A Gentle Creature ★★★★½

82/100

The film I've wanted Loznitsa to make since My Joy—namely, My Joy with at least the semblance of a narrative spine throughout, from which he can deviate at will. And deviate he does, again and again, which is why I'm baffled by those who consider Gentle Creature a relentless miserabilistic slog, designed solely to punish the title character. She's technically in every scene, but frequently absent from the frame and all but irrelevant to whatever constitutes the "action"; as in My Joy, Loznitsa's approach is panoramic (sometimes literally), encompassing an entire broken society. It's a dystopian vision, to be sure, but more Brazil than Come and See, too puckish for me to find punishing. Emblematic moment: The woman at the human-rights office gives la femme douce a form, then says "there's a pen here somewhere," motioning to the floor; the camera tilts down to reveal what clearly used to be the entire contents of the woman's desk, strewn everywhere. A passing reference to government raids, some time later, is the only vague explanation.

What's more, Loznitsa keeps raising the specter of violence and then swerving, in ways that seem designed to make us question our extrapolations, and then question our questions. When the gentle creature (whose default expression is a marvel of grim resignation) gets strong-armed into a fixed game of strip spin-the-bottle, all we see her remove is her scarf. The bottle gets spun again, but is still in motion when the film abruptly cuts to a shot of her walking outside alone, fully dressed. Did she experience further humiliation, or worse? We don't find out. Later, when a shady hustler arranges for her to meet with what appears to be a local gangster boss, the latter sits down, tells her a horrific anecdote, then is spotted by friends and just...leaves. No matter what you feared might happen, it can't possibly have been that.

And then of course there's the final half hour or so, which first offers what I believed to be an absolutely perfect ending (one of those instances when I was thinking "end now end now end now this should be the final shot this right here this is ideal end end end end"); then takes a turn for which the word "unexpected" would be a dramatic understatement; then offers what I believed to be an absolutely repugnant ending (one of those instances when I was thinking "fuck no fuck no fuck no this is a huge mistake please don't do this please not this stop stop stop stop"); then takes another turn for which the word "unexpected" would be an even more dramatic understatement (prompting boos at Cannes, apparently; I wanted to cheer); and then, miraculously, serves up exactly the perfect ending that I'd wanted to begin with, except now it's even more perfect. That's her premonition, and she acquiesces anyway. The nightmare risk apparently seems preferable to the defeatist alternative. Bracing beyond belief.