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Cannes: Dardenne brothers stumble, but Brazil’s ‘Aquarius’ is a raging beauty

© Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2016-05-18

The Dardenne brothers are unlikely to clinch a record third Palme d’Or with their unexceptional “The Unknown Girl”, while Brazil’s Kleber Mendonca Filho becomes the latest newcomer to stake a claim on cinema’s most coveted prize.

It started with a protest. The kind of red-carpet protocol breach that pricks the Cannes bubble of glamour, celebrity-swooning and general aloofness. “A coup took place in Brazil”, read a banner held aloft by the cast and crew of “Aquarius”, Filho’s first competition entry, referring to the recent impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. “We will resist,” warned another. The stunt was met by ecstatic applause inside the Grand Théâtre Lumière, where more banners sprang up. It provided a fitting introduction to a rich and beautiful movie that ripples with quiet rage against the dying of the light.

The cast and crew of Kleber Mendonca Filho's "Aquarius" stage a red-carpet protest against Brazil's "coup d'état".

The rage and the light radiate from Dona Clara, the film’s commanding protagonist, an elegant and still very beautiful retired music critic, sumptuously portrayed by actress Sonia Braga. Clara lives in the Aquarius, a graceful old apartment building hemmed in between soulless condominiums in the seaside town of Recife. She reigns over her private fiefdom, mostly lying in a hammock while listening to a mix of classical music, Brazilian folk and Queen, surrounded by books, LPs and a lifetime of memories. Property developers are keen to knock the Aquarius down. They’ve bought out all the other tenants, but Clara defiantly resists both their lucrative offers and sinister threats.

Filho’s second feature and first competition entry is many things at once: a rich character study, a meditation on age and loneliness (featuring a memorable gigolo scene), and a shrewd portrait of Brazil’s rapidly changing society, touching on themes of race, nepotism, corruption and the lure of money. Clara oozes dignity and panache. She is also arrogant and haughty. She is a character of wonderful complexity. The film is infused with nostalgia, but not conservative. The past is alive in Clara and the objects that surround her, but she is not withdrawn. She cherishes her old vinyl records but has no qualms about downloading mp3s. And she boldly clings on to the world around her, even as she rages against a form of materialism that has perverted the meaning of words and objects.

The Aquarius is not just “an apartment”, Clara says, rebuking her daughter who presses her to sell up. It is part of her fabric, the environment where she lived, loved, raised her children and battled cancer. Aside from Braga’s performance, portraying the relationship between space, objects, sounds and identity is perhaps the greatest strength of “Aquarius”. A marvellous scene early on in the film, in which Clara’s role model, her cherished aunt Lucia, gazes at a cupboard and silently recalls, in flashes, the great sex she had years before, is the best I’ve seen at Cannes so far.

There was more quiet rage in the following competition entry, the latest social-realist drama by two-time Palme d’Or winners Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, though it didn’t go down so well with the critics. The Belgian brothers are Cannes royalty. They have seen every one of their films enter the main competition since they first triumphed on the Croisette with “Rosetta” back in 1999. And yet the press screening of “The Unknown Girl”, their latest humanist parable, drew only lacklustre clapping and a smattering of gratuitous boos.

“The Unknown Girl” casts French rising star Adèle Haenel as Jenny, a young doctor racked by remorse after hearing of the grisly death of a girl whose desperate late-night buzz she chose to ignore. It mixes the Dardennes’ signature social realism with a tentative foray into police procedural, in which Jenny seeks some form of release from guilt by carrying her own investigation into the girl’s death – to the evident displeasure of the cops whose terrain she is trespassing on. There is a potentially intriguing subplot in the relationship between Jenny and her intern Julien (a quarrel with him is the reason why she failed to answer the buzz in the first place), but it is woefully underwritten and leads nowhere.

France can't seem to get enough of Haenel these days, and the two-time Cesar Award winner was bound to feature in at least one of six French-speaking films in competition this year. Her plain, undemonstrative performance fits in comfortably with the Dardennes’ pared-down naturalism. Jenny is absorbed by her work and tortured by the feeling that she failed in her duty (though she seems to have rather a lot of time to play detective). Sketches of her daily routine are full of insight into the social fabric of a working-class community in run-down Wallonia, delivering a gently moving homage to the vital social role performed by conscientious health workers. “The Unknown Girl” is hardly the most powerful Dardennes work. But it pursues their concern with the ethical ramifications of our actions and carries a timely message in the importance of caring, responsibility and not turning a blind eye to those in need.

Date created : 2016-05-18

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