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Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin is the most beautiful film at Cannes

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9:30 a.m. Even to a newcomer, it quickly becomes obvious that the Palais, Cannes’ main theater complex, is either a microcosm of the festival, or was built in its image. Cannes is a culture of patronage, consecration, and iron rules, and the Palais itself resembles a late ’70s abstraction of a medieval city. It has towers, bridges, and a central marketplace, the Marché, located in the basement, full of stalls where sales agents and national film agencies hawk 3D animated films from China, Dolph Lundgren and Steven Seagal movies, and unproduced projects that are looking to pre-sell. This is the convention/trade show part of Cannes, with its own theaters and screenings, from which the press are usually barred.

The Palais itself is built on the water, like the merchant trading center that it is. Yachts the size of three-story houses are moored behind the Palais, floating offices for larger production outfits like Arte and Red Granite. On the other side of the complex, on the Boulevard De La Croisette, stand the crowds, begging to be let in, waving handmade “Invitation S.V.P.”


After fortification, the most effective way to exert power is to manage how people and information move. Entrance and exit are strictly controlled, even within different corners of the Palais. Wi-fi is accessed with one of those plastic cards that hangs behind your badge, with a login and password you have to enter every time you log on. Every empire—and Cannes is an empire—needs a postal system, so, in lieu of handing journalists print materials and press kits in the theater, like most festivals do, Cannes provides the press with a wing of private mail boxes, accessed with a badge swipe. They fill up every day.

I skip the morning screenings to walk around, take it in, and catch up on writing.


1:50 p.m. I have a pink press badge, which is widely considered “cool.” Pink badges are let in before the blue badges, who are let in before the yellows, who are rarely let in at all. There are also white badges, but they are rare, reserved for the big-big fish; I’ve met only two since getting here. They can move fluidly through the festival.

This color-priority thing creates a caste system, because every badge color represents a different relationship to time. Blues and yellows spend a large part of the day waiting in their respective lines. Pinks are all but guaranteed access, even if they arrive only five minutes before a screening starts. Within a few days, you realize that it’s difficult to socialize with people who don’t share your badge color. Here, as in Toronto, there’s a contingent of critics who can be identified by the fact that they wear their badges on the leopard-spotted lanyards of the Locarno Film Festival—a form of subcultural identification, as dorky as the shouts of “Raoul!” that precede every screening at the Salle Debussy.

The parallel Quinzaine festival prides itself on running its press line “democratically,” which means a first-come, first-served basis, which in turns means that getting into a screening involves standing for a long time in the sun, even if you’ve got a white badge. If Cannes, with its punishments and strict rules of decorum, brings to mind the medieval, then the Quinzaine is democratic chaos. The line inevitably swells into a crowd, which spills in front of the entrance to the JW Marriot hotel. Arriving taxis and livery cars honk indignantly, trying to push through.

2:30 p.m. It’s not exactly a gasp, but there’s a noticeable change in the energy of the room that happens early in the Quinzaine screening of Sharunas Bartas’ Peace To Us In Our Dreams (Grade: C+), during a scene where a middle-aged man (Bartas himself) plays his teenage daughter a videotape that he found. A woman’s face fills the screen: haunted eyes, pimples exaggerated by the brownish texture of the video format, almost heroin chic.


The kind of person who would line up for a new Sharunas Bartas movie at Quinzaine is generally the same kind of person who would recognize the woman on the tape: Yekaterina Golubeva, enigmatic star of Twentynine Palms and Pola X, who died in 2011 after a long battle with depression. Golubeva was married to Bartas in the ’90s, and it quickly becomes clear that these are their home movies. (In fact, the daughter is played by their daughter, Ina Marija Bartaité.)

It’s a disarmingly naked moment in what is, for the most part, an artfully cagey movie—basically, just people wandering around a forest, pond, and country house, sometimes glancing off at something in the distance. Father and daughter are joined by a violinist (Lora Kmieliauskaite)—possibly the father’s wife—who appears to be having some kind of mental breakdown. There is a teenage boy prowling the woods with a dog, a couple of alcoholic neighbors, and not much else, aside from a Russian woman who comes to visit the father to deliver a monologue about childlessness. But mostly, there is glancing, walking, stillness, silence. Bartas—once a rising star on the art-film circuit—has a gift for intimately framing and lighting figures and faces, but that might not be enough to sustain interest.


5:15 p.m. Because most of its screenings were scheduled against the Main Competition, I was only able to catch the last part of Arabian Nights, the new project from Miguel Gomes (Tabu), which consists of three more-or-less-standalone features inspired by the titular folk-tale collection.

Arabian Nights, Vol. 3: The Enchanted One (Grade: B for now) kicks off with a half-hour-long mad rush of absurdist storytelling, as Scheherazade travels to an archipelago of bandits, break-dancing thieves, and wind spirits. The vibe is handmade, anachronistic, and movie-hip. A silent film’s worth of explanatory title cards (sample: “In the Antiquity of Time, there lived a man named Paddleman”) introduce a dozen bizarre characters, often accompanied by different versions of Klaatu’s “Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft.” All of this leads into the central story, “The Inebriating Chorus Of The Chaffinches,” which turns out to be… a feature-length documentary about competitive birdsong hobbyists in modern-day Portugal, shot in anamorphic 16mm.


Interestingly, the flowery title cards continue, popping several times a minute, framing these schlubby, largely middle-aged, mostly working-class men as though they were characters in a story told by Scheherazade. At first, it seems like a joke, until the viewer realizes that they serve a clear purpose. By handing over narration duties to on-screen text, Gomes has freed up space on the soundtrack for the sounds of nature. In essence, Gomes is trying to make the case for the unremarkable, framing whistling birds and weekend obsessions in the terms of the folkloric. The hobbyists trade recordings of chaffinch songs as though they were bird ethnographers, and their mundane stories—how one arrived late for his first date with his wife, how another’s birds died while he was on vacation—are presented as though they were a modern oral tradition. And then, just as the viewer thinks they know what Gomes is up to, a genie appears.

10:01 p.m. The mythic past as a distant place: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin (Grade: A-) is the most beautiful thing at Cannes, but who knows what it’s really about. Here, Hou takes wuxia, the most over-played genre in Chinese fiction and film, and makes it seem completely unfamiliar, without subverting any of its outsize gestures or values. In certain respects the most conventional movie Hou has made in decades, The Assassin is also enigmatic in ways some will find absolutely mesmerizing, and others might think is infuriating.


Super-saturated with color and smudged by fire and fluttering curtains, The Assassin finds Hou—returning to features for the first time since 2007’s French-language Flight Of The Red Balloon—at the height of his powers as an audiovisual stylist, mixing rich imagery with a sparse soundtrack of martial drums and birdsong. Set in the 9th century, the film casts Shu Qi—who starred in Hou’s Three Times and the underrated Millennium Mambo—as a mysterious, nearly silent assassin who is sent by her master to kill the governor of Weibo, Lord Tian (Chang Chen, Shu’s Three Times co-star), to whom she was once promised in marriage.

Hou is relatively faithful to the conventions of period martial-arts movies. There are wire-assisted leaps, theatrical beards, acts of black magic, and, yes, fights—but Hou’s sense of staging, movement, and time makes it all feel like an abstraction. Most of Hou’s major works have been conscious period pieces, even the ones set in the present. (Millennium Mambo, which this movie recalls in unusual ways, was narrated from the future, for instance.) Here, he approaches the world of wuxia fiction as one of haunting beauty—it’s hard to overstate just how sharply gorgeous this movie is—and purity, which resonate across time, but are ultimately unknowable and difficult to grasp.