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Feminism, Spielberg and a German showstopper: Times staffers make sense of Cannes

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.

Cannes is a place that sees the debut of the best in global film. Or, at least, the most interesting in global film. Longtime auteurs and fresh discoveries sit cheek by jowl, and the kinds of pieces unveiled here can be a good indicator of what trends will, one way or another, make their way into cinema consciousness later -- think of Meryl Streep’s speech in “The Devil Wears Prada” about high fashion trickling down to the mall. (We’re sure that was in a Cannes movie originally too.)

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Newly minted Times critic Justin Chang and wizened Times reporter Steven Zeitchik -- longtime Croisette denizens both -- sat down Wednesday to discuss their observations of the festival so far.

Justin Chang: Is this going be too insidery? Because you and I can get a little ... deep about these issues.

Steven Zeitchik: I think readers just want to know about some Cannes movies.

JC: Yes, what do you think they are ‎interested in?

SZ: Maybe just the pros and cons --

JC: You mean the pros and Cannes.

SZ: This is going to be a very punning session, isn’t it?

JC: We could call this whole conversation “American Punny.”

SZ: I think it would help if people know one of the big movies here is “American Honey.”

JC: Probably.

SZ: So speaking of wordplay, one of the more divisive movies to premiere here over the past week is Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson.” It’s filled with that kind of lexical stuff -- Adam Driver playing a driver; his name is Paterson and he lives in the New Jersey city of Paterson. You were a fan, I believe?

JC: I was a fan. I think it’s a film that forces you to think verbally. Critics can get hung up on cinema being about images and not about text. And that makes sense. But this was a movie that had its own rhyming structure, and I loved that -- the use of “matches” to suggest parallels, the identical twins that kept popping up.

SZ: It was striking to me to watch the reaction to the film. This is a movie that operates according to its own unhurried rhythms and very small payoffs, as you might expect from a Jarmusch movie, and not everyone could get on board. One French journalist I talked to was practically angry that people liked it. He said, “If someone else other than Jim Jarmusch had made this film, they would have hated it.”

JC: I’ve never understood that argument. If someone other than Jim Jarmusch had made it, you wouldn’t have this movie at all; you would have something else.

SZ: [Laughs.] That’s true. But he does have a point about Cannes films -- people can give a pass to some movies because they’re harboring affection for a director’s past work.

JC: It’s interesting. A few years ago the critic Mike D’Angelo tried to come to Cannes movies as blind as possible. He had someone fill out his schedule in advance and he just showed up. I don’t remember the results exactly, but it was a worthy exercise. Do we like a movie more or less if we don’t know who made it?

SZ: That is really interesting. I actually find the whole idea of a filmmaker reputation’s factoring in to how we evaluate films to be fascinating. There seems to be a Cannes tradition of taking down filmmakers who are too high and resurrecting those who’ve fallen too low, a kind of smash-your-idols thing. It doesn’t seem to happen anywhere else in quite the same way. So people say things like, essentially, “His movie isn’t good, but it sure beats his last one,” because they want to make sure a director isn’t in a total free-fall.

JC: That does happen with some directors. Like the Almodovar film “Julieta,” which I thought was better than some of his recent movies, especially “I’m So Excited,” which was awful. So even though it’s not as thrilling as “All About My Mother” or “Volver,” I think people appreciate that. It’s such a muted, sad movie about loss.

SZ: I liked it well enough, though he does seem to be returning to the same themes and tropes. There were estranged children, and deeply felt memories, and a coma, again. Only the Smiths seem to like a coma more.

On the subject of a movie that people are frequently comparing to past work, one film that comes to my mind is Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG.” This was supposed to be a great return to his child-centric fantasies of long ago. It even has the same screenwriter as “E.T.” And yet...

JC: I liked the film more than you did, but, I agree, there was a lot of expectation. The last time Spielberg directed a big commercial entertainment like this, it was the most recent “Indiana Jones,” which was here in 2008, and it did not go well. The thing about Spielberg now is that his grown-up movies are better than his fantasy/genre ones. He can put on a childlike sense of play, but I don’t think it wears quite as seamlessly as it once did. I got the feeling this material hadn’t fully captivated him as much as past work. I don’t know that, of course; maybe it did. But I just didn’t feel that in the movie.

SZ: I also wonder if it’s the era we live in. With a few exceptions, it’s really hard to pull off a childlike sense of wonder in movies in these more ironic, darker times. It seems like you’re either Pixar or Chris Nolan. There’s not a lot in between. I mean, Jeff Nichols just tried it with “Midnight Special,” and while I and a lot of people liked it, others seemed really frustrated by it.

JC: Speaking of a movie that was divisive here...

SZ: Yes, ‘Loving,’ his new interracial romance. I’m surprised at how annoyed some of the reactions have been given that it’s really just a quiet, honorable love story, and a really well-done one at that.

JC: He has an interesting purity to all his films. I’m an admirer of Jeff Nichols’. But even as he gets bigger casts and bigger subjects, he seems to stay pretty much within himself, within this style. He’s a great filmmaker because he can hit these beats so well; even though this is his most middlebrow Oscar-baity film, it’s also an antidote to that. But there was something about this that felt a little familiar, a little safe.

SZ: I’m glad you brought up the Oscar bait thing. This film to me is a perfect example of how tough it can be to satisfy some people here. The things people said they wanted from “Loving” -- big emotional showdowns, a brick through the window -- are exactly what they roll their eyes at when they’re in an Oscar movie because it’s too Oscar-bait-y. It’s like you can’t make a movie period social drama, because whatever you do, it’s wrong.

JC: I would never tell Jeff Nichols what film to make. I guess what I’m looking for is a fusion of sensibility and material. With “Paterson,” even though it’s not Jarmusch’s best film, it was surprising me every moment. For me with Nichols, I hope that work is still ahead of him.

SZ: On the topic of a movie that was surprising, I have to bring up “The Handmaiden.” Park Chan-wook, who of course directed “Oldboy” and “Thirst,” is the guy known for style more than story. And then he comes up with this movie like this, which is beautiful to look at but also just tells this gleefully fun story, about the two women in Japan-occupied Korea who may or may not be falling in love and may or may not be scheming against each other.

JC: The story really is amazing.

SZ: It’s so rare to get a genuine whopper in these jaded times, when we’ve pretty much seen it all. And then the whopper doubled back on itself! It’s as if we found out Keyser Soze was Kevin Spacey, and then found out Kevin Spacey was Elvis.

JC: I liked “The Handmaiden” a lot. It also deals with something else that I think has been a theme of the festival --

SZ: Feminism.

JC: There’s been a lot of discussion about female directors. And you do have people like Andrea Arnold, who made a movie like “American Honey,” about these young people on the road, which I loved because of how it just takes this anti-narrative approach and just drops you into their world. But then you have all these great female characters in movies directed by men -- there’s Kristen Stewart in “Personal Shopper,” Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte in Almodovar’s “Julieta,” Adele Haenel in the Dardennes’ “The Unknown Girl.” As someone who finds women more interesting on-screen in general, I found that very gratifying.

SZ: It’s true, when I think about nearly every movie of note here, it’s anchored by a strong lead female performance. There’s also Isabelle Huppert in Verhoeven’s “Elle,” which hasn’t screened yet but has tremendous buzz. And the best female character of all, Sandra Hüller’s complicated oil consultant in “Toni Erdmann.”

JC: She is a revelation.

SZ: And the movie, from the German director Maren Ade, is so good. She’s just so talented. The film is about the strained relationship between a clownish father, played by Peter Simonischek, and his intense corporate daughter, played by Hüller. Is there anyone who doesn’t like this film? It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s human and it’s about larger issues.

JC: On paper it can sound like “Patch Adams” -- laughter is the best medicine, that sort of thing. But it’s just so vividly detailed. And it can be insanely funny and piercing all at the same time.

SZ: And then the idea of how global capitalism has failed us and just general economic disparities, a topic which is so current, is manifest in all these interesting ways. There’s a moment when Hüller’s character, who is working in Romania, just makes an offhanded remark about the country having the largest mall in Europe but no one in Bucharest has any money to buy anything. I thought that hit so close to the bone.

JC: And the whole idea of jobs being outsourced, and even just the balance between work and personal life, which it gets at in such a smart way. The film really is a joy.

SZ: It’s certainly one of the great pleasant surprises of the festival. Do you have any others? And what’s your biggest disappointment?

JC: I think my most pleasant surprise was Kristen Stewart and “Personal Shopper.” I didn’t even know it would be a ghost story. I don’t know about disappointment. I don’t know if anything has really disappointed me.

SZ: My big pleasant surprise was how I felt at that reveal in “Handmaiden.” It just reminds you of why we sit in so many hours in dark theaters fighting exhaustion and stone-faced French security guards. My biggest disappointment, though, is more personal: You’ve barely used any puns this whole discussion.

JC: I was holding one back. It was when we were talking about the Andrea Arnold movie.

SZ: Oh?

JC: I was going to say that after her movie “Fish Tank,” some people worried if she was box-office poisson.

SZ: There you go.

Twitter: @JustinCChang and @ZeitchikLAT


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