Film festivals invite extreme reactions; this is pretty much unavoidable. Being surrounded by hundreds of fellow critics all scrambling to formulate an opinion in the minutes following a world premiere of a new film can pressure a writer into taking sides, if only so that an individual hot-take might stand out in a sea of similar opinions. Moreover, everybody wants to be the first one to anoint a masterpiece, and the mental and physical conditions of a two-week film festival — by which I mean unrelenting, merciless exhaustion — can turn an innocuously poor film into a contemptible waste of precious time that could otherwise be spent working, eating, or sleeping.
As such, I’ve tried to take a step outside myself after each screening here at the Cannes Film Festival to consider what environmental factors may be affecting my feelings toward a selection, and whether I might treat it differently if I had caught it on a regular ol’ afternoon screening at my beloved AMC on 34th. The readers who might look into the pictures reviewed here won’t be immersed in the buzzy atmosphere or combating the inhuman bodily demands of a festival setting when they see it, and y’all deserve a review reflecting that.
So when I say that American Honey is a nearly three-hour Everest of hot garbage, you can trust that I have carefully weighed this declaration of war. I actually took in the press screening of Andrea Arnold’s fourth feature (her others include Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights) last night, but wanted to sit on it for a little while longer to see if a bit of time might cool the heat of my disdain for this gritty chronicle of teenaged life of the fringes of rural society. As the film’s reputation as the frontrunner for the Palme d’Or has solidified, however, I’ve only grown more resentful of its sub-Spring Breakers entry-level commentary on The Futility of the American Dream and its cast of unsympathetic, uninteresting runaways.
This 162-minute plod possesses enough charm and original ideas to fill a half-hour short, rewriting the typical rough-hewn coming-of-age story as a road musical without production numbers, just feral white kids ecstatically and unabashedly screaming the N-word over barely listenable trap-rap. In Céline Sciamma’s outstanding Girlhood, a superficially similar female bildungsroman that played Cannes’ Directors Fortnight sidebar in 2014, Rihanna’s “Diamonds” soundtracked a joyful, cathartic expression of youthful lust for life as the cast danced in a hotel room. In American Honey, Rihanna purrs “We found love in a hopeless place” as our heroine, you guessed it, finds love in a hopeless place.
The obviousness starts with the painfully on-the-nose needle-drops and runs all the way down to the rambling plot, which sends the hardscrabble Star (first-timer Sasha Lane, plucked from a Mexican restaurant outside Frisco, Texas by talent scouts combing America’s nether parts for convincing street urchins) into a tribe of magazine subscription sales-kids with a penchant for raising hell after quitting time. She’s recruited by Jake (Shia LaBeouf, sporting an embarrassing eyebrow piercing and a hard-to-look-at braided rat-tail), a wayward soul the script clearly intends to be played as charismatic, but ends up somewhere in the neighborhood of “skeevy.” As they travel around the Midwest talking locals into buying magazine subscriptions — which is not a euphemism, mostly — the far-superior Star develops a crush on the young fast-talker and they strike up a furtive romance, despite both his commitment to their leader Krystal (The Girlfriend Experience TV show’s Riley Keough, the only performance other than Lane’s worth a damn) and his habit of treating Star like yesterday’s trash.
Teenagers do foolhardy things, so maybe Star’s continued interest in him makes some sort of hormonally-cockeyed sense, but that still leaves Arnold’s tone-deaf treatment of life lived poor, the film’s lone stab at a theme. She makes hovering around the poverty line look like a blast as the kids get messed up and howl along to the radio, until the film halts abruptly to gawk at a heroin-addicted redneck’s hovel. For the rest of the American Honey‘s long, long run time, we’re treated to passages of dipsh*t kids acting like dipsh*ts and other empty provocations involving frontal nudity and drug use. Star, to her credit, recognizes the idiocy and untenability of this lifestyle even as it draws her in. If only the audience could’ve recognized those same qualities in the film in time to spare themselves a massive head-and-ass-ache.
The French drama From The Land of the Moon didn’t offer much more substance than the previous night’s Bataan Death March of banality, but a characteristically committed performance from Cannes fixture Marion Cotillard and director Nicole Garcia’s talent for strong composition made it exponentially more tolerable. Cotillard portrays Gabrielle, a repressed 1950s farmland girl who won’t stop flaunting her sexual frustration to whatever men will pay attention, much to the chagrin of her conservative mother. She tries marrying her daughter off to humble bricklayer Jose (Alex Brendemuhl) as a quick fix, but that does little to quell Gabrielle’s chronic case of the hornies. As if her inability to fully get her rocks off wasn’t bad enough, she’s then stricken with kidney stones and shipped off to a combo care facility/unruly wives holding zone. It’s there that she meets the dashing veteran Lieutenant André (Louis Garrel), who snaps her out of her sexy French depression, first reluctantly, then less-so. But for a film about inflamed passions, its chilly distance from the audience clashes badly with the subject material.
It’s another classily erotic chamber drama from the country that set that mold, but the implications of the plot reveal a troubling side to its prevailing message. The ultimate fate that Garcia deals Gabrielle seems to side with the pre-feminist yoke of her mother and husband, suggesting that true love was all this hysterical woman really needed, and that it was waiting for her at home all along. Why Garcia would take that route after tactfully laying out the suffocating social mores of the era is a mystery, even as she quasi-redeems herself with painterly landscapes and elaborately framed indoor shots that metaphorically trap Gabrielle in doorways, windows, and other constrained spaces.
It’s a pretty film with pretty performances from pretty people, but everything beneath the attractive surface is all mixed-up in terms of sexual politics. As one of the three female directors In Competition this year — a lamentably, disproportionately small number — one would hope Garcia would be able to do right by her gender a bit more, but the film reproduces the now-outdated ideologies of the time period in which it was set. Despite a strong showing from her leading lady, Garcia’s made an airless film about a woman desperately gasping for air.
Jim Jarmusch applied a similar emotional restraint to Paterson, what feels like his bajillionth home run in a row. But in this case, the quiet performances and glacial pace contribute to a larger ethos of introspection for the director and casually philosophical meditations on the chemistry of common life. Known for low-key pictures that toy with dense concepts of literature and existential theory, Jarmusch may have reached his lowest key yet in this gentle depiction of a week in the life of a New Jersey bus driver (Adam Driver, further asserting himself as one of the finest actors of his generation) who shares a name with the film, the New Jersey town in which it is set, and a massive poem by William Carlos Williams that figures prominently into the plot.
Paterson the guy, the place, and the movie all prize keen observation above all else as our man diverges from his rigid daily routine — wake up, go to work, write a little poetry, go home, quality time with girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), walk their adorable English bulldog, one beer at the local watering hole, bed, repeat — to find meaning in the unlikeliest of places. Chance encounters with fellow poets, overheard conversations from bus-riders on topics as diverse as Italian anarchism and squandered dating opportunities, and uncomfortable confrontations with new technology all combine to form a gentle portrait of a man tentatively pondering what he’s doing on this Earth. (A question Jarmusch is openly asking himself with Paterson, as well.)
Admittedly, it felt good to see other critics in accord on Paterson as a major work of spiritual profundity and small-town dignity. In this insular film festival milieu, I was starting to feel like I’d lost my mind while reading the American Honey raves. But maybe I stand to learn a precious lesson from the solitary, wise Paterson and, for that matter, Paterson. Both the man and movie emphasize the importance of looking within for truth instead of synthesizing it from outside sources, whether that be peers or the prominently-placed stacks of books that Jarmusch slowly pans across. Paterson contains boundless secrets and mysteries, far too much to be parsed out in a third of a report filed in the middle of a night during a film festival, but one of its many takeaways is clear upon a first viewing: to thine own self be true.
Tomorrow: Jeff Nichols transitions from the throwback sci-fi of Midnight Special to the inspirational social-justice piece Loving, Starred Up director David Mackenzie keeps it rough-n-tough with Hell or High Water, and Olivier Assayas re-teams with his Clouds of Sils Maria muse Kristen Stewart for the high-profile Personal Shopper. (The Indian joint I mentioned yesterday was okay, but hardly worth the 12 euro I spent. Their chicken tikka masala: hard C!)