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CANNES - With this year's Competition still searching for that unifying critical and audience hit -- though the two biggest hitters thus far, Jacques Audiard's "Rust and Bone" and Cristian Mungiu's "Beyond the Hills," have proven excitingly and necessarily divisive -- the longest and loudest rounds of applause appear to have been heard in the sidebars. Two of the four films I saw today elicited that kind of response, with audience members cheering and reprise-clapping at odd points in the closing credits in the manner that comfortably exceeds required festival politeness and firmly establishes that they like you, they really like you.
One of these successes, an Un Certain Regard selection that had already slayed the Sundance crowds a few months back, was to be expected; the other, from the lower-profile Directors' Fortnight selection, was more of a surprise. Chilean director Pablo Larrain hasn't, until now, been the kind of filmmaker to court such all-round approval: his cold-blooded political comedies "Tony Manero" and "Post Mortem" are something of an acquired taste even to those not alienated by their contextually non-transferrable Pinochet-rule milieu. Indeed, following its Venice premiere two years ago, I remember the closing credits of "Post Mortem" being greeted by nothing noisier than the stunned shuffle of footsteps as viewers made a beeline for the nearest stiff drink.
So when the the tersely titled "No" (A-), the final instalment of his purported trilogy of pincered Pinochet-era satires, showed up in the Fortnight, instead of nabbing a more coveted Competition or Un Certain Regard slot, we had reason to think that Larrain's penchant for audience-repelling grimness had reached some kind of almighty apex, despite the friendly star presence of pocket radical Gael Garcia Bernal. As much of a kick as that might have been for us existing fans, however, it's even more gratifying to see Larrain wrongfoot us all by closing out the set with his most narratively robust and emotionally rousing film to date, a hearty celebration of hard-earned democracy spiked with just enough of the director's acidly crooked humor to remind us whose house we're in.
Dropping the previous films' conceit of filtering political unrest through the blankly blinking eyes of half-aware civilians, "No" instead heads straight into the machine: set around Chile's 1988 referendum that wound up overthrowing the longstanding Pinochet dictatorship, its core conflict involves not soldiers but two rival ad-agency colleagues charged with building the electoral advertising campaigns for the 'Yes' and 'No' factions. Part "Mad Men" in stonewashed denim, part south-of-the-border Paddy Chayefsky, it's an irresistible story hook that provides ample material for Larrain's own deadpan satirical eye, not least in the often spectacularly banal advertising under scrutiny. (The Pinochet team's sensitive TV spot featuring a steamroller bearing down on a defenceless toddler is par for the course.)
Bernal's mulleted liberal adman may be the Don Draper of this setup, but the film appears less than convinced by his professional tenets, as his attempts to hawk democracy ("It's a concept, not a product," protests one colleague) to the general public with "nice" We Are the World imagery and upbeat jingles is questioned by radicals who think a revolution should be sold as one. How much of this is built around archive material and how much Larrain has wickedly recalled or reimagined for contemporary audiences is all but impossible to gauge, as the director and cinematographer Sergio Armstrong riskily and rather brilliantly eschew the stately, mannered compositions of "Post Mortem" for grubby Academy-ratio video stock that lends the whole film a musty, matt archival sheen.
In an unsubtly effective development, the framing opens up as Bernal and his team edge closer to victory, culminating in a gracefully orchestrated crowd scene as conducive to an involuntary throat-lamp as any Hollywood fight-for-your-right epic. To see this pristinely nasty formalist come over so sincerely stirring, without departing from the bristly preoccupations and tonalities that brought us this far into the trilogy, is exciting in or out of a festival context; that "No" is languishing comparatively unattended in Directors' Fortnight while the tin-eared politicizing of "After the Battle" makes the Competition grade is utterly bewildering.
"No" may have edged ahead of Jacques Audiard's "Rust and Bone" as my festival standout at the Day Three mark, but to judge from the whoops echoing around the Debussy theater this afternoon, many others have given that title to "Beasts of the Southern Wild" (B), this year's occupant of the recently mandatory Sundance Sensation slot in Un Certain Regard. (See also: "Martha Marcy May Marlene," "Blue Valentine" and "Precious.") Rapturously received in Utah, the film today proved that its mucky bayou poetry still translates across the Atlantic, perhaps transported into the realm of the universal by its untamed mythical flourishes. Approached from any angle, the film is a richly strange (forgive me) beast -- yet like Kris, who offered some thoughts on the film at Sundance, I found debut director Benh Zeitlin's swirling, sinuous tapestry of sensibly unidentified post-Katrina sentiment easier to admire than it is to love.
A dazzling pre-credit prologue opens the film at a full Olympic sprint, establishing the open-eyed, open-eared perspective of our thoughtful yet pleasingly unprecocious six year-old narrator Hushpuppy (magnetic, wild-haired one-off Quvenzhané Wallis), rubbing our face in the living, dying, crawling soil of the titular locale while drawing cat's-cradle zigzags between its many garrulous inhabitants, before literally culminating in fireworks, set off seemingly at Hushpuppy's mere touch. It's such ripe, abundant filmmaking one fears multi-award winning shorts director Zeitlin may have exhausted his possibilities before giving us time to unpick them. For the better part of its first hour, that proves to be the case, as "Beasts" hammers ecstatically away on these same exquisite notes, unpacking its geography more than its hostilely self-possessed characters.
This is social impressionism, after a fashion, more daring and revealing than the film's arresting but finally strained attempts to add magical realism to an already bustling jambalaya: Hushpuppy finds herself trailed by visions (or not?) of prehistoric tusked mammoth-boars, metaphors (or not?) of the destruction set to rain down upon New Orleans, uprooting her from a home that scarcely had foundations in the first place. For all its daring and invention, however, it's when the film stoops to conventional melodrama -- as rescue authorities tear the near-feral girl from her dying single father, cuing a somewhat truncated quest for new securities -- that the film's heart and ours click into place, pinning the thrilling but ever-so-slightly over-aestheticized euphoria of what's come before to the shock of the real. "The rest is weather," Toni Morrison memorably wrote on the final page of "Beloved," and this overwhelmingly impressive, impressively overwhelming debut is a lot of weather. The breath of the disremembered, however, might be an afterthought.
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