Accession is easily one of the toughest viewing experiences I've ever had. Michael J. Rix – who wrote, produced, directed, shot and edited the film – has made something that will be too much for most audiences to handle. The opening 15 minutes of Accession introduce us to John (Pethro Themba Mbole) by showing us his daily routine, which consists of trying to make money, walking around a lot, drinking beer and having unprotected sex with random women whenever he can. When John discovers that one of these women is HIV-positive, he doesn't take her advice and go to the clinic for a check-up (we seem him warily loiter outside a few times before turning away) and instead he listens to a drinking buddy who informs him that sex with a virgin is a certain way to cure the disease. At this point it's easy to see where Accession is going but that still doesn't prepare you for the shocking impact of John's actions, which the director has said were inspired by a series of rapes in South Africa by HIV-positive men who believed this deed would cure them. Rix's camera stays close to his lead actor and he employs some interesting aesthetic tricks, notably the use of colour, which gradually bleeds out of the film as John sinks into a personal hell and drags innocent victims down with him. Accession is a sledgehammer of a movie that contains a couple of scenes I simply couldn't watch; it crosses a line that makes it impossible to consider the film in any kind of reasoned, objective way. I suppose it must be classed as a success, in that Rix achieves exactly the effect he's going for, but it's hard to recommend such a stomach-churning and deeply upsetting picture.
Ernest & Celestine (Ernest et Célestine)
Bears and mice live in parallel worlds in Ernest & Celestine, the wonderful new film from the makers of A Town Called Panic. Bears live above ground, running shops and the like, while mice live below the surface, where young rodents are scared straight with stories of "The Big Bad Bear." One brave little mouse remains unafraid of what lies above, however, and the tenacious Celestine (Pauline Brunner) forms an unlikely friendship with the always hungry bear Ernest (Lambert Wilson) when they discover they can help each other achieve their goals. Although it has its fair share of chase sequences, Ernest & Celestine is a long way from the relentless anarchy of Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar's previous film. Here aided by co-director Benjamin Renner, they have brought Gabrielle Vincent's books to life with a lovely watercolour palette that respects the film's storybook origins while allowing ample room for sly visual gags (I loved the "camouflage" shot). Ernest & Celestine is beautifully produced, from the visuals to the score, and it benefits from perfectly pitched vocal performances from Wilson and Brunner, who breathe real life into their characters, but its real value lies in its storytelling skills. Through this tale of characters from different worlds forming a bond that makes them both outcasts, the film successfully manages to explore themes of prejudice, tolerance and friendship without being heavy-handed about it or condescending to its young audience. Such a neat balance of entertainment and depth is all too rare in contemporary family entertainments, and it's hard to imagine many such films matching Ernest & Celestine in 2012.
The Hunt (Jagten)
The Hunt is essentially The Crucible in a contemporary setting, but when the "witchcraft" causing mass hysteria is a topic as sensitive as paedophilia, wouldn't a more sober and restrained approach be appropriate? Too much of The Hunt is driven by contrivance and inexplicable decisions by its characters, which makes much of this potentially gripping film feel rather unconvincing. It's hard to believe in the circumstances that surround an original complaint of sexual abuse against nursery school teacher Lucas (Mad Mikkelsen), and it's even harder to buy into the way things subsequently escalate. Almost everyone in this small town immediately assumes that the well-liked Lucas is guilty of the mumbled half-accusation dreamed up by 5 year-old Klara, and so he finds himself out of a job, at risk of losing access to his own son, and threatened with physical violence when he goes out to buy groceries. Director Thomas Vinterberg (who never comes close to matching the dynamite impact of his debut Festen) doesn't allow for any ambiguity over Mikkelsen's presumed guilt, so the whole film consists of watching this innocent man suffer at the hands of a misguided mob. There are no authority figures involved to bring a sense of due process to the matter, and Klara's later attempts to atone for her accusation ("I said something silly. He didn't do anything.") are unquestioningly taken as the remarks of a damaged child who has repressed her trauma. It's a shame Vinterberg has chosen to stack the deck in this way because he does a fine job directing the film, bringing a powerful intensity to a number of tense scenes, and Mikkelsen – who won the Best Actor award at Cannes – is outstanding in the lead role, but The Hunt is a film undermined by its own fraudulent foundations.
"My spirit was trapped underwater. It was dark and cold." "I didn't know that you were a Pob ghost." This conversation, which occurs between a mother and daughter, should clue you in to the fact that Mekong Hotel is an Apichatpong Weerasethakul film. Actually, perhaps I shouldn't really describe it as such, because it feels more like a sketch, or a half-finished exercise, than a fully formed film. The hour-long picture was developed by Joe from a script that he couldn't get funding to finish, so we see some scenes from that being played out by a small cast of actors, with the gist of it being that a woman haunted by a Pob ghost likes to feast on human and animal entrails. But these scenes only make up half of the film, and the rest of the time we see the actors out of character, sitting around and discussing whatever happens to be on their mind at the time, while a lilting guitar melody plays and the director occasionally cuts away to a calming landscape shot. I'm not sure what Apichatpong got out of assembling Mekong Hotel and releasing it like this, or what viewers are likely to get from watching it. The film is a minor diversion, and hopefully the next time he comes back to the festival it will be with something a lot more substantial under his belt.
Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os)
Jacques Audiard's last two films were character studies focusing on one man mired in a life of crime, but his new picture harkens back to the earlier Read My Lips, as Audiard expands his focus to examine a relationship between two damaged people. Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) is a killer whale trainer who loses her legs in a freak accident, while Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a brutish drifter with a young son in tow, who tries to make ends meet through security jobs and bare-knuckle boxing. They're an odd couple from the start and their relationship never feels entirely real, despite the impressively committed performances from two terrific actors. There are frustrating gaps in the characterisations and their motivations, and from the moment Stephanie makes a call to the nightclub bouncer she met on one drunken night out, Audiard's depiction of this burgeoning relationship feels on shaky ground. Perhaps the fact that the film has been adapted from a couple of short stories by Craig Davidson goes some way to explaining its lack of cohesiveness, but whatever flaws may be evident in Rust and Bone's storytelling, Audiard frequently manages to direct his way out of trouble. One late twist is absurdly telegraphed, but Audiard still manages to turn it into an exhilarating sequence, and the film is full of similar moments in which his command of visual filmmaking manages to conjure transcendent moments from unlikely material. He also uses music brilliantly, and while I could never have imagined a Katy Perry song moving me to tears, Audiard's inclusion of Firework at one poignant moment is a perfect example of what he can do at his best. You may not be entirely convinced by Rust and Bone, but you're certainly guaranteed to feel something.
The Wall (Die Wand)
Narration can be a great tool for filmmakers, but unless you're using it in a particularly clever or potent way, I always feel it should be a last resort. Surely filmmakers working in this visual medium should look for non-verbal ways to tell their story or express their protagonist's thoughts and feelings? All of which leads us to The Wall, a very promising film that's crippled by its appallingly misjudged use of the central character's interminable voiceover, which is a terrible pity as it hardly puts a foot wrong elsewhere. The film starts with an ingenious premise: an unidentified woman (Martina Gedeck) is spending a few days at a remote alpine cottage with friends, but when her companions fail to return from their trip into town her attempts to look for them are thwarted by an invisible wall that has somehow sprung up around this location, trapping her inside. She sees cars and people on the other side of this barrier but she is unable to reach out and communicate with them; she must learn to adapt and survive alone. Director Julian Pölsler confidently lets the film unfold slowly without the need to accelerate matters or generate any sense of false drama. We see this woman care for the few animals that remain trapped with her, toil away on the land, learn to hunt and do all she can to stave off the mental and emotional effects of complete isolation. The film is narrated in flashback, with the character musing on the events of previous months (she is unsure how much time has passed) as she writes in her journal, but in a huge misjudgement, Pölsler uses far too much of this text as voiceover. Gedeck's tough, emotionally dextrous performance is compelling enough on its own and perfectly capable of making us understand the state her character is in, but running lines like "I was overcome by despair" over a shot of her weeping uncontrollably only dilutes the effect. This storytelling choice is even more baffling because The Wall's incredible visuals are often its strongest asset, with gorgeously composed shots filmed across a variety of seasons capturing the surrounding landscape in all of its magnificence and danger. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that it looks so good, though – an incredible nine people are credited with the film's cinematography.