Even at a film festival purposefully designed to celebrate a teeming, diverse array of international cinema, there’s a clear partiality around Cannes for movie stars, and doubly so for American movie stars. The foreign curios outside of the Competition section play in the smaller theaters located on the upper levels of the Palais, while the higher-wattage releases commandeer the sprawling red carpet that leads up and into the appropriately named Grand Théâtre Lumière. Hordes of sad-eyed beggars in tuxedos and ball gowns hold up handmade signs pleading for a spare ticket from anyone who can’t use it, while spectators clog the main thoroughfare just to catch a glimpse of the glitterati as they’re led into the building.
A young man had built a cardboard replica of the big-rig of death in Fury Road as a token of respect for Jury President George Miller, men and women alike have proclaimed their undying devotion to Kristen Stewart on banners, and Adam Driver nearly put rubberneckers into hysterics as he strode into the Paterson premiere. No film festival evinces an obsession with status on the level of Cannes (even reflected in their rigid caste system of press clearance, with the yellow and blue badge-holders forced to wait for what could be futile hours while the revered pink and white classes stroll right on in with minimal wait), and the worshipful attitude toward our graven idols of the silver screen is its purest essence.
I’d have to assume the A-listers enjoy the festival, too — where else does Kristen Stewart receive such a rabid reception for an enigmatic, difficult collaboration with prestidigitator Olivier Assayas? Their last joint effort, the beguiling and brilliant Clouds of Sils Maria, opened to minimal fanfare in the U.S., but on the Croisette, news of another team-up between the two is cause for widespread conniptions. And I’m happy to report that the excitement isn’t for naught: both Assayas and Stewart deliver the goods in the mysterious and wondrous Personal Shopper, and in a major way. The press screening may have concluded amidst a wash of boos, and the 20ish-minute sequence consisting mostly of Stewart texting back and forth with an anonymous taunter will admittedly rub some people the wrong way, but this unexpected ghost story contains multitudes of intelligence and grace.
Assayas specializes in densely layered explorations of Grand Themes, having most recently dissected the tricky interplay of artifice and authenticity in Sils Maria. As in that film, Stewart’s character Maureen spends most of the film waiting hand and foot on a prima donna while puzzling out her personal issues. (She’s been demoted from assistant in the previous film to a personal stylist responsible for rounding up the chicest outfits for a terror of a diva played by Nora Von Waldstätten.)
But now, grief weighs most heavily upon her needle-sharp mind. She only remains in Paris in the hopes of communicating with her deceased brother, but when the existence of paranormal activity gets a little too plausible for comfort, Assayas challenges the value of holding onto those who can no longer be held. Cherishing someone’s memory without dwelling on their absence proves an ambivalent balance to strike, as Maureen is both frightened and enticed by the malevolent signs her brother’s ghost sends her via broken glasses, scratch marks, and ear-perforating howling.
This is one of what I fear will be numerous films deserving of far more column-inch real estate than the constraints of this column can provide, but the brass tacks are as follows: Stewart’s a marvel, constantly challenging her own choices and auto-interrogating her motives, and Assayas spins the year’s best horror movie (sorry, The Witch) out of an extended game of disturbing cyberbullying. It is essential viewing, optimally three times over.
Jeff Nichols’ social-issue drama Loving doesn’t share the arty obliqueness of some of the festival’s current standouts, but converting its un-showy straightforwardness into a strength proves to be the film’s greatest achievement. It sounds like the maudlin stuff mis-allocated Oscars are made of: the true story of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga), a Virginia couple arrested for the heinous crime of being married while different races in 1958. Over ten long years, they became reluctant poster children for the war on miscegenation laws in America, eventually reaching the Supreme Court and changing the Constitution forever and for better.
That reluctance to assume the spotlight is key: All they want is to be left alone and permitted to raise their young’ns in the state they love so dearly, and Nichols wisely adheres to their now-posthumous wishes by keeping his focus strictly on the warm, steadfast relationship at the tender heart of the film, and dispensing with any politicized histrionics. Save a few quick scenes, Nichols stays out of the courtroom, jumping years ahead between cuts to show the laborious process through which the Lovings carved out a life for themselves. They’re never made into symbols of open-mindedness conquering intolerance. They’re just people, with simple, honest desires.
Nichols’ stripped-down treatment of the material couldn’t possibly work without strong lead performances to bolster it, but luckily for him, Negga is worth her weight in Oscar gold. (It’s only May, yes, but it’s never too early to start advocating for performers of color.) She’s Edgerton’s better half in and outside of the film; Mildred pushes the appeals process along while her husband bristles at the media attention, and her acting outshines Edgerton’s at every turn, despite her costar taking up slightly more screentime. Edgerton assumes a subdued persona as the farm-raised Richard, as if he’s uncomfortable with the sound of his own voice. This ultimately makes the state of grace he assumes while with Mildred even more touching — they are absolutely vital to one another, like marital lifeblood, framing the prohibition of their union as a virtual death sentence.
Nick Kroll and Michael Shannon pop up for amusing supporting spots as, respectively stepping in as the ACLU lawyer determined to get the Lovings the justice they’re owed, and a quietly observant photographer from Life magazine who takes the snapshot that’d provide an iconic vision for the purity of interracial love. Nichols has risen to the uppermost ranks of young American filmmakers on the merits of his generosity toward his flawed characters, and the overflowing humanism of Loving could catapult him out of the ranks of indie best-of lists into the mainstream. The air was awful dusty in La Salle Debussy this morning, if you catch my meaning.
Clear-eyed directorial oversight similarly elevated Hell or High Water, a story of B-movie pulp given new life through skillfully orchestrated gunfights and studied specificity of detail in time and place. We have tried-and-true helmer David Mackenzie (the brain behind the ruthless, excellent Brit prison drama Starred Up, a much better moment for Jack O’Connell than Money Monster) to thank for the former and Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan to thank for the latter. They combine for a work of nuanced Texan zen where Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham trade idiomatic folksy-isms over cold Shiner Bocks, some more affectionately racist than others.
The grizzled vet and his Comanche partner are the state police hot on the trail of a pair of bank robbers looking to score just enough money to forestall foreclosure on the family ranch, the most present manifestation of the social consciousness that creeps out from the gutted petrol stations and thriving banks dotting the desert countryside. The predatory housing crisis still stings in the rural communities that the brother-outlaws played by Ben Foster and Chris Pine (who plays it conflicted and subtle, a surprising change of pace from his vaguely robotic showings in the Star Trek reboots) knock over, and so taking the money from the same banks who all but stripped towns like Olney and Post bare assumes a satisfying cosmic poetry.
Half Western and half crime flick — the No Country for Old Men comparison might be a little too easy — Hell or High Water works within and without its genre with a nimble agility rarely seen in either narrative tradition. When Bridges’ coot cop grumbles that he’s only got a few weeks left until his mandated retirement, he seems to have signed his own death warrant, but Mackenzie has more complicated plans for him. The stick-up men, too, emerge as more than meets the eye. Pine’s only got the welfare of his kid and ex-wife on his mind, and would like to avoid any violence not completely essential to their heists.
This creates friction with his loose-cannon of a brother, who’d prefer to break noses and bang cocktail waitresses with reckless abandon. The overall savviness of Sheridan’s script matches the rigorous orchestration of Mackenzie’s direction, never synthesized more skillfully than in the nerve-shredding sniper showdown that concludes the picture. With a creative team working at the peak of their powers, this uncommonly accomplished yarn about commoners on both sides of the law earns a spot in any genre fanatic’s must-see list for 2016.
Tomorrow: Pedro Almodóvar tackles the writings of Alice Munro with his Julieta, I get a lesson on the nasty business of Brazilian real estate with Aquarius, and former Cannes Best Director winner Brillante Mendoza debuts his Filipino drama Ma’ Rosa. After a day full of familiar faces, a little globe-trotting is just what the film programmer ordered.