I suspect that a grave injustice has been done. Not here in Cannes, where no prizes will be given until Saturday, but at Sundance ‘11, where Martha Marcy May Marlene somehow failed to win the Dramatic competition, even though it wipes the mat with everything this festival’s main event has thrown at us so far. (It’s screening in Un Certain Regard, which was once clearly the second tier but in recent years has increasingly turned into “and here’s a bunch of other films.”) Yet another uncommonly intelligent provocation from the guys at Borderline Films, which also gave us Afterschool, it stars Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, as all of the title characters, who are radically conflicting identities of the same dangerously confused young woman. Writer-director Sean Durkin has come up with a doozy of an idea: What if someone escaped from a cult and returned to their family, but their family had no idea they’d just spent two years in a cult? Martha, as she was christened at birth, has more or less opted to deprogram herself, with predictably uncertain and harrowing results. The movie cuts jaggedly back and forth between her time under the thumb of a charismatic lunatic (John Hawkes, suddenly everywhere) and her ostensible return to normality at her sister’s (Sarah Paulson) idyllic lakehouse, and part of what makes this film so singular is that the scenes at the cult, while often ugly and dehumanizing, gradually start to feel like a respite from Martha’s increasingly shaky navigation of the real world, to which she no longer feels wholly connected. Olsen gives a magnificently ambiguous performance that will instantly eclipse any snarky comments about her famous siblings, and Durkin knows precisely how much information to reveal and how much to leave frighteningly implicit. Noel Murray considered this one of the best films at Sundance; it’s the best I’ve seen here as well. Grade: A-
I was a bit less taken than was Noel, however, with Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, making an appearance here in the Critics’ Week sidebar post-Sundance. What you think may depend on your tolerance for movies that openly flaunt their metaphorical ambition. Back in crazy-dude mode after playing a normal husband in Return (see Day Four), Michael Shannon plays a devoted family man who begins having horrific nightmares about an apocalyptic storm that will apparently turn the world into a Stephen King novel, with pets devouring their masters and loved ones going for butcher knives. Worried that these may be the early-warning signs of paranoid schizophrenia, with which his mother (Kathy Baker) had been diagnosed decades earlier, Shannon starts seeing doctors, but he also goes all Richard-Dreyfuss-in-Close Encounters, pouring his life savings and manic energy into an industrial-strength addition to the house’s tornado shelter. Nichols (whose acclaimed Shotgun Stories I haven’t yet seen) knows his way around a foreboding mood, and he’s somehow managed to create impressive special-effects sequences on what must have been a relatively low budget. But Take Shelter becomes so baldly metaphorical at its climax that it began to feel pretentious to me, and its final scene, which I don’t want to spoil, seemed both thematically muddled and a little cheap. There’s an intriguing idea here, but it needed to be better disguised. Let us do a little of the heavy lifting. Grade: B-
As for movies actually premiering at Cannes, I seem to be stuck in contrarian mode for the moment. Most everybody here thoroughly enjoyed The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius’ fond tribute to silent cinema—and so did I, for the first couple reels or so. Shot in black-and-white, in the Academy ratio (1:33 to 1), and entirely without sound save for a couple of quick gags, it begins as the breezy, immensely appealing tale of a Fairbanks-style movie star of the ‘20s (Jean Dujardin) who finds his career hitting the skids with the advent of sound, just as the fetching ingénue (Bérénice Béjo) he’s accidentally discovered, and secretly pines for (he’s married), starts her own ascent up the Hollywood ladder. Dujardin and Béjo, both veterans of Hazanavicius’ OSS 117 series, project exactly the right degree of goofy insouciance, and The Artist works beautifully so long as it remains a comedy — sort of a silent, non-musical version of Singin’ in the Rain. For some reason, however, Hazanavicius decides midway through to switch over to A Star Is Born, and melodrama (silent or otherwise) clearly isn’t his forte. Our affection for the characters remains constant, but the laughs gradually dry up, and complex emotions are not forthcoming; when Ludovic Bource’s original, period-appropriate score is suddenly replaced at the climax by Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent love theme from Vertigo, the gulf between sound and image becomes almost pathetic. Still, the audience at my screening went nuts with applause, and reviews are almost uniformly positive, so it must just be me. Harvey Weinstein’s already snapped it up, so you’ll soon have a chance to judge for yourself: Grade: C+
Meanwhile, everyone I know absolutely despised Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance, set in a Parisian brothel ca. 1899-1900, whereas I found myself rather touched by the film’s oddly idealized portrait of a defunct community. Granted, there are risible moments—you can’t make a movie in which a hideously disfigured prostitute cries tears of milky semen without inspiring a lot of wisecracks on Twitter. But Bonello’s compassion for these women feels genuine, and I appreciated the deft way that he juxtaposed their various assignations with the practical, menial details of their trade, as well as his pointedly anachronistic use of music. (When the hookers dance to “Nights in White Satin,” Bonello makes sure we can still dimly hear it from behind a closed door in another room, just to underline that it’s diagetic.) None of the characters, apart from the disfigured “Woman Who Laughs,” makes much of an individual impression (the most notable of the actresses is probably Hafsia Herzi, from The Secret of the Grain), but as a collective, they make for a satisfyingly stoic protagonist in a film that’s fundamentally about mutual devotion — a point beautifully underlined by the movie’s arresting final shot. I make no great claims for House of Tolerance, but the degree of intolerance among my colleagues has me befuddled. Grade: B
Tomorrow: The Tree of Motherfucking Life. Finally.