Well, it didn’t take long for Cannes ’16 to go gratifyingly bonkers. Three years ago, French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie won Best Director in Un Certain Regard—the festival’s second-tier section, though it always insists otherwise—for Stranger By The Lake, a death-drenched romance set entirely at a gay nude beach. I was less enthralled by that film’s mix of eros and thanatos than were most critics, but Staying Vertical (Grade: A-), Guiraudie’s latest feature (and first Competition entry), finds an ideal balance between light surrealism and formal precision, so that nearly every scene fulfills the standard criterion for a great ending: surprising plus inevitable. The story wanders along with its protagonist, Leo (Damien Bonnard), a screenwriter with no fixed address driving his Renault around the French countryside. Leo’s on deadline, but never seems to do any writing. Instead, he meets a shepherdess, Marie (India Hair), with whom he instantly has a child, but keeps circling back to proposition Yoan (Basile Meilleur), a young man with the vacuous beauty of a runway model and zero interest in Leo. Marie soon abandons the baby, leaving Leo to care for it on his own, and Staying Vertical metamorphoses into an increasingly strange riff on notions of freedom and responsibility, centered on unattached men with casually fluid notions of sexuality. Leo repeatedly goes for some sort of unexplained plant therapy deep in a swamp. Marie’s ogre-ish father (Raphaël Thiéry) uses the baby as bait for wolves who prey on his sheep. Yoan’s elderly lover/sugar daddy (Christian Bouillette) gripes about Yoan’s ingratitude and hurls homophobic invective while rocking out to Pink Floyd. A horde of homeless men descend on Leo (who’d previously helped one of them out), leaving him naked as a newborn himself. All the while, Leo’s producer (Sébastien Novac) keeps calling to ask where the damn screenplay is.
Sounds pretty random, doesn’t it? Earlier Guiraudie films (particularly 2003’s No Rest For The Brave) could be frustrating in that way, but he miraculously makes Staying Vertical feel coherent, mostly via structural and rhythmic consistency. Leo revisits specific locations with the regularity of a metronome: open road, Yuan’s house, Marie’s farm, an underpass (where the homeless men congregate). Each iteration of this circular journey finds Leo further torn between conflicting impulses to be alone and to be connected, represented by the simultaneous fear and fascination he feels for wolves (symbolism that’s made literal in a knockout ending). The film’s dreamlike qualities are enhanced, too, by the mundane way that they’re presented—the weirdness sneaks up on you, making it easier to accept without demanding an explanation. Devising a grand unified theory for the film’s ideas wouldn’t likely be all that difficult, but doing so seems destructive, somehow. Like David Lynch’s best work, Staying Vertical is most effective just at the periphery of comprehension, where it can work its intuitive magic.
Equally bizarre, but considerably less successful, is another French film in Competition this year, Bruno Dumont’s Slack Bay (Grade: C). Dumont made his reputation with a series of brutal, animalistic dirges (Life Of Jesus, Humanité, Outside Satan), but unexpectedly veered into comedy—his own peculiar brand, admittedly—with a recent TV series, Li’l Quinquin (which got a tiny U.S. release as a four-hour film). Set in 1910, Slack Bay operates in much the same vein, but cranks the goofy grotesquerie up to 11, drowning out everything else. His usual cast of striking unknowns play a working-class seaside family that gathers mussels, though they mostly eat the corpses of tourists the father and eldest son kill while ferrying them across the bay. But these salt-of-the-earth cannibals are sharply contrasted with the even more disturbing family of swells (Fabrice Luchini, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Juliette Binoche) who summer in a giant mansion nearby.
Dumont’s direction for the movie stars appears to have been, “start with an absurd caricature of inbred foppishness, then quintuple it, then quintuple that, okay you’re halfway there, now bigger please.” (Meanwhile, the police inspector investigating all the disappearances constitutes the broadest, most shameless series of fat jokes since Chris Farley died.) To the extent that there’s a narrative, it involves a sweet Romeo and Juliet romance between misfit teens from both families, but whatever Dumont means to convey about class, conformity, and the impossibility of escaping one’s nature (one character is either a girl who dresses as a boy, a boy who dresses as a girl, or both) can barely be discerned amidst all the mirthless pratfalls, mugging, screeching, and flailing. Li’l Quinquin scored some genuine laughs, mostly because it wasn’t trying so hard for them; Slack Bay huffs and puffs and wheezes, to no avail whatsoever. To be fair, this serves as a perfect meta-illustration of the film’s thesis: Like his lovelorn teens, Dumont tries and fails to escape the box in which he’s trapped. Even if that’s by design, though (which I doubt), it doesn’t erase the grim memory of Binoche’s struggle to make Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest look like Chief Bromden in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Did someone say “struggle”? That’s Ken Loach’s cue! I, Daniel Blake (Grade: B-) marks Loach’s 14th time in Competition here (he won the Palme D’Or 10 years ago for The Wind That Shakes The Barley), and he’s still making scrupulously naturalistic, often heavily didactic paeans to the proletariat. (The preachiness has increased significantly since he started regularly collaborating with screenwriter Paul Laverty.) Stand-up comic Dave Johns plays the film’s title role: a middle-aged widower recovering from a serious heart attack, whose doctor has forbidden him from returning to work as a carpenter. British social services, however, in its infinite wisdom, has somehow determined that Dan is fit for work, so his welfare claim has been denied. Dan’s efforts to secure an appeal (while also pretending to look for a job he can’t accept, so that he can receive unemployment in the meantime) introduce him to a single mum named Katie (Hayley Squires) who’s having similar troubles of her own, and I, Daniel Blake is at its best when it’s chronicling the impromptu, completely platonic friendship that develops between two people with nothing in common except decency and being in a tough spot. It’s at its worst during its home stretch, when Laverty rains down indignity to a degree that turns the movie into a pity party. “Please let this be anything but prostitution,” I silently pleaded when a security guard who catches Katie shoplifting offers to help her with a job, and was ignored. Loach’s heart is always in the right place, but when he and Laverty made the similarly titled My Name Is Joe nearly 20 years ago, Peter Mullan’s Joe was more than just a victim of an uncaring bureaucracy. Movies can and should rail at injustice, but if that’s all they do, they’re the dramatic equivalent of those tepid documentaries that conclude with a URL viewers can visit to learn how they can help.
TOMORROW: Maren Ade! The screening is actually less than 90 minutes away as I type this. (It only just registered that my most anticipated film of the year is premiering on Friday The 13th. Oops.) But I suspect some of you will be more excited to hear about The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook’s first Korean feature since 2009’s Thirst (which also premiered at Cannes).