The Movie Waffler Cannes 2016 - Week 2 Report: Part 1 | The Movie Waffler

Cannes 2016 - Week 2 Report: Part 1

Our man in Cannes had a such a busy second week at the fest, he's split his report in two. Here's the first part.

Words by John Bennett (@johnbennett812)

The second week of The Cannes Film Festival raged on as swaths of reporters, producers, vacationers, partygoers, and desperate ticket seekers (like yours truly) paraded a thousand times up and down the Croisette. When not parading, many found themselves happily nestled in their fauteuils - the comfy seats that fill the various screening rooms, large and small, of the Palais des Festivals and its orbiting theaters. They were eager for new and foreign worlds (or perhaps, more accurately, the magnified punims of their favorite movie stars) to flash, larger than life, before their eyes. The Cannes Festival had a lot to offer these journalists, distributors and dreamers in its second week, so let’s take another look at what was on.

The films in competition continued to be fascinating, commanding accomplishments. Toni Erdmann (****½), a film from Germany’s Maren Ade, had generated a bit of Palme d’Or buzz, so we’ll begin there. The film deals with a father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), alone and well past middle age, who tries to learn more about and strengthen his connection with his workaholic daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller). At one work function, the jokester Winfried decides to pretend to be a bizarre boorish mysterious member of his daughter’s company: Toni Erdmann. The daughter, too mortified to admit to her colleagues that Erdmann is her father, plays along with the charade. This make-believe allows Winfried and Ines to engage in a strange, almost ritualistic dance of greater mutual understanding. It’s an exceptionally good film in that it recognises that the parent-child relationship is never simple or definable. Winfried and Ines’s tango of dress-up beautifully shows how this relationship can be one of disavowal one day only to be one of immense gratitude the next. Though the film is about 20 minutes too long, Ade mostly lets us forget the film’s running time by keeping the plot just off-kilter enough to keep us invested in the truth of this complex relationship - and in helping Ade achieve this goal, Simonischek and Hüller give truly great performances.

The biggest entertainment among the films in competition is Chan-wook Park’s The Handmaiden (****½). In this stately erotic thriller, set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, the charlatan Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) recruits the expert pickpocket Sook-hee (Tae Ri Kim) to be a handmaiden for Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), a Japanese noblewoman. As Lady Hideko’s handmaiden, Sook-hee must coax Hideko into falling in love with Fujiwara so he can marry her and claim her inheritance. But that’s just the foundation; The Handmaiden features many giddy twists and turns that make its 140-minute running time breeze right by. And as if that weren’t enough, Park (along with production designer Seong-Hie Ruy) created a stylistically lush aristocratic playground of dense gardens, elegant boudoirs, and sinister secret rooms that add a layer of great atmosphere to this great story. I was amazed by the level of restraint and delicacy Park brought to this material (I’m not a huge fan of 2003’s Oldboy); even if he does make two or three sequences a little too gratuitously pornographic for my liking, both in terms of sex and violence, I couldn’t help but be seduced by The Handmaiden’s visual and narrative panache.

Though it was critically unpopular, I found Pedro Almodovar’s last film, I’m So Excited, to be a successful art-house sex comedy. Though his newest film in competition, Julieta (****), is very good, I cannot defend it as enthusiastically. In his newest melodrama, Almodovar adapts several Alice Munro short stories into the one cohesive plot. After running into a friend of her estranged daughter, Julieta (played by both Adriana Ugarte as the older Julieta and Emma Suárez as the younger) decides to contact her daughter with a tell-all letter explaining her past and scrutinising the circumstances that lead to their estrangement. Julieta lacks the narrative experimentation and deep feeling that made the Spanish icon’s last six or seven movies so successful. This go-around, Almodovar seems to be on autopilot with his distinctive style consisting of deep colours, crisp lighting, and beautiful faces. Nevertheless, even on autopilot, his style doesn’t fail to please, and the story, short of captivating, will at least easily hold the attention of Almodovar fans and newcomers alike.

If Almodovar is an established genius who may have become too complacent, Jim Jarmusch is an established genius who continues to explore new and exciting territory. His newest film, Paterson (*****), is a simple, funny, moving look at the worth of poetry in a small forgotten part of America. Sharing a name with the New Jersey town where he drives buses for a living, Paterson (Adam Driver) privately uses poetry to reflect on his work, his town, and his relationship with wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). Paterson, like many other Jarmusch films, celebrates the beauty of downtrodden urban American landscapes. Now that he’s added New Jersey cities to a list that includes New York (Stranger than Paradise), Detroit (Only Lovers Left Alive), and New Orleans (Down by Law), it’s safe to say that Jarmusch is a director who is deeply fascinated with a real America, imbued with a sense of humour, poetry, and dust. And with Paterson, the director is more poetic than ever: as Paterson writes his poems, we see the words float over superimposed images of city streets and Americana objets d’art. Though the film is lyrical, it is not overripe; Jarmusch’s direct story-telling and small moments of humor keep Paterson grounded in such a way that helps us realise the poetry of day-to-day life. In this sense, Paterson is a complete, unadulterated success. Jarmusch had a second film at the festival as well: the music documentary, Gimme Danger, about Iggy Pop. Though I didn’t get the chance to see it, it did receive some good press.

The wizened faces of the frères Dardennes also showed up on the red carpet this year; the perennial Cannes favorites debuted their new film, The Unknown Girl (****), which screened in competition. In their new film, Jenny (Adèle Haenel), a young doctor, learns that a young girl was found dead, foul play suspected, outside of her house. Jenny also learns that she could have prevented the death had she opened the door for the girl late at night as she frantically tried to escape her mysterious fate. Guilt-ridden, Jenny takes it upon herself to lead her own investigation, risking her own safety to try to discover the identity of the girl. The film feels strangely genre-driven for the Dardennes. Jenny acts as a Philip Marlowe with a social conscience as she follows leads and learns things she was better off not knowing. Though a mystery, this is still unmistakably a Dardennes film, with an unadorned style and episodic structure. Though The Unknown Girl lacks the power of some of their previous work, it’s still a strong film, and I think the critical world has, so far, underestimated the film’s power to show how a woman can be disturbingly belittled, threatened, and menaced when putting a man in a difficult situation, even when her intentions are strictly moral. It’s not as uplifting (or even as good) as their last film, Two Days, One Night (2014), but The Unknown Girl is still very effective.

Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho was represented in competition for the first time with his new film, Aquarius (***½). In Aquarius, Mendonça tells the story of Clara (Kiss of the Spider Woman’s Sonia Braga), a cancer survivor who achieved success with a book she wrote on the experience. Clara, the sole occupant of an upper-middle class apartment building where she has lived for a long time, is pressured by smarmy real-estate developers to move out. Like Mendonça’s last film, the critically successful Neighboring Sounds (2012), Aquarius maintains a central narrative at the centre of a non-narrative driven structure. That is to say that the film has an amorphous quality in which disparate episodes not only give us a rich portrait of a character, but a look into a country’s problematic infrastructure as well. And, as you will see, the film’s final image is a perfect metaphor for the ills that plague the infrastructure of Brazilian business and politics. The crew of the film reinforced this message more directly at the premiere, before which they held signs high that read “A coup d’état has taken place in Brazil,” referring to the ousting of president Dilma Rousseff. The film, like many others in competition, is a little too long, but generally effective.

A recent talent, Filipino director Brilliante Mendoza screened his new film, Ma’ Rosa (****), in competition as well. In this film, the matriarch (Jaclyn Jose) of an impoverished family is arrested for drug pushing, forcing her three young adult children to scramble around their sprawling slum town to raise the money for her bail. Though it is a movie about extreme poverty, Ma’ Rosa smartly deals with the issue without making it a thesis. When Rosa borrows money from a neighbour and says that she will pay it back somehow, we believe her - yet we also know that the process will be extremely arduous for her. The film indicates this to us almost subconsciously rather than telling us outright. In this sense, Ma’ Rosa is a stronger film than its competitor, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake. What’s more, Mendoza keeps the film visually interesting: the crowded slums have a near-carnival atmosphere as Mendoza’s camera weaves between shacks as purposefully as the film’s characters. The video-camera texture of Ma’ Rosa not only renders the material more raw and immediate, but also gives the audience a certain aesthetic satisfaction.

Out of The Critics Week came the Singaporean drama, A Yellow Bird (***½), the debut feature of director K. Rajagopal. Coming from the same corner of the world and examining the same themes as Ma’ Rosa, A Yellow Bird depicts one man’s life in dire economic straits. Though A Yellow Bird has less stylistic and narrative cohesion than Ma’ Rosa, it’s still a strong work. Like Mendoza, Rajagopal manages to give poverty the thematic spotlight without sentimentalising his characters’ situations. The film also gives some interesting insight on the ethnic diversity and systematic racism within Singapore. At one point, one character asks of the main character: “is he ethnic or foreign?” A Yellow Bird effectively demonstrates that in Singapore, it’s never easy to know the answer to that question.

There were two small films at Cannes - one Canadian, the other American - that I would like to discuss together. The first was Mean Dreams (***) by Nathan Morlando. The film, which played at the Director’s Fortnight, involves a young country boy, Jonas (Josh Wiggins) who quixotically tries to save his new neighbour Casey (Sophie Nélisse) from her abusive, drug-pushing cop father, Wayne (Bill Paxton).

The second film, Michael O’Shea’s The Transfiguration (***), deals with a bullied inner-city orphan, Milo (Eric Ruffin) with a penchant for vampirism. His emotional turmoil is relieved a bit by his friendship with a misfit girl, Sophie (Chloe Levine). The film was part of the Un Certain Regard portion of the official selection.

Both films have many great moments and ideas, and the young actors in both films give uniformly sturdy, nuanced performances. Yet these movies are plagued by a filmmaking tendency found in many films from young North American filmmakers: they are too polished, both in story and in style. In both films, a boy and girl meet cute, and the ensuing dialogue follows a tired template (things like “are you new in town?” followed by pseudo-profound musings finished with “like, you know?”). Both films have characters whose mothers have died under traumatic circumstances. Many North American filmmakers seem to think that in order to elicit emotions, one must show extreme emotional situations (dead parents, abusive parents, severe mental illness). But these situations are so transparent in their manipulative intentions that they don’t make you feel anything at all. Both Mean Dreams and The Transfiguration abuse such situations, and the good ideas found in these films are undermined as a result. The films follow a template for style as well: both deploy a cinematography that drains colour, lights a little too well, and sacrifices composition for a direct, professional look. All this professionalism polishes the cinematic voice out of the movies - it’s a cinema that follows rules instead of a cinema that makes a statement. In this sense, these films are good enough, but they could be much better. A longer essay and more research is needed to explore this trend, but it definitely exists and can be found in these Cannes movies.

The films discussed above were seen on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at the festival. A final festival report, examining the films seen on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, will be available shortly.

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