Today the festival turns for me, beginning as it did with Volume 2 of Miguel Gomes's Arabian Nights trilogy, told in tantalizing serial progression every other day at the Directors' Fortnight. What could be more fitting than eagerly awaiting more stories from this project inspired by Scheherazade's 1001 tales? Indeed, I wonder if film is actually the best format for Gomes's ambitious project, which I could easily see sprawling into television or web episodes, an all consuming process of ingesting a never-ending series of idiosyncratic, telling events of Portugal's contemporary history.
Volume 2: The Desolate One suggests as much after a singular opening episode—this part begins without Volume 1's wild, meta-prologue—of a rural murderer told as a traveling pastoral. It is a single story of crime and rural freedom telescoped into a sunny, roving short film that imagines not the man's horrible deed but rather his placid flight across the landscape. The evocation of this lone figure becomes clear when the following stories in this volume concern themselves with the multitude of crimes and despair in the country. The second tale is the best of the series so far, in fact not a story but a nighttime tribunal that begins with one crime and finds in its origins another, and in that another, and so on, until the entire audience of this nocturnal court seems made up of the victims and the guilty, often found in the same person. The final tale in the second volume is another myriad, using the suicide of an old, fearful married couple in a housing block as an inroad to the many small anecdotes and stories found in such a building teeming with different ages and backgrounds. Stories within stories within stories, the film, despite its limitations—each two hours, plus or minus, they each contain a certain amount of tales, and then come to an end—in this structure not only is freed to rove Portugal for the rich, odd incident, but suggests a project with an unquenchable thirst and an unlimited supply. One can imagine even Miguel Gomes setting the Arabian Nights down and another filmmaker picking it up—something I whole-heartedly encourage.
This openness continued beautifully a little while later, courtesy of the great Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Someone just opened the window and let in some much-needed fresh air into Cannes, and that someone is the director colloquially known as Joe. Relegated in a detail of obscure festival politics to the second-tier Un Certain Regard section, where in recent years such too-adventurous works like Jean-Luc Godard's Film socialisme and Claire Denis's Bastards were shunted aside, I came to Cemetery of Splendour assuming the director was going to follow-up on his Palme d'Or of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives with something as grand if not grander, and as bizarre if not even more bizarre. I should have known Apichatpong would move in mysterious ways and defy expectations.
A small, humble film, in fact the most constricted of his full features, Cemetery of Splendour rather than working the surface of story, the surface of space, and the surface of drama and reality, plumbs the subterranean. The film's charged setting is emblematic of its approach: set in what was once a school, the builds are now used as a temporary hospital, with construction begun outside for yet another incarnation. We later learn that eons ago this location was a "cemetery of kings" upon which battles were fought for supremacy of the Khon Kaen town in the northeast of Thailand. This casual mix of nostalgia and foreboding in the superimposition of the functions of a low-key building over time is a metonym of a people's burial of histories, a suppression pushed down into the dark recesses of dreams, nightmares and their phantom worlds.
As our surrogate to walk the brittle surface world of Khon Kaen, so permeable by that which lays below, Apichatpong finally dedicates a film to his long-time actress Jenira Phongas Widner, whose history with the filmmaker is now feeling inseparable, like that of Lee Kang-sheng with Tsai Ming-liang. Jenira volunteers at the hospital and is the subject whose daily life, dreams, and imagination form the surface tapestry of Cemetery of Splendour. Below lurks demons: the hospital in fact houses Thai soldiers beset by an unsolvable sleeping sickness, and indeed the lines between dream and history, nightmare and memory are subtly transgressed by the film and made almost indistinguishable. When the doctors realize nothing can be done to wake the soldiers, they are hooked up into glowing machines that help them "sleep with good dreams." If such machines are needed, what dreams are they having, and what is it they saw when awake?
Yet as is appropriate for a film whose surface world lays dormant, Cemetery of Splendor looks and feels like the Apichatpong we love, with its ease of storytelling, the effusion of warm compassion, the slippage between the real world and others, and an aura of comfortableness in time and environment. These come across all the more in his new movie with its tidy smallness, restricted as it is in movement around the hospital and a few excursions walking through the director's hometown. It avoids much of the most fantastical and stylized filmmaking the director has employed in the past, and instead has a characteristic humility to the mise en scène, which has a kind of feng shui arranging people and objects in space usually with two different criss-crossing angles of freedom—say, windows on each side of the frame, and a door behind it. With this understated technique, the image becomes a kind of intersection of flowing energy. Perhaps this is why I always get good vibes from an Apichatpong film even during their darkest excursions, and this one is no different: watching it was nearly therapeutic, a feeling entering my body and spirit while watching as if I were getting a massage for the soul.
But despite all these characteristic qualities of relaxation and humming empathy, Cemetery of Splendour feels like it has a tremendously dark, sad undercurrent. As in Jacques Rivette's Duelle, which shows us a thriller's conspiracy turned inside out, or like the haunting off-screen space of the genre films of Jacques Tourneur, in Cemetery of Splendour we never seem to see the darkness, it is only referred to in mentions of dreams, alternate histories, past lives and fears. (Such a world leaks every-so-slightly into ours: giant dinosaur statues prey around the city, and the soldiers' sleep machines are like Dan Flavin installations of tubular neon color.) With talk of an underworld—the soldier Jen is taking care of leaves behind a notebook full of cryptic maps—one thinks of Fritz Lang's The Indian Tomb and how it revealed beneath its lavish palace a series of catacombs spelling doom. A characteristic scene has Jen and a new friend, a young psychic woman, go for a walk, but the psychic is in fact channeling the sleeping spirit of the soldier, who sees himself in a sprawling palace in an ancient Khon Kaen. We do not see it, nor does Jen, but she and the psychic tour this palace by walking through the park, the young woman telling Jen what she sees of this hidden world laid over, under or inside the visible one.
This is the kind of buried allegory Apichatpong is dealing with, working in a country where criticism of the government is highly punitive. In one shockingly audacious scene, we see the following: Jen and her soldier at a movie theatre watching an endlessly violent and fantastic trailer for Iron Coffin Killers before they have to stand for the king's anthem. But the anthem never comes, and the audience is stranded standing in darkness in hung silence. Cut to: men carrying the now-asleep soldier out of the cinema, the camera panning down to follow them through the multiplex's array of escalators—the most modest yet startling evocation of a journey to an underworld.
Such is the film's simplicity, as well as its suggestions of a sombulant population, whether soldiers strangely stuck in narcoleptic stupor, or even Jen herself, who though caring for one with such an unreal malady she too seems to start navigating her childhood, her old accident that hobbled her right leg, and her well-lived life in Thailand. (As in the past, many of her personal memories and history are used by the screenplay.) The conversations Jen has with the soldier and with the young psychic, who attends the hospital as a therapeutic way for families to communicate with their silent, sleeping soldiers, are lovely to behold, a middle-aged woman easily befriending a younger generation. Such is the humble smallness of the movie, its feeling of expansive imagination but wholly limited space, that conversations such as these form its emotional, fantastical, and political core.
There is no better shot, no better scene in the entirety of this year's Cannes than a simple medium shot of Jen sitting at a picnic table eating longkang fruit. A woman approaches and is invited to eat and talk, then another woman. They two women thank Jen for making them offerings at the local shrine, and we and Jenira realize they are goddesses appearing in their, as they say, "normal street wear." The beaming wonder of this, of a mere talk between three women in a banal plaine air frame, the charge of spirit and possibility, the gratitude Jenira feels—this shot is Apichatpong's supreme talent at its most pure and great. Whether her offer to the shrine—asking for assistance for her mangled leg, for her new American husband, and for her adopted soldier—is really heard is one of the elements of completion the film's easeful mystery leaves unresolved. Certainly, in a moving climax, Jenira and her leg receive a kind of benediction, which the director follows with an explosion of music and public calisthenics, much as in his 2006 masterpiece Syndromes and a Century, which also draws upon his parents' history as clinical doctors. But the ending after this small loveliness is devastating, a single final image as doubly powerful, indicting, and forlorn because of the film's signature softnesses and occluded mysteries. "Save yourself for a better future," Jenira earlier pleads of the sleeping soldier. I want to say this is the director's darkest film, and yet it is nearly all but light—the light of the surface world, under which exists a cemetery.