Cannes highlights part I: 'Tale of Tales,' 'The Lobster'

ScreenerBlog

With temperatures in the mid 70s and a sea that is lovelier than any dress one is likely to see modeled on La Croisette, Cannes is a Mediterranean idyll, one whose visitors are trying their hardest to escape in favor of the darkened indoor theatres of the Palais des Festivals.

Throughout the day, people unaffiliated with the festival stand outside the Palais holding hand-written signs that beg in both English and French for tickets to the day’s films, mostly big-name affairs like Mad Max and Woody Allen’s Irrational Man, although the lesser known Tale of Tales may have had the most supplicants the morning of its invite-only screening.

Tales is screening in competition and is up against movies from the likes of Todd Haynes (Carol), Gus Van Sant (Sea of Trees) and Paolo Sorrentino (Youth). Art-house cineastes will know director Matteo Garrone by what is still his calling-card film, 2008’s well-reviewed Gomorra.

Tales is lighter than that mafia movie, but its adaptation of the fairy tales by Giambattista Basile is more Brothers Grimm (who, according to Wikipedia, adapted some of Basile’s work) than Disney. There’s flayed skin, a beheading, quite a bit of scar tissue and a suggested rape. The desires of three monarchs--Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel and Toby Jones--are realized to variously disheartening effect. The film is something of a less flippantly clever Into the Woods.

Its storylines are treated with an archness enhanced by tinkling theme music from Alexandre Desplat. The costumes are gorgeous and for anyone with an enduring princess complex the film’s exterior shots of castles-upon-a-hill will delight each and every time they are shown, as a kind of refrain, or palate cleanser.

I wanted to like Tale of Tales much more than I did. The film states outright, in the guise of a nameless mystery man who imparts wisdom and looks as Dobby from Harry Potter surely would if he were human, that the violent desires its characters harbor will beget violent consequences.

But while this violence is ably staged with style and for shock effect as the situation calls for, Garrone’s arch distance also succeeds in removing the stakes. Barring a scene in the third act with the magnetic Bebe Cave (Great Expectations) as Princess Violet, his film is rather gapingly missing a heart.  

Although there is much to visually admire in Garrone’s Tale of Tales, there is ultimately little of resonance.

Some might say the same for fellow competition film The Lobster, from Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos. I overheard one viewer voice his confusion: “It was too strange for me. I don’t know what the director wanted us to feel.”

Discomfited, if I had to guess, although less with his absurdist film than with the social mores it skewers.

The society in The Lobster is merciless. If you are an adult like David (Colin Farrell) who does not have a partner, you are sent to a certain hotel, in which you are given 45 days to pair up with another unfortunate soul or else be turned into an animal of your choosing. If the former doesn’t pan out and the latter isn’t to your liking, you can always run away and join a group of ferociously solitary vigilantes who are in hiding in the woods. This band of romantic misfits is staunchly opposed to coupledom. Woe betide he who finds his mate among them; their consequences for transgressing make life as a wild creature look like an episode of “My Little Pony.”

The Lobster is strange, although it’s more accessible than Lanthimos’ cacophonously absurd Dogtooth. The script Lanthimos co-wrote with Dogtooth collaborator Efthymis Filippou is full of stiltedly and really very funny frank dialogue, and it is this deadpan humor that acts as a hand extended to the audience, something recognizable amid otherwise very surreal surroundings.

Nearly every shot in The Lobster is off-kilter, the actors, including Farrell, Rachel Weisz, and Léa Seydoux, positioned on either the far left or the far right of the frame, and frequently seen in profile. This is perhaps meant to emphasize the lack of any middle ground in The Lobster: In this world, you must be either heterosexual or homosexual (you cannot register at the hotel as bisexual, as that causes undisclosed problems), and you must be always in a couple or choose to remain forever single.

Although I’m sure the cinematography of fellow Dogtooth alum Thimios Bakatakis will earn deserved praise, reactions to The Lobster are likely to be as extreme as the society it depicts. For its wit and visual style, count me among its proponents.

***

Three films screening under the Un Certain Regard banner are of particular note: the French La Tete Haute (Standing Tall), which was the opening-night selection; the Japanese An; and the Romanian One Floor Below.

Standing Tall is the second directorial feature of writer-director-actress Emmanuelle Bercot, and Bercot’s second collaboration with Catherine Deneuve. Her first film with the French icon was last year’s On My Way, in which Deneuve played an aging beauty queen who embarks with her grandson on a road-trip to a reunion of her fellow former beauty-pageant contestants.

Tall is a darker, surer look at modern family, its subject a low-class teen delinquent, Malony, his archetypal train-wreck of a mother, and the well-meaning and flawed justice workers (among them Deneuve, who plays his judge) who try from the time Malony is six until he is 18 to help him master his temper and integrate into society.

Tall appears to be an examination of the cyclical effects of delinquency and a portrayal of the difficulties inherent in breaking the circle so it straightens into a line that points forward. Malony driving a vehicle in circles, round bales of hay, and circular panning shots of the faces in a room, all appear to reinforce Tall’s emphasis on circuitry, on the habits we find difficult to break, from our own, or, as is the case that Tall makes, society’s refusal to allow for change.

First-time actor Rod Paradot as Malony is at his most convincing when he lashes out with the lack of restraint characteristic of a toddler, acting upon emotion untempered by thought. Tall has its clunky moments, noticeably a subplot with Malony’s love-interest Tess that serves its purpose as a narrative beat but doesn’t realize Tess’ potential as an interesting individual. And although it is admirably empathetic, the film is not subtle in its indictment of a system that overwhelms its employees with case files. It seems Malony is meant to be emblematic of the many like him, but beyond its implied call for open-mindedness, Tall does little to hint at what else might be done.

That being said, the movie for all its politics is not a documentary, and Bercot has crafted a tighter film than the meandering although enjoyable On My Way.

Interestingly, the French Malony’s stumbling attempts at entering a society that has labeled him unworthy are echoed in the Japanese An. A morose cook who manages a shop for Japanese sweets called dorayaki hires an old woman with crippled hands to make the dorayaki filling. This bean paste is extraordinary, probably because her spirit is lovely. Through their interactions with this indefatigably sunny woman, and their growing awareness of the injustices she has suffered, the cook and a lonely teen customer realize the potential lying dormant in themselves.

The movie, whose English title is Sweet Red Bean Paste, is traditional in structure and character arcs. You know where it’s going, when, and how it will get there. More than this, it states outright the “message” its visuals convey. It is a nice message, likely to resonant with anyone of a spiritual turn of mind. I was torn between finding its self-explanation gratingly superfluous and nice to listen to. Because An is very nice. Your reaction to that word will likely determine how you feel about Naomi Kawase’s (Still the Water) cinematic comfort food.

The Romanian One Floor Below is not so nice. It is not inviting or easy, nor does it traffic as does An in the sublime. It is very much a film grounded in the here and now of one’s thoughts and conscience. The protagonist, Patrascu, who is in nearly every if not every shot of the film, overhears a domestic dispute in his apartment building. The following day, the woman she overheard winds up dead, and her lover won’t leave Patrascu alone.

Below is very coolly shot, frequently framing Patrascu so he is the only figure in lucid relief to his blurred surroundings. The moral implications of treating one’s thoughts as if they were poker cards and holding them tight to the chest are explored slowly and quietly. The movie suggests emotional devastation and indeed hinges upon a crime of passion, but, as is conveyed via the camera that stays with Patrascu so closely you wonder if actor Teodor Corban ever had the urge to swat it away, the film is concerned almost exclusively with the mind.

“I wasn’t engaged,” said one viewer as we filed out of the theatre. If you were to treat One Floor Below as a code whose shots are symbols to be deciphered, it can be engaging viewing, yielding much to analyze. But if cerebral exercises are not your thing, you will not find One Floor Below affecting. And that, as the crowds outside the Palais can attest, is the point.