Egyptian-born NYU graduate Abu Bakr Shawky’s Yomeddine (or Judgment Day), the first debut feature to play in competition at the Cannes Film Festival since Son of Saul in 2015, is a different kind of exploitation film than László Nemes’s Oscar winner. It’s for anyone who’s ever looked at a person who suffered through a life-threatening illness and thought to themselves, “There should really be a quirky Sundance-style dramedy made about this.”
A road-trip movie for sympathy fascists, Yomeddine is built around non-actor Rady Gamal, a survivor of leprosy whom Shawky met while making a documentary short on a leper colony. Gamal plays Beshey, a junk collector and recent widower who, after linking up with a Nubian orphan boy, Obama (Ahmed Abdelhafiz), sets off to find the father who abandoned him as a child. The misfits get mixed up with thieves, religious fanatics, inept bureaucracies, apathetic police officers, and a trio of beggars with their own physical deformities, most of who serve to further stack the deck against them.
In one particularly emphatic sequence on a bus, passengers besiege Beshey with cruelty and scorn, as the exasperated man cries out, “I’m a human being!” Crafting manipulating sequences that impart specific moral messages and ascribe a gallery of side characters with cartoonish functions—like the man who leaves a Koran behind in a jail cell, thus leading to a Keystone Cops-worthy police chase—does nothing to bring any real awareness to the plight of the marginalized. In fact, the way everything just “works out” in the end for Beshey and Obama on the strength of just their pluck and perseverance makes Yomeddine secretly more conservative than it thinks it is.
Quirk also plagues Leto, Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov’s competition entry, which turns Leningrad’s early-’80s rock boom into a winking 24 Hour Party People-like doodle, complete with a fourth wall-breaking narrator credited as “Skeptic” (Alexander Kuznetsov). The film employs a series of chintzy, animation-embellished sequences that aim for early-MTV whimsy but land on contemporary lyric-video corporatism, each set to groaningly resurrected ’70s rock standards like Talking Heads’s “Psycho Killer,” Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” which is ironically performed in the rain, and at night—as if that’s actually a novel idea in 2018.
Leto is ostensibly a—partly fictionalized—musical biopic chronicling the short but epochal career of Viktor Tsoi, frontman and co-founder of the iconic Soviet rock group Kino, and it includes a frank and endearing love triangle between Viktor (Teo Yoo), his mentor and local folk hero Mike (Roman Bilyk), and Mike’s coquettish wife, Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum). But Serebrennikov repeatedly distracts from this relationship drama with garish set pieces like the one that stages DIY recreations of classic album covers over an (admittedly very good) post-punk take on Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes,” or the one set at a beach bonfire—around which Viktor and Mike first meet—that leans too hard on showy choreography and tracking shots.
It almost feels like Viktor’s story is just an excuse to elaborately fetishize this period, an impression enforced by the way Serebrennikov’s attention wanders more toward Mike, a music obsessive who recites biographic information on his favorite artists at parties and shares lovingly crafted notebooks of Lou Reed lyric translations with friends. Mike also gets both the most intriguing and telling line in the film, when he responds to a friend hectoring him to show the world that Russia has more modern music to offer than Tarkovsky by muttering, “It’s okay in the swamp, especially if you’re the number-one toad.” In a world made up of his own nostalgia, Serebrennikov is king.
Leto often summons the memory of French director Christophe Honoré’s far superior musical Love Songs, which played in competition at Cannes a little over 10 years ago, and which focused all its energies on exploring the sexual dynamics of its central love triangle. Honoré’s new film, Sorry Angel, isn’t a musical, but like most of the director’s work, it has lots of music in it. It’s also the best film to play in competition so far at this year’s festival.
The setup involves the type of May-December sexual relationship that Honoré has returned to often in his work: It’s 1993, and middle-aged Parisian author Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps) meets 22-year-old Brittany-based student Arthur (Vincent Lacoste) at a showing of Jane Campion’s Palm d’Or-winning The Piano. The two begin a casual long-distance relationship carried out over lengthy calls on landline telephones during which Jacques teaches Arthur about his literary-derived categorizations of gay men. (Jacques tells Arthur he’s probably a “Whitman,” which means he’s promiscuous, as Arthur’s latest one-night stand lies in his underwear in the other room.)
Honoré’s playful pop instincts are on display throughout Sorry Angel in short, affecting bursts: the bold-faced-font title sequence, a slinky apartment dance set to Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto’s “The Shadow of Your Smile,” and a late-night voguing session between Jacques, Arthur, and an older journalist, Mathieu (Denis Podalydès). But there’s also a more tempered strain of melancholy here, brought out largely by the looming presence of the AIDS crisis: Jacques’s ex-lover (Thomas Gonzalez) is slowly dying of the disease, while Jacques is HIV-positive and preparing himself for death.
This part of the film works hard to skirt the kind of maudlin clichés of what’s become its own genre, and largely succeeds through Honoré’s idiosyncratic approach to loss, grief, and acceptance. But the tonal inconsistencies that the filmmaker deliberately engages serve another, implicit purpose in Sorry Angel, which is to tether the film, and its aesthetic methods, simultaneously to Arthur’s youthful idealism and Jacques’s aged fatalism, both equally representing Honoré’s artistry at different stages.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 8—19.