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Imagine a remake of Cape Fear shot like Kubrick’s The Shining, with Max Cady recast as a child, and you’ll have some idea of the strangeness of Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer. The film has quickly proved to be one of the most divisive titles at this year’s Cannes festival, thanks to its delirious story and aggressively arty stylization. It’s the kind of picture where emotions are almost (almost) always played in cool, deadpan fashion — even as people’s lives collapse around them — and narrative logic is strained until it goes fully absurd.
But I was mostly charmed (is that the word?) by this poisoned curio, in which brilliant heart surgeon Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) is told by Martin (Barry Keoghan), the young, troubled son of a patient who died at the doctor’s hands, that he must choose one family member to sacrifice in order to save the others. A sudden, mysterious illness has already robbed Stephen’s young son Bob (Sunny Suljic) of the use of his legs, and Martin says that the boy’s death is imminent unless Stephen makes a choice. Teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) eventually joins her brother in paralysis, and we’re assured that Stephen’s wife (Nicole Kidman) will be next. How is Martin making this happen? Can he be stopped? — these are questions for another movie. In Lanthimos’s oracular world, the boy’s power is total and unquestioned.
Like all good parables, this one has flexibility. You can read any number of political, historical, or religious overtones into it: broken children claiming a blood debt from those responsible for their agony, and the sacrifices that have to be made in return. And the director knows how to weave a spell. With his impeccably symmetrical frames, his precise camera moves, his careful blocking of actors, his sudden crashes of classical music, Lanthimos crafts a cinematic world that can support his otherworldly scenario, while also creating genuine suspense.
For a while, at least. For most of its running time, Sacred Deer works as a series of actions and emotions and attitudes that, while taken to symbolic extremes, still feel vaguely rooted in recognizable reality. But as things spin out of control, getting ever stranger, I started to wonder if the director had merely written himself into a corner and was doubling down on weirdness to get himself out. And yet the film never quite loses its mythic drive. You walk out feeling like you’ve had an experience.
Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman are also center-stage in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, a Civil War–set gothic drama about a wounded Union soldier who’s taken in by the headmistress and students of a secluded, all-female Virginia seminary. Based on Thomas Cullinen’s novel and previously filmed in 1971 by Don Siegel with Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page, it’s a tale of repressed desires and sexual power dynamics that could easily lead, on the screen, to over-the-top silliness. (Some consider the 1971 version campy, but I always found it more disarmingly sleazy than ridiculous.)
Coppola’s a master at taking something that could be portentous and rendering it delicate, thereby reclaiming its depth. (Think back to the lilting mood of The Virgin Suicides.) The emotions in The Beguiled are simple and understated, and you feel more for the characters as a result. As Corporal John McBurney (Farrell) is nursed back to health, he starts to toy with the women and young girls of the seminary, in an effort to get them to let him stay. But it’s not as if they needed much extra encouragement: They’re donning their nicest clothes and jewelry not long after he arrives. And everyone’s aware of it, too — the innuendo and stolen glances are quick and playful, not belabored or heated.
The character dynamics transfix — particularly the interplay between headmistress Miss Martha (Kidman) and teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst, excellent as always) — but I was most taken with the way Coppola uses style to create meaning. In the first half, we hear but almost never see bombs in the distance, a regular reminder of the battlefield’s proximity. As the story becomes darker and more violent, Coppola often cuts to exterior shots of the seminary, and we hear the shouting and stomping come from inside the building — as if the war has finally infiltrated the grounds and these girls’ reality.
But this isn’t an artificial, outside violence that has entered this sheltered idyll. Coppola’s foregrounding of texture suggests that this male intruder and all he’s come to represent is as much an organic, elemental fact as the mushrooms these girls pick in the nearby woods and the earth they dig in their garden. Meanwhile, the black smoke of war rising in the distance looks not unlike the silhouettes of the trees from behind which it emerges. The cruelties, jealousies, and manipulations of The Beguiled, the director implies, are natural — they come from within. And the haunting series of shots that end the film suggests that what’s emerged will never go away.
After the focus on lost children and failed institutions in the early days of the festival, Cannes now seems to have entered a phase of exploring broken families. (Even The Beguiled could be seen as a fable about the breakdown of a spiritual family.) Besides The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the two most notable works in that regard might be Michael Haneke’s sour, dour, impenetrable Happy End and Noah Baumbach’s ingratiating, touching The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).
As the title suggests, the latter is a self-consciously ambling comedy, one exploring the relationship between two very different brothers (Adam Sandler is the unemployed, divorced layabout, Ben Stiller the high-powered accountant to the stars) and their failed-artist father (Dustin Hoffman). It doesn’t quite have the drive and stylistic panache of other recent Baumbach efforts, but it makes up for it with sincerity. Sandler’s core as a performer has always been self-loathing; in his best comedies, he weaponizes it with humiliating ruthlessness. Here, however, he internalizes it, as his character struggles both to raise his precocious college-bound daughter (a wonderful Grace Van Patten) and bond with his judgmental, old-school–New York art-elite dad.
Baumbach perfectly captures the passive-aggressive and sometimes genuinely aggressive-aggressive back-and-forth between siblings and parents and children, plus the unstated hierarchies of the New York intelligentsia. When Hoffman attends a MoMA event for an old pal who eventually became an art-world big shot, the stew of feelings — entitlement, envy, judgment, regret — that plays across his face and in his words is nearly heartbreaking. That scene also contains one exchange that I have actually witnessed in real life: the pathetic sight of a famous artist walking past a curator in mid-conversation and casually saying, “I’m not talking to you,” thereby guaranteeing that the curator will stop whatever he’s doing and go talk to the artist.
I wish there were anything in Michael Haneke’s Happy End remotely as insightful and cutting as that one throwaway moment in The Meyerowitz Stories. Instead, Haneke has delivered the Haneke film that Haneke-haters see in their heads when they think of a Haneke film: a series of disjointed, narratively oblique episodes showing people being inhumane to each other. It all centers on a comically dysfunctional Calais family whose wealth comes from a construction empire. Everybody’s got something going on: Wheelchair-bound patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) wants to end his life, and even asks random strangers to do so; his daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert) is trying to manage the family business; her brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) is carrying on a lurid affair, thus betraying his second wife; Thomas’s daughter Eve (Fantine Harduin) has most likely poisoned her mother and is now trying to settle in with her father’s fucked-up family; Anne’s dopey grown son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) struggles to contain the damage caused by a horrific accident on one of their construction sites.
It’s a smorgasbord of privilege and isolation and incompetence and madness, often delivered via scenes shot from so far away that we’re never entirely sure what we’re seeing. The material — framed, subtly, against the European refugee crisis and the toxic racial inequities of our day — feels ripe for Haneke, whose previous films have so expertly cut through the hidden monsters of social ritual and acceptable behavior. But in spreading his focus around these different figures, he loses the slow-burning energy needed to convey his outrage, as well as the hint of perverse empathy that, no matter what his critics say, always lies beneath his work. Haneke’s not unfeeling; he usually just asks audiences to meet him halfway. But with the cold, messy, and fundamentally irritating Happy End, I can’t help but feel he’s abandoned us entirely.