Cannes Film Festival 2016: Arthouse Cinema on the Riviera

CANNES, FRANCE - Director Cristi Puiu attends the 69th annual Cannes Film Festival.

CANNES, FRANCE – Director Cristi Puiu attends the 69th annual Cannes Film Festival. Clemens Bilan/Getty Images

Now that Woody and Steven have left the Riviera, Cannes chatter can get back to its raison d’être: hardcore arthouse cinema. The festival’s programmers certainly expect their international journalists to feast on candied confections with Hollywood-friendly casts and splashy budgets; but they also demand an equally ravenous appetite for fiber-rich filmmaking. What better way to follow Mr. Allen’s sentimental soufflé Café Society than with the high-colonic of Christi Puiu’s 173-minute familial reunion Sieranevada? That caustic slice of Romanian miserablism unspooled for the press on the very first night of the fest, a sadistic face slap to jet-lagged travelers and a sober reminder that bright-eyed movie stars and breezy plots have no place in the upper echelons of the Seventh Art.

An Eastern European domestic epic with shrill players and an infatuation for verbal diarrhea, Sieranevada (the title remains a mystery) is a raucous morass of internecine conflict among relatives gathered for a burial ritual. Grappling equally with nobly profound ideas and gratingly self-aware camerawork, Sieranevada is ultimately sunk by its own lofty pretentions, an undisciplined hodge-podge by a talented director who was clearly given too much creative freedom and not enough challenging debate about his cinematic vision.

Want to see a young stud performing euthanasia-tinged geriatric sodomy while early Pink Floyd plays on a turntable? Or a moonlit baby left out as nocturnal bait to attract wolves?

Maybe Puiu’s kitchen-sink realism was just too mundane compared with the French auteurs. Want to see a young stud performing euthanasia-tinged geriatric sodomy while early Pink Floyd plays on a turntable? Or a moonlit baby left out as nocturnal bait to attract wolves? How about a man stripped naked by a mob of homeless beggars? Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical has all three scenes, plus a slew of other quasi-dreamlike moments that lurch this tonally eccentric modern fable from reality to fantasy and back again. It’s a laudable, though erratic, look at one man’s resistance to conformity—social, sexual, vocational—and the disorderly epiphanies he leaves in his wake.

But Staying Vertical has nothing on Bruno Dumont’s wildly grotesque comedy Slack Bay, an almost avant-garde slapstick send-up of class warfare set 100 years ago on the coast of Northern France. A family of wealthy vacationers, including a maniacal Juliette Binoche, delight in the earthy squalor of the underclass who later reveal themselves to be murdering cannibals.

Among the lighter moments: mussel-combing children scoop out loose fingers and ears from a pot of bloody body parts while their mother vainly tries to get them to eat a freshly butchered human foot. Hilarious! Most famous for his severely stern humanist dramas, Mr. Dumont has produced such an oddly mannered approach to humor that it’s both inherently funny as well as a studied critique of what it means to be funny. Ultimately exhausting at two hours, Slack Bay is still riddled with enough bizarre behavior to make it unsettlingly delightful.

Even one of this year’s prestige pictures is surprisingly louche. (Consider it bespoke kink.) Park Chan-wook’s sumptuous, handsomely mounted period piece The Handmaiden, a wicked, noir-infused lesbian thriller, starts out as 1930s story of a con man who uses an orphaned young Korean woman to infiltrate the staff of a wealthy Japanese heiress and help bankrupt her. But the twists and turns start to build as the two women develop an undeniable attraction. Cue the erotic literature, BDSM devices, Ben Wa balls, and—naturally to represent the spectrum of Asian sex fantasies—the inevitable octopus tank.

Cho Jin-Woong, Kim Tae-Ri, and director Park Chan-Wook attend The Handmaiden (Mademoiselle) photocall during the 69th annual Cannes Film Festival.

Cho Jin-Woong, Kim Tae-Ri, and director Park Chan-Wook attend The Handmaiden (Mademoiselle) photocall during the 69th annual Cannes Film Festival. Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Surprisingly enough, and in stark contrast to the other competition films, this week’s English-language selections have been unabashedly tame if not downright decent-minded. Ken Loach’s trademark liberal politics inform the gut-punch tearkerjerker I, Daniel Blake, which follows a widowed carpenter with a heart condition trying to stay on the dole (per doctor’s orders) but meets chronic resistance in Britain’s welfare system (civil servant drones keep making ominous referrals to a never-seen “decision-maker”). Aside from a few unfortunate plot points that could have been just at home in a silent-film melodrama, Mr. Loach’s bittersweet morality tale showcases the true heroism of small gestures among average people helping each other fight for their own dignity in the face of a chillingly indifferent social system.

Representing the first wave of Oscar-bait “issue movies” this year is Jeff Nichol’s Loving, a muted but poised portrait of Richard and Mildred Loving and their successful U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit Loving v. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage in 1967. Don’t expect scenes with strident speechifying or fervent crowds erupting into applause amid rallying swells of orchestral treacle: Mr. Nichols plays the film’s emotional cards close to his vest, celebrating the quotidian moments of marital life while stressing how Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga), both quietly defiant but clearly intimidated by the law, were far from crusaders. Mr. Edgerton and Ms. Negga, respectively Australian and Irish-Ethiopean, do a superb job nailing their rugged Southern accents, and deliver the kind of performances that Oscar voters adore.

But the most modest movie by far is Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s still-water meditation on the creative inner worlds of everyday people. Simple but never simplistic, the site-specific story follows a week in the life of a New Jersey Transit bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver) who writes poetry in his down time and enjoys domestic bliss with quirky wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). The Patersons reside in Paterson (naturally) and subsist on his modest salary. Not much happens, except that life happens, which is more than enough: Mr. Jarmusch’s mastery of human rhythms reveals the profundity within an unassuming moment. The film is a tiny miracle, a multifaceted gem that’s the perfect refutation of the festival’s carnivorous carnival atmosphere—as well as the perfect cinematic definition of what Cannes, at its best, truly does showcase.

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