'Exile' ('Exil'): Cannes Review

Exile - H 2016
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Mesmerizing and thought-provoking.

Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh returns to Cannes with another movie about his country’s and his own Khmer Rouge-scarred past.

A combination of archival footage, meticulously staged tableaux and a voiceover comprising newly written texts as well as quotes from, among others, Mao Zedong and Maximilien Robespierre, Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh’s latest reflection on his country’s tragic history under the Khmer Rouge regime is a much more abstract essay film than his Oscar-nominated hit The Missing Picture. While daunting for the historically uninitiated, Exile is relentlessly mesmerizing and thought-provoking throughout its 78-minute run.

Bowing as an out-of-competition entry at Cannes — where Missing Picture’s global success began in 2013 when it won the top award in the Un Certain Regard sidebar — Exile’s journey on the festival circuit should be as far and wide. Devoid of the more detailed exposition and contextualization of that earlier film, however, Exile might not be able to secure the string of international theatrical or home releases bestowed on Missing Picture.

Then again, it might be a bit off the mark to use Missing Picture as a comparison anyway. After that film, Panh made the smaller-sized France Is Our Mother Country, a darkly satirical reflection on the French colonial legacy of Indochina conveyed nearly entirely through images drawn from historical vaults. Similar in production scale, Exile shares that film’s experimental spirit, while going beyond Panh’s own traumatized childhood experiences to reflect on the extreme ideologies espoused by the Khmer Rouge and, possibly, their forefathers in Maoist China and the radical Jacobins during the French Revolution.

Unlike both The Missing Picture and France Is Our Mother CountryExile features a completely unchronological narrative: Resembling a delirious stream-of-consciousness, the pic flits to and fro between visions of Cambodia seen through Khmer Rouge’s propaganda newsreels in the late 1970s and films and footage from the prosperous and more culturally sophisticated 1960s.

These archived images serve as support for Panh’s major innovation here. On a small set decked up as a ramshackle rural hut, the helmer stages a string of theatrically lit tableaux featuring a young man (Sang Nan). An onscreen proxy of the director himself, the man trawls through the contents of a successive string of Cambodian homes from different historical eras (a middle-class home with telephones, writing desks and gramophones, a barren bamboo shack); at other moments, he sleeps in front of backdrops filled with multiple moons, crows and other creatures, all of them symbolizing the terror and grief brought about by the purges and killings under the Khmer Rouge regime.

Beneath these images is a French voiceover written by Panh’s long-term collaborator Christophe Bataille, who also provided the texts for Missing Picture and Mother Country. Read by actor Randal Douc in an unceasingly humane tone, the monologue offers a moving contemplation of the ramifications of the extremist political dogma which tore Cambodia (and other countries) apart throughout history. A repetition of vacuous political slogans of yore is followed by reflections on the catastrophes they brought to the hearts, minds and bodies of those living under these regimes.

Panh has described Exile as an essay film, and references to this genre abound. In the shots of a mountain of suitcases and personal possessions, or the close-ups of half-eaten dinners left behind by people forcibly evacuated by the Khmer Rouge the day they took power in April 1975, traces of, say, Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog are evident. Just as the late French auteur seemingly did the impossible with a lyrical visual elegy to victims of the Holocaust, Panh has delivered a poetic and pointed piece about state-organized mass murder in another age.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screening)
Production: Arte France, Unité Societe et Culture, CDP, Bophana Production
Cast: Sang Nan, with the voice of Randal Douc

Director-editor: Rithy Panh
Screenwriters: Rithy Panh and Agnès Senemaud, with texts by
 Christophe Bataille
Producer: Catherine Dussart
Directors of photography: Rithy Panh, Mesat Prum

Production designers: Mang Sarith, Sang Nan 
Composer: Marc Marder
Sound designer: Eric Tisserand
Sales: Films Distribution

In French

Not rating, 78 minutes