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Cannes Diary, Days 3, 4, and 5: Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Love; Matthew McConaughey Booed

Cannes Festival Weekend Report: It’s Maïwenn Day! Plus, love’s pincers, a case of Nanni Moretti, Todd Haynes’s beguiling, cold heart, and more.

I know what you’re thinking: Wesley, where did you watch the Mad Men finale? Surely, you copied your pal at the festival who went to bed early in order to wake up in the middle of the night to watch it live via Skype, courtesy of his girlfriend.

I did not. I can wait. I did wait. I am currently waiting. I mean, it’s not like the feds have been closing in on Don and his illegal jingle empire all of these years. Also, I can wait because I got up at the crack of dawn on Sunday. I was too excited to sleep. The 8:30 a.m. movie was Mon Roi, the only film here I would have sold a kidney to see. As it was, I practically sprinted to the Palais. On the way there, I noticed the air was disturbingly panic-free. People were enjoying the sun. They were looking at their phones. They were … walking. Running past them, I tried to give the nastiest look an otherwise exhilarated person in sunglasses can: What’s wrong with you all? Jesus Christ. It’s Maïwenn Day!

I know what you’re thinking here, too, and you’re not wrong to ask: What the hell is a Maïwenn? She directed and cowrote this teary, shouty, comprehensively ridiculous marriage epic, her first movie since her teary, shouty, comprehensively ridiculous law-enforcement epic from 2011, Polisse. The latter movie had two big wins that year: the jury prize and my heart. I’m going to assume, since a post-victory Maïwenn shooed me away at the airport, that the jury prize is the true feather in her cap. But I don’t care! There’s no restraining order against me. (Not yet.) 

Polisse divided everybody here. It was kind of like Law & Order: SVU, only about Paris child-protection services, and it was more interested in the cops and their Olympic arias against bad parents than in the kids themselves. I think we can agree that foul-mouthed, high-voltage histrionics should be left to grown-ups? Still, the constant moralizing and nonstop drama drove people crazy too. The director casting herself as a photographer/church mouse turned sexy police compatriot drove them crazier. But she galvanically dramatized the fallout of neglect and abuse and captured coworker fraternity, coating it all in impassioned snot. This woman was speaking my language. My nose ran for her.

With Mon Roi (or My King), she’s back in the main competition, and after the stream of dirges that have screened here in the past five days, her new hot mess comes right on time. It stars Emmanuelle Bercot and Vincent Cassel and tells a story whose point can be distilled thus: “Here I thought my vagina was a wreck, when the whole time the problem was these small-ass penises. I’m glad I found yours. It’s huge!” I’m paraphrasing, but now allow me to quote this compliment: “Your pussy is like an old lady’s mouth.”

Bercot plays Tony, a lawyer; Cassel, a party-boy restaurateur named Giorgio (Giorgio!). They met years ago, when she was a bartender, and are reunited in a nightclub. In record time, he requests a baby and marriage, and, for some reason, she obliges. Clearly, this is all a terrible idea. Cassel looks like a weasel and is obligated to play one whenever he can. The beginning, middle, and end of the relationship are presented to us in a rush of flashbacks from the rehabilitation facility where Tony is laid up with a knee injury. Indeed, the facility’s therapist sets the table for the pending torrential emotionalism with a monologue about the knee as psycho-spiritual symbol.

This movie asks no important questions, gleans no new insights into the human condition, and fails to send anyone to prison or falling from a window. In other words, it’s no Polisse. Nonetheless, it’s all Maïwenn — some hip-hop, some rock and roll, rage, joy, orgasms, some mucus. Like, say, Abdellatif Kechiche’s wetter but less convincing Blue Is the Warmest Color, which overtook Cannes two years ago, Maïwenn leaves no water in the sponge. Her generosity is a gift  one some people would send back to the mall or have tested for an STD. But she works with an immediacy that’s like lightning here. Windowpanes are punched, parked cars are smashed into, offices are destroyed. Bercot directed the festival’s less successfully overwrought opening-night movie. Acting for Maïwenn, she’s a raw nerve of bliss, misery, and defiance, while also playing possibly the least professional lawyer in France. Tony knows she needs to leave. We certainly know. (Giorgio’s got tax problems, a crazy fashion-model ex, and the name Giorgio.) But she can’t. The emotional S&M she has with him is too strong.

Cassel gives his skunk act new emotional depth. You can now dip in more than a toe. The movie refuses to let him wink and slouch his way through this part. But his performance is only part of a whole. And as a director, Maïwenn is at her best with ensembles, using actors as instruments and harmonizing tones. Some of the best scenes are between Tony and the young men recovering in the rehab facility. Maïwenn’s so in tune with (or curious about) French Arab and French black culture — with the vitality of a version of street life  that you’re eager to see her use that energy on an entire film. Until then, we have Mon Roi. Irrational pleasures befall us all; there are directors who know where some of us live, who can commit a home invasion of our common sense. Or maybe with Maïwenn and me, it’s something simpler and more explicit: Her movies are like an old lady’s mouth.

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I don’t know what it means that we’re all still talking about Mad Max. It’s been five days, and no one who’s seen it seems to think they’ve seen anything better. I haven’t. There’s a Croatian movie called The High Sun that tries to frame the war in that region as a love tragedy. It keeps moving inward when it ought to be opening out. Journey to the Shore, by the hilariously prolific Kiyoshi Kurosawa, tells a between-worlds ghost story that stands with his most tedious supernatural thingamabobs. This one’s got the very handsome star Tadanobu Asano as the long-dead husband who returns to take his wife (Eri Fukatsu) on a series of trips so that she can get to know who he was. Romantic? Sort of, but also at least three journeys too long.

This year’s seemingly annual Matthias Schoenaerts Cannes movie is called Maryland in French and Disorder in English, which is confusing since … oh, never mind: It’s got Matthias Schoenaerts! He plays a former French soldier whose PTSD has him stuck doing high-class event security (temporarily, he hopes). Everybody at the event treats him like dirt, but when he’s asked to stay on a few days to look after a besieged French Arab official’s wife (Diane Kruger), the dirt sprouts an action hero. The movie is nothing special, but it’s tense, suspenseful, and vaguely topical. And the director Alice Winocour knows how to conduct a thrilling action sequence. Do I believe that Kruger would be this reliant on protection for this long? I do not. But I have seen Schoenaerts’s broad shoulders. If being slung over one of them means being a damsel, then, Help! Somebody save me!

For some reason, people have been charmed by Nanni Moretti’s latest competition entry, Mia Madre, about a filmmaker (Margherita Buy) struggling to make a labor-strike movie while ending a relationship and helping care for her dying mother. Moretti plays her brother and John Turturro plays her movie’s American star, a larger-than-life clown merely pretending to pretend to be a divo. This movie has moved people I love and respect. I found it embarrassing. It’s scattered and too interested in Turturro’s mugging, which is simultaneously the best and most flagrant thing about the movie. He’s stealing from an old, dying lady. Moretti can break your heart and he can dance on your last nerve. Sometimes he can do one while being fully aware that he’s also doing the other. It’s been a while since he’s gotten near my heart — it was 2001’s The Son’s Room, which did it for everybody. Moretti works often enough that you might like something he’s done. He’s the common cold of European filmmaking: You’ll come down with a case of him eventually.

carol-hpWeinstein Co.

I was much happier at Todd Haynes’s Carol, which premiered Saturday night as part of the main competition. Haynes is the opposite of a Maïwenn: The stops stay in and the temperature never goes above 55 degrees. It’s always jacket weather with him. Carol is set in the 1950s and loosely adapted by Phyllis Nagy from a pseudonymous 1952 Patricia Highsmith novel, The Price of Salt, in which a ritzy suburban lady named Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) falls in love with Therese (Rooney Mara), a Manhattan shopgirl and aspiring photographer. The ensuing inattentiveness to the men in their lives (Kyle Chandler and Jake Lacy, respectively) stirs some macho bafflement. (Names like “Harge” and “Rindy” stirred mine.) The movie is an almost normalized love story between two women eking out enough personal freedom to spend holidays and a romantic road trip together.

This is a slender movie that Haynes gives plenty of antique atmosphere. It’s colored like a box of boardwalk taffies. Blanchett has never loomed larger physically than she does here. She even seems bigger and more strapping than Chandler, who epitomizes a bygone era of big, strapping actors. I loved watching her and Mara gaze at each other with their deceptively strange features and classical-Hollywood evocations. Blanchett carries herself like a star from the 1940s. Mara looks like she just accepted an Oscar for Roman Holiday. But Haynes leaves you wanting more. There’s a lot of ice cubes and shivering in this movie. That’s now his style: ice-bucket melodrama.

But after Far From Heaven and his adaptation of Mildred Pierce for HBO, his experiment in period moviemaking feels less a tribute to directors like Douglas Sirk and more like the cinematic necrophilia of his short Karen Carpenter film. Over the years, he’s set a high artistic bar for himself, and this film doesn’t advance a conversation, either about film style or homosexuality. (Its muted political transparency is a virtue, actually.) He’s just rethinking camp material by excising campiness from it. Even if there’s value in these acts of disinfection, I don’t like him as a cleaning agent.

I prefer Haynes in a more experimental mode, where he can surprise you with the vastness and peculiarity of his intelligence. His deconstructionist approach to Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, with Blanchett, was imperfect — it had too many ideas. But there, a director invented a new way for movies to perceive art, media, and personality. The inventions here are mostly Highsmith’s — the absence of gay tragedy for instance. Haynes uses few of the little daggers she deployed to slice her way to the book’s happy place. As exquisitely assembled and genuinely performed as Carol is, I watched it wondering not so much what Haynes is looking for in these period movies but what he’s hiding from.

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Sometimes film-festival scheduling is a cosmic gag. Which three-hour existential odyssey into the human soul do I want to see? The one from Russia or the Philippines? Sometimes the gag is loaded, as it was Friday. Which shortish, out-of-competition premiere by a very prominent Jewish American to run to? The 45th feature by Woody Allen or the first by Natalie Portman? The one by a man whose work now, morally, constitutes a guilty pleasure? Or the one by a star who’s been almost invisible since winning an Oscar? I went with Portman, because who knows? Besides, Allen’s Irrational Man comes out this summer. It’s possible, alas, that Portman’s could never leave this festival.

She’s certainly smart enough to turn Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, into something worth all of the pushing and shoving to get into the Buñuel Theater on Friday morning. But intelligence might not be the most essential ingredient for a movie about how a venerable Israeli novelist’s upbringing has left him cleaved by passionate ambivalence for his country. A director of this material, done entirely in Hebrew, has to capture the book’s story of a young man’s coming-of-age, intense political turbulence, war, the formation of a nation, and a depressive mother. Portman focuses on that last one. She has cast herself as Oz’s mother, Fania, who, in Portman’s interpretation, does a lot of sitting and lying down and standing and doting, as joylessly — and radiantly  as she can, while speaking halting Hebrew, too.

The film’s bravest act might be in holding on to Oz’s controversial certitude that what some Israeli Jews have done to Palestinians echoes what neo-Nazis do in Europe. But by the time that point is made, droning uniformity has induced intellectual paralysis. Dissenters might be too bored to object. And yet, I have no regrets about skipping Allen’s romance, in which a professor is caught between his student and a fellow academic. In Oz, Portman has collaborated with the more resonantly irrational man.

That collaboration appears to amount to her citing her favorite passages and restaging them, using a narrator who goes on for most of the film’s 93 minutes. (“My mother’s dream: Milk and honey make the flowers bloom. Pioneer!”) Elsewhere, a piano never stops, slow-motion abounds, and ample archival footage stands in for dramatic reenactment. We see original scenes of a woman shot dead as she hangs laundry and a boy gunned down while kicking a ball, grim news that permits Fania to do some of her only emoting. In moments of stress or crisis, symbolism leads her to the mountains, where she stares at a very sexy Hassid, and to a rainstorm, in which they spin for the camera, locked in each other’s arms.

Is this like a parody of European filmmaking? It is! I say it’s all to the good, though, particularly since I imagine Portman could have labored for eight years trying to make Pitch Perfect 2. Instead, however, she’s taken what could have been Alex Haley’s Roots and turned it into Calvin Klein’s Oz.

sea-of-trees-hpWaypoint Entertainment/BLOOM/Netter Productions

The applause at the end of the Portman film was functional, the way Americans apologize for the mistakes of others. It was reflexively polite. But after a bad movie — and sometimes after a very good one  you brace yourself for a hearty round of boos. Those are scarce now. The festival’s programmers might be too savvy about weeding out true disasters. You don’t see a butterball the way you used to, especially in the main competition. But there some of us were on Friday night at the end of Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees, booing. The movie stars Matthew McConaughey as an American math adjunct who buys a one-way ticket to Japan’s vast Aokigahara Forest, which, in the movie, is Google’s top result for “best place to die.”

How did this wind up in competition? Van Sant’s good name helps. But that it’s here and ready to receive the appalled braying of the moviegoing press affirms the perverse affection guiding the entire Cannes enterprise: We boo, therefore we are human.

You know, artistically, that the news is going to be bad in the opening minutes when Van Sant feels compelled to provide a shot of the keys McConaughey’s character leaves in the ignition. There are almost two hours left of that kind of filmmaking. In the forest (shot in central Massachusetts), McConaughey’s preparation for death is interrupted by a Japanese businessman (Ken Watanabe) who staggers by, bloodied and dazed. Together, they lose their way in the woods but find their will to live. But not painlessly. There’s much tumbling over cliffs, being flung about by rapids, and peeling the clothes from those who have successfully died.

Between all the talking, ponderous shots of treetops abound, as do an incessant score and long flashbacks in which Naomi Watts, as Mrs. McConaughey, belittles her husband, who, even though he once cheated on her, is still a saint. She’s selling million-dollar homes to keep them out of the poorhouse, and wouldn’t it be nice if he would man the fuck up and do something more with his life than teach science for $20,000 a year? Also: Will someone please refill her wineglass?

Watching these two not do Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (he won’t deign to be George to her Martha), it might not occur to you to think, God, she’s so awful that I hope she gets a brain tumor. But the script, by Chris Sparling, has done that for you. It’s been a while since a movie’s made me envy a sick person, especially one as cheaply ill as Watts’s character is here. The tooth-pulling required to get to this information qualifies as torture. So are the contortions necessary to explain why Watanabe’s character receives no flashbacks of his own. The movie requires an audience so passive (or so stupid) that it won’t wonder about something like that, or about why a minor Japanese character would fail to make a simple, crucial translation for McConaughey. That withholding preserves the absurd, perfectly obvious plot twist for another 15 minutes — and three endings.

The film resembles the work of Naomi Kawase, a decorated Cannes lifer, but only as a shadow resembles an object. This year, Kawase’s latest movie, An, had to settle for a spot in the second-tier Un Certain Regard category. Kawase makes thick tone poems, rich in death, fucking, ecology, and animism. No one’s movies can linger over a swaying, leafy canopy or make a mountain talk the way hers can. No one’s can double as a tab of Ambien, either. Everything in them is alive, except the films themselves. But juries often find something to throw at her, while audiences throw up their hands.

This is the first year I’ve avoided one of her movies and wound up suffering through a somehow worse version, thanks to Van Sant. (As luck would have it, word on the Croisette is that An might be her best movie.) Van Sant is an artist who has treated a skate park like a church and teenagers’ faces like stained-glass countenances. He can enrich a conventional Hollywood movie with avant-garde experimentalism and get great gentleness from actors in a manner best thought of as “by the grace of God.” He, too, is a poet. Not this time. His pedestrian attempts to imbue the landscape with spirituality truly made me long for Kawase’s authentic communion with organic bloat. I’ll never forgive him for that.

 ♦

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After The Lobster on Friday morning, I expected boos. The movie is so out there in the cruelty of its comedy that you never know whether the audience is really with it. But it ended in solid applause. The Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos cowrote it as a satirical social experiment, set mostly in and around a halfway hotel for single people. By law, they have a month and a half to find a new mate and convincingly sustain a committed relationship or turn into an animal of their choosing. A paunchy, mustached, dry-as-toast Colin Farrell plays David, a newly divorced sad sack who, if it comes to that, opts to be a lobster (he actually looks Greek).

This is Lanthimos’s first film in English, but his core absurdities — as seen in Dogtooth and Alps  are still in place. The hotel is run like a cross between a retirement village and a dystopian reality show, in which guests (residents? inmates?) are bused to the woods to hunt each other with tranquilizer darts. The more loners you knock out, the more days you get tacked onto your stay. He shoots the hunts in ultra-slow-motion, so the flesh on the actors’ faces jiggle. 

Casting modern coupledom in a totalitarian light makes enough intuitive sense that Lanthimos can encase the gags in his typical deadpan irony. David befriends two inmates, played by John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw, and the three wind up in a kind of Darwinian competition for suitable women. Olivia Colman plays the Margaret Thatcher of the hotel. A band of single fugitives stage attacks on the hotel in the name of emo-terrorism. They’re led by Léa Seydoux, the gang’s Che Guevara. Rachel Weisz plays one of the guerrillas, a possible love interest for Farrell — except love with these guys is forbidden! She also narrates the film as though she were reading aloud a novel.

For the first 90 minutes, it’s all witheringly fantastic — Margaret Atwood taking relationships to Eugène Ionesco’s wood chipper. But the stuff with guerrillas is one despairing note. Once you get the joke, you’re hoping that Lanthimos’s sense of humor has another ruthless, tragic gear, and it doesn’t. Throughout, though, Farrell gives what’s bound to be another of his underrated, excellent performances. He’s subdued here, but he seems so sadly full of love, a puppy at a crowded pound. The best stretch of the movie pairs him with Angeliki Papoulia, who was in Dogtooth and Alps and might be a genius with Lanthimos’s heartless style. David pretends to be as awful as she is. But his character can’t keep up, and it’s a relief. It means there’s a human being left after all. Unless he gets turned into dinner.