Last year at Cannes, my favorite “film” was the roughly hourlong section of Olivier Assayas’ Carlos devoted to the 1975 OPEC hostage crisis. This year, it’s gonna be tough for anything to beat the gobsmacking first 30 minutes (or so) of We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay’s long-awaited return to the screen after Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002). Barricading herself within the tormented psyche of a mother (Tilda Swinton) whose son has clearly committed some Columbine-style atrocity, Scottish filmmaker Ramsay fragments present-day misery and nearly two decades of memories into an impressionistic collage of red-streaked images and head-rattling noises, frequently hopscotching across multiple time frames in a matter of seconds, without any signposting apart from Swinton’s hair. Dialogue is sparse, conventional characterization all but nonexistent; it’s an avant-garde portrait of free-floating guilt, sustained for so long that I began to think the entire film might be in that radical idiom.
Alas, it was not to be. Eventually, Ramsay settles down and starts actually telling the story (adapted from an epistolary novel by Lionel Shriver), at which point the film becomes far more problematic. During that initial flurry of abstract imagery, Kevin remains a fleeting presence at all ages, essentially unknowable; thereafter, he turns into a flat-out demon child, forever giving Mom the fabled Kubrick Death Glare (head lowered, eyes up). The question of whether Swinton inadvertently created a monster through a lack of unconditional love, which clearly haunts every jarring edit in that arresting opening montage, subsequently loses much of its force, as Kevin (played as a toddler by Jasper Newell and as a teen by Afterschool’s gifted Ezra Miller) is revealed to have been a Lecter-grade sociopath practically from the moment he emerged from the womb. I looked hard for evidence that we’re seeing Kevin as warped by his mother’s remorse—that she’s projecting his capacity for evil backward through time—but the more overtly malicious the kid gets, the less aggressively subjective Ramsay’s direction becomes. We Need To Talk About Kevin is an accomplished work, and it’s wonderful to have Ramsay back, but I can’t help but mourn the loss of the innovative masterpiece I once thought I was watching. Grade: B-
Gus Van Sant has made a few innovative masterpieces in his time, but while Restless landed the prestigious opening-night slot in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, it falls squarely into the amiable-hack division of his bizarrely bipolar oeuvre. Imagine Harold And Maude reconceived with a hot ingénue in place of wrinkled Ruth Gordon, and you’ll have a fairly accurate sense of this nauseatingly twee doomed romance, which stars Henry Hopper (the dead-ringer son of Dennis, in his screen debut) and Mia Wasikowska (Alice In Wonderland, Jane Eyre) as a couple of doe-eyed teens who meet cute when he crashes the memorial service of one of her friends. Turns out she knows dying kids because she has a terminal brain tumor—though, like Ali McGraw in Love Story, she just gets prettier as she approaches the grave. Written by an NYU classmate of Bryce Dallas Howard (who co-produced), Restless piles on the quirk: Hopper is haunted by the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot (Ryo Kase), with whom he plays Battleship (I learned from the subtitles that the French say “in the water” instead of “miss”), and Wasikowska manages to hit every note in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl repertoire, even though she knows she’s gonna croak in a matter of months, which you’d think might bum her out just a bit. Van Sant, for his part, shoots this treacle with the functional professionalism it deserves, abetted by a Danny Elfman score that insists we’re watching the two most adorable kids ever to give mortality the finger. I’ve long since learned to accept that we’re gonna get at least one of these for every Drugstore Cowboy or Gerry or Paranoid Park; I just wasn’t expecting the latest iteration to turn up on the Croisette. Grade: C-
This year’s Competition slate features four female directors—an all-time record—but the Festival seems oddly determined to get them all out of the way early. In addition to Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, the press has already been shown Poliss, a sprawling portrait of Paris’ Child Protection Unit. (The title is an intentional misspelling of “police,” à la Biutiful.) Co-written and directed by uni-monikered French actress Maïwenn, who’s probably best known in the U.S. for playing a supporting role in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, Poliss features a large ensemble cast and remains stubbornly, almost perversely anecdotal, simply observing a dozen or so CPU members as they interrogate suspected child molesters, engage in petty office rivalries, and get drafted by another unit to be “extras” in a shopping-mall bust. To her credit, Maïwenn seems firmly committed to documentary-style realism, coaxing effortlessly natural performances from her fellow actors (though she’s somewhat mannered in the small role of a photojournalist covering the unit’s exploits) and refusing to sugarcoat the soul-crushing grind of a job that involves protecting children from what seems to be a never-ending stream of predatory adults. (Like the CPU officers, we never learn the end result of most of the cases they tackle.) But while individual scenes are plenty compelling, the film as a whole never takes shape—a few scattered narrative elements seem to have been imposed from without rather than having arisen organically from within, and a major character dies at the end for no apparent reason other than the need for a plausible reason to end the movie. If they ever make Poliss as a TV series, however, this will be a dynamite two-hour pilot episode. Grade: B-
Tomorrow: The latest by Italy’s Nanni Moretti, who won the Palme d’Or 10 years ago for The Son’s Room. And I’m looking cautiously forward to Kim Ki-duk’s Arirang, although his films, like Van Sant’s, tend to be either terrific or dire, and this one (which stars Kim himself) smells like the latter.