Cannes 2012 | Antiviral, Beyond the Hills, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Sat May 19 2012
A new Cronenberg movie premiered at Cannes today—but it's not the Cronenberg you know. David will visit the Croisette at the end of next week with Cosmopolis, his much-anticipated adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel. Until then, we'll have to make do with David's son Brandon's feature debut, Antiviral, which turns out to be a virtual compendium of the elder Cronenberg's most famous films. The movie stars Caleb Landry Jones as Syd March, a biotechnician who works for a company that stocks "exclusive" pathogens from the rich and famous. Antiviral literalizes the notion that celebrity is a virus: In this contemporary dystopia, fans pay top dollar to be infected with their favorite movie stars' illnesses. It's a way of sharing bodies, of being close to fame, no matter what the consequences. The movie opens with a man getting an injection of a starlet's herpes and only grows more disgusting from there.
Smuggling patented viral material to corporate rivals by injecting it into his own body, Syd inevitably grows more ill as he contends with various double-crosses, counter-conspiracies and new ailments that hit the market like drugs. One can spot conceits from Videodrome (a messianic talking-head figure), Dead Ringers (speculation about a deformed vagina), The Fly (Syd undergoes a repulsive physical transformation) and eXistenZ (infected flesh pods).
Can writer-director Brandon escape his famous father's influence? Or is the fact that he's essentially "infecting" himself with his dad's greatest hits precisely the point? It appears that, like his protagonist, the writer-filmmaker has a case of idol worship that can only be cured by seeing what happens when that idol's artistic RNA replicates in his own body (of work). Reading Antiviral as a meta-movie may sound like putting a dignified spin on a ripoff, but a late-film conversation about how a virus reproduces (and becomes a new dominant-male form) suggests a self-reflexive reading isn't totally off-base. In any case, as far as entertainment value is concerned, the David Cronenberg "virus" thrives. Despite a few too many last-act rug-pulls, so does the movie.
The divisive Beyond the Hills, Cristian Mungiu's first film since the Palme d'Or–winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, also qualifies as a sort of meta-movie—maybe even the ultimate Cannes movie, in that it seems to combine traits from several of the festival's biggest recent hits. You can spot elements from 4 Months, 3 Weeks; Aurora; The Death of Mr. Lazarescu; last year's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia; and even 2007 jury-prize winner Silent Light, set in a Mennonite community in Mexico. A slow-burn WTF, Beyond the Hills, like 4, 3, 2, revolves around the companionship between two women. Alina (Cristina Flutur) has returned to Romania from Germany, hoping to retrieve Volchita (Cosmina Stratan), a friend—and something more—with whom she lived at the orphanage. Volchita has since been taken in by a group of ultra-orthodox Christians, who aren't exactly keen on Alina's modern ways.
Where this leads is a matter I'll leave you to discover on your own. (IFC will distribute the film in the U.S.) Keeping the time period ambiguous is just one way in which Mungiu maintains suspense and disorientation over a 150-minute running time. Cruel, physical and more ambiguous than those who have rushed to judge it as a disappointment imply, Beyond the Hills won't please as many people as its near-universally loved predecessor, but in this case, that's refreshing. When a film gets boos along with hearty applause, you know the festival has really begun.
Finally, I've gotten scoffs from colleagues for referring to this year's Sundance sensation Beasts of the Southern Wild (which screened in Cannes's Un Certain Regard sidebar yesterday) as a "Republican fantasy." But that's how it plays, intentionally or not. The movie tells the coming-of-age story of a girl named Hushpuppy (impressive newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives in a Gulf Coast community known as the Bathtub. After the "waters rise," Bathtub residents have to band together and rebuild. Sound familiar? Except as scripted, Beasts of the Southern Wild allegorizes the George W. Bush version of Hurricane Katrina. The black characters are seen as isolated, mysterious and fundamentally unknowable. (They have bizarre rituals, like lighting stovetops with flamethrowers.) They're often alcoholic. When the government arrives with help, the aid workers can't get the community to cooperate—many Bathtub residents are eager to escape the hospital. And while the film is clearly seen though a child's eyes, the final lesson is as much the movie's as it is hers: Disdaining friendship, Hushpuppy announces that she's "gotta take care of mine." (In other words: FEMA, leave the Lower Ninth Ward alone. They'll sort out their own problems.) In staging a whimsical version of a national disaster, Beasts of the Southern Wild sentimentalizes a tragedy and hand-waves the government's failed response. Yes, the film has an arresting look and an original vision, but its politics seem murky at best, insensitive at worst.