Cannes: THR Critics Debate "Rape Comedy," Overlong Movies and Award-Worthy Women

Toni Erdmann Still - H
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

THR film critics discuss late festival favorite 'Elle,' the pros and cons of Shia LaBeouf starrer 'American Honey,' Kristen Stewart's swoon-worthy new performance and other loves and hates (and snores) from Cannes 2016.

Jon Frosch: OK, guys, let's get down to it. Because it's Cannes, there's always this (perhaps unconscious) expectation that most of the films in competition should be world-class works of art. That's unrealistic, though some editions of the festival are more satisfying than others — I recall 2011 and 2013 as particularly strong — and I would say this year's main slate has been about average, don't you think? A lot of the films, even pretty good ones like Maren Ade's crowd-pleasing 162-minute father-daughter comedy Toni Erdmann, felt bloated, indulgent or unpruned. Sieranevada (173 min.), American Honey (162 min.) and the initially batshit-fun but ultimately tedious The Neon Demon (117 min.), to name just a few, are movies that, for me, didn't justify their running times. That's one of the occasionally vexing things about auteur cinema at the Cannes level: Some of these filmmakers are very enamored of their own images.

Still, there were some gems (and I haven't seen Paul Verhoeven's "rape comedy" Elle, which I hear is something to behold): Jim Jarmusch's funny (as in not just droll) and sneakily moving Paterson, starring the great Adam Driver as a poetry-writing New Jersey bus driver; The Salesman, another engrossing, expertly paced moral thriller from Iran's Asghar Farhadi; Olivier Assayas' scary, sexy, unsolvable puzzle Personal Shopper, in which Kristen Stewart continues her post-Twilight streak of magnetic performances; the Dardennes' typically intelligent, beautifully wrought The Unknown Girl, about a young doctor overcome with guilt when a woman she refused to treat turns up dead; and Cristian Mungiu's deftly directed and written Graduation (Bacalaureat), which revolves around a Romanian man who takes "helicopter parenting" to the next level.

David Rooney: I'm with you on the unassuming but potent charms of Paterson, a movie of deceptive surfaces that packs a lot of heart, with such a smart, soulful performance from Driver, who just gets better and better. Likewise Stewart, whom I found so boyishly sexy in the loopy but perversely pleasurable Personal Shopper. There's nobody I'd rather watch communicating with ghosts in a haute couture harness. I would definitely add to the strong crop Jeff Nichols' audaciously restrained Loving, the kind of drama that seems to demand big Oscar-baity speeches, and it's to his credit that he steadfastly refrains, giving the movie a quieter but arguably more authentically emotional charge. The performances of Joel Edgerton and especially Ruth Negga are unimpeachable. The Dardennes' film, like Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake, is not their strongest work but thoughtful and socially engaged in ways that made me grateful to be pulled into their world.

I agree, too, about the worrying trend of the unjustified epic. Toni Erdmann is a very rewarding movie, with a distinctive take on a father-daughter relationship that felt new to me. But I couldn't help thinking its spell might have been just as bracing with a tighter focus in the opening stretch. American Honey also has a lot of great stuff, though Andrea Arnold's fascination with the milieu she's portraying in her first big-screen U.S. work seems to have overshadowed her interest in character and plot. Even a frequently exhilarating mood piece needs some kind of bone structure.


Frosch: Todd, I know you disagree with me and David on Personal Shopper, which you didn't like. But I believe you downright loathed American Honey. It’s a maddening and ultimately disappointing film, for sure, with a rather uninteresting heroine and, as David suggested, an approach to story and character that might charitably be described as “cavalier.” But I think there’s greatness somewhere buried in there — you can see a bit of it in Shia LaBeouf’s charismatic con artist, in the gorgeous, tactile cinematography and in the jubilant use of diegetic music (those glorious Dirty South rap-alongs!). What about the movie rubbed you the wrong way in particular?

Todd McCarthy: I did loathe American Honey, which captures youthful energy and abandon for sure but has no story worth talking about and manages the extraordinary feat of being two hours and 42 minutes long and not creating any supporting characters you could even name or discuss. The film may turn some people on with its undeniable energy and audacious, youth-connected attitude, but the tone, pace, mood and nature of the action remain exactly the same all the way through, with no modulation or real character revelation. I liked Arnold's initial film work, up to a point, but her dreadfully misjudged Wuthering Heights and now this reveal the extreme limits of her talent.

I've felt from the third or fourth day that this is a very disappointing Cannes, and was startled by other critics who said they liked a bunch of the films. For me there were only a few top-drawer films, one or two other decent ones and the rest uninspired, overlong and, almost invariably, not their directors' best work. The highlight for me was definitely Paul Verhoeven's Elle, which was last to screen. It's so good to have him back, and the film, a very unusual and provocative portrait of a rape victim, is so elegant, so finely attuned to emotional and sexual nuance. Isabelle Huppert is sexier in this movie than she was 30 years ago. It's probably too outre and "commercial" to win any awards, but it's my favorite film in the festival. Other than that, the best for me was Graduation (Bacalaureat), a pretty much completely achieved work about the rot and systematic corruption of Romanian society as Mungiu sees it, but illustrated in a human, rather than doctrinaire or preachy, way. On its heels was Toni Erdmann, widely noted as a German film with humor but even more striking for its unexpected flavors, moods and spirit. I like Jeff Nichols' Loving just fine; it's commendably low-key and un-self-important, which makes it a rarity among American issue-oriented films. Deborah, what did you like?

Deborah Young: Well, first, about the abundance of overlong films this year: I agree that a lot of directors take carte blanche with their running times when they come to Cannes, knowing the programming staff is very indulgent with its darlings. On the other hand, there’s at least one film you mentioned, Jon, Cristi Puiu's Sieranevada, in which I would argue that form follows function and its over-the-top length contributes to the feeling of being trapped at an endless family reunion in a locked room. It doesn’t compare to his unforgettable The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, but something kept pulling me back into the bickering clash of forlorn personalities. I guess it has to do with the way Puiu moderates the tempo, varies his use of the camera and directs the actors. There's much to admire, even if I'm not sure the regular filmgoing public will feel the way I did. I'll probably recommend something else to my intimates at home, something like Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden, another long competition movie (145 min.) that I think earns its running time. I admire its formal sophistication, but it's also just such a hoot to watch (even if the "Korean lesbian movie" reputation it had here this year is a bit reductive), as well as beautifully shot and refreshingly unexpected. If there is a dull minute, I don’t remember it.

The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden split the critics down the middle, probably because it’s so unrepentantly entertaining it doesn’t seem like it ought to be in competition. It reminded me why I like big Asian films so much: They don’t have the Western prejudice about screenplays needing to have unity of time, place and spirit, and they have no qualms about throwing in the kitchen sink. I think they invented genre contamination.

On a totally unrelated note, an amusing anecdote: Someone just told me about seeing a film here where the person next to him slept soundly through the key scenes — only to wake up at the end and exclaim, "What a marvelous picture!"

Frosch: Ha! Critics falling asleep at festival press screenings (and sometimes snoring, though I won't name names) is definitely a thing, and let's be honest here: We've all done it. Our friends and family at home may think we're sipping champagne on the beach and air-kissing stars, but between jet lag, constant deadlines and very-early-morning movies, the struggle is real! There were a few films this year that I wish I could have slept through, though I hear I dodged the biggest bullet by skipping Sean Penn's The Last Face (or The Last Fart, as a former French colleague of mine referred to it). David, we know what you thought of that one. What were your other competition lows?

Rooney: You have to wonder about the demonic nature of the Cannes programmers putting three of the most challenging (a way kinder word than they deserve) movies so late in the competition, when we're all fried. Xavier Dolan's It's Only the End of the World for me just erased the thrill of his last movie Mommy, which seemed such a breakthrough. The new one was not only hopelessly stagebound, but 90 minutes with that shouty family — who seem connected only by their taste in drag-queeny eye makeup — was a punishing eternity of circuitous dialogue that revealed almost nothing about their dreary dysfunctionality. Neon Demon has about 20 hilarious minutes (All hail Christina Hendricks!), and then becomes turgid and pointless, with nothing fresh to say about the fashion industry's (and Hollywood's) obsession with youth and beauty. Who knew lesbian necrophiliacs and cannibal supermodels could be so boring? Though I did feel a surge of national pride that the last, vicious, eyeball-eating girl standing is an Australian. My peeps! Our esteemed colleague Leslie Felperin nailed it when she called it "Dario Argento's Next Top Model." As for Sean Penn's faux-Malickian love-in-wartime twaddle, The Last Face, the less said the better.

McCarthyNeon Demon is pretty worthless, but it's impressive compared to Dolan's almost unbearable film. At least two of the French entries also had no business in competition: Nicole Garcia's From the Land of the Moon at least has Marion Cotillard, but is a slow, old-fashioned melodrama, while Alain Guiraudie's Staying Vertical is quite unconvincing and even silly. There's something very wrong and suspicious about the selection of the festival's French entries and has been for some time. But that's a subject that would need to be explored in depth, and with strong knowledge of the power of various production and sales organizations in France. The bottom line is that an inordinate number of the films — and notably the ones of dubious quality — have significant participation by French companies.

Young: I have to say, this hasn’t been the worst Cannes for me and almost everything I’ve seen has been worth watching — though I wish there had been a film that bowled me over and changed my way of looking at movies. Still, I felt a measure of improvement over last year, when Cannes screened a series of lackluster duds. Here we’ve been seeing not masterpieces but at least films you can recommend to your friends.

Like Jon, one of my favorites was Farhadi’s The Salesman, which takes him back to Iran (after shooting The Past in France) with another chilling glimpse into an uncompassionate macho Iranian culture. It’s a film that bored me in places, but when you get to that terrifying ending that leaves you shaken, you know you’re watching a master filmmaker at work.

The Unknown Girl

Frosch: I think one thing we can all agree on is that this year's competition flaunted a plethora of first-rate performances by women, a very welcome trend given how grim things have gotten back in Hollywood. The jury has an embarrassment of riches to sift through when deciding on their best actress prize. We've already lavished praise on Kristen Stewart and Ruth Negga; many feel Isabelle Huppert and Sonia Braga give career-best turns in Elle and Aquarius; Sandra Huller is a comic and dramatic knockout in Toni Erdmann; and Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti is devastating — and fearlessly unsympathetic — as the victim in The Salesman.

My favorite of all might be rising French star Adele Haenel, superb as the young doctor-turned-detective in the Dardennes' The Unknown Girl. It's such a focused, unsentimental, un-pandering bit of acting (and therefore a longshot for any kind of award, here or elsewhere). Without raising her voice, welling up or setting her chin atremble, Haenel registers every tiny shift in her character's emotional and psychological state. She's also utterly persuasive as a razor-sharp physician — not a Grey's Anatomy-style hotshot shouting orders in medical jargonese between makeout sessions, but a diligent and meticulous woman of science whose conception of her profession gradually expands. No undue snark intended, but few performers can play smart so seamlessly.

Rooney: Even in imperfect or divisive movies there's been some very compelling acting this year. What impressed most was the complete service of the performers to a unifying directorial vision and tone. The work of British standup comic Dave Johns and Hayley Squires in I, Daniel Blake, for example, is in perfect sync with Loach's quietly indignant observation of the invisibility of the marginalized poor and unemployed. But I suspect no performances will stay with me longer than those of Peter Simonischek and Sandra Huller as the conflicted father and daughter in Toni Erdmann. The two characters start out in such seemingly irredeemable extremes of abrasiveness, and then the director pulls back and skillfully contextualizes them by layering in their personal histories and illuminating their environments. Everything ultimately felt part of a collaborative grand master plan between director and actors that yielded unique emotional rewards. Who would ever have guessed that one of the most resonant and thrilling moments in the lineup of a festival famed for cinematic refinement would be an uptight businesswoman belting out a cheesy Whitney Houston power-pop ballad?