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Cannes Correspondences #9: Burning Witches and Invasive Parasites

Two Cannes highlights: Gaspar Noé’s stroboscopic ode to film witches, “Lux Æterna,” and Bong Joon-ho’s searing comic thriller, “Parasite.”
The Notebook is covering Cannes with an on-going correspondence between critic Leonardo Goi and editor Daniel Kasman.
Lux Æterna
Dear Leo,
I’m quite a bit more ambivalent about Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood than you. Its violent climactic revision of 1969 Hollywood history seems like a much thinner, cheaper, and as you (positively) indicate, more nostalgic version of the ballsy visions of finishing off Nazi Germany and slavery in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. I’m still thinking my way through this culmination, and especially how as a concept I’m quite suspicious, yet I couldn’t help but find the ending (of a Tarantino movie!) very touching.
Last minute additions to the Cannes lineup are de rigueur at this festival, which not only announces films finished in the nick of time (this year, the Tarantino and Kechiche, last year Ayka, and the year before Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here), but also add the spice of unpredictability to the final days before the festival. Among this year’s late entries was the announcement that Gaspar Noé had a new film, Lux Æterna—but of the odd length of 50 minutes and shown at midnight. It proved a welcome dose of mad flourish and unexpectedly found itself in dialog with two other films of experiential spirituality, Jeanne and A Hidden Life. That it was commissioned by Saint Laurent explains a lot (Luca Guadagnino is at the Directors’ Fortnight for similar reasons, with a 35-minute film commissioned by Valentino), but never gets in the way of Noé’s three-part story of a chaotic film shoot that, as it falls apart, achieves the sublime. In fact, the length is to the film’s benefit, for Lux Æterna’s middle section, which follows multiple characters around the harried set of a witch-themed film directed by Béatrice Dalle and starring Charlotte Gainsbourg (both playing themselves), is as purposely hellish and aggravating to watch as much of Noé’s last film, Climax. Split screens, multiple camera views of the same action, and maze-like wandering around the set dynamize this behind-the-scenes view but hardly add much new: Portraying a film set as bitchy, busy, a logistical muddle, and full of doubt, anger, opportunists, sycophants, and double-crossing got stale several decades ago. However, it’s the book-ends to this centerpiece that provide the film’s content (first) and powerhouse climax (finale). Lux Æterna’s prologue quotes Dreyer on making movies into art—later quotes by Godard, Fassbinder, and Buñuel punctuate throughout with self-reflexively portentous title cards—and we see scene of the old woman being dropped into the flames in Day of Wrath, followed by a comment about the actress suffering on set before her character is killed. This sets the stage for a modern day evocation of witchcraft, female suffering and martyrdom, and since the film forgoes an epilepsy warning with a quote from Dostoevsky about the ecstasy experienced before a fit, we can anticipate a full-body evocation.
At the film’s opening, Dalle and Gainsborough recline on leather chairs on the film set, idly chatting about acting, playing witches, sleazy producers, rarely dating good men, and awkward sex scenes. This is shown in simultaneous split-screen from different angles isolating each actress, a simple but effective evocation of simultaneity and commiseration hand-in-hand with isolation. Dalle does most of the talking and sets the stage for topics of bodily sacrifice, humiliation, and the sexy and classy (her words) on-screen death of being burnt at the stake. This becomes relevant as the day’s shoot finally gets underway filming what clearly looks like a terrible idea for a scene—or is it an ad shoot for Saint Laurent?—of three skinny models in skimpy, tacky cocktail dresses tied to stakes in front of a giant LED screen showing smoldering flames. But as Gainsbourg takes her place at the stake, and just as frustration sets in at all the backstage shenanigans, the grating, forced hysteria of the turmoil of making a film, Noe cuts all the bullshit. And cuts the lights too—and then cues the strobe lights. The climactic finale, eye-bleeding and eardrum bursting, is a multi-color, multi-screen stroboscopic incineration of the film shoot (which shuts down amid the cacophony), of Dalle (who writhes in ecstatic turmoil), and above all of Gainsbourgh on the stake, following in the path of Falconetti, Bergman, and Florence Carrez.
The immolation makes a brazen but by no means irresponsible conclusion: That actresses go through hell to create art, that artists surviving in the inferno of commercial imperatives are suffering saints, that misogyny lives on in new forms, and that those who give their body and soul to the light of the silver screen deserve to be honored if not worshipped for their sacrifice for us. Amen. The film ends with a quote from Buñuel, “thank god I’m an atheist,” which one might take as a cynical inclusion by Noé except that what is left implicit is that while great surrealist may not believe in God, he does believe in the cinema.
Parasite
Parasite
Lux Æterna is a film of bravura: the boldness of its conception, and the length it will go to achieve it in aggressive vulgarity. Parasite, by contrast, is a film of virtuosity: Bong Joon-ho directs each scene, sequence, and the film itself with a precision, dexterity, and effectiveness as if it’s the easiest thing in the world. It is not. I wrote in my festival introduction lamenting where a filmmaker like John Carpenter could be found at Cannes in this day and age, and lo and behold, Bong has not just raised his hand but leapt up eager to prove himself one of the master storytellers of popular cinema. Parasite is thrilling in its deft ingenuity and razor sharp in its critique, the perfect buffer in Cannes’ competition against more strained examples of art and prestige cinema. 
As if created as a response to two films last year, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, with its stark contrast between the new rich and poor in South Korea, and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, with its downtrodden family willing to do bad things to survive a life in the shadow of society, Parasite funnels the outrage of class disparity into a swift, blackly comic story of a poor family ingratiating and integrating itself into the lives of their rich doubles by any means necessary. Introduced living in a half-basement outside which men constantly vomit and piss, the florid parents of the family (Song Kang-ho, a long-time Bong lead, and Chang Hyae-jin) are unemployed and their wily children (Choi Woo-shik and Park So-dam) haven’t completed college. A chance provided by a friend moving abroad gives the son an opportunity to bluff his way into tutoring the daughter of an elite family. This family is a mirror for their own—svelte father (Lee Sun-kyun, from Hong Sang-soo’s Oki’s Movie and Our Sunhi), elegant helicopter mother (Cho Yo-jeong), teenage daughter (Jung Ziso), and young son (Jung Hyeon-jun)—and lives in an architectural marvel of a house, all open floor plan, top to bottom windows, wood floors, glossy everything, and a castle-like wall surrounding the garden. From his new position, the son contrives to get his sister hired as an art tutor for the family’s youngest, and it’s only a matter of time before the household’s existing staff is comically but ruthlessly replaced by their parents. But if they can so easily take over the positions of others—the film here echoing Werner Herzog’s Family Romance LLC. in people's reliance on roleplaying in everyday life—this also means their newly achieved status at the top of the bottom is just as perilous: As they are now, others were before, and indeed others may be after as well. 
Like Carpenter, Brian De Palma, and to a degree, Steven Spielberg, Bong Joon-ho is a filmmaker who uses storyboards to calibrate his storytelling to not for the sake of pretty pictures and antiseptic predetermination, but rather to orchestrate action and suspense for maximum speed, rhythm, and impact. His frames are alive with activity and spatial detail, not just fleshing out the mise en scène of his world, but teasing and elucidating space to move us from action to action, idea to idea, frequently playing with what we know or don’t know such that the film, however grim in behavior, is constantly surprising and comic. In particular, the film has a field day with the modernist mansion in which much of the story hijinks occur, a playground of spaces to navigate in different ways: run, hide, fight, play, inside, outside, upstairs, down, the basement and the depths, much with a view of the pristine garden.
Parasite’s centering on this house, a world unto itself, is reminiscent of Snowpiercer's allegorical train, but this new film avoids the unevenness that plagued that film and Bong's even more ambitious follow-up, Okja. The more constrained setting and concept transforms Parasite into a kind of Gothic farce, updating a drafty chateau or creaky Victorian mansion to the pinnacle of contemporary Korean prosperity, and haunting it from within by invaders masquerading as servants. Or are they simply servants? “This is very metaphorical,” the tutor wryly remarks at more than one point. He alone idly daydreams of marrying his rich student and officially joining her family, but financial gain does not seem his family’s plan: They are simply and ruthlessly focused on achieving and maintaining their place in the mansion. Thus the film isn’t about class mobility but rather about fighting—in this film, first with brazen callousness and lack of empathy, and eventually violently and bloodily—to be top servant. To go beyond class barriers is also beyond the range of most imaginations. This is a brutally cynical view, and you shouldn’t expect psychological insight or even judgment for any character, rich or poor, for Parasite is a vivid work of behaviorist cinema, seeing what people do under specific circumstances in a specific environment. Not unlike Ken Loach's Sorry We Missed You, it portrays the inexorability of a system where those at the bottom thrash in death throes to maintain their position there. As its ghastly flourishes mount to Grand Guignol heights, the cut-throat desperation of our poor heroes gets more and more dissonant and horrific. But Bong’s filmmaking keeps firing on all cylinders, and from top to bottom Parasite gleefully and with dextrous cleverness balances on the line between the horrid and hilarious.
Though we still have several more premieres to go, I have little doubt, Leo, that Parasite is the best film in the Cannes Film Festival's main competition.
Warmly,
Danny

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