Familial Dysfunctions and Claustrophobia at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival

Family reunions have always been a common subject in both literature and cinema, but this year, at the Cannes Film Festival, some acclaimed filmmakers reworked the genre, giving it more depth and acknowledgment. Xavier Dolan, the 27-year-old Canadian director, explored the genre in Juste la Fin du Monde (It’s Only the End of the World), while Cristi Puiu, the renowned “godfather” of the Romanian New Wave, plunged his audience in the intricacies of his three-hour family drama, Sieranevada. And the list of films focusing on family dysfunction this year goes on: Pedro Almodovar with Julieta; Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical; Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Matt Ross’s Captain Fantastic, and Asghar Farhadi’s (A Separation) new film, The Salesman. However, Dolan and Puiu’s two surprising and at times unsettling films, share not only a common theme, but also a common result, that of claustrophobia and rejection.

In both dramas, the characters are trapped in small, dark and cramped spaces for the duration of the film. For Puiu, the set is a tiny apartment in Bucharest where 16 people are stuck together, both laughing and arguing for hours on end. The entirety of the film happens within these walls, except for a few conversations in the protagonist Lary’s car, which allows identification amidst the chaotic family that is otherwise impossible to link together, even after three hours of documentary-like footage. Xavier Dolan’s film also mainly occurs in a huis clos, the family home in rural France. But the claustrophobia in Dolan is more suggested by the harsh lighting, the focus on each character’s emotions and the nightmarish narrative. Indeed, the film is highly stylized and feels unreal at times; there are fast-paced and loud musical interruptions, which give off an impression of oppression and wooziness, with very surprising pop song choices to the point of overpowering the audience - it was at times difficult to bear.

The huis clos is usually reminiscent of the theater, for it possesses the beneficial aspect of conducting the action in one space only. It is also reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential play, “No Exit” (the French title being “Huis-clos,” literally translated as closed door), in which three characters are trapped in a space in their afterlife, and where the famous line, “hell is other people,” occurs. While watching both Dolan’s and Puiu’s films, Sartre’s words unsurprisingly echo in the heads of the characters as well as the audience. People meeting at a family reunion usually cannot escape without causing scandal and outrage around the dinner table, therefore are trapped and confined to a single space, most commonly responsible for arguments and faux pas. It then did not come as a surprise when I heard that It’s Only the End of the World was adapted by the 1990 French play of the same title by Jean-Luc Lagarce, a homosexual playwright who died of AIDS at 38 (his play was then autobiographic to a certain extent). It also was not surprising to read reviews suggesting Sieranevada should be adapted to the theater. However theatrical these texts are, the directors treated that theatricality very differently in terms of the mood and the atmosphere of the films. While Dolan focused his efforts on a histrionic approach, Puiu praised the undramatic and the simplicity of a storytelling, without exaggerating aspects for comic relief. I would not go as far as saying that there is more realism and more actuality in Puiu’s work than in Dolan’s, because there is a certain truthfulness in both films. And while Dolan’s 6th feature is more dramatic, more stylized, it is not stripped of its urgency and of its accuracy in representing difficult and puzzling family relationships.

In terms of the narrative and the dialogues, Dolan and Puiu also differ greatly in their choices. While the Romanian director chooses wordiness and heavily focuses on dialogue in order to move the action forward, Xavier Dolan’s script is elusive, mostly silent, representing the impossibility to communicate, forcing his actors reach new levels of expressivity. It’s Only the End of the World is a film that understandably relies on the subtext, and therefore, the dialogue has no need to be extremely elaborate and poetic. Many reviewers, however, felt cheated by such a feat. Even his innovative and daunting camera work did not save the film’s weak source material, which many critics consider a surprising choice.

Nonetheless, I believe that, no matter the quality of the source or the dialogue, the filmmaker’s work should be judged by the direction he gives, and the feeling the audience is left with at the end of the film. Dolan succeeded in making his audience react to his film, whether positive or negative; no one will argue with the fact that he made adequate and oppressive aesthetic choices that deserve recognition. However, it is true that when the dialogue is impressive, the film flows much better and its filmmaker receives more artistic praise, as was Puiu for his words and his wit.

Yet Dolan, because of the vast range of cinematic techniques that already evoke claustrophobia, does not need to cram the house with nameless characters. Instead, his film has 5 powerhouse French actors (including Vincent Cassel (La Haine) and Gaspard Ulliel (Saint Laurent)) and a very simple family tree. He therefore relies on a more experimental and art-house kind of directing. This includes a very shallow depth of field that isolate characters in their own thoughts: dark but also vivid colors that clash together and create unrealistic pairings, especially in the costume of the mother, played by Natalie Baye.

Dolan clearly had a very particular, albeit extravagant and avant-gardist vision in mind when shooting the film, asking his Director of Photography André Turpin to film the characters only in close-ups, inserts, or with a very long lens, in order to create a sense of alienation and separation in the characters from each other through a shallow depth of field. Indeed, the entire film is cut like a fast-pace montage of faces, square on or in profile, surrounded by blurry contours, which, after a few minutes, feels assumingly nauseating. It comes to the point where cinema beauties such as Lea Seydoux and Marion Cottillard almost become unattractive because they are so exposed. However grueling but still beautiful this experience was, I have to praise the artistic consistency of It’s Only the End of the World: it is not easy to maintain a unified artistic vision in such a film, and Dolan captured perfectly the important aspect of the script – the subtext - through the emotions and the impeding suffocation of the house. He was able to deliver all of those things through the consistency of extreme close-ups, silences and sudden bursts of overwhelming and absurd music.

In that regard, Puiu’s film could not be more different. He steers away from close-ups, and actually has a deep depth of field, which allows for long takes, a static camera that pans from left to right, showing us glimpses of the action as if one was an impartial participant of the dinner, standing in the corner, observing the meal like it was a documentary. This viewing experience is greatly enhanced by the fact that the film is shot at eye-level, and on a fixed tripod in the hallway of this tiny apartment. These long takes, for an inexperienced viewer, are excruciating – there seems to be a lack of action, a default in the storytelling, and a problem with the camera work. However, for a more knowledgeable and appreciative viewer of art-house cinema, and especially of the Romanian New Wave, Sieranevada is a nothing short of a dramatic masterpiece. Not only is the dialogue perfectly written, allowing for wit and comedic moments to relieve the audience of the grueling and grave topics of conversations, but also is the blocking of the actors so amazingly choreographed that it is easy to imagine the amount of work the Romanian director and his crew have put into this film.

The film can be confusing, though. Puiu overflows it with characters, whose names, stories, and relationships to each other are so overwhelming they almost feel unnecessary. Because he chose not to emphasize on such details, Puiu instead delivers a different kind of familial narrative, one that is deeper and more philosophical than ever seen before: it deals with honesty, patience, absurdity, and wit, rather than the futility of a clear family tree. In this regard, Puiu reinvents the family reunion to focus on what is said, how it is said, and how it is seen.

Lastly, Sieranevada’s depth and philosophical components clash with Dolan’s silence over serious matters (for example, Ulliel’s character Louis cannot even tell his family what he came to tell them, which feels incredibly unsatisfying: it was the only bit of suspense throughout the film, and the fact that Dolan did not deliver seems weak). On the contrary, the Romanian dialogue is filled with intellectual and considered arguments about communism, terrorism (most specifically, conspiracy theories about 9/11 and the Parisian Charlie Hebdo attack), religion (the Orthodox ritual of the 40th), and adultery, to mention just a few. One common link to all these topics: patriarchy. In his interview with the Huffington Post, Cristi Puiu declares:

“We tend to look to find out what is behind the actions of politicians: instead we should look inside the family. The father takes the decisions. The children and wife are not asked. They don’t really know what is behind the decisions. The same is true in politics. Politicians will propose a law that is above the knowledge of the masses and the masses will go along with it.”

In Dolan’s film, however, there seems to be a lack of a general thematic (and interestingly enough, there is no father figure in his film either): it is as if the filmmaker overlooked on the message he wanted to leave his audience with. However closely we look at the film, the outcome seems inescapable and rather unique, and therefore, weak for a film awarded “Grand Prix.” Even the play’s focus on homosexuality is practically brushed aside: many critics agree that it would have made for a more interesting, richer film that would be appropriate for today’s main political and social discourses. While the play was written in 1990, a time that saw the rise of homosexuality, homophobia, and AIDS, there are issues still discussed today, and it seems like Dolan does not give the play its justice in terms of societal components. It does feel strange that such topics are not mentioned, particularly when it comes from such a young filmmaker who has all the power and the credibility to make such claims.

It’s Only the End of the World was awarded the “Grand Prix” in the Official Competition, whereas Sieranevada walked away with nothing. Interestingly enough, this goes completely against the critical reviews, which praised Puiu’s meaningful and thoughtful family drama while marking Dolan’s new film as nothing short of disappointing. However, it seems like this inadequate result goes in accordance with the general Prize list, which has received very mixed reviews since the Award Ceremony – for example, Kean Loach received the Palme d’Or for I, Daniel Blake, a conservative and traditionally shot film, which felt awarded more because of personal politics than cinematic distinction. More progressive art-house films weren’t granted recognition, such as Sieranevada, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, Jarmusch’ Paterson, and Park Chan-wook’s Agassi (The Handmaiden). However, Dolan’s award does feel deserved, thanks to its audacious camera work, set design, and A-list cast. But, in the grander realm of the Cannes thematic, Dolan and Puiu’s films are two very representative pictures of a “Cannes” film: their unconventionality, their daring visions, and their ability to create powerful feedbacks.