Buzz emanating from Cannes can be highly misleading. Often you’ll hear that such-and-such a film was booed (there’s a retrospective happening in New York called “Booed at Cannes” as we speak), but that doesn’t necessarily mean much—one or two vocal malcontents don’t represent an audience of thousands, even if we journalists can’t resist relaying their displeasure. Standing ovations, likewise, can be influenced by factors other than a movie’s mind-altering excellence. Variety’s Peter Debruge noted on Twitter last night that the audience for The Selfish Giant, playing in the Director’s Fortnight (technically a separate festival that runs concurrently with Cannes proper), rose to its feet and applauded wildly for the entire duration of the closing credits, which is true. But as one of the folks clapping like mad, I can tell you that it was less about the film than about the stunned smiles on the faces of its two non-professional teenage stars, who were present at the screening and were clearly bowled over by the adulation. The more they looked around the room in beyond-my-wildest-dreams wonder, the louder the applause grew—an unmistakable feedback loop. Tough to pack that into 140 characters, though, so be sure to take such off-the-cuff reaction reports with a grain of salt.
The Selfish Giant really is pretty damn good, though. Very loosely based on the children’s story of the same title by Oscar Wilde, it’s the first narrative feature by England’s Clio Barnard, who made a splash a couple of years back with her superb experimental documentary The Arbor. I’d expected something equally avant-garde from her foray into fiction, but instead she’s made a straightforward kitchen-sink melodrama that one could easily mistake for the work of Ken Loach or Shane Meadows…though only if those directors were working near the top of their game. Brash Connor Chapman and his more diffident friend Shaun Thomas—the two boys soaking in all that applause—live in a dead-end industrial wasteland (Bradford, hometown of both Barnard and The Arbor’s subject, Andrea Dunbar), where they regularly skip school to engage in all manner of mischief. Happening upon some locals who collect and sell scrap metal, they start “scrapping” themselves, competing for the attention of the town’s unscrupulous scrap dealer, a huge man improbably called Kitten. (This is the kind of film in which everyone goes by a colorful nickname: Kitten, Swifty, Price Drop.) Barnard patiently accumulates vivid details of this impoverished milieu, perpetually overcast yet vibrant, bringing the film to a slow boil that culminates in tragedy. Her work with her two young leads is exemplary, with Chapman in particular expressing depths of regret so profound that he becomes almost physically painful to watch. That The Selfish Giant feels familiar rather than groundbreaking makes it seem to some degree a step back for its talented director, but she’s avoided the sophomore jinx with aplomb. Grade: B+
Things have been going less swimmingly in the Competition slate for the past 24 hours. Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda (or Kore-eda Hirokazu, as he’s called in the English-language credits; we may yet end up properly referring to Kurosawa Akira and Ozu Yasujiro), who last competed for the Palme d’Or with 2004’s abandoned-child drama Nobody Knows, returns this year with Like Father, Like Son, another story of kids who’ve lost their parents. And vice versa, this time: The high-concept plot simply asks what would happen if a couple suddenly learned that their six-year-old son isn’t actually their son, having been switched with another newborn at the hospital. Trouble is, the movie follows precisely the path you’d expect, given that scenario, with predictable agonizing over whether blood (or DNA, more accurately) matters more than a bond long since established. Kore-eda shamelessly engineers a huge class division between the two couples, so that the wealthier parents feel an additional compulsion to “rescue” their real son from his tacky, low-rent existence; even this aspect, however, ultimately feeds the maudlin primary story arc, in which the distant, disapproving rich dad (Fukuyama Masaharu) gradually learns the true importance of family and fatherhood. It’s nearly impossible not to respond on some level to material this emotionally freighted, and Kore-eda’s understanding of young children is typically astute (both boys take it in stride when informed they’ll be switching homes and parents, acting out later in more subtle ways), but Like Father, Like Son has the overall depth and tenor of a Lifetime movie. Here’s hoping it’s by far the least challenging film in this year’s lineup. Grade: C+
And let’s hope Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy Of A Plains Indian is the most tedious. Based on ethnologist and analyst Georges Devereux’s nonfiction account, this laborious misfire stars Benicio Del Toro as the title character, a Blackfoot suffering from crippling headaches after being injured in World War II. Sent to the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, where it’s determined that his problem is psychological rather than physical, he’s treated by the irrepressible Devereux (Mathieu Amalric), who wants to hear all about his dreams, his mother, his sex life—the usual Freudian guff. I’ve long maintained that nothing kills a movie faster than onscreen therapy (since cinema is inherently therapeutic, catharsis in motion), and Jimmy P. is almost nothing but an endless series of expository conversations that serve mostly as a contrast in mannered acting styles. Del Toro (who is not, to the best of my knowledge, a Native American) plays Jimmy with a nearly catatonic lack of affect, which forces Amalric to compensate with hammy, birdlike twitches; I spent much of the film wishing I could somehow shove them together to create a single credible human being. And while Desplechin usually relies heavily on style, he plays it stultifyingly straight this time, with only some quick dissolves and a handful of isolated, expressionistic interludes—as in Kings & Queen, the reading of a letter all but stops the show with the force of otherwise unexpressed emotion—revealing the artist’s signature. At their best, Desplechin’s films exude a sense of mystery and wonder; the only mystery here is what attracted him to this woefully un-cinematic material. Grade: C
Tomorrow: Surely the Coen Brothers can rescue Cannes from its current torpor. It’s their first appearance on the Croisette since No Country For Old Men took the world by storm six years ago.