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The Best Movie at Cannes This Year Is an Oddball Canadian Comedy

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Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

One of the perils of big festivals with big titles is the ongoing fear that you’re going to miss the real gems: the films from lesser-known directors that play far from competition, in other programs. At Cannes, this fear is particularly pronounced, because even as the main festival’s Official Selection goes on (that’s the one with all the red carpets and the 12-minute standing ovations and the security goons that yell at you if you’re not wearing heels or a black bow tie or whatever), there exist multiple side festivals, each with its own full slate of ambitious international movies. At Cannes, Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week are the two best known of these. Outside of the festival bubble, they’re all lumped under the general “Cannes” umbrella, but in truth, those of us on the ground are torn morning, noon, and night between the big movies starring famous and famous-ish names (many of which are, to be fair, excellent and noteworthy) and the smaller ones playing in theaters elsewhere on the Croisette. And some of these are extraordinary movies. Directors’ Fortnight, for example, was where Chloé Zhao’s The Rider (2017), Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017), and Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014) were discovered. Hell, it was where Mean Streets (1973) and Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) played. And this year, it screened what might be the best picture I’ve seen at Cannes: Matthew Rankin’s Universal Language.

On the surface, Rankin’s film seems like something best appreciated by film geeks, but I suspect it will resonate well beyond the ranks of the pale and pointy. The movie opens with a production credit, in Farsi, for the Winnipeg Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young People, which as far as I can tell is not a real organization. Rather, it’s an homage to the Iranian organization of the same name (also known as Kanoon) that produced a number of classic films in the 1970s and ’80s, including some of the great Abbas Kiarostami’s early documentaries about children. The film’s first scene also evokes those works: A teacher (Mani Soleymanlou), having lugged his suitcases for what seems like miles across the snow, enters a classroom and promptly shouts at his young students to quiet down. In Farsi. This is Winnipeg, and these are ordinary Canadian kids. But in Universal Language’s slightly tilted version of the world, Winnipeg and Iran have melded. Everybody speaks Farsi. They sing Persian songs. They drink their tea by putting a sugar cube in their mouth first.

That’s not the only oddball touch in Rankin’s film, which unspools with a delightfully disorienting mix of poetic realism (one that naturally recalls the Iranian New Wave), flights of surreal comedy, and wry, deadpan bleakness. One of the kids in the aforementioned class is dressed up as Groucho Marx; another (Sobhan Javadi) claims that a turkey stole his glasses. (This turns out, eventually, to be true.) Outside in the snow, a tour guide (Pirouz Nemati) leads a group of tourists on what appears to be an endless walk, pointing out important local landmarks such as the Universal Pavilion Parking Lot (scene of the Great Parallel Parking Incident of 1958) and a suitcase someone left on a park bench in 1978. Two girls (Rojina Esmaeili and Saba Vahedyousefi) find a 500-rial bill frozen in the ice and look for an ax with which to liberate it. A woman works as a lacrimologist at a local cemetery, offering Kleenex to the mourners. Meanwhile, in Montreal, as a downcast man named Matthew Rankin (played by Matthew Rankin) leaves his government ministry job to go back home, he has an argument with his boss about whether Winnipeg is in Manitoba or Alberta.

I realize this all sounds aggressively hyperreferential and like ironic har-har. But Universal Language is a magnificent film, one that feels warm and familiar even as we realize just how startlingly original it is. Rankin’s mastery of tone throughout prevents any of these disparate elements from sticking out. The different stories ultimately connect in surprising ways. (As one character says, “Just as the Assiniboine joins the Red River and together they turn into Lake Winnipeg, we are all connected, agha.”) Everything feels like it belongs with the otherworldly, twilight atmosphere of the film, one that slips gently from playful, fablelike simplicity to pointed, expressive melancholy. As Matthew returns home, he finds an unfamiliar new family living in his old childhood house. Looking for his mother, he finds her in an unlikely place — and realizes that, during all these years he was away from home, something unexpected happened to her conception of him. In these later scenes, a sense of sorrow gathers over the movie, suggesting that its mood of displacement reflects something more personal: a meditation on the receding self, on the anxiety of leaving home behind and not being able to find your way back.

Rankin is known primarily as an experimental filmmaker, but he’s also managed to break through into something resembling the mainstream over the last few years. His earlier works presented short, bizarre riffs on silent cinema and the genres of the past — war flicks, melodramas, propaganda films, etc. (He’s often compared, understandably, to fellow Winnipegger Guy Maddin, whose work has a similar mixed-media allusiveness.) In 2019, Rankin’s feature directorial debut, The Twentieth Century, a heavily stylized and very strange look at the early life of Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, was nominated for Best Picture and Director at the Canadian Screen Awards and was released in the U.S. by Oscilloscope (which will also be releasing this new one). Universal Language, with its gentle rhythms and poetic lyricism, would seem to be the furthest thing from those earlier movies.

But Rankin did make a fascinating video short in 2008, a self-portrait that also presented a Winnipeg where everybody spoke Farsi. That film (presented by “the Winnipeg Ministry for the Intellectual Guidance of Children and Young People”) was a play on Kiarostami’s 1990 masterpiece Close-Up, which follows an impostor who poses as the famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf in order to insinuate himself into the lives of a well-to-do Tehran family. (If you haven’t seen Close-Up, you really should — it’s one of the most seismic films of the past few decades, and it’s available via the Criterion Channel, alongside a number of Kiarostami films.) In Rankin’s short, Rankin himself plays an impostor posing as the not-so-famous Winnipeg filmmaker Matthew Rankin. It’s about two minutes long and an amusing little lark, but seen in the light of Universal Language, the interplay of influence, imitation, and existential questioning becomes more poignant. Universal Language is also riffing on genres, though it’s doing it in relatively unshowy ways. At heart, it’s the work of an artist trying to wrestle with something we all do: our inability, as life goes on, to live up to the people we wish we could be.

More From the 2024 Cannes Film Festival

  • A Night at Cannes With the Strippers of Sean Baker’s Anora
  • The Best Movie at Cannes This Year Is an Oddball Canadian Comedy
  • Paolo Sorrentino’s Parthenope Is As Beguiling As It Is Alienating

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Bilge Ebiri , 2024-05-23 20:30:00

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