Controversy, like long lines and coffee breath, is inevitable at the Cannes Film Festival. Last year, Lars von Trier supplied the lions’ share of it, as is his wont. This year, it comes from Quentin Tarantino, who may or may not dramatize Sharon Tate’s murder in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (I’ll find out today, though I may not be able to tell you), but also from somewhere less expected: the new film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, darlings of the festival whose unvarnished dramas of struggle and redemption usually earn them raves, not blowback. But the Belgian brothers, who’ve won the Palme D’Or twice, have never tackled a topic as hot button as the one at the center of Young Ahmed (Grade: B-), about a Muslim teenager living in Europe who’s been radicalized into violence.
Like just about all of the Dardennes’ work, Young Ahmed introduces its main character in media res, basically midstep. Where the 13-year-old (Idir Ben Addi) is headed is cause for concern. He’s already well under the dangerous influence of an extremist, an imam (Othmane Moumen) secretly preparing some of the local youth for a jihad, and the boy’s adherence to a very severe reading of the Quran has driven a wedge between him and the modern Muslim women in his life, including his mother (Claire Bodson) and his teacher (Myriem Akheddiou). When Ahmed impulsively tries and fails to put his newfound beliefs into violent action, he ends up in the juvenile reform system, surrounded by people trying to get through to the kid on the other side of the indoctrination.
Does Young Ahmed handle this material sensitively? I’d argue that it mostly does: The Dardennes aren’t fear mongers, and they go out of their way to draw a distinction between Islam and those who commit violence in its name. Regardless of intentions, though, they may be a bit out of their cultural and dramatic depths this time. While the two understand that extremism cells often prey on the susceptibility of troubled kids, that’s about the extent of their insight into Ahmed’s fraught relationship with his faith; that the film opens with him already fully radicalized leaves the Dardennes in the tough position of trying to crack a character who’s all sullen zealotry all the time. Is empathy, that key tenet of the filmmakers’ work, possible without understanding? Young Ahmed isn’t a folly, exactly. It’s reasonably gripping on a scene-by-scene level, and about as starkly unsentimental as any of the Dardennes’ lean, urgent moral thrillers. But its inability to shine a light on Ahmed’s soul leaves it feeling more like an exercise than anything the brothers have made, especially by its hasty, unearned ending—a real Hail Mary for transcendence.
The last time the Dardennes were at Cannes, it was with another lesser work, The Unknown Girl, starring Adèle Haenel. The tough, strikingly beautiful actor has become a staple of the festival, even maybe one of its unofficial stars, popping up regularly inside and outside of competition. She’s here again this year, in the Directors’ Fortnight opener Deerskin, and also at the very core of what currently looks, to these smitten eyes anyway, like the best film of the competition and the fest at large. In Céline Sciamma’s rapturously romantic and sexy Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (Grade: A-), Haenel plays Héloïse, daughter of a wealthy aristocrat, living on the family estate on a remote island towards the end of the 18th century. The film unfolds largely from the perspective of a young painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant, expressive in her poise), who’s been hired by Héloïse’s mother to produce a portrait of the young woman, to be given as a kind of receipt of receptiveness to an interested suitor. Except that Héloïse isn’t especially interested in being married off, and therefore has not been cooperative with any artist who’s come before. And so Marianne must do some posing of her own, pretending to simply be there as company for her subject, when in fact she’s committing details of her anatomy and features to memory, then putting them down on canvas in secret.
The element of deception provides a spark of moral dilemma: If Marianne does her job well, she’ll be hastening Héloïse’s passage into a life she doesn’t want—a conundrum that begins to wear on the painter’s conscience as the two let down their guards and get to know each other. Of course, she may have other reasons to feel bothered by the prospect of someone whisking away her new companion. Unfolding through stolen glimpses and increasingly loaded glances, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is really a portrait of a mutual, slow-motion seduction, and it seduces its audience just as gradually and effectively, pulling us into its old world with the beauty of its images and the quiet efficiency of its storytelling—both hallmarks of Sciamma’s cresting mastery, the huge leap she makes here from previous films like Tomboy and Girlhood—before letting two gifted actors stoke the flames of mutual attraction. (Theirs is a moving tango of simmering emotions, unspoken until they’re not.)
What I thought of was that scene in Lady Bird where Lois Smith argues that attention and love may be the same thing; here, the scrutiny of a painter (and by implication, a filmmaker) is conflated with falling for someone by studying them closely, learning to truly see them for who they are, inside and out. Far from some stuffy costume drama, it’s a deeply stirring romance with a modern soul, and also a forcefully, compassionately feminist one, from the near-total absence of men (we never see the face of Héloïse’s prospective future husband) to a touching subplot involving a servant and an unplanned pregnancy.
Reactions to Portrait Of A Lady On Fire have been rightfully ecstatic—it’s nice to be on the same page as my peers, one day after feeling a bit like a heretic for disliking the largely acclaimed new Terrence Malick film. One of the festival’s other objects of near-universal praise is also a period piece and essentially a two-hander, which similarly unfolds at an isolated seaside setting, begins with an arrival by boat, and contains some blatantly homoerotic tension. But The Lighthouse (Grade: B+), the enjoyably deranged sophomore feature from The Witch’s Robert Eggers, meets the intrinsically female communion of Portrait with a destructively male collision of egos and anxieties.
In this case, the strangers are a veteran lighthouse keeper, Thomas (Willem Dafoe, rocking a mighty beard and a mightier vocabulary), and his new protégé, Ephraim (Robert Pattinson), who convene on the lonely, dreary, rocky coast of Maine for four weeks of solitary work. Thomas is a tyrant of a boss when sober (he barks belittling orders and obsessively bogarts the nocturnal duty of manning the light), and a whimsical gasbag when drunk, which is basically every night. Ephraim, a quiet man holding back a tsunami of resentment, takes an immediate dislike to his new coworker, and the conflict ebbs but mostly flows from there. As in The Witch, Eggers blurs the line between madness and supernatural danger, not dismissing the latter as an illusion so much as treating it like an outgrowth of the former. Even less commercially motivated than he was last time around (something tells me The Lighthouse will not be getting the wide theatrical release its predecessor did), the director shoots in black-and-white, in a severely squashed aspect ratio—a decision that lends it an air of throwback classicism, while also enhancing the isolation, claustrophobia, and hopelessness of the grubby, far-flung setting. It’s another exquisitely crafted nightmare about the hell of other people.
Remember that famous shock reveal in The Witch involving a hungry crow? Eggers tops it here with a flock of seagulls, suggesting that the man may have a serious case of Ornithophobia. Otherwise, this critic didn’t find the movie that effective as a thriller. Maybe it’s that the film’s familiar scare tactics, all groaning atonal dread and ominous build-up, have started to feel faintly like shtick—the A24rror house style Eggers helped pioneer with his tale of doomed pioneers. The Lighthouse works better as a lunatic dark comedy of cabin fever and competitive machismo, as well as a primo showcase for its two actors, coming magnificently unglued and volleying pages upon pages of flagrant insults at each other. Dafoe, especially, digs his maw deep into Eggers’ stylishly, flavorfully archaic dialogue, in a performance that suggests a live-action version of the sea captain from The Simpsons. “You talk like a goddamn parody,” his young partner bellows; the laughs come thick and sticky, like the spilling of tar-black blood against a monochromatic canvas of grey.
Tomorrow: Twenty five years after Pulp Fiction boogied its way to the Palme D’Or, Quentin Tarantino brings his long Hollywood fable to the Croisette, in what’s sure to be the hottest ticket of Cannes 2019.