Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is the highlight of Cannes
Sunday is the final day of Cannes, but for yours truly, the festival ends in a couple hours, with a flight from Nice to New York. It’s been a great time: a blur of movies, hastily consumed lunches, leisurely consumed late-night dinners, long and scenic walks into town (and back), feverish debates while standing in endless lines, overdue introductions to people I know only through the tiny image they use as a Twitter avatar, and mad dashes to knock out a few barely coherent impressions here in this very space. But it’s time to come home. Real life beckons me back.
Critical consensus among many of those covering from the ground is that this hasn’t been one of the festival’s best years. Certainly, the main competition inspired less raves than any in recent memory. (As several have pointed out, the notoriously spotty 2010 lineup included at least one masterpiece, Certified Copy.) I’ve actually seen quite a few films I’ve liked over the last week and a half; as regular readers of this site can attest, I’m a notoriously stingy grader, which means that you should take the five B+s I’ve issued since last Wednesday—plus the close-to-unqualified praise I heaped on Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, which played Directors’ Fortnight—as glowing recommendations. Still, it wasn’t until this very Friday, when the final competition title screened, that the festival proper finally premiered something truly electrifying. For once, Cannes saved the best for last.
In Lynne Ramsay’s fragmentary, ferociously beautiful You Were Never Really Here (Grade: A-), Joaquin Phoenix takes a scary new shape—a bulkiness every bit as psychologically revealing as the bony odd angles of Freddie Quell. Phoenix plays Joe, a muscle for hire. (“I hear you can be brutal,” someone says to him, awe and a little fear on their breath.) If the idea of this particular actor starring as someone paid to bring the pain sounds implausible, then you just haven’t seen the human wrecking ball he’s made himself into this time, complete with a shaggy gray beard that seems to enhance his fearsomeness and his outsider vulnerability all at once. You also haven’t seen his way with a hammer.
The character and story come from a novella by Bored To Death creator Jonathan Ames. Ramsay, the Scottish director who made Morvern Callar and We Need To Talk About Kevin, twists that source material into an existential nightmare noir. There are shades of Point Blank and The Long Goodbye, of Taxi Driver shattered into shards, of The Limey suffering a nervous breakdown. And in the sinister, serpentine swell of its Johnny Greenwood score—coupled with the sight of Phoenix playing another mad war veteran—it sometimes suggests The Master reconfigured into something more savage. All of those influences shine dimly under the skin of You Were Never Really Here, but it remains its own bewildering animal, unmistakably Ramsay’s. She is said to have arrived at Cannes with the DCP only yesterday. Who knows if the movie is done—it ends with no credits, just an empty black screen, the void out of which Greenwood’s thrumming cacophony emanates. But if the version we saw is unfinished, at a refreshingly brisk 85 minutes, it’s to great elliptical effect. Ramsay has made a terrific short story, economical as hell but also so moment-for-moment gripping that you want to pore over its every shot, its every dark cranny.
The film unfolds in a spookily subjective haze, through unexplained and sometimes near-subliminal flashes of flashback, like trauma bubbling to the surface of Joe’s consciousness. You Were Never Really Here is telling a story, a grim little corker about a teenage girl forced into a sex ring and the bull of an enforcer who comes to break her loose, but it plays out in whispers and glances, as Phoenix’s damaged mercenary barrels into conflict, barely keeping his grasp on his own sanity, let alone the specifics of this case. The film is admirably resistant to explaining itself; it counts on you to make connections with its submerged backstory, to sketch out Joe’s warped history in your own head.
For all she elides—exposition, finer details of the conspiracy, a full sense of resolution—Ramsay delivers on the promise of her genre, with little bursts of vicious violence. But even these moments are often staged in electrifying, radically unconventional ways. One amazing sequence finds Joe—the latest in a long line of cinematic urban samurais, a blunt instrument who moves with a kind of impossible grace—rampaging through a hotel brothel, and we watch it entirely on security cameras, the big lug passing from one static angle to another, appearing for a second to deliver some righteous fury before the system cuts away to an empty frame. Another grisly showdown ends on an odd note of sing-along tenderness, an unlikely glimmer of compassion in the ruthless world Ramsay creates.
It’s unclear, upon first transfixed viewing, whether You Were Never Really Here adds up to more than spectacularly elusive form in service of familiar man-on-a-crusade content—whether it’s just a skeletal crime lark made with an insane amount of poetic style, in other words. (There is not a bad or uninteresting shot in this whole damn movie.) But we’ll all get a chance to suss that out later. For now, and for those of us here at Cannes, it’s satisfying to just bask in the nocturnal shade of the festival’s most arresting vision.
Will the jury see it that way? What I wouldn’t give to be in that room, listening to Park Chan-wook, Maren Ade, Jessica Chastain, Will Smith, and others argue about the same movies I argued about over these past two weeks. As last year’s baffling set of winners demonstrate, trying to anticipate the decision-making of a small group of individual artists, convening to name the best of the fest, is an exercise in pure guesswork. But that won’t stop me from playing along. Below, I’ve taken my best shot at what will win the major awards at Cannes this year. As I’ve seen all but one of the competition titles (sorry, Naomi Kawase), I’ll also offer my own preferences for each, trying to spread the wealth among my favorites, just as the Cannes jury is obligated to do. The winners will be announced on Sunday. Fair warning: I’ll almost certainly be wrong about all of this.
Will win: 120 Beats Per Minute
Since screening early in the festival to respectable (if mostly less than rapturous) reviews, Robin Campillo’s sprawling portrait of activism during the AIDS crisis has looked more and more like a likely winner of Cannes’ top prize. At roughly two-and-a-half hours, it has the scope of a Palme winner, and its subject matter—impassioned young men and women taking to the streets to fight injustice and maybe save lives—has a timely relevance to our current age of organized resistance, not to mention a plain emotional appeal. Not even the film’s lack of formal or conceptual daring should really hurt its chances; it’s been said, after all, that the Palme often goes to the movie in competition that everyone on the jury can live with—not the passion pick, but the one everyone likes and to which no one really objects. Finally, the film may hold a particular significance to jury president Pedro Almodovar, who’s made his own films about the AIDS epidemic (including Cannes competitor All About My Mother) and was coming up creatively in Europe during that tumultuous time.
Should win: You Were Never Really Here
See above. Remarkably, the best film in competition appeared at the very end, after some critics had already left the festival. It’s the shortest film in competition, but also the most exhilarating—a haunting, sometimes terrifying distortion of noir themes, refracted through the fractured prism of Lynne Ramsay’s style. It goes to show that it’s never over until it’s over, though I’d be shocked if the Cannes jury rallied around a film this boldly oblique and violent.
Will win: Loveless
The second-place prize at Cannes often goes to something a little more difficult—the tough art movie that may have divided the jury, but was too singular or uncompromising for one or more of its members to ignore. I have a hunch that Andrey Zvyagintsev’s pitiless marriage drama will fill that niche this year—especially as A Gentle Creature, its potential competition in the Eastern-European-downer sweepstakes, got a much chillier reception. For a while, anyway, Loveless was the critical favorite of the festival. But did the jury notice or care?
Should win: The Square
A week later, I’m still trying to decide if Ruben Östlund’s long, often uproarious cringe comedy about a pretentious museum curator has anything particularly pointed to say about philanthropy, personal values, or social intervention—or if it’s just really funny, like a supersized version of his earlier Force Majeure. Either way, the movie’s caustic wit should be celebrated; I’d hand it a prize for one scene alone, for the moment when an aggressive performance artist terrorizes a dining hall of self-proclaimed art lovers.
Will win: Wonderstruck
For some reason, Wonderstruck feels to me like a likely choice for the Cannes bronze. With its juggling of timelines and lavish recreation of two bygone New York eras, Todd Haynes’ kid-lit adaptation may be too accomplished, too much of a spectacular technical achievement, to ignore. At the same time, the movie’s all-ages appeal may cost it a higher prize at a festival that tends to favor very adult-oriented works of art. If it doesn’t lose win the Jury Prize, don’t be shocked if it takes Best Director instead.
Should win: The Meyerowitz Stories
Woody Allen may never again make a movie as good as the seriocomic classics he churned out in the ’70s and ’80s. But that’s okay, because we now have Noah Baumbach, whose caustically witty bon mots and razor-sharp insight on New York neurosis mark him as the Woodman’s plainest heir apparent. The Meyerowitz Stories applies those talents to one of his warmest, most moving narratives, a story of family dysfunction as tender as it is typically biting. And in the process, it grants its moonlighting comedian stars, Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller, some of their best roles ever. I suspect it will go home empty-handed, which is a shame.
Will win: Sofia Coppola, The Beguiled
Some think that Coppola’s dreamy and tense remake of an old Clint Eastwood vehicle has an outside shot at the Palme D’Or. Best Director seems more likely, as an acknowledgement of the way Coppola makes the material, which hasn’t been altered much in plot, almost completely her own. She’s never won a prize at Cannes. It feels overdue.
Should win: Sofia Coppola, The Beguiled
If I wanted to bend the rules and cite the worthiest potential winner, I’d hand this one to Ramsay, too—her beautiful, kaleidoscopic approximation of a broken mind puts every other act of direction here at Cannes to shame. But since I’m already picking You Were Never Really Here for the Palme, I’ll go with Coppola instead. The Beguiled is one of the most enveloping of the films I saw at Cannes this year, and that’s largely because of the way she makes its Civil War setting come to life, in all its eerie quiet and almost prehistoric natural wonder. Coppola also coaxes some terrific performances out of her cast, deepening the story’s dance of seduction through the commitment of her stars.
Will win: Nicole Kidman, The Beguiled or The Killing Of A Sacred Deer
Without many breakout performances within the competition lineup, this seems like a year where the jury may gravitate to a bona fide big-screen idol. And as the kind of unofficial star of Cannes ’17—she had four projects screened on the Croisette—Nicole Kidman may have the edge. Whether they can award her Best Actress for multiple performances is unclear, but her work as a scheming, secretly swooning headmaster in The Beguiled feels a little likelier than her frazzled housewife in The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, unless Almodovar and company give the former film something else and decide to spread the wealth more. (Though, technically speaking, the rules don’t prohibit them from giving an acting prize to someone in a film they’ve otherwise honored.)
Should win: Izïa Higelin, Rodin
The film’s a snooze, but not when Izïa Higelin is on screen. She brings a mischievous humor and fierce passion to the role of Camille Claudel, the titular artist’s mistress, one-time disciple, and peer in the sculpting world. She’s so lively, in fact, that Rodin totally craters when she leaves; what mild power it manages to conjure in its second half is thanks to the phantom memory of Higelin’s performance.
Will win: Robert Pattinson, Good Time
There are a few possibilities here, from Joaquin Phoenix’s drowsy menace in You Were Never Really Here to the surprisingly tender work Adam Sandler does in The Meyerowitz Stories to the exquisitely measured intellectual fraud Claes Bang evokes in The Square. But my money is on Robert Pattinson, whose live-wire turn in Good Time is a career best—the kind of intense left-swerve performance that turns movie stars into respected actors.
Should win: Robert Pattinson, Good Time
I’m tempted to go with the latest physical transformation by Joaquin Phoenix, who tackles his lead role in You Were Never Really Here from the inside out, as he almost always does. But Pattinson is can’t-take-your-eyes-off-of-him good in the comp lineup’s other jagged, flavorful crime picture, Good Time, and he’s as much an anchor as Phoenix. (Both are in nearly every scene of their respective movies.) Plus, as one of the best films in competition, Good Time deserves something.
Will win: The Square
It can be hard to predict what jurors will gravitate toward for this award, as people seem to have wildly different ideas of what constitutes great screenwriting. (Is dialogue the key? How about structure? Do you have to actually read the physical script to understand how it works on the page?) I think The Square’s ambition and long stream of first-rate gags could push it over such fellow possibilities as The Meyerowitz Stories, Happy End, or (if it somehow manages not to win the Palme or any other prize) 120 Beats Per Minute.
Should win: A Gentle Creature
Truthfully, this one should go to The Square. But I also admire the sheer satirical ambition of A Gentle Creature, whose disastrous final act can’t totally ruin the comprehensive dissection of Russian bureaucracy Sergei Loznitsa otherwise performs. It’s a film brimming with anger, life, and personalities, and that begins on the page—enough so that I’ll forgive that the off-the-rails ending does, too.
François Ozon’s outrageously trashy new thriller highlights a day of entertainments at Cannes
Cannes is winding down, and for some of us who have been here from the start, the desire for a true revelation—for a transcendently great movie, in the final couple days at this annual cinematic summit—aches like a bottomless hunger. Failing that, though, I’ll settle for a wake-up call, for a shock to the system, for something sinfully disreputable. That’s where François Ozon comes in. The French director of Swimming Pool, 8 Women, and the recent Frantz dabbles in a lot of different genres and tones, to the point where you never quite know what to expect when he returns with a new project. It’s the erotic thriller, however, that seems to jump-start the battery of his wicked imagination, and I’m happy to say that Ozon has come fully charged this time. L’Amant Double (Grade: B) is delirious premium trash, like Brian De Palma or Paul Verhoeven remaking Dead Ringers from the Geneviève Bujold character’s perspective. It’s ludicrous, sleazy, and silly—perhaps better suited to the beach down the street from the Palais, tucked within the pages of a paperback you purchased in the Nice airport, than in the theater itself. But Ozon stages it with a slumming Hitchcockian verve, and I confess that its pulp pleasures were just what the doctor ordered this late into the festival. The programmers knew what they were doing saving it for the homestretch.
Previously on Cannes, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer opened with a graphic provocation: an exposed heart, pumping away during a surgery, filling the whole screen with its anatomical glory. Not to be outdone, L’Amant Double kicks off its own orgy of buried secrets and sinister intentions with an extreme gynecological close-up, giving new meaning to the INT. scene heading and causing an eruption of applause during last night’s press screening. The vagina in question belongs to Chloé (Marine Vacth, who played the prostitute protagonist of Ozon’s Young & Beautiful), who’s investigating the mysterious, on-and-off abdominal pain she’s endured for most of her life. Convinced the ailment must have a psychological source, the doctors recommend a therapist, but it isn’t long before Paul (Jérémie Renier), enraptured by his patient, trades a professional relationship for a romantic one. The two seem happy, until Chloé discovers that her dream beau has a secret shadow: a twin brother who approaches his own psychological practice (and love life) much more aggressively.
It’s possible to see something vaguely sexist in L’Amant Double’s love triangle, in which Chloé is torn between the buttoned-up, sensitive savior, who may have “cured” her of her psychosomatic condition, and his negging twin, who treats her with a brutish, aggressive “honesty” in both the office and the bedroom. (Paul’s double makes Christian Grey look like the picture of traditional chivalry.) But in Ozon’s hands, the material is such knowing pulp—drunk on its own arch luridness—that it resists any reading that treats the pathologies, or their implications, remotely seriously; the director would rather perversely toy with the twin angle, in both conceptual and visual ways. (Expect lots of mirrors within mirrors.) Renier knows what movie he’s in: Perfectly in sync with the devilish genre spirit, he plays the “good” brother’s subdued supportiveness against the “bad” brother’s malevolent alpha confidence, at one point even finding the opportunity to play one imitating the other; it’s the best doppelgänger dual performance since, well, okay, Michael Fassbender in Alien: Covenant. (Yes, the Fassbender-on-Fassbender scene gets mirrored here. You know which one I mean.)
Slick as the polished marble surfaces of its locations—museums, high-end restaurants, posh living rooms and offices—L’Amant Double steadily disappears down a whirlpool of kinky sex, melodramatic mystery, and thriller bombast. Nodding further to Cronenberg, Ozon pulls out a couple of jarring nightmare scenes and cranks up the body horror, but the effect is more high camp than creeping dread: The audience at my screening tittered and roared, especially during any scene that involved Chloé’s cat-loving neighbor—a subplot that allows for Ozon’s feline variation on the stuffed, perched birds of Psycho. The laughter was genuine; like a lot of films at the festival this year, L’Amant Double often works best as a stealth comedy. But it also felt like a show of gratitude for some cheap thrills, for tasteless pleasures dressed up in tasteful Euro-highbrow couture. At Cannes, there’s audacity in just daring to outrageously entertain.
Not all entertainments are created equal, of course. Like Jupiter’s Moon, which I saw last week, the Sundance midnight movie Bushwick (Grade: D+) blatantly worships at the altar of Children Of Men, wrapping some topical cultural anxiety in lots of bravura camerawork and single-take gunfights. But it’s an even emptier exercise—a lumbering action-movie stunt with pretensions of relevance. Unfolding in a simulated near-real-time 93 minutes, the film finds Brooklyn under attack by an unidentified invasion force, the streets ablaze with fire and combat. Racing across the besieged borough are an unlikely pair: grad-student Lucy (Brittany Snow) and her makeshift war zone bodyguard, marine-turned-janitor Stupe (Dave Bautista). Working from a script co-written by Jim Mickle’s regular writing partner, Nick Damici, directors Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott whip their camera down flaming boulevards and up staircases, staging the action in showy, elaborate Steadicam takes, stitched together using the usual tricks for disguising cuts. As is often the case, these painstakingly timed and realized panoramas of carnage don’t so much create urgency as draw attention to themselves.
Bautista is an extraordinary comic presence in the Guardians Of The Galaxy films, but he’s stuck here with a generic action-idol role, dispensing macho wisdom and grappling with traumatic backstory when not rushing to keep pace with the constantly gliding camera. He has little chemistry with Snow, playing a character whose transformation from shell-shocked pedestrian to hardened street soldier stretches credibility, given that it occurs over a single afternoon. (It doesn’t help that her dialogue is an endlessly repeating string of “Oh shit!” reactions and “I don’t know how to cauterize a leg!” protests.) Quibbling about character development in a big, dumb action movie is probably a fool’s errand, but Bushwick also fancies itself a state-of-the-nation address, given the eventual reveal of just who, exactly, these black-clad enemies really are. But the film’s feign toward really getting into the American cultural shitshow of our here and now is negated by the preponderance of “urban” stereotypes—and also by the fact that the movie’s main character is a white college kid. The Purge sequels do this kind of thing with a lot less fuss.
It would perhaps be misleading to lump In The Fade (Grade: C+) in with the more wild genre efforts I caught on my penultimate day at Cannes. But the latest from German filmmaker Fatih Akin (Edge Of Heaven, Head-On) adheres to its own conventions, tackling a serious social issue through a straightforward narrative of clichés and easily anticipated beats. Diane Kruger stars as Katja, a woman whose husband, a Turkish immigrant, and son, who’s only 6, are killed in a terrorist bombing. The likely culprits: Clean-cut neo-Nazi scumbags. Given the worldwide rise of white nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiments over the last couple years, In The Fade has an ingrained topicality, which could very well be the reason it’s playing in competition. Certainly, it’s not the caliber of the drama, which is familiar and unchallenging. Fatih divides the story into three chapters, each a movie you’ve seen before: the gauntlet of grief; the courtroom battle; the moral conundrum of vengeance. It’s all watchable, but in the way of a rainy Saturday afternoon Law & Order marathon, even with Kruger wrestling to invest scenes of her snorting and free-basing her pain away with emotional authenticity. But as I wrote recently, I didn’t fly all the way to France to watch TV.
Tomorrow: I close Cannes with Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, starring Joaquin Phoenix. I’ll also offer some preferences and predictions for the major competition awards. Spoiler: I’ll be inevitably wrong about the latter.
Good Times gives Robert Pattinson his best role yet, and a punishing drama from Eastern Europe wins points for ambition
Is it better to set manageable goals and successfully accomplish them, or to shoot for the moon and miss? When it comes to movies, anyway, I find myself increasingly sympathetic to the latter approach—to the films whose ambitions sometimes outweigh their achievements, to the ones that fall flat on their face chasing something big. At Cannes, which should be all about the celebration of risks taken, these kind of films are especially worth cherishing, even when they go spectacularly awry. A Gentle Creature (Grade: B-), by Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa (My Joy, In The Fog), is a 143-minute odyssey of frustration and despair, featuring maybe 100 speaking roles, and expressing a pessimism so thick it makes last week’s fellow Cannes competitor Loveless look like cornball wish-fulfillment by comparison. In its endlessly repeating note of failure, in its gallery of miserable characters, in the way it attempts to make the audience feel every heavy step its heroine takes, A Gentle Creature is not an easy sit. What’s more, the final passage is a major miscalculation, abandoning what works—albeit gruelingly—about the rest of the film. All the same, the sheer scope of the project demands recognition. It misses the moon by a galaxy, but at least it is has the nerve to take the shot.
Very loosely inspired by a short story by Dostoyevsky, the film begins with an unnamed woman (Vasilina Makovtseva, a stone wall of stoic determination in the face of endless adversity) receiving a parcel in the mail; the package she sent her husband, who’s incarcerated for a murder she claims he didn’t commit, has been returned to sender, with no explanation why. Having not seen or spoken to her husband in some time, the woman embarks on a multi-day journey to visit him, and maybe to deliver the package personally—a trip by train, car, and then foot to a prison town in the remote reaches of Russia. Where she’s really traveling, though, is into a nightmare labyrinth of bureaucracy, a Russia where nobody knows anything, where every request is denied, and where the indifference of the state is matched only by the bitterness of the populace.
It’s heavy stuff, certainly. Many of my critical counterparts here at Cannes found the film almost unbearable in its depiction of nonstop hardship, filmed in bobbing long takes that seem to prolong the suffering of all involved. The film is, to be fair, a bit like watching someone stuck in line at the DMV for two-and-a-half hours, except that the DMV is the size of a whole country, all the other patrons are constantly yelling at each other, and just standing in line might get you in deep shit with the authorities. But Loznitsa, whose work might generally and charitably be described as “difficult,” also has a talent for grim humor, expressed through the acid bite of the dialogue its countless bit players spew in passing. As the unnamed woman is volleyed from one office to another, cutting hopelessly at the red tape wrapped around her husband’s uncertain status (has he been moved to another prison? Why can’t she take her package in to him?), A Gentle Creature keeps cutting away to the Greek chorus of passing citizens, singing songs of dissent, airing their grievances aloud, telling stories of their own misfortune. The film is as bleak as cancer, but it’s also alive with activity—a satire that makes Russia look like a matryoshka doll of hedonism, corruption, and Kafkaesque struggle.
If only it lasted. Loznitsa eventually steers A Gentle Creature right off the rails, into a lunatic surrealism from which it never recovers. It feels, after a couple hours of compounding obstacles for the protagonist, like an oddly easy out—the movie choosing to abandon reality (and its meticulous realism) in favor of gonzo didacticism. (Admittedly, this climactic chapter may work better for those in the cultural know; I got the distinct feeling that its parade of new characters, spouting absurdist talking points, were modeled on real-life Russian figures I don’t recognize.) I still admire the film’s ruthless ambition; nothing else in competition at Cannes this year is as bold. I just wish it had kept plunging deeper into the broken system it depicts—following it not necessarily to some resolution, but maybe to a real ending at least.
The Pattinssance continues unabated! A few years after the conclusion of the Twilight saga, Robert Pattinson seems to have almost completely emerged from the chrysalis of his pin-up boy celebrity. Like former costar and girlfriend Kristen Stewart, he’s hitched his wagon to some exceptional directors, and is now as much an electrifying actor as a charismatic movie star. Following his oddball sidekick performance in James Gray’s towering Lost City Of Z—not to mention strong turns in some Cronenberg movies, as well as The Rover—R-Patz takes the spotlight as a frazzled, desperate outlaw in Josh and Benny Safdie’s off-kilter, live-wire New York crime drama Good Time (Grade: B+). His character, Constantine Nikas, has just knocked off a bank, escaping by the skin of his teeth. Unfortunately, his mentally challenged brother, Nick (Benny Safdie himself), who helped him pull off the robbery, wasn’t so lucky; he’s fallen into police custody, forcing Connie to think fast about how he’s going to spring his brother—a task that actually becomes theoretically possible, albeit very dangerous and complicated, once Nick is transferred from county jail to Elmhurst Hospital after a fight in the clink.
One could imagine any number of lunkheaded or crackerjack thrillers made from that basic premise. But the Safdies are no potboiler custodians. They’re idiosyncratic NYC sketch artists, getting their roving handheld cameras in close on the most abrasive personalities of the city’s underbelly. For their Cannes competition debut, these radically uncommercial sibling auteurs apply the jagged handheld style, shaggy rhythm, twitching screw-up types, and propulsive synth heartbeat of their breakthrough, Heaven Knows What, to a chaotic genre scenario. Good Time mostly unfolds over a single long, suspenseful night, as Connie stumbles constantly from frying pan to fire and back again, his quick-on-his-toes intellect getting him both into and out of trouble at every turn. The fun of the movie isn’t just in how it revives a more gritty species of NYC crime movie, from back before the Giuliani clean-up. It’s also in the unpredictability of the narrative—the way it keeps zigging when you expect it to zag. (The big hospital break-out has a perfect, delayed punch-line I somehow didn’t see coming.) And Pattinson is enthralling in the part; he lets us see not just the caged-animal attitude of the character, who’s in survival mode for the entire running time, but also the improvisational spark of his intellect. Edward Cullen is a tiny speck in his rearview mirror.
James Pope, the character Saturday Night Live’s Kyle Mooney plays in Brigsby Bear (Grade: C+)—a Sundance breakout playing here as part of Critics’ Week—is an almost literal man child, quite literally sheltered: a gentle-souled thirtysomething dweeb living in an underground bunker with his parents, thanks to some unidentified catastrophe that’s made the air above un-breathable. James lives only for Brigsby Bear Adventures, an episodic public-access-style television program he’s been watching in weekly installments his entire life; the show, which arrives like clockwork on VHS tapes every week (hmmmm), features a time- and space-traversing bear whose exploits convey simple life lessons that seem to advance in demographic aim as James ages (hmmmmmmmmm). It’s at this point that any viewer paying attention will begin to wonder about this particular post-apocalypse, and soon enough, James and the audience learn the truth together: Our hero was kidnapped as a boy by a couple of strangers, who have been raising him in captivity, creating their own custom TV content as a parenting tool. And now that the police have rescued James from his underground prison and returned him to his real parents, he has to adjust to life without his “old” ones—and, perhaps more distressingly, without Brigsby Bear.
There’s a lot of promise in that affecting setup. Will James, like the kid in Room, come to desire a return to his fake existence over the messier real one? Is his relationship to art forever sullied, because he now expects everything he consumes to be personalized? Couldn’t this all work as a metaphor for the obsessive relationship some fans develop with their favorite entertainment, their devotion shaping (and narrowing) their worldview? Brigsby Bear drips with dramatic and thematic possibility. The problem is that it’s been safety wrapped in a cocoon of Indiewood cotton candy. Closer in spirit to Lars And The Real Girl than the kinder, gentler Dogtooth it seems to initially tease, the film seems as protective of James as everyone on screen is. And sweet as he is, Mooney never taps into any deeper layers of anxiety, dread, or anger; he plays James as a childlike naïf out of water, sometimes embarrassing his friends and family with his social incompetence, but mostly warming their hearts with his unwavering desire to see the Brigsby Bear narrative to its endpoint. It’s a sitcom confection with resonance around its edges. At Sundance, it might have looked (and did look to plenty) like a soulful comedy. Here at Cannes, the flaws shine brighter, thrown into contrast by the volumes of better movies screening all around it.
Tomorrow: François Ozon (8 Women, Frantz), Fatih Akin (The Edge Of Heaven, In The Fade), and maybe another Sundance film braving the Croisette.
Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled makes a nice chaser for a boring artist biopic
“Old man cinema!” someone bellows in French from the darkness. His insult cuts through the polite silence of the Debussy Theatre like a knife, at the exact moment that the end credits begin to roll. It’s the kind of rudeness that’s worn like a second badge at Cannes, where heckling is more than a privilege for those who have had their tastes affronted—it’s practically a sacred responsibility. Still, this unseen detractor, lobbing his disapproval like a smart bomb, did have a point. Rodin (Grade: C+), Jacques Doillon’s biodrama about the career and love life of the famous French sculptor, is of a creakily reverent school of artist profiles. It’s the sort of movie where real-life characters speak with a phantom foresight of the things that will one day be written about them, where legacy is the topic of every other conversation, and where any serious personality flaw—in this case, a familiar case of wandering dick syndrome—is just folded into the subject’s complicated genius. All that excess passion has to go somewhere, right?
Vincent Lindon, who won the Best Actor prize at Cannes two years ago for The Measure Of A Man, certainly looks striking as the industrious Auguste; his haunted, piercing eyes—pools of intelligence at the center of a face half-submerged in gray hair—lock onto the entwined subjects of his appetites, as though he were trying to melt flesh and clay alike with the burning intensity of his stare. Handsomely filmed but sluggishly paced, Rodin initially concerns the artist’s tempestuous affair with one-time disciple, mistress, and famous sculptor in her own right Camille Claudel (Izïa Higelin); early scenes of the two trading inspiration (and spit) suggest a more playful, less worshipful film. But history assures that the two must eventually part, and rather than trim the timeline to the span of their relationship, Doillon lets Claudel disappear from his movie. Given the slog of biographical incident that follows—and the spiky personality Higelin briefly, blessedly supplies—it’s hard not to wish Rodin abandoned Rodin entirely, following his beloved to the loony bin instead. (Though Bruno Dumont, whose reportedly bonkers new heavy-metal musical I was sadly shut out of last night, already covered that territory.)
The scenes about process have their limited appeal, at least for those more interested in the fine art of assembling a clay figure piece by piece than in the romantic woes of the man doing it. But Rodin has no real insight or psychology. It’s the portrait of the artist as boring genius with a boner—one not so different than any man-behind-the-work tribute that conflates libido with creative inspiration. Still, you’d think a movie with this much screwing would at least feel less like a statue itself, immobile and damnably honorary.
What’s the antidote to two hours of models throwing themselves at the feet of a great artist? How about a movie that explores female desire through a female perspective? In Sofia Coppola’s elegantly spare, psychosexual Civil War drama The Beguiled (Grade: B+), a wounded Union soldier, Colonel John McBurney (Colin Farrell), is discovered in the surrounding woods of a Virginia all-girls seminary school, circa 1864. Reluctantly taking him into their sprawling Southern Gothic estate, out of nothing but Christian compassion (or so they tell themselves), the girls and women of the property, overseen by headmaster Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman, who also co-stars with Farrell in another competition title, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer), slowly begin to vie for the attention of this enemy from the other side, conveniently laid up with a bum leg just down the hall from their bedrooms.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because The Beguiled is based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan, and was previously brought to the screen by Don Siegel as an early-’70s star vehicle for Clint Eastwood. The Eastwood version was a kinky joke of a psychodrama: a retrograde curiosity about a gaggle of repressed, sheltered Confederate belles being seduced by the manliest Yankee of them all. Without altering the plot much (if you can call this a remake instead of just a new adaptation, it’s a superficially faithful one), Coppola deepens the material’s implicit wellsprings of loneliness and longing, mitigating the sexism by diverting the point of view away from McBurney to the women he’s attempting to manipulate. It helps that the writer-director has assembled a stellar ensemble. Against Farrell’s deceptive smolder (a much different variety than Clint’s), they create a spectrum of complicated wanting: Kidman letting us see the cracks forming in her suspicion and resolve; Elle Fanning flushing with hormonal hunger in her prison of seclusion; Coppola regular Kirsten Dunst as a withdrawn instructor, brightening with the promise of a romance that may be as ephemeral as the blankets of fog engulfing their backwoods outpost.
Losing the anachronisms that defined her last period piece, the effervescent Marie Antoinette (which was famously and criminally booed here in Cannes), Coppola transports us to a lush wartime limbo: a verdant outdoors, where crickets make music with the distant rumble of explosions, and a hushed indoors, lit by the faint glow of candles, where every groan of a floorboard in the dead of sleepless night echoes across the property. The film’s soft, mysterious luster recalls one of Terence Davies’ trips to pre-modernity; it’s a magnificently shot movie, and often a very funny one, as tense dinners with the stranger from the North transform into duels of innuendo. A drama at heart about how we rationalize the decisions our hearts (and loins) make, The Beguiled is, well, beguiling enough to make me wish that it had a little more meat on its bones. Coppola enriches the story top to bottom, but she doesn’t exploit the full opportunity to radically reconceive it; the ending seems to arrive too abruptly, when the film’s hotbed of conflict is still simmering. On the other hand, after a week of dramas reaching dramatically past the two-hour mark, the 94-minute running time here is hard to hate. And that grade could go up—certainly, this is one of the best competition titles I’ve seen this year.
To extend The Beguiled’s genre vibe further into the day, I pop on over to the Fortnight for another Western directed by a woman, this one also offering a collision of genders at a secluded location. Communing with its oater influences both more and less overtly, Mouly Surya’s Marlina The Murderer In Four Acts (Grade: B) turns modern Indonesia into a Sergio Leone outlaw sprawl, following the title character (Marsha Timothy, in a fantastically stoic performance) on a vaguely absurd pilgrimage after her home is ransacked by violent, rapist thieves. It’s a small, offbeat movie, punctuated by bursts of terrible violence but also infused with a winning strain of deadpan humor that’s not too far removed from Jim Jarmusch.
Tomorrow: The Safdie brothers (Heaven Knows What) make their Cannes competition premiere with Good Time, a bank-robber flick starring Robert Pattinson and Jennifer Jason Leigh. I’ll also see the almost certainly difficult new one from My Joy director Sergei Loznitsa, and try to catch up with Kyle Mooney’s Sundance crowd-pleaser Brigsby Bear.
Sean Baker follows Tangerine with a terrific Sunshine State drama
We’re just past the halfway mark of the festival, which seems as good a time as any to reiterate that Cannes is really several film festivals stuffed into one. There is, for starters, the official selection, which begins with the high-profile competition lineup—the place where Michael Haneke takes on Todd Haynes, Sofia Coppola, Bong Joon-ho, and other international heavy hitters for the Palme D’Or. Also under Cannes’ main umbrella is the sidebar competition Un Certain Regard, plus a slew of non-competition premieres, special screenings, midnight movies, short films, student films, virtual reality events, and cinematic classics projected at dusk on the beach. (Last night, I walked down the scenic Croisette, Cannes’ main stretch, past a nearly empty nighttime screening of Michael Bay’s Bad Boys, presumably in honor of Cannes juror Will Smith. Talk about stretching the definition of “classic.”)
All of this alone would be enough to keep a critic plenty busy for 10 days, but Cannes the town also plays host to a couple of additional film festivals running in parallel to the primary one. There’s Directors’ Fortnight, which pits an eclectic selection of films from up-and-comers against unusual new work from masters like Claire Denis and Bruno Dumont. (Whether these big names come to the Fortnight after being rejected by Cannes proper is a topic of much discussion, though only those involved in the selection process of both fests can do more than gossip.) And if you venture farther down the Croisette, you can pop into Critics’ Week, a festival that specializes in first and second features only; I haven’t made it over there yet, but I should—after all, it was at Critics’ Week that I first saw It Follows, one of my favorite horror movies of the new millennium. Finally, there are the market screenings, where distributors exhibit for potential buyers everything from arthouse gems to the sleaziest of exploitation pictures.
All of which is to say that there’s a lot more to see at Cannes than just the competition titles. Which is good, because the 2017 lineup hasn’t been one to write home about. This year, like any other, the trade magazine Screen International has polled about a dozen major global critics each day (the American representatives are Stephanie Zacharek from Time and Justin Chang from the Los Angeles Times), asking each to assign between one and four stars to competition films. This year’s high scorer is Andrey Zvyagintsev’s bleak marriage drama Loveless, with a 3.2—very good, but not quite great. On the other end of the spectrum, three whole movies have dipped below a 2.0 average: Yorgos Lanthimos’ stalker thriller The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (1.9), Kornel Mundruczo’s stylishly moronic Jupiter’s Moon (1.6), and Michel Hazanavicius’ dopey Godard biopic Le Redoutable (1.5). Do the math. What it adds up to is that few are over-the-moon for these movies.
Yours truly hasn’t outright loved anything yet either. Nothing in the main competition anyway. I suspect that if Sean Baker was a few more films into his career, or that if his well-liked Tangerine had premiered in Cannes instead of Park City, he might be right there in competition with the Safdie brothers, representing for American near-underground cinema. Because The Florida Project (Grade: A-) is sublime: a blast of life, of celebratory highs and lamentable lows, on the outer economic edges of the Sunshine State. The title refers to a gaudy three-story motel in Kissimmee, Florida, decked out with pastel towers, where even the curbs lining the parking lot are painted a bubblegum lavender. The Magic Castle, whose name creates a deliberate Disney association its amenities can’t match, doesn’t just play host to a revolving clientele of cash-strapped tourists. It also serves as unofficial low-income housing for the more permanent residents. It’s a terrific setting—for the vivid mini-golf atmosphere of the motel and surrounding businesses, but also for the rich ensemble of characters sheltered within, all scraping by week to week on hustles and hard jobs.
Tangerine reaffirmed Baker as an ally of the disenfranchised, lending a voice to the kind of Americans—transgender prostitutes, immigrant cabbies—that the movies usually ignore. The Florida Project loses the jagged iPhone imagery, but not the bright colors and brighter empathy of his breakthrough. It pushes his storytelling even further into kicking-around naturalism, forgoing plot (and melodrama) in favor of glorious nonstop incident, propelled by the sometimes abrasive, nearly always funny personalities on screen. Much of the film unfolds from the point of view of latchkey children Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), Jancey (Valeria Cotto), and Scooty (Christopher Rivera)—running around the property during the day, getting into various forms of mischief, filling the movie with the kind of carefree everyday magic that lesser films about childhood labor unsuccessfully to summon.
But Baker also understands how the adults in the kids’ lives shelter them from the harder realities of poverty, giving them the gift of a real childhood, even as they themselves fend off desperation and destitution. The film’s perspective splinters to accommodate that of Moonee’s tattooed, shit-talking tornado of a mother, Halley (newcomer Bria Vinaite, in what could and should be a star-making performance), as well as the establishment’s manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Bobby runs The Magic Castle like a loving but exasperated father, chasing rent, putting out fires, and mediating conflicts, but also sticking his neck out for the guests. It’s one of Dafoe’s funniest and most moving performances, made all the more resonant by the fact that the movie resists giving the character any big speeches or significant backstory. His actions speak louder than exposition.
Baker shows a thorough interest in the details of his characters’ hardscrabble lives: the pan-handle scams Halley runs to put food on the table (or on the motel bed, as it were); the odd jobs Bobby does around the property, trying to please his sometimes unruly tenants; the regular formality of sending long-term guests out to another hotel for the night, so they don’t establish residency. But The Florida Project never dips into hard-knock-life miserablism. What’s perhaps most miraculous about it is the way it stays true to the real challenges facing what the writer-director has called “the hidden homeless” while also maintaining a mood of a vibrant, funny celebration. It’s a movie that loves its characters deeply—so much so that it even survives its hasty, possibly unfinished ending, a flight of fancy that feels just a little less misjudged for coming from a place of protective affection.
Certainly, programmers could have found a place for The Florida Project in Un Certain Regard, the aforementioned other competition slate of Cannes. The festival frequently insists that UCR isn’t somehow lower than the main competition, but the selections often beg to differ. Alongside work from rising talents and directorial debuts by movie stars, UCR often programs what you’d be hard-pressed not to call lesser efforts from major filmmakers. One director who seems to have become an almost perennial staple of the sidebar is Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to the famous Akira), the Japanese horror veteran who’s been on something of a cold streak since his 2008 masterpiece Tokyo Sonata. (To be fair, I haven’t seen Creepy, which colleague and Kurosawa fan Ignatiy Vishnevetsky wrote favorably about last year.)
Before We Vanish (Grade: B-), which is indeed competing in Un Certain Regard, is Kurosawa’s half-goofy, half-spooky pastiche of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Starman, and the 1987 extraterrestrial cop thriller The Hidden. If nothing else, it’s far more energetic than much of the director’s recent work. Based on a Japanese stage play, the film follows three aliens who come to Earth as scouts for an impending invasion, promptly taking human bodies as hosts and commandeering other civilians as “guides,” walking them through the basics of our species. While two of the imposters basically treat our planet like their own destructible playground, the other (Ryuhei Matsuda) develops a more complicated relationship with an Earth woman (Masami Nagasawa), the estranged wife of the man whose body he’s snatched. One can’t help but imagine what the Kurosawa of a decade ago would do with this material; it might be as scary as his web ghost allegory Pulse. But if Before We Vanish is a little spotty in the story department and very spotty in the effects department (the climax, which riffs on North By Northwest, especially betrays limited resources), it’s still a fun and often amusing science-fiction riff. And there are some resonant ideas floating around in it: The alien’s ability to rob people of crucial concepts (like their work ethic, for example) creates a few unnerving moments of existential distress, à la Kurosawa’s bone-chilling Cure. Furthermore, you wouldn’t have to work too hard to insist that the plot taps into anxiety about the nature of Japanese identity. If Kurosawa can filter those kinds of ideas through something as formally and conceptually controlled as his early work, I fully expect to see him pop up in the main competition.
I don’t have time or the inclination to write much about 24 Frames, the final work of departed Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, who left an unfillable void in global cinema when he died last summer. Head Cannes programmer Thierry Fremaux has called this unearthed project a “sketch,” as opposed to a full film (which is why it’s playing as a “special event,”), and I’m inclined to agree with his assessment. Completed after Kiarostami’s death, 24 Frames presents a series of still photographs the director took over the years, augmented digitally with elements of movement—falling snow, swaying foliage, and a lot of hopping animals, mostly birds. Kiarostami’s compositions remain remarkable—he had an eye for frames within frames—and there’s certainly a great deal of natural beauty in these images of coastal and winter tranquility. But unlike Five Dedicated To Ozu, the previous non-narrative project of Kiarostami’s this most closely resembles, there’s not a lot of variation to the vignettes, which often build to a kind of narrative climax (literally, in the case of one shot involving lions) but almost never radically transform the image. It’s a footnote on an incredible career—more of a photo collection than a movie.
Tomorrow: Sofia Coppola remakes the Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood Civil War drama The Beguiled, with Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning, plus Killing Of A Sacred Deer costars Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman. Will this be the great competition film we’ve all been waiting for? I’m also going to attempt to catch up with the new film from Bruno Dumont, which has been advertised as a sacrilegious heavy-metal musical. If there’s one thing this fest could use more of, it’s head banging.
Michael Haneke returns with a disappointing greatest-hits summation, while Yorgos Lanthimos reunites with Colin Farrell for The Killing Of A Sacred Deer
Nothing puts one in the proper foul mood for a new Michael Haneke movie like standing in line to get into one at the Cannes Film Festival. The Austrian provocateur behind such audience assaults as Funny Games and The Piano Teacher is royalty at Cannes, where his last two films both won the festival’s coveted top prize, the Palme D’Or. Apparently that makes his latest the hottest ticket of the festival so far, judging from the sheer number of badge-holders battling tooth and nail to get into last night’s world premiere. You want to talk about the selfish savagery of polite society, Michael? Try joining this stampede of so-called professionals, elbowing and pushing their way past those ahead of them in line, generally behaving like thoughtless, unruly children determined to be the first to the ice-cream truck. Sorry to go all George Costanza here, but we’re living in a society, people! There is, I admit to myself, as I secure a position in the balcony of the Debussy Theatre moments before the house lights dim, something at once heartening and ironic about the shitshow. Only at Cannes, after all, do people fight this hard to be bummed out this bad by a movie.
Will Haneke make history and win his third Palme on Sunday? I have my doubts, mostly because Happy End (Grade: C+) is less a bold new vision from the writer-director than a kind of greatest-hits collection. Now, for the first time ever, it’s all available in one place: the technological voyeurism of Benny’s Video and Caché; the fragmentary storytelling of Code Unknown; the twisted adolescence of The White Ribbon; the fatalistic finality of Amour. Haneke has probably earned a career summation at this point—now in his mid-70s, he’s been churning out masterfully controlled, sometimes thrillingly bleak downers for 25 years. But without a fresh master thesis, all we’re basically watching here is the director go back to the well of bourgeois critique, rehashing ideas he’s better explored elsewhere.
At least the technology itself has been updated for our brave new world of indecency and indifference: Facebook messages prove pivotal to the plot, and when some offscreen mystery character shoots stalkerish vérité footage to send the plot into motion, it’s with a smartphone instead of a video camera. In this case, and as we quickly learn, the amateur filmmaker is 12-year-old Eve (Fantine Harduin, one of those child actors with eerily adult features and disposition), who poisons her mother with antidepressants in the opening scene, capturing the whole incident on her iPhone. Eve is really just the latest rotten apple to fall off a very toxic family tree. There’s her father, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), hiding a compartmentalized second life of debauchery under a cheerful façade; her adult cousin Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), resentful fuck-up and eventual heir to the family business; and her aunt Anne (Haneke regular Isabelle Huppert, bringing the brittle), current head of said business, and rocking the same name as Huppert’s character from Time Of The Wolf. It’s not the film’s most explicit callback: Jean-Louis Trintignant almost literally reprises his role as the retired music teacher of Amour, now desperate for someone to do for him what he did for Emmanuelle Riva. Just don’t expect much of the hard-earned humaneness of that film to make it into its quasi-sequel. Down to the bitterly ironic title, Happy End is a black hole of despair.
Formally, Haneke remains on top of his punishing game. Few living filmmakers make more foreboding use of stillness, of quiet, of an ominously static frame; to study one of his careful compositions is to become seized by the hanging promise of violence—the feeling that something terrible could and probably will happen in any given moment. His moral horror freezes the blood as reliably as any conventional thriller. But as Happy End slowly unfurls its various subplots, taking its patient time to draw them together, one begins to wonder if Haneke will tell us anything he hasn’t told us before about the rotten values of the upper class. His evergreen contempt for the rich and the empty this time accommodates an implicit point about the refugee crisis—a subject that remains deliberately, pointedly on the margins of the movie, as a kind of key structural absence. But it also plays out with an inevitability that borders on the predictable. The most damning thing you could say about Happy End isn’t that it’s a drag (one goes to a Haneke movie to have their spirits exquisitely dampened) but that it’s a drag we’ve seen before. I hope this isn’t his swan song, as much as it feels like one in the conclusiveness of its resignation. A career so memorably harsh deserves a more memorable finale.
Like Ruben Östlund, director of my current Cannes favorite The Square, Yorgos Lanthimos used to catch comparisons to Haneke, with whom he shares an exacting formal control and a clear interest in audience antagonism. But after Dogtooth and Alps and The Lobster, there’s no mistaking his crooked Twilight Zone satire for anyone else’s. Still, there is a certain Hanekian charge to the premise of The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (Grade: B+), a darkly intense and almost biblical morality play about a wealthy suburban family haunted by mistakes from the past. Reuniting with his Lobster director, Colin Farrell plays a surgeon, husband, and father of two whose placid domestic life is slowly, insidiously disrupted by the persistent demands of a teenage boy (Barry Keoghan) hovering in his periphery. It’d be unfair to say much more about the relationship, but the film unfolds like an alternate-reality stalker thriller, like a twisted slow-burn Cape Fear, only with an element of the fantastic that Lanthimos boldly refuses to explain.
A part of me wishes that Deer played its scenario just a touch straighter. This is, on a whole, one of the director’s least comic creations, but there are still traces of deadpan lunacy (such as the most inappropriate father-son talk since Todd Solondz’s Happiness) and the dialogue preserves that often-hilarious oddball stiffness that is his signature—the way his characters often sound like aliens trying and failing to approximate human speech. Were the film set in the real world, as opposed to Lanthimos Land, the contrast between the family’s sheltered privilege and the surreal ordeal it’s plunged into would be more extreme. (Nicole Kidman, in one of her gazillion appearances at this year’s Cannes, finds plenty of human dimension as the doctor’s increasingly infuriated wife.) At the same time, Lanthimos’ bizarro-world distortion of social behavior is so singularly fascinating that it’s hard to ask for something else. Anyway, he brings a thunderous, quaking dread to every square inch of The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, straight up to a final act that plunges the film into a nightmare to rival Dogtooth, in horror and perversity. It’s a mad vision of chickens coming home to roost.
If Haneke and Lanthimos could be accused of playing to their wheelhouses, South Korean festival perennial Hong Sang-soo (Right Now, Wrong Then) is almost never accused of doing anything else; his films are, with few exceptions, all subtle variations on the same basic scenario, in which a heavy-drinking creative type (often a filmmaker) gabs away an awkward day or two, often in the company of women with whom he’s infatuated. I’ll confess that I sometimes struggle with Hong’s movies, because his regular, central character—a boozy hot-mess neurotic who thinks he’s always in love with someone new—is a personality type I avoid like the plague in real life. The Day After (Grade: B-) at least seems to acknowledge how pathetic this particular species of dude can be; its typically talky plot, about a publisher (Kwon Hae-hyo) doing a very poor job of juggling his marriage and his work affair, mostly takes the flabbergasted perspective of a new employee (Kim Min-hee) who gets pulled into his drama. Gorgeously shot in black-and-white and featuring the usual long, baggy, revealing conversations that are Hong’s speciality, The Day After gets by on the farcical nature of its entanglements—in moments, it plays like a delightful comedy of misunderstanding. It’s one of two of the director’s films playing Cannes this year. I won’t be able to squeeze the other one in, but I bet I have a pretty good idea of what it’s about.
Tomorrow: If I run now, I might make it into the new film by John Cameron Mitchell, though reports from yesterday’s premiere aren’t glowing. Also, I’ll dip on over to Directors Fortnight for the new one from Tangerine director Sean Baker, as well as a late-night screening of The Rider, which everyone here is raving about.
The director of The Artist botches his Godard biopic, as Noah Baumbach gives Adam Sandler one of his better roles
Excitement is why people come to Cannes: They want it from the movies, from the celebrity encounters, from the whole movers-and-shakers beach gala atmosphere of the place. Yesterday, though, some of us got the kind of excitement we’d never seek out, at Cannes or anywhere else. As throngs of badged correspondents packed into line outside of the Palais, the festival’s massive screening hub and headquarters, a small army of security personnel assembled at the top of the red-carpeted stairs. After some brief remarks to the troops, their fearless leader bounded down to ground level, his team following close, and shouted a command. I don’t speak French, but the message came through pretty clear: Get out of line now and disperse. No explanation has been provided, I’m told by a French-Canadian journalist in close proximity, and so no one budges for a moment; some of those nearby have been waiting for a good couple hours to get in for the 7:30 screening. But an exodus begins soon enough, right around the time I overhear two ominous words, casually uttered over the din of confused murmurs: “Bomb scare.”
It turns out to be a false alarm. If reports are to be believed, the cause for concern was a bag left in one of the theaters; within 15 minutes of evacuating the building (and briefly ushering some pass-holders into the basement, supposedly), squads of police with dogs press forward into the Palais. Within another 15 minutes, they’ve given the all-clear to start letting everyone back in again. The whole thing is a sobering reminder that there’s a reason for the advanced precautions at the festival this year; suddenly, the thorough bag checks and metal detection and general TSA vibe at every entrance seems more reasonable. At a mass cultural gathering like the Cannes Film Festival, here in the South of France, you can’t be too safe.
Anyway, there’s no way in hell I was risking life and limb to see the new movie from the writer-director of The Artist—especially not with another opportunity later that same night. And so while I was genuinely curious to witness how Michel Hazanavicius’ hotly anticipated biopic of New Wave icon Jean-Luc Godard would play in its premiere screening—especially among the French press corps—I decided not to brave the teeming masses being ushered back into the building, and instead grabbed an evening bite with some fellow critics. It was my second-best decision of the night, right behind getting the hell out of dodge at “bomb scare.”
Le Redoutable (Grade: C) presents Godard, that towering icon of the French New Wave, as petulant, cruel, jealous, pompous, self-pitying, self-aggrandizing, self-loathing, and hypocritical—as maybe the most insufferable geek genius real-life movie character since Eisenberg on Zuckerberg. That’s not really an issue, unless you’re Godard himself (a “stupid idea,” he said when he learned of the project) or an overzealous fan; many of the best biopics, after all, are the ones that take a critical, unflattering stance on their subjects. Nor does it really matter that Hazanavicius doesn’t “get” Godard or the slippery essential truth of his life and work and contradictions, because who does? No, the major problem here is that Le Redoutable is a jokey Wikipedia cartoon of a biopic, skin deep in its character study and aggressively amused by its own barrage of Trivial Pursuit winks.
Returning to cotton-candy crowd-pleasing after the failed prestige swerve of The Search—which premiered here at Cannes to much derision three years ago and still hasn’t opened in the States— Hazanavicius zeroes in on the “Dylan goes electric” chapter of Godard’s life and career: the late ’60s, when he essentially reinvented himself as a political filmmaker, denouncing the “bourgeois” popularity of the hip classics he made just a few years earlier and alienating everyone from his New Wave peers to the critics to the student activists who inspired him. Le Redoutable explores this period of creative upheaval through the lens of Godard’s new marriage to actress Anne Wiazemsky (Nymphomaniac’s Stacy Martin), who can only watch in dismay as the swaggering cinematic rock star she fell in love with transforms overnight into a pouting windbag, too pure in his ideals for the whole world.
Due respect to the real Godard, but this isn’t such a stupid idea that someone like Todd Haynes couldn’t have made a rocking term-paper flashback out of it. But Hazanavicius sees only in sketch-comedy terms. As played by Louis Garrel, with an exaggerated lisp and a smirk that flips upside down into a scowl within minutes, this onscreen Godard is a caricature of curmudgeonly neurosis, like two hours of Woody Allen in the Marshall McLuhan scene of Annie Hall, minus the crack comic timing. (Some variation on “When are you going to be funny again?” gets directed his way a few times.) And as in The Artist, the pastiche is shallow and obligatory. Because this is a Godard biopic, we must have echoes of his tricks: direct address, a sex scene through associative montage, subtitles at odds with what the characters are actually saying, onscreen text, a jarring swap to negative footage. What could be funnier than Godard and Anne discussing nudity in movies while nude?
In a sense, this is another origin story, asking how the young visionary who made Breathless and Contempt turned into the multi-media, uber-intellectual polemicist of today. As someone who finds a lot of late Godard to be willfully obscure and inscrutable, I’m sympathetic to the question. But the film never takes that sea change, that growing interest in politics or the personal convictions that sparked it, remotely seriously, even as just a dramatic idea; to hear Hazanavicius tell it, Godard burned down his legacy out of nothing more than sour grapes after the rejection of his Maoist flop La Chinoise. As for the love story, it’s hampered by the film’s depiction of Anne, an interesting artist in her own right, as a sad-eyed waif observer, sighing on the sidelines of her own story. Le Redoutable might have been Godard’s own I’m Not There. Instead, it often plays like Beauty And The Mansplaining Beast.
For whatever reason, I still find myself rooting for Adam Sandler. Maybe it’s not just that there’s a fairly charming, sensitive actor—a likable lug—lurking beneath his mercenary comic shtick, periodically reminding everyone that he’s better than the insultingly lazy junk he usually stars in (and spearheads). Maybe it’s also that even when Sandler is good, it’s often in the context of movies, like Punch Drunk Love and Funny People, that make his broad comedies look sadder in retrospect, mostly by shining a bright light on the depressive undercurrents of those hits.
There’s a little bit of that going on in Noah Baumbach’s latest symphony of New York dysfunction, The Meyerowitz Stories (Grade: B+), which casts Sandler as Danny, the eldest of three middle-aged siblings, reuniting in NYC for an exhibition by their largely unsung sculptor father (Dustin Hoffman, under a mountain of snow-white facial hair). Sandler, who’s spent an entire lifetime positioning himself on the left side of a slobs-vs.-snobs conflict, finds new notes of underachiever pathos in the character, a soon-to-be-divorcee and a father of a college-bound daughter. And he’s well-matched by Ben Stiller, as his more ostensibly successful businessman brother, Matthew, and Elizabeth Marvel, as their wallflower sister, Jean. Baumbach, who’s honed his comic dialogue to a furious bebop point in recent films like Frances Ha and While We’re Young, hands these actors pages of prickly combative dialogue. He also charitably provides his comic ringers opportunities to reveal new shades of melancholy; Stiller, who always does his best work with Baumbach, has a scene of such tender vulnerability here that it makes you wonder if you’ve ever really seen him. (If Sandler gets more attention for his role in the movie, it might be because there’s not as much novelty in seeing Stiller play up the serio end of seriocomic, even if he rarely reaches this deep.)
The Meyerowitz Stories isn’t the funniest or the sharpest of Baumbach’s comedies, but it may actually be the most scene-for-scene moving: something close to his own Royal Tenenbaums, in its bittersweet depiction of once-promising adult siblings trying to mend the damage done by a neglectful, difficult parent. There was a time when Baumbach could take his incisive talent for character dissection almost too far; Greenberg and Margot At The Wedding pushed his uncharitable side to its acceptable limit. That the writer-director has found a way to preserve his razor wit while also deepening his humane appreciation for the screwups he unleashes adds additional evidence to the case that he’s one of the most consistent (and consistently rewarding) American filmmakers working today. For his movies, I might risk life or limb.
Tomorrow: No more real-life scares, hopefully. But I’ll take some cinematic ones. Can Michael Haneke secure his third consecutive Palme victory? And will Yorgos Lanthimos and Colin Farrell match the twisted wit of The Lobster with their new collaboration?
The director of Force Majeure drops another savage comedy, and a serious Palme D’Or contender emerges
It’s a remarkable thing, when a movie manages to hardwire its entire audience to the anxiety of its characters—when what’s happening to the people on screen becomes a kind of crucible of shared apprehension with the people watching them in the dark. Call it the mass hysteria of What’s going to happen next? There’s a scene in Ruben Östlund’s The Square (Grade: B+) that achieves that exact sort of queasy miracle of forced identification. Several tables worth of wealthy donors, patrons, and aficionados, all seated for a black-tie dinner, are “treated” to some extreme performance art: A shirtless actor, gesticulating like a wild ape, stalks the dining hall, harassing anyone who reacts too noticeably to his wandering-predator routine. As the aggression of the performance intensifies, from vaudeville shtick to outright antagonism (and uncomfortably beyond), laughter chills into a collective paralysis of stress. Art is more dangerous than these self-proclaimed art-lovers imagined it would be. They’re held hostage by it—and so, too, were those of us watching them, locked into our own gauntlet of discomfort. You could hear a pin drop in the Debussy Theatre, where the film premiered last night.
The Square is a comedy, by the way—a merciless and mercilessly funny one, laser-point precise in its humor. It’s cut from the same cloth as Östlund’s last movie, Force Majeure, which premiered at Cannes three years ago, in the second-tier Un Certain Regard lineup, even though it was as smart and accomplished as anything in the main competition. Östlund’s target there was the fragility of male ego. Here, he’s aimed his crosshairs at the sham humanitarianism of high society, and if that sounds like shooting fish in a barrel, the writer-director keeps it sporting by resisting making his prey total caricatures, into straw men for the sniping. He’s a student of human pretension. Also, he can execute a gag with steel-trap precision.
Östlund’s setting is behind the scenes of a contemporary art museum—an environment rife for parody. Head curator Christian (Claes Bang), young and fashionable, is overseeing the introduction of a new installation, one that encourages compassion and social responsibility in passing observers. Christian himself is a carefully calibrated specimen of liberal cluelessness: less of an obvious blowhard than a cloistered faux-intellectual, obsessed with presentation (one brilliant detail: He rehearses his “spontaneous” decision to diverge from prepared remarks), whose values are largely theoretical. He’s as precisely sketched as the crumbling family man of Force Majeure, and The Square spends most of its 140 minutes taking the character down a few pegs, through the domino effect of its various subplots: an ill-conceived plan to scare the pickpockets who stole his wallet and phone into returning them; a dalliance with an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss, pitch perfect as always); a promotional campaign for the museum.
Östlund has been compared to the reigning scold of European art cinema, Michael Haneke, who also has a film at Cannes this year. The Square does bear some thematic resemblance to one of Haneke’s best movies, Code Unknown; both are interested in the idea of intervention—in why, why not, and when we choose to get involved in someone else’s problems. But if Haneke would rather croak than crack a joke, Östlund wraps his withering insights in impeccable farce. He’s a maestro of cringe comedy. If I have any reservations about The Square, it’s that I’m not sure how it all adds up, what Östlund is ultimately trying to say beyond a familiar reminder that plenty of those who fancy themselves cultured and altruistic aren’t really either. But the jokes land hard and often; a day later, I find myself randomly chuckling at stray gags, like an indignant speech interrupted by the noisy mechanical blare of some off-screen museum exhibit.
The Square is by far my favorite of the competition titles I’ve seen so far at Cannes. But it’s early yet—though not too early, apparently, to start speculating about the festival’s top prize, the Palme D’Or. Several of my critical peers, sounding off in person or on Twitter, seem convinced that we already have a likely winner in 120 Beats Per Minute (Grade: B), French writer-director Robin Campillo’s sprawling, sensitive portrait of the organized response to the AIDS crisis in the early ’90s. They could be right: The film blends the political and the heart-wrenchingly personal over its own 140 minutes, and its vision of impassioned, boots-on-ground activism certainly resonates during our charged political now. If I’m resistant to the idea that the film has the Palme locked up upon screening one, maybe it’s because I have to believe that there’s something bolder and a little more formally adventurous coming before the end of the festival next weekend.
Campillo, who co-wrote past Palme winner The Class, has a great gift for chaotic debate, for sticking a bunch of characters in a room and letting them bounce perspectives off each other. To that end, 120 Beats Per Minute is supremely engaging when focused on the nuts and bolts of organized resistance. Set in the early ’90s, it follows members of the French chapter of ACT UP, the advocacy group that fought for better legislation and more visibility for people with AIDS, sometimes confronting politicians and pharmaceutical companies directly. We watch as they plan protest events, argue over strategy, and make vats of fake blood in their bathtubs. Campillo doesn’t simplify the group’s goals or paper over the conflicts within its ranks; in fact, part of what makes these scenes so exciting is that they acknowledge the full challenges facing ACT UP—like, for example, how to impart the danger of the epidemic during Pride Week, when some of those at risk could hear their message but might reject it as gloom-and-doom scare tactics. 120 Beats Per Minute acknowledges the competing agendas of the group’s various factions, while also weaving stirring spectacle from their awareness campaigns and protests.
What Campillo is offering, basically, is a dramatized, Gallic companion piece to David France’s terrific documentary How To Survive A Plague. So long as the filmmaker keeps his focus on the activism, committed by a group of young men and women who educated themselves to save their ravaged community, 120 Beats Per Minute enthralls. It’s the dramatizing that proves a little less revelatory. The film develops a sweet, hesitant romance between two of the activists, the HIV-positive Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and new recruit Nathan (Arnaud Valois), and large stretches of its second half are devoted to their relationship and Sean’s sickness. This approach makes sense—it personalizes the crisis, in the exact way that it was personal for a lot of ACT UP, fighting for their own lives and those of their friends and family. But this material can’t help but seem more dramatically generic next to the specificity of the scenes where everyone’s gathered together in a room, advocating for the right path of advocacy. (Campillo, who’s more known for his screenwriting than his direction, also has a weakness for hazy transitional montages of the characters dancing the night away—a device that feels like filler in a movie that doesn’t need it.)
120 Beats Per Minute does rally for a moving climax, one that manages to find an appropriate convergence point for its emotional and procedural arcs. If it does end up winning the Palme, as many are prematurely guessing it will at the moment, Cannes will have nothing to feel ashamed about. As lightly fictionalized takes on true stories go, I preferred the film to the one I saw immediately afterwards: A Prayer Before The Dawn (Grade: B), based on the bestselling autobiography of Billy Moore, a British boxer and heroin addict who went behind bars in Thailand and survived mainly by breaking into the Muay Thai prison boxing circuit. It’s a spare, brutal, well-crafted prison drama, anchored by an at-turns wildly aggressive and hauntingly vulnerable lead performance by Green Room’s Joe Cole. If it never quite rises above the level of engaging and sporadically horrifying (Thai prisons are no picnic, apparently), that may be because director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire and writers Jonathan Hirschbein and Nick Saltrese are limited by the fairly cut-and-dry details of Moore’s life story, which don’t allow for much more than a bare-bones portrait of endurance in this particular circle of hell. Still, you have to marvel that a film this elegantly directed is playing as part of the festival’s small, genre-leaning midnight slate. In Cannes, even the midnight movies are works of art.
Tomorrow: The guy who made The Artist has directed a Godard biopic. What could go wrong? Also, Noah Baumbach makes his competition debut with a family drama starring Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Dustin Hoffman.
Bong Joon-ho’s Okja has an eventful premiere, while Claire Denis takes an awkward detour
It wouldn’t be Cannes without catcalls. Usually, however, it’s the actual movies, the bombs and provocations of the festival, that inspire bleats of dissatisfaction. This morning, during the world premiere of Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, the boos began with a logo: the branded mark of Netflix, which made history this year by getting two of its original films into competition—a milestone that’s inspired much heated debate, given the streaming giant’s perceived role in the slow death of the movie-theater experience. So controversial is the company’s presence here, at a festival devoted to cinema, that some saw an anti-Netflix conspiracy in what happened next: The film played for five minutes in the wrong aspect ratio, a mistake in the masking obscuring whole stretches of the screen. A chorus of shouts, whistles, and synchronized clapping wafted down from the balcony of the vast Lumiere Theatre, drowning out the dialogue, until at last they cut the feed and the house lights came back up. Second try was the charm. Cannes regrets the gaffe.
Did this brief technical hiccup, and the small riot it caused among the famously vocal international press corps, hurt the movie’s reception? Only, perhaps, in that it gave us not one but two looks at the opening credits sequence, a gonzo press-conference prologue, featuring Tilda Swinton in keyed-up media-ringleader disguise, that promises a slightly better and more cutting movie than the one Bong has actually delivered. Okja (Grade: B-) finds the South Korean director returning to the genre-jumping mode of his masterpiece, The Host, but not quite nailing the tonal juggling act he achieved with that exhilarating creature feature.
There’s a creature here, too: the titular “super pig,” a gray-skinned swine the size of a rhino, with all the loyalty of a trusty hound. Okja, as the beast has been named, is one of 26 of her kind, gifted to farmers the world over by the multinational Mirando Corporation, which has created a PR phenomenon around the discovery, breeding, and inevitable mass butchering of these oversized livestock. Swinton’s savvy company CEO wants to trot the giant hog out at a New York publicity event, but that doesn’t sit well with young Mija (Seo Hyun Ahn), who’s raised Okja in her mountainous rural backyard of South Korea since both were pups. Her affection for the animal is understandable: Okja is an impressively expressive special effect, like a Miyazaki monster brought to cuddly CGI life.
You could get whiplash charting the film’s progress, from the aforementioned opening-credits assault—an info dump wrapped in the bright colors of lunatic satire, a kissing cousin to the classroom scene in Bong’s Snowpiercer—to the gentle cross-species bonding scenes that follow. And that’s just Okja getting warmed up. Things really start shifting gears once Bong introduces a manic celebrity Animal Planet-type (Jake Gyllenhaal, somewhere between Jerry Lewis and Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element on the flamboyant, scenery-chewing scale) and an eccentric faction of the Animal Liberation Front, plotting to use Okja to expose the truth about Mirando’s secret transgressions. The Host had a similarly ambitious game plan, but it also had a rock-solid emotional core. Okja is soggier at its center, its girl-and-her-pig fable too cloying and familiar for these tastes. (The irony, perhaps intentional, is that the movie uses Mija and her lumbering pet the same way the evil company wants to: for attack-of-the-cute ingratiation purposes.)
Still, Okja remains consistently diverting, Bong carrying us over the rough patches of his storytelling through the sheer rush of his pop filmmaking skills. In a kind of playful, high-speed reprise of The Host’s opening showstopper, a highway chase bleeds into a slapstick rampage, as Okja barrels destructively through a shopping mall, several different parties in hot pursuit. You watch a scene like that and wonder why so few Hollywood blockbusters, budgeted much higher than this economical fantasia, can manage spectacle so exciting. Similar thoughts passed through my mind during a screening of another high-octane genre pastiche, Jupiter’s Moon (Grade: C+). The film’s Hungarian writer and director, Kornél Mundruczó, made a splash at Cannes three years ago with the magical (neo)realism of White God, which won the festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar. Now he’s graduated to the main competition, and it’s easy to see why: From its opening scene, an immigration raid captured in a single spectacular Steadicam shot (or at least the illusion of one), Jupiter’s Moon is engineered to drop jaws, one showboating set piece at a time. It’s maybe the most muscularly elaborate staging in a quasi-indie since Alfonso Cuarón’s Children Of Men, which Mundruczó often blatantly imitates.
Unfortunately, the movie’s often-astonishing imagery—a multi-floor hotel shoot-out; a kinetic car chase through rush-hour traffic; an entire room spinning destructively in circles—has been applied to a mainstream thriller that might charitably be called goofy and more accurately described as powerfully stupid. Dimly filtering the Syrian refugee crisis through the prism of an X-Men movie, Mundruczó follows a young illegal immigrant (Zsombor Jéger) who’s cold-bloodedly gunned down by an immigration officer during the opening siege, only to survive the attack with the newfound ability to levitate. Escaping to Budapest, he falls under the exploitative care of a disgraced surgeon (Merab Ninidze) who’s lost his reputation and his faith, but sees the quick buck he can make off his new charge’s miracles. Those wondering whether the doctor will have a moral awakening probably haven’t seen too many movies about reluctant saviors—or, again, Children Of Men, whose redemption arc Jupiter’s Moon also swipes. Anyway, our hero’s opportunism is no more less shameless than Mundruczó’s; like White God, which located some muddled racial politics in its tale of canine revolution, this is a movie that wears its simplistic “political” topicality like a fashion statement. Best to just gape at the eye candy, the pretty damn special effects, and to imagine what Mundruczó will do with the $90 million he’s secured for his Hollywood debut.
Down the street from the Palais, in a smaller theater within the JW Marriott, Cannes’ redheaded cousin of a fellow festival, Directors’ Fortnight, kicked off with the new film from French master Claire Denis. Denis has never really been a regular at Cannes; her last film, the competition-worthy Bastards, was unfairly relegated to Un Certain Regard (the festival’s sidebar for films that didn’t quite make the main-slate cut), and many of her earlier triumphs bowed at Berlin or Venice. Last night, before the premiere of her latest, Denis took the stage after a brief, warm tribute to festival alum Werner Herzog, and ended up echoing his assertion that the Fortnight is “home.” For these two great directors, and many more like them, this festival may be a more hospitable host. Certainly, it carries less of the hit-or-miss, insta-reaction pressure put on films thrown into the deep end of a Palais premiere. Still, hasn’t the director of Beau Travail and 35 Shots Of Rum earned the privilege of an automatic invite? Shouldn’t Cannes kill to premiere her work, even if she’s not dying to premiere at Cannes?
My indignation faded as the movie unfolded. Bright Sunshine In (Grade: C+), whose title will almost certainly be replaced if or when it gets released in the States, is a radical, perplexing departure for the filmmaker, and not necessarily a welcome one. I’ve argued before that Denis’ sensibilities can be productively, thrillingly applied to just about any genre, but her stab at romantic comedy may be the exception that proves the rule—it oddly eschews just about every quality that we’ve come to associate with her sensual, elliptical style. Knocking another giant of the cinema off her bucket list, Juliette Binoche plays an aging artist bounding through a quick string of floundering relationships, wondering if she’ll ever find a romance built to last. The opening minutes, which offer a realistically messy sex scene, mark this as the work of an artist consistently entranced by the corporeal, by the mysteries and appeal of the flesh.
From there, however, Bright Sunshine In slips into an odd pattern of intentionally stilted conversation, as Binoche talks and talks and talks her way in and out of companionship. It seems fair to assert that there is more dialogue in this movie than in all of Denis’ earlier ones combined. Perhaps that discrepancy is key to understanding what she’s after. Characters in a Denis film tend to communicate through looks and glances and body language; her best movies groove on unspoken emotion, trusting audiences to keep up with what the people on screen are conveying to each other wordlessly. Maybe Bright Sunshine In takes the opposite tact to show how ineffectual speech can be as a tool for communication. “Sometimes there’s no need to talk,” Binoche’s lonely-hearted heroine declares, after a series of circular discussions that bring her no closer to the flawed, incompatible men in her life. Doesn’t it say something that the most meaningful connection she forges may be with the least chatty of her potential love interests (Denis regular Alex Descas)?
There’s plenty to chew on here, but mostly, perhaps, in the context of the filmmaker’s whole career. What newcomers to this great director’s work will make of its awkward tragicomedy, I couldn’t say. The movie finds only sparks of truth and humor in endless gab; it feels more like the impression of a film, sketchy and incomplete, though the final joke (featuring a top-billed but heretofore absent Gérard Depardieu) gets funnier as it stretches out endlessly into the end credits.
Tomorrow: Speaking of Un Certain Regard winners moving up in the world, the writer-director of Force Majeure, Ruben Östlund, makes the leap to the main slate, too, with The Square. Meanwhile, Robin Campillo, who co-wrote past Palme D’Or winner The Class, has a directorial effort in competition. Also, I’ll try to sample more of the Cannes sidebar. The next Dogtooth or It Follows awaits.
On Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, and Takashi Miike’s 100th movie
The jet lag slot. That’s what friend, critic, and former colleague Ben Kenigsberg calls the 7 o’clock hour of Cannes’ kickoff night, when the first of the official competition titles screens. Yesterday, I speculated that the programmers may deliberately pick mediocre movies for the opening-night selection, as a way to set the curve for the rest of the fest. But there’s a different calculus at play with that first comp screening a few hours later; as Ben points out, Cannes has a perverse habit of showing something long, punishing, and/or glacially slow right around the time many critics from abroad, rocking zero sleep after an overnight flight, are beginning to lose their battle with exhaustion. Last year, honors went to Cristi Puiu’s three-hour Sieranevada. And three years ago, on the first day of my first Cannes, I fought valiantly to keep my eyes open during Timbuktu—file that one, about Jihadists wreaking havoc in Mali, under “punishing,” not long or slow. Is this the festival’s way of reaffirming its seriousness, its commitment to grueling art cinema, after the glitz and glamour of the opening-night presentation? Or is it just pure sadism?
Sight unseen, I definitely could have pegged the new film by Andrey Zvyagintsev as a likely candidate for the jet lag slot. Zvyagintsev, Russian director of 2003’s The Return and several more gorgeously grueling dramas in the years since, specializes in the exact kind of anvil that Cannes likes to drop on sleep-deprived critics right out the gate. But while his latest did indeed kick off the competition slate last night, it’s only about two hours long—not exactly a butt-number. And like his Leviathan, which won a major prize at Cannes the same year Timbuktu premiered, it also exhibits faint signs that the poker-faced Zvyagintsev is learning to leaven the leaden seriousness of his work, even to crack a few jokes, albeit strictly of the grim gallows-humor variety.
This is a relative distinction, mind you. Loveless (Grade: B-) is as pitilessly bleak as anything Zvyagintsev has made, in large part because it identifies no clear rooting interest. At first, we could just be watching the most tediously bitter relationship study ever. Zvyagintsev feigns balance, as one does when orchestrating a war of the roses, but the equilibrium is off: Boris (Alexey Rozin), an office drone fearful that his impending divorce may cost him his job, mostly comes across as lazy and unengaged, whereas as his wife, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), spews a constant stream of venom and spite, at least when she doesn’t have her nose buried in her smart phone. (Gadget addiction is the cheapest of character flaws, and unfortunately gendered by the movie.) What the two have in common, beyond lovers on the side, is a general indifference toward, and even dislike for, their 12-year-old son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), who mysteriously disappears one morning. Damningly, it takes his neglectful, preoccupied parents a full day to even notice he’s gone.
As a character study, Loveless is as blunt as its title: We’re essentially watching horrible people go through something worse, and not improving one bit through the ordeal. The film, on the other hand, does improve, but only when Zvyagintsev shifts focus from the social lives of these selfish, petty spouses to the procedural details of a missing-child investigation—a plot queasily complicated by the lack of affection these particular parents have for their particular missing child. Loveless, like Leviathan before it, is after a damning overarching statement about Russian society, one that doesn’t shift into focus until the final minutes. (Time-and-place news reports and a prominently displayed track jacket with RUSSIA on the front make sure that the message doesn’t get lost.)
In the end, Zvyagintsev’s harsh truths, coupled with his uncharitable characterizations, still strike me as too obvious by half. But there are details here worth savoring, like the aforementioned glimmers of dark comedy. (All the police officers are impatient veterans, including the one who thinks he’s being comforting when he assures Zhenya that he’s found no evidence that she killed her own kid and disguised it as a kidnapping). What’s more, Loveless never looks less than remarkable, particularly when training its exacting, long-take gaze on orange-clad volunteers marching into a forebodingly foggy forest or poking around grungy, darkened abandoned buildings. Zvyagintsev, it can’t be denied, makes some of the most striking bummers on the market. “Feel bad” rarely looks so good.
As it turns out, missing kids play a central role in another major competition title playing here at Cannes, though the tone and the perspective couldn’t be further removed from Loveless’ scalding cynicism. The lushly realized Wonderstruck (Grade: B) finds Todd Haynes, director of such adults-only daydreams as Carol and Far From Heaven, adapting an illustrated YA novel by The Invention Of Hugo Cabret author Brian Selznick. Like Martin Scorsese, Haynes has mined Selznick’s work for a film about the inherent loneliness and magic of childhood, filtered through a nostalgic affection for silent cinema. But while Wonderstruck makes for even less conventional family fare than Hugo, I’ve had trouble shaking the feeling, in the few hours since the credits rolled, that it’s more of an exercise than a movie—a lovingly crafted flashback pastiche whose emotional core remains oddly theoretical.
Following the lead of Selznick’s book, Haynes tracks two stories in parallel, cross-cutting intuitively between them. In 1977, orphan Ben (Oakes Fegley, of Pete’s Dragon) loses his hearing in a freak lightning accident, then hops a bus from Minnesota to New York City in search of the father he’s never known. In the same bustling metropolis 50 years earlier, the deaf Rose (newcomer Millicent Simmonds, who’s actually deaf) searches for silent screen idol Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore)—scenes that Haynes shoots in eye-catching black-and-white. It’s clear, immediately, that the director has sacrificed none of himself to the demands of an all-ages entertainment. If you’ve seen the advance clip Amazon released last week than you have a good idea how Wonderstruck often unfolds: as a wordless flurry of child’s-eye sensation, leaping back and forth across time, to the tune of another unforgettably aching Carter Burwell score and through the lens of fellow Carol alum Edward Lachman. It’s a Todd Haynes movie through and through.
That could be part of the problem. Haynes sometimes gets dinged for his ”academic” approach—for creating intelligent but fussy fetish objects out of the stuff he loves, from classic rock to Douglas Sirk tearjerkers. Normally, I’m quick to insist that a vein of genuine feeling rescues his movies from those charges. But there is something affected about Wonderstruck’s vague appropriation of silent-film language; while much more formally rapturous than The Artist, another love letter to Hollywood’s earliest years that premiered at Cannes, the film seems more in love with its own time-jumping rhythm—its opportunity to skip from an expensive flapper-era New York to an ostentatiously “funky” 1970s New Yawk—than it with its characters or expositional narrative. By the curiously flat finale, when Haynes has begun to pull all the dangling plot strands together, any shot at a Spielbergian (or maybe just Selznickian) crescendo has passed. Wonderstruck is too singular to ignore, especially when compared to the lion’s share of personality-free kid-lit adaptations. But I’m afraid, at least upon first look, that I more distantly admired its craftsmanship than swooned for its pleasures.
Finally, congratulations are in order. Takashi Miike, Japan’s most prolific genre jumper, has officially made 100 movies. And he’s crossed that staggering milestone with one of his better recent ones: the go-for-broke, 140-minute samurai extravaganza Blade Of The Immortal (Grade: B). Based on a popular manga by Hiroaki Samura, the film opens with a jaw-dropping, black-and-white, one-on-100 brawl, as Manji (Takuya Kimura) avenges his sister’s death by dispatching a veritable army of opponents. Miike then switches to full, vibrant color as the fallen swordsman, dying from wounds received in the battle, is granted unwanted immortality by an enchantress, who infects his blood with restorative magic worms. (Don’t ask.) The story, a kind of Eastern cousin to Logan, betrays episodic comic-book roots: What we’re watching is essentially a string of limb-hacking, blade-slicing showdowns, as Manji and teenage charge Rin (Hana Sugisaki) encounter one heavy after another. It’s neither as powerful nor as awesome as Miike’s 13 Assassins, a towering throwback masterpiece in his hefty oeuvre. But it is a nonstop barrage of kinetic, gory-goofy fun—and further proof that of all the genres he dabbles in, samurai cinema is the one that brings out the grandest entertainer in Miike. Here’s to 100 more.
Tomorrow: I find out why the great French director Claire Denis had to settle for Director’s Fortnight instead of a main-competition slot. I’ll also report back on Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-ho’s new one, and the latest from the director of White God.
Arnaud Desplechin returns to Cannes with Ismael’s Ghosts
Whisper it into the summer wind, like one of Terrence Malick’s searching, fluttering tree nymphs: There are two ways through the Cannes Film Festival. Every year, thousands of artists, celebrities, businesspeople, industry players, journalists, and star-struck onlookers swarm the French Riviera for the most important two weeks on the world-cinema calendar. For some, this will be a fortnight of extravagance—of glitzy gala screenings in full evening wear, of lavish meals at one of the countless cafés serving rich cuisine at richer prices, of fun and sun and soirees along the scenic Boulevard De La Croisette. If you occupy this upper strata, hobnobbing with the gods and the stars, you’re living the high life. Google “Cannes” and “glamour” for a photographic taste. Or, if you’re a local, post up across from the grand Palais, where the famous convene each day, or within reach of the towering hotels situated like castles in the radius of the festival’s nerve center and screening hub.
There is, of course, another way through Cannes. This is the way of the lowly film critic or entertainment reporter on the beat, scrambling from screening to screening, decked out in casual comfort, in proximity to luxury but rarely privy to it. We eat fast and cheap. We sleep where and when we can. We crowd into the stuffy Apple-white press lounge, shoulder to shoulder, to file observations on what we observed from a safe distance. Not that I’m complaining. God no! Cannes is Disneyland for movie lovers; you spend almost as much time in line, but the rides tend to be worth it. I’ll be here for the next 10 days, reporting from the ground on the latest movies from (big breath) Sofia Coppola, Michael Haneke, Claire Denis, Todd Haynes, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Bong Joon-ho, Noah Baumbach, Yorgos Lanthimos, Lynne Ramsay, Ruben Östlund, Takashi Miike, Hong Sang-soo, and many more. I wouldn’t trade that privilege for the best yacht party Leo DiCaprio could throw.
As if to accentuate the discrepancy between my Cannes experience and the most luxurious one, I’ve taken headquarters in Le Cannet, the city’s quieter northern commune, in a cozy efficiency about the size of a dorm room. It’s a 40-minute walk every morning to the Palais—a decent hike I don’t really mind, as the weather in Cannes tends to be reliably gorgeous, and it’s never a bad thing to get a little exercise when you’re otherwise spending your days and nights sitting in front of a movie screen. Following a downward-sloping road literally called Cannes—there is a school at the top of it, judging from the gaggle of back-packed teenagers passing by in the opposite direction on my morning commute—I eventually reach city limits. It is demarcated by a beautiful stone bridge, and things look different the second I pass under it to the other side, where I’m greeted by a row of bone-white designer street-lamps, curving upwards at an angle, like the ribcage of some long-dead leviathan. The belly of the beast awaits.
As an event and a town, Cannes hums. You could waste an afternoon just people watching and then cataloguing the experience. But the movies beckon more forcefully. Even the first one does this year. For opening night, Cannes tends to privilege prominence over prestige, kicking things off with something star-powered and usually not in competition: a new Woody Allen movie, a Hollywood extravaganza, maybe some fluffy nothing with the right onscreen talent. As at Sundance, which similarly tends to open soft, I wonder if this isn’t the programmers deliberately deflating expectations a little; if the first movie sets the bar low enough, the highs may look higher. But this year, Cannes hasn’t just promoted the work of a native. They’ve also picked an honest-to-God movie, a real auteur work, to start the festival in style. Ismael’s Ghosts (Grade: B), the latest scattershot drama from French director Arnaud Desplechin (Esther Kahn, A Christmas Tale), isn’t a great movie. But it offers much more than just marquee appeal—though given the presence of Marion Cotillard, Mathieu Amalric, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Louis Garrel, there’s plenty of that, too.
Desplechin’s last movie, My Golden Days, which premiered in the Directors Fortnight sidebar of Cannes two years ago, was a prequel to one of his best films, the sprawling coming-of-age epic My Sex Life… Or How I Got Into An Argument. A similar (if looser) relationship to a prior triumph animates his new one, which finds Amalric, the director’s regular star and muse, appearing as a filmmaker named Ismaël Vuillard—the same name Desplechin handed the musician Amalric played in Kings And Queen. (For this viewer, the connection didn’t register until a preteen character from that earlier movie got mentioned.) But if Ismael’s Ghosts is a sequel, it’s more of a spiritual one, allowing Amalric the opportunity not so much to reprise the exact same role but to revive some of its manic energy.
Desplechin pulls a classic mislead in the opening minutes, locking his focus on hotshot, much-ballyhooed diplomat Ivan (Garrel, looking strikingly like Robert Pattinson with his buzz-cut hairdo), whose reputation at the foreign affairs office precedes him. It’s soon revealed, however, that this political intrigue is just a flight of screenwriter fancy—the spy thriller Ismaël is making, with Ivan as a heavily fictionalized version of the filmmaker’s real brother, who we never meet. Ismaël is haunted, figuratively and through nightly nightmares, by the loss of his ex-wife, Carlotta, who disappeared 20-some years earlier without a trace, leaving her husband and her elderly, ailing father (László Szabó) to assume her long dead. But just as Ismaël is settling into a second life with new lover Sylvia (Gainsbourg), out of the woodwork comes the long lost Carlotta (Cotillard), ready to rekindle what she abandoned two decades prior.
It’s a potent premise, one that Desplechin uses to examine the battle between past glory/trauma and present contentment, with Carlotta gusting in like the specter of the former and Sylvia holding steady as the embodiment of the latter. (“How many lives have you lived?” someone asks the fictional Ivan at one point, in what you could call a key line of questioning.) Of course, beyond the fact that choosing between Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marion Cotillard sounds like a pretty okay problem to have, this schematic conflict hints at Desplechin’s increasingly self-indulgent concerns. Turns out the Ivan portion of Ismael’s Ghosts is more of a subplot than a fake-out, as the film gradually drifts away from its central love triangle, disappearing into more scenes from the film-within-a-film and exploring Ismaël’s tortured creative process. To say that Desplechin loses the thread would only be partially accurate. It’s more like he lights the thread on fire like a fuse.
Thing is, digressions have always been a key tenet of this particular filmmaker’s messy, side-winding, novelistic work. Given the potential charge of the central story, it’s a little disappointing to see Ismael’s Ghosts careen off in several divergent directions. But the deluge of flashbacks and anecdotal asides are part of what make Desplechin’s movies, at their cluttered best, so singularly delightful. Here, the director toggles around with impish enthusiasm, staging moments—like Cotillard’s loose-limbed dance to Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe,” or a brief detour aboard a speeding passenger train—for nothing but the sheer pleasure of them. He also trots out the usual stylistic tricks that have always give even his lesser efforts an infectious energy: the fades and superimpositions, the dramatic zooms and irises, churning orchestral accompaniment. It’s a lazy move on a critic’s part to quote a film’s official press notes, but the Truffaut quote Desplechin cites there—“It’s forbidden to think that we will make a masterpiece. We’ll try to make a film that feels alive.”—really does seem apropos here. Ismael’s Ghosts is no masterpiece, but it feels plenty alive—enough so that I think the programmers should have found a spot for it in the competition lineup. And if half the films I see over the next week-and-a-half feel so alive, it’ll be a hell of a festival, even for those of us not living that Cannes high life.
Next up: Todd Haynes tries his hand at family fare with Wonderstruck, while the Russian director of The Return, Andrey Zvyagintsev, returns to Cannes with another bid for Palme glory. Plus: I try to squeeze into the new samurai picture by Japan’s jack of all genres Takashi Miike, whose 13 Assassins remains one of the most epically awesome action movies of the new millennium. Wish me luck!