Last night, I was joking with a colleague over dinner that I was so relieved it only took ten minutes into my very first Cannes screening to witness my first vagina of the festival. He nodded knowingly and said something to the effect of, “Yeah, that’ll happen,” registering no surprise at the shot. Sexual explicitness and general deviancy are apparently the order of the day around these parts, judging from the screenings I caught during my first three days. Since arriving on the Croisette, I’ve been treated to cannibalism, fatal anal sex, a jaw-droppingly graphic childbirth, a bit of soft incest, a corporate team-building exercise organized around total nudity, and bug-eating, and that’s not even counting the films detailed below.
The highly permissive European attitude towards sexualité wasn’t a new discovery for me at Cannes by any stretch, that disposition is clear to anyone who’s even dipped a toe into the wide world of international cinema, and yet it was far more pronounced while reflecting on the slate of Competition selections. European and Asian cinema at Cannes tends to match the American fetish for violence (which, let’s not even get into that, not now) with a fetish for fetishes, and that freewheeling stance on depictions of frank sexuality was never expressed more beautifully than in Park Chan-wook’s new triumph The Handmaiden.
It’s the best film I’ve seen at the festival thus far with a bullet. The South Korean master has delivered a characteristically twisty and unpredictable tale of betrayal and revenge, shot through with ravishing eroticism and breathtaking formal grace. Working from Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith, swapping out the Victorian England setting for early 1910s Korea under Japanese colonial rule for a little added social significance, Park spins passages of tranquility and austerity from this tangled web of lovers and lies. This is one good-looking film, and the complex erotic heat between leads Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri (no relation, I hope, for their sake) precludes any accusations of the wonders stopping after the surface-level.
Min-hee is Hideko, a Japanese heiress in need of a husband to solidify her social standing and manage the $1.8 million valuation of her estate. A con man named Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) thinks he’s the perfect man for the job, and so he enlists his associate Sook-hee (Tae-ri) to pose as Hideko’s new whipping girl so that she can gaslight the golden goose into surrendering her eggs. It’s the perfect plan, except for the true-blue budding affection between the two women as they recognize loneliness, melancholy, and yearning in one another. They gravitate toward one another slowly, but when they do finally make physical contact, it’s as explosive as the showstopping sapphic centerpiece of past Cannes sensation Blue Is The Warmest Color.
And much like that film, Handmaiden has already attracted criticisms of playing to the male gaze in its characterization of queer female sexuality. Specifically, the complaint that no real lesbians actually scissor. While I am not currently and have never been a lesbian, and cannot personally attest to the occurrence of this sort of outercourse, I’d counter with the observation that Park’s camera doesn’t unduly leer at the nude bodies of the two women. While leaving nothing to imagination, the major sex scenes also happen to be tasteful as hell, communicating the cascading ecstasies and desperate carnal hunger of the two women with affecting facial close-ups instead of lecherously lingering on boob-shots. In all honesty, I am surprised the screen didn’t melt.
Conversely, Steven Spielberg’s family-friendly fantasy The B.F.G. contained almost zero graphic content. The story of a precocious London orphan Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) and the title titan (a CGI’d-up Mark Rylance) she befriends in an unexpectedly dispensable tentpole-to-be. Spielberg has sanded off most of the edges that made Roald Dahl’s original novel such an enduring staple of childhood reading lists, replacing the source material’s bone-deep sense of sadness — the book is, after all, dedicated to Dahl’s daughter that perished at age 7 — with computer-generated eye candy.
Spielberg invites less-than-flattering Avatar comparisons during an interlude in the trippy world of dreams, where glowing balls of light representing the figments of sleepytime imagination flit around a bioluminescent tree. Dahl’s playful experiments with language have survived intact (I can only imagine how confusing subtitling this film for French audiences must have been), but there’s an odd lifelessness to the entire affair, and not just in the sporadically lacking digital animation.
A more pressing issue than the atmosphere of blah-ness is Barnhill herself, who must rank among the most irritating child actors of all time. Despite her only previous credit being a brief appearance on a TV program in her native Britain, the then-10-year-old has already picked up all the worst habits of young performers, from over-enunciated line readings to that weirdly unnatural, actorly emoting-face that conveys not feeling, but a discomfiting facsimile thereof.
Rylance, to his credit, imbues his character with all the requisite wistfulness even from behind a computerized wall, and casting Bill Hader and Jemaine Clement as the B.F.G.’s bloodthirsty brethren was an inspired move, naturally. But even though Disney has opened the option for two follow-up films in the event this one performs satisfactorily as the box office, it feels destined to echo Avatar beyond the stoner-friendly visuals, taking up that film’s mantle of instant forgettability.
There was no shortage of visceral attacks on polite taste in Korean horror picture Train To Busan, the Midnight Screenings section’s resident zombie flick. Like a juiced-up rework of Snowpiercer trading the evils of capitalism for the somewhat more immediate evils of flesh-starved ghouls, Yeon Sang-ho’s film traps a band of survivors on a single locomotive and challenges them to fight for their lives from car to car. The film suffers from the same issues that plague all non-Shaun of the Dead zombie flicks, by which I mean characters spend an aggravating amount of time sitting in stunned silence as they watch their friends get eaten a foot away, and others foolishly believe that there may still be some trace of humanity left in their converted friends. It was not easy to refrain from yelling “WHAT ARE YOU DOING, GET UP AND RUN, THERE ARE ZOMBIES, LIKE, RIGHT THERE” at the screen, but I am nothing if not a paragon of self-restraint.
To the film’s credit, Yeon’s an excellent choreographer of action scenes, and he works cleverly within the set of rules he assigns himself. When the remaining humans realize that the monsters have no sense of object permanence, they momentarily stall the horde by covering the glass panes separating the train cars with newspaper. In another flourish of ingenuity, the characters discover that the zombies are incapable of seeing in the dark, and crawl from on car to another along the overhead luggage racks while the train shoots through a tunnel.
His most skillful technique involves dropping a few frames in shots of the undead, making it look as though they’re running with disturbingly unnatural speed, the same move George Miller employs in the opening chase of Fury Road. The character dynamics have gotten a little stale from overuse, with the scrappy gang of fighters collecting a father-daughter duo, a pair of expectant parents, and two high school sweethearts. But the execution usually distracts the tired character beats, with Yeon getting into the good stuff early and staying there, while keeping the belabored monologuing to a minimum. He smartly manages the super-fast, ultraviolent strain of zombification he selects for this film, making for an unleaded high-octane thrill ride straight to hell.
Tomorrow: I gather my thoughts on this evening’s screening of American Honey (spoiler alert: it’s bad), and rendezvous with a pair of stars — Marion Cotillard stars in the romantic drama From The Land Of The Moon, and Adam Driver joins forces with Jim Jarmusch in the hotly anticipated Paterson. Also, there’s an Indian joint near the Palais that I’ve been interested in checking out. Have no fear, I’ll report back in full.