Short reviews of selected films from this year’s festival
By Sascha Krieger
Manbiki kazoku / Shoplifters (Japan / Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda) – Cannes Film Festival
Celebrated Japanese film-maker Hirokazu Kore-eda has made himself a name for tender, subtle, highly observant and quiet family stories, a seismograph for the most essential of social units. Shoplifters, the surprise but wholly deserving winner of the Golden Palm at this year’s Cannes film festival, is no exception. except that the family is highly exceptional. Firstly, it engages in rather unusual behaviour: in a the opening scene, what seems to be a father-son duo expertly and quite poetically steals from a supermarket before they lift a lonely little girl on their way home. Subsequently, it is gradually revealed that the family ties are not exactly what they seem. When something goes wrong and finally the agents of a hitherto almost completely absent outside world enter, efficient and benevolent society does a thorough job in unravelling a family unit that is all their members have, leading to a haunting series of quietly moving final scenes, images mostly, hovering uncertainly between faint hope and shattering desolation.
Kore-eda depicts people outside the norms accepted by society, trying to hold their space away from the public gaze, yet destined to fail sooner or later. The film-maker constructs beautiful scenes of tender love, gently focusing on facial expressions, subtle gestures, fleeting moments of happiness and togetherness where they seem impossible – among shoplifters, sex workers, the unemployed, the forgotten. A colour scale of subtle and reduced warmth combines with quiet and unassuming camera-work dominated by a gentle flow, beautiful fleeting tableaux looking on a perfect union of human souls from the distance, and scenes that are at the same time generously extended and briefly sketched, highlighting both the bond this impossible grouping of misfits shares and the volatility of their arrangement in a world that will strike back in rigid, desaturated greyish images, when the screen becomes a series of miniature prisons. Yet, near the very end, life fights back, poetry raises its heads, as the desired clashes with the necessary. And while there is no hope, it does prevail in those haunting moments of intimacy and desolation. And it might well fail in the ambivalent shock of the final moment.
In Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda, often regarded as his country’s greatest living film maker, paints a gentle, deeply poetic and at the same time highly matter-of-fact picture of human togetherness against all odds and rules. He contrasts the quiet anarchy of a life depending on all kinds of things society brands as crimes (theft, kidnapping, fraud) with said society’s coldness and hostility they call law and order. All the agents of that order are soft-spoken, kind, friendly – and deadly. By placing this dysfunctional, flawed and deeply touching as well as wonderfully funny family unit with a social framework aimed at efficiency and orderliness, on clarity and rules, Kore-eda focuses on what makes humans prevail, on what defines warmth and love, on what family actually means. His non-family is fought not because it doesn’t work but because it doesn’t apply to the rules which are a lot more important than whether there is love and caring inside. In the end, order is restore and love defeated. Or is ist? Certainly not in the viewer after two hours of this quiet magic.
Genèse / Genesis (Canada / Director: Philippe Lesage) – Locarno Film Festival
Growing up, it’s well known, is hard work. Finding out who you are and what you want, discovering how to live a life without someone else showing you how and telling you what to do can be terrifying. Genèse presents two exhibits, a boy and a girl in what seems to be their late teens, siblings, he in high school, she in college. It runs the two stories parallel and independent from each other, only connecting the two twice in seemingly inconsequential moments. The boy, Guillaume, is a highly intelligent class clown secretly in love with his best friend, the girl, Charlotte, escapes a relatively happy but boring relationship when her boyfriend brings up the remote possibility of an open relationship and ends up in a more toxic one with an older man. Both paths lead into rather devastating disappointments as the outside world is not exactly understanding or caring. Later, when both have crashed into depths of defeat and uncertainty, the film takes a break and introduces a tender first love among two early teens at an idyllic summer camp.
Second-time director and experienced doc film maker Philippe Lesage is a highly skilled story-teller. There are moments of exquisite magic in this film as a party scene in which Guillaume, played by a kindly annoying Théodore Pellerin, wanders through a party full of kissing heterosexual couples, slowly coming to understand he doesn’t belong. Guillaume’s entire predicament, his whole challenge to become who he’ll be is right there is these couple of minutes. Similarly, the tenderness with which the camera moves back and forth between prospective first-time lovers Félix and Béatrice in the summer camp episode, drenched in the soft, ominous light of a summer evening, is pure poetry. Documentary expert Lesage is at his very best when he observes. Unfortunately, there are over two hours to fill and Philippe Lesage knows what he’s good at but also what the feature format demands. So he combines and almost endless series of doc-style perspectives – the party scenes never end and get more and more odious – with rather strained dialogue and a pronounced structural desire aiming at complexity but constantly showing its hand. The film quotes the atmospheric structural anarchy of Xavier Dolan, the poetic meandering of Eric Rohmer and awkwardly throws in a bit of high school comedy – and loses itself in the process.
Primarily because it cannot get far beyond the cliché. Guillaume’s coming out is a stereotypical mess full of dialogue so stale and pretentious it often hurts, while Charlotte’s (rather pale as she’s mostly reduced to passive victim status, revealing a rather troubling view of women: Noée Abita) endeavours explore all the set-pieces of male domination: ignorance, selfishness, violence. Of course, there is a rape, plunging the film into more of the darkness, the reduced colour scheme has suggested from the start. The film works well enough when it observes, when the camera just follows its protagonists as the move through life – it fails when it stories to tell a story. Its structural cleverness comes back to bite it, the breaks and disruptions appear too self-serving, drawing way too much attention on how neatly the film is constructed, rather than on what it has to tell. Genèse is more idea than execution, more framework than a story and characters coming to life. It tells the viewer at all times what it’s trying to do, pushing its actual subject more and more into the second row. And while it manages to open entire worlds in miniature moments, it ultimately fails at allowing the structure to serve its tale and too often achieves the opposite.