Ah, so here’s where all the truly distinctive films were hiding. The last three I’ve seen run the gamut from the nearly sublime to the frankly abysmal, but they’re all bold, memorable, risk-happy adventures—exactly the kind of movies Cannes ought to be showcasing. Even the one I despised made me happy, just by virtue of being unafraid to fail. My Leone-style rundown of the past 24 hours:
THE GOOD: If anything, advance word about J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost underplayed the starkly elemental nature of this one-man survival tale. I’d heard that Robert Redford is its sole cast member, which is true, and that he gives an essentially wordless performance, which is also true (just some attempts to communicate via a broken radio and one pent-up, anguished “FUUUUUUCK!!!!”). But I was pleasantly surprised—gobsmacked, actually—by the film’s total rejection of context, backstory, characterization, or any other writers’ crutches. Apart from a fairly vague goodbye letter read in voiceover at the outset, which mostly apologizes for failings never specified, we know absolutely nothing about the unnamed man (Redford, obviously) at the helm of the Virginia Jean, a small boat drifting 1,700 nautical miles from the nearest land. Disaster strikes before the movie even begins: We first see Redford awaken to find that a shipping container full of tennis shoes has punctured a large hole in his craft, and we never learn how it happened, why he was out there, who the hell he is, or much of anything else. The entire movie is simply a record of his strenuous, increasingly desperate efforts to stay alive, with no bloodstained volleyballs or hungry tigers to serve as a distraction or “humanize” the protagonist. Margin Call showed off Chandor’s talent for snappy dialogue, but here he succeeds in paring the struggle to its purely visual essence, allowing Redford the freedom to literally let action define character. It’s hard to say if this is a great performance—arguably, it’s too single-minded to achieve greatness—but it’s precisely what the movie requires, and Redford commits himself wholeheartedly to the Mamet-approved technique of performing each necessary action as simply and directly as possible. A few moments in which the score becomes obtrusive are regrettable (mostly there isn’t any score, so it’s jarring when strings suddenly swell), and I’m torn regarding the last minute or two, which end the film on an ambiguous note that strikes me, at least on first viewing, as a tad cute in its Christian iconography. On the whole, though, this is a uniquely thrilling stunt, as well as proof that most backstory is unnecessary bullshit. May Hollywood take note. Grade: A-
THE BAD: Having won over former skeptics like myself (if not the general public) with the sleek, seductive Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn might have chosen to veer even further into the mainstream. Instead—and I have to respect this, even as I recoil—he’s reteamed with Ryan Gosling for a movie that amplifies the most off-putting aspects of his earlier work: the gratuitous sadism, the canned portentousness, the sub-Lynchian pools of red light, the nihilistic emptiness. Gosling doesn’t even really play a character in Only God Forgives—just an affectless lump running a boxing club in Thailand that’s actually a front for his family’s drug trade. When his brother rapes and murders a prostitute, and is then killed in return by the girl’s father, Gosling winds up caught between his Gorgon of a mother (Kristin Scott Thomas, camping it up) and an ex-cop punisher (Vithaya Pansringarm) who metes out justice with various swords and other sharp implements. Little more than a series of gory executions, the film never even attempts to provide a reason for emotional investment in anybody onscreen; its sole nod to psychological complexity is Pansringarm’s penchant for singing karaoke ballads when he’s not chopping off arms or gouging out eyes. (“Y’ever listen to K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ’70s?”) Not that Drive was exactly Chekhovian, either, but Gosling’s driver did at least recognizably give a shit about Carey Mulligan and her son, as well as take some pride in his skill behind the wheel. Here, there’s absolutely nothing except Winding Refn’s way-too-artfully-lit sets and the various rote excuses he can find to coat them with blood. Scott Thomas has fun with her one-note bitch queen, snarling self-consciously outrageous dialogue about how jealous Gosling was of his dead brother’s gigantic cock, but since her performance takes place in the same crimson vacuum as everything else, it never registers as more than a brief diversion. Only God Forgives is the worst movie I’ve seen this year, by a good margin; it does have the courage of its moronic convictions, though, and that does count for something. Better striking garbage like this than tasteful mediocrities. Grade: D
THE UGLY: Word from the first screening of Claire Denis’ Bastards, inexplicably playing in Un Certain Regard rather than in Competition, was that it was nigh-well incomprehensible, a complaint that had also been registered by many about her 2004 film The Intruder. I was among those standing in a huddle outside the theater at the Toronto festival that year, trying to work out what the hell happens in The Intruder, but Bastards seems fairly straightforward to me, with only a few achronological blips still unexplained by movie’s end. More than any of Denis’ previous films, it calls to mind Olivier Assayas’ highly divisive Demonlover, with its sterile conjunction of corporate malfeasance and sexual perversion. And as with Demonlover (which I quite like), formal magnificence obscures content that could kindly be characterized, when viewed head-on, as kinda sorta dumb. Since one of the film’s primary pleasures is the gradual way Denis and her usual co-writer, Jean-Pol Fargeau, parcel out its narrative crumbs, I won’t reveal too much: There’s a ship’s captain (Vincent Lindon) whose family owns a bankrupt shoe factory; the mogul’s mistress (Chiara Mastroianni) with whom he has a torrid affair; a clearly traumatized young woman (Lola Créton) wandering the streets naked except for high heels; and the captain’s sister (Julie Bataille), whose husband commits suicide in the opening scene. These strands are connected in a purely cinematic way that beguiles even as it mystifies, as when Lindon begins his seduction of Mastroianni by wrapping a bar of soap (I think) in one of his dress shirts and dropping it to her from his window above—this following a shot in which we’d seen her gazing at the same shirt while he fixed her son’s bicycle chain. Apparently, the script is loosely based on Faulkner’s Sanctuary, but you’d never guess that from its kaleidoscopic rhythms, which seem intuitive rather than conventionally dramatic. But while Bastards is never less than enthralling while it unravels, its resolution—again, like that of Demonlover—feels shallowly sordid, as if the entire movie was really just a prolonged moralistic scold cleverly disguised as something richer and more mysterious. I suspect it, too, will wind up as an intriguing footnote in its director’s filmography. Grade: B
Tomorrow: Alexander Payne returns to Nebraska following his sojourn to Hawaii for The Descendants, and Abdellatif Kechiche (The Secret Of The Grain) delivers the Competition’s epic, a two-parter running three hours. Plus I’ll catch up with Grigris, an African film I’ve already seen that didn’t fit my conceit for this entry.