The red-carpet footwear problem is now such a silly scandal that people have resorted to calling it “heelgate.” Moviegoers have been turned away from premieres for arriving in inappropriate footwear, often involving flats and loafers, which are frowned upon. (The rule appears to be heels for ladies, black lace-ups for gents.) All one can say to that is: This is France. Someone will always find a reason to frown upon you for something.
Nonetheless, attendees up and down the Croisette are in a mild, probably mock uproar. Denis Villeneuve, the director of Sicario, a queasy drug-war action-thriller that premiered here on Tuesday, vowed that he and two of the men in the movie, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin, would wear heels on the red carpet. Emily Blunt, who plays the film’s protagonist, declared that in protest, we should all should wear flats. (Some of that umbrage might be better directed at the flatness of her role.) The other day I wore non-athletic sneakers to an afternoon press screening, where a man on the security team, one I see almost every day of the festival (nice guy), looked down at my feet and said, “Are you sure about these, monsieur?” I said yes. The festival itself has dismissed the stories about the policing of fashion, saying there are no such rules on footwear. But even a light crackdown on attire shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. This is a country that maintains a zero-tolerance policy on head coverings in public. At Cannes, formal dress is required to attend some dinners and red-carpet events. Beyond that, discretion is left to the individual gatekeeper.
On Wednesday night, I ran into a colleague who was having dinner with a friend experiencing his first Cannes. The friend was put on a list for a party, but when he showed up, he received a once-over from one of the men at the doors and was shepherded to the discard pile. “I wasn’t wearing a jacket,” he told me. He’s from Los Angeles. The rejection impressed him. “There are standards here,” he said.
There are, and there aren’t. Take the bags. Every year, the festival is kind enough to offer, as part of its compliments, a bag. The style varies from year to year and has included the backpack and the cross-body. Those bags provided decent utility and arguable fashion. This year’s bag is a rich blue naugahyde-like material. It’s small, with two push snaps, and is best described as a mix of saddlebag and schoolbag. There’s an adjustable strap. But the lone handle doesn’t go over the shoulder. Carried by hand, the result is a purse — one that appears to suit both genders equally.
It’s impossible to tell whether the bag’s ubiquity means people think it’s great (it’s not) or they’re just happy that it’s free. But it makes most carriers look like overgrown fourth-graders. Women don’t seem to care. Men don’t seem to know. The best case for it comes from Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, a critic at The A.V. Club and the film site Mubi. He’s tall and lean and has a cool, sharp haircut that’s short on the sides, longish on top. The bag sits in the middle of his long back. He’s stylized it in a way few festival-goers could. For the rest of us, as a young, fashionable colleague put it to me, the bags are “a travesty.” If the festival’s fashion police are serious about their jobs, they should start arresting their own swag.
Believe it or not, there are still movies here. It took a week, but they’re reaching full strength. On Wednesday morning people cheered Youth, Paolo Sorrentino’s first movie after The Great Beauty. They also booed — but who can say why? Maybe Sorrentino’s glorious, comedic extravagance has worn them out. I’m not over it yet. Sorrentino is a great director, one who not only knows how to compose an amazing shot but also has the wit and imagination to seduce you into believing you’ve never seen anything like it. In movie after movie, he commits that seduction, each time coming up with a better way to make visual music. With most filmmakers, a Fellini reference is a cue to shake your head in embarrassment. But with Sorrentino, Fellini is a road map and a rechargeable battery.
The Great Beauty was impasto Fellini — visual orgies thickly applied. It satirized the implosion of Italian aristocratic decency. The new movie internationalizes the satire. It’s set at a luxury resort in a Swiss Alps chateau whose guests include the wan, the grotesque, the washed-up, all obscenely rich. (These people make the ones at the Grand Budapest Hotel seem like they were staying at a Days Inn.) The movie centers on a storied English composer and conductor (Michael Caine) wanted by Queen Elizabeth for a concert in London that he refuses to do, and wanted by the French for his memoirs. He’d rather not think about that and instead summer with his heartbroken daughter (Rachel Weisz) and his best friend, a veteran American movie director (Harvey Keitel). The conductor thinks he’s past his prime. The director isn’t aware that he is.
Sorrentino has a way of making lavishness ugly, futile, and sad and turning great wealth and success into a kind of failure. Even for a young movie star, played by Paul Dano, and an overweight, middle-aged soccer legend (an actor who looks uncannily like an obese Diego Maradona), the chateau seems like a retirement home. Decadence has interested Sorrentino for four consecutive movies, including his strikeout, This Must Be the Place, which was jeered here four years ago.
The aged and affluent might be easy to mock, and maybe they can take Sorrentino’s teasing, but there’s more to this movie than that; it’s got a soul and believes in art. But he targets the rich, because he appears to think the source of the world’s decay can be traced to its upper echelons. It’s also possible that they won’t notice the critique. Many of Caine and Keitel’s conversations are about what they can remember, how their bodies no longer work the same, and how they’re out of opportunities. To Sorrentino, old age is time’s attempt at poverty.
Maybe some of the audience’s displeasure is with the casting. Caine is very good, but he also looks like Toni Servillo, the actor who was magnificent in The Great Beauty and Sorrentino’s staggering prime minister opera, Il divo, and is absent here. This is the director’s second film in English (This Must Be the Place is the first). Maybe Servillo makes the most sense in an Italian movie, but it appears that the film’s financiers had other concerns. The question of whether the proliferation of international money and the pursuit of broader audiences are forcing directors to make compromises in casting, location, and language is one some of us have been asking a lot this year. The number of production company logos that show up onscreen before the film itself has become a running joke.
A fourth of this year’s competition films are by filmmakers whose first language isn’t English but are working in it, some for the first time: Matteo Garrone, Yorgos Lanthimos, Joachim Trier, Sorrentino. The phenomenon of directors making films in English and away from home isn’t novel; the last three Oscar winners for directing (Ang Lee, Alfonso Cuarón, and Alejandro González Iñárritu) were working in English and outside their native countries. But at Cannes, one benefit of this sort of concentrated moviegoing is that you come to appreciate the way a director’s personality fits within — or works against — nationality. With the exception of Jia Zhangke’s movie, and even within Sorrentino’s stupendous hotel, what’s lost is something I didn’t realize I’d come to treasure: a sense of place. This year, some of that sense is gone.
There aren’t many American films here this year. One of the best is Trey Edward Shults’s first film, Krisha. It premiered Wednesday, the last of the seven features in the Critics’ Week program. When it was over, the applause was hearty, though nothing out of the ordinary. But because there’s only one small exit, the audience had to file out past Shults and his crew and cast, which includes his mother, himself, and his aunt Krisha Fairchild. When the credits ended, the departing herds stopped, cheered the filmmakers, and asked Aunt Krisha to pose for selfies. The movie does that: It makes you want to salute the people who made it, to hug them.
It’s not a huggable movie. Krisha is a recovering alcoholic (and addict of who knows what else). She’s come to spend Thanksgiving weekend with her estranged Texas family, including her son, who’s played by Shults. From the minute her pickup truck pulls into a crane shot and you can see that Krisha drove the whole way with her skirt caught in the car door, something feels off. Her long, gray hair and beautiful, naturally lined face are a tale of fun and bygone glamour. But she’s on edge. Dragging her roller bag to the wrong house and muttering to herself, she seems like a damaged salesperson. In a sense she is, selling her new, rehabilitated self. Inside the right house, her sister Robyn’s, there’s instant awkwardness. You notice how biologically related everybody appears to be (the teeth, the kind eyes, the natural familiarity) and that the tension-to-oxygen ratio feels uncomfortably off. You also notice that the Steadicam being used creates the sensation of flight and crawling. It eddies and swoops and eavesdrops. The score is a collection of instruments agreeing to stay sane but failing. Certain sounds keeping poking up, like cowlicks.
What’s Krisha planning to do? Does she have a plan? Robyn (Robyn Fairchild) has put her in charge of the turkey as a demonstration of trust. Everyone tells Krisha that they’re glad she’s home, but only her sassy, motormouthed brother-in-law takes an interest in her return. It’s almost as though they’re waiting for her to slip up. And she does. The movie turns a home-for-the-holidays dramedy into psychodrama-horror. You don’t need ghosts when you’ve got this lady’s personal demons. Shults has worked on Terrence Malick shoots, and the galloping, levitating camerawork shows it. But there are touches of Kubrick here, too. Yes, yes: Anybody can steal from those two. Shults does something new with the theft, the way Sorrentino does with Fellini. He recontextualizes it, training it on a short, strange family gothic — manic-depressive John Cassavetes, fever-dream Tracy Letts. He’s made only one movie, but Shults made me think of Xavier Dolan, who is working on his sixth movie, has a seat on this year’s main-competition jury, and is about a year younger than Shults. Both their movies have a youthful fearlessness. If he keeps at it, Shults’s flamboyant sense of melodrama would make a nice complement to Dolan’s.
I first saw this film while on a jury at South by Southwest in the spring. It was the best movie in our batch. We made it our winner. It was one of the few films by a director that made you wonder what you just saw and where the director would go next. Shults signed a two-movie deal with A24, and hopefully the next film will involve Aunt Krisha, who gives one of the strongest performances I’ve ever seen by an actress almost no one has heard of. She looks like Sharon Stone and controls a room like Kathy Bates. There are no false notes in her depiction of tentative serenity and total mania. She’s clearly acting, but sometimes you wonder whether she isn’t on the verge of something more, like a self-exorcism.
The movie has an abrupt ending. It’s over mid-climax, in well under 90 minutes. You get the sense that you’re being spared, but you’re intrigued: What’s going to happen to these people? What’s going to happen to Shults? American movies don’t need any more young directors to go off and do the bidding of corporatized childhood fantasies, to enlist — or be drafted — into stars war. They need a few artists to remain on the home front and explore new dark sides, to find other ways of looking at ourselves. Shults can do that, and the movies need to let him.