Initially, it’s even difficult to figure out exactly what Qualley’s character, Trish, does for a living, and Qualley’s airy yet forceful performance makes it even tougher, in a good way, to get a read on her. Trish tells people she’s a member of the press, but it’s more complicated. A former freelance writer, she is trapped in Central America; short of cash, she dabbles in prostitution. Her tryst with Alwyn’s character at a hotel—his skin is so white, she remarks in bed, it’s as if she’s having sex with a cloud—turns into something like romance as she helps him steer clear of being trailed. It seems a Costa Rican cop is after him. Meanwhile, the shadow of possible American meddling in local affairs looms.
But of course, this is a Denis film, and the plot is secondary to atmosphere (conjured in part by one of her trademark Tindersticks scores) and texture. Here, that texture includes a lot of sweat-beaded skin as the two stars shed their clothes and their Covid masks, not in that order. You can sort of picture an ’80s-Hollywood erotic-thriller version of this story, but it’s safe to say it would not have featured a sex scene with menstrual blood. That part seems like pure Denis.
Whether the director, who has had more than her share of slights from Cannes and has not been in competition since 1988’s “Chocolat,” has tweaked the scenario enough to make it interesting is beyond doubt. (The screenplay is credited to her, Léa Mysius, and Andrew Litvack.) Whether she subverts it enough to make a profound movie, let alone a great movie by the standards of the director of “Beau Travail,” is less certain. But even in a new genre and on a new continent, Denis’s offbeat and personal style is unmistakable.
Asghar Farhadi, the director of “A Separation” and “A Hero,” is on the Cannes jury this year, but his presence was felt in the competition all the same. “Leila’s Brothers,” an Iranian feature from the filmmaker Saeed Roustaee, if anything plays like a Farhadi picture supersized. So heavy with dialogue that it makes Farhadi’s scenarios look like Murnau tone poems, it devotes the better part of its two-hour, 45-minute running time to laying out the financial and social motives of the members of an Iranian family.