Sasha Lane in American Honey

Of the 21 films in Competition at Cannes this year, only three are directed by women. That’s a problem. Whether it’s really Cannes’ problem (or any festival’s) is a trickier question. Thierry Frémaux, the fest’s head honcho, always insists that he and his team have selected the best films made available to them and that any gender imbalance reflects the lack of opportunities available to female filmmakers at the production stage. That’s not hard for me to believe (ignoring rabid disagreements about what constitutes “best”), because while many of my favorite contemporary directors are women—in addition to Maren Ade, I’d cite Julia Loktev, Kelly Reichardt, Lucrecia Martel, Clio Barnard, Debra Granik, Ursula Meier, Nina Paley, Pascale Ferran, and Annette K. Olesen—it’s likely that few of them would happen to have a film ready for Cannes in any given year. Looking just at the names above, for example, Reichardt already premiered her latest film, Certain Women, at Sundance four months ago, while Martel’s Zama is reportedly still in post-production and couldn’t make it in time for Cannes. None of the others have a feature near completion, as far as I can determine. Basically, the pool is ludicrously small (even if your list of worthy options differs from mine). Only when roughly half of the films submitted are female-directed will shaming the festival be productive; for the moment, shaming studios, production companies, and financiers makes a lot more sense.

In any case, my reaction to the three Competition entries by women that are here this year runs the gamut from near-masterpiece to interesting curio to dismal failure, which seems healthy somehow (since that’s pretty much the same range that the XY contingent will inspire). I raved about Toni Erdmann yesterday, and it remains the film to beat, not just for me but for almost everyone here. (It has the highest average rating in the history of Screen International’s annual critics’ poll—more on that in tomorrow’s halftime report.) I’m less enthused than are many of my colleagues, though, about American Honey (Grade: B-), the first American-set feature by British director Andrea Arnold. Quick disclosure: I served on a festival jury with Arnold two years ago and found her immensely lovable; she actually told me about this project, which she was in the midst of assembling at the time (by taking multiple cross-country road trips, to get a feel for the American landscape). But I was grateful that she never asked me—the sole critic on our jury—what I think of her films (Red Road, Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights), since I’ve had a decidedly mixed response to all of them, despite her unmistakable talent.

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American Honey came close to seducing me, for a while. Arnold was reportedly inspired by a New York Times article about groups of young people who travel the country selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door, in part because that sounds so utterly implausible in today’s world. The movie follows one such group, populated mostly by nonprofessionals Arnold found on her scouting trips, and it works best as a rowdy ensemble piece—sort of a co-ed, mobile, present-day version of Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some, examining the frayed bonds created among newly formed adults with few responsibilities and a dynamic torn between loyalty and rivalry.

Arnold apparently felt that she needed both a protagonist and a movie star, though, so American Honey winds up focusing intently on Star (appealing first-time actor Sasha Lane), a teenage girl who’s recruited in a Walmart parking lot by daredevil salesman Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and opts to escape her stifling, hardscrabble existence by joining his van full of cheerful miscreants. Jake seems to be romantically and/or sexually involved with hard-ass team leader Crystal (Riley Keough, star of Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience), but that doesn’t stop him from responding to Star’s blatant advances; over the course of American Honey’s exhausting two hours and 42 minutes, their relationship grows more and more prominent, to the film’s detriment. Sporting a goofy haircut and an unattractive eyebrow ring, LaBeouf plays Jake as an id-driven extension of what’s now his own public persona—he’s first seen getting ejected from the Walmart for standing on a checkout conveyor belt to dance along to Rihanna’s “We Found Love”—but his celebrity distracts from the film’s otherwise scrupulous naturalism, and he and Lane set off few sparks together. Random, strange interludes, like one in which Star impulsively jumps into a convertible driven by four white-clad, middle-aged good ol’ boys (one of them played by Will Patton, who improves any film in which he unexpectedly appears), serve Arnold’s heated vision much more than does Honey’s rather conventional, interminably drawn-out coming-of-age romance.

Still, that’s far preferable to the absurd notion of romantic yearning at the heart of Nicole Garcia’s From The Land Of The Moon (Grade: D+), a film with such a regressive view of female desire that it’s hard to believe it was made by a woman. Cannes’ support of Garcia has long bewildered me, as her previous Competition titles (The Adversary and Charlie Says) are among the most forgettable in the festival’s recent history. (I literally don’t remember who Charlie was or what he said.) But From The Land Of The Moon, adapted from an Italian novella by Milena Agus called Mal Di Pietre (which apparently means “kidney stones,” though that’s not what Google Translate spits up), is embarrassing enough to stay lodged in one’s memory forever, like a popcorn kernel stuck between your teeth.

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An opening sequence introduces Gabrielle (Marion Cotillard) as she and her husband, José (Àlex Brendemühl), take their teenage son to a piano competition in Lyon. Suddenly, Gabrielle sees a street sign and demands to be let out, triggering the flashback that will take up most of the film. Years are never specified, but it’s now sometime in the ’50s, and the younger Gabrielle (who might be as young as 20, though Cotillard is 40) is revealed to be suffering from two maladies: kidney stones and what can only be termed “romantic insanity.” Whatever form of madness afflicts her relates exclusively to the opposite sex—she seems lucid in every other context—and causes her to fixate with terrifying intensity on men she identifies as soulmates, no matter how little they return her ardor. After being rejected by one of her teachers (and responding with physical assault), Gabrielle receives an ultimatum from her mother (Brigitte Roüan): marry José, who’s just a random itinerant worker passing through the area, or be institutionalized. Gabrielle takes option A, though not before securing a no-sex agreement with her future husband. Instead, she falls madly in love with a fellow patient, André (Louis Garrel), at the convalescent home in the Alps where her kidney stones are being treated. Might this ailing war veteran—who played the piano himself—be her son’s true father?

The answer to this question is eventually revealed in a plot twist so mind-bogglingly stupid that I refused to believe it could possibly have come from the original novella—and, sure enough, it doesn’t (though the problem lies primarily in translating the material from written to cinematic form). Even before this ludicrous revelation, however, From The Land Of The Moon spends nearly two hours focused on a woman who’s defined entirely by her literally certifiable romantic impulses. Gabrielle has no job, no friends, no hobbies, no interests—she doesn’t even seem to especially like her child (which is odd, since she’s convinced her long-lost love is the kid’s father). All she does is get obsessed with unavailable men and construct vivid mental fantasies around them. I’m trying to think of a male equivalent, and the best I can do is Travis Bickle, had Taxi Driver omitted all of his grotesque and violent thoughts and concentrated entirely on his futile courtship of Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy. Even that sounds 100 times more interesting than this movie actually is, though, because Garcia’s formal approach is as bland as Scorsese’s is dynamic. Gabrielle isn’t an arresting anti-heroine, and From The Land Of The Moon (the English title seems arbitrary) isn’t a disturbing case study. Its cozy, upbeat ending confirms it as a stealth romance. Because romance, apparently, is all life offers women. Ugh.

Tomorrow: Men! It’s all dudes from here on out. Jim Jarmusch returns to the Croisette with Paterson, starring Adam Driver as a literal driver (of a bus), and Jeff Nichols, hot on the heels of Midnight Special, tackles the most famous interracial marriage in American history.

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