Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

I’m not proud to admit it, but my heart sank a little last May when Cate Blanchett announced that Shoplifters, from Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu, was her jury’s choice for the best film in the Cannes competition lineup. Nothing against the movie—quite to the contrary, Shoplifters is wonderful, and wound up securing a spot on my top-10 list for the year. At the time of its victory, though, I actually had no opinion of the film at all, because I hadn’t seen it yet—which was, of course, the reason its win irked me so. The Palme D’Or is arguably the most prestigious film award out there; any movie that wins it becomes an instant must-see, even an event, at least for cinephiles. Somehow, through a careless snafu in scheduling, yours truly had managed to come and go from Cannes without catching the big winner. One year later, I’m still self-flagellating.

Thankfully, the chances of history repeating itself this Saturday, when Alejandro González Iñárritu announces his jury’s selection for the Palme, are very slim. By the time I fly home to Chicago tomorrow afternoon, I’ll have seen 20 of the 21 films in competition. It’s possible, of course, that Justine Triet’s Sybil, the one I’m missing, will blow everyone away last minute; it’s happened before, as in 1999, when the jury handed the prize to the final comp title screened, the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta. But I like my chances. (Check back tomorrow for official predictions on the winners, which I’ll surely get completely wrong, as I do every year.)

Photo: Cannes Film Festival

Of the films I’ve seen, few would make a worthier winner than Parasite (Grade: A-), the latest blast of lunatic genre alchemy from the director of Snowpiercer and The Host. Given the title, one might assume that Bong Joon-ho is dabbling again in science fiction. But the parasitic relationship here is between two families, one wealthy and the other decidedly not. There’s actually a touch of Shoplifters in Bong’s conception of the latter: a scrappy unit of four holed up in a dingy basement apartment, using the neighbors’ faint Wi-Fi signal and scraping by on a low-paying gig folding boxes for a cheapo pizza company. One day, unexpected opportunity arrives for adult son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), who embellishes his resume—and fakes a college degree—to land a job tutoring a rich teenager (Jung Ziso). Once safely entrenched in the swanky household, Ki-woo realizes that his new employers are as gullible as they are comfortable; knowing a meal ticket when they see one, his family begins manufacturing more “openings,” swindling their way onto the payroll with jobs for Ki-oo’s sister, Ki-Jung (Park So-dam); his mother, Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin); and his father, Ki-taek (Bong regular Kang-ho Song).

For its first hour or so, Parasite is pure diabolical fun: a kind of con-artist story where the con is turning one-percenters into unwitting job creators. (It’s even staged a bit like a heist movie, cutting nimbly back and forth between the planning and the execution of the impoverished family’s schemes, which involve lies, manipulation, and sabotage.) Bong being Bong, however, that’s not the half of it. Like Tarantino, the South Korean filmmaker sent a letter asking critics not to disclose key plot details from Cannes, and I’ll happily oblige his request. What I can say is that Parasite, much more than his last movie—the Palme-eligible Okja—shifts tonal gears in total service of its class politics, infecting the film’s breezy dark-comedy with notes of rage and melancholy. It turns out to be a relative, in thematic thrust, to Jordan Peele’s Us, concerned as both films are with the subterranean lives of the have-nots, eked out below those of the oblivious haves. By the end, the title has taken on dual meaning: who’s really feeding off of whom, Bong gets us wondering, his farce curdling into truth.

Oh Mercy!
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

One look is all it takes to tell who’s responsible for Parasite: Its pallid palette and virtuosic camerawork are unmistakably Bong. (Both technically come courtesy of a regular collaborator of the director, Hong Gyeong-Pyo, who also shot Burning, the best film of last year and of last year’s Cannes.) By contrast, Oh Mercy! (Grade: B-) is less instantly recognizable as the work of its writer-director, Arnaud Desplechin. In fact, you have to go back to basically the start of the French filmmaker’s career to find him working in such a stylistically restrained register. Desplechin—who opened Cannes two years with a glorified greatest hits of his tics and tricks, Ismael’s Ghosts—offers a few zooms and some sporadic voice-over. Otherwise, he largely tables his signature moves in this uncharacteristically dry and straightforward police procedural, set in his home city of Roubaix and following a detective (Roschdy Zem, from Days Of Glory) trying to solve the murder of an old woman strangled to death in her apartment.

The shadowy ambience of the backdrop suggests that Oh Mercy! might traipse into noir territory. But it’s much less seductive or cool than that; Desplechin, who also wrote the screenplay, hasn’t even supplied much of a mystery. His focus is on the unsexy business of police work, most prominently the fine art of reading the emotional frequencies of suspects—a talent that comes into play heavily during the film’s rigorous dramatization of a day-long interrogation, and which dovetails with the Esther Kahn director’s interest in performance. All of which might make Oh Mercy! sound fascinatingly sophisticated, when it’s more like a not-especially-memorable episode of Law And Order. Here at Cannes, the film looked most interesting in contrast to the other French policier in competition, Les Misérables, to which this plays like a neutral, unsensational rejoinder, presenting cops not as corrupt fascists but as variably competent workaholics. The only real gravitas comes from the reliably excellent Zem, here doing minor wonders with the clichéd role of the good-hearted, unwaveringly calm human lie detector.

Matthias & Maxime
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

It’s been a few years since I’ve seen a Xavier Dolan movie; his last two, the Cannes prizewinner It’s Only The End Of The World and the Toronto selection The Death & Life Of John F. Donovan, never opened in the United States, possibly because both were savaged by critics during their respective festival premieres. However bad either is, I have to imagine they have more spark than Matthias & Maxime (Grade: C-), the one-time Quebecois wunderkind’s totally prosaic eighth feature. Dolan casts himself as Max, a slightly aimless, personality-free twentysomething—his most distinguishing mark is a literal birthmark down one side of his face— preparing to move to Australia. Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas is Matt, his straight-laced and possibly closeted longtime buddy, who spends the whole film agonizing over his obvious, unresolved feelings for Max, stirred up by a make-out session the two perform for a student film. A few of Dolan’s regular hallmarks—pop songs; a tumultuous mother-son relationship; English expressions peppered in with the French—are present and accounted for. But Matthias & Maxime is a drippy drag, and though it was shot on celluloid, it’s curiously flat and dreary-looking, with none of the colorful flair he brought to early gems like Heartbeats and Laurence Anyways. There was a time when I used to wish that Dolan would settle down a little—the manic energy of his work could be exhausting. But if this is the alternative, I take it all back. Revive the tornado of emotion!

Meanwhile, American director Ira Sachs (Keep The Lights On, Little Men) gets in touch with his French side, really finding himself in the process. Though set in Portugal, Frankie (Grade: B) recalls the work of Gallic-gabfest maestros like Eric Rohmer and Olivier Assayas. Isabelle Huppert stars as a dying movie star on a last-hurrah vacation in Sintra; along for the ride are family and closest friends, played by a very solid cast that includes Brendan Gleeson, Sennia Nanua, Greg Kinnear, Jérémie Renier, and a superb Marisa Tomei. A low-key ensemble character drama about lives in transition, Frankie is at once naturalistic and occasionally a bit stagey and artificial (Renier delivers a monologue, for example, straight out of a black-box theater show), though its contrivances and forced encounters are forgivable, as it’s the characters as much as the script arranging them. The whole thing struck me as pleasant, nicely judged, and unremarkable, right up to a final shot so graceful and moving that it sent waves of poignancy backwards through the movie. If the Palme D’Or went to the film with the best ending, Sachs might be the one to beat.

Tomorrow: I go home! But not before knocking out some thoughts on a true fucking disaster (Abdellatif Kechiche’s nearly four-hour Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo) and the latest from Palestinian director Elia Suleiman. Plus: My predictions and preferences for the awards.

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