Cannes 2016: Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation is impeccably constructed

20 May, 2016 Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Festivals, Opinion, Review

Catherine Bray catches Romanian auteur Cristian Mungiu’s Cannes Competition film Graduation, a minor but riveting morality play.

Cristian Mungiu's Graduation

Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation

For Cannes audiences with hopes pinned on Cristian Mungiu to deliver another knock-out blow of the kind he achieved with Beyond the Hills and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, his latest, Graduation, playing in Competition at the 69th Cannes Film Festival, may qualify as something of a disappointment. I have to say, I was riveted by this slow-burn precision construct throughout, but equally doubt that it’ll be something I’ll return to when making my “best of 2016″ list in seven months.

Focusing on a doctor determined that his daughter must, by any means, take up the scholarship she’s been offered to study at a British university, Mungiu constructs an ethical dilemma involving low-level bribery, whose spiral tightens with every turn of the screw. Where most of the decisions taken in the moment by any given character feel understandable given their context, it’s clear from the outset that the ensuing tangle of deception and compromise is both avoidable and inexorable.

Set in a bleak Cluj housing estate, the environment is one of stagnation, where moral decisions and the location work are both essentially a grey area. Mungiu poses the fundamental question of whether, given that a break with the nation’s compromised past can seemingly only itself be achieved by fresh compromise, this apparent break with the past represents a new dawn worth having, or simply a continuation of the corruption that has cut post-Ceausescu Romania off from fully functioning as a modern democracy.

It would all seem overly schematic were it not for the naturalism of the performances from a superb, un-showy ensemble including Adrian Titieni, Maria Dragus and Lia Bugnar. Cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru rarely allows the actors to rely on the luxury of forgiving close-ups to communicate their characters’ emotions – instead they must work with their body language to show how they feel. Since they are frequently concealing their true feelings from whoever they’re with at the time, it’s a doubly tricky thing to pull off, but there aren’t any weak links.

The film I was most reminded of was not, in the end, one of Mungiu’s own, but the work of Michael Haneke on Hidden. There’s a similarly cool analytical perspective at work that neither condemns nor celebrates anyone’s choices – it merely seem to record, to dissect. Of course such objectivity is an illusion, as much a directorial choice as anything more overt.

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Cannes 2016: Gimme Danger (dir. Jim Jarmusch)

19 May, 2016 Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Documentaries, Review

Michael Leader catches the Cannes premiere of Jim Jarmusch’s documentary chronicling the career of The Stooges…


What a treat! Not one, but two new films from independent cinema deity Jim Jarmusch in the Official Selection at Cannes. The first was Paterson, which Film4’s Catherine Bray reviewed earlier this week, and here’s the flip-side, a rousing documentary about proto-punk pioneers The Stooges.

Formed in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1967 by former jobbing drummer James Osterberg (aka Iggy Pop), brothers Ron and Scott Asheton (guitar and drums, respectively), and bassist Dave Alexander, The Stooges perfected a chaotic, caterwauling subgenre of garage rock that proved impossible to market in both the psychedelic late-60s and the more commercially-driven early-70s, despite the efforts of Elektra Records and, later, David Bowie and his MainMan management firm. Perhaps best known as the incubator that birthed the serpentine, shirtless behemoth Iggy Pop, The Stooges’ three LPs only grew in stature as time passed, greatly influencing many key musical moments in the years since, from punk to alternative rock to grunge.

Jim Jarmusch – clearly a rock ‘n roll nut as evidenced by his soundtrack choices, casting decisions and recurring thematic obsessions – has only flirted with the music documentary genre once before, with the rarely-revisited Neil Young tour movie Year Of The Horse, and those expecting that Gimme Danger will match the tone of the director’s feature films may be somewhat disappointed – for this is, unavoidably, a conventional, largely linear rock-doc, chock-full of talking heads and archival footage. Happily, however, it’s an absolute riot.

If you look, you’ll find Jarmusch’s fingerprints all over Gimme Danger, from the odd bit of off-camera chatter (“We are interrogating Jim Osterberg…”) to a soundtrack cut from his sludgy, Stooges-influenced side project SQÜRL, but the director clears the stage to tell the story of this highly influential, mythologised band. Having an avowed mega-fan behind the camera brings not just the expected energy in revisiting the highlights of the band’s short recording history, it also balances the film’s outlook, imbuing the dreaded back-half of any retrospective with an infectious curiosity. Take, for example, the retelling of the band’s late-game ‘reunification’, as told by bassist Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE), who plots a path from Todd Haynes’ 1998 glam-rock pseudo-biopic Velvet Goldmine (featuring a character based on Pop), through a debilitating illness that prevented him from playing music, to his recovery covering Stooges songs live with various musicians (including Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis and the Ashetons), to the eventual revival of the band’s initial lineup, with Watt filling in on bass, at Coachella in 2003.


Also key is the incredible story of James Williamson, guitarist and songwriter on scuzzy 1973 classic Raw Power, who dropped out of the music industry to become an electrical engineer and, eventually, vice president of technical standards at Sony, only to rejoin The Stooges in 2009, sounding as ferocious as ever, while looking like someone’s retired uncle had won a competition to be a rock star for the night.

It would have been all too easy to cash in on Iggy Pop’s boundless charisma and inexhaustible store of anecdotes (from hanging out with Nico to inventing, and botching, the first stage dive); it’s trickier to shift focus to the band behind the frontman, some of whom, including Scott Asheton and saxophonist Steve Mackay, passed away after being interviewed, yet before the finished film’s premiere. To many they may have been known as ‘Iggy & The Stooges’, but Pop asserts throughout that the band were philosophically, if not politically, Communist. In Gimme Danger, Jarmusch has crafted a loving, detailed documentary that perfectly reflects this musical ideal.

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Cannes 2016: a mid-fest treat in the form of Paterson

18 May, 2016 Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Festivals, Opinion, Review

Catherine Bray falls for Jim Jarmusch’s quietly charming Competition entry Paterson, starring Adam Driver.

Adam Driver stars as Paterson

Adam Driver stars as Paterson

Jim Jarmusch films are a bit of an unknown quantity for me – sometimes I want to throw things at the screen because it all seems so unbearably precious, and at other times, I’m utterly seduced by his worldview and characters. Paterson, a gently charming film about a poet/bus driver played by Adam Driver, called Paterson, who lives in Paterson, falls into the latter category. As you can see from the previous sentence, there’s some silliness with names going on, but it doesn’t dominate proceedings. (Was Driver cast before or after the character was written as a driver? It doesn’t really matter.)

Giving the lie to the notion than enormous puppy eyes are inherently more soulful, Driver, whose eyes might be best described as feline, projects soulfulness in every scene and it’s really tough to think of many other actors who could have pulled this role off without making me want to barf. Maybe Oscar Isaac, who did something similar as an unsuccessful poetic folk singer in Inside Llewyn Davis, but with roughly 5000% more bitterness and ambition; Llewyn is like Paterson’s evil twin.

For an actor, convincing an audience that you are a poet is a tricky ask, not at all like playing a secret agent or a rockstar. Secret agents shoot people, rockstars put a show on in front of thousands of screaming fans. We can see the secret agent’s effectiveness in the death of her enemy, the rockstar’s success in the screams of the crowd and the adulation of his groupies. Poets… well, maybe it was different back in the day, but in the 21st century the best visual shorthand a screenwriter might hope to come up with to indicate a successful poet is someone earnestly seeking an autograph, or maybe a lecture hall full of starry-eyed co-eds. Either way, cinematically uninteresting.

Jarmusch sidesteps this entirely by making Paterson a poet with an ambivalent attitude to public success. He writes his poems in a notebook, referred to by his girlfriend as his “secret notebook”, and he doesn’t seem to be at all interested in anyone else reading them. The notebook is also the only copy of his work, whereas most people with even half an eye on some imagined posterity are backing that stuff up into the Cloud on a regular basis. Of course Paterson is something of a refusenik in that department – he doesn’t own a laptop or mobile phone, believing that such items constitute a leash, and maybe he’s right. Though as his girlfriend says, they’re “sometimes useful”.

Perhaps because successful screenwriters have themselves had to be ambitious and work hard to get their work seen, it’s unusual for them to write a hero who is largely happy to just exist, quietly writing his poems, drinking his one beer in the local bar, walking his dog and humouring his girlfriend, a woman whose many schemes (cupcake maker, guitar player, painter) he supports unquestioningly.  Jarmusch must of course have ambition and drive himself, but it’s on the record that he did at one point want to become a poet, so there’s a sense here of a portrait of the road less travelled. It’s an attractive vision – but we wouldn’t get to enjoy it if this had been the path he chose, so I’m rather glad he didn’t.

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Kristen Stewart wows in ambiguous ghost story Personal Shopper at Cannes 2016

16 May, 2016 Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Careers, Festivals

Catherine Bray is caught off guard by Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper, premiering in Competition at Cannes 2016.

Kristen Stewart stars in Personal Shopper

Kristen Stewart stars in Personal Shopper

Sometimes, you just don’t do your homework. There are films at Cannes I’ve walked into knowing a great deal about, and then there’s Personal Shopper. It’s the second collaboration between Kristen Stewart and Olivier Assayas after Clouds Of Sils Maria, where she played PA to a famous actress, and because the bare bones premise of Personal Shopper sounds so similar – this time she plays a personal shopper for a famous actress – I naively assumed it would be a similar sort of film. A kind of K-Stew celebrity gopher diptych, if you like.

It’s nice to be surprised. Personal Shopper is an eerie film that deals unashamedly in both the supernatural and the banal and ratchets the creepiness up to full-on horror at a couple of points. But despite its on/off genre trappings, it’s a mood piece: you’ll either be absorbed entirely into its world of incipient, tamped down hysteria, or you’ll find it a bit silly. I guess it’s kind of Repulsion meets Paranormal Activity?

It’s also a film very much about absence. Kristen Stewart’s Paris-based personal shopper Maureen is in dialogue with three different absent figures in the film (four if you count her long-distance boyfriend, but since she Skypes with him, she at least sees his face once in a while).

Firstly, she barely sees her all-powerful celebrity boss Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), who is acknowledged by all who work with her as a monster. They communicate almost entirely through scrawled notes and intuition. It’s authority from above, rarely glimpsed, god-like, and a total pain in the ass. She worries that her boss will catch her or see her doing things she isn’t supposed to do.

Secondly, Maureen is tentatively trying to make contact with her dead twin brother Lewis. The siblings shared an interest in spiritualism even before he passed away, and now that he’s dead, she has all the more reason to believe. It was interesting to experience the titters that the supernatural elements of the story evinced from the crowd in the Debussy – ghosts in serious-minded fiction are probably out of fashion now, unless presented in a film more overtly magical realistic in tone.

The third dialogue Maureen is engaged in is with a mysterious texter who refuses to reveal his or her identity. The texts are not explicitly sexual in nature, but there is a sexual undertone, as the anonymous questions tease and command and suggest, operating at a level of intimacy that would have been impossible with a stranger prior to the advent of mobile technology.

These three dialogues come together in a key scene in a hotel which likely marks the point at which you are either in or out on this film. I was very much in – I don’t believe the hairs on the back of my neck literally stood up; it was far too warm in the theatre for that – but if an unexpected hand had rested on my shoulder at that moment, I would have screamed much louder than the mean-spirited souls who think it right to boo at the end of films that they personally didn’t enjoy.

It’s not a perfect film – some character decisions defy logic – but it is strikingly effective on the level that I suspect matters most to Olivier Assayas: taking us on an emotional journey. It is also an unexpected journey – I defy anyone to have guessed where the narrative was going at any given moment (would it be unfair to suggest the film itself doesn’t always care?), but given the glut of rigidly overworked three-act films that find their way into cinemas, it’s sometimes rather refreshing to watch something that breaks most of the rules in the “How To Write Your First Screenplay” books.

Personal Shopper also adheres to a significant visual pleasure principle, which is the least sleazy way I can find of saying it is, from time to time, sexy as hell. Where The Handmaiden, which premiered earlier at Cannes, also in Competition, often gave us altogether too much of a good thing, Personal Shopper parcels out the delight it takes in revealing couture and sheer underwear and breathtakingly high shoes in very small doses, weaving them into the fabric of the film, rather than coming off like a gratuitous add-on for the dirty mac brigade.

None of this would work without Kristen Stewart’s superbly layered performance, by turns withholding and generous, but never showboating or appearing to “act”. I simply believed that she was the character, and I can’t think of higher praise for an actor.

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A bracing start to the day with Psycho Raman

16 May, 2016 Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Festivals, Opinion, Review

Catherine Bray starts her day with a dose of Indian horror in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight Strand, in the form of Psycho Raman

Psycho Raman by Anurag Kashyap

Psycho Raman by Anurag Kashyap

Gangs of Wasseypur director Anurag Kashyap returned this morning, with a Directors’ Fortnight entry that certainly blew the cobwebs away. That’s just as well, since the Monday morning at Cannes is prone to a dip in energy as the realization sinks in that as tired as you are, there are still six whole days of new films to go, plus Sunday’s awards ceremony. Then just when you need it, something as messy and lively and flawed and vibrant as Psycho Raman starts wiggling its Hindi horror credentials in your face and you feel as ready as you ever have for some more films.

Psycho Raman borrows nomenclature and mythology from real-life Mumbai serial killer Raman Raghav, but as a title card at the very beginning informs us, this film “is not about him”. The real Raman, who committed around 40 murders and many more attacks in the 1960s, nevertheless seeps into the story of this Raman Raghav (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) – he uses the same alias (Sindhi Dalwai) and shares many of the same quirks, such as demanding particular creature comforts on arrest before he would talk (the real Raman demanded chicken, Siddiqui’s Raman insists on cigarettes and a particular brew of tea).

Where Psycho Raman innovates is in offering Raman a soulmate – a cop (Vicky Kausha) with whom he shares a kind of Strangers On A Train style bond. Of course, the tone couldn’t be more different from Hitchcock’s calculated noir thriller. Instead, we’re offered a scrappy but often arresting series of short chapters with titles like “The Sister” that almost function as short films. The palette is vivid, there are songs, the characters are generally works of misanthropy – it’s almost as if a young Bret Easton Ellis was working in Bollywood.

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