Fame, fortune, good looks, a thriving acting career, and a pretty great meme are evidently not enough for Ryan Gosling. He also wants to be David Lynch. And Harmony Korine. And Terrence Malick. And Dario Argento. And the driver of his hypnotic Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn. Lost River (Grade: C+), Gosling’s first feature as writer and director, swipes atmosphere, motifs, even specific shots from all of those filmmakers. It’s less a coherent movie than a wild collage, its creator cutting and pasting from the cinematic visions that haunt his dreams. Imitation is a healthy, productive stage of creative growth; many young artists spend their early years fusing components of the work they love, tinkering with the equation until the results resemble something new. But Lost River displays almost no distinctive personality of its own, beyond the hero worship that clearly fueled its construction. The film proves that Gosling has refined taste in movies, and that he’s a quick study, but not that he has much to say as an artist. Not yet, anyway.
Lost River drew a much larger and more unruly crowd than any of its Un Certain Regard competition, thanks almost entirely to the high profile of the man who made it. At the second of the film’s Cannes screenings, teeming hoards of overeager attendees pushed forward like unthinking bovine, never mind that their position at the front of the line guaranteed them a seat. No time to be civilized. Ryan Gosling is in the building. Later, when Thierry Frémaux announced the filmmaker’s presence, one could practically hear the collective creak of bones and flesh as the entire theater whipped around to catch a glimpse. (“Look at me,” Frémaux insisted, clearly only half kidding,) But what did these stargazers actually think of the movie, a stylishly grotesque poverty-chic carnival? Like The Tree Of Life, from which it liberally borrows, Lost River seems destined to scandalize viewers drawn to nothing but the famous name on the one-sheet.
Gosling shot his debut in Detroit, which he reconfigures, Beasts Of The Southern Wild-style, into an exotic, half-flooded ghost town. (The original title, How To Catch A Monster, hinted more explicitly at the film’s undercooked mythology.) Characters answer to monosyllabic monikers like Bully, Bone, and Rat, while televisions show nothing but old cult movies. The hero, a driftless dreamer played by Iain De Caestecker (Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.), romances a Goth neighbor (Saoirse Ronan). Meanwhile, his mother (Christina Hendricks) performs at a club that specializes in giallo burlesque; her first routine, for a crowd apparently composed mainly of Fangoria subscribers, finds her pretending to slice off her own face. The club is run by a sinister bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn, channeling Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet), who exists mainly to underline that the “story” is nominally about the real-estate collapse. The other villain is a hick kingpin played by (wait for it) Dr. Who’s Matt Smith. He’s introduced riding around town on a throne affixed to his car, bellowing, “Look at my muscles, look at my muscles.” James Franco was evidently unavailable.
The whole movie is like that, and if any of the above sounds appetizingly strange (and not just off-putting), you may be able to get on Gosling’s wavelength. The actor-turned-filmmaker clearly has an eye, and even when derivative, the images—of a raging house fire, of boarded-up buildings with overgrown lawns—are often apocalyptically striking. At the very least, Gosling has made a better, more fascinating follow-up to Drive than Only God Forgives. But all the ostentatious, recycled weirdness grows wearisome as the film plods on, mostly because Gosling hasn’t written any characters, just mannequins to arrange in his cinephiliac art installation piece. I couldn’t hate the movie the way many members of the press have—it displays too much raw talent and moxie—but nor could I connect with it on any level beyond gobsmacked amusement. If Lost River doesn’t kill his career, Gosling could become an interesting director. But that would require him finding more to do than simply channel his influences.
Anyway, I’ll always take a passion project, however catastrophic, over something entirely safe and conventional—especially at Cannes, where adventurous cinema should be celebrated above all else. And films don’t come much more safe and conventional than The Search (Grade: C), a two-and-a-half-hour war drama from Michel Hazanavicius. Up until now, the director has worked pretty much exclusively in comedy, having made his name with a pair of spy parodies, the OSS 117 movies. But The Search is Hazanavicius’ first movie since his shallow silent-film pastiche The Artist won the Best Picture Oscar, among a slew of other awards. He’s now a “serious filmmaker,” or at least fancies himself one, and has accordingly spit out a lavish, high-minded look at the Second Chechen War (1999), in which Russian soldiers committed numerous human rights violations during their invasion of the country. Really, though, just about anyone could have directed this film, which exhibits no real sense of authorship, just sentimentality and canned outrage.
As in Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 drama of the same title, The Search concerns the estrangement of family members during wartime—in this case, a young Chechen boy (Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev) separated from his older sister (Zukhra Duishvili) after their parents are murdered by Russian troops. While the girl looks for the boy, the boy falls into the unwilling care of a human-rights representative (Bérénice Bejo) trying to make the case for U.N. intervention in Chechnya. Elsewhere, a Russian teen (Maksim Emelyanov) is arrested on a drug charge and joins the army to avoid prison. Largely by default, the basic-training material is the film’s most interesting plot strand; there’s some fascination in seeing how the military breaks down an essentially good kid, who gets in touch with the macho-killer program mainly as a means to stop the abuse he receives from the other cadets. But these Full Metal Telogreika scenes account for only about a third of the running time. Much of the rest is devoted to finger-wagging and cloying bonding scenes between Bejo’s put-upon surrogate guardian, who learns the value of micro-level activism, and her preteen charge. The plotting is plodding, and the film traffics in such sharp insights as “developed nations shouldn’t turn a blind eye to genocide.” The Search has no business competing for the Palme; the programmers would have been better off giving its slot to Lost River.
Or, for that matter, to Bird People (Grade: B), which has also been relegated to Un Certain Regard. Not much can be revealed about the secret charms of the new effort from Pascale Ferran (Lady Chatterley), as getting to deep into plot specifics would spoil the fun of how it unfolds. The film presents two stories of unexpected liberation, its focus divided between an American (Josh Charles) on a business trip in Paris and a maid (Anaïs Demoustier) who works at the hotel he’s staying at. The two will break free of their responsibilities in very different ways, and I’ll confess (as others already have) to preferring one half of the bifurcated narrative to the other. But this is mostly a singular, beguiling experience, its source of interest simply shifting from the mystery of character motivation to the daft delights that follow. And any sucker for people-watching will groove to Bird People’s more observational stretches, especially when Ferran shifts to a less… conventional perspective. It would seem that being baffled is one of the distinct pleasures of Cannes.