverty of life on the reservation make a striking contrast with the film’s more meditative, expressive passages, as Brady dreams of the freedom of life on horseback. Much of The Rider has been shot at magic hour, and it’s hard not to be overcome by the splendor of the landscape. Movies that blend real life and fiction usually foreground the docu-style realism, using the poetry as grace notes or punctuation. Zhao privileges both, and in so doing creates a work of heartbreaking beauty.

None of this is meant to suggest that the festival’s Official Competition hasn’t also had its standout titles. One film that took some viewers here by surprise was 120 Battements par Minute, which has been translated into English as BPM (Beats Per Minute), a drama about the efforts of the Paris branch of ACT UP in the 1980s. It’s the kind of story that could easily have lent itself to a shallow, made-for-cable social history, but director Robin Campillo achieves a touching and pointed mixture of styles. Early scenes focus on ACT UP’s weekly meetings, their attempts at direct action, as well as debates over strategy and tactics and process. In its first half, the film resembles Ava DuVernay’s Selma in the way it digs into the everyday life of a movement, while also guiding us through the issues at stake and the maze of acronyms. (It also has resemblances to Laurent Cantet’s The Class, which won the Palme here back in 2008, and which Campillo co-wrote.)

But this clear-eyed, consciously didactic approach eventually gives way to something more personal, as our protagonist, Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a newbie to the organization, becomes increasingly involved with the group and falls in love with Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), one of its more vocal members. Campillo depicts with intimate tenderness their navigation of their relationship through the realities of the plague (Sean is HIV-positive, Nathan is negative) and the internal politics of ACT UP. At the same time, Campillo never lets us forget we’re watching the story of a collective, as very different people come together and argue vociferously, all in an effort to act as a unit — imperfect, scrappy, vital.

Ruben Östlund’s The Square, meanwhile, is a portrait of a very different organization: In a contemporary art museum in Sweden, chief curator Christian (Claes Bang) prepares to host a conceptual art project called “The Square,” which is described as “a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” Through a variety of episodes in his life and work, we see the failure of such utopianism. That the square is being placed in the courtyard of a royal palace, where once stood the statue of a monarch (which we see being removed at the film’s opening), further posits a debate between democratic values and those of a more hierarchical society.

The language describing “The Square” (the art installation) suggests that humanity’s natural state tends toward equilibrium and fairness — or that these can at least be achieved by a kind of quiet, willing consensus. When such thinking meets the real world, of course, chaos ensues, and through its somewhat loosely connected, often hilarious vignettes, The Square questions our understanding of honesty, trust, and fellowship. Be it a bizarre argument about what to do with a used condom in the wake of a sexual encounter, a creatively calamitous way to retrieve a stolen phone, or a craven approach to marketing “The Square” itself, the film’s scenes suggest that our notions of integrity and community might be a lot more fragile than we think.

The Square is a film of set pieces, but perhaps the most impressive involves a museum gala dinner that is interrupted by a man pretending to be an ape (played by Terry Notary, the American stuntman and motion capture coordinator), whose antics at first seem charming and eventually become terrifying. The scene reiterates the question at the heart of The Square: When left to its own devices, does humanity find equilibrium, or does it disintegrate into aggressors and subjects? And just what does it take for us to come to others’ aid? The Square has a remarkably clearheaded and streamlined way of asking these questions, but the answers it provides are always tantalizingly unclear.

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