Cannes, Day 8: getting back On The Road with Sightseers

Wednesday May 23rd 2012

Maybe it started with 2009’s unwatchable Allen Ginsberg biopic Howl or maybe I was just born prejudiced, but for some reason I have a hardwired aversion to any cinematic portrayal of the Beat Generation. There’s something so nostalgic, so reverent, so smugly superior about most Beat movies, that I often find myself siding with the stuffy traditionalists the films attempt to ridicule, rather than the self-satisfied, condescending protagonists.

So the outlook for On the Road, Walter Salles’s much-delayed adaptation of the seminal Jack Kerouac novel, was not so good — even before its supremely po-faced character posters were unveiled. In contrast to the overwhelmingly negative critical reaction that followed this morning’s press screening however, I thoroughly enjoyed my time sur la route.

Salles’s film revels in the spirit of adventure espoused by beatniks Sal (Sam Riley) and Dean (Garrett Hedlund, who finally makes amends for Tron: Legacy with a blistering, charismatic performance) but is also awake to their all-consuming selfishness, regularly undercutting the free-spirited chaos with a few much-needed reality checks. Of course, Road is miles too long, and the various female characters are all duds, despite a gutsy, frequently nude performance from Kristen Stewart as Dean’s on-off wife Camille — speaking of which…

… but such failings seem to come with the territory, and for the most part On the Road works a whole lot better than you might expect. It premieres in the UK at Somerset House in August before a wide opening the following month.

A thousand light years away on the opposite end of the road movie spectrum is Sightseers, the new one from Kill List director Ben Wheatley. On the surface, it’s a ‘petty vengeance’ movie in the vein of God Bless America or Super (except not shit) but the film’s narrative concerns frequently play second fiddle to the utterly convincing relationship at its centre. Writer-stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram are by turns horrifying and hospitable as they traverse the English countryside in their increasingly ominous Abbey Oxford caravan, playing off one another with the intuition of an expertly honed double act.

Comparisons to Kill List are inevitable and unflattering, but also misleading: despite Wheatley’s vital contribution to the film, Sightseers‘s identity is drawn more from Lowe and Oram than their director. Wheatley even trades his signature Arial Bold title card for a bouncy little yellow number that fits better with the film’s cutely cruel tone.

Ironically, the film I have least to say about today is also the most provocative. Post Tenebras Lux is a stubbornly non-narrative compendium of short, mostly disconnected scenes from Mexican director Carlos Reygadas. Shot entirely in 1.37:1 through a strange hallucinatory lense that obscures vast swathes of Reygadas’s canvas, the film boasts some of the most incredible scenes of the festival — the trailer should prove as beautiful at the poster, see right — but makes for an unavoidably arduous (not to mention frustrating) watch. Whoever picks it up for UK distribution has their work cut out for them.

With just three days remaining, the festival is beginning to quieten down, but there are still a few major competitors yet to come. Tomorrow promises Lee Daniels’s Zac Efron-starring period piece The Paperboy, while the weekend holds new films from David Cronenberg (you know, Brandon’s dad) and Jeff Nichols, of Take Shelter fame. Then I’ll go back to Photoshopping Bruce Willis onto movie posters, I swear.