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Cannes 2024: The Damned, The Invasion

A bearded man in a Union army uniform stands with his eyes closed in the snow.The Damned

Introducing The Damned at its world premiere, Roberto Minervini stated that the film began from a desire to “deconstruct the precepts in war cinema,” e.g. good versus evil, “hyper-masculinity” and heroism. In the press kit interview, Minervini goes further, stating that there’s never been a war movie “that I would call humane […] Even films that depict tragedy and self-destruction emphasize martyrdom and sacrifice.” Has there really never been a true anti-war film? The existence of Come and See seems to contradict that, and noting that “good versus evil” isn’t real isn’t a breakthrough either, which may be why The Damned feels fundamentally misguided—it’s a movie correcting a problem that doesn’t really exist.

A very loose Civil War saga following a Union troop through Montana in 1862, The Damned is arguably no more fictional than Minervini’s previous, intensely stylized documentaries, unrepentantly staged hybrid films made in close collaboration with their subjects. A period film is, by definition, more overtly constructed, but immersing viewers in the quotidian routines of soldiers pitching tents, building fires and sewing their clothing comes from a documentary impulse, and period vernacular is not a priority, as in the film’s most endearing and off-task scene, where a man examines quartz stones: “That’s a huge rock there, man!” There’s only one battle scene, which definitely goes out of its way to not inadvertently excite viewers; the rest is all tramping through terrain, sitting around waiting and dialogue exchanges in which it takes almost an hour for anyone to mention slavery. In the meantime, one young man says the reason for the war is God and his plans for when we live and die. Although slavery is eventually mentioned twice in quick passing (“I believe putting people in chains is wrong”—I mean, that’s good), for a while I contemplated if this were the cinematic equivalent of Nikki Haley’s inability to clearly state what the Civil War was all about. Then again, Americans lying to themselves about what the country stands for and is motivated by is a national tradition; in that light, all this evasiveness is perhaps precisely the point.

At least conceptually, The Damned is a logical extension of Minervini’s previous portraits of American life; the young man stating that God is the reason is part of the hyper-Christian Carlson clan, the subjects of 2013’s Stop the Pounding Heart, while the idea of re-examining the roots of national division connects back to 2015’s The Other Side, which is and shall remain the definitive Trump-era explainer. These works were also beautifully composed, but The Damned looks exactly like pretty much every movie now, meaning shot with lenses that are fuzzy around the edges, an impulse currently very on-trend in an effort to combat digital hyper-sharpness. You could argue that this visual approach echoes the similar fuzzinesses of Matthew Brady’s war photography, but mostly it makes the world look like a gigantic extension of the “Heart-Shaped Box” video. Minervini’s assistant camera operator since Pounding Heart who’s promoted here to his first DP role, Carlos Alfonso Corral is also The Damned’s composer of a score that sounds weirdly like a bunch of Kid A outtakes discarded in favor of “Treefingers.” The experiential approach to the Civil War isn’t analytically insightful, and the results are sadly soporific. 

Sergei Loznitsa’s The Invasion offers a more productive approach to war; there have been a surplus of documentaries about Russia’s war on Ukraine, but this is incontestably the best one. Based in Germany, the Ukrainian filmmaker directed the film remotely, with footage captured by a three-person crew. The frighteningly prolific Loznitsa has several distinct modes—sardonic narrative films, deeply researched archival documentaries—and this mostly falls into the giganticist, magisterial mode of Austerlitz and Victory Day, films which capture hundreds of faces and bodies passing through public outdoor spaces. The fact that Loznitsa is able to frame as precisely as he does, even at when he’s not there, is remarkable, and while formal control is not exactly the point here, it’s also hard to argue that The Invasion would somehow be nobler if it looked worse. Examining Ukraine in areas around the war rather than on the battlefield, Loznitsa and his two DPs, Evgeny Adamenko and Piotr Pawlus, can find startling perspectives in unlikely places: a physical rehabilitation center for amputee soldiers becomes a compositional playground, with mirrors breaking up the frame or one man’s slow, painstaking step onto his prosthetic leg giving way, when he steps back, to another soldier on a treadmill in the background. What’s new here is that, instead of sticking with Loznitsa’s one-shot/one-scene mode, many scenes offer conventional coverage. There is also, just once, a very impressive drone shot soaring above a bombed building’s rubble.

The magisterial perspective isn’t consistent; there’s no main protagonist, but plenty of people are seen up close along the way. A particularly unexpected sequence begins at a bookstore, where sales are interrupted by sirens. “There is an air alert,” the employees tell the customers. “Please leave the store” (although they still manage to complete a sale first!). The sequence continues as piles of all used books are packed up, thrown into a truck and brought out to a rural barn where they’re put on a conveyor belt and pulped, presumably to make up for a supply shortage. The sight of all these titles, from trashy-looking magazines to Strugatsky brothers hardcovers, serving as grist to the supply mill is upsetting, and there’s a meaningful pause on the belt that allows us to see that one of the books being re-purposed is by Boris Akunin, a Russian writer based in London and outspoken Putin critic—this is a different form of contributing to the war effort. At 135 minutes, the duration is definitely felt—but this war has gone on so long that it’s almost become permanent background noise. To bring it back to our mental foreground, it feels right for The Invasion to sink in at length. 

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