Today is the final day of the Cannes Film Festival; tomorrow Jury President Steven Spielberg will announce the awards. As we stumble into the home stretch, we present short reviews of some of the major contenders — and of one brave document, from an Iranian director disgraced by the state, that stands prouder than most of the films competing for the Palme d’Or.
Only Lovers Left Alive
Take last year’s Palme d’Or-winning death drama Amour, about two octogenarian lovers and the younger family member who pesters them. Make the couple even older — but looking great for their advanced age — and fond of rock ’n’ roll instead of classical music. Oh, and they’re vampires. That’s Jim Jarmusch’s new dramatic comedy, starring Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as Adam and Eve, the ageless creatures who live separately in Detroit and Tangier, but share the purest, deepest, most affectionate love of any twosome in the Cannes competition.
Their domestic reverie is punctured by the arrival of Eve’s kid sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who wears all the recklessness of youth; after all Ava is only, like, 300 years old. She guzzles Adam’s precious supply of O-negative blood, totals his heirlooms and gets a little too frisky with a friendly zombie named Ian (Anton Yelchin). But this is mainly a love story of an aging couple in emotional and devotional synch. Evoking such classic tandems as Nick and Nora, Noël and Gertie, and Gomez and Morticia, with a little Sid and Nancy for spice, they swan through immortality like retired rock royalty, gracing discos, and jetting to exotic locations. Adam purchases vintage electric guitars from Ian. Eve confers with the vampire Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who is still annoyed that the credit for his plays went to Shakespeare — “That illiterate zombie!” — and who wishes that, 400 years ago, he had known Adam, who would have made a perfect model for Marlowe’s Hamlet.
In the 21st century, most vampires don’t find human victims — consider the contagions they might pick up — but acquire their blood supply through friends and unscrupulous doctors. All that shopping must weary Adam, who considers suicide with a wooden bullet. But Eve is the ideal antidote to depression, telling her spouse that things like “appreciating nature” and “kindness and dancing” make life worth living for the undead. And so they dance at home to Denise LaSalle’s “Trapped by a Thing Called Love.” Less a drama than a miniature double portrait, Jarmusch’s film creates two people whose joy, not pain, is to be together forever. C’est l’amour. —R.C.
(READ: Complete Coverage from Cannes)
Nearly a century ago, the novels of Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser anatomized early 20th-century America: a verdant dream for European escapees, who often found the new world as corrupt and crushing as anything back home. James Gray’s new film, set in the tenements, homes and showbiz dives of 1921 New York City, describes the travails of a young Polish woman, Ewa (Marion Cotillard), who is separated from her dear, tubercular sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) on Ellis Island and forced into a life of degradation by the predatory huckster Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix, in his fourth film with Gray). The one possible helping hand is proffered by Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a magician employed in Bruno’s theater. But anything that can go wrong for Ewa does, as she is blamed by her family and the police for the shame that Bruno has heaped on her.
This could be a fable as pertinent to our time as to Ewa’s. Immigrants can still get the dirty end of the stick from employees eager to exploit them. Now if only Gray could bring some heat and heart to his story. A handsome, meticulous evocation of Manhattan on the cusp of the Jazz Age, the movie remains oddly inert, and its characters chained to their fates. Even Phoenix, who as the evil Bruno might exude some mischievous, malicious verve, comports himself like a harried, tired businessman. Renner is supposed to be the charismatic showman, but brio is simply outside his skill set. That leaves the Oscar-winning French star Cotillard, who never looked more lustrous, even as her Ewa sinks into the mire. Here, as in last year’s Cannes entry Rust and Bone, she illuminates a film not quite worthy of the brilliance she poured into it. She gives a superb performance in a losing cause. —R.C.
Manuscripts Don’t Burn
In late 2010, an Iranian court found directors Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof guilty of “colluding in the gathering and making of propaganda against the regime.” The court imposed jail sentences on both men and forbade them from making movies. Panahi’s response was to record his home imprisonment with an iPhone and show the result, which he called This Is Not a Film, in Cannes the following year. Rasoulof was even nervier. Filming clandestinely in his native land, with interiors shot in Germany, he has made Iranian cinema’s most explicit denunciation of a government that goes beyond forbidding its finest writers to publish. It has them killed.
A man rushes up a hill from his pursuer and jumps into a getaway car that speeds away. The runner, Khosrow, and the driver, Morteza, are two assassins hired by the Secret Service to dispose of the troublesome author whom they have bound, blindfolded and tossed in the car’s trunk. Back in Tehran, two other writers are under fire for harboring manuscripts that detail a 1995 incident in which the driver of a bus holding 21 writers on their way to an international conference, steered his vehicle off the road and into a ravine in a mass-murder attempt. A Secret Service official, himself once a counterrevolutionary writer and now editor of a state-run newspaper, is determined to repress all Iranian intellectuals. He quizzes these enemies of the state in a tone suggesting that, whether or not they give him the manuscripts, they won’t long outlive their interrogation.
Unaccountably not included in the Cannes competition, where it surely would have earned a citation for its skill and daring, Manuscripts Don’t Burn moves at a stately pace that cannot hide the urgency of its theme or the peril its cast and crew faced in making it. (The names of the actors (reportedly Iranians now living in Europe) are withheld to ensure their safety.) Beyond the death-defying audacity of his enterprise, Rasoulof has created a killer-thriller that is all the more harrowing because the whole sorry story is true. —M.C.
A Touch of Sin
At Cannes this year, authoritarian governments are taking a beating from some of their most distinguished filmmakers. Jia Zhangke, whose Still Life won the Golden Lion at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, dishes out his inside criticism of China in four separate stories about the physical and political violence imposed on the citizens of a huge nation struggling to modernize. Based on published cases of murder and suicide, A Touch of Sin references events whose meanings are clearer to Chinese audiences than to those in Cannes. But the overriding message is unavoidable: the only way to fight violence, whether from the state or by itinerant punks, is with violence.
In the first vignette, a gang wielding hatchets sets upon a motorcyclist, who ups the ante by pulling out a gun. The employee of a coal-mining company, who had gone to school with the company’s arrogant boss, speaks up at the boss’s big photo op and is rewarded by getting cracked on his head by a metal spade. A receptionist in a sauna parlor resolves her dilemma with a customer by brandishing a knife. The fourth episode, about a fired factory worker forced into demeaning jobs, gives a view of the slave-labor indignities forced on the tens of millions of workers who make clothes, toys, and electronics for the West. The film’s dramatic impact may be muted, perhaps murky; but Jia has painted a national fresco with an epic, instructive reach. —M.C.
Like Father, Like Son
Six-year-old Keita sits between his affluent parents at an interview for admission to an advanced grade school. The boy volunteers that he and his father often bonded by flying kites — a lie that he told because his “cram coach” had suggested it. In fact, the father, Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama), is so obsessed with his ladder-scaling corporate job that he has little time for the boy except to insist he spend all his time doing homework and practicing the piano. Ryoto’s dry dream of remaking Keita in his own go-getter image is crushed when he and his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) get word from the rural hospital where she gave birth that two babies had been switched. Keita is actually the child of a working-class couple: a feckless shop owner Yukari (Lily Franky) and his wife (Yoko Maki). Now the the four adults are encouraged to restore the boys to their natural parents, in a film that asks whether nature or nurture creates a true parent-child bond.
Writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda plumbed the plight of children separated from their parents in the 2005 Cannes entry Nobody Home. This time, applying the bright colors of a TV commercial, he concentrates on the parents, who fall into convenient class categories: the arrogant yuppies and the soul-of-the-earth couple whose rude manners are an expression of their warm hearts. The bumpkin Yukari may speak with his mouth full and hope for a big settlement from the careless hospital, but he lavishes love on both boys and, needless to say, finds the time to go fly a kite. The children’s performances are winning, but the director’s dogmatic social scheme saps the dramatic tension in a film whose predictable message is: to be like a real father, you must connect with your son. —M.C.