Sunday, June 23, 2024

Un Certain Regard, Cannes 2024: Capsule Reviews of ‘Holy Cow’, ‘The Story of Souleymane’, and ‘When the Light Breaks’

The Un Certain Regard (translated to “a certain glance”) section of the Cannes Film Festival offers a lens into the perspectives of the world. This section mainly consists of filmmakers on the rise and debutants, who are given the chance to premiere their new or first works and stamp their names in the history books. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see many of the films on this slate. But I caught a few of them, some showing potential and others not so much, yet there’s some cadence. In this capsule review piece, I will talk about three of them: Holy Cow, The Story of Souleymane, and When the Light Breaks

Holy Cow (Vingt Dieux) (Directed by. Louise Courvoisier)

The first film in this piece is Holy Cow (Vingt dieux) by French filmmaker Louise Courvoisier. Coming-of-age films always have a space in the Cannes Film Festival. But they often arrive as a 50/50 split of creative and by the numbers—with levels of artistry or, to put it slightly, plain, vanilla-flavored. Unfortunately, the latter applies to the aforementioned film, leaving me without much of an impression. The film follows Totone (Clément Faveau), an eighteen-year-old kid who used to spend his time drinking at local pubs with his crew in the Jura region of France, but after his father’s passing, his life has shifted entirely. He is left alone to care for his little sister and make ends meet to keep the house. 

To make a “quick buck,” Totone and his friends enter a cheese-making competition in the Comté region. The winner gets a gold medal and thirty thousand euros, which will help Totone and his sister get a fresh start. We have seen hundreds of stories like this, where the “last resort” starts as an exploit to earn money, but later, the protagonist views it from a different perspective – connecting their suffering to their work process. In this case, cheese-making represents taking things slowly in life, where we shouldn’t rush things out of our control. It is a lovely message, with some moments having a genuine dramatic sensibility that wants to take a piece of the audience’s heart and break it. 

However, since, on a cinematic level, it is manufactured like the ones that came before, you don’t tend to care much about the story or its characters. Instead, you keep on guessing where everything is headed in your mind. But that isn’t the only reason why Holy Cow doesn’t work. While the performances are solid, the emotions in the narrative don’t ring true. There’s an artificiality that distances the viewer from the characters, leaving us without much to hold onto after the credits roll. This is not the worst film I saw at the Cannes Film Festival this year. However, it is the most straightforward and cinematically ambitionless, which is a far worse experience than watching a bing-swing disaster. 

Grade: D

The Story of Souleymane (L’histoire de Souleymane) (Directed by. Boris Lojkine)

The second film in this capsule review piece is The Story of Souleymane (L’histoire de Souleymane) by Boris Lojkine, which won the Jury Prize for the Un Certain Regard section as well as its Performance Award. Lojkine sometimes delves into a Dardennes-esque type of direction with the narrative, where we follow a lost soul in a rural city as he deals with life’s difficulties – feeling detached as he makes ends meet and has his family troubles. He also used this inspiration in his previous feature, Hope. But the difference is that the social commentary here is sharper and more nuanced, albeit a tad too expository for its own sake. 

The story follows Souleymane Sangare (Aubu Sangare), who is waiting for an interview call that might get him his residency in France. The film tells a forty-eight-hour tale about Souleymane preparing for that meeting as he encounters some troubles in his bike delivery job—dealing with cruel customers, the chaotic streets of Paris, and personal struggles. Like many of the characters in Lojkine’s filmography, Souleymane is fighting hard to fight for a better life. Regarding his monetary situation, most of his wages go to his contractor, Emmanuel (Emmanuel Yovanie), and the man helping him get his residency, Bary (Alpha Oumar Sow). This is where the narrative creates its tension. 

There’s uncertainty about what will happen to Souleymane the following day regarding his citizenship and buying his necessities. Aubu Sangare, in his debut performance, does a tremendous job at keeping everything genuine, personal, and impactful. He treats the calmness as a welcoming friend, even in the most challenging situations, and it makes each scene contain some emotional weight, even though the screenplay can often feel heavy-handed. The film lives and breathes under his wing, and Sangare guides it with empathy and sincerity. The problem lies in how Lojkine and co-writer Delphine Agut handle the Dardennes-esque sensibility of European social realism, which renders The Story of Souleymane rather maladroit at the film’s back end.

Grade: C+

When the Light Breaks (Ljósbrot) (Directed by. Rúnar Rúnarsson)

The third (and final) film in this capsule review piece is When the Light Breaks (Ljósbrot) by Rúnar Rúnarsson, the opening film of the Un Certain Regard section. This is a film about the stages of grief and how we handle and go through it in different ways, yet it all leads to the emotional catharsis that unites us all in our mourning. There’s a beautiful subtleness attached to each scenario that holds the film together on an emotional and cinematic level. However, there are certain directorial decisions that Rúnarsson applies, which make When the Light Breaks lack the potency of its topics and the relatable power of the performances. 

The film centers around Una (Elin Hall), a young art student with a bright future. She’s happily living with her boyfriend, Diddi (Balduer Einersson); the two spend their days together, hoping that they’ll get the opportunity to have a more prosperous life. But that day, at least together, will not arrive. An explosion in a tunnel has killed many people, including Diddi, who was heading out of town for a few days. Una now goes through an array of emotions – rejection, sorrow, guilt, remorse – as she grieves the death of her partner, one of the few people who accepted her as she was. 

When the Light Breaks is divided into sections, each set in a different location that reflects a stage in the grieving process. These places help translate the characters’ emotions into a step-by-step process of acknowledgment and understanding – learning about different ways people approach a loss. However, with this structure comes a necessity to turn up the emotional valve and tonnage in each location. This causes some scenes, although well-performed by the young talented cast, to lack that vulnerability of the story. The performances dictate that feeling, yet Rúnarsson makes it weaker by layering out the film in this fashion. 

In addition, the editing and scene-by-scene transitions bothered me. Each scene in the various locations culminates abruptly, leaving little breathing space so the audience can be more immersed in the story. A specific frame captures what Rúnarsson wanted to say with the film. He aligns two characters between a glass door, one in front and the other behind; their faces align, signifying how we all, despite our differences, go through this process the same way internally. It is a beautiful image that speaks louder than words. If only the film could have more vivid, striking imagery to have a stronger sentimental backbone. 

Grade: C

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