Even as I trashed Andrea Arnold’s American Honey in my report from day four, I bemoaned the lack of female directors in this year’s Competition slate. (I was not particularly blown away by the other two women’s films, From The Land of the Moon and Toni Erdmann, but that somehow feels beside the point.) As with pretty much everything in life, women have historically gotten the short shrift at Cannes; the only female director to ever take home the prized Palme d’Or is Jane Campion for her romantic drama The Piano, and even then, she shared the award at the 1993 festival with Chen Kaige when the hung jury couldn’t decide between her film and the male director’s Farewell My Concubine.
This year’s lineup of titles in Competition includes three female directors alongside eighteen men, and while this clear imbalance is reflective of more sweeping inequalities in the film industry at large — which is, in turn, reflective of a deck stacked against women on a society-wide, global scale — this festival has had no shortage of tour de force performances from actresses in male-directed films. Kristen Stewart wowed just last night as a celeb stylist with ghost issues in Personal Shopper while Ruth Negga knocked her role in the socially-conscious period piece Loving out of the park with yards to spare. Hell, even if I wasn’t so hot on Toni Erdmann as a whole, there’s no denying the well-measured relatability of its lead actress Sandra Hüller’s turn as a daughter dreading a visit from her overbearing dad.
Today introduced three more contenders into what is becoming an almost comically crowded race for the festival’s Best Actress prize, albeit all in films with men behind the camera. It comes as no surprise that Julieta, the latest film from Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar, revolves around a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown (much like his breakout film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.) Almodóvar without generously empathetic portrayals of femininity would be like Tarantino without pop-culture references, or Michael Bay without tanned, sweaty man-muscles — simply incomplete.
His newest subject is Julieta, a character forged from three separate short stories in Alice Munro’s collection Runaway, portrayed in her youth by Adriana Ugarte and as an adult by Emma Suárez. The double-casting further complicates a character already resisting understanding both from the men in her life and the audience; when she declares seemingly out of the blue that she can’t joint her lover Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) on a trip to Portugal one day before they’re set to head out, he’s respectful of her wishes but befuddled by her reasoning. The viewers know how he feels.
But while that may be frustrating to a guy suddenly taking a solo vacation, that tantalizing unknowability makes the film into a captivating tarantella of romance and melancholy. Julieta’s got a lot on her mind: though she loves Lorenzo, she still pines for her deceased husband Xoan (Daniel Grao, radiating erotic energy from beneath a scraggly beard, a thing only Spaniards are capable of doing) and is nearly reduced to a puddle when her long-since-disappeared daughter makes secondhand contact through a friend.
She spends the film wracked with sadness intense enough to give her the shakes, but rather than abject misery, it manifests more like unrequited love. (Which is, all things considered, what it is.) The stylistic makeup of the film matches the sensuousness defining her state of emotional disarray, too; Almodóvar trains his lens on fabrics and textures with the adoring gaze of a lover, swathing his cherished leading lady in a world as fashionably woeful as she is. There’s a palpable sense of abiding world-weariness here, the clear mark of an artist gracefully transitioning to his late-career phase at age 66. Minor Almodóvar this ain’t.
A weekly kvetch-sesh over mimosas and bloody marys with Clara (Sonia Braga), the lead of Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius, would likely do Julieta a world of good. Both women fear that the world has left them behind, but while Julieta dwells on the absences of her loved ones, Clara suspects that society itself has begun to nudge her into obsolescence. A cancer survivor who’s lost one breast and a retired music critic, she tells a reporter asking about her quaint attachment to physical media that she’s got nothing against MP3s and wants only to peacefully coexist alongside them. The unstoppable tomorrow of change threatens Clara’s way of life more immediately when developers forcefully suggest she vacate the Brazilian apartment complex she’s lived in all her life so that they may tear it down to build a bigger, shinier, and more expensive one. Obviously, she doesn’t submit to the agents of gentrification without a fight, but the forward march of progress will not be denied.
Braga’s commendable performance halfway redeems a premise this critic in particular had trouble engaging with. She makes for an endlessly watchable spitfire who refuses to acknowledge that she may be on her last legs; in the clear highlight scene, she glugs some red wine and fires back against neighbors having a noisy party by putting on “Fat Bottomed Girls” by Queen and slinking around her cherished apartment. But that apartment’s the rub; Filho expects the audience to feel for her though she clearly has the socioeconomic stability to relocate with minimal hassle, counting on us to share in her sentimental attachment to the space over all else. But watching someone get priced out of their apartment — a relatively universal experience among city-dwellers — carries greater dramatic potency when the party in question can’t simply move with minimal hassle. (Aside from the usual hassles of moving, which are not slight, in all fairness.)
Her principled stand resembles common stubbornness more and more as the film goes on, and by the time she’s actively made her own life more difficult than it ever needed to be, she had lost me. I wish to disclaim that this seems to be a personal issue more than anything, however, and I’m sure plenty of viewers won’t be irked by it. By my own admission, I’m just some guy, a guy who doesn’t understand why someone would get attached to real estate to the point of self-sabotage.
As the title matriarch of Brillante Mendoza’s Ma’ Rosa, Jaclyn Jose doesn’t command the screen quite like the actresses praised above, but she serves her story faithfully and knows her place in it. Rather than a character study in the traditional sense, the neorealist drama sketches a full portrait of the impoverished, corruption-choked corner of the Philippines that Rosa’s family calls home. The whole clan runs a humble convenience store in an urbanized area, but to make ends meet, they deal a little crystal meth under the table. No harm and no foul, until someone tips off the cops about their side operation. The local police couldn’t give less of a damn about who’s dealing drugs and to whom; they bring in Rosa and her husband Nestor (Julio Diaz) so that they can extort a big fat bribe out of the modest-living couple.
Watching them empty out their bank accounts just to avoid a prison sentence is heartbreaking enough, until their children are saddled with the burden of coughing up the difference. They then embark on a mad dash around their derelict Filipino ghetto in search of someone, anyone, who can lend them enough pesos to buy their parents’ freedom. (Side note: did you know the peso is the official currency of the Philippines, and not the same thing as a Mexican peso? I didn’t! Isn’t broadening your horizons great?)
Employing unsophisticated equipment and shooting by the seat of his pants, Mendoza accesses the grimy soul of the streets by cramming his handheld camera right in the faces of the crooked officers, drug pushers, and weather-beaten villagers that populate this downtrodden milieu. Both in form and content, Mendoza works like an embedded reporter, providing ground-level commentary on the social ills afflicting a people that white Western audiences would rarely consider otherwise. But the brutal challenges that Rosa and her family face won’t be too alien to American audiences; a particularly vicious beating that ends with the cops shrugging and delivering the time-honored, baldfaced lie of “it was in self-defense!” (the “dog ate my homework” of police brutality) sends a familiar chill down the spine. One would hope kinder elements than “being subjected to gross injustice from our state-appointed protectors” would unite viewers in disparate culture, but I guess this is the world in which we live.
Tomorrow: The Super Smash Dardennes Bros. will debut their latest laugh riot The Unknown Girl (that’s a joke; it’s about a doctor seeking out the identity of a deceased patient who was refused surgery), Quebecois enfant terrible and Adele pal Xavier Dolan premieres It’s Only the End of the World, and Japanese talent Hirokazu Koreeda runs the Un Certain Regard section with After the Storm.