Cannes: THR Critics Debate Wretched Russians, the Robert Pattinson Revelation and a Bad Fest for Actresses

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
From left: Adele Haenel in '120 Beats Per Minute,' Adam Sandler in 'The Meyerowitz Stories,' Robert Pattinson in 'Good Time' and Vasilina Makovsteva in 'A Gentle Creature.'

THR film critics ponder the competition, clashing over Todd Haynes and Russian contenders, heaping praise on Robert Pattinson, dissecting the Netflix-Cannes beef and more.

JON FROSCH: Hi, team. Last year at Cannes, I think we griped that the competition was sort of middling. Anyone care to revise that sentiment? In retrospect, and especially in comparison to 2017's listless main slate, 2016 looks pretty darn strong: Paterson, Elle, Aquarius, The Handmaiden, Personal Shopper and a few others were striking films from directors playing either at, or close to, the top of their game. This year? Meh. The line-up of movies vying for the Palme D’Or felt heavy on the filler and even heavier on the grade-A auteurs doing grade-B work. There was lots of moralizing from Europe and misery from Russia; the Americans stepped outside their comfort zones with varying degrees of success; and, of course, we got the usual mixed bag of French fare ranging from magnifique to merde.

There were some bright spots, especially from competition newbies. My fave was Robin Campillo's 120 Beats Per Minute, a no-bullshit naturalistic drama about the Paris branch of ACT UP in the '90s that masterfully intertwines dual narratives — a group portrait of AIDS activists and a love story of great delicacy — and deftly sidesteps every social issue/disease movie cliché in the book. Aside from that, I loved two of the U.S. entries: the Safdie brothers' exhilaratingly paced, deeply felt Queens crime thriller Good Time, starring an astonishing Robert Pattinson; and Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories, a New York-Jewish-fam-com that's the writer-director's warmest, fullest work in years — and also features an unexpected gem of a performance by Adam Sandler as the down-on-his-luck son of a toxically insecure artist (Dustin Hoffman, also terrific).

David, what were some of your highlights?

DAVID ROONEY: I agree about the comparative strength of last year's Cannes — in addition to the films you mentioned, I'd add American Honey, despite its self-indulgent lack of economy, and a couple of standouts from the parallel sections, like Hell or High Water and The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki. The takeaway from this year's edition seems to be the polarizing nature of many of the films: Good Times, Todd Haynes' Wonderstruck, Yorgos Lanthimos' The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here, Bong Joon-ho's Okja, Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled and even the early critics' darling Andrey Zvyagintsev's Loveless. I can't recall a Cannes in which responses ranged so wildly from ecstatic to indifferent, which makes you wonder how these movies will fare out in the real-world marketplace.

I missed the Noah Baumbach but I'm with you up to a point on 120 Beats Per Minute. At two-and-a-half hours, I found its succession of meetings and barrage of impassioned talk somewhat wearing, but its final half-hour or so is exquisitely moving and elevates the entire movie. The opposite is arguably true for Ruben Ostlund's The Square, which on the basis of many thrillingly idiosyncratic individual scenes is possibly the most exciting movie of the competition. But even before it goes over the two-hour mark, it starts succumbing to thematic overload and yielding diminishing returns. I saw a few movies here that I think similarly have much stronger movies trapped inside them. To that list I would add the toast of the Directors Fortnight, Sean Baker's The Florida Project, a bracingly original story of disenfranchised Americans; while its messy mosaic quality is part of its charm, I kept longing for more of the narrative drive and shape of Baker's fabulous Tangerine.

Leslie, how did you rate this year's Cannes crop?

LESLIE FELPERIN: Guys, here is my two centimes. Every year we hope this will be the Best Festival Ever, and every year it seems we go home with the same mild disappointment. If we’re lucky that might be tempered with satisfaction at seeing some wonderful things here and there, but mostly it’s as if all us critics suffer from a collective borderline personality disorder when it comes to Cannes.  We idolize it, and build it up in our heads as the greatest festival in the world and then when it inevitably falls short we tear it down.

As usual, scheduling conflicts meant I couldn’t see several things I would have liked to catch, including 120 Beats Per Minute, The Meyerowitz Stories and The Florida Project. But what cheered me are the films that took weird, sometimes unsuccessful risks. I loved Loveless nearly as much as I did Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan a few years back, but in a way I was more haunted by Sergei Loznitsa’s extraordinarily dark, almost nihilistic satire A Gentle Creature. There’s a crazy dream sequence toward the end, where assorted characters gather and make speeches that left most of the audience baffled and bored, like that debate about collectivization in 2006 Palme winner The Wind That Shakes the Barley, but on mushrooms. There was nothing quite like it anywhere else this year. That also went for Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here — as David points out, another deeply divisive film. I still can’t quite make up my mind about it. Ramsay is an image-maker like no other in British cinema, and the way that film meshes visuals, editing and a twinkling jagged score by Jonny Greenwood is extraordinary. And then she goes and nearly spoils it with a shockingly dumb thud of irony via the last line as a character says, “It’s a beautiful day.” Girlfriend, please.

FROSCH: Leslie, I totally agree with you that expectations of Cannes are unreasonably inflated. On the other hand, I wish I could share your love for Loveless, which I found to be ponderous and heavy-handed, though an undeniably pristine and impressive piece of technical filmmaking (that shot of the boy, his face a mask of anguish after overhearing his mother say she never loved him, is a doozy). I do think there's a kind of critical indulgence toward movies like Loveless and A Gentle Creature here at Cannes — as in, these visions of Mother Russia are so unremittingly bleak-yet-formally rigorous that they must be art, right? I admit I have a hard time with immaculately shot misery — a staple of Cannes and the big Euro film festivals in general — if it's devoid of challenging or complex ideas. At least when Michael Haneke fires blanks, as I think he does in Happy End, his vacuous takedown of callous French aristocrats, he does so in under 2 hours and with Isabelle Huppert at her most amusing and imperious. That said, Leslie, your reviews of the two Russia-set films were so thoughtful and persuasive that I want to give them another chance, outside the chaos and fatigue of Cannes. (Ditto You Were Never Really Here, which I found to be a stylishly sculpted sliver of genre doo-doo, one of the few films I saw here that made me want to break out that laziest of adjectives when it comes to talking movies: pretentious.)

As for the scolding and self-flagellating European entries, I really enjoyed about 70 percent of The Square — which, David, I agree nearly collapses under the weight of its own ambitions. It's brimming with ideas both about First World hypocrisies and about how to visualize them satirically; but better a surplus of substance than a deficit, I say.

FELPERIN: It’s OK, Jon, for you to confess that all that Russian miserabilism doesn’t do it for you. I’m a sucker for it, and what’s more I feel that both Zvyagintsev and Loznitsa are truly growing as filmmakers, when so many others here at Cannes are stuck in their comfort zones. Speaking of which, I thought Happy End really was a lazy effort from Haneke. You could tick off all the usual Haneke touches one by one: the long-held distance shots where vital information is divulged, sexual perversity reveled in and then punished, the crotchety professor-Grandpa chastising the young with their new-fangled technologies and lack of feeling for high culture and the self-loathing of the bourgeoisie. Festival audiences lap that crap up — especially the last item on the list — almost as much as they do films about suffering working-class people made with handheld cameras and no make-up.

ROONEY: Can I change the subject for a second and say something nice about the competition? I was ambivalent about Ramsay's film but agree with Leslie that the use of Greenwood's unconventional scoring is superb — one of a handful of masterful examples here of music being employed in supple, distinctive ways to sculpt tone and enhance narrative texture. I'd include the pulsating electronica by Point Never Oneothrix that adrenalizes the Safdies' Good Time and Carter Burwell's dual storyline soundtracks that eventually blur into one in Haynes' Wonderstruck, an adaptation of the Brian Selznick illustrated novel.

FROSCH: Oy, Wonderstruck. That was one of my disappointments. It's a movie that flaunts the director's exquisite sense of craftsmanship but keeps its emotions under glass. I wasn't a fan of Carol — which practically makes me a heretic among film critics — and was hoping this movie would bring me back to the Haynes I love (the weirdo who gave us Safe, Far From Heaven and I'm Not There). But with Carol and now Wonderstruck, it feels a bit like he's aiming for more conventional, accessible, almost (pardon me while I duck for cover) Oscar-bait-y films. It makes for an odd fit since at heart he's an eccentric, cerebral and fastidiously precise artist. The resulting two movies are, for me, both sentimental and chilly — and not in an interesting way, as in the best of Douglas Sirk as well as Haynes' own sublime tribute to him, Far From Heaven. I found Wonderstruck to be a beautiful bore.

ROONEY: I'm never going to change your mind about Wonderstruck, which divided critics here, but I disagree that the film lacks emotion. I found the balance of the two stories — set, respectively, in 1927 and 1977 — mesmerizing, and their eventual fusion into an interconnected narrative deeply affecting. Even more so because Julianne Moore, the muse from Haynes' two best films, Safe and Far From Heaven, takes us by the hand and leads us through a magical, sorrowful monologue that ties everything together with meticulous detail while also nodding back to the start of Haynes' directing career, with its use of miniatures and models recalling his early breakthrough work, Superstar. Selznick's stories are very intricately engineered, which makes them a challenge for screen treatment. But unlike Martin Scorsese's Hugo, adapted from the same author's work and drowning in virtuosic whimsy, I thought Wonderstruck captured genuine feelings of, well, wonder. Your bore was my rapture.

FROSCH: Now I feel like a downer. Let me change it up and say that one of the pleasant surprises of this competition was the revelation of four fantastic actors — two I didn't know and two I knew but had never thought much of. In the former category, there was Claes Bang, peeling away layers of charm and sophistication to reveal the panicked soul of a rich Scandinavian museum curator in The Square; and Nahuel Perez Biscayart as an AIDS activist firebrand in 120 Beats Per Minute (if ever a performance personified Dylan Thomas' oft-quoted line, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light," this is it). In the second category were Adam Sandler, so tender and ruefully funny — yet never sappy — in The Meyerowitz Stories; and Robert Pattinson, who gives a sweaty, nervous, magnetic star turn in Good Time without ever resorting to shouty histrionics or showy Method-isms.

ROONEY: Claes Bang (that fabulous name belongs on a Bond villain) has officially emerged out of Cannes as the new thinking woman's (and gay man's) crumpet. He's absolutely commanding in The Square, whether in cool control or stifling a Munch-like silent scream as his perfectly ordered world frays beyond repair. Apparently, he's a big name in Danish theater, but how has this charismatic, movie-star handsome performer slipped under the screen radar until now? I agree about Biscayart, whose volatility and emotional raw edges make it impossible to take your eyes off him in 120 Beats; he's an exciting discovery. And yes, this feels like Pattinson's long-time-coming breakthrough. He's made a lot of interesting choices since Twilight, but unlike his former castmate Kristen Stewart, who transitioned fairly swiftly from teen idol to serious actor, the jury's been out on Pattinson's gifts. The degree to which the English actor disappears into his desperate Queens lowlife in Good Time is the most definitive answer yet to that question.

FROSCH: What about the ladies? All I can say to the jury is good luck finding a handful of female performances to ponder for the Best Actress award. Last year, we were spoiled with Isabelle Huppert, Kristen Stewart, Sonia Braga, Ruth Negga and Sandra Huller — and none of them even won! This year's competition slate was almost shockingly lacking in plum parts for women. I adored Elizabeth Marvel's severe but steadfast wallflower sister Jean in The Meyerowitz Stories, but it's a supporting role for sure. If Arnaud Desplechin's unfairly maligned opener Ismael's Ghosts were in competition, that film's excellent leading ladies, Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg, would be clear frontrunners.

FELPERIN: Speaking of Ismael's Ghosts, perhaps the most intriguing female performance I saw was in a movie directed by that film's main actor, Mathieu Almaric: Jeanne Balibar in Un Certain Regard entry Barbara. I wouldn’t say the movie was any kind of masterpiece, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dramatic feature about a historical figure that’s quite like it. Balibar plays an actress playing deceased French chanteuse Barbara in a movie within the movie. Throughout we get footage of the real Barbara layered with Balibar’s own, far-from-shabby interpretations of her songs. Bonus: The frocks are fantastic, almost as good as all those pastel dresses in shades of macaron in Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled.

ROONEY: It was definitely not a great year for les femmes, particularly when films like The Beguiled seemed so promising on that front. But I found Nicole Kidman's chilly poise and undercurrent of corrosive anxiety a fine match for the complex tonalities of Yorgos Lanthimos' work in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. And the young deaf actress Millicent Simmonds makes a gorgeous screen debut in Wonderstruck, with a wordless performance of achingly delicate expressiveness. Likewise, the fabulous young Korean actress in Okja, An Seo Hyun, is so plucky and captivating; she more than holds her own not just against a giant pigephantopotamus, but also against two scenery-devouring Tilda Swintons. You go, girl.

FELPERIN: That reminds me — we can't leave without acknowledging the elephant in the screening room: This whole kerfuffle over Netflix-backed competition movies (namely, Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories) and whether, going forward, Cannes should or shouldn’t allow them in the main slate if they don’t have distribution in France. The debate is very telling about where the anxieties are now. That confidence that Cannes is the best film festival in the world because film itself is the best audiovisual medium in the world isn’t as strong as it used to be. TV shows are starting to chip away at the screening slots; two of the buzziest and best-received selections here were Jane Campion's Top of the Lake season 2 and episodes of David Lynch's new Twin Peaks. I didn’t get a chance to see either, but it says a lot about the power shifts going on that they were here on equal footing with the features.

ROONEY: I think the French brouhaha about Netflix films in competition is a ridiculous stance that smacks of arrogance and provincialism. Cannes has always prided itself on being the most international of fests, so whether or not a film has French theatrical distribution seems a very narrow condition to impose. I'd say we're only now seeing the beginnings of streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon diving into ambitious feature production, and first-rate directors are lining up to get projects made that might have a harder time finding financing via traditional routes. Excluding that burgeoning output from competition just seems like self-sabotage. And given that every major festival these days has started including a television strand, shutting the door on Netflix just seems like a murky double-standard. How do you say, "Get over it" in French?

Check back tomorrow for chief critic Todd McCarthy's take on Cannes 2017.

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