Review by Moira Sullivan
You Never Really Were Here (2017). 95 min. Directed by Lynne Ramsay. Featuring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, and Judith Roberts.
Lynne Ramsay’s You Never Really Were Here is one of the best film’s at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, having an extraordinarily brilliant use of image and sound.
Joe, the lead character, is played by Joaquin Phoenix, who is superbly excellent. The narrative is filled with cineaste delights from Ramsay’s handpicked crew—straightforward and raw imagery by director of photography Thomas Townend, editor Joe Bini’s elliptical editing flashbacks, and sound editor Drew Kunin’s inventive use of sound.
Scottish helmer Ramsay makes up for a number of non-sizzlers in this year’s official festival selection. Cannes must have known what they were doing to hold on to this film and screen it on the last day. Ramsay is no newcomer to Cannes, where her shorts Small Deaths (1996) and Gasman (1998) were screened, as well as her features Ratcatcher (2000) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). Her impressive BAFTA and Cannes Youth Jury award-winner Movern Callar (2002) remains a classic female indie. Now if Ramsay were a man, she would’ve been receiving funding, and six years would not have elapsed since her last film at Cannes. However, as has been well documented over the years, even women filmmakers—whose films win awards and are financially successful—have difficulty staying in the funding clubs typically reserved for tried-and-true men. Yet Ramsay famously returns to the flock with quality creations time and again.
You Were Never Really Here concerns Joe, a man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from both childhood and military service, who lives part of the time with his 80-year-old mother, played by the fabulous “Golden Girl“ Judith Roberts. This emboldens him to pursue the abductors of a senator’s teenage daughter Nina, played by Ekaterina Samsonov, who is involved in a trafficking ring. The film is a brash treatment of PTSD, from childhood continuing through adulthood, visually depicting scars from abusive parents and the atrocities of war. The film is set in the mind of children and adults where life-long wounds create shields of defense—in Joe’s case, weapon mastery and hand-to-hand combat.
During the late night screening of the film on May 26, a rowdy Spanish-speaking journalist settled down after guffawing and tromping his sweaty socks on the Salle Bazin red, velvet seats. He laughed indiscriminately at first, but then settled in with the film’s serious subject. Cannes tries to be about good cinema and is not a popcorn haven for obnoxious mall theatergoers with their pent up rage or stress. He was, after all, in Salle Bazin, which was named for film critic and teacher André Bazin (What is Cinema?). Maybe he was a “Joe” and Ramsay’s narrative spoke to him. That’s how virtuous the film is.
I knew that Lynne Ramsay would topple the “Screen Daily” grid and win one of the top awards in a spectacularly well-directed, well-edited, and well-crafted film. PTSD has never been so well represented, and Loveless, by Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev, was the only film to receive higher ratings.
Monsieur Président Pedro Almodóvar and the jury rewarded You Are Not Really Here the “prix du scénario ex-aequo,” best screenplay, together with Yorgos Lanthimos (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), and a startled Joaquin Phoenix won the best actor award, unprepared for the honor, and wearing Keds to the ceremony.