Cannes Report: Early Fest Offerings Include A French Enigma And An American Embarrassment

The first French phrase I taught myself was “I am sorry for being an American.” Je suis désolé d’être un Américain. 

For someone traveling out of North America for the first time in his life, there’s no better place to be torturously self-conscious about American identity than the Cannes Film Festival. Logistically, it’s not that bad at all; almost everyone speaks passable English, all the programs and screenings offer subtitles for English-speakers, and the festival grounds aren’t difficult to navigate, centralized in the ritzy Grand Palais. But walking the screensaver-perfect Croisette, a U.S. citizen can’t stave off the inkling that every aspect of this experience has been calibrated to make them feel vulgar. There are the expected foreign eccentricities, sure — nobody in this country puts ice in their drinks, which is insane, obviously — but in a larger sense, it’s impossible not to feel poorly-dressed and just, well, poor.

Everyone is fabulously good-looking, to the point where a member of the visiting press might begin to entertain suspicions of some kind of Stepford Wives situation going on behind the scenes. A playground for yacht-owners, the Croisette area is almost entirely devoid of homeless people, and the only one that I did happen upon was slugging Prosecco and had a more stylish haircut than me. And the festival itself takes up glamour as its defining aesthetic principle, outfitting even the beefier security guys with tuxes stretching under the strain of bulging muscles.

As this international inferiority complex took hold, it even colored my perception of the screenings I caught. My first day at the festival (technically the second overall — my first rookie mistake was booking a flight that landed the evening of opening night, which meant I missed Woody Allen’s Cafe Society premiere, a goof I am now trying to rebrand as an act of silent moral protest) consisted of a French picture, an American picture, and a British picture. The vast disparity in quality between those first two took on a national significance as I wandered around various winding rues while reflecting on them. Like an Olympics of cinema, these films are called upon to represent their country of origin when they converge on Cannes, and the day’s screenings neatly encapsulated the defining qualities of France and the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Alain Guiraudie was a smash when he debuted at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section in 2013 with the erotic thriller Stranger By The Lake, a queer Hitchcockian riff with style to spare. He returned in grand fashion this year In Competition, unveiling his newest feature Staying Vertical for an audience with high expectations. He played it close to the vest in his last Cannes appearance, and his newest feature doubles down on its predecessor’s inscrutability.

The plot itself is threadbare and easily followed, tracking a screenwriter named Léo (Damien Bonnard) stricken with a fit of creative block. While wandering the French countryside in search of inspiration, he knocks up a shepherd’s daughter, agrees to raise their child when she comes down with post-partum depression, fends off awkward advances from his new father-in-law, hits on a twinky 18-year-old, and f*cks a guy to death in a display of hushed gerontophilic majesty.

What this all adds up to is anyone’s guess, and the brilliance of the film lays in just how many good guesses it invites. Checking the early reactions on Twitter after the screening, I saw a colleague or two approach the film as a depiction of artistic struggle, my favored reading. But others took Guiraudie’s quiet drama as a meditation on the complexities of queer sexuality, an inspection of the intersection between masculinity and single parenthood, and a magical-realist parable for the ills of French society.

Guiraudie’s film isn’t just bizarre, beautiful, and mysterious. It’s great in a distinctly French way, and not just in the committed stoicism of its actors. (The rarity with which French people smile or laugh politely makes me supremely uncomfortable. I am hoping this feeling goes away soon.) There’s a quiet composure even in the most strange or shocking moments — a full-frontal childbirth, for instance, or a visit to a healer who hooks Léo up to restorative vines like synaptic electrodes. Maybe they’re stereotypes dreamt up by Americans, but Staying Vertical does seem to embody the French virtues of stoicism, dispassion, and intellectualism. All the film was missing was a long-take of our man smoking a cigarette and drinking a glass of wine while staring out a window, beset with existential ennui. And Guiraudie, of course, knows better than to go that broad.

The impressive showing from the festival’s host nation only made the already-middling Money Monster look even weaker by comparison. Jodie Foster’s combo thriller/social critique wasn’t just a “meh” movie, it was an embodiment of the worst gaffes recurrently plaguing Hollywood. Foster clearly has lots on her mind, offering an indictment of greedy corporate slimeballs and the citizens too busy getting stoned on 24-hour news stations to notice they’re being swindled. But Money Monster is as boorish, loud, and simplistic as a sunblock-smeared tourist, echoing the same dim-wittedness of which it accuses its various satirical targets.

When Hollywood decides it’s time to make an Important Film, you can bet your 64-ounce Big Gulp it’ll have guns, yelling, flashy cross-cutting, boner jokes, and a rap song written specifically for the soundtrack. (I cannot emphasize strongly enough how silly the song concluding this film is. It’s up there with “Are You Ready For Freddy?” and Vanilla Ice’s “Ninja Rap.” It is a travesty, and I love it.) The spirit of artifice permeates the entire film, from the predictable “twists” to the phony tidiness of the conclusion, which sees the good guys winning and the bad guys getting theirs. This, in the history of American economics, has never happened.

The last film of the day, Ken Loach’s character study I, Daniel Blake, was a welcome palate-cleanser. The story of a solitary, kindly older man (Dave Johns, an early frontrunner for the festival’s Best Actor prize) and a single mother of two (Hayley Squires) helping each other through poverty made me want to use all sorts of words I usually only deploy sarcastically: “heartwarming,” “touching,” “moving,” the whole goopy lot.

But the sincerity of Loach’s sympathy for his characters is simply too much to deny. Not for one second does this film feel exploitative, patronizing, sappy, or the myriad other tonal pitfalls into which films about struggling poor can tumble. He takes a clear-eyed view toward the experience of poverty, showing how it creeps up on a person through a series of increasingly larger indignities. Daniel only wants to collect his benefit check after a heart attack leaves him unable to work for a while, but the clusterf*ck of Catch-22s that the Kafkaesque British bureaucracy drops on him makes this simple task into a Sisyphean endeavor that nearly made me tear my hair out in frustrated empathy.

The three most infuriating experiences in life are, in order: 1. dealing with an automated call line 2. slogging through a labyrinth of meaningless state-sponsored paperwork and 3. using a computer that just won’t work. Daniel has to slog through all this and more, and as his true battle shifts from getting his damn money to retaining some shred of self-respect in the face of the government’s typhoon of unfair nonsense, the viewer responds with sadness and fury in equal measure.

Though it’s steeped in the maddening specifics of life in derelict British hamlets, Loach’s film ended the day with a nice sort of universality. Every country has impoverished people ignored or outright antagonized by a welfare department that could clearly not give less of a sh*t, and so I, Daniel Blake transcended the international anxieties (that will almost inevitably be revealed to be a figment of my nervous imagination) in a nice, satisfying way. If the rest of this festival matches the highs and lows of today’s presentations, then Cannes will make a lifetime attendee of this writer, white-hot jingo shame or no.

Tomorrow: I take in another rollicking comedy from French rapscallion Bruno Dumont, go into Cambodian Out-of-Competition selection Exil cold, and mercifully catch my first female-directed film of the festival, Maren Ade’s two-and-a-half-hour whatsit Toni Erdmann. Also, presumably, sleep?