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Film festivals often provide focal points for discovering connections between various movies that might otherwise never land side by side. There may be no greater instance of such happenstance than at the Cannes Film Festival, a global showcase for cinema of all stripes. In a single day, this year’s program included two projects clearly pitched at separate sensibilities.
But when viewed side by side, they sing the same tune: “Inside Out,” the latest venture from Pixar, offers a lively take on the way emotional impulses form human identity. That fairly abstract idea takes on more cryptic dimensions in “Cemetery of Splendour,” from Thailand’s master of lyrical encounters, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Seen together, however, these enormously satisfying projects form a complimentary package for exploring the hidden forces governing everyday existence.
Once an ever-reliable source of sneakily mature dramas in kid-friendly cartoon guise, Pixar has stumbled in recent years, with nothing since 2010’s “Toy Story 3” that fully epitomizes the studio’s uniquely compelling approach to layered storytelling. Thanks to “Up” director Pete Docter, the company manages an overdue bounceback with “Inside Out,” the most imaginative example of world-building since Docter’s own “Monsters Inc.”
The movie envisions a set of anthropomorphic emotions living inside the head of troubled 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) who collaborate each day on controlling her moods and storing her memories in the complex machine of her memory banks. The most charismatic of these eccentric guardians is Joy (Amy Poehler), who focuses on capturing Riley’s happier times, while staving off the anxiety-riddled effects of Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and especially Sadness (Phyllis Smith). Outside their cavernous command center, Riley’s kingdom of memories expand to a crop of islands representing various dimensions of her personality. That heavy set up leads to a beguiling workplace adventure in which Joy and Sadness inadvertently get exiled from the driver’s seat, while Riley spirals into pre-teen despair as her family moves to a new town and — devoid of the proper coping mechanisms — lashes out.
It goes without saying that “Inside Out” looks magnificent at every turn, from the bright, storybook colors of Riley’s mind to the credible design of human expressions. But the movie truly engages by holding fast to its allegorical ramifications. While Sadness struggles to deal with her tendency to drag down Riley’s mood, Joy’s relentless commitment to bringing it back up reeks of blind idealism. Through their struggles to traverse the darker recesses of Riley’s mind, this pair — aided by Riley’s long-forgotten imaginary pal Bing Bong (Richard Kind), a goofy whale-dolphin thingamabob — the entire plot forms a single, prolonged metaphor for the fragmented cycle of growing up. This results in some of the most compelling insights into the complexities of human behavior from the Pixar canon since Remy in “Ratatouille” asserted that “change is nature.”
No matter its sophistication, however, “Inside Out” never ceases to play around. Joy’s colleagues are blocky figures whose antics maintain both abstract meaning and slapstick appeal, most substantially with Anger, whose head blasts flames when he’s on a tear. But “Inside Out” also succeeds at extending this conceit to a broader plane. On several occasions, Docter and co-writers Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley shift to the emotion control rooms in the minds of other humans from Riley’s life, most significantly her parents. At the dinner table, in Riley’s mother’s mind, her emotions complain about her husband’s lack of constructive parenting, while he zones out to a sports game.
These abrupt windows into the forces behind decision-making constantly nail their punchlines. Beyond that, they hint at a grander perspective on the arbitrary nature of passionate outbursts no matter how much discipline governs their manifestations. “Inside Out” cranks up its own emotional pull around the third act, when a series of dramatic circumstances touch on the painful dimensions of abandoning past obsessions in favor of newer ones.
The very scenario questions the whole idea of free will, by suggesting that we’re all slaves to ghosts in the machine. It’s a heady notion rendered in outwardly silly ingredients, resembling a process of intellectual smuggling that at one point might have been considered vintage Pixar — but “Inside Out” shows that the approach remains vital as ever.
Speaking of vital approaches: Though Apichatpong Weerasethakul may not be the first director whose style comes to mind alongside commercial entertainment, his work is infused with a pop sensibility. Both “Tropical Malady” and his Palme D’Or-winning “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” include wondrous encounters that wouldn’t be out of place in the fantasy genre. (He also once planned an unrealized sci-fi project said to have included the Starship Enterprise.) With “Cemetery of Splendour,” the director offers up another hypnotic look at people at odds with their peculiar environments. Through his usual aesthetic of stillness pierced by mesmerizing visual motifs, Apichatpong develops a masterful look at what it means to probe the secrets buried in daily realities. Though not as epic in scope as “Boonmee,” the new movie brings more clarity to its poignant topic.
At its center is Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), a lonely, aging woman tasked with running a relief center housing soldiers stuck in comas all day long. Initially, Jen and some of the other nurses spend their quiet days talking amongst themselves, but eventually they find greater companionship from addressing the sleeping men. Jen’s melancholic routine is briefly complicated by the arrival of an American man who she meets online, though he drifts out of the picture almost as quickly as he arrives. No matter what, she’s on her own — until one of her comatose patients wakes up. Or does he?
Though the narrative maintains a listless quality that sometimes hinders its intrigue, “Cemetery of Splendour” slowly develops a unique sense of awe. At a certain point, as it must in Apichatpong’s hands, the gentle plot gives way to a series of far more mysterious circumstances. By the time Jen wonders aloud if she’s dreaming, we’re right there with her confused state. Not content to merely cycle through existing mythologies, Apichatpong builds his own poetic one. Jen receives a visit from two unassuming goddesses who succinctly explain that her makeshift hospital lies atop the spirits of dead kings who rely on the soldiers’ resting souls to continue their battles beneath the earth. Her baffled reaction to this revelation initially registers comedically, but as this new information settles in, it sets the stage for a far more ruminative look at what such a bizarre twist means for her relationship to the world around her.
Having built up the layered approach one would expect from the filmmaker’s other works, Apichatpong enlivens the proceedings with a rich set of image-based clues, with a single instance of cinematic brilliance standing above the rest: in the dead of night, fluctuating color beams resting alongside the soldiers’ beds are superimposed over the palettes of mundane scenes from around town. At once haunting and spectacularly immersive, the device points to beautiful enigmas hovering just beyond the boundaries of consciousness that dictate everything around us — except for the precious few willing to wake up and see them.
This shifting palette isn’t so far removed from the spectrum of colors that cover the emotional beings in “Inside Out,” and actually points to a similarly entrancing concept. Like that movie, “Cemetery of Splendour” delves into the revelatory process of coming to grips with the world. At one point, Apichatpong rests on the image of a bright daytime sky suddenly pervaded by what looks like a giant cellular organism. The symbolism hints at a grand statement on the smallness of the universe and humanity’s ever-shifting role within it. While hardly the director’s attempt to go mainstream, it’s unquestionably his most life-affirming work — a description equally applicable to “Inside Out.” Viewed together, the commercial distinctions between these movies melts away to reveal an underlying shared philosophy that cuts deep.
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