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Cannes review: No-one does bleakness quite like the Russians

Sergei Loznitsa, Slot Machine | Vasilina Makovtseva goes on a ride through the corrupted soul of Russia in Sergei Loznitsa's "A Gentle Creature".

The Cannes Film Festival takes us on nightmare journeys through Siberia and Queens, NYC, with Sergei Loznitsa’s beautiful but challenging “A Gentle Creature” and the Safdie brothers’ restless “Good Time”.


The nights are getting shorter and shorter in Cannes, and somehow so are the days. It’s a frantic race between screenings, past successive badge scanners, metal detectors and meticulous bag searches. Even the British are jumping queues, and you can tell many critics have stopped showering. However hard I try, there’s one film I keep missing: “The Florida Project”, Sean Baker’s follow-up to the brilliant iPhone-filmed “Tangerine”. It’s in the Directors’ Fortnight category, but many say it’s the best in Cannes this year, and really should’ve been Palme d’Or material. Saturday is the last chance. I’ll make sure I camp outside the cinema with a sleeping bag, and keep the line-cutters at bay.

Noxious people jumping queues are the least of many woes besetting the protagonist of Sergei Loznitsa’s “A Gentle Creature”, which screened in competition on Thursday. Loosely based on a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, it follows one woman’s hellish journey to the Siberian prison where her husband has been sent. A challenging but deeply rewarding watch, this movie is as Russian as it gets (though, technically, the director is Ukrainian). It is a gruelling odyssey into the corrupted soul of a nation, in which the only palliative to misery is through obliteration by vodka. There’s ordinary grim, and then there’s Russian grim.

Vasilina Makovtseva plays the not-so-gentle woman in the title, her unsmiling face presumably rendered expressionless by a lifetime of suffering. One day she receives a parcel she sent to her husband, marked “return to sender”. And so she embarks on an epic journey to the prison to find out what has happened. Along the way, she is perpetually surrounded by a gallery of fiendish creatures spewing out crass lines, their faces bloated by alcohol. I’m not sure Jean-Paul Sartre’s phrase “Hell is other people” has ever rung so true. There is an element of Kafka as well – or of Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev – in the way the protagonist is crushed and humiliated by a cold and inefficient bureaucracy.

Grotesque, deeply moving, and at times surprisingly funny, “A Gentle Creature” delves deep into the past, through the run-down legacy of the Soviet era and all the way to the wretched dead souls of Tsarist Russia. The element of time-travel reminded me of the title of Loznitsa’s recent documentary “Austerlitz”, about modern-day tourism and consumerism at Nazi concentration camps, in which the horrors of the 20th and 19th centuries appeared to merge as a distant, indistinguishable past.

Once again, the Ukrainian director finds tremendous beauty in deceptively simple frames, each shot carefully choreographed. Whether an eerily quiet street or an overcrowded bus full of writhing bodies, the space around the protagonist is always menacing. As the film unfolds, its brutal realism gradually gives way to a surreal nightmare. This hallucinatory segment is protracted and deeply disturbing, and likely to put some people off. I look forward to a second look at this nightmare journey, but viewers should be aware that it’s a punishing ride.

We’ve had our fair share of Russian bleakness in the Cannes competition this year, and more than our fair share of New York. In fact every single US-based film has been set in the Big Apple so far, from “Wonderstruck” to “Okja”, and of course that quintessential New York Jewish fast-talking comedy “The Meyerowitz Stories”. “Good Time”, Thursday’s other film vying for the Palme d’Or, makes it four, though this time we’re mostly in Queens. An exciting, nervy thriller about a bank robbery gone horribly wrong, it is the first competition entry by indie filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie.

Ever since the Lumière brothers invented the trade, cinema has always had a soft spot for director brothers – and nowhere more so than at Cannes. Belgium's Dardenne brothers twice won the coveted Palme d'Or, while the Tavianis and the Coens each have one. The latter were also the first to jointly head the festival jury, two years ago. While this is their first shot at the biggest prize in cinema, the Safdie brothers are no newcomers to the Croisette, having twice featured in the Directors’ Fortnight for “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” (2008) and “Daddy Long Legs” (2009).

Robert Pattinson (centre) gets tough and scuzzy in "Good Time", by Safdie brothers Josh (left) and Benny.
Robert Pattinson (centre) gets tough and scuzzy in "Good Time", by Safdie brothers Josh (left) and Benny.

Their latest film is itself about two brothers, one of whom has a learning disability and is played by Benny Safdie. Robert Pattinson takes the lead part as Connie, a frenzied tough guy who “looks after” his vulnerable sibling by involving him in the abovementioned heist. The rest of the film follows Connie’s frantic and wayward attempts to pull off another robbery and get his brother out of jail, in a nighttime odyssey that proves to be just as chaotic and unpredictable as “A Gentle Creature”.

Restless and exciting, “Good Time” features a heady mix of grainy close-ups and long-lense shots from far away, powered by Oneohtrix Point Never’s pulsing electronic score (and an original song by Iggy Pop). It’s got the tempo, punch-ups and exhilarating chases required of the genre. There are also hints of social critique, notably in one startling scene in which police take more interest in a harmless young black girl than in the white criminal lurking nearby. Some critics expressed dismay at the film’s selection in competition, arguing that this kind of movie should really get a slot in one in one of the Cannes sidebars. It felt like a much-needed shot in the arm to me, given this year’s sleepy line-up. And mercifully, it was a full 43 minutes shorter than Loznitsa’s Siberian epic, leaving ample time for a breather before getting back in the line for the next film.

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