2022 Cannes Diary 2: 'Tchaikovsky's Wife,' 'The Eight Mountains,' 'Rodeo' & 'EO'

by C.J. Prince

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday May 23, 2022

A festival worker places the official poster during preparations for the 75th international film festival, Cannes, southern France.
A festival worker places the official poster during preparations for the 75th international film festival, Cannes, southern France.  (Source:AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

It wasn't surprising that Cannes would kick off its Official Competition this year with Kirill Serebrennikov's "Tchaikovsky's Wife." Ever since the film was announced as part of the Competition people have been vocal about its inclusion due to Russia's ongoing war against the Ukraine, along with the fact that the film received funding from Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. Serebrennikov may be a vocal critic of Putin (he was charged with embezzling funds and put under house arrest in a supposed act of retaliation by Putin), but the issue is complicated, so getting the film out of the way immediately means it's more likely people will forget about it by the end of the festival.

In some ways, that might be the best outcome for "Tchaikovsky's Wife," a grueling, two-and-a-half hour failure in telling the story of Antonina Miliukova (Alyona Mikhailova), who married the legendary composer (Odin Biron) and then went insane after the relationship fell apart only weeks after the wedding. According to Serebrenniov, Antonina did not understand it was a sham marriage so Tchaikovsky could hide his homosexuality from the public, and the further he gets away from her the more obsessed she gets with wanting to be his one and only.

From the onset, Serebrennikov makes it clear that we're viewing things through Antonina's unreliable perspective, and soon after Tchaikovsky leaves her, the distinction between reality and fantasy vanishes almost entirely. The problem is with the direction, which relies on performative long takes and showy camera tricks that add a layer of superficiality over everything. That makes it tough to ever feel like we have any idea of what's going on in Antonina's mind aside from her wanting to be with a man who never really wanted her in the first place. Some flights of fancy in the form of interpretive dance from both Antonina and naked muscle men representing her potential suitors (a hint at her reputation of being a nymphomaniac) aren't enough to breathe life into this overlong, sluggish experience. I'm with the festival on this one: The sooner I get this out of my mind, the better.

Director Kirill Serebrennikov, from left, Filipp Avdeyev, Oxxxymiron, and lya Stewart pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'Tchaikovsky's Wife' at the 75th international film festival, Cannes, southern France.
Director Kirill Serebrennikov, from left, Filipp Avdeyev, Oxxxymiron, and lya Stewart pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'Tchaikovsky's Wife' at the 75th international film festival, Cannes, southern France.  (Source: AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

On the other hand, Competition entry "The Eight Mountains" by Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch has stayed with me in the days since it premiered. Van Groeningen is no stranger to melodrama based on his prior films "The Broken Circle Breakdown" and "Beautiful Boy," but here him and co-director Vandermeersch go in the opposite direction, opting for a restrained, quiet approach that matches its setting of a mountain village in Northern Italy. Taking place over several decades, it follows the friendship between Pietro (Luca Marinelli) and Bruno (Alessandro Borghi), who meet when Pietro's family starts vacationing at Bruno's village over the summer. Their friendship changes over time, parting ways as teens, reuniting as adults, and then always coming back to the village every summer no matter how much their lives may change in between.

The relaxed pacing and storytelling makes "The Eight Mountains" a film more concerned with small, impactful moments in its characters' lives that take on a cumulative effect. This allows it to get away with some underdeveloped aspects of Pietro and Bruno's friendship, with both acting as gateways into bigger ideas around the human condition. Both men and their respective trajectories in life — whether it's Pietro aimlessly figuring out what he wants to do or Bruno settling into being a family man and a cheese farmer — create a space to explore questions surrounding fatherhood, knowledge, existence, and other larger themes without ever feeling too contrived. The results aren't always consistent with each story development, but when "The Eight Mountains" high ambitions and humble, patient approach to achieving its goals sync together, the results are quite moving.

Over in the Un Certain Regard section, Lola Quivoron's debut feature "Rodeo" aimed to make a big splash with its story of the brash, rebellious motorcycle enthusiast Julia (Julie Ledru) trying to navigate her way up the ranks of a French motorcycle gang inspired by Baitmore's culture of stunt bikers. With no money or place to stay, Julia schemes and steals her way through life on her own, until her exposure to the gang makes her think she's found some sort of community. That doesn't exactly turn out to be the case, as the hypermasculine world she enters means plenty of people refuse to accept her as one of their own.

For some reason, "Rodeo" qualifies for the Queer Palm despite almost no queer themes (there may be some undertones but only if you look hard enough), unless Julia's singular personality and marginalization is meant to draw some parallels. None of what "Rodeo" offers is anything that hasn't been done before in various character studies from the last decade or so, and aside from a few fun stunt sequences Quivoron doesn't do a single thing to offer a fresh perspective on her film's themes. Julia isn't much of a compelling character either, with her aggressive attitude established from the beginning and then just repeated over and over, save for some dream sequences meant to give insight into her state of mind (dream sequences as character psychology or insight is far from anything new, and the execution here isn't good enough to avoid feeling clichéd). The flashy stunts and fun soundtrack should make the film an easy sell to audiences, but there are far better films than "Rodeo" that cover similar thematic territory.

A scene from "EO."
A scene from "EO."  (Source: Courtesy of Cannes)

Finally, 84-year-old Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski arrived at Cannes this year with a bang in the form of "EO," his tale of a donkey in a traveling circus journeying across Europe after the government shuts the circus down. From the first frame, Skolimowski throws viewers into his spectacular, nightmarish world: strobing red and white lights, smeared visuals, close-ups and POVs from almost every imaginable perspective, sweeping steadicam shots that recall "The Tree of Life," robot dogs, and disorienting aerial stunts from drone cameras are just a few of the things "EO" hurls at viewers to see what sticks. At times it can be an aesthetic overload, but the energy and non-stop inventiveness from Skolimowski provides some of the most exhilarating filmmaking we'll see this year.

On an experiential level alone, "EO" is a blast but even over its short runtime there's a feeling of exhaustion as its title character wanders its way into yet another situation. The episodic structure means an inherent hit-and-miss quality to each section, and while there are obvious messages involving the environment, treatment of animals, and humanity itself, finding some sort of coherence between the ideas takes a backseat to the instinctual pleasures of its craftsmanship. In reality, these are minor quibbles, since "EO" has enough jaw-dropping moments to think it has the potential to be a masterpiece. It never quite gets there, but there's plenty to love in its gleeful, unabashed attempts.