Reasons to Rejoice, From Cannes: ‘Paterson,’ ‘The Handmaiden,’ and ‘Toni Erdmann’


Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, which premiered last night at the Cannes Film Festival and follows the life of a poet in Paterson, New Jersey, is the closest the director has come to an artistic manifesto. Jarmusch first arrived in New York back in the 1970s with dreams of becoming a poet, and although he quickly gave it up for music and filmmaking, poetry has remained a touchstone for the filmmmaker. (Christopher Marlowe even appeared as a character in his last film, Only Lovers Left Alive.) It was clear to most of the audience here that this was a major work — the purest distillation yet of Jarmusch’s aesthetic.

The title refers to the town as well as the character: Adam Driver plays a man named Paterson, who lives in Paterson. (It also refers to William Carlos Williams’s masterpiece Paterson, an epic poem about the splendor found in the everyday.) Paterson goes through his daily routine: waking up, talking to his wife, driving a bus, walking his dog. The language of real life drifts in and out of his world: men talking about women, kids talking about revolution and coffee, a rapper practicing his rhymes, a co-worker complaining about his family. He carves his poems, slowly, patiently out of all that basic, mundane material. “We keep plenty of matches in our house,” he writes. “Recently our favorite brand is Ohio Blue Tip, though we used to prefer Diamond Brand.” That may not sound like much, but Paterson keeps coaxing the words until finally he lands on the image of one of those matches “lighting, perhaps, the cigarette of the woman you love for the first time.”

This poetry sounds…not unlike a film by Jim Jarmusch, steadily building meaning and beauty out of simplicity and routine. Jarmusch’s films usually have tangible narrative arcs — even if they’re loose and subdued — but Paterson is resolutely un-dramatic, following a week in his life with minimal changes from day-to-day. And yet, with each step, the film gains depth. Small variations in routine start to feel momentous, and the briefest encounter can seem like some momentous sign.

If Paterson is a quiet rallying cry for minimalism, then Park Chan-wook’s deliriously twisty Gothic thriller The Handmaiden, which might be the best film so far at the festival, is a clarion call for what I guess we’ll have to term maximalism — the idea that sometimes more really is more. Based on Welsh novelist Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, the film transposes its source’s Victorian tale of sex, duplicity, and madness to 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea. Grifter and pickpocket Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) infiltrates the household of the young and very wealthy Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) by posing as a maid. Sookee’s mission: to help convince Lady Hideko to leave her depraved soon-to-be-husband for a dashing Japanese Count (Ha Jung-woo), who is himself Sookee’s partner-in-crime. As the conspiracy tightens, however, the two women start to fall for each other, and a lesbian counter-narrative starts to emerge.

The film is a series of sleights of hand about sleights of hand: Park brings the full arsenal of cinematic expression — interlocking sets, crane shots, dollies, and dizzying pans, not to mention a savvy interplay of eerie reserve and hyperventilating emotionality with his performances — to invest us in each moment, even though much of the time we know the characters are being conned, that it’s all an illusion. Sometimes, his style is playful in the strangest, most disarming ways: One rather explicit lesbian sex scene is scored to what I’m pretty sure is Hans Zimmer’s music for Terrence Malick’s WWII movie The Thin Red Line! It seems like a bizarre choice, until the scene’s tone transforms from one of mere seduction and pleasure to confrontation, and then to the sisterhood of combat.

Park can make a mere door opening an act of emotional transcendence. But he undercuts his stylistic flourishes, too: One scene, of two figures stealing quietly away into the night, is played first through an elaborate, precise crane shot – a Sergio Leone-style liberation. Later in the film, the same moment is replayed in breathless close-up, revealing that we didn’t see the full picture the first time around. All this may be indulgent, but it’s not empty: The story is all about the construction of identity and personal narrative, and the way human relationships can be pre-negotiated, often by third parties. So, he lets us enjoy the exquisite pattern of his rugs — just before he pulls them out from under us.

There are usually a couple of films at Cannes that split critics right down the middle — with different sides proclaiming them disaster or masterpiece. So far, the most divisive film in competition appears to be Andrea Arnold’s occasionally enthralling but currently quite rough American Honey. It belongs to a subgenre I like to call “smuggler’s musicals”: films that aren’t technically musicals, but that include so much singing and dancing that they secretly manage to be. (Other such movies: Emir Kusturica’s Underground, and at least one Leos Carax film.) The tale of Star (played by electrifying newcomer Sasha Lane), a poor teenager who joins in with a rough, diverse crew of kids traveling the country selling, um, magazine subscriptions, Arnold’s film is a semi-improvisatory road movie, filled with what appears to be documentary footage and nonprofessional bit parts.

Music and dancing are woven into the very fabric of these lives: Star first sees Jake (Shia LaBeouf), the Artful Dodger of this crew, as he gets up on a supermarket checkout counter to dance along to Rihanna on the store radio; when Star goes to tell the mother of her boyfriend’s kids that she’s leaving, the woman is in a country and western bar, line dancing — a nice metaphor for being stuck in a pattern. On the road, the kids sing along to their van’s stereo, pull out a guitar, dance with potential customers. The expressive abandon of music speaks to both connection and danger: At one point, the crew’s ringleader, Krystal (a sleazily good Riley Keough), drops off Star and a couple of the other scantily-clad girls among a group of oil workers and encourages them to gyrate to techno while the men stare in disbelief. “Are you girls prostitutes?” one man asks. “No, we’re selling magazines,” is the response, but in this film’s vision of America, it doesn’t really matter. To survive, you have to sell — whether it’s your body, your soul, or some boating mags.

American Honey is the kind of film some will say is all about How We Live Today™. And I’m pretty sure that’s the intention, too; it has a Grand Statement feel to it. But the voraciousness of Arnold’s camera can also be its undoing: She finds perversity in this world, and loads of symbolism, but the film is both overstuffed and incomplete. A “romantic” triangle (there’s nothing actually romantic about it) between Jake, Star, and Krystal, while narratively and thematically necessary, is unconvincing. The movie feels like it could go on forever, and doesn’t quite have an ending. That’s probably intentional — the grind never ends— but it also means that this often exhilarating film regularly flirts with tedium. Don’t be surprised if, by the time it arrives on U.S. shores, American Honey clocks in well under its current 162-minute running time.

Meanwhile, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann is probably the festival’s biggest breakout so far. (With 3.8 stars, it actually set some sort of record in the Screen International Jury Grid, which tallies the highest-rated films in competition. This is the sort of thing to which Cannes-watchers pay very close attention.) That’s reason to rejoice, as Ade, a German director whose previous two efforts played at Berlin and had very short theatrical lives in the US, is one of the great hopes of today’s world cinema. Toni Erdmann may not be a masterpiece, but it is still quite good. The story of a practical joker of a dad who goes, uninvited, to stay with his corporate hotshot daughter while she does business in Bucharest, the film ambles along at the speed of life. The title refers to one of several loosely defined identities Dad assumes — sometimes a diplomat, sometimes a life coach, always an embarrassment to his child.

The aspirational nature of identity — what we are, what we think we are, what we wish we were, and how others see us — has been Ade’s great theme across her three features to date. As a writer and director, she is a supernaturally gifted behavioralist, unafraid to let her scenes ramble on, and on, secure in the knowledge that we will find these characters and situations as fascinating as she does. And she’s right. For example, she absolutely nails the forced seriousness of the corporate world — the jargony rambling about steering committees and contractor rates and team-building, the lightly submerged sexual politics, the politely pissy disagreements. And although the overt trajectory of the father-daughter dynamic is one we’ve seen countless times before (a critic friend correctly pointed out that the film feels at times like a more subdued, European remake of the Adam Sandler vehicle That’s My Boy!), Ade never goes for pat conclusions or emotional red herrings. She’ll consciously set up plot threads but not follow up on them. When some directors do that, it feels like laziness or avoidance; when Ade does it, it’s always in the pursuit of a greater truth about the unresolvable messiness of our lives as we live them.