Cannes part III: Directors Deniz Gamze Ergüven and Trey Edward Shults; plus, 'Love'

ScreenerBlog

Although much hype is duly awarded the films in the Competition and Un Certain Regard categories, the lesser-known movies of the Cannes Film Festival's parallel series are often more exciting for being more innovative. Two examples include Mustang, from Turkish writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, which last night won the Director's Fortnight Europa Cinemas Prize; and Krisha, from the American Trey Edward Shults, which played as an International Critics' Week selection.

The former tells the story of five orphaned sisters whose developing sexuality throws their caretaker grandmother and a domineering uncle into panic. They keep the girls hidden indoors, taking a series of increasingly drastic measures that among the more tame include putting bars on the windows to ensure they stay inside.

“There’s a lot of real things” in the movie set in Turkey, says Ergüven, who also acts and who previously shot the award-winning short film A Drop of Water (2006). These “things” taken from real life will likely shock many Westerners, and certainly many Americans for whom reading articles that slam actresses for not being feminist enough is a matter of course.

Take, for instance, a scene in which one of the sisters is rushed to the ER by her in-laws. It’s her wedding night and she has committed the alarming and potentially dangerous offense of not bleeding after sex with her new husband. The fear, of course, is that she was not a virgin.

Ergüven says she based this scene on something a Turkish doctor friend told her. He said the admittance to the ER of non-bleeder brides is something that happens “15, 16 times” a wedding season.

Ergüven speaks calmly and eloquently about the contradictions in her native country. Turkey has had “big peaks of modernity,” she says, citing the enfranchisement of women in the 1930s. But it’s “also very patriarchal,” a sentiment she believes is “very aroused right now.”

Ilayda Akdogan, Elit Iscan and Günes Sensoy, the actresses who play sisters Sonay, Ece and Lale, say they have never experienced the kind of sexist oppression portrayed in the movie. They credit their director with deepening their understanding.

“She made us more aware of these things,” says Iscan. “The men think they’re more powerful than us,” says Akdogan, to which Iscan replies, “They’re scared of our power!”

The power inherent in beautiful things, as well as the desire to break that it arouses in some, are encapsulated in the film’s title, Mustang. “Visually, there’s an echo [of the horse] with the hair of the girls,” Ergüven explains of her directorial approach to staging. When the five girls were together she wanted to evoke as well the image of the mythical Hydra, with their many heads and limbs, and of course those manes.

An emphasis on hair as a signifier of beauty, identity and above all else sexuality is likewise apparent in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. But despite this visual parallel and the obvious plot similarities between Ergüven’s film and Coppola’s adaptation of the Jeffrey Eugenides novel about five sisters in the American Heartland who are also kept indoors by the people meant to care for them, the director says she “wasn’t thinking about it at all.”

The question concerning Mustang’s connection with Coppola’s movie “comes every day,” Ergüven says. She admits she found it “a little bit surprising” at first, although “now I really see [the similarities].”

It was not just other books and films of which Ergüven was unaware, but seemingly the world at large, while she was writing Mustang. She went into a kind of “trance” during this process and credits the woman who is listed as a co-writer on the film, Alice Winocour, with encouraging her to complete it.

“I was writing 20 hours a day,” Ergüven remembers. She would send pages to Winocour, with whom she worked on a previous film and who was “more a boxing coach” in her capacity as a writing advisor on Mustang, for feedback.

Winocour also has a movie screening here in Cannes. Her Maryland stars Diane Kruger and Matthias Schoenaerts and is an Un Certain Regard selection. It’s been earning positive reviews, as has the buzzy Mustang.

“Here in Cannes, people express themselves in screenings,” says Ergüven, understating the enthusiastic reception her film received at its premiere. It was a “little disconcerting” when all those people “applauded in the theatre,” but also “very emotional.”

Akdogan remembers watching the people in front of her stand and applaud. “And then, when we turned our backs – more people clapping!”

Ergüven and her actresses agree the response to Mustang has been better than they could have hoped for. But despite the praise they’ve received, the three teens do not have more feature acting projects in the works. “We’re studying” and want to “improve our knowledge” of film, says Iscan. As yet unbridled with the expectations of fame, it seems the girls are capable of making for themselves smart choices.  

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Like Mustang, Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha is based very closely on “real” occurrences--and in this instance real people--in the writer-director's life. The titular alcoholic and drug addict is a composite character who is a “combination of several people,” including a cousin of Shults who relapsed during a family holiday and overdosed shortly thereafter.

In Krisha, the holiday is Thanksgiving and the relative is now an aunt of Shults, who plays a version of himself in the film. Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) has long been away and is attempting to reenter the family fold. The pressure of trying to please the people she loves and has correspondingly hurt, and the hurt she in turn experiences from their resistance, prove too overwhelming. She begins to sneak away in search of the relief obligingly provided by pills and booze.

Fairchild is a professional actress who also happens to be Shults’ real-life aunt. His mother and 90-year-old grandmother are not actresses, but they’re among those family members who likewise appear in the film as fictionalized versions of themselves. Shults says his relatives were “all very supportive and down to do it.” The movie that won the Special Jury and Audience awards for feature film at this year's SXSW was shot over the course of only nine days at his mother’s house.

Although “the movie is still totally fictionalized,” it is an intimate reflection of the filmmaker’s impressions. With his debut feature, Shults appears to have followed the make-what-you-want-to-see artistic rule of thumb, saying that he has always been drawn to “personal movies.” Two of the more devastating in recent years, Magnolia and Blue Valentine, which “just destroys me,” are particular and what one might even call personal favorites.

“I love big ambition in movies,” he says. “When you feel a director swinging for the fences.”

Whatever your opinion of his output, there’s no doubt Shults’ former boss Terrence Malick displays just this quality. When Shults was 19 he dropped out of college, where he had intended to study business management, and landed a job as an intern on a Malick set. He was eventually promoted to film-loader, in which capacity he traveled the world for several months as part of Malick’s film crew. Much of the footage he helped shoot in Iceland, the Redwood Forest and elsewhere landed in the polarizing birth-of-a-universe sequence in The Tree of Life. It’s a film Shults says he “didn’t expect to like so much” but finds “magical, beautiful, ambitious, intimate.”

Malick’s wife was in the audience when Krisha screened at SXSW. Afterward, “she couldn’t talk to me because she was crying.”

In combination with a performance by Fairchild, whose vulnerability, solipsism and over-eagerness can indeed be difficult to watch, the movie’s life force is supplied by its musical elements.

“Our goal was to treat it like Krisha’s head space,” Shults says of the propulsive score that aurally cues the audience to Krisha’s waning sobriety. There are several variations on the same song that play throughout the movie. Like the stanzas in a poem, “each piece builds on the last,” retaining elements of the one that came before while adding new components of its own. One piece emphasizes percussion, for instance, another, strings, another, a banjo played with a bow.

No less attention was paid to the script, although the shoot itself was often loose. “I’d say it was 70/30” scripted and improv, Shults explains of the final cut. He says he learned how dialogue ought to flow by watching Ingmar Bergman and Paul Thomas Anderson films and intermittently hitting pause so he could write out all the dialogue. 

But ultimately, “the scripts are just the blueprint.” Bill Wise, who plays Shults’ uncle, is a hilarious improviser whose clever lines, which can be very cruel, are all of his own devising. Shults calls the local Austin actor, who also appears briefly in Boyhood as an uncle in the graduation party scene, “a genius.”

“I wanted to try to give him his best role,” he says. The end result inspires the wish that Wise might appear in more Shults films.

The 26-year-old multi-hyphenate is already planning his follow-up feature, which he calls “my version of a horror movie.” It will be developed by A24 as part of the company’s first-ever multi-picture deal with a director.

Shults wrote It Comes at Night just after his dad passed away. It “isn’t literally about depression,” but it does narrativize the feeling, much like Lars von Trier did with Melancholia. “It’s just as personal as Krisha,” Shults says. “It’s my baby.”

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Perhaps the most shocking thing about Gaspar Noé’s “3D porn movie” Love is that it is not, despite the gimmickry of its marketing, a bad movie. It isn’t a great movie, although if it were briefer by 45 minutes, and if those deleted 45 minutes were to include the scenes in which protagonist Murphy (Karl Glusman) appears to act as his director’s mouthpiece and spouts off about the sublimity of love and the inauthentic rendering of sex in movies, I think it could have been.

What Love seems to be is uneven and intermittently affecting. The film charts the progress and devolution of a couple’s relationship primarily through its portrayal of the different kinds of sex the couple has and when. When Murphy and girlfriend Electra (brand-newcomer Aomi Muyock in her first acting role) are secure in each other's affections, the sex is tender; when one or both are mistrustful, it’s a word we’d rather not print.

Most of the action in Love occurs in flashbacks. After a depressed Murphy receives a phone call from the anxious mother of Electra, whom he hasn’t seen in two years, he recalls the highs and lows of their relationship. His memories progress in a non-linear fashion aided by his consumption of an opium pill. The film is correspondingly trippy, with flashing club lights and truly awesome moments of electric guitar. It’s even sometimes sexy, and beautifully shot, with the heads and limbs of Murphy and Electra frequently positioned to resemble a heart. Towards the end of the film, when we are transported back to the present and a grieving Murphy sitting in a bathtub, his hunched body with only its single head for a point looks like a heart turned upside down.

Attempting an authentic representation of “sentimental sex,” about which filmmaker Murphy rants at one point in the film, and all the different kinds of sex people in a relationship have besides, isn’t at all a bad idea. Yes, there is the expected 3D semen shot, which one suspects has been included not least of all to meet expectations of what a 3D “sex movie” from the director of Into the Void must surely include, but the film does not fail because it is graphic in a ridiculous way. On the contrary, its fault lines appear along much softer ground. When Murphy starts comparing young people who aren’t in love to sparrows without air, and when he starts woodenly talking about sex rather than engaging in it, the overly long movie that clocks in at 130 minutes flags.

Love is like an Eminem song in its emotional extremes, the overwhelming pain that manifests in the most hurtful things you can imagine saying, and the no less uncomfortable sentimentalism. Murphy even dresses and sounds a bit like Marshall Mathers. Muyock is beautiful, bonkers and great for the role of Electra.  Love is something of a lesson in not judging a film by its poster.