Cannes Diary, Day 8: The Oldster, the Hipster, and the Return of the Director of ‘The Artist’
Every popular art form has one or two living legends who still maintain a rock-star mystique. The novel has Philip Roth, and pop music has Paul Simon. The movies have Jean-Luc Godard. He’s more reclusive than Roth, who’s surfaced recently for readings but has said he’s done writing. A new Godard film surfaces more often than the 83-year-old Godard does. A new one surfaced Wednesday morning, and people went crazy to see it.
At this point, reporting the panic to get into some of these screenings is starting to make me seem like the claustrophobe. But almost every living generation of what had to be every race pushed and shoved to see Goodbye to Language, which is up for the Palme d’Or. The excitement is one of those only-in-Cannes experiences. There are theaters in the United States where you’d have this movie all to yourself. But here you can be punched in the head by the dozens of hands reaching into a tub for 3-D glasses.
You read that correctly. Godard’s 70-minute celebration of life, death, man, woman, dog, and poop was shown in 3-D. You never know when Godard is pulling your leg. It’s usually a safe bet that he is. After four minutes, the word “3-D” hovers on the screen, and it brings the house down. He’s at his best when he’s messing with you. The film rummages through ideas, gags, and not-so-random randomness.
Twenty percent of the movie must involve water in various states —fountains, showers, rapids, snow, sea. That seems right for a movie about the denial of fixity and the embrace of flux. Eventually, a couple shows up — that she looks a lot younger than he does confirms that Godard isn’t cliché-proof — and talks about metaphor and parity, on the sofa and on the toilet. The woman probes. The man poops. A sample: “I try to talk about equality, and you talk shit.” But they know this about each other, and it’s OK.
As always with Godard, at every phase of his career, the stated philosophy doesn’t quite compare to what his visual imagination is capable of. At some point, one image onscreen slides atop another with a smartphone swipe, and the theater erupted in cheers. It was one of the few times this year an audience interrupted a movie to applaud its formal wit. To watch Goodbye to Language the day after seeing Ryan Gosling’s Lost River was to appreciate the fine line between innovation and cocky incompetence.
Of course, a lot of recent Godard has verged on redundancy, monotony, and sourness. I’m not always in the mood, but he’s earned the luxury of marrying good filmmaking to bad ideas. His last film here was 2010’s Film Socialisme, a kind of anti-globalist jeremiad that had its moments. Goodbye to Language has more. It’s less cranky, too. This is a master filmmaker whose interest in form and its instruments have kept him vital. (About five digital cameras are thanked in the closing credits.) Cinematic toys must be to him what a trip to Home Depot must be like for a handyman. He hasn’t made a great new philosophical advance in two decades, but when it comes to how to make a movie, he’s proof you actually can teach an old god new tricks.
Yesterday, I complained about Pascale Ferran’s Bird People not being up for the Palme d’Or. I gave the same rant to Jean-Michel Frodon, the former editor of Cahiers du Cinéma and a confirmed fan of Ferran. He listened attentively, then explained that Bird People was a French movie, and there were already four French films in the main competition. Saint Laurent, something new from Olivier Assayas, and the Godard. As it happens, we were on our way to the fourth: The Search, Michel Hazanavicius’s first film since winning the Best Director Oscar for The Artist. It gives us the Second Chechen War as told in overlapping stories from the point of view of a French United Nations delegate (Bérénice Bejo), a young Russian soldier (Maxim Emelianov), and a young Chechen woman (Zukhra Duishvili) looking for her 9-year-old brother. Needless to say, the brother (Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev, who’s fantastic) winds up in the care of the radiant, impassioned delegate after fleeing the Red Cross, and you understand. This chapter’s run by an astringent Annette Bening.
The movie is loosely based on a 1948 Fred Zinnemann weepie in which a young Montgomery Clift helps a Czech boy find his mother. Hazanavicius is going for hard-charging mawkishness. With Russia currently breathing down Ukraine’s neck, The Search has a timely resonance, but the movie sounds like one that Bejo is required to deliver in uncertain English and poignant French: Don’t forget the Chechens! Having the kid in her apartment changes the emotional subject (she’s childless and discovers maternal warmth) but reinforces the moral theme: How can you not help these people?
History agrees with the movie. The world didn’t make the conflict a priority soon enough. But that oversight is the movie’s only reason for being. The scenes among the doltish Russian psychos are something like a passage from The Tin Drum but with only the tin. The scene in which Bejo, who’s very good but misdirected in English, delivers her big report to the Foreign Affairs Council should be a shaming moment. But it’s presented as monotony. Only a handful of members are there. And most of them are nodding off. I took a look around the theater. They weren’t the only ones.
You’d like to think Hazanavicius wanted to pull off a tragedy like what Alejandro González Iñárritu might have done, but Iñárritu gets by on visionary arrogance. It’s worth remembering that before The Artist, which devoured Cannes in 2011, Hazanavicius was making spy spoofs. (The Artist was a kind of spoof, too). You need scope for war, melodrama, and bureaucracy, and he doesn’t have it yet. He gives you a scene here and there — the dialogue jumping among Chechen, Russian, French, and English is a bid for a sort of seriousness. But seriousness is all the movie has got. After a while, it isn’t even filmmaking anymore. It’s prosecution.
Stacking the competition with films like The Search, one of more than half-a-dozen big solemn dramas, and not with more idiosyncratic astonishments like, say, Bird People, is worrying. The boos for The Search were the loudest of anything I’ve heard so far. Some of that was for its baldness. Some of it might have been due to self-consciously-heavy-movie fatigue. National diversity isn’t an insignificant consideration. But tonal diversity should matter, too. After a while, there becomes only a vague difference among Foxcatcher, Saint Laurent, The Homesman, Mr. Turner, and Hazanavicius’s movie. It allows you to wonder whether the festival isn’t thinking only of the Palme d’Or but about the Oscars, too.
Basically, what I’m saying is this: More Mommy! There’s no attempt at respectability or post facto moral corrections for this one. It might be the most gloriously obnoxious movie to screen so far. There’s not much “about.” Somewhere in the near future — it’s 2015 — Diane (Ann Dorval) has to resume caring for her ADHD-addled teenage son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). He’s wreaked havoc at his previous facility, and now it’s mommy’s turn. The 2015-ness is apparent the minute the camera climbs halfway up Diane’s jeans. The paint’s practically still drying. We don’t know how old she is. Neither, I’m guessing, does she.
This is the sort of delusional hot number CBS sitcoms laugh at and Lifetime movies try to deny custody of. Steve is a wiry, clownish blond skate-punk hip-hopper with a dash of douchebag, a soupçon of neo-Nazi, two cups of Macaulay Culkin, and a dusting of 11-year-old French Canadian girl circa 1990. One night, for instance, he puts on a Celine Dion classic and proceeds to come on to Kyla (Suzanne Clément), the introvert across the street. She shows up at their house and, despite having a husband and a daughter, never seems to leave. These three become the Jules and Jim of suburban Montreal.
The director is the 25-year-old Quebecois Xavier Dolan. He’s made five movies in six years (I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats, Laurence Anyways, and Tom at the Farm). Each is somehow more emotionally grandiose than what preceded it. Most of his movies have screened here. The fifth — Mommy — is the first to crack the main competition. Dolan loves two things: slow motion and enormous emotion. Steve refuses to take medication. So does Dolan’s filmmaking. He gets the camera up close to his three stars and lets them rip. The screaming and furious cursing is unlike any profanity you’ve ever heard. At some point you honestly begin to hear the variations on “bitch” and “ho” as endearments.
I don’t know how Dolan doesn’t stand accused of serving gorgon after gorgon in at least every other movie — at least by me. Clément practically detonated Laurence Anyways, which is about a woman who turns her husband’s sex change into Armageddon. But like Douglas Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Pedro Almodóvar before him, Dolan has the talent and sensitivity to wed cinema to neurotic exaggeration. Mommy features the most acting of all the films here, and a lot of it’s the best. There’s vividness to his narcissists and humanity in the cartoons. He knows where the moral lines are and leaves most of them untransgressed.
You stick with Dolan because he can both entertain and surprise you, like when one character reaches out and pushes the film’s aspect ratio wide to fit the whole screen. The movie screened after 10 p.m. and only a couple of people walked out. The applause after was pretty big, for 12:20 a.m. There will be people who’ll complain that there already is a Jerry Springer opera. But Dolan’s trashy impasto gets to you, and it doesn’t let go. On the same day, Cannes managed to screen the film by the youngest director in the competition (Dolan) and the oldest (Godard). It’s funny. Both feel like the future.