Frankly, it was worth flying to Cannes just to witness the giant frog make an unexpected personal appearance during the closing credits of Yakuza Apocalypse. Takashi Miike’s 257,962nd feature film (this year) received a Special Screening in the Directors’ Fortnight, which basically means that they couldn’t quite justify including it in the lineup proper, but also couldn’t bear the thought of not showing it. I trashed my entire schedule yesterday to accommodate the one and only showing. No regrets.
At first, it’s unclear why the movie isn’t called Yakuza Vampire Apocalypse, as the gloriously silly plot kicks off when a newly recruited gangster named Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara) discovers that his boss (Lily Franky, who also appeared in Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister earlier in the fest) feeds on the blood of other yakuza. Vampires, however, turn out to be the most mundane aspect of this batshit-crazy saga, which also features a guy with a turtle shell on his back and a duck’s bill for a mouth; a woman whose brains appear to be leaking out of her ears; a basement full of burly human sacrifices who are learning to knit while they wait for their turn; and a secret message that, when decoded, implores the hero to “STAY FOOLISH.” Meanwhile, all of the characters keep worrying about the impending arrival of some terrifying badass, who finally arrives in the form of a martial artist wearing a huge full-body frog costume—the kind of thing you might see at a theme park. (He can beat the shit out of everyone, but he still needs assistance going up and down stairs.) When the frog showed up in “person” at the end of the movie, he got the heartiest standing ovation I’ve seen at Cannes in years. Yakuza Apocalypse itself isn’t ovation-worthy—“patchy” would be putting it kindly, and two hours of this sort of random nonsense is at least half an hour too much—but it’s Miike at his most gleefully lunatic, and that’s always a hoot and a half. I think I’d have to go back to Gozu (which also played the Fortnight, in 2003) to find a comparable degree of insanity in his oeuvre. But, then, I’ve only managed to see 112,344 of his films so far.
Miike’s gonzo action-comedy also made a nice change of pace from the series of conceptually interesting but dramatically frustrating dramas it interrupted. Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Treasure, for example, operates in the same maddening (to me) mode as his earlier, acclaimed Police, Adjective: Both films constitute a slow, monotonous build to a final-scene “punchline.” (Romanian filmmakers seem to be keen on this approach generally. Cristi Puiu extended it to three painful hours in Aurora.) This one is a bit livelier, with an intriguing premise: A guy (Adrian Purcarescu) who’s desperately behind on his mortgage payments asks his neighbor (Cuzin Toma) to front the cost of hiring a metal detector, explaining that his great-grandfather allegedly buried a fortune on his property a couple of hours away. This being a Romanian movie, there are bureaucratic entanglements galore, the most troublesome being a law that requires anything that’s found to be turned over to the state, which will determine whether it has historical value. (If it does, the state keeps the booty, and the finders get only 30 percent.) Apart from some light comedy involving the metal detector’s constant squawking, though, there isn’t not much to The Treasure until its final scenes, which are as unexpected as Police, Adjective’s lexicographical climax. This idea might have made for an amusing half-hour short; at 89 minutes, it feels extremely shaggy-dog.
While the ending is the best part of Porumboiu’s film, it’s far and away the worst part of Michel Franco’s Chronic, screening in Competition. I haven’t seen either of Franco’s two previous films, Daniel & Ana (2009) and After Lucia (2012), so I can’t say whether his English-language debut, which stars Tim Roth as the world’s creepiest nurse, is a departure for him or more of the same. (A friend claims it’s so in keeping with those films’ sensibility that he accurately predicted most of the narrative weeks ago, just by reading that it’s about a nurse.) Mostly, it seems to be an exercise in ambiguity, as Roth’s David, who cares exclusively for the terminally ill, continually straddles the line separating compassionate from inappropriate. Is it weirder that David watches porn with a patient, or that he regularly borrows details from his patients’ lives and passes them off to strangers as his own? When the family of one patient sues him for sexual harassment, it’s not at all clear whether we’re supposed to think that they’re overreacting, or that David is a major perv. Both could conceivably be true.
In more skillful hands, this concept might have been arrestingly off-kilter (it seems tailor-made for the young Egoyan; some aspects recall The Adjuster), but Franco can’t leave well enough alone. He makes David way too overtly menacing, having him stalk a young woman for half the movie, only to reveal that his intentions are entirely benign. (Shame on us for assuming otherwise!) He throws in a bathetic backstory that “explains” David’s dedication to his work. And he ends the film on a note so jarring that it plays like a sick joke, which would be fine, were Chronic not otherwise so incredibly dour. Still, it’s arguably worth seeing for Roth, giving his wiliest big-screen performance in some time, and for Robin Bartlett (Mad About You, American Horror Story), who’s outstanding as a cancer patient weary of chemotherapy. Their scenes together are raw and honest enough to make the film’s false notes seem to ring even louder.
Finally, I was able to catch up with Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, which had its press screening very early on the morning after I stayed up late watching Gaspar Noé’s Love. Colleagues who caught it then seemed to enjoy everything except the ending. Again with the ending! (Did I mention that Yakuza Apocalypse ends with a smash cut after someone hits a gong?) Now that I’ve seen Dheepan, I get it, because this is a scrupulously naturalistic portrait of Sri Lankan immigrants in France that turns into a Bruce Willis action movie in its final minutes. Not completely out of nowhere, admittedly—the whole point is that Dheepan (Anthonythasan Jesuthasan) and his fake wife, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), who took on the identities of dead strangers in order to escape their country’s civil war (it’s not clear when the film is set, but it must be prior to 2009), wind up in much the same situation in their new home, caught between rival gangs in the housing project where they live.
Most of the film’s conflict, however, is relatively low-key, centered around the fact that “Dheepan” and “Yalini,” who’ve given up their real names, don’t know each other at all, and are caring for a fake daughter (Claudine Vinasithamby) whom Yalini literally just grabbed off the street because she’s the same age as the dead couple’s daughter. Then, after nearly two hours of depicting the improvised family’s patient adjustments, negotiations, and compromises, Audiard abruptly switches to Hollywood fantasy, and there’s no sign that he’s doing so ironically, metatextually, or with any other subversive purpose in mind. It’s more as if he looked around, realized he was making a movie starring two Sri Lankan actors (both of whom are excellent), and decided he’d better toss in some commercially viable bang-bang. I’m not convinced it’ll help.
Tomorrow: My final report will round up the last couple of Competition films (including an adaptation of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender) and make some spectacularly incorrect award predictions.