Cannes 2024 review: Grand Tour (Miguel Gomes)

Grand Tour is another idiosyncratic entry in an oeuvre already filled with them, and a standout work in a lackluster Cannes competition.”

True cinema is a visceral experience. In a landscape full of handheld coming-of-age stories (and they do have a place in the world of cinema, just not as large as it is these days), it takes a lyrical romanticist like Miguel Gomes to jolt us into a realization that reality isn’t important, narrative isn’t important, it is our physical and spiritual connection to the world that should guide us. “Abandon yourself to the world,” says one character in Gomes’ latest, the era-defying, logic-defying Grand Tour. Abandon yourself to cinema, says Gomes. Taking us on a madcap tour of Southeast Asia under the pretense that we are following a failing romance, the singular Portuguese master shows us that time changes everything and time changes nothing. A veritable tour-de-force given that much of it was shot under COVID restrictions, Grand Tour is another idiosyncratic entry in an oeuvre already filled with them, and a standout work in a lackluster Cannes competition.

The tour starts in Rangoon, 1918. British diplomat Edward Abbot (Gonçalo Waddington) gets wind that his fiancée of seven years is travelling from London to finally tie the knot. Cowardly as he admits himself to be, he sets sail for Singapore, and from there begins a tour across the continent, always trying to stay one step ahead of Molly Singleton trying to track him down. Every once in a while he gets a telegram, whether it be in Bangkok or Saigon, telling him that she is close. That is his cue to move on, to Japan, China, or the Philippines, learning as much about the countries he traverses as about himself. Which is to say, a lot and not much at all.

Molly Singleton (Crista Alfaiate) has come to Rangoon hoping to meet her fiancé, but she is informed that he is off to Singapore on urgent business. Determined to be with her prospective husband, Molly follows in his footsteps and railroad tracks. On her way the young Londoner meets an American cattle mogul, a certain Sanders, who instantly proposes to her. She lets off her unflattering laugh, pushing breath through pursed lips as if making wind, and continues her journey. Like Edward she finds travel in the early 20th century difficult and slow-moving, with dangers and disasters around every corner in the jungles and sea straits they traverse. She will never find her Edward, or will she?

These are the sort of questions that Gomes leaves open, as this romantic (at least in the eyes of contemporaries of Edward and Molly) narrative is only a framework for Gomes to examine time and space, ancient culture and modernity. The scenes with Edward and Molly, his in the first half of the film, hers in the second half, are invariably shot in a gorgeous black and white. They are interspersed with modern-day footage, both in color and monochrome, of the locations where they find themselves at any given point in their journey, while much of their tale is told through voiceover in the local language. Tradition and modernity stand side by side; as the images show, much has changed, and yet much hasn’t. Places have changed names, but not energy. The skylines may have sprung up, but the people in Shanghai still play mahjong, and a dangerous-looking Ferris wheel in Rangoon is still propelled by the even more dangerous-looking hand- and footwork of its operators.

Each country has its own version of puppet plays, as we are shown throughout the film. The techniques are different (one in which the puppets are actually the arms of the puppeteers forming large birds of some sort is especially peculiar), but the stories similar. Stories that Westerners do not understand, as we see late in the film when Molly lets off her weird laughter and Sanders, at whose mansion she recuperates from an illness, looks positively bored when such a play is performed. “Us Westerners will never understand the East,” one Westerner, addled on opium (“I smoke only seven or eight times per day“), tells Edward as he nears the end of his journey with the spiritually enlightening Tibet as his final destination. Indeed we don’t, but there is much beauty to behold even if we do not fully understand this strange world, and there is also beauty in the most mundane of imagery, as Gomes turns the buzzing motorcycles of Bangkok into a ballet of steel set to Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz. Gomes here deals in both orientalism and a critique of orientalism. As the film ends in a moment in which the crew, perched high in a tree like birds spying on a lifeless Molly, inserts itself into the narrative, true transcendence is reached. It is film after all, it is cinema, and anything is possible, even the dead rising. Or is it her spirit floating to heaven? We shall never know, but we need not know, because the viscerality of the moment, and of the many moments before it, is what matters.