PFF24: Love (Gaspar Noé, BEL/FRA)

Gaspar Noé is an anomaly among his contemporaries. His sparseness of output notwithstanding, his ability to effortlessly subvert both expectation and formula through explicit means has inevitably earned him the title of provocateur in a niche all his own. In keeping with tradition, Love aggressively charts the dissolution of Murphy (Karl Glusman) and Electra’s (Aomi Muyack) relationship in the wake of the latter’s mysterious disappearance. Through a series of flashbacks we’re offered insight into their respective proclivities and just why their love hit the rocks.

Love‘s front-and-center presentation of its naturalistic sexual encounters have inevitably garnered the misnomer “pornography” from the film’s fervent detractors. This is partially due to an obvious lack of precedence, but it’s safe to say that those unfamiliar with Noé’s tendencies will be shaken to their core. Wanton provocation isn’t what this focus aims for, the film instead opting to explore all aspects of Murphy and Electra’s relationship and the strength of each. It’s made clear that – while not without their flaws – this couple has been founded on carnal as well as intellectual attraction that’s persevered and torments Murphy to this day.

The omnipresence of the amateur performers becomes a little grating based on their questionable abilities, and a rudimentary script fails to delve as deep as you’d like in terms of emotionality. Noé’s technical prowess remains Love‘s strongest attribute, employing 3D in a manner that lends itself well to the filmmaker’s exquisitely composition-driven aesthetic and a means of, er, accentuating a particular sexual climax. Singularity of presentation has been far-and-away Noé’s trademark, and Love‘s case is no exception as banality is often overshadowed by its ceaselessly unique visceral intensity.

Love is undoubtedly the most divisive film of the year in terms of content. Noé admirably refuses to steep his tendencies in anything even remotely conventional, this time examining the messiness of love throughout every aspect of a particularly toxic relationship. Murphy and Electra may not have been the perfect couple, but then again, not many are. Even though the quality of the performances and stilted interactions prevents Love from being the full package it could’ve been, it’s still elevated by an unprecedented boldness in approach that’s bolstered by Noé’s captivating sense of style.

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PFF24: The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu, ROU/FRA)

Costi (Toma Cuzin) is husband and father of one living happily and humbly despite a looming economic crisis. When propositioned by neighbor Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu) for cash, Costi politely turns him down out of necessity. When Adrian returns with a rumor of buried treasure on his family’s revolution-era estate grounds, intrigue sets in and the duo agrees to satisfy their joint curiosity. Barring the inherent absurdity of digging for treasure, Costi and Adrian set out with hopeful skepticism and a metal detector to get to work.

Having not familiarized myself with Porumboiu’s purposefully deadpan style, I found myself enamored with The Treasure‘s steadfast manner of presentation. Fueled by subtle commentary on Romania’s floundering economy, the transpiring treasure hunt can be aptly described as absurdly innocuous. Punctuated by an equally subtle sense of humor, the slightness of narrative transcends banality thanks to the assured personality Porumboiu injects into the proceedings.

The Treasure is a breezy exercise in exemplifying the filmmaker’s subjective and tonal proclivities. For as “uneventful” some may deem Costi and Adrian’s sole tribulation, the film is all the better for remaining decidedly uncomplicated in the employment of its central themes. It also culminates in what I consider to be one of the most uplifting scenes featured in anything I’ve seen this year, and the smile it helped plaster across my face alone speaks volumes about how simply entertaining Porumboiu’s latest is.

PFF24: 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, UK)

A blissfully wedded couple lives a modest life in a comparably modest suburban town. On the cusp of their 45th anniversary, a mysterious letter addressed to the husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) details the unthinkable: a former flame thought forever lost in a tragic hiking accident has been found, preserved in an icy tomb. Despite the length of time separating the present from his last memory of her, Geoff and his wife Kate (Charlotte Rampling) become increasingly affected by this startling turn of events to little gain. Only a mere week will tell if this formerly idyllic marriage perseveres or is steadily upended by undisclosed truths.

Andrew Haigh’s sophomore feature is a discernible departure from his preceding Weekend in that it forgoes burgeoning romance in favor of longstanding marriage and singular complexity of scenario. 45 Years finds strength in its beautifully restrained trappings, echoing Kate and Geoff’s quiet existence with a calculated method of storytelling that avoids melodrama while remaining undeniably moving. The film thrums with a slow-burning uncertainty that unsettles but not in a traditional sense, taking care in examining Geoff’s existential turmoil in the wake of receiving the news at the film’s forefront.

There’s an assured sort of procedurality to 45 Years‘ progression as both Kate and us as viewers question the validity of the relationship that’s defined a bulk of her life. Haigh’s focal acuity in employing something as simple as Kate’s thousand-yard stare to convey inner anguish is stellar, as is 45 Years‘ avoidance of hammy dramatic tropes that procure easy answers. Kate and Geoff’s situation is uniquely oppressive in scope, the delicacy of which is handled via deft subtlety that packs as much of a wallop as anything louder and overwrought could and assuredly has.

Decidedly plodding as it is, 45 Years‘ sensitivity in dissecting this couple’s newfound hardship is at once excellently rendered and quietly devastating. Haigh’s refusal to bash us over the head with emotional bombast establishes the film’s laudable sense of self at frequent intervals, remaining effectively contemplative of the situation in play and how dire Kate and Geoff’s predicament really is. 45 Years is undoubtedly a modest triumph in purely humanistic storytelling that has no trouble in finding and maintaining its footing in terms of scope.

PFF24: Evolution (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, FRA)

Having not seen Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s preceding Innocence, my implicitness in trusting her eagerly anticipated and long-gestating follow-up wasn’t misplaced, but the viewing experience was a polarizing one to say the least. Set in an alternately eerie and idyllic French coastal village, young Nicolas (Max Brebant) is startled to find what he identifies as a dead boy pinned to the ocean floor. When his mother shrugs off the incident, Nicolas becomes more and more inquisitive of the nature of his existence until he’s ushered to the local hospital with the rest of the local boys.

Evolution is probably one of the most literally nightmarish things I’ve laid eyes on. Evoking traditional body horror elements that mesh with alternately breathtaking and ceaselessly disturbing set pieces, the film’s deliberately languid pacing only serves to further unsettle as deafening silence punctuates the halls of the decrepit hospital as a centerpiece. Despite what precedes this change of setting being all but conventionally steeped in mysterious procedurality, Evolution‘s latter half is both bleak and hauntingly non-ethereal.

Hadzihalilovic’s aesthetic proclivities tend to overshadow what Evolution lacks in terms of accessibility and straightforward narrative. The decidedly singular proceedings fall into a predictable rhythm of atmospheric exploitation preceding moments of genuine discomfort, the latter of which often culminate in surgically-inclined crescendos that had quite the effect on yours truly. For as affecting as these moments are, the film has a hard time sustaining itself on account of how omnipresent its minimalistic sensibilities are throughout.

Evolution ranks high among more uniquely disturbing viewing experiences I’ve ever had. Hadzihalilovic’s combined use of atmosphere and imagery yields its intended effect, yet it can’t comfortably coast along on this merit alone on account of an oppressiveness of slow-burning repetition. It’s a hard sell for sure, but Evolution‘s particular merits work entirely in its favor as it rests comfortably among comparable body horror canon members.

PFF24: Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, GER)

Flaunting an undeniably dexterous single take conceit, Victoria follows the titular twentysomething on a fateful two-plus hour jaunt through the streets of her non-native Berlin. An initially innocuous run-in with an inebriated quartet of locals yields the debauchery you’d expect it to, that is until a phone call upends the festivities tenfold. What ensues is a dice roll of dire proportions when Victoria becomes an unknowing accessory to the scheme the lot of them are forced to execute.

The word “gimmick” can often come off as reductive based on context. As a solely technical accomplishment, Victoria‘s ability to breezily exploit its strongest attribute is impressive in and of itself. In fact, one needn’t see the film in order to buy into the buzz surrounding what’s ostensibly a rote heist thriller bolstered by tension in real time. Gimmicky or not, what transpires is still engaging albeit a victim of its own design in terms of a streamlined narrative best suited for the film’s inherent visceral integrity.

Beyond the obvious, Victoria doesn’t have much else going for it. The performances are fine but the narrative isn’t, opting to paint Victoria as a naive, weak-willed hyperbole of exactly the woman these guys needed to help them in a pinch. It’s not an entirely insulting caricature, yet grating enough given how genuinely stupid the lot of them are. In handling what could very easily become a matter of life and death at any moment, the choices they make belie the film’s more sophisticated trappings, even if they’re all drunk, high, reckless and in the throes of an adrenaline rush.

Victoria does a great job at masking its inadequacies with one-third of the tagline on its poster. The excellent execution of concept is unsurprisingly its crowning attribute, greatly overshadowing just how necessarily bare bones the proceedings are to ensure the utmost smoothness of presentation. It’s agreeably impressive and worth lauding as a fundamental cinematic achievement, but Victoria doesn’t stand tall as a pinnacle of contemporary excellence.

PFF24: Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke, CHN/JPN/FRA)

Mountains May Depart is Jia Zhangke’s insular tale of life and love spanning three consecutive time periods. Beginning with a focus on a love triangle between young Tao (Zhao Tao) and two potential male suitors – one a white collar coal miner, the other a wealthy investor – the film transitions to the present before coming to a close in the year 2025. As time goes by, these same individuals drift in and out of each others’ lives as organically evolving change becomes something of a centerpiece, for better and for worse.

For those familiar with A Touch of Sin, let it be known that his latest is a drastic departure in terms of subjectivity and tone. Mountains May Depart is a wholly accessible yarn steeped in basic human relationships and the ebb and flow of life itself. Shot in three different aspect ratios indicative of the time period in question, Jia’s decidedly slight illustration of each scenario exudes earnest sympathetic vibes that help transcend the banality of the various goings-on.

The nuanced advancement of the narrative from scene to scene feels a bit sluggish given the ordinary disposition of what transpires, however the sensitivity directed toward the film’s subjects is enough to procure and sustain our respective investment levels. With the first two-thirds being entirely enjoyable, viewers will undoubtedly have a hard time transitioning into a final third that features a hokey, English-speaking teenage Dollar and Sylvia Chang’s Mia: Dollar’s teacher and soon-to-be lover. Barring the quality of the central performance, investment rarely dwindles as Dollar’s existential uncertainty as a burgeoning adult rounds out the platter of life’s messiness that the film employs as its thematic through line.

It’s easy to pinpoint why Mountains May Depart‘s existence as an ostensibly run-of-the-mill character drama could earn a fair share of detractors. The success of Jia’s latest is immediately contingent upon our respective investment levels and, despite a palpable earnestness and uniqueness of presentation from segment to segment, what transpires consciously sidesteps melodrama to remain low key albeit effective. There’s little to read into, but to be honest, this slice of unfettered human interconnectivity through the times hit nearly all the right notes despite the predictably varying quality of its entirety.

PFF24: Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, FRA/GER/TUR/QAT)

Mustang is Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut feature about a Turkish sisterly quintet coming of age in an oppressively conservative household. The girls long for contemporary normalcy on a day-to-day basis, constantly rebelling to little avail as the consequences of their behavior grow more and more severe. Only time will tell if the sisters’ resilience will triumph in the face of adversity as the allure of the outside world grows stronger every day.

Barring obvious parallels to The Virgin Suicides, Mustang‘s primary appeal is contingent upon one’s inherent fascination with cultures not our own. The core sisters – having lost their parents years prior – are at the mercy of their wildly conservative relatives that have a hard time with leniency despite the changing of times. Predetermination and purity are the behavioral cornerstones to abide by and, rest assured, stepping the least bit out of line yields the most dire of consequences. In the girls’ case, an innocuous aquatic romp with male classmates after school garners an indefinite prison sentence set within the confines of their isolated mountainside estate.

The routine motions the girls go through on their road to maturation are elevated by the film’s appreciable personality. Although the repeated instances of situational rebellion are entirely familiar in scope, the script is imbued with a genuine concern for each character to varying degrees of engagement. While these girls are undeniably miserable as a result of their unending solitude, Mustang‘s narrative does well enough in avoiding all-encompassing gloom-and-doom consequence until it goes irrevocably off the rails in its latter moments, losing sight of its earlier, better former self as it staggers toward what’s an agreeably tidy conclusion.

Without nitpicking, I’m confident in saying that Mustang is a serviceable debut that undeniably exudes promise from Ergüven. It combats familiar subjectivity with a singularity of setting that feels personal and remains engaging despite its shortcomings. While I didn’t connect with the proceedings as much as others, the film’s incisive gaze into the lives of these sisters is one of note, even if a fumbled latter-act crescendo pales substantially in comparison to what precedes it.

PFF24: Dheepan (Jacques Audiard, FRA)

Dheepan is Jacques Audiard’s latest that follows the titular Sri Lankan refugee from his war-torn homeland to a slummy housing project in a Parisian suburb. Forced to assume the guise of a familial unit with a mock wife and daughter, Dheepan’s role as caretaker is welcome as he works toward establishing a life of normalcy. When the complex neighboring his family’s is revealed to be harboring gang activity, Dheepan’s woes reach beyond his modest domicile into his nightmarish past and increasingly uncertain future.

Let it first be known that I appreciated Rust & Bone for what it was despite its obscenely overwrought tendencies. It was above all a tale of unlikely friendship blossoming in the face of tragedy, and all told, the film is a serviceable if tone-deaf mess. I’ve yet to see A Prophet, but Dheepan is ostensibly an objectively dissimilar extension of his previous work. The specificity of its run-of-the-mill refugee narrative is engaging enough as Dheepan and family arduously acclimate themselves to a foreign locale, but unavoidably hokey story beats – familial bonding especially – don’t do much to procure emotional investment. Dheepan, his wife and daughter are characters and serve their respective purposes within a setting along a timeline, yet none of what transpires is especially affecting due to a lack of overall dynamism.

Dheepan‘s insistence on tension building via subplots abound is needless, the most absurd of which involves Dheepan’s past coming back to haunt him in the form of a delusional and disturbed former general. What ensues is a means of inebriated, heavy-handed foreshadowing that culminates in a latter-act bloodbath so insane that everything preceding it is rendered an afterthought. Banality is further accentuated by a mere modicum of non-handheld camera techniques, the oft-seen “gritty realism” approach doing little to evoke the visceral response it intends to despite harshly-rendered living conditions.

It’s apparent that Audiard knows how to pander to his intended audience with Dheepan. While its central family’s struggle is certainly worth investing in, the basic fish-out-of-water drama spawned by circumstantial misfortune bogs everything down considerably. The script blatantly glad-hands a crazy confrontational climax given the story’s familiar and bleak disposition, peppering itself with enough requisite human moments to keep us invested. The full package is something noteworthy if glaringly emulative of other gritty realist efforts, Audiard’s own included.

PFF24: The Club (Pablo Larraín, CHL)

Four disgraced priests and their nun overseer live isolated in a remote Chilean seaside town. They live out their days contentedly, seldom interacting with outsiders until the arrival of a mysterious and similarly troubled fifth tenant ushers in an unforeseeable travesty. When what transpires that attracts unwanted attention, an investigation is conducted by a fledgling member of the Catholic church to determine the fate of all involved.

In aggressively chastising its subject, The Club pairs unsubtle stigmatization with a purposeful aesthetic to achieve its desired effect. The film tackles the theme of muddled and misinterpreted faith with aplomb, of which is illustrated to varying degrees of depravity via enthralling intermittent one-on-ones with the priests’ unwavering interrogator. It’s within these delusional men’s ramblings that we’re offered insight into how genuinely depraved they are, no matter how mild-mannered the lot of them appear to be at first glance. The effect these frank exchanges yield is one of sustained discomfort for viewers, but the film is all the better for it in examining deep-seated albeit hyperbolic corruption within this geographical sect of the church.

The Club manages to deftly balance these instances with an overarching subplot involving the enigmatic instigator that started this entire mess. This wraparound chunk of uncertainty tacks suspense onto what’s already compelling, and although the score is a bit overwrought and accentuates melancholy over anything else, Larraín doesn’t refrain from keeping things light when a situation warrants it. This sense of humor drastically drops off as things grow increasingly dire, but there’s something to admire about sprinkling effective levity on a plate of hard to swallow subjectivity.

Larraín agreeably hits the nail on the head in tying the familiarly seedy underbelly of the Catholic Church to a narrative that’s neither nihilistic or entirely shunning. It aptly paints a portrait of what some may consider evil in a manner unlike anything else, combining technical merit with sharp-tongued exchanges that shed unsettling insight into the minds of the corrupt. Certain elements can’t help but feel manipulative on account of the extremes that emerge from characters’ respective pasts, yet The Club‘s overreliance on mood-altering aspects works mostly to its advantage.

PFF24: James White (Josh Mond, USA)

Josh Mond’s beautifully wrought James White focuses on the titular, self-destructive protagonist as he struggles to care for his terminally ill mother following his estranged father’s death. Well-meaning but unable to get out of his own way, James coasts idly from one month to the next with the stable support of few and nothing to offer them in return. Only time will tell if James will compensate for his wide-reaching selfishness with an earnest effort to better himself, if only for his mother’s sake.

Tales of twentysomethings bogged down in a state of arrested development have always struck a chord with me, but not solely because I can relate to these types. Instead, characters like James have the opportunity to be complex, thought-provoking ones that transcend typically black-and-white tropes with the help of an incisive script. Whether James’ immaturity and rampant recklessness is a byproduct of a single-parent household or not, Mond’s nuanced illustration of this individual is both sentimental and unbiased in a way that avoids melodramatic missteps, even during familiarly staged depictions of substance-infused debauchery as a go-to coping mechanism.

Despite how some may feel about its basically engaging themes, James White‘s narrative cuts a bit deeper thanks to a deft, spatially-inclined sense of focus and corresponding intimacy. Beneath the one-two punch of a screw-up screwing up while earnestly tending to his dying mother, therein lies a ticking clock element that exacerbates the former’s incompetence tenfold. Although this yields as bleak an outlook as can be, Mond’s hand is never manipulative as this uncommonly strong bond is revered for its perseverance through hardship rather than lamented for the tragedy on display.

James White is hands-down a masterclass in focal intimacy and restraint among its contemporaries. Both James himself and the unwavering bond between him and his mother are as authentic as anything I’ve seen in recent memory, an impartial portrait of the title character serving to inform us that some things are easier said than done. It’s ultimately the least uplifting thing you’ll see, but James White is still shot through with enough hopefulness, sincerity and balance to avoid diving headlong into an ocean of cloying emotionality.