Lynne Ramsay returns to the world of filmmaking after a nine-year hiatus, and we’re all the better for it. We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ramsay’s hypnotic cinematic adaptation of the novel by Lionel Shriver, manages to combine her medley of heightened aesthetics with a keenly dark sense of humor and place. Tilda Swinton plays Eva, a wealthy author whose son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), has gone on a devastating Columbine-style rampage. Ramsay deconstructs the narrative backbone with flashbacks, flashforwards, and a multitude of pop-music cues that further distances Eva from her surrounding community. In fact, nearly every sequence unfolds under the suffocating guise of overlapping sound bridges that reference key unseen events in the film. We hear the running footsteps, the screams, and loud bursts, but also the quiet sounds of passing cars, playful asides between family members, and drapes blowing in the wind. Each moment—horrific or sublime—becomes a part of Ramsay’s tectonic universe.
We Need to Talk About Kevin begins in a fractured world of stagnation, where Eva is already immersed in the post-massacre suffering process, looking for a job by day and drinking heavily alone in her small house by night. Ramsay paces the staggering first act around a series of confrontations between Eva and certain members of her community, and each typifies the same violent immediacy we’ll later see in Kevin himself. Ramsay lingers on Swinton’s face, using the camera as a magnifying glass to chart the contours of skin caked in red paint and across which the tears from her shell-shocked eyes roll. There’s a mesmerizing ambiguity to these early moments that relays a masterful sense of dread, mostly because Kevin is represented only momentarily through a series of close-ups. Not knowing the why, or even the magnitude of his actions, makes the horror all the more palpable and personal.
Ramsay inevitably begins to dissect the intricacies of Eva’s relationship with Kevin and the passive role her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly), plays in constructing the familial facade. At this point, the film loses some of its power, giving surface-level answers through Kevin’s demonization and sadistic tendencies. The entire process of motherhood and wifedom becomes one long struggle for identity, Eva torn between her desire to travel and love for the safety of family. As Kevin grows up, sending bad vibrations in every conceivable manner, his devilish personality goes unnoticed by Franklin, and is repressed by Eva despite the fact she knows her son is a sociopath. But there’s so much more depth to Ramsay’s analysis of Eva’s slow descent into hell. The eroding mother/son dynamic is defined by a motif of splattering elements (jelly, paint, eggs) and emotions (rage, jealousy), making the chance for detente between Kevin and Eva all but impossible. Swinton seems to consume all of these warning signs and experiences with an effortless grace, pushing the tragedy deeper until there’s no space left for any more denial.
As with Morvern Callar and Ratcatcher, color associates each character with a growing sense of disconnection, except in We Need to Talk About Kevin specific hues like red and blue formulate a far more blunt analysis of familial uncertainty. In one particularly haunting scene, Eva drives down her dark street on Halloween, vigorously tormented by the neighborhood children dressed up in all types of ghost and goblin costumes. Illuminated only by flashlight, the children’s masks move in an out of the darkness, dancing to a haunting rendition of Buddy Holly’s “Every Day.” Innocence and evil rest side by side, and it’s a reality Eva still can’t quite reconcile with her memory of Kevin. Ramsay may ultimately address too much of Kevin’s personality (or lack thereof) for my taste, but even when the film becomes slightly obvious, it retains an unmatched sense of raw emotion. In the end, the haloed lens flares, the abrupt hard cuts, and the brilliant blocking of characters constructs a timeline of distress seen through Eva’s hollowing eyes, many diverging experiences and incomplete memories battling for supremacy. In this particular war of attrition, there are no winners, just more tragic warning signs that will be packed away the other family skeletons.
The Un Certain Regard section kicked off today with Gus Van Sant’s Restless and Trabalahar Cansa, a strange and uneven cocktail of tones from Brazil regarding the primitive nature of work. When Helena (Helena Albergaria) decides to renovate and reopen a small grocery store that may house a sketchy past, the stressful process puts her relationship with husband Otavio (Marat Descartes) and their young daughter in complete flux. The different methods and layers of work includes not only the ambitious Helena and the recently fired Otavio, but their maid Paula (Maloana Lima), who consistently gets criticized despite her strong work ethic and moral compass. Directors Marco Dutra and Juliana Ross incorporate a strong sense of sound design in the more horrific scenes, using off-screen space to expand the possibilities of the frame. But this talent doesn’t translate to the often-tedious dramatic interactions between characters at a crossroads of major decisions. The near-mystical and ludicrous ending further proves that Trabalahr Cansa may have a lot on its mind, but has no idea how to synthesize all the moving parts together in a formidable way.
Polisse, a self-important French police procedural that feigns complexity while relishing in cliché, could very well be the worst film I see at Cannes this year. Supposedly based on the true stories of the Parisian Child Protective Unit, director Maïwenn’s film abrasively documents the professional and personal lives of the special police force tasked with arresting those who prey on the young. The job description for these “police” (and I use that term lightly) equates to badgering witnesses, acting unprofessionally in the office, and failing miserably in the field. The endless moral blathering at work juxtaposes with a series of relationship problems for every officer at home, and due to the obvious thematic baggage of every dramatic scenario, each stock personality never represents anything other than belligerence or sainthood. As a social mosaic, Polisse is an insulting simplification of truly horrific issues like child rape and sex trade, a stupefying trend that culminates in a scene where a tween girl admits she gave oral sex to a group of boys to get her cellphone back. As the group of callous CPU officers laugh in her face, it becomes clear that Maïwenn—nee Maïwenn Le Besco—is using the serious dramatic elements gleaned from reality for juvenile comedy and judgment, not critique. Imagine HBO’s The Wire streamlined and simplified by a French socialite posing as an artist. Polisse is a true crime.