TIFF 2022 Report #6

Triangle of Sadness (Östlund, 2022)

Ruben Östlund is a visual mischief-maker, which is an appellation which I’m sure he’d be honoured by. His targets are not exactly high-hanging fruit: Men with fragile egos and dents in their armours whose tough exteriors practically crumble away in vulnerable situations; upper-class pretentions and the inherent stupidity of privileged wealth and elitism; the porous borders of class stratification; and the way that most mundane occurrences can gradually escalate into sheer absurdity and irrationality. Östlund’s gleeful willingness to bring the seemingly untouchable echelons crashing back down to earth was one of the reasons why 2017’s art world satire The Square earned him his first Palme d’Or at Cannes, and why he was able to repeat this feat once again five years later with Triangle of Sadness.

For better and for worse, both The Square and Triangle of Sadness share similar preoccupations, as well as similar flaws. Both hit their intended targets to varying degrees of success, both devolve into some genuinely outrageous setpieces, and both are too long and shaggy for their own good. Perhaps even wildly overindulgent, though Östlund would probably take it as a compliment. I prefer Triangle of Sadness a bit more for having an eclectic cast of both new and familiar faces (some of whom become veritable scene stealers when you least expect them to), while also knowing when to get the nonsense started and being wholly committed to the sheer depths of its vulgarity. People who can’t abide toilet humour are undoubtedly going to loathe what Östlund gets away with, but there is a kind of catharsis in seeing affluent subjects get their comeuppance in the most humiliating ways, and to Östlund’s credit, he milks it for all it’s worth while also demonstrating a strong compositional prowess. The second act of this three-act film is an incredible feat of construction and execution, and audiences will not be able to resist howling with laughter and astonishment mostly because of how skilfully Östlund manages to turn catastrophe into slapstick art.

If the entire film were as entertaining as the second act, this would likely have been Östlund’s masterpiece. It’s to his detriment, unfortunately, that he still doesn’t know how to rein in some of his impulses. The first act, which focuses exclusively on two young models (Harris Dickinson and the late Charlbi Dean) bickering over a dinner bill and exposing the vacuity of male chivalry, is a clever prologue to the main action, but also a joke stretched a bit thinly that starts to overstay its welcome. The third act, meanwhile, which is set on a remote island, is cemented by a tremendous performance by Filipina actress Dolly de Leon, but otherwise takes an excruciatingly long time to say what it wants to say. When Östlund doesn’t have jokes and gags flying a mile a minute, the dead air floating within Triangle of Sadness can be tiresome to endure. With a bit of judicious editing and streamlining, this might have been smoother sailing.

That being said, when Triangle of Sadness hits its highs, they are glorious and help to mitigate some of the other problems floating around. It’s easy to see why this year’s Cannes jury was so smitten with what he achieves here, even though I hope his next venture will be a tighter and more disciplined affair. Being unruly can only get you so far, after all.

EO (Skolimowski, 2022)

Another film that took Cannes by storm (and ended up being one of the winners of the Jury Prize) is Polish master Jerzy Skolimowski’s existentialist donkey drama EO, which packs a terrible punch in spite of its relative brevity and sparse cast of human characters. In his filmed introduction at my screening, Skolimowski impressed upon us how important this film was to him as an animal lover and humanist, and, indeed, this certainly comes across in the commanding artistry of what unfolds onscreen. Unlike Palme-winning Ruben Östlund, Skolimowski knows intuitively the effectiveness of economy and how much can be achieved by not doing too much. The story here is simple: A circus donkey (played, in actual fact, by an alternating group of six jacks and jennys) is suddenly sold off and parted from its adoring owner, beginning a journey wherein the anthropomorphized animal finds itself in various locations—either by wandering to them or being claimed by various masters with differing intentions, all the while being privy to the various wonders and cruelties of the human condition. It’s not so much a linear narrative as it is an observational series of road vignettes that are allowed to speak for themselves, especially since EO the donkey can only piteously bray at their outcomes.

Skolimowski does allow us brief flashes into EO’s headspace, bathing these personal forays into the animal’s consciousness in red filters (with some of them being given almost hallucinatory strobe lighting to further disorient viewers). At times we even see EO seemingly shedding a tear as it thinks longingly of its beloved owner or trotting at increased speeds in its vain attempts to return to her care. Skolimowski is, of course, evidently manipulating how he wants us to feel about EO by assigning it these candid thoughts and emotions, but because the aim of his endeavour is to draw us closer in mutual communion with this lost and aimless animal, it is a compassionate decision that never rubs the wrong way. It is, rather, a beautiful tribute to the feeling capacity of the animal kingdom, and how precious these creatures are to the stabilization of our own civilized collective. As we see in some of the vignettes, EO’s presence does matter to people who are just as lost and aimless as it is. Animals can sometimes be our saving grace, which is what I believe Skolimowski’s overarching message is here. And, unfortunately, many times we don’t deserve all that they offer us.

It’s quite true that EO’s throughline is not especially complex or novel. The influence, for instance, of Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar is indisputable, and this could be seen as a looser and more experimental remake or update. But Skolimowski has been making films for much too long to settle for lazy pastiche, and EO is far from being anything of the sort. It is a powerful, brutal and unexpectedly emotional work that asks little more from its audience than to keep the animal world close to us, and in doing so, it becomes that much more impactful.

Saint Omer (Diop, 2022)

Sometimes a film comes along that not only asks important questions about the ways in which we live in society, but it also asks us something so challenging as to be almost unthinkable. In her semi-fictional narrative debut, Alice Diop does exactly that with Saint Omer, plunging us into one of the most morally tumultuous scenarios possible: Asking us whether a mother accused of infanticide could escape our total condemnation. It is a shocking and controversial idea to be sure, but so much of Saint Omer’s beauty and terror is derived from the patient and meticulous way we’re able to observe the evidence brought before us via the trial that Diop dramatizes—a trial, moreover, that did occur once upon a time, and from which Diop culls much inspiration (right down to actual excerpts from the court transcripts). The film is primarily framed from the vantage of a writer named Rama (Kayije Kagame), who travels to the titular town to audit the trial in the hopes of gleaning some inspiration for her new book, which retells the story of Medea from a contemporary angle. As Rama sits and watches, Diop then trains her camera on the accused, a Senegalese immigrant named Laurence (Guslagie Malanda) who left her baby on a beach and let it drown in the high tide. While the crime is distressing enough, even more distressing is Laurence’s assertion that she still does not know why she did it. Was she under the influence of witchcraft, as she maintains? Was she the unwitting victim of a family curse? Or was this terrible act the end result of years of abuse and depression as the invisible and neglected lover of an older white man?

What distinguishes Saint Omer from other courtroom dramas (particularly grandiose, Hollywoodized treatments like Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 from a few years ago) is how uninterested Diop is in making it a swelling spectacle replete with bombastic music cues and fictionalized interpolations meant to get audiences cheering in their seats. More aligned with, say, the precise formal rigour of Straub-Huillet, Diop is concerned with relaying the hard brunt of testimony and keeping her camera entirely trained on those making their statements so that we can listen to their words, observe their body language, and try to extrapolate important truths without being coloured by undue influences. If Diop has already taken a side, she is nevertheless fair with her characters and lets the evidence presented speak for itself first and foremost. Granted, this bare approach will cause some to find the film dry and academic, but what makes Diop’s method so successful is that the emotions that do come are felt with ten times more force, for they crash into us like tidal waves after a long period of tranquility. Diop so carefully calibrates her method that what catharsis there is becomes so much more rewarding for us than if she’d spoon-fed all the emotions to us.

While Saint Omer is a legal drama first and foremost, I think it can also be classified as a horror story, as well. Not only because the crime at its heart is so horrible, but also because it reveals that a life can be destroyed in ways so calculating and insidious as to leave us stricken into silence. With Guslagie Malanda’s towering performance at its centre—perhaps the year’s greatest screen performance, and maybe one of the best performances ever captured on film—Saint Omer is the filmic microcosm of all that is wrong in the world, but also one that demands us to open our eyes and hearts even wider to access truths and feelings that we would otherwise let lie dormant. A film like this truly deserves our collective attention.

Walk Up (Hong, 2022)

One could argue that Hong Sang-soo is about to reach the point of self-parody in the way he seems to love taking the mickey out of himself with each new film. He’s always ready with a new jibe or crack about his personal life and abilities, not bothering to mask the fact that he’s his own worst enemy. His self-critiques, however, are in the service of our enjoyment. He wants us to giggle a little, just as his characters joke amongst themselves over alcohol in his signature long takes of conversation. Walk Up serves up these familiar Hong-isms with the usual gentle comforts of his general filmography, albeit with a few select differences and a new sleight-of-hand to give the illusion of time another curt shake in the bones. Hong’s sleights-of-hand are one of the choicest pleasures of his work; the way they destabilize our expectations and leave us reeling with their import are one of the main reasons he is one of the world’s greatest working auteurs. Walk Up keeps the needle centred in that direction, proving that Hong rarely takes a wrong step.

In this outing, the characters do a lot of stepping: Namely, up a flight of stairs in a compact apartment building. Film director Byung-soo (Hong’s narrative alter ego, played by his regular leading man Kwon Hae-hyo) is introducing his daughter (Park Mi-so) to the landlady, Ms. Kim (Lee Hye-young), who he hopes can offer some advice to her as an interior designer. Miss Kim proves to be one of Hong’s most colourful creations in recent memory: An avid wine drinker, she is also an inveterate braggart who doesn’t shy away from shamelessly chasing what she terms “important” people and offering them an apartment in her building. In Hong’s usual fashion, these characters come alive as they gulp down their wine and graze on snacks, talking out their individual personalities and hubrises. Then, when Byung-soo briefly leaves the group for a business matter, and his daughter later pops out to replenish the wine supply, Hong’s magic trick takes effect: Now we enter a reality where Byung-soo is ensconced in one of the apartments as the boyfriend of the building’s restauranteur. Whether this time jump is a glimpse into the future or a hypothetical outcome of Ms. Kim’s fantasy to have a menagerie of respectable tenants is left up to us to decide, but however we choose to interpret it, the shift both enriches the characterizations and revitalizes the story’s own possibilities, allowing us to find new ways to enjoy this latest of Hong’s mischievous puzzle boxes.

By the time the film circles back in on itself and yanks us back to the immediate present, the many strands of the story—its quiet longings, temperate rhythms, comic mundanities—guide us to a further appreciation of Hong’s stealthy craftsmanship, particularly in the way he can peel back the hidden melancholies of life with such nimble placidity and unconventional detours. It is also futile to argue whether this is a “strong” Hong entry relative to his other films, because one of the great aspects of Hong’s filmmaking is that each of his works can be a different person’s crown jewel, depending on how taken they are by his latest innovations and obsessions. On my end, I’ve liked some other Hong films more than Walk Up because their wisdoms spoke louder and more profoundly to me, but this is still undoubtedly a superb and assured outing from a man who continues to spin a tireless web of truly fascinating narratives.