Last week, I joked on Twitter that while I hadn’t much liked Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, I was still hopeful that his Gatsby Le Magnifique, which opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival, would be much better. Beneath the comedy of deliberate obliviousness, however, lies a half-buried truth: Even when it comes to a movie I’ve already seen and spurned, a spot in the Cannes lineup makes my pulse race a little. Every year, these two weeks represent my cinematic high (that phrase was going to be “high point,” but the second word suddenly seemed redundant), even though I wind up disappointed more often than not. There’s no other international festival that serves up a potential masterpiece virtually every day, and I’ve never (literally never—I just checked) made a year-end top 10 list that didn’t include at least one film, and more often several, that had its world première here on the Croisette. This year’s lineup, in particular, is so auteur-heavy it swells the brain: Roman Polanski, Steven Soderbergh, Arnaud Desplechin, Alexander Payne, the Coen Brothers, Takashi Miike, Claire Denis, Nicolas Winding Refn, Jim Jarmusch, Asghar Farhadi. (If that last name isn’t familiar to you, rent A Separation immediately.) I’ll be reporting on all of the above and more over the next 10 days, with an eye attuned toward the unprecedented and unclassifiable.
That said, let’s just get the first big bummer out of the way, shall we? With Gatsby having already been released in the U.S. (a rare occurrence—the last time I’d seen the opening film before I arrived was 2002, when Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending kicked things off), Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring became the de facto opener for the American press, even though it’s relatively light on star power. Emma Watson blends in as best she can with a group of young unknowns in the true-tabloid story of half a dozen L.A. teenagers, mostly female, who robbed the empty and ludicrously unguarded homes of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Audrina Patridge. In itself, a series of mundane burglaries doesn’t exactly make for compelling drama, even when the (absent, unseen) victims are famous, so Coppola leans hard on the kids’ 21st-century obsession with the spotlight; even when arrested, one of the girls seems less concerned with her own fate than with how “Lindsay” reacted. But there’s nothing revelatory about the idea that young people are indoctrinated into celebrity worship and designer-label envy from an early age, so The Bling Ring amounts to little more than a group portrait of exceedingly shallow teens who rifled through the drawers of some equally shallow adults who’ve appeared on television. To be blunt, who cares? Coppola might perhaps have stirred some interest via sensuous camerawork, but the dreamy quality of her previous work gives way here to such hackneyed visual ideas as teens walking abreast in slo-mo to Kanye West’s “Power.” I suppose one could argue that these interludes represent the hackneyed dreams of the film’s subjects, but that’s like arguing that a movie’s tedium signifies the real-life tedium of some circumstance. At a certain point, thematic relevance no longer matters. You’re just plain bored. Grade: C
Teenage womanhood also figures prominently, but much more intelligently, in François Ozon’s Young & Beautiful, screening in Competition. Divided into four seasonal chapters and punctuated by four pop songs by the great Françoise Hardy, it’s a dispassionate character study of a 17-year-old girl (Marine Vacth) who secretly becomes a high-end prostitute just a few months after losing her virginity while on summer vacation. Ozon sticks close to his protagonist but mostly denies us access to her thoughts, deliberately leaping past key moments (like her decision to start hooking) but depicting her mundane home life in expertly sketched detail. It’s the kind of film that’s not afraid to acknowledge that people are fundamentally mysterious, and much of its power comes from the matter-of-fact way that it reconciles various perceptions of Vacth—her eventual confrontation with her mother (Géraldine Pailhas) packs a wallop not just because it’s so emotionally credible, but because we have a bone-deep understanding of Mom’s previously blinkered viewpoint, having seen what she sees and registered how dramatically that differs from what the johns see. Vacth, who’s only appeared in a couple of other films and looks model-glassy at first glance, gives a remarkably assured and subtle performance, especially after the truth comes out. Her subsequent interactions with a normal, nice-guy boyfriend and her well-meaning stepfather hint at a deep pathology that’s nonetheless achingly human. I’m not sure yet what to make of an enigmatic final scene featuring a cameo appearance by Charlotte Rampling, but I look forward to ruminating about it for some time to come. Grade: B+
The only other Competition title that’s screened so far is Heli, a singularly nasty portrait of drug-trade violence in semi-rural Mexico. Its director, Amat Escalante, is a protégé of Carlos Reygadas (Post Tenebras Lux), but he has a deeply cynical worldview all his own; each of his three features to date has been an exercise in reminding the viewer that horrible things happen in this world and there’s precious little that can be done about it. As soon as a cute little dog was introduced in this one, I tensed, waiting for the inevitable moment when it would be brutally killed, which in fact it is. But I’d still rather be that dog than the goofy cop-in-training who moronically steals a couple kilos of impounded cocaine and winds up being casually tortured by a couple of young thugs for an audience of even younger kids. (I’d also like to know how Escalante pulled off a real-time, clearly unsimulated shot of an actor having his genitals doused in gasoline and set on fire. Is there really some substance that lets you burn without actually burning? Even if so, I’d make the director demonstrate it on his own junk first.) Heli is quite impressive formally and rhythmically, but it’s dispiriting to see such talent squandered on a narrative that’s neither entertaining nor in any way illuminating, that seems to have no purpose except to rub our noses in the nastiest fecal matter Escalante can imagine. Do things like this really happen to ordinary, innocent Mexicans? Sadly, yes, but that doesn’t automatically make them worthy of our attention, at least in a dramatic context. Catharsis requires something more. Grade: C+
Tomorrow: Asghar Farhadi’s followup to his masterpiece A Separation (seriously, go rent it!) and the latest from China’s Jia Zhang-ke (who won the top prize at Venice a few years back for Still Life). Also, if you want to follow my instant post-screening impressions, along with my ratings on the needlessly precise 100-point scale, I’m serving those up on Twitter, as usual.