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Cannes Film Festival 2021 Critic’s Notebook 1: Section Openers Onoda, Ghost Song, Between Two Worlds, Cow


Cannes declared itself open for business earlier this week, 2021’s first major international film festival to do so in an entirely physical edition (save the partially-digital market). The irony has not been lost on some attendees that Thierry Fremaux and co. opted to launch its first Un Certain Regard selection in more than two years (the festival’s main opening film, Leos Carax’s Annette, was reviewed by Vadim Rizov earlier this week here) with an epic about a man who continued fighting a war for nearly three decades after it ended. Invisible enemies, lost time and interminable isolation: familiar pandemic phraseology for us all, sure. The alternative signification—lingering film festival models themselves as expensive, elitist and, for the time being, quite dangerous—is as a propos as any. (Lest we forget the wisdom offered by the previous Cannes opening night film, The Dead Don’t Die; for now, no lies detected.) 

Arthur Harari’s Onoda dramatizes the true story of Hiroo Onoda’s mission on Lubang Island in the Philippines, where the Japanese lieutenant stood lookout (along with an ever-dwindling coterie of fellow surviving soldiers) from 1944 to 1974, unaware and unwilling to accept that the Second World War ended in defeat shortly after his tenure began. Forbidden by superiors to die by his own hand, Onoda remains loyal to his nation, delegitimizing any evidence brought his way that would inform him that the battle is over, his mission nonexistent. Harari structures the film to begin somewhat cryptically in 1974 before leaping back to the onset of Onoda’s situation and working forward chronologically yet elliptically. Absurdism flows into madness into sadness as Onoda’s hardened nationalist commitment manufactures tremendous poignancy via its simple juxtaposition to the natural setting he weathered for so many years. 

Onoda runs a cool 167 minutes, and if it feels excessive it’s because it is and needs it. Duration came with the territory, and the wait accumulates an almost Bazinian degree of realism—Onoda’s wait and immersion being ours as well. The film’s reverence for Onoda wouldn’t work as it does without its exceptional formal poise, the world’s and images’ materiality working as scaffolding for the film’s psychological and temporal axes. Harari has cited influences such as Kon Ichikawa, Monte Hellman, Kinji Fukasaku and Kenji Mizoguchi, and even with my relatively limited exposure to each of these filmographies, I can say these touchstones are fairly on point; the film honors cinema’s canon in much the same way that Onoda honors his higher-ups. Going one’s own way would suggest agency, so the film can be said to benefit from its striking pastiche. In that regard, the modestly budgeted Onoda (approximately $5.5 million) is immaculate, even if, as the 40-year old Harari (whose only prior credit is 2016’s Dark Diamond, a French-language revenge thriller about diamond theft) admits was his strategy, it achieves something like aesthetic anonymity—impressive, ascetic and fittingly devotional.

Elsewhere, the scrappy and often bold ACID section unspooled their (unofficial) opener Ghost Song, which likewise sees a French filmmaker—Nicolas Peduzzi, whose Texas-set Southern Belle won the Grand Prize of the French competition at FIDMarseille in 2017—train his camera on a culture from which he doesn’t originate. Here, Peduzzi finds himself once again in the Lone Star state, specifically Houston’s Third Ward community, where he lingers on a small handful of subjects, including OMB Bloodbath. This area (also known as “the Tre”) is among the most diverse Black regions in Houston and a hub of the chopped and screwed hip hop scene to which George Floyd once belonged. (Bloodbath is actually a former Floyd mentee who met and subsequently befriended Peduzzi after she pulled a gun on him at a gas station.) Ghost Song’s scope is at once intimate and portentous, tracking the subjects’ lives, desires and fears as Hurricane Harvey looms—its impending devastation lyrically depicted in the present tense via re-aired news broadcasts, ominous shots of curling lightning sprayed beyond the city limits and sublime NASA space video. There are hints of the work of Roberto Minervini and Harmony Korine (especially Gummo [1997]) throughout—the former’s hybrid documentary and re-enactment tactics, the latter’s expressive and complex compassion for a stigmatized community that seems to always be on the brink of disintegrating—yet Peduzzi’s vibey sensibility feels distinct and well worth tracking.

The Directors’ Fortnight opened with novelist Emmanuel Carrère’s sophomore feature, Between Two Worlds, the long-awaited follow-up to his under-appreciated Hitchcockian debut, La Moustache (2005). Whereas the earlier film was adapted from his own novel, Between Two Worlds loosely works up from Florence Aubenas’ 2010 novel The Night Cleaner, which might have been a better fit for Ken Loach. In certain ways the material’s appeal to Carrère is obvious. Juliette Binoche’s portrayal of a novelist who poses as a working class cleaning lady in order to acquire primary experience for a book she’s writing about the plight of working class cleaning ladies neatly echoes the personality crisis initiated by Vincent Lindon’s unacknowledged shaved moustache—rifts in self-perception are prompted by shifts in the perception of others. Yet this adaptation of Aubenas’s text keeps psychological abstraction in a minor key, and instead emphasizes an empathy-heavy social agenda that is unfortunately handled far too simplistically—sympathies predetermined and never earned, its images drab and perfunctory. 

These qualities likewise afflict Andrea Arnold’s Cow, her first feature documentary and the first film to screen in the festival’s new, perhaps one-year-only non-competitive sidebar, Cannes Premiere. I’m not a fan of Arnold’s narrative work, and I was optimistic that I would find something here that might open up to me. Alas, the film is emphatically ugly, utilizing erratic handheld realist strategies wherein the camera bumrushed the film’s subject (Luma is her name) for readymade intimacy. The soundtrack of soft alternative pop songs, rendered so as to seem diegetically broadcast from the farm’s radio speakers even though it’s well apparent that they are Arnold’s jams, is galling—especially the use of a cover of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love,” timed so that its singer can ponder “Who will love you? Who will fight?” as Luma has her udders pumped for the nth time. The utterly expected ending is absolutely a hostile gesture toward the audience, and a reminder to us all to trust our own judgment. 

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