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Cannes 2022: Triangle of Sadness, R.M.N., Three Thousand Years of Longing

Even as skilled a social satirist as Robert Altman got thrown off his game by the fashion world, which is almost a parody of itself. Early on in "Triangle of Sadness," it looks like the Swedish director Ruben Östlund, returning to Cannes with his first feature since winning the Palme d'Or for "The Square" in 2017, might meet the same fate. The movie begins by skewering a couple who are both models, Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean). Carl wants to know why Yaya always subtly pressures him into picking up the check when they're out to dinner, even though she, typically for the industry, earns more than he does. In Östlund fashion, this back-and-forth, which continues after they leave the restaurant, widens into a squirmy dissection of politeness, gender expectations, and manipulation. If you know Östlund, working in very much the same episodic, long-take mode he employed in "The Square," you know that nobody is getting out of this argument looking good.

When the pair embarks on a luxury cruise that Yaya is participating in as an influencer (she'll pose eating pasta for photographs but won't actually eat it), Östlund's scope broadens to dissect the amorality and coddled insularity of the ultra-wealthy. The ship's other passengers include a British couple who made the fortune in dealing arms (it's a pity about those U.N. regulations concerning land mines, the hubby says—huge losses) and a Russian oligarch (Zlatko Burić) who got in the ground floor of the post-Soviet fertilizer market. He and the far-left captain (Woody Harrelson) trade Marxist and anti-Marxist quotes, at least until the oligarch is compelled to retort with Marx himself. Abigail (Dolly De Leon), who cleans the ship's toilets, is dismissed by the passengers until a change in their situation—no spoilers here—means they can't get along without her.

The movie is broadly divided into three sections (though the term "triangle of sadness" refers not to the narrative but to how someone describes the shape of Dickinson's brow). Throughout Östlund's dissertation, the shifting value of various currencies—money, food, sex—continually recasts the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

The filmmaker's targets are fairly standard, maybe even fish in a barrel, and the movie, wildly overlong at two and a half hours, is more thesis-y and less complex than Östlund's comparatively character-driven "The Square" or "Force Majeure." But it has its moments, particularly when the delicate-stomached cruise guests are forced to deal with serious seasickness, at which point Östlund's genteel bile gives way to geysers of half-digested haute cuisine. 

Cristian Mungiu's "R.M.N." is a Christmas movie—or at least a film set over the Christmas–New Year's period that serves as a study of failed good will toward men. Matthias (Marin Grigore), a half-German, half-Romanian slaughterhouse worker, abruptly quits his job after knocking a truculent supervisor through glass and returns to the Transylvanian village where his son, Rudi (Mark Blenyesi), is being raised by the boy's mother (Macrina Bârlădeanu). The kid has been recently been traumatized by something he saw in the woods. He won't say what it was, or even talk at all.

Meanwhile, Matthias's former lover Csilla (Judith State) works at a bread factory that is looking to hire a handful more workers to become eligible for a grant that the European Union offers to employers of a certain size. But the locals won't work for minimum wage, and the deadline is approaching. So the bakery, having already advertised the positions in the village, legally hires Sri Lankan immigrants. And their arrival, however sanctioned, catalyzes barely concealed xenophobia, threats, and violence from the other residents.

The villagers' bigotry is nakedly hypocritical. Plenty of residents in this former mining town have sought work abroad, and the populace is a multi-lingual cross-section of Romanians, Hungarians, and Germans. (At times, the subtitles distinguish among languages by putting them in different colors.) Romania, one character says, "has always been squeezed between empires." And this is to say nothing of the village's non-human inhabitants. A French conservationist—who speaks in defense of Europe as one big family, for whom country and region aren't barriers—is visiting to get a count of the area's bear population.

Mungiu ("4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days") presents all of this in his deceptively placid style; it's a film of thorny complexity that only seems to wear its message on its sleeve. Dialogue-heavy scenes play out at great length in uninterrupted takes; until well into the film, you barely have the sense that a tightly constructed plot is progressing. But that is not to say the movie it is without ambiguities. The bread factory's defense of the Sri Lankans is motivated more by profit and a reluctance to raise wages than by charity. The local reverend's failure to speak out when the Sri Lankans are shunned from his church suggests his true loyalties aren't with his religion. The backstory behind what Rudi saw in the forest is only hinted at. And Matthias, in all things, is doggedly noncommittal, declining even to say, at least in Romanian (he'll do so in other langauges), that he loves Csilla.

The film's pièce de résistance is a climactic village meeting in a cultural center. According to the press notes, the scene—besting a suspenseful long take in "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days"—unfolds in a continuous 17-minute shot incorporating 26 speaking characters, most of whom vent their vitriol for the immigrants while Matthias and Csilla sit in the right foreground, calmly taking in what is said. (State's facial acting is especially extraordinary.) When he's called on, Matthias, true to form, pretends he doesn't understand the question.

"Three Thousand Years of Longing," which premiered out of competition, seems destined to be one of those movies, like "The Fountain," where you either buy wholeheartedly into its mystical-philosophical ideas about love, fate, and the nature of storytelling or you feel left out in the cold. It's George Miller's first film since "Mad Max: Fury Road" (2015), which Cannes also showed out of competition, but it couldn't be more different from that or anything else he's ever done (barring perhaps the faintly spiritual title sequence of "Lorenzo's Oil").

The plot centers on Dr. Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), a British narratologist who is convinced that the science increasingly supplies the answers that myths were meant to address, even while she experiences  schizophrenic-like visions that defy rational explanation. In Istanbul for a conference, she acquires a bottle and, when polishing it with an electric toothbrush, unleashes a djinn (Idris Elba) trapped within it. He quickly picks up English and lays out the rules for the three wishes he plans to grant her. (Declining isn't really an option.) Elba's character, amusingly made to look much, much taller than Swinton in the same room, relates the story of how he's spent the last 3,000 years and how previous wishers' fates turned out.

The screenplay, by Miller and Augusta Gore (his daughter) and based on a short story by A.S. Byatt, treats all of this with utter sincerity and self-seriousness. Personally, I wished the movie had a bit more humor and a lighter touch. Of the flashbacks, only the one involving Zefir (Burcu Gölgedar), a 19th-century merchant's wife who wishes to acquire knowledge of all things beautiful and true, has much dramatic impact. The stories that precede it play like exercises, with CGI that almost seems out of proportion to the intimate scale of the film and a Gilliam-esque tendency to confuse the weird for the charming. (A segment that involves a man with a fetish for zaftig women is particularly unfortunate.)

Yet I can see how, were I on its wavelength, I might have found "Three Thousand Years of Longing" unusual and moving rather than overblown and trite.

Ben Kenigsberg

Ben Kenigsberg is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. He edited the film section of Time Out Chicago from 2011 to 2013 and served as a staff critic for the magazine beginning in 2006. 

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