In recent years, the Cannes film festival has been uniquely receptive to films about innocent saps falling into bureaucratic black holes. Directors like Cristi Puiu and Ken Loach tapped that very formula for their respective Un Certain Regard and Palme d’Or winners “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and “I, Daniel Blake.” And if Sergei Loznitsa’s “A Gentle Creature” offers another riff on a familiar nightmare, it does so with a dream-like approach and a feverish style that makes the subject feel bracingly vital.
Actress Vasilina Makovtseva is that titular creature, an unnamed woman with a husband in prison and a hardscrapple existence the Russian countryside. When her care package gets returned without any explanation, she sets off on a days-long odyssey to deliver it to her incarcerated spouse, only to be blocked by a corrupt and callous bureaucracy at every turn. That’s basically the full plot of this two-and-a-half-hour film.
If not much happens in the grand scheme, just about a thousand things happen in every scene. Loznitsa methodically tracks his character’s voyage — from her front door to the train to the prison waiting room and further — in long, unbroken takes. Forgoing the handheld naturalism favored by his Romanian counterparts, Loznitsa creates a stylized visual landscape. Colors pop off the screen both bright and bleary, like in the films of Aki Kaurismaki, but the camera remains an active scene partner, moving around, framing and reframing shots within the longer take.
Loznitsa will often begin a take by focusing on a character in the foreground and an action in the background, and he’ll let it run for a good few minutes before panning over to locate his unnamed protoganist. By losing her within the shot, the director reiterates his film’s central theme — that this gentle creature is far too gentle for the hard and mean Russia in which she lives.
The fact that the film shares a title with a famous Dostoyevsky short story (it is, despite earlier reports, not an adaptation) is no accident. “A Gentle Creature” is not just about Russian bureaucracy — it’s about Russian history, Russian identity. It ends with an extended, Fellini-esque dream sequence where all characters return dressed as prominent figures from the country’s past. By that point, you’re either completely on board or completely checked out.
The film received an equal amount of boos and applause following its first press screening this evening, and it promises to be among the most divisive titles of the festival. Frankly, it was about damn time. Say what you want about “A Gentle Creature,” but you can’t deny that it represent the kind of bold artistic gamble Cannes was made for.