Cannes Review: 'The Gentle Indifference of the World'

The Gentle Indifference of the World
(Kazakhstan/France, 100 min.)
Dir. Adilkhan Yerzhanov, Writ. Adilkhan Yerzhanov, Roelof Jan Minneboo
Starring: Dinara Baktybayeva, Kuandyk Dyussembayev  
Adilkhan Yerzhanov, Dinara Baktybayeva, Kuandyk Dyussembayev
Courtesy Cannes
As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself…I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again.
-Albert Camus, The Stranger

Human nature hasn’t changed much since French writer Albert Camus penned his absurd existentialist love letter on the desire for connection in 1942. The two tragic figures of Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s Camus-inspired The Gentle Indifference of the World love the French writer and quote him frequently throughout the peculiar odyssey that brings them head-on with the apathetic nature of the human race. This Kazakhstani Zen tragedy, premiering in the Un Certain Regard competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a delicately observed and carefully measured reflection on the dire state of humanity. 

The Gentle Indifference of the World quietly introduces audiences to notes of violence that ripple through an idyllic and honey-coloured countryside. Drops of blood taint a white flower. Men wrestle in the fields. A man dies, suddenly, with glass shattered around him and a lone butterfly hovering in the air.

These fleeting images signal an end to the peaceful life in the country for Saltanat, played by Dinara Baktybayeva. Saltanat learns that her father’s unexpected death leaves the family with enormous debts that she and her ailing mother (Kulzhamilya Belzhanova) can’t hope to reconcile before the creditors foreclose and put them in jail. It’s off to the city where Saltanat’s wealthy uncle promises assistance.

In a twist of Shakespearean proportions, Saltanat’s kind uncle introduces her to a wealthy businessman who agrees to pay off the family debts measure for measure if she agrees to an “arrangement.” He insists it isn’t sordid, but the seedy undertones of the deal put a price tag on Saltanat’s virtue.

As Saltanat encounters the perversions of the world to which she was blissfully ignorant in rural life, her devoted companion and helper Kuandyk (Kuandyk Dyussembayev) experiences his own harsh confrontation with the realities of the working class in urban spaces. Kuandyk, an earnest labourer with a strong work ethic, quickly slips into the deviant underbelly of the city as he strives to provide for Saltanat and protect her family by any means possible. The tale darkens as city life corrupts Saltanat, Kuandyk, and their once-innocent worldview.

Yerzhanov’s film is a love story at heart as the humble Kuandyk does his best to impress well-to-do Saltanat. Dynamics of class and power separate them, however, as Saltanat obstinately sees Kuandyk more as a workhand than as a friend. She wears the same crimson red dress throughout the duration of her stay in the city, a symbol of the idealized self to which she desperately clings, and it grows dirty and tattered as the world reveals itself soiled. Kuandyk, meanwhile, adopts the guise of a gangster comfortably during their stint in the city, becoming suave, confident, and ruthless as Saltanat unravels with wide-eyed unease.

Flickering moments of warmth and happiness radiate in The Gentle Indifference of the World and Yerzhanov delivers a handful of truly memorable set pieces within this slice of slow cinema. The film pauses with compositions of meditative intelligence and emotion. For example, a pit stop en route to the city invites Saltanat and Kuandyk to discover their shared love for Camus at a roadside café. Seated by the window, blistering sunlight drenches the frame with a swath of heartwarming colours and a sense of possibility. Orange and blue pop out of the frame, while Yerzhanov and cinematographer Aydar Sharipov maintain an effective, evocative use of colour throughout the film.

Music appears sparingly and the few moments that favour emotional cues let the film sing. A flicker of euphoric happiness—the film’s last despite appearing near the midpoint—arises when Kuandyk invites Saltanat to ride his homemade airplane and travel the world with him as they imagine all the places they might have visited in another life.

Whatever instances of narrative incoherence arise in The Gentle Indifference of the World—and rest assured there are many—Yerzhanov allows these introspective interludes to clarify the characters’ emotional and philosophical journeys. There are echoes of Wong Kar-wai in the gorgeous loneliness of the story and its visually striking palettes and there are nods to Greek tragedy, Bonnie and Clyde and Taxi Driver in the dark finale that brings the lovers back home. Packed with a droll sense of humour, a gorgeous spectrum of literary and cinematic influences, and an inquisitive eye for human relationships, Yerzhanov’s new film signals a voice to watch in world cinema.

The Gentle Indifference of the World premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.

Watch the full trailer here.