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Cannes tackles parenting, fluid sexuality and a family gathering from hell

© Wild Bunch | The protagonists of Cristi Puiu's "Sieranevada" finally get to sit down for their meal after a three-hour wait.

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2016-05-13

After Woody Allen’s amiable curtain-raiser, the Cannes Film Festival gets into competition mode with a bleakly comic family portrait by Romania’s Cristi Puiu and an outrageously erotic mercy killing by French director Alain Guiraudie.

Despite the dire warnings of heightened security and thunderstorms throwing a wet blanket over the festivities, the 69th Cannes Film Festival duly kicked off on Wednesday with its customary bandwagon of stars, poseurs and groupies – and an impromptu, mini-concert by Justin Timberlake to promote the forthcoming animated musical “Trolls”. His presence prompted whooping and hollering from an ecstatic fan, leading Timberlake to quip, “You sound like you’re 7 years old. Go see ‘Trolls’.”

Meanwhile, the festival’s 4,000-strong press corps had been offered a choice between attending an opening bash at the swanky Hotel Majestic (the kind of place where journos rarely get invited) or slogging through the first competition entry: a claustrophobic three-hour-long domestic drama by Romanian helmer Cristi Puiu. Which is where I ended up.

A triumph of ensemble acting, “Sieranevada” is a darkly comic, almost real-time portrayal of a chaotic family gathering at the home of a sexagenarian widow to mark the passing of her late husband. It is an exacting but absorbing immersion into domestic life that will reward viewers patient enough to spend 173 minutes holed up in a cramped apartment full of bickering relatives, like flies on the wall.

The film’s opening scene – a deliberately awkward sequence on a busy street corner in which viewers can hardly see, hear or understand the minimal action – provides an early warning of the exertions that lie ahead. It is an introduction to our condition as eavesdroppers, prying into conversations that don’t always make sense – and not necessarily from the best vantage point.

The rest of the action revolves around a never-starting meal that keeps getting derailed by family rows, tardy guests and obnoxious intruders (including a party-crashing “junkie” who throws up off camera for most of the film). Puiu withholds all but the barest facts about his protagonists and it is not always clear why several of them spend much of the time sobbing, nor why they are forever jabbering and squabbling with each other.

The heated exchanges touch on a broad range of subjects, including extra-marital affairs, conspiracy theories about 9/11 and the Charlie Hebdo shootings, and the respective merits and faults of communism and monarchy. Most share a common thread in the theme of deception, which reaches a climax when the exposure of one character’s infidelity triggers a string of revelations.

An absurdist family farce (with an apparently irrelevant, misspelled title), “Sieranevada” offers an intoxicating blend of deceptively trivial conversations that end up being meaningful and others that sound intelligent but are not. It has a lot to say about human nature, its weaknesses and necessary compromises, though the film’s realist enterprise is at times undermined by dialogues that feel contrived – as if the characters were arguing for the sake of argument.

‘Staying Vertical’ fails to stand up

After that three-hour confinement in a Romanian apartment I was relieved to find out that the next competition screening, Alain Guiraudie’s “Staying Vertical” ("Rester vertical"), was mostly set in a pastoral, wind-swept countryside roamed by wolves and the sheep they prey on. The Frenchman’s first shot at the Palme d’Or was one of the most eagerly awaited entries in this year’s line-up. It follows his brilliant gay cruising thriller “Stranger by the Lake”, which caused a stir in the Un Certain Regard sidebar three years ago.

The film is about a drifter-screenwriter named Leo who goes looking for wolves (and inspiration) in the high plateaus of southwestern France, where he has a baby with a fair-haired shepherdess who soon dumps him, leaving the child behind. The rest of the film sees Leo making regular trips to Brittany, consulting an esoteric healer in a sun-dappled forest, and striking up a bizarre relationship with a foul-mouthed old man whose homophobic slurs conceal a fluid sexuality.

The candid nudity and sex scenes, gay and straight, are a hallmark of the French director, and it’s good to see that male and female genitalia get the same, unabashed exposure. One boldly explicit scene, blending sex, assisted suicide and deafeningly loud Pink Floyd music, is likely to draw particular attention.

Subverting heteronormative roles is another Guiraudie trademark. His film appears to be criticising society’s assumptions on parenting when the baby is taken away from its loving father and given back to the mother that abandoned it – though that argument is undercut by the fact that Leo seems ill-equipped for a father role (he leaves his baby in the car and seems to do without the nappies, baby bottles and other gadgets parents normally cart around with them).

The filmmaker confirms he has a flair for casting little-known actors with intriguing features and his movie is full of surprising scenes, some of them very beautiful. But they tend to emerge out of nowhere, leaving a sense of untidiness and a feeling that “Staying Vertical” doesn’t quite stand up. By the end of it, I was almost yearning to go back to the claustrophobia of “Sieranevada”.

Date created : 2016-05-12

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