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Cannes 2024: Caught by the Tides, Misericordie, Grand Tour

A Chinese woman holds a styrofoam container of rice while eating on a deserted boat deck.Zhao Tao in Caught by the Tides

Like Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White, Caught by the Tides is a multi-decade triptych beginning in the early aughts and ending in the present, its past emerging from a sort of video diary practice he maintained up through 2006’s Still Life. As he explains, “I got my first digital video camera in 2001. I took it to Datong in Shanxi back then and shot tons of material. It was all completely hit-and-miss. I shot people I saw in factories, bus stations, on buses, in ballrooms, saunas, karaoke bars, all kinds of places.” There are numerous other similarities with 2018’s Ash: the middle segment of Caughts takes place during the Three Gorges Dam’s construction, which Jia first captured in Still Life, gaining morbidly tremendous production value from large-scale demolition and displacement. While Ash seems to have at least partially re-staged the Three Gorges era, Caught by the Tides’s past is all-archival, assembled in part from 10 scenes used in previous films and other contemporaneous footage. The end credits identify every single crew person associated with each shoot, labeled by the appropriate year, which administratively seems like a huge pain in the ass to dig up—kudos to the record keepers.

Jia synthesized separate characters played by muse, partner and regular lead Zhao Tao in 2002’s Unknown Pleasures and Still Life for her Ash iteration. Covering nearly the same timeline, Caught again draws upon those films and adjacent footage to create a new story for her as well as another longtime collaborator, Li Zhibung—the gangster boyfriend Zhao leaves in Unknown Pleasures, the husband who ran away and who’s she chasing down both in Still Life and here. Describing Caught that way makes it sound like a gloss on Vertigo, but where Jia’s more recent work has been straightforwardly linear and sporadically fueled by exciting violence, Tides is vibey, a collection of digital textures and memory shards from the 21st century: non-protagonists who deliver monologues on their business careers and disappear, group songs performed by anonymous villagers, Three Gorges b-roll more casual than Still Life’s rigorously composed images. There’s an unexpected connection with another Cannes ’24 reconstruction of the early aughts, as both this and Tyler Taormina’s Christmas Eve at Miller’s Point include men playing an installment of Counter-Strike whose voiceover officiator says, when you lose, “The terrorists win.” This archetypal W. era soundbite is an unlikely time-and-space bridge between two films’ extremely different vantage points on a shared era.

Li has aged much more dramatically than Zhao but both their transformations over nearly a quarter-century are inevitably poignant. Does that generate anything beyond a reflexive effect? I think so; Caught by the Tides is a multiverse manifestation rather than nostalgia trigger—or, at least, this is a lot of neat footage, and it’s fun to see it find a home. Above all else, Zhao is a seemingly infinite performer whose affect hasn’t really been unpacked yet. Her stony unreadability is broken by unpredictable responses to others, manifestations of interest punctuating the deadpan surface of inscrutable women who, over the long haul, are reconfigured as martyrs or stoic survivors. Caught by the Tides reminds us that we’re all lucky as viewers that she and Jia found each other; it’s maybe the actress-director partnership of the ages. 

Alain Guiraudie has also previously found alternate pathways for his usual proclivities; his 2014 novel Now the Night Begins reimagines the general plot of 2013’s Stranger by the Lake with the addition of coprophagic urges and Bataillan sexual directions the filmmaker would almost certainly never be able to raise meaningful funding to depict visually. Misericordie is his strongest work since Stranger, abandoning his typical pansexual couplings and trying to combat viewer expectations with near-chastity. “I imagine that today, a viewer of my films expects a few things from me, they see roughly where I am going to go,” Guiraudie explained in the press kit. “I am well aware of always working on the same questions, the same reasons, and I play with that, with what is expected of me. But I also want to surprise, to surprise myself, to renew myself. Perhaps it was also time that desire did not find its outcome in sex.” 

Thus, this is a Guiraudie film with no sex scenes minus a quickly-rebuffed proposition, unfolding in the hilly rural terrains he’s regularly sent characters walking through on fantastically-inflected quests (2001’s Sunshine for the Poor, 2009’s The King of Escape) or, entering more quotidian reality, while cruising in Stranger. Misericordie instead begins with a long series of phantom driving shots from within a car driving to a sun-baked village. The opening credits montage condensing that journey has a meticulously constructed sonic ambience including, it slowly becomes clear, a barely perceptible score—a first for Guiraudie, who’s previously avoided non-diagetic music. That barely heard but crucial contribution is by Marc Verdaguer, Albert Serra’s longtime composer (the Catalan director is billed as a co-producer here), signaling one degree of difference from Guiraudie’s past work.

Jérémie (Félix Kysyl) returns to his small hometown village for the funeral of its baker, a man he loved growing up; a shot of rose petals being tossed on the coffin initially looks like blood spatter, foreshadowing what’s to come. The decedent’s surviving spouse, Martine (Catherine Frot), urges Jérémie to take over his business, and while considering the offer he crashes with her for an indefinite period, generating the violently manifested displeasure of her son Vincent (Jean-Baptiste Durand). Jérémie and Vincent’s fights in the forest are choreographed and credible, another new element in a film that gives its protagonist another first-time role for a Guiraudie movie–guilt-ridden killer. But rather than the Euripides-inflected tragedy Guiraudie teased in the press kit, Misericordie still presents a characteristically brisk roundelay of potential partners and unexpected comic outbursts in the French countryside. Jérémie is placed at the increasing mercy of bemused local priest Philippe (Jacques Develay), who first encounters him in the woods while searching for mushrooms. Foraging for roots with magical properties propelled The King of Escape into fantasy; here, digging for fungi redirects the movie into thriller terrain—and, no less than David Fincher, Guiraudie can cut coverage of a conversation around a dinner table into something sneakily nervewracking and emphatically timed. Expertly deployed tonal collisions eventually orient the film back to comedy, ending in a nearly cuddly register as two people crawl into bed and snuggle chastely.

This year’s Best Director winner, Miguel Gomes’s Grand Tour revises the bifurcated structure of 2012’s Tabu and its second-half pastiche of silent cinema. Both parts of Grand Tour mix documentary footage with studio-shot sequences, but the first half is heavier on the travelogue component than the staged mode; the latter half overwhelmingly surrenders to the former, a la imagining what Murnau would have done in the sound era mutated with the self-conscious stiffnesses, deliberate anachronisms and theatricalities of Manoel de Oliveira. While ambling to a definite resolution, the narrative—structured around the 1917 flight through Asia of British civil servant Edward (Gonçalo Waddington), seeking to escape his determined fiancé Molly (Crista Alfaiete)—pursues many non-essential byways, in a series of “glory to the director” gestures that, like 2015’s Arabian Nights, make a virtue of unresolved or truncated narratives just for the pleasure of storytelling. A few color passages aside, it’s shot in piercingly beautiful black-and-white 16mm which practically glows even in its final, digitally projected form. Basically, this is suspiciously engineered to appeal to people like me, a cinephile dog whistle of familiar, recondite pleasures. 

A subtextual motivation to make movies is to get someone else to pay for you to travel—but the travelogue material was shot during the pandemic with Gomes remotely directing, so the movie taps into one of cinema’s earliest appeals (seeing something you’d never see otherwise) without the director getting the direct benefit of it. On a shoot ranging across seven Asian countries, narration is handed off from one native speaker to another, applying a story where none visibly exists. Per Gomes, the film was imaginatively sparked by a reading of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Gentleman in the Parlour, a suitably anachronistic prompt for a film whose geographic trajectory is modeled upon British tourism of the period. Mainly ostensibly British, the characters speak Portuguese, uniting two forms of colonialism in one, though my gut is that Gomes just likes the way the names sound when delivered with great formality by differently-accented performers. There are obvious Orientalist aspects of a narrative that prioritizes colonizers over largely non-speaking surrounding subalterns; in this and Tabu, Gomes is productively drawn to the seductive surfaces of colonialist artifacts. 

One of Gomes’s most effective sequences, brought up in pretty much every review, cuts a touristic path through Vietnam to “The Blue Danube,” effectively and forcefully pulling it out of Stanley Kubrick’s cold dead hands for a different kind of show-stopping voyage. This climaxes with Strauss blaring over slow-motion footage of mopeds circling a roundabout; the force of the image lies in the black-and-white beauty of its execution, the fun of mass people-watching, the near-hubristic 2001 connotations and related scale of ambition. Whether shooting in the world or on a soundstage (this movie is of the kind that invites us to consider the two of equal importance), Gomes makes everything look excellent, to ends that are standard or sentimental. In a centerpiece line, a Japanese monk invites Edward to “Abandon yourself to the world and see how generous it is to you.” The climax, meanwhile, performs a post-narrative-closure resurrection—a reminder that cinema confers a kind of immortality beyond discardable diagetic demands. That’s the sort of overwrought sentiment that makes me uncomfortable, and the film’s play with the semantics of colonialism are surface, its comedy broad, with moments of extended languor leaned into for their own assertive sake. It was, nonetheless, beautiful enough to get me to enthusiastically buy into propositions I might normally reject: a hyperbolic “all-in” for the church of arthouse cinema, a cineaste’s in-practice argument on why it’s important to carry the torch for a specific and eccentric canon of directors (these might be brainworms, but they’re my brainworms), a demonstration of how much fun it is to keep revising imagery in the world’s collective unconscious—and, fine, a belief that’s, at least in the moment, touching rather than cloying, in the minor but moving immortality that (properly preserved) films can bestow on everyone within them. It was the movie of the festival, and I stopped my festival viewing immediately after seeing it.

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