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Adam Driver drives for Jim Jarmusch, and Jeff Nichols tackles a famous case

Adam Driver in Paterson
Adam Driver in Paterson

Monday marks Cannes’ midpoint—at this writing, 10 of the 21 films in Competition have screened. That means it’s time for my traditional halftime stocktaking, in which I share the results of two major critics’ polls published by the trades and reveal just how little my own opinions of these movies reflect the consensus. It’s both typical and amusing that my favorite film thus far sits atop both polls, while my second favorite occupies their bottom rungs. Apparently, I’m right on except when I’m dead wrong.

First, the poll from Screen International, which gathers votes from a dozen critics representing almost as many countries. (Names you might recognize include Manohla Dargis of The New York Times and Justin Chang, who recently moved from Variety to the Los Angeles Times.) Ratings are on a four-star scale, with no half stars. Here are the current averages; only eight of the 10 films we’ve seen were in this morning’s edition.

3.8 Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
3.0 Sieranevada (Cristi Puiu)
2.4 American Honey (Andrea Arnold)
2.4 I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach)
2.3 Slack Bay (Bruno Dumont)
2.2 The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)
2.1 From The Land Of The Moon (Nicole Garcia)
2.1 Staying Vertical (Alain Guiraudie)

Toni Erdmann’s near-perfect score is reportedly the highest in the poll’s history; it’s definitely the highest average I’ve seen in the 14 years that I’ve attended the festival. That doesn’t mean Ade’s film is a lock for the Palme D’Or, though, by any means—Cannes juries are notorious for going their own way (as last year’s did by giving its top prize to Jacques Audiard’s less than rapturously received Dheepan). Staying Vertical, by contrast, turns out to be much more divisive than I’d realized, though such an aggressively strange film was probably destined to have as many detractors as champions. Interestingly, the three longest films (at 162 minutes, 173 minutes, and 162 minutes, respectively) hold the top three spots (along with the Loach, in a tie for third), suggesting that we critics tend to be impressed by the epic.

The other poll is entirely French, and appears in Le Film Français. The magazine also uses a four-star system of sorts, but it’s calibrated quite differently (for example, two stars is described as a film the critic likes “beaucoup,” i.e., rather a lot), so directly comparing the averages to Screen’s poll is pointless. The relative placement is interesting, though. Here’s its current rundown:

3.00 Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
2.67 Slack Bay (Bruno Dumont)
2.47 I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach)
2.23 From The Land Of The Moon (Nicole Garcia)
1.93 Sieranevada (Cristi Puiu)
1.93 Staying Vertical (Alain Guiraudie)
1.73 The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)
1.21 American Honey (Andrea Arnold)

Again, Toni Erdmann is way out in front, but otherwise the order is almost entirely different. The French hate Arnold’s film, for some reason—maybe because it’s a sprawling portrait of the American heartland (though I feel like they’ve historically dug those when they come from outsiders like Wim Wenders; Arnold, as a Brit, should qualify)—and they feel much more warmly toward a couple of the French films, Slack Bay and (seriously?) From The Land Of The Moon. Even the French aren’t getting behind Staying Vertical, though. Looks like I’m mostly on my own there.

Which is fine. I enjoy the rare opportunity to stand up for a film most others have dismissed; the inverse dynamic, which tends to embarrass me, is much more common. Judging from initial Twitter reactions, for example, it looks like I’m gonna be one of the few critics for whom Loving (Grade: C+) inspires little or no lovin’. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special), for whom it represents a remarkably middlebrow, Oscar-friendly change of pace, the film recounts the history behind Loving v. Virginia, the landmark 1967 Supreme Court decision that legalized interracial marriage nationwide. That history unfolds over roughly a decade, and Nichols doesn’t streamline events for dramatic effect; his pace is measured, unhurried, at times borderline sluggish. We see Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton, looking very period in a blond crew cut) and Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) travel from Virginia to Washington, D.C., to marry and then get arrested for cohabiting back home (where their marriage license is invalid). We endure their frustration as they move to D.C.—even though Mildred hates urban life and being separated from her family—in order to avoid prison time. We watch their house gradually fill with kids as years pass. Eventually, the burgeoning civil rights movement inspires Mildred to write Robert Kennedy about their situation, at which point Nick Kroll shows up as a relatively inexperienced ACLU attorney, and the court case finally gets under way.

Thing is, though, Nichols isn’t remotely interested in legal strategy. Rather than go the Lincoln route, he fashions a two-hour testimonial to Richard and Mildred’s fundamental goodness and decency, as if viewers need to be persuaded that anti-miscegenation laws were unjust. Maybe some do—there’s little doubt that Loving is meant to invite reflection on Obergefell v. Hodges (which various counties in Alabama, Kentucky, and Texas are still actively defying, in some cases by simply refusing to issue any marriage licenses at all) as well as the current uproar regarding transgender bathroom rights. But the film is so relentlessly on the side of the angels that the only possible response is to sadly shake one’s head at the small-minded bigotry on display. Nichols’ arthouse instincts sidestep the generic uplift that somebody like Ron Howard might have brought to this material, and he gets fine performances from his two leads (though Negga leans too hard on a beatific smile); during quiet domestic scenes, it’s possible to imagine an entirely fictional movie involving these characters, in which they’re not required to be symbols of hope for a benighted time. Mostly, though, Loving just asks, over and over, “Isn’t it wrong that two people who love each other this much are being persecuted for no reason?” Indeed it is, but I knew that before the movie started and had been hoping, quixotically, for something more.

Much more my speed was Paterson (Grade: A-), which may be the most existential movie Jim Jarmusch has ever made—and that’s saying a lot. Its title refers both to the main character, whose name is Paterson (Adam Driver), and to the city in New Jersey where he drives a bus, eavesdropping on passengers and dreaming up poetry. Not that Paterson would ever call himself a poet, even though he spends his downtime jotting free verse (the work of an actual poet, Ron Padgett) into a notebook. That would be too presumptuous for this modest working-class guy, for whom every day is a comfortable routine. Jarmusch shows us an entire week of Paterson’s life, beginning with him waking up beside live-in girlfriend Laura (Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani), eating a bowl of Cheerios, and heading off to work. In the evening, he walks Laura’s English bulldog and stops by the corner bar, hanging out with the regulars there. Nothing exciting happens, and by Wednesday (the film starts on Monday), it’s pretty clear that nothing exciting is going to happen. Rather, Jarmusch has something altogether more delicate in mind. He wants to explore the aspects of daily life that make up an artist’s sustenance—even a closet artist like Paterson.

Driver was an interesting choice for this role. His trademark is his volatility, but Paterson doesn’t have a confrontational bone in his body; here, Driver taps into the aimless vibe embodied by John Lurie in Stranger Than Paradise, minus the coolness. He’s primarily watchful, and so is the movie. Early on, Laura urges Paterson (for the umpteenth time, clearly) to photocopy his poetry notebook, just in case, as he has no other copies of his work. He promises to do so over the weekend, and what happens on Saturday provides the film with its one significant narrative beat and emotional crisis. That development is beautifully resolved, too, via an ending that affirms the value of creativity for its own sake. The heart of the film lies precisely in its ordinariness, which Jarmusch somehow makes transcendent through repetition, point of view, and poetry. Everything Paterson encounters is fuel for his art, and that’s made clear even though there’s little direct correspondence between what he observes and what he writes. That may sound pretentious, but Paterson himself is deathly allergic to pretension, and the film inhabits his sensibility. It’s A Portrait Of The Artist As A Working-Class Stiff, arguing for the mundane beauty of all our lives.

Tomorrow: Kristen Stewart, who won a César and many critics’ awards for her performance in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds Of Sils Maria (which premiered here two years ago), returns in Assayas’ latest film, Personal Shopper. Also, the latest from Pedro Almodóvar and rising cinephile favorite Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighboring Sounds).