There’s no such thing as fame, only celebrity in select circles. For people into, say, Montana state politics, meeting Democratic senator Jon Tester would inspire starstruck stammering and hand tremors, but to the vast majority of other people in the world, he’s just the guy who makes the laws ensuring that steers retain their inalienable rights. Even figures widely held in A-list esteem have their limits; some people simply “don’t watch movies,” bless their little hearts, and may respond to a passing mention of Brad Pitt or Natalie Portman with a blank, mildly annoyed stare. The odd phenomenon of non-fame fame has crystallized most clearly in the world of social media, where good-looking people that the non-teen population of the world have never heard of command a daily audience of millions.
But the highly relative dimension of public prominence also defines the Cannes Film Festival, an insular bubble of cinephilia where talents of world cinema that can’t cobble together a million-dollar gross in the U.S. are treated like lesser deities. As mentioned previously, projects boasting bigger-name actors tend to get the noisiest reception, but there was still a palpable excitement in the air prior to the press screenings of new works from brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, Hirokazu Kore-eda, and Xavier Dolan today. Maybe it’s just refreshing to be finally surrounded by people equally committed to films — all of them — or maybe the fatigue from this sleepless marathon of screenings and writing has made my brain soft, but either way, it was heartening to see films that will go largely unnoticed in America heralded as capital-“E” Events around these parts.
Watching The Unknown Girl, the eagerness for a new Dardennes bros. joint was instantly understandable. Their fragile, merciful Two Days, One Night was a smash at the festival in 2014 and went on to net its star Marion Cotillard an Academy Award nomination for her role as a woman begging her coworkers to take a pay cut so that she may keep her job. This new selection continues their streak of piercing compassion, keeping the focus on a woman on a mission of mercy barely able to contain the emotional tempest raging inside her.
Their newest heroine is Jenny Davin (played with great aplomb and powerful reserve by Adéle Haenel, now the eighth actress that could’ve been a shoo-in for awards gold in a weaker year), a doctor who sets about solving the murder of a would-be patient whom she refused to treat when the woman banged on the private practice’s doors after hours. Wracked with guilt, she tromps around town asking anyone who will listen if they recognize the woman’s photo. But she’s not pursuing justice. She has no intention of tracking down the killer, only hoping to learn the woman’s name so that she can provide a proper headstone and contact the family of the deceased. In the Dardennes’ world, the most precious commodity is dignity — always, dignity.
The murder-mystery structure may come off as schematic to some, but if the path the film travels appears well-trod, the stutter-steps it takes are anything but familiar. Suspense could not be a lower priority here, and the scenes that actively try to court it are the only bits that don’t quite work. (A moment in which a pair of crooks forcibly pull Jenny over to the side of the road and threaten bodily harm if she continues with her junior sleuthing rings false, as if it’s been spliced in from a different, far more typical sort of film.) The dramatic propulsion comes not from the advancement of the plot, but Jenny’s slow, reluctant acceptance that there are people in this world she cannot save.
Even after she advises her intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) that a good doctor must necessarily compartmentalize their feelings from work, she allows her feelings to drive her to the brink of collapse. Not only does the search for the woman’s identity place Jenny in harm’s way, but her constant attempts to get Julien to rejoin her practice after he quits further reinforce that she cannot, and should not, hold herself responsible for everyone’s well-being. The mystery giving the film shape might be common, but the moral conclusions that it draws map out uncharted emotional territory.
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After the Storm raises the temperature of that same humanism a few degrees, building a warm domestic drama around a fractured marriage and the child caught in the crossfire. Though even ‘crossfire’ would be too aggressive a descriptor — this soft, slight film doesn’t shoot for bruising depths of pathos or difficult truths, offering instead a quietly observant family portrait worn around the edges. Ryota’s (Abe Hiroshi) not in the running for any Father of the Year awards: a one-hit-wonder novelist, he scrapes by with fees from a new gig as a private detective tailing unfaithful husbands, when he hasn’t blown his money on a burgeoning gambling addiction. He mocks the Japanese population of men he perceives as pathetic and emasculated for mooning over exes, but without a shred of self-awareness, stalks his ex-wife Kyoko (Maki Yoko) and her new wealthy, successful beau as they spoil Kyoko and Ryota’s sweetheart of a son with baseball equipment and fancy dinners. But Ryota’s not a scoundrel, either; he loves the crap out his son, at one point forgoing an entree when he takes the boy out to eat so that he can foot the bill and keep his son’s stomach full.
The film appears to begin and end in the middle of a much larger story, neither joining the family at a pivotal moment nor leaving them after all the conflict has been resolved. It simply passes through what the audience can easily imagine to be rich interior lives, and finds its greatest catharsis not from any reconciliation between Kyoko and Ryota, but in the simple pleasure of a moment of repose when the family takes refuge from a typhoon in the covered slide of a jungle gym. It conjures shades of the season one finale of The Sopranos, when Tony sagely tells his family to “remember the little moments, that were good” as they dine together during a storm outside. After the Storm is comprised entirely of little moments, some of them less than good, but all achingly honest. Despite all the thunder, it’s not the most thunderous film at the festival, and makes no efforts to affect an air of greater dramatic gravity than it needs to. It’s a humble film with humble ambitions, and those still have their place.
In every way the opposite of Kore-eda’s homespun family photo album, Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World posits family as a death sentence. It’s loud, vicious, stylistically audacious, and aggressively sincere to the point of defying the distinction between good and bad taste. (How in the hell does a filmmaker get away with dropping “I Miss You” by blink-182 on the soundtrack in the year 2016?) The film’s detractors, which are as numerous as they are ardent in their distaste for the 27-year-old filmmaker’s over-the-top melodrama and distinctly millennial penchant for ’90s nostalgia totems, would intend all of the above as criticisms. I posit them as praise.
Louis (Gaspard Ulliel, who is worth noting as an uncanny doppelganger for Dolan himself) returns home to visit with his family for the first time in twelve years to tell them that he plans to die soon, but he doesn’t get the chance. Upon arriving, he instantly remembers why he took his time checking in: his pot-smoking sister (erstwhile Bond girl Léa Seydoux) can’t take living in the house anymore, his mother (Nathalie Baye) guilts him halfway back to the airport, and his brother (Vincent Cassel, full of fire) verbally and physically abuses him without warrant or hesitation. (Also in the mix is Marion Cotillard as Cassel’s new wife, who watches this spectacularly dysfunctional family dinner with the desperate eyes of a captive hostage.) End of the World, like Dolan’s five previous films, hits emotionally sweltering highs and stays there, completely draining the viewer by the time the end credits roll. Again, I mean this as a compliment.
Tomorrow: Romanian brutalist Cristian Mungiu will amaze and bum out a fresh wave of audiences with Baccalaureat, Jim Jarmusch comes back for seconds with the Stooges documentary Gimme Danger, and everyone’s favorite lightning rod Nicolas Winding Refn sends Elle Fanning into the seedy underbelly of the L.A. fashion scene in The Neon Demon. Let the record show: today marks the first day I missed New York. It may have had something to do with an impromptu train strike that sent me running, sweaty, for a bus I wasn’t sure would come on time. It did, but still.