Cannes 2017 Dispatch 3: 'The Meyerowitz Stories,' 'The Florida Project,' 'The Killing of a Sacred Deer' and more...
To stand in solidarity with the victims of the Manchester attack, there was a moment of silence at 3 pm today at the 70th Cannes Film Festival. This isn’t a ‘festival as usual’ day in the French Riviera. Sure, the films played across the festival’s vast venues non-stop; there was even a marathon of Jane Campion’s TV series Top of the Lake: China Girl. But some of the press releases were fittingly about the world outside of the bubble. And Cannes halted for a moment of silence with respect and compassion.
The last couple of days in Cannes proved to be busy ones for me with screenings, multiple parties and press conferences. Perhaps taking a hint from the times we live in, the films in this year’s lineup are mostly intense and distressing, and they cumulatively take their toll on one eventually, especially when combined with the late nights on the Croisette (or at private villas for those extra-fancy affairs like the Netflix fête that took place on Sunday night). But this is Cannes, the most cinephiliac and prestigious of festivals, and this is why we’re all here, I remind myself.
The Meyerowitz Stories private luncheon and roundtable
At Monday’s very intimate event joined by a handful of American journalists and The Meyerowitz Stories crew (Ben Stiller, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler and Noah Baumbach were all there), the topic of streaming vs. theatrical was once again top of mind. “I don’t think I ever understood how to handicap an audience,” said Stiller, with reference to the changing theatre-going habits. “The general landscape has changed. What studios are making has changed. [Netflix] are the ones making the movies in this mid-range budget that studios used to make in the 70s, 80s, 90s or maybe even early 2000s.” He continued, “I would much prefer seeing movies in theatres. I don’t want it to go away. I don’t want film to go away. I don’t know anything about their business, about how they created this model, and why it doesn’t make sense to them to first put it in theatres the way Amazon can. I wish they would. But I know Ted Sarandos is coming [from a place of] loving movies. He wants to get movies to people who don’t get them. Ted is able to keep this kind of movie alive. Our movie is going to be available day-and-date, so there is a choice there.” He also contended that people who run studios these days don’t have the same kind of personal connection to movies or the love of creative the way Sarandos has.
Thompson added that even the definition of the communal experience, which is so important to the French, is changing with people seeing the same film or other content at the same time all around the world. On a hopeful note, she remarked, “If you think about the fact that Kindle is dying because people actually want to read [hard] books, I’ve got a feeling that it’s Netflix that might move towards theatrical as they become more involved in this industry. I feel hopeful about it, is what I mean.”
Building on Stiller’s and Thompson’s remarks, Hoffman said it’s also expensive to go to the movies for a family and that is one of the reasons people prefer to have the choice of streaming. “So many times people have to get a babysitter. And they need to get a bite to eat afterwards. It’s expensive.”
When the conversation switched to The Meyerowitz Stories (review below), Sandler and Stiller said they were always looking for a film in which they could play brothers. “It’s amazing when you did a photo call, the three of you [Dustin, Adam and Ben] stood together and looked like father and two sons,” said Thompson, commenting on how much of a real family the cast has become. “We’ve known each other a long time. We were confused for each other. I’ve been told many times I was great in Ben Stiller films,” added Sandler.
Regarding Baumbach’s particular way of writing dialogue (which he wants the cast to deliver word for word), Thompson said, “If you take one preposition out of Noah’s dialogue, it changes it, because it’s music. And of course you have to be [a complete fascist]. “There is a dot there, and there is an ‘and’ there.””
“I don’t actually have [my dialogue] memorized, even though I wrote it,” added Baumbach. “And when I’m watching it, I can feel if it’s off. But I don’t necessarily know what’s off.”
After the roundtable, Emma Thompson, who is very particular about the parts she chooses, jokingly told me she wanted to play this role, as she really loved the idea of portraying a drunk. On a more serious note, she continued, “It was so interesting. It’s a completely different experience for me, because it’s a New York indie. I love doing independent work. So it was the script and it was the cast [that made me interested]. But I just had a ball and it was a real treat. It was fun.”
Below are capsule reviews of some of the major films I was able to see over the last couple of days. These are in addition to the charming Critics’ Week title Oh Lucy! (Atsuko Hiroyanagi), a disarming, sweetly compelling culture-clash story of two Japanese sisters’ brief trip to California; Laurent Cantet’s brainy, tensely calibrated stylish thriller The Workshop, and the Nicole Kidman/Elle Fanning-starring acid trip of a film How to Talk to Girls at Parties (John Cameron Mitchell).
The Meyerowitz Stories (Competition)
An assured entry into the filmmaker’s cinematic universe of dysfunctional families that includes the likes of The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, The Meyerowitz Stories sees Noah Baumbach at his best. The film doesn’t break new ground for the filmmaker—the beats of his latest are comfortingly familiar—but his crackerjack dialogue that sets his actors on fire is as bitter and acute as ever. And surely, rivalry between two brothers (Danny, played by Adam Sandler, and Matthew, played by Ben Stiller), an often-drunk, kindly stepmother who serves odd meals and casual wisdom (Maureen, played by the inimitable Emma Thompson), an afterthought sister struggling to claim her own voice (Jean, played by Elizabeth Marvel) and finally, an impossibly idiosyncratic father with a knack for antagonizing (Harold, played by Dustin Hoffman) make for both great comedy and tragedy. When the siblings decide to put together a career-spanning show for their famous sculptor father, all the dirt and delicious pettiness amongst family members surface and unfold through amusing, uncomfortable situations. Baumbach’s writing—where sometimes two characters in conversation launch into their own monologues while creating the illusion of a dialogue—provides an ample acting showcase canvas for the talent involved. Adam Sandler, playing the less successful of the brothers, comes out of the ensemble as the most memorable—this could be a career renaissance for him. He looks broken, angry and frustrated while trying to keep all the resulting impulses at bay. But to me, Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of an old, once-successful man is the real anchor of the film. His performance captures an aging individual whose least amiable characteristics have worsened with age. It is also an absolute delight to follow Danny’s daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten), the young, energetic, aspiring filmmaker member of the family, who brightens up the screen every time she appears amid the contrastingly glum members of her family. You do leave The Meyerowitz Stories craving for more Emma Thompson, if I can nitpick one aspect of the ensemble, but this is still a solid entry in Baumbach’s filmography.
Michel Hazanavicius, the writer-director of the Oscar-winning silent era homage The Artist, this time tries his hand at the French New Wave with panache and a feather-light touch. Among cinephiles, his competition title Redoubtable is referred to as the Jean-Luc Godard film of the festival, in which a pitch-perfect Louis Garrel plays the iconic French filmmaker synonymous with the 1960s cinematic movement. But what Hazanavicius’ film in fact focuses on is the romance and brief marriage of Godard to his muse and the young actress of La Chinoise, Anne Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin, the best thing here). The backdrop is Paris circa late 60s, leading up to the protests of May 1968, when Godard was caught between his mounting popularity and anti-conformist leanings informed by the political climate of the era. His marriage to Anne is portrayed in a rom-com fashion, with stylistic touches of Godard’s earlier work: punchy, colorful and mod. All of that adds up to something a bit twee, but thankfully Hazanavicius doesn’t overdo the visual references. Redoubtable is a thoroughly enjoyable account of a troubled marriage that collapses due to Godard’s prickly behavior, midlife crisis and consequent emotional abuse. Martin’s screen presence is simply magnetic (and Hazanavicius’s gaze on her is evident and at times a bit distressing, frankly.) But Martin simply owns this film, even during the scenes where you wish she were a bit more vocal. Beautiful period details, plentiful cinephiliac references and gorgeous photography: Redoubtable is a good time at the movies.
The Florida Project (Directors' Fortnight)
Sean Baker might just be one our most humanist filmmakers working today. He has the essential qualities of a classically great storyteller: a curious mind, a big heart and a boundlessly empathetic soul. It is with those qualities that he is able to see the often-ignored and sidelined members of the society, portray indistinct subcultures and make heroes out of them. In Take Out (which he co-wrote/directed with Shih-Ching Tsou), he compassionately followed an illegal Chinese immigrant, working as a delivery guy in the merciless streets of New York City. In Tangerine, he made a beautiful contemporary Christmas film, focusing on the friendship and hardship of two transgender prostitutes in L.A. And now he delivers perhaps his best film to date, and a strong early contender for those year-end “Best of” lists, about a community of Florida people on the verge of homelessness and below the poverty line. They live in a decently kept, bright purple motel, run by the fatherly, no-nonsense Bobby (Willem Dafoe). But it’s all about the young, explosive and beautifully chaotic kid Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) in the end. Her every move, often accompanied by her buddies Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), is buoyant. Raised by her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), Moonee’s days are spent getting into mostly innocent but sometimes dangerous trouble with her partners-in-crime and having loud, very loud, unadulterated fun. Her world is almost brutally stationed amid highways, abandoned buildings and strip malls, yet it’s also a stone’s throw from “the happiest place on Earth.” You might think this Disneyworld reference is a heavy-handed metaphor, but trust Baker a bit here: He lets this proximity to the Magic Kingdom speak for itself and steers clear of signposting its dramatic weight and necessity. The cast is absolutely terrific, so much that young Prince, who delivers a knockout performance, could become an awards-season contender with the right distributor. But there is a lot of time for awards talk. For now, I will take comfort in knowing that we have a director who thoroughly understands and is willing to deeply engage with the social realism of today’s America, one film at a time. The Florida Project is his indirect answer to last year’s terrific Palme d’Or-winner I, Daniel Blake, directed by Ken Loach. This is a film you will hear about and won’t want to miss.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Competition)
Halfway through The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Yorgos Lanthimos’ petrifying yet also strangely funny new film, I briefly wondered what types of thoughts keep the Greek auteur up at night. And a sort of terror mixed with mischief washed over me. Lanthimos is one of those filmmakers whose style is so distinctive that even if you watch a few random minutes of one of his films (blindfolded or eyes open) without knowing its maker, you could eventually detect his footprint. A steady rhythm, a contempt for anything ordinary or natural-feeling, hauntingly robotic dialogue delivery…all his filmmaking go-tos are dialed up to maximum effect in his latest. The story is tough to pin down, but basically follows a heart surgeon named Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), happily married to the ophthalmologist Anna (Nicole Kidman) and father of two children: Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). He also has a strange friendship with a teen named Martin (Barry Keoghan), who looks up to Steven as a mentor and is mothered by a single parent (cheekily played by Alicia Silverstone in a small but memorable part.) Things start going south in Steven and Anna’s household (well, considering their routinely stiff demeanor and weird sexual desires, they were never that normal) when one of their kids loses feeling in his legs. And to Steven’s (and our) horror, we know things will get a lot worse for both children before he has to make an unthinkable choice. And gradually, the film’s comedic tone is cruelly overtaken by horror, despite the fact that the cast and crew at the press conference insisted they see the film as a comedy.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is being compared to Sophie’s Choice on the ground, and for good reason. Its eeriness and chilly discomfort mostly reminded me of the films of Michael Haneke (who coincidentally has a film in the competition), the likes of Cache and Funny Games. At the afterparty, where Nicole Kidman walked barefoot on the beach in a black and white tutu gown, I asked Lanthimos what he makes of these comparisons. He told me he understands why people reference other films to define someone else’s work. “But it’s easy and lazy,” he told me. He of course defines himself as a lover of film and like all film fans he is subconsciously affected by others’ work. But it doesn’t occur to him as a conscious choice.
Onward to tomorrow morning. Finally, we will get a taste of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled. Bright and early.