New dramas by Catherine Breillat and Todd Haynes examine relationships between older women and teenage boys in different yet equally complex ways.
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By Manohla Dargis
Reporting from Cannes, France
After the first weekend wraps at the Cannes Film Festival, the sound of suitcases clacking over the stone walkways here begins to fill the air. For the sleep-deprived who remain, though, the 76th edition ends Sunday night when the Palme d’Or will be handed out, capping one of the strongest festivals in years.
There have been, of course, the usual misses and worse — Jessica Hausner’s bludgeoning satire “Club Zero,” Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s ridiculous “Black Flies” — but the good news outweighs the bad. The latest from Wes Anderson, “Asteroid City,” a comic inversion of a Norman Rockwell-style world, is very good, as is the most recent from the Italian veteran Marco Bellocchio. His “Kidnapped” is a furious, operatic dramatization of the life and tragic fate of Edgardo Mortara, a 6-year-old Jewish child who in 1858 was snatched by Vatican thugs from his family’s home in Bologna. The child had apparently been covertly baptized, or so the Vatican claimed, and as a Christian could not be raised by Jewish parents.
For American moviegoers seeking more than blockbuster thrills, the stream of good reviews from Cannes is very welcome, though whether this will help entice art-film lovers back into theaters is the question. Even so, most of the movies will secure American distribution and, despite concerns about the Writers Guild strike affecting future projects, notable deals have been made. Netflix, for one, picked up Todd Haynes’s “May December,” about the aftermath of a teacher’s sexual relationship with a student. Here’s hoping that the streaming service, which desperately loves winning awards, releases it in theaters so that the movie can be eligible for next year’s Oscars and editors will keep running stories on it.
While the academy’s voters have become more adventurous in the past decade or so, “May December” seems too perverse and, frankly, too intellectually sophisticated and playful to secure a best picture nod. Still, its two superb female leads — Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore — will invariably be part of the next awards-season frenzy. That said, I can’t help but wonder what kind of bump it could have gotten if it had instead been bought by Neon, which evaded foreign-language film marginalization by turning “Parasite” into a must-see. Presumably the distributor will try to do the same with the formally precise, psychologically fraught drama “Anatomy of a Fall,” the latest from the French filmmaker Justine Triet.
“May December” focuses on Elizabeth (Portman), a popular TV actress set to star in a movie about a teacher, Gracie (Moore), who was imprisoned after she was caught with the pupil. Gracie and the student, Joe (a revelatory Charles Melton), married and had several children. The movie opens around the same time that Elizabeth arrives in Gracie’s waterfront hometown, settling into a visit with unexpected consequences. In an effort to find the role, Elizabeth tries to learn what makes Gracie tick, yet the deeper the actress explores her subject, the more she chips away at the couple’s happily-ever-after.
As he has done throughout a career that includes “Far From Heaven” and “Carol,” Haynes uses melodramatic conventions to fascinating effect, though he does so here with jolts of rich, destabilizing humor. Elizabeth may be searching for a character, but Gracie has already found the role of a lifetime as a martyr to her own desires, a part she perfects with waves of self-pity and monstrous narcissism. Playing with shifting tones and modes of realism, Haynes explores the intersection of real life and the self as a performance, routinely deploying flourishes of dramatic music that once could have accompanied a Joan Crawford meltdown but also have been rich comic fodder for the likes of Carol Burnett.
“May December” would make quite the seasonal double bill with “Last Summer,” the latest from the French auteur Catherine Breillat. A terrific Léa Drucker stars as an outwardly content, happily married lawyer and mother whose carefully ordered world is profoundly rocked with the arrival of her husband’s 17-year-old son (Samuel Kircher). Once the kid arrives and peels off his shirt, playing peekaboo under a crown of floppy hair, it seems fairly clear where the story is headed. Yet there’s nothing obvious about this movie, which, with shifting camera angles, differing points of view and gradually escalating emotional violence, creates an extraordinarily complex inquiry into desire and power.
“Last Summer” will probably continue on the international festival circuit in the fall, though it is unlikely to generate as much attention as some of the most excitedly received features here. Among the buzziest has been “The Zone of Interest,” a soulless formalist exercise from the British filmmaker Jonathan Glazer. Based on the novel by Martin Amis of the same title, it takes place largely inside the walled grounds of a house immediately adjacent to Auschwitz. There, as pillars of smoke rise in the sky, the death camp’s commandant (Christian Friedel) and his wife (Sandra Hüller) are living their lives — eating, raising children, somehow sleeping — to the nonstop sounds of screams, shouts and gunfire.
Glazer’s great talent is for creating mysterioso atmospheres (he’s best known for “Birth” and “Under the Skin”), and he gets his creep on again in this movie with eerie stillness, precise framing, minimalist dialogue and meticulous shocks. It is the lack of ideas in Glazer’s work that has always been the problem. Within this movie’s first 10 minutes, the words “banality of evil,” Hannah Arendt’s oft-quoted phrase about the Holocaust, will probably pass through your mind; it will keep on passing — and passing and then start circling — because Glazer has nothing to add to our understanding of the Shoah except as fodder for art-film banality.
“The Zone of Interest” makes a pointed contrast with “Fallen Leaves,” a tender, beautifully directed love story from the Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki, who won the Palme in 2002 for his drama “The Man Without a Past.” With his signature deadpan humor, brilliant timing and lapidary visuals, Kaurismaki brings together only to then separate two painfully lonely people, Ansa (Alma Poysti) and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen). They meet and go to the movies — the cinema’s lobby prominently features a poster for a film by Robert Bresson, a Kaurismaki touchstone — then endure chance accidents and bad decisions.
As is his custom, Kaurismaki — who strolled into his premiere greeted by rapturous applause and shouts of “Aki!” — packs a great deal into his minimalist narrative, creating a deeply human world filled with doleful faces, plaintive desires and thwarted dreams that he tempers with dry humor, political anger and a lot of movie love. “Fallen Leaves” was especially delightful to see at Cannes because when the couple goes to the movies, it’s to watch “The Dead Don’t Die,” the Jim Jarmusch zombie comedy that opened the 2019 festival. The audience howled, and I imagine so did Jarmusch, who had arrived at the screening of his old friend’s film early, securing a perfect center seat for this perfect delight.
Manohla Dargis is the chief film critic of The Times, which she joined in 2004. She has an M.A. in cinema studies from New York University, and her work has been anthologized in several books. @manohladargis
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