Cannes 2016: Ken Loach’s ‘I, Daniel Blake’ wins Palme d’Or; Xavier Dolan takes Grand Prix
It’s not always noted, but there are two Cannes film festivals, one composed of critics, journalists and industry professionals, and the other inhabited by the sequestered jury. Sometimes these two Cannes speak with one voice, but in this 69th festival, they definitely did not.
The German film “Toni Erdmann,” directed by Maren Ade, one of the few women in the competition, was easily the non-jury favorite among the 21 films eligible for prizes.
Both wildly raucous and movingly humane, it chronicles the evolving relationship between a prankster father and his high-powered careerist daughter. Far from winning a top prize, however, “Toni Erdmann” was totally shut out by the jury chaired by “Mad Max” director George Miller.
Instead, the Palme d’Or went to 79-year-old British filmmaker Ken Loach for “I, Daniel Blake,” the on-the-nose narrative of working-class folks getting the run around from an unfeeling government welfare bureaucracy.
During a news conference after last year’s Cannes Film Festival awards ceremony, Joel Coen, co-president of the jury, responded to a question about why the Palme d’Or had gone to Jacques Audiard’s tepidly received “Dheepan,” rather than one of the more acclaimed films in competition. Coen’s response was characteristically blunt: “This isn’t a jury of film critics.”
Indeed. And setting aside my own obvious bias in the matter, I can say that this arrangement is — in theory, and sometimes in practice — a good thing. We critics are often accused, sometimes rightly, of approaching our chosen art form with harsh scowls and highfalutin criteria at the ready, our judgments reflecting a profound detachment from the experience of the general audience, as well as of the artists who work hard to entertain them. At the same time, I would counter that Cannes, the greatest film festival in the world, has a mandate to honor the best in world cinema, which at times means pushing back against popular expectations.
There’s also the fact that anyone who serves on a festival jury is, by definition, exercising critical judgment and making an assertion of personal taste. Some of the most satisfying Palme d’Or winners in recent memory — “Amour,” “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” “The Tree of Life,” and even a “difficult” work like “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” — have demonstrated that it’s possible for non-card-carrying critics to make smart, aesthetically adventurous decisions. They’ve also demonstrated that honoring the art form and satisfying an audience are not mutually exclusive goals.
There were a number of films in this year’s competition that managed to do both, perhaps none more brilliantly than “Toni Erdmann,” an alternately piercing and side-splitting dramedy from the German director Maren Ade, which premiered to rapturous acclaim early on and led the critics’ polls to the very end. Close behind was “Paterson,” Jim Jarmusch’s exquisitely wrought portrait of the poet as a young city-bus driver (played by — wait for it — Adam Driver), which emerged as an immediate and unexpected high point in the American indie darling’s career. And the competition ended on a strong note with Paul Verhoeven’s supremely sinuous “Elle,” starring Isabelle Huppert in a career-crowning performance as a woman who turns the tables not only on her rapist, but on the entire troubling subgenre of rape-revenge thrillers.
None of these films won a thing. Instead the jury, led by the Australian director George Miller, awarded the Palme d’Or to Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake,” an appreciably passionate, sometimes stirring yet excessively contrived and self-congratulatory drama about the ravages of poverty and unemployment in the U.K. It’s a film that many in Cannes liked more than I did, and which drew widespread praise from British critics in particular, who can surely attest to the authenticity of its harsh depiction of their welfare state. But in handing Loach his second Palme (he won the first in 2006 for “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”), Miller’s jury, deliberately or not, wound up favoring an angry, relevant message rather than a great work of cinema. Loach inadvertently seemed to confirm as much when he noted in his acceptance speech that film is “exciting, it’s fun, and as you’ve seen tonight, it’s also very important.”
Still, better for the Palme to have gone to Loach than to Quebec’s Xavier Dolan, the 27-year-old world-cinema enfant terrible who pretty much horrified the press audience by inexplicably winning the runner-up Grand Prix for “It’s Only the End of the World.” In my 11 years of attending Cannes I cannot recall a worse jury decision than this one. A badly shot, shrilly performed and all-around excruciatingly misjudged dysfunctional-family torture session that felt far longer than its 97-minute running time, “World” was by far the least endurable film in competition (and that includes Sean Penn’s dreadful but dreadfully entertaining “The Last Face”). Far inferior to the director’s 2014 jury-prize winner, “Mommy,” the picture failed to win over even Dolan’s many fans, and I have counted myself among them on more than one occasion.
The jury did honor excellent films elsewhere. The decision to split the director award between Romania’s Cristian Mungiu and France’s Olivier Assayas was inspired; Mungiu’s “Graduation” is a tense, beautifully structured and richly expansive morality tale framed and acted with his usual precision, while Assayas’ “Personal Shopper,” an eccentric supernatural thriller starring Kristen Stewart as a medium, was one of the festival’s most successful and surprising experiments.
Frankly, handing Mungiu and Assayas the top two prizes would have made for a more satisfying outcome. Along similar lines, I had hoped that Andrea Arnold’s deeply enveloping road movie “American Honey” would garner something more than a jury prize — the third such honor she’s won at Cannes (after 2006’s “Red Road” and 2009’s “Fish Tank”). Given the advance the new film represents in terms of scope, ambition and achievement, Arnold surely rated more than another third-place mention this time around.
I can’t begrudge the Iranian drama “The Salesman” its prizes for actor Shahab Hosseini and for writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s solid, well-carpentered screenplay. Nor can I dispute the effectiveness of the quietly stirring performance given by the Filipino actress Jaclyn Jose in Brillante Mendoza’s “Ma’ Rosa,” except to point out that it was chosen in a year with so many superb female performances — including Sandra Hüller in “Toni Erdmann,” Sonia Braga in “Aquarius,” Stewart in “Personal Shopper,” Ruth Negga in “Loving,” Huppert in “Elle” — that struck me as fuller, richer and more resonant achievements.
Asked about their decisions at Sunday’s news conference, Miller’s jury responded with the kind of diplomatic evasiveness that past Cannes juries have showed before them: There were so many fine films, it was a difficult decision, you can’t please everyone, etc. My own sense, judging by their awards slate, is that they entered their deliberations with Ken Loach’s buzzword — “importance” — ringing in their ears. By and large, their taste ran toward tales that focused on economic disparity around the world (“I, Daniel Blake,” “Ma’ Rosa” and even “American Honey”), or that examined human corruption under oppressive societal circumstances (“Graduation,” “The Salesman”).
These are worthy causes to illuminate and, in some cases, worthy films as well. But after seeing all 21 movies in competition, I can attest that the 2016 Cannes Film Festival will not be remembered most for the films that trumpeted their importance (and self-importance) the loudest. It will be remembered for the gorgeous flurries of comedy and heartache in “Toni Erdmann,” which was acquired during the festival by Sony Pictures Classics and should put Maren Ade decisively on the international map. It will be remembered for the still but deep-running waters of “Paterson,” and for the high-wire interplay of terror, eroticism and provocation in “Elle” (and, for that matter, in Park Chan-wook’s highly entertaining “The Handmaiden”).
Is there no room, in the recognition of cinematic excellence, for movies that don’t wear their politics or morality on their sleeve — that touch less obvious, more nuanced chords? (Like, for example, the movies of George Miller?) That say a lot without raising a megaphone? That show that comedy is worth taking seriously? As Joel Coen noted, no, this is not a jury of film critics. But it should be a jury of artists with a less rigid, more sophisticated idea of what award-worthy cinema can and should be. And who can recognize a terrible Xavier Dolan movie when it’s staring them in the face.
The movie’s opening may as well arrive with an on-screen statement.
Loud shrieking lends the impression a couple is having sex, but the first sight is a close-up of a cat. Then the camera cuts to the source of the shrieks, and it turns out what sounded like love was actually an assault.
“Paul Verhoeven is baa-aack.”
Needling, absurd, sexual, kinetic — all those adjectives apply to Verhoeven. The Dutch-born director has followed one of the more improbable career arcs in modern cinema — from European obscurity to Hollywood heights to industry punch-line (“Showgirls,” anyone?), back to European acclaim. And then, finally, to silence.
Now, after a 10-year feature-film hiatus, the 77-year-old has returned with one of his most provocative and unclassifiable films yet. It is vintage Verhoeven by not being vintage Verhoeven.
Predicting the major prizewinners at the Cannes Film Festival — awards that are handed out by a nine-person jury that changes annually, and whose individual reactions have been a complete mystery all festival long — is a fool’s errand. But I’ve never been one to let that (or my dismal track record) stop me. Here are my thoroughly whimsical, highly unscientific predictions for what will win the Palme d’Or and other prizes from George Miller’s jury on Sunday evening. I am adhering to the festival’s rules, which state that no film can win more than one prize (with the exception of the acting and screenplay awards, which can be paired for the same film).
Palme d’Or: “Toni Erdmann.” Maren Ade’s achingly funny, utterly surprising relationship comedy has been the dominant critical favorite of the competition, and the dominant critical favorite often wins. (Last year’s middlingly received “Dheepan” proved an exception to the rule, but other recent winners — “Blue Is the Warmest Color” and “Amour” come to mind — have borne it out.) It helps, too, that “Toni Erdmann” is a genuine crowdpleaser, packed with the sort of showstopping moments that make its lengthy 162-minute running time feel not just bearable but wholly earned. A win for Ade would not only be richly deserved, but also make her the first female director to win the most prestigious award in international cinema for the first time since Jane Campion’s “The Piano” tied with Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine.” It would also be a nice feather in the cap of Germany, which hasn’t been well represented at Cannes of late: The last German-directed films to win the Palme were Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas” (1984) and Volker Schlöndorff’s “The Tin Drum” (1979).
Some potential spoilers: “Julieta” has not been rousingly received, but Pedro Almodóvar is considered long overdue for a Palme, and affection for this beloved auteur runs deep. (Expect the film to win the Palme or nothing.) The two Romanian heavyweights, Cristi Puiu’s “Sieranevada” and Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation,” were both well received and have passionate admirers. And Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey,” the only other female-directed film in competition besides “Toni Erdmann” to have generated significant acclaim, might well emerge as a major challenger.
Grand Prix: “Sieranevada.” Puiu’s two-ton family epic screened on the competition’s first day and has remained in the running ever since. Rumors that it was one of the festival’s best films had long preceded its arrival on the Croisette, where they were roundly confirmed. Like all Puiu’s films, “Sieranevada” rewards patience in spades; it takes some time, though not much, for the director’s filmmaking mastery — of character and dialogue, tone and style, framing and blocking — to get its hooks into you. “Graduation” offers a worthy and more accessible alternative, but if the jury takes into account Mungiu’s awards history (a Palme for “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” screenplay and acting prizes for “Beyond the Hills”), they may be inclined to give this runner-up prize — or the Palme itself — to the other godfather of the Romanian New Wave.
Jury Prize: “Graduation.” A total shot in the dark, especially since this third-place award could conceivably go to any film (or films) that the jury likes well enough. Even if both Romanian films emerge with big prizes, it’s not at all likely or certain that they’ll be honored in this particular configuration, and the awards history I mentioned earlier could work against “Graduation” as well. But I have a feeling that the intelligence of the film’s construction, the seamlessness of the camerawork, the resonance of the story’s moral inquiry and the emotional impact of the ending will make it hard for a jury not to recognize Mungiu’s achievement somewhere along the line. Most of the film’s mixed notices have taken issue with its familiarity in the context of the director’s work, but that’s a complaint lodged more often by critics than jurors, who are often encountering a filmmaker — or an entire national cinema — for the first time.
Director: Andrea Arnold, “American Honey.” Arnold has twice won the festival’s jury prize (for “Red Road” and “Fish Tank”), and while her roving, ravishing, pop-and-adrenaline-fueled youth road movie was one of the festival’s more polarizing entries, I suspect the jury might be more favorably inclined than not toward its outsized ambition. As noted earlier, Arnold could be in line for an even bigger prize, but her sheer display of formal chops here — a decisive triumph of bold, jagged image making over thin-to-nonexistent narrative — seems most likely to be rewarded in this category. Other possibilities: Ade for “Toni Erdmann,” and Alain Guiraudie for “Staying Vertical,” one of the competition’s most likably eccentric titles and a master class in sustained, low-key dream logic.
Actress: Sonia Braga, “Aquarius.” The year’s single most competitive category, and how refreshing is that? Isabelle Huppert gives an arguably career-best performance in Paul Verhoeven’s marvelously deft thriller “Elle,” but she’s won this award twice already, and I imagine the jury may want to acknowledge someone new. Kristen Stewart holds you for every minute of Olivier Assayas’ spooky paranormal thriller “Personal Shopper,” but her presence in two films here (the other being Woody Allen’s “Café Society”) and her international stardom may seem reward enough. Sandra Hüller is a knockout in “Toni Erdmann,” but assuming that film is bound for a bigger prize, as I’m predicting, she wouldn’t be eligible for this one.
In a lesser year, I imagine Adèle Haenel (the Dardenne brothers’ “The Unknown Girl”), Elle Fanning (“The Neon Demon”) and Sasha Lane (“American Honey”) would have been stronger candidates. Should the jury be inclined to honor a fresh face, they might well go with Ruth Negga’s gently revelatory work in Jeff Nichols’ “Loving.” But in the end, I think this is Braga’s to lose. She’s stupendous in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s “Aquarius,” in which she plays a woman in her prime at 65, taking on corrupt developers and flaunting her blazingly intelligent, funny, righteous, dignified, sexy-as-hell presence in scene after scene. The chance to reward a veteran for one of her finest performances may be too much for the jury to resist.
Actor: Adam Driver, “Paterson.” Pickings are slimmer where the boys are concerned, though the competition did turn up some excellent late-in-the-game options, courtesy of Adrian Titieni (“Graduation”) and Shahab Hosseini (Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman”), both giving nuanced performances as family men navigating slippery slopes into moral corruption. The British actor-comedian Dave Johns could be a favorite, too, for Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake,” in which he plays a down-on-his-luck carpenter railing against the bureaucratic tyranny of the British welfare state, and is always convincing even when the film goes into oppressively worthy Stations of the Cross mode.
But amid all these talky, sometimes shouty performances, the quiet dignity of Driver’s work in “Paterson” stands out all the more. Showing there’s more to him as an actor than brash comedy and Kylo Ren, he’s in the frame at almost every moment, and he commands the screen through sheer taciturn presence alone. This isn’t a mopey performance or a self-consciously minimalist one; it’s a beautifully rendered study of a man trying, at every moment, to synchronize his rhythms with those of his environment. Driver won best actor at the Venice Film Festival two years ago for Saverio Costanzo’s “Hungry Hearts”; a second major festival prize would be well deserved.
Screenplay: David Birke, “Elle.” Not in any way a confident prediction, and a writing award might seem odd for a film that is so clearly such a high-wire feat of acting and direction. But listen to just a few of the scintillating lines in Birke’s surprisingly ambitious and gloriously unpredictable script (adapted from Philippe Djian’s novel “Oh … ”), and the worthiness of this choice becomes very clear. Other contenders, assuming they don’t win big elsewhere: the tidal wave of talk that is “Sieranevada,” the intricately nested wordplay of “Paterson,” the cleverly structured morality plays of “Graduation” and “The Salesman,” and the bravura loop-de-loop twists of Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden.”
The Dutch-born, Hollywood-friendly director Paul Verhoeven has a gift for bringing out the very best in his leading ladies, usually by forcing them to embrace the very worst. From Sharon Stone’s ice-pick-wielding femme fatale in “Basic Instinct” (1992), to Carice van Houten’s Nazi-seducing Jewish resistance fighter in “Black Book” (2006), Verhoeven has always had fun playing with his heroines’ desires and desirability, allowing them to wield their sexuality with the kind of brazen self-assurance rarely accorded women on American screens. But he also likes putting them through the wringer, as evidenced by the hideously memorable image of van Houten covered in human excrement — at once an act of degradation and the foulest sort of baptism.
Not unlike Brian De Palma, another filmmaker who likes to skirt the boundaries of good taste, Verhoeven has inspired no shortage of gender-based arguments over the years: Whether his female characters are misogynist constructs or avatars of empowerment is a topic open to continual debate and reappraisal. That seems unlikely to change with his latest work, “Elle,” a breathtakingly elegant and continually surprising French-language thriller that brought the 69th Cannes Film Festival competition to a rousing close on Saturday.
If the early reactions seem tilted in Verhoeven’s favor, it’s surely because this indecently entertaining provocation — his first film since “Black Book,” and his first to compete for the Palme d’Or since “Basic Instinct” — seems to belong equally to the French actress Isabelle Huppert, who rises to the occasion with one of the greatest performances of her very great career. In Huppert, Verhoeven has more than met his match; he has found a stunning collaborator, an actress who brings flurries of wit and tremors of complication to the sort of material that, in less assured hands, might well have tilted into outright disaster.
In “Elle,” Huppert plays Michèle, a mother, a recent divorcee and a successful video-game company executive. We know none of these things about her, however, in the startling opening scene, in which she is sexually assaulted on the floor of her home by a masked intruder. The act is quick, brutal, and filmed with nary a hint of exploitation. Verhoeven doesn’t seem to be trying to shock us; he merely seems to be dispensing with the nasty preliminaries, the better to get on with his slow and steady deconstruction of Michèle’s psyche. Most importantly, he doesn’t make the mistake of assuming that being a victim is the most interesting thing about her.
And victim, in any case, is hardly the operative word here. After sweeping up some broken crockery and taking a bath, Michèle returns to her normal routine with eerie calm. In the days that follow, she bickers with her mother and her son, and clashes with her (mostly male) co-workers. She matter-of-factly informs her ex-husband and closest friends about the attack, quietly shrugging off their horror. She thinks about what happened to her, and what she might have done differently — and when her attacker unexpectedly resurfaces, she contemplates what she might do next.
I don’t want to give away too much about “Elle,” the considerable pleasure of which lies in the steady unraveling of its secrets. (The beautifully constructed screenplay was adapted by David Birke from Philippe Dijan’s novel “Oh … ”) Suffice to say that what seems at the outset like a standard-issue rape-revenge thriller gradually becomes something deeper: a subtle character portrait and a wickedly dry comedy of manners, in which the characters’ gender and power dynamics are continually being renegotiated, scene by scene.
Even uttering the words “comedy” and “rape” in the same sentence, of course, immediately risks offending certain sensibilities. And while Verhoeven doesn’t downplay or trivialize the trauma of sexual assault, he isn’t afraid to suggest that Michèle might respond to her attack in any number of difficult, troubling ways, not all of them wholly or purely negative. All in all, it’s hard to imagine “Elle” working without the poker-faced reserve of Huppert’s mesmerizing performance: Always among the most steely intelligent of actors, she illuminates the mystery of Michèle’s identity, paradoxically, by holding her feelings in check.
Huppert is no stranger to exploring the outer limits of sexual debasement, as she did 15 years ago in Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher,” which earned her the second of two best actress prizes at Cannes. No one who sees “Elle” will begrudge her for winning a third. You don’t always understand what Michèle is doing and thinking, but you cannot help but believe her, every delectably perverse step of the way.
Saving one of the competition’s very best offerings for last was smart scheduling on the festival’s part. It would have been even smarter had they spared us the embarrassment of Sean Penn’s atrocious “The Last Face,” which stars Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem as international aid workers falling in and out of love in war-torn Africa. It’s astonishing, in this day and age — and less than a year after Cary Joji Fukunaga’s scrupulous, superior “Beasts of No Nation” — to encounter a movie that so blithely presents Third World atrocities as grist for a romance between two gorgeous movie stars. It’s even more astonishing coming from Penn, who has done good work behind the camera before (“Into the Wild,” “The Pledge”), and whose own passionate commitment to humanitarian causes can scarcely be disputed.
But again and again over the course of this 132-minute movie, that sincerity proves his undoing. Climaxing with a dreadfully teary-eyed speech from Theron’s character about how “poverty attacks dreams,” “The Last Face” is both hectoring and drippy, an interminably goopy romance and a fatuous humanitarian lecture. Deservedly laughed off the screen on Friday, Penn’s film immediately supplanted Xavier Dolan’s “It’s Only the End of the World” as the worst-received title in competition; if it’s completely forgotten by next week, it’ll be a kinder fate than the film deserves.
The late screening of “Elle” also served to put a provocative bit of punctuation on a program that has featured an uncommonly rich array of movies about women. Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann,” Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey,” Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper,” Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden,” Pedro Almodóvar’s “Julieta,” Kleber Mendonça Filho’s “Aquarius,” Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “The Unknown Girl” and, yes, Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” — it’s an altogether astounding lineup, and the fact that many if not all of them will be headed to American theaters serves as a welcome corrective to the glut of male-centric movies that, with a few heartening exceptions, tend to clog our cinemas year-round.
In one of those peculiar three’s-a-trend coincidences, “Elle” is the third film in nearly as many days in which the plot pivots on a vicious physical attack on a woman by a man. The other two are Cristian Mungiu’s well-received “Graduation” and Asghar Farhadi’s solid if underwhelming “The Salesman,” which was acquired for North American distribution by Amazon Studios shortly before its unveiling on Friday in Cannes. The film is another of Farhadi’s characteristically thoughtful morality plays stemming from a series of dangerous, all-too-human misunderstandings: A woman in Tehran lets a man into her apartment, mistaking him for her husband; the accidental encounter leaves deep physically and psychological scars, awakening in her husband a wholly understandable yet all-consuming desire for revenge.
Beautifully acted by its three principals (Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti and especially Babak Karimi), Farhadi’s movie is a grave inquiry into the many varieties of male aggression and the moral cost of punishing our enemies, especially those who turn out to be as pitifully, redeemably human as we are. Its title is a deliberate nod to Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” a local production of which the husband and his wife are both performing in — a peripheral metaphor that never quite satisfyingly merges with the bigger-picture drama.
If “The Salesman” feels like a lesser achievement than Farhadi’s “About Elly,” “The Past” and his Oscar-winning masterwork, “A Separation,” it may be because it lacks the dizzyingly intricate craftsmanship of those films, which functioned like humanist detective stories: Ingeniously plotted and endlessly multifaceted, they were Hitchcockian thrillers by way of Jean Renoir. Nevertheless, the new film’s wrenching final moments ably confirm Farhadi’s standing as a dramatist of the first rank, an artist whose far-flung domestic dramas can make us feel painfully at home.
Nicolas Winding Refn is one of those directors who pushes buttons as much with his pronouncements as his work. In an interview with The Times at Cannes a few years ago for the polarizing Thai western “Only God Forgives,” he fashioned an elaborate metaphor out of the image of a birth canal — then proceeded to compare it to sex.
The Dane’s appearance at the festival this year has been no less needling. Refn’s “Neon Demon” played its first screening Thursday, and the movie’s hyper-stylized mashup of noir, fashion films and a host of other influences quickly became the most debated movie of the festival.
In person, too, the artsploitation auteur wasted little time getting down to business as the self-proclaimed punk king of the global cinema world — a comparison that became literal in one instance. He also dropped a dis track on a countryman. Here is a sampling of his comments from the Neon Demon’ news conference Friday afternoon.
On the divided reaction to ‘Neon Demon’:
“If I don’t split, what are we doing here? Creativity is about reactions. And reactions are the essence of experience. If you don’t react, what are you doing here? Why would you waste your time? There are so many things in life you could do besides watch a film or TV show. Look at all the reactions you guys are having. Take it or leave it, but you can’t deny it.”
On the punk-like quality of that last quote:
“I passed Iggy Pop on the way to rehearsal last night. It’s like we took the trophy from him.”
On countryman Lars von Trier:
“Lars. He’s done a lot of drugs. Over the hill. The last time I saw Lars, he was telling my wife he wants to have sex with her. I told him to [bleep] off. So he found another slut.”
On his unlikely bit of casting:
“Just having Keanu with a knife at someone’s throat is the best.”
On feminism in his new movie:
“All the men are like the girlfriends in other movies. Because the women are the focus. The men represent certain approaches of fear, or control, or predatory behavior.”
On the unlikely connections between fashion, mortality and iPhones (there’s a through-line in here somewhere):
”There’s something very interesting about the digital revolution becoming a reality. Digital alters reality, so what you see is unreal — which is death. “Beauty and death are the same because there’s nothing; it’s just the end of the line. There’s a dangerous possibility of this alternate world becoming a reality for our children because we’re not going to reverse the wheel. It’s just going to get more and more.”
This is about, well, the thing that, you see...never mind, we can’t really set this one up:
“The lesbian necrophilia scene is the essence of the film. We shot at the L.A. Morgue … We had to sign a paper that if someone died, we had to leave. It escalated into a really intense necrophilia scene. [I asked actress Jena Malone] ‘Can you stick your tongue in the mouth [ of the actor playing a corpse]? OK, that’s great. Can you get more saliva on her? [He describes increasingly sexual acts.] And after that, we found the character. So now go with God.”
“The lesbian necrophilia scene is the essence of the film. We shot at the L.A. Morgue. … We had to sign a paper that if someone died, we had to leave. ... It escalated into a really intense necrophilia scene. And after that, we found the character. So now go with God.”
How you approach the sick, ravishing object that is Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” is entirely up to you. Nervy feminist provocation or misogynist freakshow? Hypnotic art piece or exploitative trash? I’m still wrestling with it myself, and have not yet ruled out the possibility that it may be all of the above.
Refn, who competed in Cannes years ago with the very good “Drive” (2011) and the very bad “Only God Forgives” (2013), has in some ways surpassed Quentin Tarantino as the filmmaker with the least shame or discretion when it comes to projecting his most demented fetishes and fantasies onto the screen. This is no small thing. For all the praise directors routinely get for the honesty of their visions, it can be galvanizing to encounter one who truly operates without a filter (except, of course, for whatever filter he uses to achieve those sizzling reds and cool blues in his gorgeously tinted widescreen images).
A voluptuously arid, glacially paced evisceration of an industry that routinely leaches beautiful women of sustenance and soul, “The Neon Demon” stars Elle Fanning as a naive, fresh-faced 16-year-old beauty who moves to L.A. and becomes the sensation of the modeling world. This prompts her impeccably coiffed, nipped-and-tucked rivals to begin their (very) slow descent into murderous jealousy.
The movie is Refn’s “Black Swan,” his “Mulholland Dr.,” his “All About Eve,” his “Death Becomes Her” and his “Suspiria” rolled into one. It’s got gold body paint, menstrual floods, cannibalism, lesbian necrophilia and Keanu Reeves. It’s bewitching to behold, with its surreal strobe effects and static, fashion-shoot-style compositions, and bewitching to listen to, with its nightmarish synth-on-stilettos score by Cliff Martinez. It’s banal, ludicrous, thuddingly one-note and — once you adjust to its narcotic rhythms — entirely mesmerizing.
By the end I was aghast and, loath though I was to admit it, impressed by the terrible coherence of Refn’s vision. Others were less impressed, and not shy about making their displeasure known: It was clear, five minutes into the screening, that “The Neon Demon” was going to draw the loudest and longest boos of the competition — though as is always the case with a movie willing to sink to such disreputable depths, the catcalls were answered by a blast of defiant applause. It’ll be interesting to see how Amazon Studios, after such classy, well-received Cannes entries as “Paterson” and “The Handmaiden,” handles the marketing and release of this already critically derided oddity. If past festival scandales have taught us anything, it’s that hatred is usually far preferable to indifference.
I bowed to no one in my contempt for “Only God Forgives,” which, a juicy performance from Kristin Scott Thomas aside, felt like a creative dead end from a talented filmmaker. Featuring a cast of beauties made to look like bulimic vampires, “The Neon Demon” may be no less the work of a director with his head (and camera) somewhere in the vicinity of his colon. But what a beautiful colon it is! And what intoxicating moods it produces! The movie builds to a silly, unforgettable image with a nice little sting of a visual punchline: In this debauched charnel house of a movie, beauty truly is, ahem, in the eye of the beholder.
“Neon Demon” or no “Neon Demon,” this has been one of the most consistent, strength-to-strength competition programs in some time. For many, an estimable Palme d’Or contender arrived Thursday in the form of “Graduation,” Cristian Mungiu’s latest sobering glimpse into the cold, black heart of Romanian society. Such an outcome would make Mungiu a double Palme winner, as he won the festival’s top prize in 2007 for “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” (His 2012 follow-up, the arthouse exorcism drama “Beyond the Hills,” won Cannes prizes for acting and screenwriting.)
Less galvanizing than “4 Months,” but more complex and persuasive than “Beyond the Hills,” “Graduation” traces the welter of moral complications that arise when a high-school senior, Eliza (Maria Drăguş), is attacked one morning; her injuries, though not serious, will make it harder for her to take her all-important final exam. Her father, a middle-aged doctor named Romeo (Adrian Titieni), unwisely decides to intervene, at which point this swiftly paced, scrupulously measured film becomes a blow-by-blow indictment of this man and his manifold hypocrisies.
Those who know a thing or two about Romanian history may pick up on a subtext about the lingering aftereffects of the Nicolae Ceausescu regime and how they impacted men like Romeo, who pride themselves on their strict moral compasses but are at the mercy of desire and self-interest. But even those who bring no such background knowledge to the table will be held, I imagine, by the force and fluidity of Mungiu’s storytelling, and by the richness of the moral dilemmas he confronts us with: Who wouldn’t want to do the best for their children, and to spare them the cruel deprivations of an earlier generation?
Drăguş, a German actress, first came to international attention in Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon,” and there is something of the Austrian director’s chilly spirit suffusing Mungiu’s characteristically gray palette this time around: With its tale of rocks being thrown through windows and startling, out-of-nowhere physical attacks, “Graduation” evokes the social paranoia of both “The White Ribbon” and Haneke’s earlier “Caché.” But this is finally a gentler, more compassionate film than either; Mungiu may be a ruthless realist with no love for the grim regimes of despots past, but his final shot offers bracing assurance that children really are the future.
Compete at Cannes often enough and you’ll find that your biggest rival may be your own enviable track record. “Graduation,” although admired by many, also drew criticism from those who felt Mungiu was treading thematic water rather than breaking new ground. Ironically, the Romanian film counts among its producers the great Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, whose own competition entry, “The Unknown Girl,” came in for even worse knocks a day earlier — most of them directed at the unusually schematic nature of the story.
The Dardennes, who have twice won the Palme d’Or (for “Rosetta” and “L’enfant”), are among the most consistent filmmakers alive, to the point that even their strongest films are sometimes received with an impatience that can tilt over into ingratitude. I’ll concede that “The Unknown Girl,” a socially conscious detective story that reminded me in some ways of Ruth Rendell’s 1994 crime novel “Simisola,” is something of a disappointment: Although fronted by a remarkable performance by the French actress Adele Haenel, it lacks the powerful moral and dramatic surprises typical of their best work. But if all disappointments were this thoughtful and mature — or, for that matter, as thoughtful and mature as Pedro Almodóvar’s tepidly received “Julieta” — life would be almost too marvelous to bear.
Auteur expectations are all but impossible to shake off at Cannes: If there’s a reason a competition entry like “Toni Erdmann” has been such a critical favorite, it’s that Maren Ade, with just two features under her belt, arrived here as something of an unknown quantity. The same goes for the Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho, whose sophomore effort, “Aquarius,” merges the rich social critique of his acclaimed debut, “Neighboring Sounds,” with an unexpectedly accessible character study. Playing a woman who refuses to vacate her longtime apartment and finds herself at war with the building’s new owners, the 65-year-old Sonia Braga gives a performance of bravura intelligence, sensuality and emotional range.
And if there’s a director whose every new movie arrives bearing far too much expectational baggage these days, it’s surely Xavier Dolan, that 27-year-old Canadian enfant terrible, who’s been known to divide audiences with films such as “Mommy” (winner of a Cannes jury prize in 2014), “Tom at the Farm” and “Laurence Anyways.” I’ve been an erratic but sincere admirer of Dolan’s work over the years, but no amount of devotion could have kept me from recoiling from “It’s Only the End of the World,” an insufferable compendium of dysfunctional family neuroses that stars a maddeningly aloof Gaspard Ulliel as a gay man making a rare trip home to tell his folks of his impending death.
I’m all for no-holds-barred emotional scrutiny, but rarely have I felt so imprisoned by a movie as by this one. The actors — who include Léa Seydoux, Nathalie Baye, Vincent Cassel and an unprecedentedly awful Marion Cotillard — are wretchedly served by their material, as well as by Dolan’s decision to trap them all in extreme closeups throughout. Ingmar Bergman believed the human face was the greatest subject in all of cinema, but I doubt even he would have lasted five minutes into “It’s Only the End of the World.” You’ve seen Bioré pore-cleansing-strip commercials before, and there’s no reason for them to be this tediously shrill.
CANNES, France — The opportunity to make a feature film is, for most directors, the ultimate grail, a pearl without price, but for Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit, it’s always been an offer he felt he had to refuse. Until he couldn’t.
The 62-year old Dudok de Wit, a Dutch filmmaker based in London, is not just any short-film animator. He was twice nominated for an Academy Award in that category and took home the Oscar in 2001 for his emotional “Father and Daughter.”
“When I direct a short, I do all the elements myself: the design, the backgrounds, everything, I don’t have to justify or explain, I just do it,” the filmmaker says. “With features there are always discussions, and that really puts me off. And I was not ready for the struggle of raising money.”
A thoughtful man with a quiet, reserved air, Dudok de Wit arrived at Cannes with two things he didn’t expect: an infection that led to a bandage over his right eye, and a dazzling animated feature, “The Red Turtle,” which premiered in the Un Certain Regard section, earning exceptional early notices and a U.S. distribution deal with Sony Pictures Classics.
The Cannes Film Festival hits its one-week mark Wednesday night, and while for some that sounds like an endless amount of time, for those at the fest -- where big movies from the likes of Paul Verhoeven, Sean Penn and Nicolas Winding Refn are yet to premiere -- that’s far from the end.
It’s a good moment, in other words, to have a conversation about what’s unfolded here at the so-called Olympics of cinema.
New administrations can mean a change in fortunes for controversial figures. But a Hillary Clinton presidency would not improve the status of Julian Assange, say those aligned with the Wikileaks founder, who remains in Ecuador’s London embassy pending a Swedish extradition request.
In fact, they argue, it could well do the opposite.
“Under Clinton [Assange’s situation] will possibly get worse,” said Wikileaks staffer Jacob Applebaum.
Clinton was secretary of State when Wikileaks released a trove of classified cables in 2010, many of them sensitive or embarrassing to the U.S. government. Applebaum noted a meeting he had with a senior Clinton staffer at the time that he said carried with it an air of intimidation. (Incidentally and not unexpectedly, Applebaum was hardly bullish on Donald Trump either. “I don’t have any ideas about other candidates but I don’t think they have any ideas either.”)
As it reached a boiling point earlier this year, the #OscarsSoWhite movement and its proponents raised strong doubts about Hollywood’s willingness to address issues of equality. Serious, topical films about race were lacking, they said, and consequently so were black nominees.
At the Cannes Film Festival on Monday, those critics were given an answer. Premiering at the world’s most prestigious cinema gathering was “Loving,” a fact-based drama, from the Arkansas-raised auteur Jeff Nichols, about an interracial romance deemed illicit in Virginia circa 1958.
Impeccably made and drawn closely from historical research, the film tells the relatively little-known story of Mildred and Richard Loving, a couple whose case, which eventually went to the Supreme Court, both exposed the racial divides of the time and helped bridge them.
But as with so many films that touch on diversity, the movie has also just as quickly drawn skepticism, in this case for not being sufficiently hard-hitting about the racism of the era.
Nichols has sought to keep a distance from the fray, saying he was simply looking to tell an intimate tale of a couple that overcame obstacles, not a larger social history.
“You look at this film from a distance and there are so many pitfalls for melodrama or histrionics,” the writer-director said in an interview with The Times. “But then you start to look at these people and they’re not melodramatic.”
There may not be enough female directors competing for the Palme d’Or, but there has certainly been no shortage of stories about women in the mix. It’s not the first time that assessment has been trotted out at Cannes, but oh well: It happens to be very, very true this year, and as such it’s a point worth both critiquing and celebrating.
Not that the media audience seemed to be in a very celebratory mood on Monday night, to judge by the ill-considered boos that greeted Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper,” a deliriously spooky paranormal thriller featuring another remarkable performance from Kristen Stewart — this time as a fashion buyer and spiritual medium haunted by her twin brother’s recent death.
Booing films off the screen is a silly yet time-honored festival tradition, and my main objection to the practice — apart from how it reduces an artistic showcase to a sporting event — is that the movies that wind up getting the brunt of it are usually those with ambiguous endings or unconventional narratives. In short, the ones that attempt the most significant or daring creative risks. (Among the recently Cannes-booed, Abbas Kiarostami’s “Like Someone in Love” and Carlos Reygadas’ “Post Tenebras Lux” come to mind.) If you’ll allow me to butcher Susan Sontag, the act of booing is too often little more than the revenge of the audience upon the intellect.
There were no boos, if I recall correctly, for Assayas’ and Stewart’s first collaboration, “Clouds of Sils Maria,” which premiered in competition at Cannes in 2014 and went on to win a raft of international acting prizes for Stewart (including the Cesar for best supporting actress). That film gave her a wryly humorous turn as a celebrity’s assistant, and so does “Personal Shopper,” except that here the celebrity stays almost entirely off screen while Stewart remains front and center. It’s a smart choice: Assayas’ plot is preposterous and he knows it. He needs every moment of his leading lady’s restless intelligence and twitchy, self-effacing beauty to carry it off.
Stewart plays Maureen, an American living in Paris. (Assayas, savvy cine-globalist that he is, knows better than to explain why.) Maureen is moderately conversant with the spirit world, and Assayas wastes no time plunging her into the inky shadows of a haunted house, where she moves from room to room, murmuring the name of her late brother (“Lewis … ?”) while a ghostly, ectoplasmic presence materializes every so often behind her.
Before long, Maureen is receiving coyly menacing text messages from an all-knowing presence, and the escalating intensity of their back-and-forth makes for perhaps the most creepily sustained use of screen-within-a-screen since last year’s “Unfriended.” Where some might see an extended product placement for Apple, I see a director in full command of his craft and not too proud to flex his genre muscles. Assayas’ display of raw filmmaking chops here is so shiveringly bravura — he turns those little iPhone text-in-progress bubbles into a harbinger of dread — that it almost doesn’t matter whether the ideas behind it cohere.
And yet, on some eerie, subterranean level, they do. In films as different as his autumnal masterpiece “Summer Hours” and his sensationally trashy cyber-thriller “demonlover,” Assayas has long evinced a fascination with how globalization and technology are continually reshaping our relationships with the modern world, and with one another. His roving camera is forever drawing invisible lines and parallels between his characters, but here he has chosen to emphasize disconnection and disembodiment in every frame.
Why does the movie end in Oman? What happens during Maureen’s climactic hotel-room assignation with the mystery texter? How hot does Stewart look in a black bondage gown? Only one of those questions will be answered definitively, but they are arguably not the right questions to start with. In “Personal Shopper,” a thriller whose heroine is forever at the mercy of unseen tormenters communicating with her remotely (her boss not least among them), Assayas has stumbled on perhaps the most literal definition of ghosts in the machine. And in Stewart, an extraordinary talent who does her best work at her most seemingly ordinary, he has found an ideal medium for his ideas.
Maybe I’m over-intellectualizing. A friend summed things up perfectly as we exited the theater: “It’s got Cartier and ghosts. What’s not to like?”
If you’d asked me months ago which director would show up in Cannes with a kinky supernatural chiller about a woman reeling from personal tragedy, I might well have guessed Pedro Almodóvar. Instead this justly beloved Spanish auteur has arrived on the Croisette with “Julieta,” a more subdued yet still powerfully affecting portrait of implacable grief and its myriad ripple effects. The movie is what you might call a return to form — but then, after his mirthless airplane comedy “I’m So Excited!,” you might call anything other than 96 minutes of uninterrupted black screen a return to form.
Shuffling with effortless grace between the past and present lives of his title heroine (played at different stages by Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suarez), Almodóvar seems to have taken the theme of loss unusually to heart. “Julieta” is a melodrama by subtraction; it’s about the traumas we don’t always see or register, the painful emotions that we actively stifle and allow to consume us. The scenes that cut the deepest are practically invisible: A fatal accident is left off screen. Without explanation, a lady vanishes (not the film’s sole nod to Hitchcock). The teary ending we expect never happens — and in some ways, the one we get is even more shattering.
The reviews of “Julieta” have run the gamut from raves to polite yawns; the words “minor Almodóvar” have popped up more than once, and in this context they feel both understandable and a bit ungenerous. It’s true that since his triumphant “Volver” (which narrowly lost the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2006), Almodóvar’s films, including “Broken Embraces” and “The Skin I Live In,” have seemed to merely go through the motions. You could see the gears spinning: After years of flooding the screen with outré melodramatic gestures, lush homages to Sirk and Hitchcock, and acres of crimson-streaked production design, the director’s heart didn’t seem to be in it anymore.
“Julieta” is promising evidence to the contrary. This deceptively tamped-down film may not have the audacity and emotional force of an Almodóvar masterpiece, but it reveals his mastery nonetheless. His manipulation of time frames, his sly infusions of comedy and his flawless direction of his actors — all merge together with the dexterity of an artist who doesn’t need to wow us to earn our love. It’s a lesson I hope Almodóvar carries with him always, even in the unlikely event of some idiots booing him off the screen.
The Cannes Film Festival does more than anoint the triumphs of the present, it also celebrates what’s transcendent in the past.
Which is why a crowd of admirers waited patiently in line a few nights ago, a few with autograph books and posters they hoped would be signed, to both see a new 4K restoration of a modern classic, 1992’s “Howards End,” and to do so in the presence of its director, James Ivory, and its perhaps most ethereal star, Vanessa Redgrave.
In “The Handmaiden” — a thriller told “Rashomon” style by original “Oldboy” auteur and all-around gore maestro Park Chan-wook — the two lead female characters are the narrative focus, they’re the love story and, though there are times one or both seems powerless, they often gain leverage, with their minds far more than their bodies. (OK, there is plenty here involving their bodies too; this is a lesbian romance that doesn’t skimp on the sex scenes.)
“I’m not afraid of this being called a feminist film, and certainly I had that intention,” said Park, via an interpreter, as he sat on a rooftop deck here Sunday. Then, in his inimitably better-you-than-me-to-interpret-my-work manner, he added, “But once you start labeling movies you start focusing only on that. And I don’t want to focus just on that.”
Kristen Stewart addressed reporters ahead of the premiere of “Personal Shopper,” her Europe-set ghost tale that reunites her with director Olivier Assayas, in Cannes on Tuesday. Here are excerpts from her comments:
- “The constant nature of life is so terrifying that you can’t get away from it. Right now. I can’t get out. I can’t get out. That’s really scary.”
- “[This film] is a ghost story but supernatural aspects lead you to the very base questions. Am I making this up right now? Is this current reality a thing? It’s so ridiculous. Is this (my) perception compared to yours?”
- “It is really a movie about finding yourself. It’s an identity crisis movie.”
- “Sometimes I feel like I have my limbs cut off. That’s not a bad feeling. It’s just surreal.”
On playing an assistant to a person so rich and famous she can’t leave the house:
- “There’s a lot of hatred and conflicted desires that go along with [my character’s] attraction to shiny things. To be on the other side [of someone who is] not able to go to a store and buy something. Technically you can but it can prove to be ... not worth it. Maureen is so capable just so tactile and physical.. It was fun to play someone who was sort of like um, what’s the word I’m looking for dude. So capable.”
- “I’ve been thinking a lot about distractions. I’m absolutely guilty of constant stimula that’s not actually stimulation….In the context of the movie the fact that she can sit behind the phone and feel closer and feel alive, it says something about how we interact with technology. It would be a lot easier for me to sit down and write an email of what I’m talking about right now. [Pause.] But it’s nice to engage too.”
On Assayas, who also directed her in “Clouds of Sils Maria”:
- “There’s a flame he lights under mine [butt] that is stronger than I ever felt. I don’t know why…. I really try to navigate my career by feel, and I just feel him.”
- “Without any religious implications, I’m agnostic about ghosts. [Pauses] This is going to sound great in quotes. I’m really sensitive to energies. I truly believe we’re driven by something. I’m driven by something, I can’t really define. I can’t necessarily take responsibility for it and it gives me a feeling we’re not so alone.”
On sexually charged scenes:
- “I wasn’t afraid of that. I’m really--I’ll do anything. I really appreciate all of it.”
On acting technique:
- “I’m not trying to affect you, I’m not trying to manipulate you. [It’s not about] packaging and delivering a notion. It’s being shocked by it and then someone captures it. And the only way to do that is to get naked. My favorite kind of work is someone says ‘did you know that about yourself, because I saw it and wanted to highlight it.’”
- “Do I believe in ghosts? I guess. I believe in something. That’s not a very finite answer. But that’s the film.”
Though he could scarcely be accused of making the same movie twice, Jeff Nichols has established a set of cinematic themes and preoccupations as consistent as those of any American writer-director working today. Stories of the rural South, rich in mythic undertones and the odd apocalyptic portent. Families that come under threat. Brooding, laconic men of action, usually played by Michael Shannon. Fiercely resilient women. Immaculate visual and rhythmic control. And, as seen in the recent “Midnight Special,” many, many shots of people behind the wheel, often at night.
There are a few of those signature nocturnal driving scenes in “Loving,” Nichols’ second film of 2016, his second film to premiere in competition at Cannes (after “Mud” in 2012), and in some ways both his least typical and his most emblematic work to date. It tells the fact-based story of Richard and Mildred Loving (played by Joel Edgerton), a Virginia couple whose mixed-race marriage — he was white, she was black — challenged the social expectations of the era and ultimately led to the Supreme Court’s 1967 civil rights decision against the prohibition of interracial marriage.
It sounds like prime Oscar-bait on paper. And sure enough, the film’s well-received press screening had barely ended before the first wave of awards handicapping erupted on Twitter — much of it focused on how the radiant Negga will singlehandedly dispel the curse of #OscarSoWhite. Maybe she will. But I’d like to think at least some of the film’s applause was in appreciation of how largely un-baity it plays on screen, some overly insistent musical cues aside. It’s the sort of movie whose flaws and familiarities wind up revealing its maker’s strengths: Nichols’ direction is clear-eyed and restrained, almost to a fault, and he refuses every opportunity to grandstand.
In this he is operating very much in line with his characters, whom we never once hear extolling the importance of what they’re doing, or raising their voices or fists to those trying to tear their family apart. Nichols keeps the Lovings front and center, cutting away only when he must. When Richard refuses to attend the Supreme Court hearings and listen to the state’s noxious arguments on the dangers of miscegenation, the film honors his decision and keeps its distance as well. Nichols seems almost relieved at being able to skip the usual courtroom histrionics.
The Lovings’ struggle is one of quiet, incremental persistence, their bond a force as permanent and elemental as the sun-kissed Virginia fields where they strive to make their home. The applicability of their story to America’s ongoing marriage-equality debate is implicit but goes entirely unmentioned. Specificity, self-control and humility are the hallmarks of Nichols’ approach.
Negga and Edgerton are both outstanding, and at times their characters’ mutual devotion acquires an almost comic tinge. Mildred gently takes the lead in most of their decisions, smiling agreeably as a lawyer (a slightly jarring Nick Kroll) steers them this way and that, while Richard frowns in silence, his spirit willing but his mouth frozen in a pucker of revolt. Edgerton is playing one of Nichols’ quintessentially decent, inarticulate men, the kind of guy usually played by his “Midnight Special” co-star Michael Shannon, who turns up here as a friendly Life magazine photographer assigned to show the world who the Lovings really are.
Which is, in the end, the goal of Nichols’ film as well. Richard and Mildred are not the most vigorous or demonstrative of protagonists, which makes “Loving” feel at once scrupulously honest and dramatically under-powered. That seems to suit Nichols just fine. The unalloyed perfection of his characters’ relationship may not make for the most urgent drama, but it makes their moral high ground that much more unassailable. The final shot underscores perhaps the overriding theme of Nichols’ work: an urgent yearning to return home, even if it means building one anew.
The Cannes programmers must have seen fit to schedule “Loving” as the second half of a double bill with Jim Jarmusch’s wonderful “Paterson,” another portrait of a happy marriage between a white man and a woman of color. The similarities end there: The characters’ ethnicities go unmentioned in “Paterson,” and the film itself is unlikely to be confused for Oscar-bait anytime soon.
Working in a mode that feels both completely accessible and richly personal, Jarmusch spends two hours observing a week in the humdrum life of a bus driver in Paterson, N.J. Every morning he rises at 6 a.m., eats breakfast, smiles at his wife’s plans for the day (usually involving curtain or cupcake decoration), drives his bus, goes home for dinner, walks their ill-tempered English bulldog (an impudent scene-stealer), and ends the night at a local bar.
The driver is played by Adam Driver, and whether that casting was a happy coincidence or the joke from which the movie’s central conceit arose, we have every reason to be grateful. For the bus driver is not just a bus driver but a poet, scribbling warm, intuitive free-verse observations in a notebook he keeps with him at all times. And “Paterson” itself is a sort of poem — one with its own delicately calibrated internal structure, predicated on a cleverly sustained scheme of rhyme and repetition.
Jarmusch’s screenplay is a marvel of intricate visual and verbal gamesmanship. Mysterious doublings recur throughout: Driver’s driver not only lives in Paterson but also is named Paterson. William Carlos Williams becomes a significant plot device. Lines of dialogue in one scene are replicated, with uncanny accuracy, a few scenes later. Characters from a movie by another American indie darling make a delightful surprise appearance. One of Paterson’s poems invites us to consider the beauty of a book of Ohio Blue Tip matches, and if your brain works the way mine does, you’ll immediately think of “matches” in the other sense, perhaps in stealth reference to the identical twins who keep popping up in the background.
A work of becalmed eccentricity and unforced charm, “Paterson” is a portrait of an artist’s world, and how that world — presented here as recognizably mundane, and yet touched by a sort of cat’s-cradle enchantment — can provide him or her with inspiration, nourishment and an inevitable dose of failure. Driver, whose career from “Girls” to Kylo Ren has been a succession of off-the-wall surprises, gives a performance of great, taciturn melancholy. Sacrificing the boisterous comic personality he brought to movies like “While We’re Young” and “What If” has taken him to soulful new depths as an actor. (Also, if that is indeed his scrawl we see on the screen, he has lovely penmanship.) As his wife, the superb Golshifteh Farahani is a perpetually upbeat figure, comically idealized in ways that somehow only deepen the movie’s wellspring of melancholy.
When it was announced that “Paterson” was Cannes-bound, a colleague warned me that he’d heard it was extremely minor Jarmusch. That didn’t bother me in the slightest: His previous work, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” slipped into Cannes 2013 with little early fanfare and emerged one of the festival’s unexpected highlights. And since the director’s brand of low-wattage indie minimalism has always insisted that we learn to see the beauty in the small and everyday, as well as in the neglected and rarefied, it stands to reason that his “minor effort” might in fact turn out to be the deepest, truest expression of his ethos as an artist.
The tedious common line on Jarmusch is that his filmmaking, like so much poetry, is too idiosyncratic to be savored by more than an appreciative few. The unfashionable wit, delicacy and modesty of “Paterson” would seem to confirm that truism, even as the emotional effect of the film utterly rebukes it. Jarmusch has made a movie for anyone who’s ever felt out of step with the world — which is to say, a movie for everyone.
How long is too long? It’s a question that moviegoers are accustomed to asking at the Festival de Cannes, with its reputation for marathon running times, and this year has been no exception.
The official selection got its most time-consuming entry out of the way on the first day with Cristi Puiu’s just-shy-of-three-hours “Sieranevada.” But Puiu’s film is scarcely the sole competition entry to have clocked in at well north of two hours. Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” runs a tightly coiled 145 minutes, and Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann” and Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” last a somewhat baggier 162 minutes each — and have, even in their most glowing notices, taken some flak for their perceived self-indulgence. (Still to come: Kleber Mendonça Filho’s 140-minute “Aquarius” and Na Hong-jin’s out-of-competition thriller “The Wailing,” listed in the festival program with a running time of 156 minutes.)
I’ve already written about why I think “Toni Erdmann,” in mapping the contours of an unusually intricate father-daughter relationship, largely earns the right to be unhurried and exhaustive. “American Honey,” though in some ways trickier to parse, earns it, too. Arnold, the prodigiously talented British director of “Red Road,” “Fish Tank” and “Wuthering Heights,” has shown an increasingly fearless command of form with each film, and in “American Honey,” her tough, electrifying, the-kids-are-definitely-not-all-right road movie, she leaves conventional ideas of narrative structure almost completely by the wayside, relying on pure texture, sensuality, imagery, music and performance to drive her picture forward.
The astonishing newcomer Sasha Lane plays Star, a Texas girl who, fed up with her depressing home life, impulsively tags along with a band of teenage drifters making their way across the Midwest. At the instruction of their whip-cracking manager, Krystal (a terrific Riley Keough), these kids raid remote outposts and suburban neighborhoods trying to sell magazine subscriptions, though it’s soon clear that what they’re really selling are their own dead-end sob stories — something that will stir the charitable empathy of the poor and wealthy alike. They are in effect selling themselves, the implication of which Arnold follows, at one point, to its logical conclusion.
There are some toxic romantic complications and misunderstandings involving Krystal’s top seller, Jake (a charismatically grunged-up Shia LaBeouf), who shows Star the ropes and soon shows her other things as well. But the movie never becomes fully invested in their on-again-off-again flirtation, and with a few exceptions, we never learn much about the other kids in this nomadic commune, either.
Arnold’s attention gravitates toward other elements in this rural American panorama: the startling beauty of a prairie sunset, the furious pop energy supplied by the film’s terrific soundtrack, and the small insects that repeatedly creep into the frame — as though drawn, moth-like, to the flame of Lane’s magnetism. You can’t blame them: Arnold and her extraordinary cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, keep their camera close to their leading lady, who has both a spunky-sultry impudence and a profile worthy of a Greek coin — a quality emphasized repeatedly in Ryan’s ravishing square-frame compositions.
“American Honey” is a jaggedly beautiful aesthetic object, and at two hours and 42 minutes, its accumulation of immersive details is meant to frustrate your sense of time passing. The subculture being examined here is a fascinating one, but long stretches of tedium, we come to understand, are also a significant part of the characters’ journey. Which is not to suggest that Arnold’s road movie, for all its sensory pleasures, lacks an arc or a destination: In a revelatory culmination of song, image and wordless exchange, the movie arrives exactly where it needs to, with Star emerging a bit sadder and a bit wiser — an epiphany that wouldn’t matter as much to us if we hadn’t seen and experienced so much alongside her.
How long is too long? Roger Ebert was fond of saying, “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” I have a feeling he would have dug “American Honey.”
“The Handmaiden” is the Korean director Park Chan-wook’s most delectable narrative feature in years — and I say that as someone who found his “Stoker” a genial hoot, but had little patience for “Thirst,” “Oldboy” and his other strained exercises in gore-sloshing perversity. There’s a little of that sadism on display here, but it doesn’t rear its head until the very end, and when it does it feels almost reflexive, compulsive — as if Park himself had become so wrapped up in the yarn he was spinning that he suddenly realized, shoot, he hadn’t sliced off anyone’s fingers yet.
Adapted from Sarah Waters’ Victorian-set novel “Fingersmith,” but relocated to 1930s Korea, this ornately art-directed erotic puzzler centers around two beautiful women: Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a wily pickpocket turned duplicitous caretaker, and Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a Japanese heiress who is the target of Sook-hee’s deception. Over the course of the movie’s three chapters, two of which provide a revelatory, “Rashomon”-style shift in perspective, the women will become lovers, rivals and allies, and their teasing, mercurial role play is what gives the movie its seductive pull.
A sort of “Gaslight”-meets-“Jane Eyre” with a big ol’ splash of “Diabolique,” “The Handmaiden” has predictably generated a lot of ink over its explicit lesbian love scenes — a touch that might well have been decried as exploitative (just as “Blue is the Warmest Color” came under attack here at Cannes three years ago), if not for the righteous narrative primacy that Park grants his leading ladies. Guys may well get off on the sight of these two women going at it, but the entire audience can take a certain gratification in the way they turn the tables on the devious and controlling men in the picture, including Hideko’s uncle (Cho Jin-woong), a pervy old purveyor of Japanese erotica who keeps a collection of human genital parts in jars.
Fetishism is both a crucial plot point and an entirely accurate description of Park’s stylistic approach. “The Handmaiden” may not be much more than ravishing surface at the end of the day, but Park’s embrace of his own voyeurism is awfully infectious. He likes to watch, and it’s a pleasure to admit that we do, too.
By Ebert’s running-time logic, Nicole Garcia’s dreary competition entry “From the Land of the Moon,” though relatively trim at two hours, should feel positively interminable. It doesn’t, exactly. Marion Cotillard never ceases to be watchable even in a role as painfully limiting as Gabrielle, a gorgeously miserable 1950s Frenchwoman who spends all (and I do mean all) her time pining for men who will never be hers, while her perfectly decent, sensitively stubbled husband (Alex Brendemühl) suffers silently in the background.
Wallowing gently in picturesque scenery, coyly filmed couplings and prettily tortured shots of Louis Garrel, but without ever building the sort of delirious, full-on sexual boil that might have cut through its exquisite drippiness, the film (adapted from Milena Angus’ book “Mal di Pietre”) builds to a ludicrous final twist that’s pure Nicholas Sparks. That said, this particular masochistic weepie is still preferable to last year’s stealth Nicholas Sparks movie in competition, Gus Van Sant’s indefensible “The Sea of Trees.” (Presumably the sea of trees and the land of the moon are thematically if not geographically adjacent.)
In a year of heightened attention to industry-wide diversity issues, much worthy attention has been focused on the presence of three female filmmakers in competition: It’s not enough, but it’s still an improvement over past editions of Cannes, and I’d argue that the improvement is as much a factor of quality as quantity. “Toni Erdmann” and “American Honey” both have their detractors, but you’d be hard-pressed to find two Palme d’Or contenders that feel more thrillingly, urgently and cinematically alive.
“From the Land of the Moon” isn’t in the same league, though I’m leery of comparing leagues in the first place: Why lump filmmakers together simply because they’re female — and why hold Garcia to a more exacting standard than that of the numerous male-directed mediocrities that have been slotted into competition without a second thought? Garcia’s film can be defended, up to a point, as an old-fashioned throwback to the “women’s pictures” of the 1940s and ’50s, though its retrograde sexual politics would almost certainly have felt livelier and less dated in that context. Like most movies that take themselves with such deadly (and deeply French) seriousness, this unhappy-marriage drama almost begs to be remade as a comedy, perhaps even a sitcom. “One of these days, Gabby, bang, zoom! Straight to the land of the moon!”
By his own admission, Steven Spielberg doesn’t become personal friends with many of the actors he works with.
“I have a lot of acquaintances over 44 years [as a filmmaker],” he told reporters at the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday. “And I haven’t brought a lot of people into my life from the movies ... “
He has, however, made an exception for Mark Rylance. The director said he’s become close with the actor, a fact that runs parallel to their professional lives, with two collaborations under their belts and a third on the way.
Audiences should be glad for the relationship. Rylance, who played the simmering spy Rudolf Abel in Spielberg’s 2015 hit “Bridge of Spies,” returns, in a remarkably different guise, in Spielberg’s latest, the adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s fantasy “The BFG,” which premieres here Saturday. The 56-year-old British-born Tony and Oscar winner (and Emmy and Golden Globe nominee) stars as said title character -- it stands for “big friendly giant.” He gives a performance in motion capture as rich and subtle as his turn in the Soviet-era espionage drama.
I wasn’t aware of Roald’s personal stories. I had no idea what was purportedly assigned to him. This is a story about embracing our differences ... Those were the values I wanted to impart in telling this story.
Steven Spielberg, when asked about “The BFG” author Roald Dahl’s anti-Semitic views
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