As in past years, I made my own select list from the main slate for my reviews. The seven for this year are diverse and timely. Also as before, I post the reviews in ascending order of preference.
LET THE SUNSHINE IN
Whether legendary veteran filmmaker Claire Denis originally had a serious story to tell is anyone’s guess. It was adapted from a 1977 book by Roland Barthes which, apparently, was part autobiography and part meditation. But whatever her intent, about halfway through this film she seemed to abandon any possibility of treating her themes seriously.
But it didn’t start out that way. Juliette Binoche plays Isabelle, a divorced painter living in Paris who is seeking a permanent and satisfying relationship with a man. We’re introduced to her in the middle of sex with a married banker. It is not mutually satisfying, and they talk about their relationship later, over drinks at a bar. Binoche listens politely, with her enigmatic smile, but we’re not surprised when she later avoids him like the plague. The man is a sadist, pure and simple, and we wonder what took her so long.
The next candidate, a popular actor, also married, is a pretty decent shlub. He regrets succumbing to Isabelle’s charms one night, and wants to have long, meandering discussions with her about his “guilt”. But like the banker, he soon disappears from the movie.
Some other men make appearances, including a chubby but friendly guy who keeps meeting her at the fish market, and Isabelle’s ex-husband, who still sleeps with her on occasion. But it wasn’t until a rough-looking, gorgeous type dances with her at a club that I knew this movie wasn’t going anywhere. And appropriately enough, Gerard Depardieu’s appearance in the final scene – as Isabelle’s “spiritual therapist” – makes it all official. Played over the final credits, the scene is a riot, and is almost worth sitting through the movie for.
Denis’ Q.and A. after the film puzzled me further. The film’s first hour showed a passionate woman who was desperately seeking love through sex, but had such poor judgment that she was doing nothing but punishing herself. We were told that her ten-year old daughter sees her in tears every night. It seemed clear to me that this woman was emotionally disturbed, and utterly miserable. And yet, during her interview, Denis said that Isabelle was enjoying her life, and was lucky to have such hope for the future. Go figure.
This Palme D’Or winner at Cannes is a curious beast. The Swedish film, directed and written by Ruben Ostlund, is part satire and part human drama, although it opts for a not-very-deserved warmth at the end that somewhat blunts its satirical attack. The idea apparently sprung from an actual art installation Ostlund had made with Kalle Boman. His point seems to be that the class of educated, privileged bourgeois unconsciously insulate themselves from the underprivileged, even while thinking that they are champions for their equality.
Christian (Claes Bang) is a successful museum curator who is promoting an exhibit he feels strongly about. The exhibit consists of a square-shaped area marked on the floor where “total trust” in others can be practiced, or rejected. The film opens with him being interviewed by a journalist, played by Elisabeth Moss. The tone for the film is set there: dryly sardonic, anti-romantic but socially aware.
The main story involves Christian’s insensitive and clumsy response to the pickpocket theft of his mobile phone. After finding out the building where the thief lives, but not his identity, he leaves a note in each mailbox that accuses the occupant of being the thief and demands the return of his phone. Well, it works, but there’s collateral damage. Specifically, a ten-year old boy is punished by his parents because they think he’s the guilty one. The boy confronts Christian at his building and, in front of both of Christian’s young daughters, angrily demands an apology.
A parallel story line follows Christian as he maneuvers through the upper-class art scene. This provides him with a rich lode for satire, as might be expected. These scenes have less focus than the pickpocket story line, and fail to deliver a real punch. Christian’s one night affair with Moss builds to a funny shouting match with her, but then she simply disappears. Another extended scene – and a pointless one – has a roomful of diners at an art event being threatened by a grunting, shirtless “artist” pretending to be some kind of wild animal. Nothing new here.
Finally, the resolution of the pickpocket story is soft and predictable. Christian is so guilty that his daughters have seen him behaving cruelly to the angry boy that he seeks him out to apologize, taking the girls with him. But he’s told by a neighbor that the boy’s family has moved, with no forwarding address. It is assumed that, from the expression on Christian’s face, we are expected to see him as changed by this experience, that he is now a more sensitive and humble man. Sorry, I just didn’t buy it.
The strengths of this Argentinian film are its visually detailed presentation of the colonial era in South America, where Spanish officials attempt to impose a bureaucratic order while they exploit the native tribes. Writer-director Lucrecia Martel gets deeply into the primitive lifestyle, and shows how the colonists are unable to create even the most minimal comfort for themselves. Martel is a festival favorite, and appreciative critics noted that it had been nine years since her last film, The Headless Woman.
The title character, played by Daniel Giminez Cacho, is a mid-level magistrate who is about to become a father by one of the native women. His post is on a remote colony in what is now Paraguay. He wants to be transferred to a more habitable district, and is visiting the governor to ask him to write a letter to the king on his behalf. About two-thirds of the film takes place at the governor’s camp, which is just some thatched huts by the harbor. The governor just strings Zama along with false promises; a familiar but still fascinating portrait of corruption.
This section is often confusing. Martel shows people moving about the village and within mysterious chambers, but rarely lets people say exactly what they mean. The Spanish officials look and dress the same as their servants, and it is only gradually that identifying relationships are established. Still, Martel cleverly reveals the colonial social structure. While the native women are often openly contemptuous of their rulers, the men simply go through the motions stone-faced. The Spanish rulers aren’t able to get much out of their dominant position. The food, living accommodations, health conditions and shelter are so primitive that it’s almost a form of punishment for them to live there. For the natives, however, it’s close to life as usual, despite the occasional beating.
The last third of the film veers off into a plain adventure story, what I call the “doomed mission” genre. Zama is ordered to lead a small troop into the jungle to capture and/or kill a notorious bandit named Vicuna Porto. Porto is spoken of as either a political leader or a thug, depending on the speaker’s perspective.
It’s no great surprise, then, that Zama and his men are captured by Porto themselves, and suffer horribly. Actually, Porto may just be someone claiming to be him, or even that there is no such person at all. Martel is deliberately ambiguous about it. This last third of the film seems derivative; heavily influenced by Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. The absurdity loses the playfulness that made the first part of the film intriguing. But the actor playing the Porto, Matheus Nachtergaele, deftly limns a crafty, mean and seductive rogue.
This was by far the biggest crowd-pleaser of my slate this year. The audience was filled with young people, who obviously wanted to see Greta Gerwig in person. She didn’t act in the film, but she wrote and directed it. Unlike with the other films I saw, everyone in the audience stayed for her Q. and A.; not one defection, even though it was close to midnight. Audience laughter during the film was almost constant, sometimes making it hard to hear the dialogue. In other words, a real festival winner.
Set in Sacramento in 2002, it showed the senior year of Christine (who demands that people call her “Lady Bird”) at a Catholic high school. As played by Saoirse Ronan, she is a pretty, socially ambitious girl who will seize every opportunity to get the attention and approval of her peers, especially cute boys. She desperately wants to get into college “on the East coast”, mostly to get away from her hyper-critical mother, Marion, played by Laurie Metcalf.
It seems that from the start, Gerwig decided to have the characters defined quickly, and have them interact with each other in some clever and unexpected ways. So the pretty girl who wants to be popular has a fat girl as her best friend. So the head of the drama department is a middle-aged, bald priest who sets up a contest for his students to see who’ll be the first to cry on cue…and wins it himself. The performances are bright, the dialogue fast and the look of the film was very fresh. Gerwig and cinematographer Sam Levy spent a lot of time trying to duplicate the look of the period and location. The interior set design by production designer Chris Jones was especially smart.
Of course not every joke worked. Sometimes I felt like a checklist of “Catholic school material” was used, such as the anti-abortion lecture scene. It seemed thrown in just to give Lady Bird a smart-alecky response. And having the football coach direct the school production of The Tempest, complete with chalkboard play diagrams, was just silly.
But it’s undeniable that Gerwid shows real skill in blocking and pacing. Notice Lady Bird’s reaction when she sees who her boyfriend was kissing in a bathroom stall. Also neat was the set-up in an earlier scene which told us – by a quick sidelong glance – just who his replacement was going to be.
More importantly, I respected Gerwig’s choice not to end the film with a mawkish reconciliation of Lady Bird and her mother. Marion was never going to be “cured” of her deeply rooted self-doubts and resentments. It would have been phony to pretend that there would ever be a time when her daughter wouldn’t disappoint her.
THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED)
To really enjoy Noah Baumbach’s latest film – in fact any of his films – it helps if you’re a New Yorker, Jewish and kind of a film nerd. Since I am all three, it stands to reason that I do enjoy his films, and look forward to his new ones. This one was no disappointment. It certainly is the most ambitious of the ones I’ve seen, and shows his growing confidence as a storyteller.
The “stories” are really one story that is told in sections, with each one focusing on one member of a very extended, very dysfunctional family. But since this is a warm, funny and emotionally affecting comedy, the “dysfunctional” is safely removed from the kind of tsurus depicted in, say, O’Neill or Albee. Think Woody Allen and late Neil Simon.
Dustin Hoffman plays Harold Meyerowitz, a sculptor who is more “respected” than rich. Harold is patriarch of an extended family spawned from his four marriages, with his eldest son, Danny, played by Adam Sandler, and his daughter, Jean, played by Elizabeth Marvel, from his second marriage (the first was annulled), and a son, Matthew, played by Ben Stiller, from the third one. His current wife, Maureen, played by Emma Thompson, is an eccentric alcoholic, but very devoted to Harold.
Matthew is no culture nerd, but is more successful as a businessman than his father was in his profession. But his work clearly dominates his life, and he finds little time for his wife and young son in California. Danny, on the other hand, is the standout loser of the family. Divorced and jobless, he is struggling to raise a teenage daughter, Eliza, played by Grace Van Patten, as a single parent. The point is made that Danny is as caring and attentive a father as his own father and brother are not.
Hoffman is clearly enjoying himself, and it’s his best role in years. But every member of the cast is in sync. The trick with Baumbach, what has evolved into his “style” in fact, is that relationships are often revealed by showing the characters in crisis in a public setting, having one or more of them behave stupidly, and then having them try to make sense of it all. So, we see Harold and Matthew in a restaurant, and Harold thinks another diner made off with his jacket. Matthew runs through the streets in pursuit, catches up with the guy who, of course, easily proves he has his own jacket, at which point Harold nonchalantly makes his son feel like a jerk. But Baumbach then uses this as an opening for the character, in this case Matthew, to realize that he has been victimized by this same pattern of behavior, repeatedly, for many years. It’s a forehead-slap moment for him.
Gradually, the story focuses on the mutual resentment between Danny and Matthew, as half-siblings. The conflict comes to a head after Harold lies in a coma after a stroke, and they are forced to see each other every day in the hospital. At first, they try bonding, and it’s the funniest scene in the film. It concerns an elderly man who was a neighbor when Danny and Jean were growing up. Now almost blind and infirm, he is brought to the hospital to visit the comatose Harold. His sudden appearance jars Jean’s memory. She tells of the time the neighbor exposed himself to her when she was a teenager. Outraged, the half-brothers decide to punish the geriatric pervert by wrecking his car in the parking lot. It’s one of the few recent scenes of pure slapstick that made me laugh.
But the bonding doesn’t last, and the tensions between the two lead to a grand slam punch-out at a party for the still hospitalized Harold. Similarly staged in a parking lot (Baumbach loves them), the pent up hostility of many years is vented, culminating in the two grown men rolling around the asphalt in a rage. But that seems to do the trick. Afterwards, at the party, both actors are given the chance to shine with speeches that almost ignore their father, whose illness is the reason for the party, but which emotionally convey their joy at their newfound love for each other.
This wind-up is admittedly a little soppy, but was gracefully done and satisfying.
THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Director and co-writer (with Chris Bergoch) Sean Baker gets the big things right. Although structurally loose and a little padded, this film keeps us involved because of the novel perspective and locations – a roadside motel just outside of Disney World – and the dead-on casting of non-professional (with one major exception) actors playing an engaging – if sometimes enraging – group of characters. The motel residents, most of whom are women single-parenting their children, form a loosely defined society, complete with the sharing of daily chores, rivalries, gossip and occasionally violent flareups. Through it all, Bobby, the manager, played by Willem Dafoe, struggles to quell the chaos and maintain a semblance of stability and civility, mostly for the sake of the children.
The film opens with some kids creating mischief around the motel. It’s summer, and there’s nothing else to do. The leader, Moonee, played by Brooklynn Kimberly Prince, is a six year old with a defiant streak. From a balcony, the kids spit on the car of one of the residents. Outraged, the woman who owns it demands that the children clean the mess up, which they do. But the woman is also upset when Moonee’s mother, Halley, played by Bria Vinaite, won’t punish her daughter, saying it’s no big deal. This sets us up for the heart of the film, namely the dynamics of a most peculiar, and sometimes frightening, mother/daughter relationship.
Visually, Baker certainly gives us something look at with architecture, treating it like eye-candy. Kitsch lovers will be in heaven at all the fast food, modern roadside commercial locations. Garish is the order of the day, and it suits the personalities of the people who live at the motel, especially Halley. With her purple hair, Halley seems less like a mother than a wind-up doll in a lego set city. Halley navigates her world as if she expects total gratification from everyone, just like a spoiled child. While some of the neighbors, along with Bobby, feel the need to protect Brie, her attitude can cause friction. When she physically attacks the mother of one of Moonee’s playmates, she sets in motion the film’s final conflict, leading to the breakup of the family unit.
And yet, the character seems too strong to accept defeat. In that way, Baker is showing that, despite Halley’s immature and irresponsible behavior, she is also giving her daughter something of value. There’s a solid survival instinct that comes out of Halley with full force, and she wants Moonee to absorb it. Her defiance, although infuriating, seems to have a plan behind it. If she can’t wear her enemies down, she’ll find some way to show them that she hasn’t given up, she’ll always come back. When a store owner has her ejected, she reaches down between her legs, takes out her tampon and slaps it on the store window. She stands there admiring it, a symbol of the contempt she knows he deserves.
The film’s biggest asset is the character of Bobby, the motel manager, and the crucial casting of Willem Defoe to play him. While Halley and Moonee are both memorable, outwardly directed personalities, Bobby remains tantalizingly opaque. We’re never quite sure what he’s going to do, and Bobby often looks like he doesn’t know either. We see that he is protective over the residents, and shows almost superhuman patience in fixing the problems they cause. He’ll advocate on their behalf with the penny-pinching owner, but he’s also rigid about enforcing the rules, especially the one against rooms being used for prostitution. And yet, in Dafoe’s supremely confident performance, Bobby’s uncertainty is always pushed aside by a firm moral integrity, resulting in decisive action whenever there’s a need for it.
The final scene perfectly sums up Baker’s feelings about these characters. Unlike her mother, Moonee uses fantasy to escape her pain, which is also a means of survival. But Halley, even in defeat, is too memorable a creation to fit neatly into the film’s structure. For me, the story doesn’t really end until after the film is over. I see Halley coming back and, using her skill and defiance, reuniting the family. It was only a momentary setback is all. Within a few days, they’ll both be driving Bobby crazy again.
This is a Senegalese film directed by Alain Gomis, which he co-wrote with Olivier Loustau and Delphine Zingg. Its pleasures come from its simplicity, and the director’s ability to handle multiple themes in a graceful, sensually stimulating way. The story is about the title character, a Senegalese woman who sings in a bar. She has a teenage son, Samo, who is injured in a motorbike accident, and the film chronicles her desperate efforts to raise the money for the surgery that can save his life. But, surrounding the main action, it is also an unusually enriching visual and emotional experience because it reveals a whole society, in a subtle fashion, while it presents a character of unusual beauty and decency.
Vero Tshanda Beya Mputu plays Felicite, and she is a marvel. A large, graceful woman, she is an overpowering screen presence, yet gentle in voice and manner. She is well-paired with Papi Mpaka as Tabu, her sometime lover who does odd jobs around the village. A running joke in the film is the length of time it takes for him to fix her refrigerator. His dance of triumph when it’s done is a joyful thing to see. But when he’s drunk, Tabu can be loud, rude and dangerous.
But the force of the film depends on our involvement with the story. Gomis chose a well-worn genre – the “race against time” – but there is always a risk with that. Such a story depends on an emotional involvement with the characters; we’ve got to care what happens to them. Gomis swiftly establishes the character of the boy, if somewhat sketchily, but Felicite’s devotion to him is what pulls us along. And Gomis gives flavor and substance to the melodramatic turns of the story – which are not particularly original – by revealing the character of the Senegalese people, and the structure of their community, with each episode.
Felicite lives in the city of Kinshasa. We see the activity of its people at each station of her struggle, and it is fascinating. It is a ramshackle city with decayed infrastructure and buildings, but the people are in constant motion. They scream, laugh and push themselves to survive there, in a way mirroring the bustling traffic in the streets. The women seem to be quieter and more nurturing, but also submissive. Male dominance is an unchallenged part of the culture. When Felicite visits Samo’s birth father, he does not hesitate to gruffly deny her request for money, even when it’s to save the life of his son. He can’t be bothered.
In a scene almost painful to watch, she visits a drug lord to beg for the money. He is fiercely resistant, and seems ready to beat his female assistant for letting Felicite in the door. But her desperation and courage leave him dumbfounded. We can believe that he is so stunned by her persistence that he gives her the money, out of pity and respect. But, while the boy’s life is saved, his injury is permanent, and the irony of this outcome is presented with appropriate sadness.
This is the most musical of the films I saw at the festival. Most of the characters integrate music into their daily lives, not only Felicite, who is a professional singer. Her sweet, high-pitched voice, backed by the African rhythms, is infectious, and it’s no wonder that she’s a favorite at the club. It’s presented as a major dramatic moment when she can’t perform due to her depression over her son’s injuries. This could get her fired, and as a single mother in a poor community, there’s little room for such a setback. While the members of her church show genuine concern and generosity, they could never be her safety net.
Once the crisis is passed, however, the rest of the film takes on a lighter, sometimes comic tone. Tabu becomes as committed to the boy’s recovery as he is to winning the love of Felicity. But Gomis makes it clear that this optimism and generosity are things that are shared by the community as a whole.
In today’s cynical world, a filmmaker takes risks by telling a story that celebrates the positive qualities of the human character. At times, the film suggested the slow rhythms and appreciation of natural beauty of the Satyajit Ray trilogy.