Cannes Film Festival: Assayas, Jarmusch and Almodóvar shine

Each competition film seems to trump the last in a year that is going from strength to strength
Adriana Ugarte stars in Pedro Almodóvar's dazzling 'Julieta'

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What a Cannes Film Festival. It has been an unruly jungle. Unruly and luxuriant. The movies have climbed over each other in excellence, every new one transcending the last as it reaches towards that gilded guerdon, that light-giving cynosure of legendary tree-forms, the Palme d’Or.

Am I overdoing it? Not really. Since mid-festival, this 69th medley on the Med has got better and better. A good Olivier Assayas, Personal Shopper, gave way to a better Jim Jarmusch, Paterson. A dazzling Pedro Almodóvar, Julieta, yielded ground — in popular éclat — to an out-of-nowhere Brazilian film, Aquarius, whose screening ended with an ovation after beginning with a demo.

The director and actors, having scaled the Palais steps, held out paper signs each blazing a slogan. “Coup d’état in Brazil”, “Brazil is no longer a democracy” . . . Flashbulbs blazed. Festival chief Thierry Frémaux bustled un­happily, his keep-politics-off-the-red-carpet policy clearly in peril. The stunt was repeated inside the auditorium. More unhappy Frémaux. Meanwhile the audience loved it — controversy! — even if some didn’t quite know who the polemicists were supporting or attacking. Anti-Rousseff? Pro-Rousseff?

No one soon cared. Brazil is a paid-up political disaster zone right now, whatever side you are on, and Aquarius, written and directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho — not a household name, till now — pays mischievous homage to the cancerous growth of social despair and demoralisation.

It’s all about corruption, decay (moral and material) and the last good people standing. Veteran star Sônia Braga plays the proud widow refusing to sell her home, the last apartment in an ocean-view block being gobbled up for demolition. Her family begs her to decamp. The developers make threats. Noisy parties, verging on orgies, are staged above her ceiling. Then — last act — there’s a lulu (no Brazilian leadership puns intended) of a pay-off, one of those curtain moments that get audiences
rising to their feet in exulting glee.

It’s quite a festival for Latin cinema. Q: Who is the most talented living film-maker never to have won the Palme d’Or? A: Pedro Almodóvar. The Spaniard began his career as a post-Franco prodigy of libertine baroque — camp, cheeky and hyperbolic (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) — and has since morphed into the most subtly accomplished, voluptuously nuanced stylist in Europe, perhaps the world.

Alice Munro’s short stories, like Almodóvar’s films, limn an everyday world of enigmatic motivations, buried passions and transforming epiphanies. Julieta threads three Munro tales together near-invisibly. You can’t see the joins in the narrative about a woman (played at different ages by three different actresses) hankering for the daughter who has cut off all communication. Julieta’s journey across years is sketched in chapters at once bold, vivid and wonderfully subtle. A fateful train trip; a love affair; a family home rocked by a sea that is both cradle and grave; that doted-on daughter whose sudden apartness comes like a silent bomb.

Individual moments are incandescent, mysterious or headlong with portent. On the red kitchen wall behind a quarrel scene, the big white clock hands resemble crossed swords. A love scene on a moving train is reflected in a night window so that the coupling’s blurred, febrile grace rhymes visually with the image, still fresh in our minds’ eyes, of a stag bounding magically yet ominously through the train-side snow. Everything connects; everything casts a spell. Near the end the director cranes the camera above a lake-and-mountain landscape, at once to hold its majestic, indifferent beauty and to withhold a dénouement which — he is surely right to feel — must be left, for its full power, to be intuited and imagined by us.

Kristen Stewart in Olivier Assayas's 'Personal Shopper'

Personal Shopper is not in Almodóvar’s league, but it’s way above the league of the idiots — a dozen or so — who booed it. Maybe they were Twilight haters. Star Kristen Stewart has a role exploiting her nervy, sleepless eyes and murmurous lilt of voice. This is a ghost story: sort of. Her character is beguiled towards fulfilment or fatality by an unknown texter, perhaps her dead brother. Is he — let’s hazard a delirium of decoding — her “personal shopper”, a proxy agent of her desires and dreams, just as her own job, or one of them, is to be retail handmaiden to a celebrity French diva?

Perhaps the booers couldn’t stand being teased. This Assayas is the one who first blooded Stewart as his muse in Clouds of Sils Maria. In his new period as a picture-maker he peers tauntingly, at times bewitchingly, into the crack between this world and the next.

The best films of Jim Jarmusch seem to doze their way into your soul. He’s a Zen charmer. Just when you think his stories are asleep — like Paterson’s slow-pulse tale of a poetry-writing bus driver (Adam Driver) whose verses are for no one but him, his wife and his earthly sense of soul and self — you realise they’ve crept inside you and curled up for life.

Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani in ‘Paterson’

Somehow he makes prosaic Paterson, New Jersey, seem a place for poetry and revelation. (It was home to Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams.) Somehow too he makes a dog, a mastiff called Marvin, the most memorable deus ex machina in Cannes. He’s already favourite for the 2016 Palm Dog, annual gong for screen canines.

There have, alas, been other kinds of dog at Cannes. Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is all style and no substance, throwing its chiaroscuro and camera arabesques at a clunky Korean­isation of Sarah Waters’s gothic thriller Fingersmith. Loving, from Jeff Nichols (Mud, Midnight Special), is a pie-eyed plodder based on a true story: that of the Virginia couple whose mixed marriage challenged miscegenation laws in the Kennedy 1960s.

Better news on the fringe. The funny and enchanting Swiss model-animation film Ma Vie de Courgette, a debut feature from Claude Barras, is about the angst and antics of an orphanage boy. It was a hit in the Directors’ Fortnight, which also showed the first ever film from an Afghan woman director, Wolf and Sheep. Depicting life in and around a remote mountain village, it rates nine for ethnographic appeal, five for dramatic interest. But hooray for the fact of a 20-year-old woman — her age when she started the project — throwing off patriarchal constraints to make a feature film and bring it to Cannes.

With two days left, the Cannes competition powers on. Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World, stage-derived yet defiantly cinematic, focuses an expressionistic gaze on a torrid family reunion, starrily played by Nathalie Baye, Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassel and Gaspard Ulliel. Based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce it’s like a Gallic Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation is the third of this Romanian’s quietly coruscating moral tales to bow at Cannes. The last was Beyond the Hills — passions and a Passion in a convent — and before that the Palme d’Or-winning Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days. Now it’s the troubling, powerful tale of a small-town family venturing into petty corruption when something must be done, some dodgy favours must be called in, when an eve-of-exam daughter is disadvantaged, to put it mildly, by an attempted rape the day before.

We live in a world where assaults on freedom are multiform and multitudinous; where those on individuals are as pernicious as those on groups or nations; and where — thank providence for the Cannes Film Festival — the searchlights of art and cinema can shine an insistent, indefatigable light on liberty’s abuses and liberty’s value.

Ends May 22, festival-cannes.fr

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