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A Holocaust thriller marks an impressive debut at Cannes

9:22 a.m. I spend the early part of the day writing in the Palais’ press lounge, which is kind of like a high school computer lab with adjacent free espresso and a smoking terrace covered in artificial turf. Press access at Cannes is based on prioritized badge colors and is strictly managed by the Goons: guys in identical khaki suits, generally with buzzed haircuts, who block every doorway with a badge scanner. Cannes veterans tell me that the Goon Corps has lightened up significantly over the last few years. I find them mostly friendly and gracious.

1:39 p.m. A disappointing follow-up to Tuesday, After Christmas, the Un Certain Regard entry One Floor Below (Grade: B- / C+) finds Romanian director Radu Muntean attempting to rework an all-too-common art-film plot point—the oblique murder—into a portrait of life after the Eastern Bloc. Chunks of Tuesday were set in a dentist’s office, and here Muntean outdoes himself on the boring-job front by giving his protagonist, Patrascu (teddy-bearish Teodor Corban), a small business that handles auto titles and car registrations, and setting nearly a third of the movie around his work.

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It’s a credit to Muntean’s gifts as a director that these sequences function as expressions of plot and character, despite never cluing in the non-Romanian viewer on exactly what Patrascu is doing. The difference here is that, unlike in his closely observed last feature, little here is rooted in recognizable psychology. Patrascu—a family man, trying to diet, who spends his mornings jogging with his dog, Jerry—has every reason to believe that his neighbor, Vali (Iulian Postelnicu), murdered a woman who lives in their building, but tells no one, including the police who come to ask whether he saw or heard anything suspicious.

One Floor Below trades in technophobia and historically ingrained paranoia, but struggles to articulate itself past the point of the merely suggestive. Still, its middle stretch—in which Vali begins maneuvering his way into Patrascu’s life—is tense, and benefits significantly from Muntean’s knack for careful long takes and off-screen sound, those two standbys of the somehow-still-sort-of-ongoing Romanian New Wave. The long take of Patrascu researching the victim on Facebook, framed as an Internet Explorer window and soundtracked by the wheezing fan of his outdated PC, is a doozy.

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7:30 p.m. In The Shadow Of Women opens the Semaine, also known as Directors’ Fortnight, one of the parallel festivals that occurs during Cannes, held in the basement of a JW Marriott hotel. This means that those who couldn’t make the morning press screening (e.g., me) have to sit through almost 45 minutes of introductions, which include what sounds like the entirety of a freshman college term paper on this year’s honoree, Jia Zhang-ke. Jia, who has a film in the official Main Competition, bashfully walks up to the stage. He wears the standard uniform of the festival-going art filmmaker—black suit, black shirt—with goth girl shoes: shiny platform brothel creepers with clear plastic soles.

8:14 PM Can Philippe Garrel—poet of small Parisian apartments and ghostly doomed romance—make a comedy? In The Shadow Of Women (Grade: B) is certainly structured like one, and probably has more laugh-out-loud moments than all Garrel’s prior work combined. Co-scripted with a team that included Jean-Claude Carrière, the prolific screenwriter best known for his work with Luis Buñuel, this brief (only 73 minutes!) tale of jealousy and infidelity is the airiest, cutesiest thing Garrel has ever made, despite boasting the most toxic protagonist this side of Listen Up Philip.

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Employing third-person narration (read by the director’s son, actor Louis Garrel), luxuriant black-and-white anamorphic compositions, and a sparse score, Garrel invests this story of a married documentary duo (Stanislas Merhar and Clotilde Courau) with the ironic tenor of classic short fiction. Like much of the filmmaker’s work from the 1980s on—including his last feature, Jealousy, which could easily swap titles with this one—In The Shadow Of Women feels disconnected from time, unfolding on a scale defined by volatile relationships. And yet, it’s also somehow very funny, with Merhar’s dick husband figuring as a spot-on parody of self-excusing male angst and ego.

In The Shadow Of Women is preceded by Actua 1 (Grade: C+), a minor long-lost short filmed by Garrel during the May ’68 riots, which mostly impresses me with how much its imagery brings to mind Garrel’s much-later Regular Lovers. During the exhaustingly long standing ovation that follows the screening, I turn around to see director Claire Denis in the row behind me, hooting and whistling.

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10:01 p.m. Saul Auslander, the protagonist of Son Of Saul (Grade: B for now), spends almost the entire movie framed in tight Academy Ratio close-up, and yet remains a mystery. One of the rare first features to debut in the Main Competition, Son Of Saul is essentially a genre piece, set over 36 hours in the gas chambers, crematoria, and barracks of an unspecified death camp in 1944. Saul is a Sonderkommando, a Jew tasked with clean-up and work detail within the machine of the Holocaust. Convinced that one of the bodies pulled from the gas chamber is his illegitimate son—which the movie hints might be a delusional expression of guilt—he goes off in search of a rabbi to help him properly bury the boy. All the while, his fellow Sonderkommandos are all too aware that their own days are numbered, and are planning a break-out, in which Saul is expected to play a role.

First-time director Laszlo Nemes constructs the movie—reportedly the only one at Cannes screening from 35mm—out of long, energetic, complicated handheld takes, executed with razor precision and marked by continually shifting focus and the itching movement of the characters. (Nemes was previously an assistant director for fellow Hungarian Bela Tarr, and a viewer can detect strains of Tarr’s artifice and crafted atmosphere, albeit at a radically sped-up pace.) Everyone is always coming and going, cowering and whispering, busying themselves with work or being beaten by kapos and guards. It’s technically impressive as a thriller, an attempt at portraying the Holocaust, and as a vision of Hell; the camera sticks close to the Sonderkommandos as they keep moving from task to task, the growing piles of bodies appearing as little more than flesh-colored lumps of bokeh in the smeared background of the frame.

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Ironically, the thing that sets Son Of Saul’s frenzied ticking in motion—Saul’s need to bury the body of the boy—ends up becoming a distraction; once it’s introduced, it fulfills its function as a metaphor. Seen in a late-night screening at the Bazin, the smallest of the Palais’ press theaters, from one of the glistening straight-from-the-lab prints, it looks like the first sure prizewinner of the festival.

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