Jacob Elordi Oh, Canada Cannes Paul Schrader

Canada at Cannes: David Cronenberg, Matthew Rankin and Paul Schrader’s Oh, Canada

Cronenberg at his most disturbing, Schrader near the top of his game and Rankin with our personal favourite film at Cannes 2024.

A Cult MTL report from the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, featuring reviews of The Shrouds, Universal Language, Oh, Canada, Black Dog and Caught by the Tides.

Cannes can be a frustrating experience. It undeniably lays out on a public stage everything wrong with the film industry: its greed, cognitive dissonance and lack of regard for art. It’s impossible to ignore the underlying violence that allows the festival to persist. The constant security checks, pervasive military presence and insistence on apolitical rhetoric feel at odds with the liberating potential of cinema and art. If Cannes can be read as a litmus test for the industry’s health, it’s rotting from the inside out. On the surface, it represents filmmaking as out of touch with reality; a festival of smoke and mirrors for the elites. 

On the other hand, I leave Cannes with a sense of hope. There are the filmmakers, critics and film professionals who understand that cinema exists in conversation with the world, rather than something divorced from it. While we imagine the pillars of cinema, as with most industries, as the product and money invested in it, the reality is that its value lies within people. Most of the people I met, friends old and new, invigorated my hope in not just cinema, but also the world. 

While I unfortunately did not get to see most of the major award winners this year (I won’t bore you with the specifics but Cannes is a ruthless Mad Max-like race for tickets), I was lucky enough to see some really beautiful, if occasionally flawed films in the second-half of the festival.

The Shrouds

The Shrouds David Cronenberg
The Shrouds (directed by David Cronenberg)

Grief and paranoia intersect in David Cronenberg’s The Shrouds. Vincent Cassel stars as Karsh, an entrepreneur who has launched an unlikely tech company that allows the living to monitor their dead loved ones in their grave. Overcome with the death of his wife Becca (played by Diane Kruger, who also plays Becca’s living twin sister, Terry, and an avatar assistant, Hunny), Karsh obsesses over her decaying body. His waking hours are spent at his plugged-in cemetery, and at night, he dreams of her final days, her body slowly taken apart by doctors hoping to save her. Set in Toronto, the film has the sleek edges of an impersonal future — low-lighting, smooth surfaces and brutalist designs. When graves including Becca’s are desecrated, Karsh searches for the perpetrators and finds himself pulled deeper into conspiracy. 

A continuation of many themes present in Crimes of the Future, The Shrouds is preoccupied by the way time and the environment transform our bodies. The film also features some of the most disturbing images of Cronenberg’s career. Among them, the pervasive nightmarish image of Karsh’s dead wife and her decaying body serves as a sensual spectre that overhangs the film. With some of the most potent and transgressive sex scenes of his filmography since Crash, Cronenberg taps into grief and longing as Karsh yearns for his wife’s body, with a charged intensity that borders on madness. The movie falters in some ways; the talky screenplay, weak ending and Cassel’s discomfort with Cronenberg’s affected coldness unfortunately overshadow the film’s strengths. Yet, flawed as it may feel on first impression, there’s no denying The Shrouds lingers thanks to the prevailing awkwardness rooted in the film’s raw vulnerability. 

Universal Language

Universal Language Matthew Rankin
Universal Language (directed by Matthew Rankin)

Matthew Rankin won my heart back in 2019 with his deranged feature-length heritage minute on William Lyon Mackenzie King, The Twentieth Century. His follow-up, Universal Language, is an all-together different beast. Part laugh out loud comedy, part homage to Iranian melodrama, the film re-imagines an alternate Canada where the two solitudes are French and Farsi. Set between Montreal and Winnipeg, the film is an incisive look at childhood, grief and communication against an improbably beautiful sterile background. Rankin’s camera transforms the institutional modernist architecture of Canadian cities into something minimalist and grandiose; reimagining Canada as a kind of mythic civilization of harsh edges softened by billowing snow. 

Universal Language brims with imagination, embodying a kind of artisanal spirit. It reimagines Tim Hortons as a Persian tea lounge, Quebec ministry as prison-like offices adorned by Papa François Legault and Winnipeg as an unusual tourist destination. As the film progresses, though, its pure comic spirit gives way to something more personal. Rankin plays Matthew, a man on a pilgrimage back home to reunite with his mother. While much of the film is focused on the troublemaker (mis)adventures of elementary school-aged students, the film comes to fruition in this second part, as Matthew’s life intersects with the hometown he left many moons ago. The movie becomes a poetic investigation of grief, compassion and sacrifice. The imaginative touches of magical realism no longer serve just the film’s comedy, but a deeper sense of both alienation and reconciliation. In a festival that showcases the very best of world cinema, Matthew Rankin made my favourite film I saw at Cannes 2024 — a rare film that is completely visionary, funny, touching and life-affirming. The Cannes audience seemed to share my feelings, too, as it won the inaugural audience prize for the Director’s Fortnight. 

Oh, Canada

Oh, Canada (directed by Paul Schrader)

In a beautiful apartment in Old Montreal, a dying documentary filmmaker recounts his life. An uncooperative and occasionally confused subject, Leonard Fife (Richard Gere in the present), uses the documentary as an opportunity to tell his beloved wife Emma (Uma Thurman) the secrets of his past. An adaptation of a Russell Banks novel (Paul Schrader’s second), Oh, Canada covers decades of history. It’s a labyrinthian deathbed confession, brimming with nuance, contradiction and regret. Jacob Elordi plays a young Fife, channelling the eroticism of a young Gere — we have a film that seems to come full circle with early Schrader obsessions laid bare in films like Mishima and American Gigolo. Here though, the revolution and vitality of youth has been worn down and exhausted. It’s a movie charged with the desperate intensity of time running out; a chase film where the characters are running from death.

In some ways a frustrating experience, Oh, Canada has a circular cycle, an occasionally rushed pace, that never quite answers any of the questions laid out by the documentarians. Yet that’s what makes the film so compelling. As we witness a man grappling with his story and how he wants to tell it, he focuses on the “in-betweens” of history and the preoccupations of his biographers are of little interest to him. As his life slips through his fingers, he’s worried about his wife, his children and the pain he’s wrought rather than his accomplishments. Gere in particular delivers a performance that undeniably evokes Schrader in 2024 — he’s gruff, intense and thoughtful. There’s pathos without sentimentality, and the film’s final act has such incredible earnestness that it even manages to sell the titular Canadian anthem as a surprisingly tender reflection on yearning. It’s a profoundly human film that manages by omission to capture the sum of a life lived. One of Schrader’s best. 

Black Dog

Black Dog Guan Hu
Black Dog (directed by Guan Hu)

The winner of the Un Certain Regard prize, Black Dog, is a genre-bending film set in Northern China in a town about to be razed to make way for modernization. Recently released from prison, Lang (Taiwanese-Canadian actor, Eddie Pang), is forced to take work transporting and capturing stray dogs. Sympathetic to his canine friends, Lang undermines their efforts and soon becomes close friends with the titular black dog, a scrappy canine that may or may not have rabies. Black Dog is a film about cultural outsiders and the encroaching violence of forced modernization. Lang is a social outcast and a member of a class of Chinese society struggling to keep up. More than just his incarnation, his father runs a dying zoo, which will soon be host of a travelling circus.

Black Dog excels as a film of complex desires and uncertain friendships. It’s a feel good movie that mostly avoids being overtly cloying. The film does have some flaws, especially coming into the third act, as the film works a little too hard to wrap up every plot line when a bit of ambiguity would have sufficed. Overall though, he filmmaking beautifully utilises the sparse, half-abandoned landscapes, and conveys the melancholy of a village that will soon cease to exist. The scenes that feature hoards of dogs are incredible feats of filmmaking and it’s not quite obvious if it’s incredible compositing or an insane work of animal wrangling. Among the films I was able to see at this year’s Cannes, Black Dog features some of the most striking images that will stick with me for a long time. 

Caught by the Tides

Caught by the Tides Jia Zhangke
Caught by the Tides (Directed by Jia Zhangke)

While a titan of world cinema, Caught by the Tides was my introduction to the great Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke, best known for A Touch of Sin and Ash is Purest White. Using footage spanning 22 years (some of which is featured in previous works), Caught by the Tides is a poetic work of creative nonfiction. Beginning all the way back in 2001, we are introduced to Qiao Qiao (Zhao Tao), a young woman who makes her living as a singer and hustler, while also balancing a relationship with her manager, Guao Bin. The second part of the film has  Qiao Qiao searching for Guao Bin, who left her to try to start a new life in another province. The third part is set during COVID-era restrictions as the lovers cross pass once more. A film born out of the challenges of making a film under quarantine, Jia Zhangke uses difficult circumstances to create a uniquely engrossing cinematic experience.

Extremely impressionistic in style, the film’s storyline is painted in the broadest strokes. Often more observational than it is plot-driven, the movie captures a sense of mood and space with an unusual editing structure that feels almost cubist in its arrangement. The movie focuses less on major incidents, than it does on the in-between nature of living as the mundane and ordinary takes precedence over a more classical plot progression. The movie’s rhythms are so unusual, frustrating at first, but eventually liberating as it seems to reinvent film language as a means to recount the accelerated chaos and reinvention of 21st century China. It’s a film of competing emotions and ideologies that manages to capture innocence before it’s ruined then travail the darkness of disappointment, only to find in its final moments, a melancholic appreciation for that dissolution. Caught by the Tides almost has a magical quality of capturing the unattainable; the impossible pastoral beauty of land and love, bespoiled by time but enshrined in memory. 

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