During its final week, the Cannes Film Festival will screen a few films that can be called anthologies of one kind or another: “The French Dispatch” by Wes Anderson (five discrete stories under one concept) on Monday, the anthology “The Year of the Everlasting Storm” (seven different directors discuss life during the pandemic) on Wednesday and, to kick off the mini-trend, “Evolution” by Kornél Mundruczó on Sunday.
“Evolution” is, in some ways, the most unified of the trio; it tells three stories from three generations of the same family, using similar techniques for different purposes to explore the complicated history of Jews in and around Germany from the end of WWII to the present day. Shot in just 13 days during the pandemic and assembled largely from long, uninterrupted shots, it feels like a little experimental film, but it’s also a meditation on trauma that cuts deeply emotionally.
“Evolution” is also the fourth film collaboration in the past seven years for Hungarian director Mundruczó and his wife, screenwriter Kata Wéber. Their films are radically different: 2014’s “White God” was a brilliantly dark fable about dogs invading a city, 2017’s “Jupiter’s Moon” was a fuzzy supernatural drama, and last year’s “Pieces of a Woman” their. first film in English, a heartbreaking Oscar nominated tour de force for actresses Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn.
Their new collaboration is Mundruczó’s eighth film at Cannes if you count the short films. It was screened on Sunday in the Cannes Premiere section, a new space designed to showcase films by festival veterans whose work could normally be placed in the main Competition section. Many of the films in the section look like side projects for their directors, with Andrea Arnold and Oliver Stone portrayed in documentaries, and the same could be said of “Evolution,” although it is also a haunting exploration. and stimulating identity and loss.
The three sections of the film are named after characters, the first, “Eva”, being the most gritty and the most immersive. It starts with three men walking into a dark room with cleaning supplies; shot in a square format and taking place in what appears to be a single shot, the men splash bleach on walls and floors, scrub dirty surfaces, and start pulling long tufts of hair from crevices and floors. drains. Often the camera is not pointing at the workers; it has its own mind, and men come in and out of the frame.
It is never exactly specified, but the men clean the rooms of a concentration camp where the Jews were exterminated. This section has the claustrophobic nature of “Son of Saul” and the terror and doom of a horror movie, although you can’t reduce these circumstances to a genre tag. The footage becomes more and more surreal and terrifying – there are clearly spots you can’t clean up – until a baby’s cry breaks the oppressive silence.
Pulling a child out of the sewer after this grueling streak conjures up unmistakable echoes of the opening childbirth scene in “Pieces of a Woman”, but in “Evolution” that “birth” is stranger and more disturbing. What we see may give some hope in the midst of the horror, but it’s impossible to treat it as anything other than a hopeless illusion.
With a fade to black, the film moves to a brightly lit apartment in Germany for “Lena”, its second section. Set decades after the war, it is the story of a woman (Annamaria Lang) who visits her aging mother to apply for her grandmother’s passport. In order to enroll her children in a Jewish school and secure the reparations Germany pays to Holocaust survivors and their families, it seems, Lena must prove that she is Jewish.
The problem is, the paper trail is deliberately misleading: Lena’s grandmother had five different passports, all fake and most designed to show that she was not Jewish. (This is a real-life detail: Weber’s mother did have many fake passports designed to hide her Jewish identity.) “We were Jews when we couldn’t be,” Lena moans. “And now that we can be, we are not Jews.”
But his problem isn’t just the paperwork; it is also his obstinate mother, conditioned never to give anything to the authorities and never to appear to profit from the drama. The role is played by veteran stage actress Lili Monori, and it’s a tour de force – over half an hour in an unbroken take that’s dominated by her scorching monologue, pouring out decades of anger, pain. and confusion that began, she says, when she was born in Auschwitz to a mother who had managed to hide her pregnancy.
During all this, the camera walks through the apartment, goes out the window, comes in, turns around his head, fixes on his face and makes small adjustments; it’s hectic, but Eva – yes, the same Eva we saw in the opening section – is relentless, until that section too gets more surreal and horrific.
The third section, “Jonah”, is the longest and the one that takes place today. The main character is a high school student from Berlin, whose classes are canceled for the day because a lantern he brought for a class project started a fire. He’s also struggling with his place: his mother is Jewish, of course, but he doesn’t really know who or what he is. “You brought me here! He yells at his mother. “You tell me who I am!”
There are hints of anti-Semitism, an attempt at love with a Turkish girl, and an attempt to find some kind of grace note at the end. In a film that keeps coming back to images of water, it is only in the final scene that water seems to have any healing power. But “Evolution” is less about healing than haunting; it is a strange, small and moving work that asks disturbing questions about identity after decades of trauma.
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