When I first got here nine days ago, the South of France was a hidden paradise of sun, sand, and cinema. The dazzlingly blue sky beckoned you to fall into it, the winding alleyways conjured images of exquisite candlelit dinners, and the prospect of seeing three world premieres of decent-to-perfect films every day made my hands feel all tingly. I had soldiered through Dirty Grandpa, The Brothers Grimsby, and Michael Bay Presents: Michael Bay’s #Bayghazi: A Michael Bay Joint, and I had earned my entry into cinephile heaven.
In the past week-and-change, France has revealed itself to be a dysfunctional farce of a country. A friend from the nearby town of Draguignan explains to me that because France operates under the tenets of socialism, they have fostered an employee-driven economy instead of a customer-driven one. To the average consumer, this means heinously inflated prices, incompetent waitstaff at every restaurant (I have been given the wrong change on three different occasions, and the wrong bill on four), and a public transportation system liable to grind to a halt without warning or reason.
I miss New York. I miss the mural of Ol’ Dirty Bastard that I pass by on my way to the train station, where I can expect trains to arrive without the looming possibility of a strike at any moment. I miss the diner down my block, and the old woman there who greets me with an excited “Charsh!” every time I walk through the door. I miss my cat, by which I mean I miss the cat that lives in the bodega around the block from my apartment, whom I have named Harris.
Nothing to take a critic’s mind off of homesickness quite like a Romanian morality play! 2007’s Palme d’Or winner Cristian Mungiu returned in grand fashion this year with the fickle, prismatic Graduation, a thorny test of how far parents will go to do right by their children. It’s telling when a film that begins with a main character getting assaulted and nearly raped qualifies as the director dialing it back; his Palme-winning abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days remains one of the most hard-to-watch films I have ever seen, and the 2012 nun picture Beyond the Hills ground its viewers to dust with rigorous austerity.
Mungiu’s latest creation poses a torturous ethical puzzle to well-to-do doctor Romeo (Adrien Titieni) when his daughter Eliza (Maria Drågus) has the worst day of her life on the eve of the Romanian equivalent of the SATs. She’s got sterling grades and a bright future ahead of her, but the cast on her dominant hand makes it impossible to complete a written exam, and beyond that, she can’t stop weeping long enough to focus on the test. The incident throws her prospects into jeopardy, and the unattractive compromises her father makes to ensure a scholarship to Cambridge pose some troubling quandaries for the young girl.
Cheating is wrong, right? But what if that cheating only serves to rectify an entirely unfair handicap placed at the last second on a student deserving of success? The unresolvable question of whether ends justify means complicate the warm relationship between Romeo and Eliza, and the revelation of an affair only tears the man down further in his daughter’s estimation. The expansive network of bribery, blackmail, and coercion that Romeo taps to protect the girl’s interest also excoriates Romania’s broken societal infrastructure on a grander scale, digging into the specifics of how the corrupt government’s wheels stay greasy and turning. In a film fraught with moral turpitude and sacrificed integrity, the most shocking aspect may be the wisp of a happy ending that offers the distant possibility of goodness in a world bereft of purity or decency. Fatherhood has historically softened artists up a touch, and Mungiu, himself a parent, has said that he directed this film as an expression of where he’s at in life. After the punishing emotional depths of his past films, the glimmer of hope that concludes the film makes a viewer’s shoulders feel lighter. Mungiu will set you free, but not until he’s finished with you.
Iggy Pop knows plenty about compromise, having lent his image to a series of decidedly un-rock-‘n’-roll car insurance commercials. This recent bout of light selling-out took a little bit of the piss and vinegar from Jim Jarmusch’s otherwise fun Stooges documentary Gimme Danger, an antic but straightforward stroll down the seminal band’s Memory Lane, a decrepit street littered with dirty needles and used condoms. Starting from the man born James Osterberg’s earliest days as a self-proclaimed “communist teenager” in Detroit and Ann Arbor, Jarmusch treats his subjects with tangible affection without fawning over them. For someone who looks like an animate skeleton, Pop keeps it relatively tame here; there’s the expected talk about drugs, but it’s brief and surrounded by good-natured talking-head footage from the elder statesman of rock. And though the opening riff of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” can still put chills down the spine, the film’s damningly light on details juicy or revelatory.
Gimme Danger goes out on a predictably triumphant note as Iggy and Stooges accept their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with extended middle fingers. In his characteristically brash speech, Pop rattles off a short list of people who have remained “cool” over the years, and in doing so, exposes Jarmusch’s most meaningful attachment to the material. The director has always presented himself as an icon of cool, and this minor project (screened in the midnight sidebar here at Cannes, where his higher-profile Paterson won raves earlier this week) acts as his paean to the ability to grow old without surrendering the things that make you feel young.
Oh, and another thing I should’ve gotten off my chest in the kvetch-a-thon that opens this report: the French can be pretty ill-tempered bastards. I thought the guy who spent the entirety of The Neon Demon either talking or on his phone — a charmer who responded to my request for him to cut it out with, “You are boring. Shut up.” — was bad enough, but he’s nothing compared to the dozens of international critics who booed and shouted unduly personal invective after the film was finished. (When the title card dedicating the film to director Nicolas Winding Refn’s wife appeared onscreen, one voice yelled, “F*ck you, Liv!”) But Refn must have seen something like this coming.
His candy-colored saunter through Los Angeles’ scuzzy high-fashion biz plays like a taunt to his many detractors, taking all of the qualities critics have bristled at — the apparent misogyny, the all-surface formalism, the general perfume-commercial aesthetic — and amplifying them twofold. Slick with blood and glitter paint, he denounces superficiality using superficiality, a gambit that’s either self-aware introspection or hypocrisy. But either way, Refn’s hypnotic experiments with stroboscopic light, ambient sound and colors lurid enough to make Dario Argento hot under the collar swirl together for two alternately mesmerizing and alienating hours.
The least controversial stance one can assume for this instant lightning rod: Elle Fanning slays as Jessie, a 16-going-on-19 model fresh off the bus and ready for the spotlight. When she says, “I’m not as helpless as I look,” she’s partially correct and partially trying to convince herself, setting up a coming-of-age angle that the film nimbly side-steps. Every work of fiction about haute couture has followed a starry-eyed ingenue that the industry chews up and spits out, but only Refn has the temerity to make that journey gorgeously, graphically literal.
Jessie quickly ascends to the top of the heap, leaving a trail of jealous, has-beens (if you haven’t done your good modeling by 21, you never will) in her wake. With brash departures from reality on par with the cinema of Gaspar Noe, a clear reference point beyond the involvement of Love star Karl Glusman, Refn tracks Jessie’s professional rise and personal fall, haunting her with unearthly visions of horror all the way. Refn’s catwalking like no one is watching, and of course that ends up being the best way to command a room’s attention, positive or less so.
Tomorrow: We head into the home stretch with The Last Face, a new feature helmed by pro journalist Sean Penn that stars Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem as relief aid workers who fall in love while in turbulent Liberia, Studio Ghibli’s possible last gasp The Red Turtle, and Salesman, the latest from Iran’s Asghar Farhadi. If it’s not a stone-cold masterpiece, I will purchase a hat from one of the guys that sells hats and selfie-sticks on the beach, and then I will eat it.