Film

Highlights From Cannes: ‘Staying Vertical,’ ‘I, Daniel Blake,’ and ‘Cafe Society’

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For all the glitz and glamour and gawking and counterintuitive crowd-control issues I have witnessed in this, my first visit to the Cannes Film Festival, what impresses me most is a very earnest shared belief in the vitality of a particular kind of cinema — sincere, auteur-driven, ambitious. It’s touching to see such hubbub over things like three-hour Romanian art films, and to see a new Alain Guiraudie movie on the massive screen of the Grand Theatre Lumiere, and to hear total strangers talk about how excited they are for new work from Maren Ade, a German director with only two (sublime) features to her name. (I could almost say that it’s nice to see thousands of people jostling and fighting their way into such screenings, but actually, that part is super-annoying.)

The opening-night film, Woody Allen’s Café Society, was more star-friendly, of course. The premiere coincided with a new Ronan Farrow essay in the Hollywood Reporter about the director’s alleged rape of his own daughter Dylan in 1991. Farrow’s piece took aim more at the media than Allen himself; it was in part prompted by THR’s own decision to run a cover interview with Allen and not ask him about the accusations. That prompted writers to ask some pointed questions of the director at a press event; as expected, he stonewalled. The allegations are devastating, and they’ll never go away, but they also exist in a deadly feedback loop with Allen’s own work and celebrity. The controversy makes headlines when he makes headlines.

What about Café Society itself? Surprisingly ambitious for late-period Allen, it takes in a wide swath of a young man’s life. Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) travels to Hollywood in the 1930s and gets a gofer job thanks to his hotshot agent uncle, Phil Silver (Steve Carrell). He also falls for Phil’s assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who insists that she has a boyfriend but continues to spend time with Bobby. We soon discover that Vonnie’s boyfriend is, in fact, Bobby’s own uncle Phil, who keeps saying he’ll leave his wife for her but never seems to. Vonnie is torn: She’s falling for Bobby, but she does love Phil, too. The film works best when only we in the audience are privy to Vonnie’s dilemma — when the camera fixes on the quiet dance of shame and uncertainty on Stewart’s face. It’s a surprisingly physical performance; her indecision practically consumes her.

Indeed, after the revelations come out and Bobby returns to New York, and the film continues along its merry way, I wished that Allen’s story had focused on Vonnie, or that it at least treated her as an equal player in the narrative. Instead, we see Bobby enter into business with his gangster brother back in New York, covering his hurt with success and power and a new family of his own. He never forgets Vonnie, and she never forgets him. And for all the film’s narrative flab and its slapdash subplots, there is power in Allen’s depiction of the silent, elemental pull between two people — a theme that reaches back to Annie Hall.

Café Society was shot by the great Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Reds, Apocalypse Now), and the collaboration has benefited both director and cinematographer: You can sense Allen really thinking about visual storytelling for the first time in a long while, and Storaro’s always-elegant lighting makes even the most basic two-shots pop. But the transaction goes the other way, too: Storaro’s recent work has been gorgeous and impeccable, but also stultifyingly artificial. Here, he seems freer, looser, the images not as chillingly precise as they were in, say, Carlos Saura’s Flamenco, Flamenco or Goya in Bordeaux.

The morning after Café Society I saw another director straying from his comfort zone, this time in decidedly more striking fashion .No summary can do justice to the story of Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical, which has the feel of Guiraudie trying on new narrative combinations, outcomes, and possibilities — all in keeping with the (somewhat facile) narrative device of a blocked screenwriter. It opens with Leo (Damien Bonnard), an idealistic, drifting screenwriter, as he drives along a country road and briefly tries to chat up a young man along the way. He then hikes out onto a hill, where he meets then makes out with Marie (India Hair), a stern-faced shepherdess. Not long after, they’ve got a baby on the way, with Leo playing surrogate father to Marie’s two young children.

The narrative jumps forward in unlikely ways. Even as he starts a family, Leo continues to promise an as-yet-unwritten script to his agent, asking for financial advances. He goes wandering, as if he may want to move on with his life. But his responsibilities grow, and he finds his world narrowing. He remains tied to the land — even after Marie decides she wants to live in the city. Occasionally, he goes into the woods and consults with a faith healer/mystic/psychologist who lays him in a hut and straps vines to him like electrodes. (No, really.) The wolves in the fields, for whom Leo earlier expressed an idealistic kind of admiration, threaten his sheep. And what about that young guy he tried to pick up earlier, who is apparently thinking of going to Australia? (Or is it Austria?) We keep returning to the same characters, but often with changing results; the story, such as it is, feels circular, only the circle is different each time.

Some of Staying Vertical’s provocations feel extraneous; I’m not sure the film needed a scene of someone getting fucked to death, but hey, that certainly got folks talking. What resonates is its constantly searching quality, which matches the protagonist’s divided self, the increasingly heated battle between the dreamer and the provider. Until now, Guiraudie has been a poet of the mundane — from the machine-shop communitarianism of his masterful 2001 50-minute short That Old Dream That Moves to the shimmering menace of 2014’s Stranger by the Lake, one of the standouts of that year’s Cannes. Those earlier films always hinted at more metaphorical dimensions, but Staying Vertical goes further; it lives in the realm of myth. And so, we sense the director pushing at the boundaries of his style, attempting to reconcile interpersonal minutiae with an open-ended, almost epic sensibility. He presents images and sounds that apparently belong in the real world but also suggest something more otherworldly: the tree-lined roads and cliffs passing by the protagonist’s windshield, the low thunder of flocks of sheep as they wander the plain. At every step, the film feels like it’s inventing the very language it needs to speak.

Ken Loach needs no invention, or reinvention. Indeed, the 79-year-old British director had said he’d retired a couple of years ago. But now he’s back at Cannes, where he won the Palme d’Or for his Irish war drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley ten years ago, and where he has received numerous other awards over the decades. And, go figure, he’s emerged with one of his better works. I, Daniel Blake initially finds Loach in a playful mood, as he catalogs, with subdued bewilderment, the ghastly bureaucratic indignities that Dan (Dave Johns), a Newcastle carpenter who quit working after a heart attack, has to endure as he applies for government assistance. All too often, films about social issues can lose themselves in vague indignation. But there’s a convincing, lived-in authenticity to the way Loach draws out this world: endless forms and government programs, a visit to a food bank, an enterprising young neighbor selling designer sneakers on the street by getting them shipped directly from a Chinese factory employee. What emerges is a portrait of a system that works only for those who know how to bypass it, to outwit it.

The opening has Dan speaking to a health care professional on the phone, as she asks him inane, generalized questions about his physical abilities (“Are you able to raise either arm to the top of your head as if you were putting on a hat?”) even though he keeps telling her that it’s his heart that’s the problem.

The bureaucratic clusterfuckery mounts in devastating and hilarious ways. Despite what the actual doctors have said, a “decision-maker” has pronounced Dan fit to go back to work. That renders him ineligible for an “Employment and Support Allowance.” He can choose to appeal the decision, which means more paperwork and an indefinite waiting period. Or he can chose to get financial support as he seeks employment (a “Job Seeker’s Allowance”), which will lead to even more dizzying bureaucracy. At times, I wondered if I might be watching George Orwell’s version of Umberto D.

The heart of the film involves Dan’s friendship with Kate (Hayley Squires), a destitute single mother he meets at the welfare office. She and her two young kids have just arrived from London, where, as she puts it, “they’re moving out the likes of me.” Dan befriends them, doing free repairs in their government housing and helping look after the two kids. I worried the film might become insufferable at this point — impoverished single moms with adorable kids are often a warning sign in such films — but Loach resists the urge to pull too hard at our heartstrings. He likes pathos, certainly, but not cutesiness. The film treats its characters humanely, without ever losing its sense of comic outrage, or the specificity of its grievances.

There’s something slyly, bitterly poetic at work here, too. You sense it in the constant references to the unseen “decision-maker” who seems to govern Dan’s life, and whose communiques come in either form letters or automated recordings or sometimes not at all. And you feel it in the film’s overall trajectory, as Dan and Kate both reach their breaking points. This is Loach — the humorist, the dramatist, the activist — firing on all cylinders. And it’s nice to have him back, though I have no idea for how long.

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