CANNES, France — On Tuesday, Cannes was buzzing about a report in the trade publication Screen that several women were turned away from Sunday’s red-carpet premiere of Todd Haynes’s Carol for attempting to wear dressy flats, not heels, with their black-tie gear. According to the article, festival officials declined to comment, “but did confirm that it is obligatory for all women to wear high-heels to red-carpet screenings.” Today, however, festival director Thierry Frémaux said that while black-tie/evening dress is required for attendance at gala screenings, there are no guidelines regarding heel height.
The whole thing may be a misunderstanding, but it’s an unfortunate one. The most immediate and obvious irony is that in Carol we have a (terrific) movie about two women who fall in love circa 1952 — a picture that’s progressive in the sense that it neither treats the relationship as a novelty nor enlists it in the service of any preachy agenda. It’s a grand bummer if even just one woman was turned away from the Carol red carpet for wearing the “wrong” shoes. What’s more, Cannes officials have been trumpeting the fact that they chose to open this year’s festival with a film made by a woman, Emmanuelle Bercot’s Standing Tall. (This is only the second time the festival has opened with a film made by a woman, the last being Diane Kurys’s A Man in Love, in 1987.) A woman’s choice of footwear should be the last thing on their minds. I love a great pair of heels, but if we’re going to get hung up on the high vs. low issue, I’d argue that satin Manolo Blahnik flats are a hundred times more elegant than those hideous and ubiquitous thousand-dollar Christian Louboutin stiletto-clubfoot-platforms that some women are still toddling around in. The height of the heel has nothing to do with the propriety of the look. You’d think Cannes officials, being French and all, would understand that.
But enough about shoes. There are still too many movies to see: Yet to come are The Assassin, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first martial-arts picture (and his first movie since 2007’s Flight of the Red Balloon), as well as French provocateur Gaspar Noé’s sexual melodrama Love, which, Noé has promised, will give guys “a hard-on and make girls cry.” I’ll let you know how that goes. The crying part, I mean.
Of the films I’ve seen so far, Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs is a favorite, although I think the movie is too subtle to qualify as a real showstopper here. Isabelle Huppert plays Isabelle, a photojournalist who has spent most of her working life in war zones. As the movie opens, she has already been dead for several years, and her husband, Gabriel Byrne’s Gene, is in the process of helping a gallery put together an exhibit of her work. Isabelle has also left behind two sons: Jesse Eisenberg’s Jonah has recently gotten a Ph.D., and he has a newborn child — he seems to be doing just fine. But his much younger brother, Devin Druid’s Conrad, still in high school, is having a rougher time. He’s obsessed with online gaming, he has a crush on a girl he can’t bring himself to speak to, and he believes he can work feats of magic that no one else can see. What’s more, Gene has discovered that one of Isabelle’s old journalism colleagues (David Strathairn) is planning to write a story about her that will include some previously unrevealed secrets about the nature of her death, details his younger son doesn’t know.
Actually, that summary makes Louder Than Bombs sound like a movie I’d never want to see. A colleague who disliked the film called it an elevated Sundance vehicle, and I understand where he’s coming from. But for me, Trier’s direction — his ability to take each scene down a road you don’t quite expect — makes all the difference. This is Trier’s first English-language film, and his first featuring Hollywood (or at least just American) stars. His previous feature, from 2011, was the extraordinary Oslo, August 31st, a modernized adaptation of Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s novel Le Feu Follet (also filmed by Louis Malle in 1963), which chronicles the last day in the life of a heroin addict. Louder Than Bombs has more mainstream polish than that, but it would be a mistake to write it off as nakedly commercial. And though the picture is set in the States — the Manhattan bedroom community of Nyack, specifically — it doesn’t have that wide-eyed view of the suburbs that so many foreign-born directors fall prey to. The life this family leads is similar to that of middle-class families everywhere, just as their anguish is universal.
In one of the movie’s most piercing scenes, social oddball Conrad allows his older brother to read his intricate and intimate online diary, a document that details his most private feelings about his mother as well as the number of sheets of toilet paper he typically uses and the number of times per day he masturbates. Eisenberg’s Jonah is touched by what he reads — it’s the moment he realizes that his kid brother, though a bit odd, is just going through your garden-variety awkward phase. Later, Jonah tries to dissuade his brother from sharing the diary with his cheerleader crush, explaining that his best bet is just to “lay low” until high school and its horrors have passed.
The speech is both reassuring and cruel, as well as being tangled with Jonah’s own unresolved feelings about his parents and parenthood. Trier, who co-wrote the script with Eskil Vogt, gets at the way family members look out for each other, specifically the idea that sometimes those who are seemingly most fragile are the most empathetic and sensible. Huppert’s Isabelle, appearing in a flashback, has a stunning voiceover in which she describes the confusion of never feeling she’s in the “right” place, whether it’s a war zone or the home front. She talks about being away at work and aching to be home, only to have to re-familiarize herself with her loved ones every time she returns. “They can’t see how much they’ve changed,” she says, and there’s a sense of both wonder and mourning in her voice: She’s missed all of the precious stuff in between, the millimeter-by-millimeter growth spurts, the ups and downs of a particular school year, the shift toward new favorite television shows. Of course, when we think about it, that’s how we’d expect a wartime photojournalist to feel. But that’s part of Trier’s particular gift: In stating the obvious, he carves out a dimension we’ve never seen before. The commonplace is sometimes a foreign country.