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Romanian drama, a Dolan dud, and more Jim Jarmusch on day 8 of Cannes

Marion Cotillard in It's Only The End Of The World
Marion Cotillard in It's Only The End Of The World

Over time, the revelatory becomes familiar, and I’ve never really known what to do about that as a film critic. Case in point: Graduation (Grade: B), the latest film by Romania’s Cristian Mungiu, who won the Palme D’Or here 107 months, 3 weeks, and 1 day ago (that’d be 2007) for 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days. Had I seen Graduation in, say, 2004, I’m pretty sure that it would have mightily impressed me, as it’s an expertly calibrated portrait of what happens when someone starts down a slippery slope of well-intentioned malfeasance. Watching it this morning, however, I found myself sort of nodding along with every uncertain step the protagonist takes, as each one conforms to what I now think of as the Romanian New Wave template. On some level, that seems unfair, since my reservations would be irrelevant to a viewer who hasn’t seen a dozen films by the likes of Mungiu, Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, and Radu Muntean and will likely be irrelevant to everybody 50 years from now. I can only honestly report my own reaction, though, and right now, Graduation feels a tad ritualistic.

Like most Romanian films, this one is resolutely small-scale, to the point of not even showing its one potentially intense incident. In a hurry to get to his mistress, Sandra (Mǎlina Manovici), middle-aged doctor Romeo (Adrian Titieni) drops his daughter, Eliza (Maria Drǎgus), who’s in her final semester of high school, at a construction site a short distance from the campus. This was at Eliza’s request, but Romeo naturally still feels guilt-stricken when he gets a call informing him that Eliza was sexually assaulted right after he drove away. The trauma of the experience seems certain to wreak havoc on her final round of exams, which she needs to ace in order to retain a provisional scholarship to a university in London. Unable to get the exams rescheduled, Romeo reluctantly uses his connections—primarily to a police inspector played by perpetual Romanian heavy Vlad Ivanov—to game the system and ensure that Eliza’s bright future remains intact. But what shall it profit a man if he saves his daughter’s bright future but loses her soul?

Mungiu makes Romeo’s various decisions (which include moving one bigwig up on the list for a liver transplant in exchange for having Eliza’s most difficult exam doctored should she fail) individually comprehensible, yet still manages to create the impression of a slow-motion train wreck. It’s like a version of A Simple Plan in which nobody gets killed but everybody gets soiled: One bad decision, made for what seems like a good reason, creates an unfortunate chain reaction. Once that’s set in motion, though, fairly early on, there’s little doubt about the increasingly ugly trajectory it’ll take. Graduation’s narrative doesn’t closely resemble that of any specific previous Romanian film (though Child’s Pose is a first cousin, at least), but its bureaucratically fatalistic tone has become standard-issue over the past decade or so, thereby deadening its impact. I even recognized the final shot the instant it began, simply because it looks like the ironic/sardonic note on which a movie like this inevitably ends.

Granted, innovation is hard. Jim Jarmusch created something singular earlier in the festival with Paterson, but his other film at Cannes this year, Gimme Danger (Grade: B), fails to reinvent the rock doc and will slightly disappoint anyone who sees it with expectations inspired by its title. This history of Iggy and The Stooges, combining the usual archival footage and contemporary talking-head interviews, is entirely safe, even cozy; Jarmusch clearly adores Iggy and wants to ensure that The Stooges receive their due as one of the most influential forces in music history. Those hoping to learn more about David Bowie’s controversial, treble-heavy mix of the band’s third album, Raw Power, for example, will have to be content with a single comment from guitarist James Williamson, who marvels at the rhythm section of brothers Ron and Scott Asheton (both now deceased), then ruefully notes that Ron’s bass can barely be heard on the record. Jarmusch works hard to make Gimme Danger visually interesting, tossing in clips from various old movies as humorous punctuation (à la Errol Morris in The Thin Blue Line); you can tell that the film has been directed, which is refreshing. But it’s still not very far removed from recent docs about Pulp, Big Star, Joe Strummer, and other acts—designed for viewers who know nothing about the subject or who are fanatical enough to want to consume everything. In Jarmusch’s filmography, it’ll be a footnote.

In Xavier Dolan’s filmography, It’s Only The End Of The World (Grade: C) will be an “oops.” Still well shy of 30, yet making his fifth appearance at Cannes (a sixth film, Tom At The Farm, premiered at Venice), Dolan has here adapted a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, first performed in 1990, and populated it with French movie stars (rather than his usual French-Canadian collaborators). Gaspard Ulliel (Saint Laurent) plays a young man returning home after a dozen years, with the intention of informing his family that he’s terminally ill (with AIDS, it’s implied); trouble is, he can’t get a word in edgewise, because his mother (Nathalie Baye), much older brother (Vincent Cassel), sister-in-law (Marion Cotillard), and little sister (Léa Seydoux) never stop yelling at him or each other. This is one of those dysfunctional-family angstfests that one finds either powerfully cathartic or nigh-well intolerable. I fall into the latter camp, but It’s Only The End Of The World has so few defenders among my colleagues that I wonder if it even appeals to the former. Dolan encourages the cast, save for Ulliel, to play to the rafters (even Cotillard, whose character is a shy, stammering doormat, somehow cranks those qualities to top volume), and shoots lengthy ping-pong conversations as a series of garishly lit individual close-ups, as if the characters were Skyping rather than standing or sitting right next to each other. He does pull off one breathtaking coup de cinéma, staging the climax as the sun sets beside the house and bathing everyone in deeper and deeper shades of orange (especially striking because this is the sole film so far this year to be screened in 35mm rather than digitally), but it arrives only after 90 minutes of strident whininess. Dolan has called this “my first film as a man.” Remember boyhood? Boyhood was awesome.

Tomorrow: Nicolas Winding Refn returns to Cannes with The Neon Demon. My NWR history: love Drive, dislike everything else (especially his last film, Only God Forgives). This one looks worrisome to me, but we shall see. Also, Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem star in Sean Penn’s The Last Face, about which I otherwise know absolutely nothing.