Pedro Almodóvar has never won the top prize at Cannes. That could change in a few days. Pain And Glory (Grade: B) is far from his best movie—it lacks both the mad energy of his early countercultural work and the ravishing melodramatic pleasures of the critical darlings from his prestige period (including All About My Mother, which was heavily favored to win, but didn’t, in 1999). This new film, though, offers something like an up-close-and-personal look at the aging master, reminiscing wistfully (if only semi-autobiographically) on his own history. In other words, it’s the exact sort of career summation one might consider handing an artist “overdue” for laurels. Even if the renowned Spanish director makes more movies (he hasn’t announced his retirement or anything), it seems unlikely any of them will look as superficially perfect for the Palme as this one.
Am I being too cynical? Almodóvar, who turns 70 in September, hasn’t directed a lifetime achievement highlight reel. Pain And Glory is its own movie, not a nostalgic run-through of past triumphs. Midway through the festival, it’s also the most critically acclaimed title in competition. (At this moment, it’s rocking the year’s highest score, a 3.3, in Screen Daily, which polls a jury of high-profile critics on every comp title; The Dead Don’t Die currently sits in last place with a 2.2.)
There’s plenty to admire, including the lead performance. Antonio Bandereas has been working with Almodóvar since the start of both men’s careers, so it’s poignant seeing the movie star tamp his dashing, devil-may-care charisma way down to play a neurotic film director— Almodóvarish in haircut and more—coping with multiple physical and psychological maladies. His character, Salvador Mallo, is preparing for an anniversary screening of one of his early hits, an occasion he treats as incentive to finally reconcile with the film’s star (Asier Etxeandia), with whom he had creative differences all those years earlier. It’s during the pair’s reunion that Salvador also decides, on an amusing whim, to give heroin a try, and Pain And Glory uses his opioid reveries as flashback fuel, jumping into his past to explore his most formative romance, his childhood sexual awakening, and his relationship with his mother (played by two other Almodóvar veterans, Penelope Cruz and, later, Julieta Serrano).
“I hate auofiction,” Salvador’s mom tells him during one of these leaps backwards, forbidding her son from making a film about her. It’s just one element that Almodóvar plucks from his own life story—his real mother is said to have made the same request, which he ignored. (All About My Mother came out a few months before her death.) Not that this is the first time he’s sketched a movie from memories; Bad Education, which played the festival in 2004, is partially based on events from his childhood. But that film dressed up its memoir in outrageous style, and used a twisty noir plot as a buffer between man and movie. Pain And Glory, whose subdued approach stands out in its creator’s filmography and at this unusually pulpy Cannes, fictionalizes without gussying up or obfuscating. It’s as if Almodóvar were seeking new emotional honesty by cutting away most traces of his signature melodrama, looking at himself in the mirror without the sunglasses of genre.
Pain And Glory has some beautiful passages, like a tender rendezvous with an ex-lover (Leonardo Sbaraglia) and a scene where Salvador says to his mother what Almodóvar maybe couldn’t say to his own, engineering the closure real life so rarely provides. What’s missing from the movie is any real sense of danger or subversion—qualities that used to basically define this once-radical filmmaker’s work. (Even the protagonist’s heroin addiction is treated like an amusing dalliance, easily overcome.) For as much as Almodóvar may be picking at some of his own scabs—an early, essayistic rundown of Salvador’s ailments looks an awful lot like self-diagnosis—there’s nothing all that discomfiting in his “autofiction,” nothing so revealing that it risks actual shock. Pain And Glory instead projects the clarity and acceptance of a swan song, and whether it proves to actually be his last, I suspect just that impression of a great director putting a stamp on his career could be enough to add his name to the Cannes winners’ list. But is this really any way to honor a one-time provocateur: by giving him an award for one of his most restrained dramas?
Standing ovations are common at Cannes, but how often does a filmmaker earn one for showing up to someone else’s movie? That’s more or less what happened last night, when Quentin Tarantino, whose Once Upon A Time In Hollywood premieres on Tuesday, walked into the enormous Grand Lumiere Theatre for a screening of a different competition title and was greeted with a round of applause, his mere presence apparently worthy of celebration. If that didn’t boost the Cannes alum’s spirit, I bet what unfurled before him did. The only Chinese film to make the comp lineup this year, The Wild Goose Lake (Grade: B+) is one for the “pure cinema” crowd—for those who see moviemaking as an opportunity to string together a bunch of electrifying shots and moments. Like Almodóvar, director Diao Yinan (Black Coal, Thin Ice) clearly has noir in his blood. His sophomore feature is a crime thriller about a gangster (Hu Ge) who shoots and kills a cop during a crime spree, then goes on the run, a veritable army of ruthless police officers in hot pursuit. But what it’s really about is the interplay of shadows and neon, and the endless possibilities of bodies in motion—planted on speeding motorcycles and racing up and down staircases, always chasing or being chased.
The plot is both boilerplate and a little hard to follow, partially because Diao edits it with the ruthless precision of a procedural, in quick bursts of visual information. And the archetypal stick-figure characters don’t make much of an impression, exchanging stoic remarks in the rain or having passionless sex on a boat (a scene my festival roommate, Sam C. Mac, tells me is groundbreakingly explicit for a Chinese movie that made it past the censors). But none of that matters too much if you watch The Wild Goose Lake primarily for its remarkable staging. In a movie where just about every scene contains some inventive technique or choice, I was most taken with the way Diao boldly abstracts some of his action: a close-quarters fight that unfolds entirely through associative close-ups; a stabbing conveyed through the scattering of bills; a cop discovering one of his colleagues is dead when a dollop of blood lands on his face. Some of these moments are downright Hitchcockian, giving us the implication of violence without always actually showing it. (Though, to be clear, this is a violent movie, featuring both a decapitation and an umbrella impalement.)
Psycho is referenced explicitly, while Tarantino gets a more “spiritual” nod, in The Whistlers (Grade: B), a punchy, funny, chronologically nonlinear crime caper about a cop (Vlad Ivanov) who gets mixed up in a plot to bust a corrupt businessman out of prison. Though it’s full of twists and turns, the most shocking thing about the film is that it’s been written and directed by Corneliu Porumboiu, the Romanian deconstructionist behind such exercises in intentional tedium as 12:08: East Of Bucharist and The Treasure. Given that this is a guy who once ended his bone-dry police procedural with an extended scene of someone literally reading aloud from the dictionary, I spent a lot of The Whistlers wondering when the other shoe would drop—when Porumboiu would subvert the conventional fun of his premise or at least make some sly political statement about Romania. But no, he never really deviates from the lean entertainment teased right from the jump, when Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” cues up over the opening credits. The closest the film comes to a genuine curveball is a kind of inside joke for fans of the Romanian New Wave: the opportunity it affords Ivanov, who played the creep doctor in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days (among other scummy roles), to be the romantic lead in a genre picture. Call that a major change of pace for director and star alike.
Tomorrow: Terrence Malick returns to Cannes, the past, and scripted filmmaking with A Hidden Life.