If Chris Marker and Preston Sturges ever made a film together, it might have looked something like Grand Tour, a sweeping tale that moves from Rangoon to Manila, via Bangkok, Saigon and Osaka, as it weaves the stories of two disparate lovers towards a fateful reunion. The stowaways could scarcely be more Sturgian: he the urbane man on the run, she the intrepid woman trying to track him down. Their scenes are set in 1917 and shot in a classical studio style, yet they’re delivered within a contemporary travelogue––as if we are not only following their epic romance but a director’s own wanderings.

Grand Tour, which delivered much-needed magic to this year’s Cannes Film Festival lineup, is directed by the one and only Miguel Gomes, the Portuguese filmmaker behind The Tsugua Diaries (an entertaining COVID joint from 2021), Arabian Nights (his epic 2015 triptych), and Tabu (a breakout from 2012 and the work with which Grand Tour shares the most DNA). We’re once again in that film’s black-and-white colonial era, only this time with a documentary framing device (this is often in color but not always, and occasionally a mesmerizing blend of both) that adds a distinctive experimental flourish. Alluding to the artifice of the story we are being told while simultaneously elevating the overall sense of wonder (with footage from three credited DPs: Gui Liang, Rui Poças, and the great Sayombhu Mukdeeprom), the director creates a kaleidoscopic cultural collage of entrancing marionette shows, sumptuous street-level bustle, and mystifying landscapes.

Split into two proceeding accounts, the first follows Gonçalo Waddington’s debonair Edward––an adventurer in white linens somewhere between the hero of a David Lean movie and the Kinski of Fitzcarraldo. At the start, he’s waiting on the arrival of his fiancee, Molly (Crista Alfaiate), but gets cold feet and hops a train to Bangkok. (=Everything you need to know about the character––indeed, about the film itself––can be drawn from the way Edward disembarks when his train derails in the jungle: hopping from the gentle smoke of an overturned carriage without as much as a scratch, he looks to the rising sun and notes “a beautiful morning” before hunkering down to make a sketch.

Edward’s journey takes him to a reception for the Thai crown prince, an older man in Japan, and a fellow emigre in China who has acquired a taste for opium. The narrative becomes more focused with Edward’s disappearance and Molly’s arrival after the halfway point. As a character, Molly is the more gregarious, more intriguing of the two, with a sputtering (if mildly irritating) laugh and suffering from a recurring case of fainting that suggests there may be trouble ahead. She retraces his steps, encountering a rakish cousin, a wealthy suitor (Cláudio da Silva), and gaining a new friend (Lang Khê Tran).

Gomes’ decision to focus on English characters (and not translate all of the dialogue they don’t understand) feels, if not provocative, then at least a precarious choice; credit to the director and his team for delivering something so rich and endearing. One reason it works is the thoughtful use of language elsewhere: Molly, Edward, and many of their peers are ostensibly British, but they’re played by Portuguese actors who speak their own tongue; better still, Gomes changes the language of the film’s narration to fit the locale, giving each section its own distinct rhythm and flavor. Were it a modernized or loose telling of a real colonial-era account, Grand Tour would be deserving, perhaps, of a different kind of scrutiny, but it is, surprisingly, an original screenplay by Gomes, Maureen Fazendeiro, Telmo Churro, and Mariana Ricardo––collectively described in the credits as the film’s “central committee.” (That the poster design features the title in each language probably doesn’t hurt, either.)

It all comes together beautifully, a film to stimulate curious corners of the mind and adventurous parts of the spirit. A panda balancing improbably on a distant bamboo tree; a shower of bubbles inexplicably falling on a grave; the weightless dance of a puppeteer troupe as their mermaid marionette glides. When all is said and done, it’s moments like these that linger in the imagination, making you remember what cinema can do and why places like Cannes are still worth their salt.

Grand Tour premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: A-

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