At Cannes, the fabled Palme d’Or isn’t like any other Best Picture award. Unlike, say, the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, or even the Oscar, it is conferred with a reverence that says: This film is a work of art — and the person who made it has been ushered into the pantheon. He (or she) is now one of the initiated, recognized in the shimmering galaxy of the international film world to be a major artist, a saint of the cinema, a wearer of the supreme auteur merit badge. There have been 65 Palme d’Or winners (the award was launched in 1955, and in eight different years it’s gone to two films), and I would argue that it has only grown, during that time, in status and meaning. The very first Palme d’Or went, believe it or not, to Marty, that sweet little Hollywood ordinary-Joe romance with Ernest Borgnine. In the early years, plenty of fabled filmmakers (like Jean-Luc Godard, arguably the most important European director of the ’60s) never won a Palme d’Or. Back then, however, they didn’t need it. The presence of art films in the culture was transcendent on its own. In our era, the kind of movies that win the Palme d’Or mostly exist on a different island from mainstream taste. And so, paradoxically, even as the films seem smaller, the award looms larger. It’s now a major part of the cultural scaffolding propping up the notion that art in cinema thrives, and that there’s a potent continuity to it — from Fellini to Lars von Trier, from Taxi Driver to Pulp Fiction, from Andrei Tarkovsky to Abbas Kiarostami.
In 2007, when the Romanian director Cristian Mungiu won the Palme d’Or for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the high seriousness of the award was in perfect stoic harmony with the total heaviosity of the movie. Set during the last years of the Nicolae Ceausescu regime, 4 Months told the intimate, agonizing, moment-by-moment story of two student roommates who have to jump through hoops to arrange for an illegal abortion, and the movie, made in the gravely open-eyed neorealist style of the Romanian new wave, was powerful in a merciless yet compassionate way. It was a scathing look at political repression, and also (though a lot of critics missed this) a scathing look at what it means to terminate a life.
Now, five years later, Mungiu is back at Cannes with Beyond the Hills, and if I’ve gone on and on about the meaning of the Palme d’Or, that’s because this is one of those movies that seems suffused, in its very grain, with the importance that comes from its director having won such an award. The film is set at an Orthodox Christian monastery in a flat, drab section of the Romanian countryside, where Alina (Cristina Flutur), who has been living in Germany, has come to visit one of the nuns, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), whom she has known ever since they were first graders together in an orphanage. Both women are now around 25 years old, and it’s soon obvious that they were not just friends but, in all likelihood, lovers. Alina is still in love — painfully, wrenchingly so. She wants Voichita to leave the monastery and come join her in Germany; she’s desperate to resume their life together. But Voichita, with a soft manner and dark hair that frames a pale beatific face, has given herself over to a different lover — God.
Cristina Flutur, who plays Alina, has a sexy reserved glumness reminiscent of the young Sandrine Bonnaire, and it doesn’t take long to realize that Alina is deeply troubled, and that in her quiet way she hates this monastery, this cult, that has taken her lifeline away. We’re cued to see her depression, and the fury just beneath it. Then we meet the priest who presides, with dictatorial fervor, over the dozen or so fluttery nuns in the monastery. (They call him “Papa,” which is a little icky.) Played by Valeriu Andriuta in a big bushy black Old Testament beard, he’s the kind of devout control freak who lives, and insists that everyone else live, literally, by the book. As soon as we see this gruff big fish in the same room with the despairingly secular and haunted Alina, we know, in our guts, where the movie is headed. To a grand clash of wills — between the body and the spirit, between the girl who’s sitting on a powder keg of neurotic resentment (and sexual-romantic hunger) and the pious forces of religious repression that are not going to stand for her acting out. We know, in a word, that we’re going to be watching a movie that’s like The Exorcist made by Robert Bresson.
If only it had been! Mungiu works in his dourly accomplished and stately-bordering-on-ponderous style, but this movie, unlike the sprawling, urban 4 Months, takes its tone from the monastery’s cramped, hushed spaces and cloistered rhythms. The whole film has been conceived as a highly deliberate ritual, its deep-dish themes just about scrawled in blood on the characters’ foreheads. And the trouble with that is that Beyond the Hills seems like a movie that’s been almost preconceived to be powerful. There’s a grandiosity to it, but not much mystery. It grinds along, for two and a half hours, building to the moment when the priest decides that he’s dealing not just with a difficult woman but with Evil.
If Bresson, or the Carl Dreyer of Days of Wrath, or the Lars von Trier of Breaking the Waves had made this film, there might have been at least a touch of ambiguity about whether or not Alina is, in fact, possessed — if not by the devil, than at least by a madness that looks like the devil’s handiwork. But, really, she’s just a broken soul who wants her girlfriend back. And so the movie comes off as too devoted to its own melodramatic rigging. It’s an exercise in willed catharsis. The hook, of course, is that as slow as the drama may be, the audience knows it’s getting a payoff — when Alina has been reduced to hysterics, and the monastery’s members gather to cast the evil out. Given the over-the-top history of this genre, what happens is at once less bad than you’re dreading and, in a way, a lot worse. The trouble is, it’s far from entirely convincing. Beyond the Hills says that the Christian fear of homosexuality is an unconscious form of violence. And maybe it is. But by making it so explosively literal, the film seems to be aiming not so much for truth as for another grand prize.
Lawless, set in the hills of Virginia in the 1930s, is an example of how clichés can be made pretentious. The movie tells the true tale of the Bondurant brothers — three down-home, backwoods siblings (played by Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, and Jason Clark) who become prominent bootleggers, supplying a vast region with jars of moonshine and fighting the underworld establishment, with fists and knives and bullets, for the right to do so. Directed by Australia’s John Hillcoat, who made the overrated art Western The Proposition and then turned the movie version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road into heavy lifting, Lawless is basically a made-for-TV gangster movie in cornpone accents. It’s got a very weak script (at one point, Jessica Chastain shows up to keep house for the brothers, and she’s given barely any motivation beyond the fact that…well, the movie needs a pretty girl), and Hillcoat lays on the cloying fiddle-and-banjo music and the quaintly second-hand “mythological” gloss. Every festival has the right to its duds, but I was surprised when I suddenly realized that Lawless isn’t a bad Cannes film — it’s a bad Sundance film.