Cannes premieres its first great film, and Spielberg does Roald Dahl

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Cannes premieres its first great film, and Spielberg does Roald Dahl

Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann
Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann

Stories about films being booed at Cannes are commonplace (though I’ve heard not so much as a mild hiss thus far this year). Accounts of raucous mid-film applause, on the other hand, rarely surface. I’ve experienced only a few such spontaneous ovations here over the years, during Holy Motors (the out-of-nowhere musical number performed on multiple accordions), Goodbye To Language (when Godard “breaks” 3-D by diverging the left- and right-eye images), and Mommy (a relieved reaction to the 1:1 aspect ratio going widescreen after about 90 claustrophobic minutes). It happened again last night at the press screening for Maren Ade’s sublime Toni Erdmann (Grade: A), which was my most anticipated film of Cannes ’16 going in, and is now the consensus critical favorite and first plausible Palme D’Or contender. What’s more, the scene that inspired the applause, while a showstopper, isn’t even the film’s most memorable and outlandish set-piece. We assumed, while clapping and hooting and hollering and whistling, that we were witnessing Toni Erdmann’s climax. We had no idea.

I don’t want to describe either of these glorious moments, as they’re designed to blindside you. That’s in keeping with the antic disposition of the first character we meet, Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a middle-aged German divorcé with a penchant for playing practical jokes. Winfried has one adult daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), who works in Bucharest for a consulting firm, and he decides to pay her an impromptu visit after his beloved dog passes away. When his constant gags (even around her colleagues and important clients) prove alienating, Winfried agrees to head home, and the film shifts its focus to Ines… who’s soon being constantly greeted in public by a “life coach” named Toni Erdmann, who’s just her father wearing fake bad teeth and a terrible wig. Unable to expose him in front of her friends and co-workers, Ines begrudgingly plays along, even upping the ante herself on occasion; their relationship grows ever more dysfunctional, even as it seems likely that “Toni” is the only thing keeping Ines from throwing herself out the window of her high-rise apartment.

As a few wags here have noted, Toni Erdmann’s basic plot isn’t far removed from something you might find in an Adam Sandler movie—That’s My Boy, which I haven’t seen, is the film that generally gets cited. Ade certainly isn’t afraid to go big and broad when that’s appropriate (hence the aforementioned applause), but her general approach is light years removed from Hollywood’s tidy redemption fables. The movie runs close to three hours, and genuinely needs the extra time; Ade delves into the particulars of Ines’ job (which sees her constantly struggling to maintain a position of authority among men), and acknowledges the depth of Winfried’s love without pretending that his goofy grand gestures can serve as a magical cure-all for his daughter’s unhappiness. There’s a moment in which Ines watches “Toni” working the floor at a disco, her expression clearly registering how much his decision to stick around and try to cheer her up means to her… and what’s amazing about this moment is that it happens not near the end, as you’d expect, but with nearly two hours still to go. As in her equally magnificent previous film, Everyone Else, Ade begins with a fairly simple dynamic and then proceeds to tease out every possible facet, taking her characters to truly unexpected places and ending on a note of disarming irresolution. If the jury has any sense, she’ll be hearing more applause when the awards are announced next weekend.

Winfried the practical joker would appreciate what Park Chan-wook does with his latest film, The Handmaiden (Grade: B+), which starts out looking as if it’ll be a deeply serious (and seriously depressing) tale of a Korean “comfort woman” forced to service the occupying Japanese military. After about five minutes of grandiose solemnity, Park drops the charade, revealing that the titular handmaiden, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), is actually a master thief who’s been assigned to persuade a Japanese heiress, Hideko (Kim Min-hee), to marry Sook-hee’s confederate (Ha Jung-woo), who poses as one Count Fujiwara. Things get (even more) complicated when Sook-hee finds herself first empathizing with and then falling for the naïve Hideko, who’s been raised since childhood by a perverted uncle (Kim Jin-woong), and seems much more interested in her new maid than in the Count. (There’s also the whole colonialism element, which forced American viewers at Cannes to keep an eye on the color-coded French subtitles: yellow for Japanese dialogue, white for Korean.) Loosely based on (or “inspired by,” per the credits) Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith, which was set in Victorian England, The Handmaiden gets progressively trashier and more overheated as it goes along, serving up multiple plot twists and replaying earlier scenes from a radically different perspective. Divided into three parts, it kicks into gear with part two, at roughly the halfway point; it also should have ended there, as part three (by far the shortest, thankfully) extends the narrative to no clear purpose apart from allowing Park to toss in some gratuitous, Oldboy-style violence. That material feels stale, especially when compared to The Handmaiden’s ardently feminist overtones (and fairly explicit lesbian sex scenes).

Of course, if you really want to be a full-fledged 21st-century movie, it’s best to focus less on actors in favor of motion-captured, fully digital (and endlessly manipulable) creations. Steven Spielberg’s The BFG (Grade: The BMINUS), for example, which premiered here today (out of Competition) in advance of its forthcoming July release, is such a technological marvel that I had trouble looking past that to see the actual movie. Not having read Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s book, I can’t say how faithful this adaptation is (though colleagues have suggested that darker aspects have been watered down), but it seems to follow the same basic trajectory: Cute British orphan Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) gets abducted by the title character (played, or performance-captured, by recent Oscar winner Mark Rylance), who turns out to be the smallest and kindest inhabitant of Giant Country; Sophie winds up enlisting the Queen (Penelope Wilton) in an effort to stop the other, meaner giants (led by a performance-captured Jemaine Clement) from eating England’s children. Spielberg clearly relished the opportunity to play around with scale, zipping his camera in and around various Sophie-dwarfing props and figures. Like The Adventures Of Tintin, though, The BFG exhausted me more than delighted me—partly because I was constantly conscious of how difficult it must have been to choreograph and execute shots, partly because Barnhill belongs to the Hayley Mills tradition of “spunky” child actors who only vaguely resemble actual little kids. Rylance, whose fine features have been expertly distorted, makes an endearingly gentle giant, and the movie finally comes alive toward the end, when the BFG pays a visit to Buckingham Palace and has to interact with the Queen and her retinue. The more it insists on the importance of magic and dreams, however, the less magical and dreamlike it seems.

Tomorrow: Shia LaBoeuf stars in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, which means that the only possible evaluative question will be: How much of its two hours and 42 minutes (there are a lot of really long movies at Cannes this year) might he have slept through during #AllMyMovies?