In the time-honored words of a be-wigged Will Ferrell, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills, and not just because ten days of marathon cinephilia has left me a spent, desiccated husk of my former self. Some critics pride themselves on contrarianism, and a select few do it well, mounting convincing arguments for films that they genuinely believe have been unfairly maligned or misunderstood. Up until this year’s Cannes Film Festival, I never counted myself among the ranks of those battling against the tide of critical consensus, but in my two-ish weeks on the Croisette, I’ve been reborn as a stubborn S.O.B. willing to go to bat for films I never thought I’d have to and denigrating the fan-favorites. While colleagues (intelligent, rational-minded writers on whom I mean to cast no shade whatsoever) vaunted the funny-but-plain Toni Erdmann and irredeemable American Honey, I’ve had to assume the mantle of the festival’s resident Xavier Dolan apologist and, most incredibly given the team’s record as critical darlings, mount a defense of a new Dardennes bros. picture.
Paul Verhoeven’s thriller Elle was the last Competition title on the board this morning, another eagerly anticipated entry from a less-than-prolific artist. I knew the Dutch filmmaker primarily as the architect behind Robocop, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct some of the most treasured Hollywood successes of the ’80s and ’90s (and also Showgirls), but perhaps if I had cultivated a closer familiarity with his work outside the English language, I would’ve been better prepared for this nasty, blackhearted firestarter.
Maybe I’m part of that humorless generation of younger critics that insist on holding their art to a certain set of moral standards, but I found no charm, comedy, or titillation in Verhoeven’s playful treatment of rape. (Furthermore, a demand for basic decency ought not to be a distinctly #millennial thing.) As the film opens on a cute kitty-cat watching with chilly dispassion as its owner endures a brutal sexual assault on her living room floor, Verhoeven dares to ask the hot-button question of “What if getting violently violated in your own home was actually… kind of sexy?”
Video game designer Michèle (Isabelle Huppert in a delectably prickly performance, no getting around that) doesn’t seem especially rattled by the vicious attack levied on her, promptly cleaning herself up, getting an STD screen, and calling it a day. An armchair psychoanalyst could peg this as repression for post-traumatic stress from several kilometers away, but outside of a brief fantasy in which she beats her rapist to death, she moves right along with her busy life.
She’s got plenty on her plate to distract her from the threatening text messages an unknown number keeps sending her: an affair she’s getting bored with, a dimwitted son balancing a shrewish baby mama and dead-end job at a McDonald’s knockoff, an insubordinate employee undermining her authority over their World Of Warcraft-looking new release, an ex-husband who’s shacked up with a yoga instructor half his age, a mother proud to announce her engagement to a shredded gigolo clearly out for her money, a pair of weirdly devout Christian neighbors, and the lingering public contempt left over from a string of murders her father committed decades ago.
On top of all of this, Verhoeven still holds fast to Michèle’s trenchant investigation of her own rape, motivated less by a pursuit of retribution than a kinky curiosity. These discrete pieces clash harshly, and even more frustratingly, provide a crystal-clear impression of the film that Elle could be. There’s an agreeably salty dysfunctional-family film buried under the misogynistic sadism masquerading as lusty game-playing, and the latter can’t help but sour the former.
Verhoeven outs the rapist’s identity about halfway through, pivoting from a lascivious mystery into an even more distasteful sort of film, where the worst thing one human can do to another is play-acted like a fetishistic game. There’s so much worth celebrating ensconced within the blindingly repulsive A-plot — Huppert is a phenom, the jokes that don’t revolve around poking fun at rape all connect, and Verhoeven builds tension with a seasoned hand even when that tension leads to an objectionable end — that the film’s repeated soiling of its own excellence proves doubly disappointing.
And with Elle, that’s it. I managed to catch all but one of the official Competition selections, missing out on the three-hour Romanian talkathon Sieranevada from Cristi Puiu. It’s been an edifying experience, but before I return to America and remember that not all films are required to contain a scene of bitter family members bellowing at one another or innocent women getting attacked, there are quasi-harebrained predictions to be made.
Prognosticating the Oscars is tricky enough, but gauging the Cannes awards recipients is an entirely different and far murkier kettle of fish. Because the results come from a small panel of jurors (staffed up this year by President George Miller, Kirsten Dunst, Mads Mikkelsen, Donald Sutherland, French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin, Son Of Saul director László Nemes, French actress Vanessa Paradis, Italian cineaste Valeria Golino, and Iranian producer Katayoon Shahabi) instead of a thousands-strong body of voters, the awards reflect a collection of disparate opinions resolved into agreement instead of an industry’s status quo. As such, guessing the awards boils down to taking potshots in the dark, with only critical buzz to inform the picks below. Accept them all with a healthy skepticism, and the understanding that I only kind-of-know what I’m doing.
Could take it: Loath as I am to admit it, the two frontrunners for this race happen to be American Honey, a film I described last week as an “Everest of hot garbage,” and Toni Erdmann, which entertained while failing to break any novel ground, in my estimation. Cannes tends to reward films that attempt to embody the current state of the country in which they were produced, and while American Honey does so with all the tact and grace of a pachyderm (our girl, wind in her hair atop a convertible, literally says, “I feel like America” in one particularly eye-roll-worthy moment), its attitude may push it over the top.
In my dreams: Jim Jarmusch’s disarmingly humble, elliptical Paterson won plenty of critical hosannas, and rightly so, but its chances of victory appear slim at present. Its brilliance creeps up on an audience slowly and without showy displays of filmmaking bravura, and that’s by design in this ode to a life lived modestly. Jarmusch took home the Grand Prix, the festival’s second-place award, for his elegiac Broken Flowers in 2005, and while the jurors don’t make efforts to spread the wealth around, this does not appear to be his year. A pity, too — his unorthodox poeticism presents exactly the flight from tradition that film festivals ought to be championing.
Prix de la mise en scène (Best Director)
Could take it: Nicolas Winding Refn could be a contender — the only thing hamstringing his Neon Demon is its leaden script — but the aggressively mixed reception to his lurid fantasia of violence and fashion will almost assuredly turn some jurors off. A safer bet could be Jeff Nichols for his stripped-down romantic drama Loving, a message movie refreshingly free of hot air and self-importance. Nichols inhabits the residence of Richard and Mildred Loving like a polite guest, respectfully documenting their most intimate moments without invading their privacy. He doesn’t outstay his welcome by making symbols out of his characters, leaving their love as a self-evident argument for the interracial marriage that Virginia fought long and hard to keep them from having.
In my dreams: 20-odd movies later, and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden has still stuck in my mind as a clear festival highlight. The elusive quadruple-crossing script kept every minute charged with suspense, but Park’s elegant direction pushed this into the uppermost tier of the Competition slate. He’s never attempted ambitious tracking shots on this scale before, gracefully establishing the spatial constraints of the mansion housing the film’s action while dazzling audiences with his swooping agility. When he plants his camera, it’s in front of painterly tableaux worthy of immortalizing in watercolor and mounting in a museum. Without resorting to flashy formalism, Park creates visions of beauty that enrich the story at hand instead of distracting from it.
Prix du scénario (Best Screenplay)
Could take it: Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann has already picked up the FIPRESCI Competition prize, awarded by a body of international critics, marking it as an awards frontrunner. The film’s many proponents have designated the mostly riotous script as a strong point, deploying comical set pieces one after the other, often bouncing around three or four different languages. There’s a bittersweet sentimentality in the fraught relationship between father and daughter that Ade integrates with equal parts warmth and awkwardness, not to mention the technical nitty-gritty of corporate consulting firms. Ade’s clearly done her research, and now she may be poised to reap her reward.
In my dreams: Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation starts with a brain-busting moral quandary, then adds more complicating variables with every new scene until the distinction between right and wrong vanishes completely. While nesting ever more befuddling ethical relativism within itself, he grounds it all in a decidedly subtler, more nuanced story about the fraying bond between a father and his teenage daughter. With the immediacy and drum-tight dialogue of a great stage play, Mungiu confronts the young girl with the ugly compromises of adult life and never lets her father off the hook for his transgressions.
Prix d’interprétation féminine (Best Actress)
Could take it: The most hotly contested race in this year’s festival, the prize could easily go to over a half-dozen stellar actresses. As stated above, Isabelle Huppert elevated the reprehensible Elle, Ruth Negga was made of stern stuff in Loving, newcomer Sasha Lane was one of two players worth caring about in American Honey, Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte collaborated for a performance spanning decades in Julieta, Elle Fanning drew horror from precocity in The Neon Demon, and Adèlè Haenel embodied bravery behind fear in The Unknown Girl. But the runaway win has gotta go to Sonia Braga as Aquarius‘ fiery matriarch Dona Clara, a grande dame who won’t be moved from her precious apartment by loud music, construction, or an eensy termite infestation.
In my dreams: Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper debuted awash in jeers, but c’est le festival. No amount of booing can diminish the surgical control and emotional (and, at times, literal) nakedness of star Kristen Stewart’s performance as a medium slumming it with a job outfitting a diva star while waiting for contact from her deceased brother. Further clarifying that what audiences of the early 2010’s identified as moroseness was in actuality a subdued melancholy, she imbues a story that could’ve easily been risible with captivating personality. The film includes a 20-minute sequence of text messaging, for God’s sake, and Stewart sells the hell out of it. The only American actress to have ever won a Cesar, the French equivalent of the Oscar, Stewart’s got an international appeal that’s made her a potential spoiler for this race.
Prix d’interprétation masculine (Best Actor)
Could take it: As Emad, the domineering husband of an assault survivor in Asghar Farhadi’s masterful The Salesman, Shahab Hosseini navigates personal and national codes to create a performance of measured exposure and concealment. He wants to ensure that whoever harmed his wife answers for his crimes, but doesn’t want to bring shame upon her, and by association, himself. Concern and anger intermingle on his face, internally battling for dominance even during his performance-within-a-performance in the film’s Death Of A Salesman production. He’s not an easy character to get behind, but he shouldn’t be, and Hosseini keeps him recognizably mortal without turning to villainousness.
In my dreams: Since it played on the first full day of Competition screenings, praise for Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake has cooled considerably, but the jurors would be remiss to overlook Dave Johns as the determined coot whose declaration of existence gives the film its most powerful sequence and its title. A stand-up comedian tackling a rare dramatic role, Johns imbues his character with pathos and humor even as the subject material takes progressively more dire turns. The crass indignities of filling out paperwork and dealing with the color-wheel on a computer were never such profound, relatable experiences.