Although new films by Quentin Tarantino and Bong Joon-ho are yet to come, Lighthouse could become the best film of the prestigious 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
This film, which is part of the out-of-competition program of the Directors' Fortnight in Cannes, defies time. Shot in black and white and in an almost square-aspect ratio of 1.19: 1, director Robert Eggers The witch plays almost like a silent movie, evoking primordial horrors that seem old and old. It's the kind of movie that makes you happy to be alive and see talent like Eggers – and his stars, Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe – being able to do it.
As The witch, Lighthouse is a period piece (located in 19th century Maine, to be exact), which uses every nuance of the era in which it takes place, from dialect to music to clothing, to to unbalance the audience. The film begins with repeated crashing waves against the bow of the boat carrying Thomas (Dafoe) and Ephraim (Pattinson) to their four-week shift at the head of the lighthouse. Thomas is an old, stereotypical sailor, grizzled, limping and used to farting. Ephraim, his new junior comrade, is an environmentalist with respect to the wick activity, and despite the alternate changes stipulated in the manual, he is relegated to housework while Thomas is alone in the task.
As tensions between the two men rise, mysteries greater than their respective pasts – Ephraim claims to have left his previous job in Canada simply because he was bored; Thomas says his former classmate died after going crazy – begins to loom over the lighthouse. The foghorns in the distance sound like a bellows from the depths of hell, and even during the day, Ephraim and Thomas seem submerged in black and gray. Only light deserves a pure white, piercing through the miasma, attracting all spectators like moths.
Robert and his brother Max Eggers, with whom he co-wrote the screenplay, pack the film with numerous references to nautical and cinematographic references, with images evoking everything from Conrad Veidt's work to images reminiscent of Prometheus and Poseidon. Thomas and Ephraim exist in a world intense enough that the twists of the film never feel ignored: Thomas speaks like a hawk of the sea having a human form, inserting something into the prose of Melville-ian, and even the presence more solid Ephraim begins to waver the lighthouse becomes foreign and alien.
Although Lighthouse surreal and horrible turn, like something out of the Big Guignol, he's also remarkably funny. In a simplistic way, it's a movie about two men and a phallus, and the joke between Thomas and Ephraim is terribly funny, swinging between affectionate – they are all the others – and aggressive.
Pattinson and Dafoe create momentum by performing the remarkable feat of getting a two-hour film to the sensation of having only two people. Dafoe is wonderful, basically a nasty version of Captain Haddock (of The Adventures of Tintin), the sinuous intertwining of his dialogue make his instant mood changes even more confusing.
At the right time to counter the critics of Batman's cast, Pattinson is giving what might be his best performance so far. Ephraim's dialogue may not be as rich as Thomas's, but the lighthouse's control is extremely physical, and Pattinson transmits it by throwing himself into every expression and every muscle movement. His eyes become bigger and wilder, even bigger thanks to the black and white film that spreads like ink on the actors' faces. When, at a crucial moment, Ephraim simply begins to scream, the contortions of the actor's face seem to shake the entire frame of the film.
There is not a single piece of Lighthouse who feels out of place. Sometimes he is almost too perfect. the wide shots of the sea and the lighthouse, in particular, are so beautifully vaporous and gray that they seem fake – too big to be believed. The forces at stake are titanic to the two villains, and they feel titanic to the viewer. Lighthouse is a movie that asks to try to guess what will follow. There is no point fighting against the sea – it's better to kiss the waves and get carried away into the depths of Eggers' vision.