What am I looking for here every year? The answer is vague yet clear: something I love. The first weekend is usually good for getting close to that something. Between Friday and Sunday, a handful of competition films screened. The closest I’ve come to oh my God, oh my God was Damián Szifron’s Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales), which premiered Friday night as part of the main competition. It’s moviegoing heaven presented as a farcical national hell. The nation is Argentina, as seen in a quintet of stories. The first is set on airplane, the last at a wedding. Each has a pungent sense of tone and dramatic irony, and respective peaks of hilarious surprise. It’s O. Henry phoning in a terrorist threat.
The pre-credit opening sequence ends with a freeze-frame of two characters and an airplane. It’s not overstating things to say that image is the most exhilarating pause in the action since Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer leapt out of a diner banquette at the beginning of Pulp Fiction. It’s an image that leaves you charged and ready to see where Szifron is gonna take you. The answer is pretty much where you want the movies to take you — somewhere new and shocking.
A lot of movies from Argentina are about Argentina. Szifron’s is one of the craziest, most exciting, best acted, and even better made. He’s distilled an aspect of the national character down to “vengeful assholes.” It’s one vicious note he manages to turn into five different moods that gather in writerly force and allegorical chutzpah. Sony Pictures Classics has picked up the film for U.S. distribution, and that studio ought to give this movie everything it has. (It also bought Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner and Damien Chazelle’s Sundance hit playing here, Whiplash, which both need a loving push, too.) In Wild Tales, the studio has a masterpiece comedy that leaves a blockbuster-size crater in the earth.
David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars isn’t a great work of satire, but the pre-screening anticipation in the Salle Debussy last night was as high as it’s been the first five days. It’s a Hollywood comedy that starts to gather clouds the minute Mia Wasikowska starts working for an airhead movie star (Julianne Moore) and begins seeing a limo driver (Robert Pattinson). There’s a Justin Bieber–esque brat (Evan Bird), his weirdo parents (John Cusack, Olivia Williams), and a movie legend’s ghost (Sarah Gadon) that won’t leave poor, high-strung Moore alone.
Bruce Wagner wrote the script, and it’s not quite there as a full comedy. It slips and falls into a conclusion instead of building to one. There are some good (if easy) showbiz jokes. Maps splits the difference between the withering misery of Todd Solondz and Henry Jaglom’s pukey frivolity, but eventually you realize the film’s true subject isn’t the entertainment-industry sleaze — Cronenberg knows we’ve seen that before — but child abuse. The film’s drollery isn’t designed for real laughs. It’s aimed at the rippling trauma of generations of bad parenting. The gags are just collateral damage in a sort of toxic tragedy.
One of the risks in coming here year after year is that a director you love is going to make a movie you don’t. I waited for Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, nervous that his stellar streak (2002’s Distant; 2006’s Climates; 2008’s Three Monkeys; 2011’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) was about to come to an end. It’s the way you head into certain tennis matches knowing a hot player is due to come up short. Three hours and 16 minutes later, we knew how up short Ceylan had come.
The running time is nothing terribly new for the director, whose movies are set all over Turkey and take up spiky matters of class. Lately, it’s as if he’s set his ambition to make the movie equivalent of a great European novel, and Anatolia, a slow-boiling crime procedural, was a hypnotic approximation. But even at this length, the new film doesn’t seem to know where it’s going, while still arriving at obvious, rather plain philosophical conclusions.
The story’s about the owner of a mountain resort (Haluk Bilginer), his young wife (Melisa Sözen), sister (Demet Akbag), and lieutenant (Ayberk Pekcan), and the pickle in which Bilginer finds himself with the aggravated tenants of another property of his who can’t pay their rent. This movie’s true subject speaks very much to the ongoing conflict Ceylan has experienced between authenticity and artistic success. But this is the first of his films to feature much more talking than doing, and a lot of the doing is set up by the talking, so he’s given himself no occasion to spring surprises. Those 196 minutes wind up feeling like five hours.
Still, I’d take that over another helping of Saint Laurent, and that has Louis Garrel looking very much like the child of Studio 54 and Princeton. I don’t know why these biographical films bother with artists. They usually devolve into prurient re-creations of boozy, narcotic episodes: This is your genius on drugs. The film gives us a chain-smoking, reticently pleasure-seeking Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) as high-functioning junkie by night, iconic fashion designer by day. There is something impressive about the duality. But this film isn’t an exploration of that. It’s the usual disco-era bacchanals with detours into dressmaking, tailoring, and the apparel industry. Some of the movie is smart; a lot of it’s a repetitive mess.
There are good parts for Garrel and Jérémie Renier as the Dionysus and Apollo in Saint Laurent’s life and bed. But almost everyone else — namely Léa Seydoux, as Loulou de la Falaise, and the model Aymeline Valade, as the model Betty Catroux — isn’t playing a character. They’re handbags and bracelets. Ulliel gives us everything he has, and it still feels like a fey sketch. It’s not his fault. The director, Bertrand Bonello, spends two and a half hours being cute with time, telling us what year the collections are from and then abandoning the calendar. For the last 40 minutes or so, when we’re juggling two versions of Saint Laurent (the older is played by Helmut Berger), I didn’t know where I was.
The movie’s boldest moments have nothing to do with depictions of strung-out sex. They’re the scenes of the House of Saint Laurent hard at work on clothes — seamstresses cutting and ripping and sewing, stressfully, seriously, studiously. At one point a lady (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) comes into the atelier insecure about the suit that’s been made for her. I’m fashionable, she says. Don’t worry, says Saint Laurent, more or less, we don’t do fashion, we do style. He and the fitters add some jewels and muss her up a bit, and with a wag of her unpinned hair, she’s a new, confident woman. It’s the best, sexiest scene in the movie. That’s what you’d like to know from a movie like this, and it’s crucial but largely missing here: How does something like a trouser suit change how a woman sees herself? How do the clothes feel?
The costumes in Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman, which premiered yesterday as part of the main competition, give Hilary Swank the right stiffness for a 1850s frontierswoman. She plows her Nebraska farmland in a bonnet and ankle-length dress. Her character volunteers to transport three mentally damaged mothers — Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, Grace Gummer — to Iowa by horse-drawn prison, as humanely as she can. Jones is her sidekick, a good-for-nothing drunk, and he plays his half of the movie as a buddy comedy. I’m not convinced the movie doesn’t think all four of these women are mad and sad. I know I was both when, after 90 minutes, Something Happens and the plot doesn’t recover. Or rather: You stop caring because it’s insulting and implausible.
Swank makes an argument that she’s the most captivating star in American movies. You see her and your heart is with her, even when you’re not with the movie. It’s just no-nonsense film-star stuff that almost no one is sincere enough to do now. More than once, Swank turns to a man she barely knows and gently makes a case for him to be her husband. And every time she’s called dull. Once, she’s praised for being as good as any man in town. Swank engenders these sorts of backhanded compliments. Her strength isn’t a put-on. It’s real, and in the movies it’s often a source of unease for men. They don’t know what to do with that mix of goodness and fortitude. You find it everywhere in life, but almost nowhere in Hollywood.
Later in the day, I had dinner with a couple friends, two women also in love with Hilary Swank, and when I asked why Swank doesn’t work more, one said it’s her age (she’s 39). The other pointed to The Homesman and sounded a tragic ring of truth: The whole movie’s about how plain and unfuckable she is. To that, I’d add that there just aren’t many good parts written for a woman whose screen self is as unfashionably dignified as Swank’s.
You can get mighty desperate to get to a movie on time here. When there are only 10 minutes left to get inside the theater and find a seat that doesn’t fold out into the aisle, you’ll do almost anything: catch a taxi for three blocks, toss the best croissant you’ve ever had into a linen tote bag, sprint with a lidless cup of coffee, kick a pooping dog. A-ny-thing. But you have to maintain standards, and mine include not rushing through the streets like a terrified maniac because I might miss an Atom Egoyan movie. He’s not Godzilla. But you couldn’t tell that to anybody racing into the Lumière on Friday to see The Captive. What if it was more than Egoyan doing trash he thinks is art? What if its dark themes were denied light? What if he didn’t gussy up another tale of wicked baseness with, say, Mozart? Ha ha ha!
Egoyan, a Torontonian, hasn’t entirely recovered from the international acclaim he came into 17 years ago with The Sweet Hereafter. He hasn’t stopped pretending he has something deep to say about salaciousness. In 2002, when he made Ararat, a vast, time-jumping epic about the Armenian genocide, you knew that — in his convoluted, overwrought, professorial way — he was boldly reaching for grand themes. Then he’d do something salacious like Where the Truth Lies (Kevin Bacon almost on Colin Firth) or Chloe (Julianne Moore obsessed with Amanda Seyfried), movies that pump gassy philosophy about truth and storytelling and desire into a mystery-sex-thriller. The Captive trots out Egoyan’s pet motifs — video surveillance, language, temporal instability — while operating in smuttier territory.
The story is complicated, but basically Ryan Reynolds is a landscaper somewhere on the U.S.-Canada border. On the way home from his 10-year-old daughter’s ice-skating training, he leaves her in his truck to buy a pie and comes back to find her gone. His wife (Mireille Enos) has a breakdown. And two child-predator detectives — steely Rosario Dawson; jittery, intense Scott Speedman — try to crack the case. Egoyan and cowriter David Fraser oscillate the chronology so we know early on that Speedman winds up having to looking for Dawson, too, and that the daughter has turned into a teenager (Alexia Fast) whose captor (Kevin Durand) forces her to watch her forlorn mother resume cleaning hotel rooms.
Egoyan keeps you with him. The actors are all good, especially Reynolds and Speedman. They’re Canadian, and I think Egoyan more or less speaks their language. They’ve never been better. There are enough red herrings for a sandwich, too. But Egoyan keeps trying to appeal to some higher, better principle of this kind of movie. The pseudo-intellectual gist here tries to articulate the difference between a trick and a gimmick. It comes up once before the abduction and again during one of the movie’s climaxes, but it all amounts to a cheap flourish, like popping your collar or wearing your sunglasses on your head at dinner. Durand, who played the BART cop who shoots Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station, is now playing one of those meticulous crazies who keeps a sparkling million-dollar house with a dingy dungeon. He a big guy with an intriguing face. Here he’s got a mustache that just screams, “I have a dungeon and watch clips from The Magic Flute!” (Another popped collar.)
The problem here isn’t that a work of trash is incapable of ideas or art. It’s that Egoyan doesn’t integrate the ideas into the plot. He hasn’t known what to do with theory in almost 20 years. It just sits there on the surface. It’s as if he’s working out trauma he isn’t truly prepared or equipped to explore. At the end of the day, he seems more interested in women in vans and girls singing for their captors than he is in Mozart and etymology. The movie actually bears a strong resemblance to last year’s missing-child thriller Prisoners. That movie was more ridiculous, but there were no pretensions. The Captive is basically Prisoners by a director who thinks he’s too good for Prisoners.
When it was over, there were a few boos. But The Captive doesn’t reach a level of truly magnificent atrocity. Nothing I’ve seen has yet. I wanted to hiss at The Salvation, an exasperatingly shallow attempt at a shoot-’em-up by onetime Dogme 95 signatory Kristian Levring. It’s showing out of competition here and puts a great Dane (Mads Mikkelsen) in a dusty Old West town. He kills the Americans who murdered his wife and son and now has to deal with the crooked brother (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) of one of the corpses. There’s no visual or verbal wit. There’s no suspense, either. The nighttime scenes look as if someone pressed a button on an expensive camera at high noon, and Eva Green plays a woman whose tongue’s been ripped out. Thankfully, she can still shoot a gun. The Europeans I’ve run into really responded to it. Any movie with Mikkelsen, Morgan, and Green that can’t get a rise out of me hasn’t done its job. It’s a SpaghettiOs western.
People tried on Saturday night to boo Alice Rohrwacher’s Le Meraviglie (The Wonders). But even though it has no business in the main competition — it’s about a poor family of beekeepers in the Italian sticks — it’s got both an earnestness and an only-in-an–Italian movie sequence featuring Monica Bellucci hosting a game show in a cave that you can’t hate.
The same goes for Philippe Lacôte’s debut, Run — the earnestness, not the Bellucci. It’s a mildly magical-realist fable from Ivory Coast, in the festival’s Un Certain Regard program, about man named Run (Abdoul Karim Konaté) who goes from touring with a plus-size performer of food tricks (Reine Sali Coulibaly) to shooting the prime minister, which happens in the first scene. Lacôte sketches a tour through recent Ivorian political unrest. But the movie is a shrug that expects to get by on charisma. It’s flirting with political provocation and wimping out. The applause when it ended on Saturday afternoon was as much for Lacôte’s promise (he and his cast were also in the house) as it was for the possibility of Ivory Coast making its way onto the world’s filmmaking map.
A crowd favorite so far is Bande de Filles (I’ve been calling it Girl Gang; some people are saying it’s Girlhood). It opened the Directors’ Fortnight program, and it’s got the charisma of Lacôte’s movie with more confidence and skill. I partially get the enthusiasm for it. Writer/director Céline Sciamma manages to select the right nonactors for her camera to follow. It’s not a grand journey. A polite, soft-spoken French African teenager named Vic (Karidja Touré) falls in with a trio of Mean Girls, who’re also French African. They rob schoolmates, shoplift, and spend a night in a hotel with a water pipe, some liquor, and Rihanna’s “Diamonds.”
Importantly, Sciamma, who in 2007 made an equally charming girls-growing-up movie called Water Lilies, has a wonderful sense of watchfulness, as both a filmmaker and a storyteller. There’s a really good tracking shot in which more than a dozen players in a girls football league enjoy a rowdy postgame stroll home that ends when they reach the entrance of their housing complex. The noise all but dies, and almost every girl walks to the entryway with her head cast down, until they’ve all fallen away, leaving only Vic.
The film is built out of inspired touches like that. It seems to know this world, presumably because some of the actresses are of it. I’m not as crazy about this movie as a lot people seem to be. (The applause when Bande de Filles ended Saturday was the biggest I’ve seen.) There are some fresh ideas and images regarding physical appearance and self-image. Most of the girls wear long wigs, and the father of one girl punishes her by cutting what natural hair she had. That aspect of black girldom is new for the movies: the shame of grooming. So is Rihanna as a kind of messiah. And the kids here are genuinely interesting. Sciamma really wants to know what makes some girls mean and arrives at a partial answer.
But the rhythms and themes are like an old acquaintance you put up with because you need someone to talk to. Eventually, Vic winds up running drugs to Parisian parties. The movie doesn’t challenge these girls and offers no indictment of any particular social or government system. It’s not thinking that deeply or far ahead. Sciamma sends audiences out of the theater on a high note, but it’s false. There’s no happy ending for Vic, not as far as I can tell. A friend pointed out that the movie should be a series. Maybe then you’d get something bolder than simply pointing a camera at young brown people. You’d give them something to do, characters to play, plots to advance. It’s important to see French movies about the other, less white people. It’s also important to see those people as more than lost causes and rescue cases. It’d be a relief to come here one year and find a film about someone who’s been found.