Cannes ’14, Day Two: Mike Leigh makes another biopic, Mr. Turner

Cannes ’14, Day Two: Mike Leigh makes another biopic, Mr. Turner

Biopics have a way of transforming even the most adventurous filmmakers into glorified accountants. Often hinging on the assumption that a life is fascinating simply because a famous person lived it, the genre privileges information over drama, bullet points over plot points. Every once in a while, however, someone finds a way around the common conventions and does something truly exciting with the experiences of a real human being. The great British director Mike Leigh accomplished that rare feat in 1999 with Topsy-Turvy, which showed less interest in summarizing the collective, complete history of Gilbert and Sullivan than it did in exploring their creative process and the colorful environment in which they worked. To hear many tell it, Leigh has done it again, arriving at Cannes with another grand elevation of the format.

Yet in many respects, Mr. Turner (Grade: B), about the English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, is an entirely traditional biopic. Don’t mistake that acknowledgement for a dismissal: The film is tremendously acted and very lively, its two and a half hours mostly flying by. And as in Topsy-Turvy, the wealth of 19th-century period detail provides its own singular fascination. All that said, Leigh hasn’t so much transcended the limitations of the biopic as handsomely dressed them up. He’s made a very straightforward account of his subject’s experiences, never quite managing a perspective on the events depicted.

Given the material, it’s fitting that Mr. Turner is Leigh’s most visually ravishing movie: With cinematographer Dick Pope behind the lens, every shot is gorgeous enough to hang in a museum, beginning with the opening image—a striking long take of a windmill at sunset, the camera following a pair of chatty passersby, then belatedly landing on Turner (Timothy Spall) as he puts the beautiful view on paper. Sometimes speaking in nothing but emphatic grunts, Spall makes the artist a distant, preoccupied eccentric; it’s an endlessly entertaining performance, the actor offering a portrait of the artist as a man who has devoted all of his energies to his art and none to his interactions with the world.

Leigh focuses on roughly the final two decades of his subject’s life, not so much finding a through line as staging a series of colorful episodes—Turner’s collisions with colleagues, his art shows, his brief and indifferent encounters with the family he’s essentially abandoned. Eventually, he falls into a hesitant romance with a Margate widow (Marion Bailey), and the movie gains a measure of tender pathos. Never does Mr. Turner drag, and many of its individual scenes—especially those that zero in on the art world of that age, which was as dominated by celebrity as the current one—are wildly funny.  Yet it’s also clear that Leigh has dramatized a life that’s interesting only for the artwork it spawned. In other words, there’s nothing especially exceptional about Turner’s experiences; and unlike Topsy-Turvy, the film takes a broad view rather than productively limit its focus to one chapter or aspect of its character’s biography.

Nor does Leigh seem especially interested in the creative process—in the hows or whys of Turner’s output, in the act of creation or the motivation behind his choices. Parallels between life and work skew towards the obvious: For example, The Slave Ship (1840) is implicitly attributed to an important conversation about… slave ships. And psychologically, the profile is not dissimilar from the kind offered by many films about artists, with Turner presented as both genius and brute; he can create works of magnificent beauty, but seems incapable of treating his long-term housekeeper (an excellent Dorothy Atkinson) as anything but a recipient of his commands and sexual whims. Again, Mr. Turner is a fine film—and my favorite one of the festival so far, no question—but I’m struggling to see the masterpiece some of my fellow critics have announced. As artist portraits go, it has nothing on Peter Watkins’ radical, unconventional Edvard Munch, which was truly made in the spirit of its subject.

If Mr. Turner was a typically strong offering from Leigh, who’s never made a less-than-interesting movie, The Captive (Grade: B) felt like a rare success for Canadian director Atom Egoyan, who hit his creative peak with 1997’s The Sweet Hereafter and has essentially been floundering ever since. Which is not to say that this jumbled, arted-up potboiler is entirely successful: Like Egoyan’s last Cannes contender, Adoration (2008), it’s a non-linear puzzle that fascinates so long as it’s scattering its pieces, but disappoints once the full picture becomes clear. For some reason, however, I found the inevitable emptiness of the endgame less vexing this time, maybe because Egoyan is clearly operating in genre-movie mode. For better and worse, this is his Prisoners—a kidnapping thriller that’s consistently gripping, even as it lapses into narrative absurdity and some degree of tastelessness.

At Cannes, The Captive is going by Captives; as fellow A.V. Club contributor Mike D’Angelo pointed out, that’s probably as a means of distinguishing it from Chantal Akerman’s The Captive. But there’s also an inadvertent Bicycle Thieves/Bicycle Thief quality to the title swap, as one would argue that the film views most of its characters as captives—of guilt, of obsession, of grief. As parsing the relationships between the characters is one of the movie’s chief pleasures, I won’t reveal much, except to state that the movie features an ensemble of intriguingly linked figures: an estranged husband (Ryan Reynolds) and wife (Mireille Enos), two special-victims officers (Rosario Dawson and Scott Speedman), the captive (Alexia Fast) and her mysterious captor (Kevin Durand, wildly overacting).

The film is constructed in the same enthralling, chronologically jumbled manner as Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, slowly revealing information and creating waves of cognitive dissonance at key intervals. Unlike those films, however, it hits on no essential emotional truths, employing its structural gamesmanship mainly as a means to artfully obfuscate its pulp nature. At heart, this is Law & Order storytelling, complete with a Stabler-esque hothead detective and quipping cops. (“I’m young at heart,” one officer proclaims. “And old everywhere else,” another responds.) The Captive gets dumber as it goes, leaping into sleazy contrivance in its home stretch, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t keep me invested. Anyway, better that Egoyan slum in distinctive style than make something anonymous and pointless like Devil’s Knot.

Yesterday, I also caught two selections from this year’s Un Certain Regard program, Cannes’ annual, parallel competition, where new directors often go to toe-to-toe with established figures whose work was apparently deemed not quite worthy of the main slate. Party Girl (Grade: B), the opening night selection, is a spare French character study about an aging exotic dancer (Sonia Theis-Litzemburger) presented with the belated opportunity to escape the nightlife by accepting a marriage proposal from a former client. It’s not quite happily ever after, but not because the man is a monster, as I feared he might turn out to be. Rather, Party Girl presents its heroine as a woman struggling with the decision to settle, mostly because her friends, co-workers, and family think it would best for her. (At what point does someone give up on a fairy-tale romance and reach for a decent guy and a comfortable life?) Some of the film flirts with cruelty, especially during one night of drunken desperation, but it also resists turning its protagonist into a saintly martyr—the stripper with a heart of gold, or some such cliché. And while I’m not entirely certain why it took three young directors to make this very modest movie, I’m grateful they did. There’s something disarmingly moving about Party Girl’s vision of compromise, and of adult children pulling for a mother they’ve long feared would never find happiness.

As if to eradicate the simpler pleasures of their opener, the programmers chased it with a kind of assault. “This film you’re about to see is very hard,” warned Israeli director Keren Yedaya, who won Un Certain Regard in 2004 with her film Or. “Let the other directors do less hard films.” Yet her words didn’t quite prepare audiences for the grueling ordeal of That Lovely Girl (Grade: C-), a drama about a young woman (Maayan Turgeman) trapped in an abusive sexual relationship with her father (Grad Tzahi). I use the word “drama” loosely, as the film is really more of a cataloging of hardships. Within 20 minutes, Yedaya has established that the father brutally rapes his daughter at least twice a day, that he hits her and belittles her, and that the daughter is as a result both bulimic and a cutter. (At one point, she carves the word “die” into her skin.) After that, the movie offers little else but a repetition of these horrors, occasionally compounding them with other disturbing developments. There’s no doubting that the horrors the film depict are true to life; shrewd about the way a parental predator might operate, keeping his offspring in check by making her feel worthless, That Lovely Girl could conceivably be useful as an awareness tool. (Perhaps some viewers will see it and realize that others have experienced similar traumas.) But as cinema it has one setting: Bludgeon With Shame And Misery. Even at Cannes, where “hard” films can flourish, this one felt like more like a blunt instrument than art.

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