Although the official competition at Cannes is primarily a showcase for international films, it also operates as a bit of a roundup for French cinema as well. As a result, there are always French films in the official selection that are unusual, overlooked or just plain weird – films that (I assume) wouldn’t necessarily make the final cut if they’d been sourced internationally. These can be some of the most rewarding and unsung film at Cannes – thank Stephane Brize’s The Measure of a Man – but also the most baffling, at least when set alongside the kind of film that typically makes it way to the Palme D’or or Grand Prix. Insofar as there’s any common denominator, the typical Cannes film tends to be interested in all the things that signify auteurism: originality, stylistic flair, introspective characterisation (or affective intensity) and a striking visual register. Alternatively, Cannes selectors and jurors will sometimes pick films that have a radical and uncompromising political message (usually a leftist message) even if they are not particularly stylistically flamboyant or ambitious on their own terms.
It’s unusual, then, to see a Cannes entrant like Nicole Garcia’s From the Land of the Moon, that utterly resists auteurism in order to present an old-fashioned wartime weepie, filled with bald characterisation, preposterous plotlines (handled with absolute sincerity) and no pretensions to depth or genuine introspection. Based on the 2006 novella by Milena Agus, the plot revolves around a young woman, Gabrielle, played by Marion Cotillard, and is so convoluted and unusually paced that it’s hard to describe concisely or succinctly. Suffice to say that the film is divided into three more or less discrete acts that follow Gabrielle from her childhood home in rural France, to her arranged marriage, to her retreat to a spa in the Swiss Alps to try and recover from kidney stones, where she falls in love for the first time with a handsome wounded soldier. Throughout all those episodes and spaces, Gabrielle is suffused with an erotic longing and turmoil that is never fully articulated or satiated, even as she seeks to give voice to it in ever more expressive and extravagant ways, only to find herself muted and contained just as quickly.
That’s not exactly to say that From the Land of the Moon is action-driven, but that the narrative is perpetually poised at the surfaces and threshold of Gabrielle’s body, albeit without the film itself ever feeling embodied in any visceral or volatile way either. If anything, Garcia opts for a limpidity and listlessness that make Gabrielle’s failures to realise her erotic self something of a foregone conclusion. The more she struggles, the more futile her struggles seem, producing a deep sense of isolation and withdrawal that renders the magnificent backdrops almost invisible by the end. For those viewers, like myself, who were expecting something tantamount to a cinematic version of The Magic Mountain, it’s quite startling to see all these vistas fade away into the corner of Gabrielle’s eye. By the end, it feels as if there is no space beyond the immediate confines of her body – or that even the most expansive and panoramic spaces have converged to constrict and contour the immediate confines of her body – as Garcia chooses to flatten her mise-en-scenes right when other directors might have emphasised their depth-of-field, turning away from the most sublime vantage points as if accidentally or inadvertently, rather than as some kind of concerted negative gesture or frustration of audience expectations.
To criticise From the Land of the Moon for being too melodramatic is therefore a bit beside the point, since this is melodrama as genre cinema, pure and simple. While the contrast with the other Cannes films seems to have tarnished its reputation – it would probably have got better reviews as a standalone film – its inclusion in the official competition also gives it a different kind of resonance as well. Among other things, Andre, Gabrielle’s love interest at the spa – played by a very handsome Louis Garrel – is a kind of auteurist presence in the film, teaching Gabrielle a series of musical phrases whose import percolates throughout the narrative and culminates with the devastating final twist, which reveals that her perception of Andre’s artistic autonomy and splendid isolation was nothing more than a fantasy. Combined with a series of coy references to high art – including the La Ciotat of Marcel Proust – the cumulative effect is of a concerted and deliberate withdrawal from anything resembling an artistic signature that nevertheless refuses to turn that withdrawal into a signature in itself either. Like the weepies from which Garcia takes her cues, then, From the Land of the Moon is a negative gesture, an erosion of authorship and artistic singularity in the name of the crushing anonymity of its main character, and the power of cinematic anonymity to commune with those in a similar position. In its own way, that makes it one of the most provocative films to have screened at Cannes in 2016.