Dead Souls
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

Film festivals offer such a variety and surplus of options—so much to see at any given moment—that it’s hard not to treat them like an all-you-can-eat buffet. The thinking becomes, “If I’m not cramming as many movies as I possibly can into my schedule, than maybe I’m not getting the most out of the festival.” Shouldn’t you take advantage of this much cinema and see everything you can? Sometimes, though, one hearty entrée can be more satisfying than a dozen small plates.

Yesterday, on the first full day of the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, I opted out of nearly every movie I could possibly catch between morning and late evening, all in favor of a rather mammoth time commitment: an eight-plus hour documentary from Chinese director Wang Bing. It was, by a substantial margin, the longest film I’ve ever watched at a festival. And according to bullish fest director Thierry Frémaux, who introduced the movie to a surprisingly solid turnout in the tented (and at times insufficiently soundproof) Soixantième Theatre, it’s actually the longest official selection in Cannes history. I’d be lying by omission if I didn’t cop to how daunted I felt preparing to shotgun a movie of such marathon proportions in one sitting (or two, technically, given the hour-long intermission in the middle). But there was something unexpectedly…comfortable about the experience. Gone was the cognitive whiplash incurred by leaping instantly from one movie to another. For once at Cannes, I could focus on a single, extended vision, sinking into its ideas over time, adjusting to its rhythms as the day crawled on.

It’s fortunate, of course, that Dead Souls (Grade: B+) finds such an appropriate, significant use for its protracted running time. Wang, a feted mainstay of the festival circuit who works almost exclusively in nonfiction, has made longer movies, if that can be believed. But here, he’s tackling a topic both monumental and underexplored: the so-called Anti-Rightist movement, a campaign to deal with supposedly subversive dissent within the ranks of China’s Communist Party. From 1957 to 1959, more than half-a-million members were cajoled into expressing constructive criticism of the party, then forced, as punishment for their honesty, into labor camps for “re-education.” Most of them starved to death. Dead Souls, which Wang shot over a dozen years, unfolds as a series of long interviews with the elderly survivors, regaling the director’s often-static lens with stories that have gone largely untold—or deliberately repressed or distorted—in the half a century since.

What we’re witnessing, then, is a kind of oral history of a genocide: a spiritual relative, in length and grueling subject matter, to one of the most significant documentaries ever made, Claude Lanzmann’s landmark Holocaust memorial Shoah. Beyond just capturing and filing memories, Wang is after how his subjects process their trauma, how they frame the horror of their experiences, and how they’ve coped with survivors’ guilt. Some, like the exiled party member whose remembrances fill the first hour or so, dryly and almost procedurally recount the ordeal, providing historical context. Others are intensely emotional in their vivid storytelling, their unburdening—and Wang, by briefly breaking up the string of talking heads with a funeral march, introduces the essential, performative element of public lamentation. A kind of dialogue unfolds across the various interviews, offering a larger cumulative picture of the tragedy. For one, the almost absurdist machinations of the atrocity slip into sharper focus; among the more chilling topics of conversation is how Chairman Mao’s potentially offhand claim that only 5 percent of the party was bad apples inspired a dangerous quota—the need to place blame on that exact percentage of members, regardless if the “evidence” was there.

“Death was part of our daily lives,” one interviewee admits. “There was no point in being afraid.” By the eighth hour of heart-wrenching horror stories of life in the camps, a viewer might start to identify with his numbness. Wang doesn’t discriminate between anecdotes; he seems so humbled by the gravity of his material, by the imperative to let these survivors tell their tales without interruption and (usually) without interjection, that he exhibits almost nothing resembling an editor’s instinct. Which is to say, he’s left it all in, including plenty of overlapping remembrances; not every sit-down is as moving or fascinating as the next. Is there a truly great five-hour movie buried within the longer whole? To wonder as much might be to miss the point of a project that’s more essential historical record, built on an imperative to remember and immortalize, than conventional film. “No one wrote it,” someone says of this dark chapter in Chinese history. Now someone has.

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Yomeddine
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

It would be dishonest to suggest that Dead Souls isn’t sometimes a tough sit; there were moments, as it sprawled towards a distant horizon, when even the sheer importance of the project couldn’t keep my attention from wavering a little. But cinematic time is relative, and the truth is that even a very short movie can feel like a small eternity. Certainly, Wang’s picture held my interest much more reliably than A.B. Shawky’s Yomeddine (Grade: C-), the second of this year’s main competition titles to screen, and one can only hope the early lowlight of the fest. Answering the burning, immortal question “What if The Elephant Man was The Station Agent?” this aggressively maudlin Egyptian drama concerns a lonely leper (Rady Gamal) who embarks on a journey to find the parents who abandoned him in youth—a road trip covered by track, truck, and oversized donkey, a cute orphan companion named Obama (“Like the guy on TV!”) in tow.

Yomeddine aspires to inspire little more than pity: The clumsily paced story runs its main character, ill-defined in all but physical attributes, into one repulsed, unjust stranger after another, until finally he unleashes his best John Hurt. One doesn’t doubt that plenty of those with leprosy in real life face litanies of intolerance—and if there’s any power to this manipulative movie, it lies in quiet dignity of its lead performance, delivered by a nonprofessional actor from an actual leper colony. But the film still feels more like a game of cards with a stacked deck than a story that demanded to be told. Not surprisingly, it’s a feature debut—the first in competition since 2015's remarkable Son Of Saul. In theory, I’m all for Cannes embracing new talent. But the simplistic, crowd-pleasing Yomeddine isn’t good enough for Sundance’s main slate, to say nothing of one that includes Jia Zhangke, Jafar Panahi, and Jean-Luc Godard, to name some of its stiffest competition.

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Leto
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

As far as comp titles from relative newcomers go, I preferred the Russian flashback Leto (Grade: B-), a loose, ambling, sometimes obnoxiously stylized biopic of Soviet singer-songwriter and Kino frontman Viktor Tsoi, who died young and beloved. Set against the burgeoning rock scene of early ’80s Leningrad, the film finds a reasonably interesting angle on the life of its subject, approaching his pre-fame years partially through the eyes of a contemporary, Mike (Roman Bilyk), who fronts a garage-rock outfit not destined for great things but whose relative clout and star power draws the adoration of the slightly younger Viktor (Teo Yoo). There’s a sensitively handled love triangle, as Mike’s wife, Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum), finds herself drawn to Viktor’s soft-spoken earnestness—a conflict that feeds into the movie’s bittersweet portrait of a complicated creative relationship between a swaggering rock-star-who-almost-was and the beatnik, acoustic-oriented poet who begins to eclipse him.

Directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, who made the reportedly very different Cannes competitor The Student, Leto is gorgeously filmed in black-and-white, with some impressive Steadicam shots that race around the backstages and studio spaces and apartments of the musicians’ world. In moments, the film has a low-key, observational charm, like some imaginary Olivier Assayas movie on the subject. Less charming are the thunderously obvious musical interludes (including a silly “Perfect Day” fantasy—c’mon guys, Trainspotting has that one on lockdown), fourth-wall-breaking asides, and blatant references to rock royalty. (As a quasi and sporadic rock musical, the film sometimes comes across like it was adapted from a Rolling Stone listicle; there’s even a montage of famous album covers!) Then again, there’s some sense to bombarding us with nods to music-industry giants, given how entirely Viktor and Mike are caught in the shadow of their Western heroes. The film works best as a modest portrait of what the rock ’n’ roll life looked like in this time and place. The best these two can hope for, they realize, is to be “king of the swamp”—which is to say, famous in Soviet Russia.

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Tomorrow: Christophe Honoré (Love Songs, Dans Paris) hits the Croisette with a long—but not eight-hours-long—drama, while the writer-director of Ida returns to black-and-white. And I’m going to try to get into Arctic, about which I know one intriguing thing: It stars Mads Mikkelsen as a guy stranded in the frigid wilderness. That’s enough for me.