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Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘Pain and Glory’ hands the Cannes competition its first triumph

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Antonio Banderas and Nora Navas in Pedro Almodóvar’s dramatic self-portrait “Pain and Glory.”
(Manolo Pavón)
Film Critic

Times critic Justin Chang is filing regular dispatches from the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival, which runs May 14-25 in France.

The final image of Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory” is such a deftly planted masterstroke, such an ingenious and intuitive little meta-miracle, that you may wonder why you didn’t see it coming.

Then again, maybe you will see it coming. It’s the kind of twist that awaits you at the end of a particularly well-plotted mystery: a surprise that feels inevitable in retrospect. And it’s entirely of a piece with the gamesmanship that has run through Almodóvar’s four-decade-plus career, his elegant way of blurring the lines between truth and artifice, cinema and reality — something he admittedly hasn’t done with this much bravado or quiet grace in quite some time.

“Pain and Glory,” Almodóvar’s 21st feature and his sixth picture to screen in competition at the Festival de Cannes, is his dramatic self-portrait — a work of “auto-fiction,” to use a term favored by an aging gay director named Salvador Mallo (a magnificent Antonio Banderas), though “meta-fiction” would also apply. Salvador, sporting a slightly more disciplined version of Almodóvar’s wild crown of hair, lives alone in Madrid, where he hasn’t made a film in many years, owing partly to a litany of health problems that he rattles off at one point with some helpful anatomical diagrams.

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He copes with his pains by smoking heroin, a development that the film treats with both sober concern and wry humor, though it is his love of cinema — expressed here in visual references to Marilyn Monroe and Federico Fellini — that has long been his all-consuming addiction. A retrospective screening of one of his old films brings him back into contact, after many years, with a former collaborator and then, in a sequence of aching loveliness, a former lover.

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These reunions are interwoven with flashbacks to his boyhood, where we meet his mother (Penélope Cruz) and a handsome young man that Salvador once taught to read and write. Salvador, in turn, received an indelible lesson of his own.

How much of all this we are meant to take as strict autobiography is anyone’s guess, but however loosely “Pain and Glory” may play with the facts, it never feels less than truthful. As in “Julieta,” the moving and underappreciated picture he made before this one, Almodóvar has learned to work with a new economy: The colors are more somber and muted than usual (which doesn’t make the images any less eye-popping), and the usual incursions into farce and melodrama have been pared away.

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But if the tone is more restrained, more elegiac, and lacking that signature Almodóvar outrageousness, the emotional force still knocks you sideways. The sense of tender intimacy that he brings to a few fleeting but significant moments — a long-overdue reckoning with a dying parent, a passionate embrace that you long to see go on forever, a boy’s first glimpse of a desire that will stay with him for a lifetime — casts the riveting spell of the confessional.

Will this late-career triumph — Almodóvar’s best since “Volver” and possibly “Talk to Her” — be the movie that finally earns him the Palme d’Or at Cannes, world cinema’s highest honor? If forced to hazard a guess, and taking into account that juries and critics are seldom inclined toward agreement, I’d say he has an excellent shot, not least because he’s overdue.

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Debbie Honeywood, Katie Proctor, Rhys Stone and Kris Hitchen in Ken Loach's "Sorry We Missed You."
(Joss Barratt)

But if emotional impact factors heavily into the decision, as it often does, then another contender I wouldn’t discount at this early stage is the British director Ken Loach, even though he already has two Palmes (for “I, Daniel Blake” and “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”). He’s vying for his third with “Sorry We Missed You,” another bleak, barnstorming drama of working-class outrage, and one that I wish I admired as much as many here at Cannes clearly do.

“I, Daniel Blake” told the story of a man trying to hold on to his benefits after suffering a serious health setback that made it impossible for him to work. “Sorry We Missed You” follows — in every sense, given how much driving and bus riding they do — a Newcastle husband and wife as they slowly work themselves to death. Both of them, along with their two children, are victims of a ruthless gig economy, cogs in a relentlessly grinding capitalist machine.

After losing his job as a construction worker, Ricky (Kris Hitchen) takes a job driving a van for a delivery company. He’s told that he will be employed as an independent contractor, which means 12-hour shifts making deliveries in a big van he has to pay for himself. There are no benefits and no days off, and steep financial penalties for not completing his deliveries in time. Ricky’s wife, Abby (Debbie Honeywood), doesn’t have things any easier as a home-care nurse who takes the bus from one client’s home to the next, performing physically and emotionally exhausting labor for scant rewards.

As a stripped-down, minutely detailed portrait of the daily grind as back-breaking Sisyphean ordeal, “Sorry We Missed You” is engrossing and bluntly persuasive. I was less convinced by the family dynamics, particularly those involving Ricky and Abby’s troubled teenage son (Rhys Stone), who’s moody and rebellious in ways that many parents will recognize, but whose emotional trajectory seems to fluctuate conveniently at a screenwriter’s whim.

That screenwriter, Paul Laverty, is Loach’s frequent collaborator, and they have become masters of a kind of clap-and-cringe neorealism. You applaud the righteous politics and the inevitable moment when our heroes speak truth to power, even as you recoil from the schematic stations-of-the-cross plotting that brought them to that breaking point.

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Emily Beecham in Jessica Hausner's "Little Joe."
(Festival de Cannes)

A busy British mom whose working woes exact a dangerous toll on her family life also drives another competition entry, the hypnotically eerie science-fiction drama “Little Joe.” But the similarities pretty much end there, and happily so.

Emily Beecham plays Alice, a scientist at a large biotech firm who has devised a new breed of plant and given it perhaps one genetic upgrade too many. Named Little Joe (after her young son), the specimen is intoxicating in every sense, from its bright red Venus flytrap-like blossoms to the clouds of pollen it periodically emits. That pollen, when inhaled by humans, induces a sense of euphoria — a positive side effect that turns out to be neither as simple nor as temporary as one might expect.

“Little Joe” is the first English-language picture and the first Cannes competition entry from the Austrian director Jessica Hausner. Her little-seen earlier films, including “Amour Fou” and the masterful “Lourdes,” are rigorously composed chamber dramas notable for their formal austerity and bone-dry humor. She brings that same style to bear on a much more accessible, genre-oriented canvas here, and the effect is both fascinating and clunky: Much of the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”-style plot is spelled out, beat for beat, in bluntly expository dialogue, and except for one ferociously effective jump scare, the vibe tends toward low-key creepiness rather than sustained tension.

And yet. Something about Hausner’s picture held me, with its narcotic pacing, its smiling, zombified performances and its intensely, almost radioactively bright digital sheen. (Both the lab and Alice’s home are marvels of color-coded production design.) If the mind-altering flowers are meant to suggest antidepressants, as critics like Indiewire’s David Ehrlich have persuasively argued, then the movie can be read as an indictment of a society intent on numbing its emotions and medicating itself into submission.

Or can it? The strange, satirically inflected everything-is-fine vibe of “Little Joe” creates its own beguiling sensations and, to these entranced eyes, eventually slips the constraints of metaphor. Its chills may be minimal, but its implications can’t help but take root.

justin.chang@latimes.com


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