A Hidden Life
Many times at the festival I had to remind myself that I was indeed sitting in a French theatre at Cannes, watching a Terrence Malick film on the big screen. Despite the early wake-up time and the scarily long waiting line, the mesmerising quality of his new film reminded me of the transcendental direction located within his entire body of work. In many ways A Hidden Life harkens back to Malick’s earlier directorial tendencies regarding historical dramas and simple yet effective narrative storytelling, proving to be an emotionally and intellectually rewarding experience.
Malick’s assured direction and outstanding cinematography perfectly translate his poetic contemplation of the film’s intense subject matter, which casts a meditative trance when combined with the immaculate sound design. The straightforward narrative lends a much needed structure to the story, which at times is sidestepped by the slow, rhythmic editing. Luckily the pacing does not suffer too much even though the poetic interludes can be distracting at times. Nevertheless, Malick’s impeccable visuals, sound design and James Newton Howard’s soundtrack always offer up a feast for the senses.
The decision to structure the story entirely around the protagonist also showcases Malick’s ability to evoke great amounts of sympathy from the audience, which reaches its dramatic heights during the climax of the film. I’m impressed with his artistic growth as a director and the emotional marks he is able to relay confidently.
Additionally, the screenplay presents a more intimate, quiet impression of life in the early 1900’s opposed to a strictly factual or realistic depiction. As a result, the film plays like music - directly off the emotions and introspections of each audience member. It made me self-reflect on the existential themes of morality, life and perseverance at about 9am in a French cinema halfway across the world. Any movie that can get me thinking at that time in the morning is doing something right. It reminded me that the filmic medium can be music, poetry, philosophy, time and space - all within the one package.
With a blank schedule in between two films that I planned to see, I ended up spinning the wheel to see which random movie I would see next. I had luck with Atlantics so I was relatively optimistic. Despite seeing another movie in the central Grand Lumière theatre, the experience turned out to be a rather cookie-cutter biopic that skims over historical events like its a Wikipedia page.
The real life story is pretty interesting as a purely factual documentation, however the mechanics of a film demand more than simply checking off the milestones. Starting on a positive note, the film’s director, Marco Bellocchio, demonstrates his ability to carefully guide the audience through the melodramatic beats of the story and deliver individual scenes of dramatic bite. The film’s technical accomplishments such as cinematography and production settings are also competent.
I think the problem lies clearly within the screenplay. Although we get individual scenes of developed subplots, the fast-paced momentum and colossal timeline of the story never allows enough time for the audience to latch onto the important characters. These vital character moments are omitted in favour of condensing the story into a series of plot points. Thus, significant character deaths and poignant scenes fail to have the intended emotional pay-off they require - only in the superficial sense.
Nevertheless, the principal actor Pierfrancesco Favino manages to pull a solid performance even among the botched script and fast-paced editing. Because of this, the film remains mildly entertaining and watchable during the clichéd courtroom scenes. I wish the film would’ve taken some time to stop and smell the roses, to truly listen and spend some time with the protagonist and the supporting characters. I felt like I never really grasped who they were beyond a two-dimensional level. As a real-life story it’s intriguing, as a film it’s unfortunately pedestrian.
Boy I’m glad to have made the decision to see this film. Queuing up in a line 3 hours before the movie starts, the avalanche of people expanding around the Marriott hotel seemingly had no end. I really liked Robert Egger’s directorial debut The Witch but personally didn’t think it was a masterpiece. That being said, I have never been in a theatre that matched the level of sheer excitement and anticipation as when I saw this film. Everyone clapped before each opening credit, and the audience was respectful and attentive. The happiness was infectious, and I don’t think anyone was truly prepared for the masterful 2 hours that followed. Cinema is alive and well in Cannes.
This film was nothing short of being absolutely outstanding. Experiencing the perfect blend of visuals and sound invigorated my passion for the medium, all thanks to Egger’s precise and effective directing. The horrifying tone and paranoid atmosphere could not have been more successfully constructed, with the film even balancing threads of intentional comedy that surprisingly add to the film’s humanity and believability. The black and white cinematography is more than Oscar-worthy, with each shot and camera movement being perfectly composed in lighting, framing and depth of field.
The astonishing production design and period location further characterise the environment as a desolate and inhospitable wasteland, transforming the audience into this unique nightmare. I was reminded of Bergman’s deep depth of field compositions and Polanski’s surreal imagery in Repulsion, synthesised with Egger’s own fantastical metaphors. The haunting soundtrack also reflects diegetic noises within the film environment and imparts an impending sense of danger and tension.
Moving on from the aesthetics, the screenplay is ambitiously written with authentic period dialogue and lengthy monologues performed by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. Both of these actors give career-best performances with manic intensity, growing paranoia and a sense of history deeply ingrained in their specific mannerisms. The recurring dialogue scenes spark a real operatic energy between the two actors, offering two spellbinding protagonists that actively move the narrative forward to unpredictable territories.
The film entertains, inspires, frightens and provokes laughter. It harmonises different tonal shifts and genre elements of horror, fantasy and drama into a distinctive directorial vision that imprints memorable scenes and visuals into the minds of the audience. The film’s ambiguity and withdrawal of information will surely provide countless analysis videos and conversations, and I think its a masterstroke. It’s refreshing to sit in a cinema and not have major plot elements explicitly communicated by an unsure director, instead the film’s confident directing trusts the audience’s intelligence into the horrifying final moments. Sometimes a film will be thought-provoking and engage my mind whilst I watch it. Other times, I am so taken aback by the audiovisual experience that I could not bear to think until afterwards. The film has total command over all my senses, and I surrender to it. This is that film.