By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 21, 2013 at 8:51AM
Movies for families tend to embrace the value of sticking together. However, movies about families -- at least those with a certain amount of gall -- assail that very same principle. At the Cannes Film Festival, which attracts stories from around the world, the notion of familial stability is evidently under attack. Clio Barnard's touching "The Selfish Giant" gets this point across with a pair of children struggling from parental neglect with tragic results. Hirokazu Kore-eda takes a more subdued approach by examining two family units forced to reconsider their bonds. Only the eerily cryptic home invasion drama "Borgman," however, asks the tough questions, by breaking down the construct of familial security so that nothing seems safe.
That's not to say that Barnard's movie, which premiered at Directors Fortnight, lacks a sense of peril. The follow-up to her appropriately acclaimed experimental documentary "The Arbor," in which lip-syncing actors helped reconstruct the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar, "The Selfish Giant" takes its name from an Oscar Wilde children's story but owes a greater debt to more recent traditions, particularly the whimsical childhood dramas of Shane Meadows.
Barnard's Bradford-set story, about an adolescent troublemaker wryly named Arbor (a startlingly energetic Connor Chapman) and his less adventurous pal Swifty (Shaun Thomas), finds the duo rejecting their problems at home and nabbing scrap metal for the conniving dealer Kitten (Sean Gilder). While Arbor throws himself into the task, idolizing Kitty's crude, hustling style, Swifty's tamer personality and his parents' stricter demands eventually cause the duo to drift apart. Though slow-going for much of its running time, Arbor's delicate tale culminates with a frighteningly choreographed tragedy, but tacks on a beautifully evocative and mostly wordless epilogue that carries the semblance of progress.
Chapman's naturalistic performance, aided by Barnard's unassuming direction, makes it easy to feel invested in his plight. He's both a victim of circumstance and willing to take advantage of it as an act of defiance. Riding around the vapid, foggy countryside with Swifty in a horse-drawn carriage, he gives the impression of a pint-sized western hero, the kind of image no doubt driving his antics until the fantasy decays from under his feet.
"The Selfish Giant" has as much to do with the isolated quality of its setting as it does the risk-taking children trapped within it. But even their parents, struggling to understand what makes the boys act out, suffer from the surrounding desolation. Their world exists in a void rendered with expressionistic clarity. In the marvelous concluding images, Barnard poetically suggests that the absence of good parenting turns childhood into a purgatory that can only end with adulthood's cruel arrival.
Kore-eda's "Like Father Like Son" flips the equation: Instead of focusing on frustrated children, it emphasizes the plights of their parents. The Japanese director's movies are typically pensive, quiet affairs involving young people drawn apart from their families. This one is no exception. Once Kore-eda establishes the main hook early on, the movie moves along with a gentle, unobtrusive rhythm. The basic premise finds the affluent Nonomiya Ryota (Fukyama Masaharu) and his wife Midori (Ono Machiko) discovering that their six-year-old child was accidentally switched with another infant at birth.
As the couple befriends the middle class parents of their real child and figure out whether they want to switch back or reach a settlement with the hospital, Kore-eda focuses on Ryota -- initially a cold businessman whose investment in this personal scenario gradually turns him into a responsible father. The children themselves are relegated to supporting roles while Ryota's plight takes center stage, but none of the situation is fleshed out enough to make the emotion hold strong throughout. However, Kore-eda's perceptive screenplay intelligently probes the meaning of family bonds and its implications for those unable to see past their self-involvement. The story works wonderfully as an idea, but Kore-eda never quite manages to infuse it with the same depth of feeling his main character goes through.
The victim of his own sincere desire to tell a wholesome story, Kore-eda makes the situation feel real at the expense of making it involving for his audience. The opposite tact takes effect in "Borgman," one of the less refined competition entries at this year's Cannes Film Festival but so far its weirdest. Director Alex van Warmedam's feature marks the first Dutch film to compete at the festival in 38 years. After all that time, it makes sense to program a real jolt of a movie, which is certainly one way to appreciate this twisted take on an upper class household gradually destroyed by a mysterious evil visitor.
That would be the title character (Jan Bijvoet), a bearded forest dweller seen in the opening sequence fleeing a gun-brandishing priest. After escaping from his underground lair, Borgman makes his way to suburbia and manages to attract the sympathies of bored housewife Marina (Hadewych Minis), who allows him to hide out in the wealthy family's backyard shed while keeping her uptight husband in the dark. With these disquieting pieces in place, Borgman slowly introduces chaos into the family's life, calling up his equally menacing friends in the service of a hazy agenda.
The degree of ambiguity involved in this scenario imbues each new twist with claustrophobia and dread: Borgman wanders the house nudely at night and causes Marina to have nightmares, kills off the gardener and dunks his head in concrete, and at one point allows one of his henchmen to seduce the maid. While easily comparable to Michael Haneke's "Funny Games," the characters in that movie were more blatantly psychopathic, while the motives of Borgman and his crew are difficult to discern until the very end. That makes its narrative progression less of a knockout than a tantalizing curiosity, but certainly heavy enough with themes worthy of analysis. As a symbol, Borgman represents the encroachment of fatalism and dark urges on the pristine image of suburban idealism. With its palatial setting, "Borgman" shows how money can buy luxury, but it can't salvage the corruption that comes from within.
"The Selfish Giant": B
"Like Father Like Son": B-