Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
LIttle Joe
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

One of the prevailing ironies of Cannes is that while the films that win prizes here (see the work of Loach, first name Ken) are often urgent pleas for equality, the festival itself runs on rigid hierarchy. There is, for one, the whole badge system, which divides the thousands invited to attend every year into something like the ruthless class structure of a dystopian YA novel: When and how easily attendees get into a screening—which to say, how early they have to file into one of the long lines snaking their way around the fest’s massive HQ, the Palais—depends on what color is splashed across the little box hanging around their neck.

Cannes isn’t much more egalitarian for the filmmakers. They get inserted into a pecking order of prestige, with the main competition at the top and one of the parallel fests (probably ACID) at the bottom. I’ll confess that I spend too much time talking and thinking about these distinctions, asking what this movie is doing here or why that one didn’t make the cut. But it’s hard not to consider, especially when it comes to Un Certain Regard, the festival’s official sidebar. For as much as the programmers like to insist that UCR is not beneath the main competition, merely separate from it, getting slotted into that lineup doesn’t carry the same implication of high praise. After all, if the programmers really loved your movie, wouldn’t they’d let it compete for the top prize, the Palme D’Or?

Photo: Cannes Film Festival

Often, UCR becomes a place for emerging talent—a kind of farm league for tomorrow’s great filmmakers, who might eventually move up to the majors, so to speak. But some filmmakers realize their potential quicker. Russian wunderkind Kantemir Balagov, who’s only 27 years old, made a splash in Un Certain Regard two years ago with his directorial debut, a grim drama called Closeness. He’s back competing again for the same prize this year, but I can’t help but think that Cannes should have made room at the top for his sophomore feature, Beanpole (Grade: B+), which is probably the best movie I’ve seen at the festival this year, including any of the competition titles that have screened so far.

Set in Leningrad a few months after World War II, the film explores the ways that the war fundamentally destabilized the national character of Russia through the experiences of two lost souls, both women who spent some time on the frontlines. For Ilya (Viktoria Mironshnichenko), who works as a nurse at a veterans’ hospital and whose lanky frame earns her the titular nickname, that experience manifests itself through periodic bouts of paralysis. (The first thing we see and hear is her locked in place, rasping for air.) It doesn’t take long for these “freezing fits” to tilt Ilya’s life further into tragedy, as she accidentally smothers her young son, Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), after seizing up on top of him while roughhousing—a scene that Balagov plays for maximum devastation, locking his camera in close on the kid’s hand, flexing and releasing, then going still. It’s heavy stuff, pun certainly not intended.

Wasn’t I just complaining yesterday that Loach’s new movie was an endless gauntlet of suffering, piling one misfortune after another atop its struggling characters? Yes, and Beanpole isn’t any less bleak—this is a film whose warmest scene could be the one featuring an assisted suicide. Yet the key difference is that Balagov doesn’t see his characters just as victims. He’s as interested in their pathologies as he is in their dire circumstances. The film condenses its broad historical interest into a single damaging, psychologically complex relationship: the fraught friendship between Ilya and the woman she’s not-so-secretly in love with, soldier Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who we learn is Pashka’s actual mother—a revelation that arrives as we’re still processing the child’s death, and which drives the plot into darker, knottier dramatic territory. The performances are crucial, with the willowy Mironshnichenko playing shrinking introversion against Perelygina’s more volatile mixture of rage, desperation, and occasional cruelty. It’s a duet of trauma management.

Like a lot of young filmmakers, Balagov can be a bit of a showboat, though not in the most obvious way: His big set-pieces here aren’t ostentatious displays of formal prowess but prolonged emotional showdowns, like the scene where Masha intuits from Ilya that her son is dead, or a big, late dinner-table confrontation that perhaps too cleanly lays out some of the film’s themes and some crucial backstory. But his carefully composed imagery is striking as hell, its painterly beauty offsetting some of the horror and despair of the subject matter. Beanpole is grim, but it’s too superbly crafted, and too alive with human spirit, to be a truly grueling experience. It illustrates one of the late Roger Ebert’s most useful axioms: “All bad movies are depressing, and no good movies are.”

Little Joe
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

While Balagov elevates the UCR lineup with the sophistication of his craft, another formally gifted alum of the sidebar rises to the main competition. The English-language debut of Jessica Hausner, the fiendishly unsettling Little Joe (Grade: B+) finds the Austrian writer-director of Lourdes and Amour Fou applying her droll detachment and diorama-like mise en scène to one of the most effective and malleable of classic sci-fi premises. Emily Beecham, from TV’s Into The Badlands, plays Alice, a workaholic scientist at a bioengineering company that specializes in custom designed flora. Her big innovation is a new breed of flower that will, if carefully and properly tended, elicit feelings of happiness in its owner. Unfortunately, at least one member of the team suspects a side effect: The plant, which has been engineered to produce no seeds, may also be messing with people’s brain chemistry—implanting in them a fundamental concern for its own survival. (As Ian Malcom put it, “Life finds a way.”) This theory is a little concerning to Alice, who’s brought one of her creations home and is beginning to wonder if her young son isn’t acting a little different…

It’s possible to imagine a version of the film that would play like a straight thriller, even maybe an official remake of the popular science fiction property on which Little Joe is eccentrically riffing. But Hausner does something more disquieting and idiosyncratic: Occasional atonal shrieks on the soundtrack aside, she offers a more restrained unease, as if the film—like its heroine—were unable to rationally accept what may or may not be happening. In a sense, she takes that period of faint dread and uncertainty that usually kicks off this oft-told tale and extends it to feature length, withholding the inevitable full plummet into paranoia and horror. The tone is more dryly comic, recalling the ambivalence of Hausner’s earlier features; she’s found, in this scenario, the perfect application for her tendency to deny clarity about her characters’ motivations and feelings. Likewise, her preferred style of performance, a slightly stilted, affected remove that’s like a less over-the-top version of the lobotomy-patient deadpan Yorgos Lanthimos often forces on his actors.

Creepy for how mundanely uncreepy it plays its scenario, Little Joe is an existential horror movie about our inability to understand our own complicated emotions, and the allure of relenting to a kind of thoughtless, unburdened happiness. Or maybe it’s actually about the cerebral “infection” of parenthood, the way having a child totally rewires your priorities. It’s tough to say: Metaphorically, this isn’t a film that’s simple to categorize. Visually, it’s a total feast, contrasting art-deco pinks and mint greens against sterile, symmetrically framed expanses of white, vaguely evoking the aesthetic of some lost sci-fi film of the ’70s. In my own personal hierarchy of Cannes, Little Joe ranks highly.

Tomorrow: One day late, I’ll tackle the new Pedro Almodóvar, which some seem to think has a big shot at the big prize. Plus: the lone Chinese film in competition, Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake, and a doubtlessly dry new film from Romania’s Corneliu Porumboiu.

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