Three Cannes standouts and a biopic that underwhelms.
Pain and Glory – Directed by Pedro Almódovar
One of 2019’s major themes is aging male directors reflecting on their legacies. The fifty-year-old James Gray touches on it in Ad Astra, and by all accounts it’s a major concern in seventy-six-year-old Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Falling between those two poles is the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, who has made perhaps the most personal film of his career, and one that’s certainly the most self-referential. Antonio Banderas stars as Salvador Mallo, a film director past the peak of his powers now reencountering the formative collaborators of his career and life. As one of Mallo’s early films is re-released and re-evaluated as a masterpiece, the director finds himself creatively blocked and unable to move forward. Where he was once considered a wunderkind enfant terrible, his skills and body have failed him, leaving him in constant physical pain while the laurels heaped upon his earlier work only serve as a sharp reminder of his current creative impotence.
The parallels to Almodóvar’s life are unmissable. His earliest films flaunted a sense of sexual and political freedom that made him a sensation in the world of film and shocked the Spanish film community with its frank portrayals of homosexuality. 1990’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! was instrumental in the MPAA reworking the pornographic X film rating into today’s NC-17, and it was one of the first films to receive that rating. It also starred a young Antonio Banderas, just one of the string of pictures he and Almodóvar made together to great acclaim before Banderas left for Hollywood in the early 1990s. And while Almodóvar’s career hasn’t fallen off quite as precipitously as Mallo’s, he’s definitely transitioned into the role of Spain’s elder statesman of film, known more for his classic works than his current output.
So when Salvador Mallo reunites with the star of his earlier films to reflect on professional jealousies and the masterpieces they made together, it’s impossible not to note the parallels to Almodóvar’s reconnection with Banderas (hopefully Almodóvar and Banderas did less heroin). The resulting film is reflective and nostalgic without being saccharine. It flashes back to major events in Mallo’s life; memories of his mother (Almodóvar’s other most famous collaborator, Penelope Cruz), his discovery of cinema and his sexuality among them while the director concurrently grapples with the pain and glory of his modern condition in the present.
Banderas’s work in the film comes as a startling revelation to anyone who is only familiar with the actor’s hammy American work. It forces the American reviewer to think about the difficulty of acting outside one’s native language and just how fragile the nuance that makes great acting work must be. Banderas won best actor at the Cannes film festival for this performance, and while he’s never been nominated for an Oscar, there’s a good chance that will change this year. Operating back in his native Spanish, he delivers the best performance of his career.
What makes Pain and Glory really work is how it pushes forward even as it reflects on the past. The film never makes the mistake of claiming that pain is necessary for art, but rather that art is healing outlet for any struggle. If film finds Almodóvar ruminating on the connection between pain and glory, then Mallo’s present sufferings offer a new sandbox to explore. Aging as he might be, there’s still fuel in the tank.
Judy – Directed by Rupert Goold
I’ll admit that I only saw this one out of duty. Renée Zellweger is the Best Actress frontrunner for her portrayal as Judy Garland in Rupert Goold’s paint-by-numbers biopic, a chief example of the clichéd chestnut “X actor is very good in a film that isn’t.” Based on the play End of the Rainbow, the film covers the final year of Garland’s life as she stages a series of concerts in London in an attempt to revitalize her flagging career. What follows is an extremely rote biopic that covers the typical bases from the first frame, where an adolescent Garland experiences the trauma that will shape her life, to the final frame where explanatory text wraps up the film. Even the film’s title is a trope: “You know about Judy Garland the star and historical figure, but this is about Judy the person” (see: Ray, J. Edgar, Frida, Jackie, Selena, etc). The film’s conclusion is that Hollywood is responsible for the tragedy of Judy Garland, and it makes sure you know it.
Zellweger is fully committed to her performance. It’s the kind of acting that the Academy loves: a wart- and-all portrayal of a famous figure. Judy drinks too much, pops every pill she can find, and Zellweger is ready to roll on the floor with her character. But whereas Rami Malek lip-synced himself to an Oscar, Zellweger did her own singing for the film, and she’s quite good even if she’s not Judy Garland. I admire that effort so it’s frustrating to see how the inexperienced Goold has undermined her. While the singing is all Zellweger’s voice, her performance is pre-recorded audio — standard procedure for a musical, but the one place the actress isn’t up to par is with her simulation of live singing. As the voice on the soundtrack swells and emotes Zellweger simply stands there with her mouth open. It completely breaks the film’s spell, and Goold and his team aren’t clever enough to know how to hide it. Instead of cross-cutting with an array of shots and crowd takes, he shoots her first performance as a single shot focused squarely on Zellweger. There’s nowhere for her to hide.
The film’s finale loops in a subplot about Garland’s importance as a LGBT icon that’s frankly laughable, but I will be the first to admit that I’m not the film’s target audience. There were audible sobs from the middle-aged crowd joining me in the theater, and I saw audience members on my left and right wiping their eyes as the lights came up. It’s a film specifically designed for your mom to have a good cry, and there’s value in that for the right audience. My complaint is simply that while Zellweger is giving it her all, no one behind the camera is.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire – Directed by Céline Sciamma
Portrait of a Lady on Fire won the award for Best Screenplay at Cannes along with the Queer Palm, an award recognizing the best LGBT-relevant film at the festival. It’s also engendered some controversy by not being selected to represent France in the Oscar race for Best International Feature Film. I’ll admit that I, too, question that decision because the film is an incredible achievement.
The latest in a line of Céline Sciamma coming-of-age films about women dealing with their sexual identity, Portrait tells the story of a young painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who is commissioned to paint a portrait of a young woman arranged to be married to her deceased sister’s fiancée. Upon her arrival at the isolated Brittany island where Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) lives with her mother, she’s informed that the mercurial heiress has refused to sit for portraits in an attempt to avoid the marriage. Héloïse’s mother has hired Marianne as a walking companion and bids her to paint in secret. The film presents painting as character study as it’s not merely the physical observances that allow Marianne to paint her model, but the insight gained through their bonding. Marianne’s first portrait is technically adequate, but it fails to accurately capture Héloïse’s true essence. It’s only by dropping the charade of walking companionship that Marianne is able to get Héloïse to drop her own guard, eliciting the environment for art and romance that carries the rest of the film.
What is the emotional toll of an unwanted marriage when a woman lacks the agency to refuse it? Portrait openly equates the idea with death, both in that such a thing may have led to Héloïse’s sister’s suicide and through the characters’ discussions about Orpheus and Eurydice by firelight. It’s certainly a shackle against freedom. “I’ve dreamt of doing that for years,” Héloïse says after sprinting perilously to the edge of a cliff during her first walk with Marianne. “Dying?” the painter inquires. “Running,” Héloïse replies.
Sciamma’s script deftly dismisses men from the plot of the film, transforming Marianne and Héloïse’s time together into an 18th century take on the mythical Lesbos, just one of the film’s allusions to Greek Mythology. Once Marianne is deposited on the shores of Héloïse’s island in the film’s opening sequence we don’t see a male character again until she’s ready to leave. I’m not even sure a male character has any lines beyond a grunt. Instead, the movie is wholly feminine, and an incredibly tender and intimate work of filmmaking.
Part of that is cinematographer Claire Mathon’s success in shooting with natural light. Though it’s not as rare and technical an achievement as it was in the years when Stanley Kubrick made Barry Lyndon (there’s another film shot with natural light in this very article), Portrait of a Lady on Fire remains breathtakingly beautiful. The resulting images are somehow painterly rather than linear, with the flames of a roaring fireplace eliciting the same bands of color on characters’ faces that we see Marianne produce on her canvases. Rarely have a film’s form and subject worked so perfectly in tandem. It’s a lesson in art as much as a lesson of the heart.
A Hidden Life – Directed by Terrence Malick
For a filmmaker as connected to spirituality and nature as Terrence Malick, its apt to say that he’s spent most of the decade wandering in the wilderness. After 2010’s masterpiece The Tree of Life the suddenly consistently-working director produced two films that baffled even hardcore fans like myself. Malick’s films have always been shaggy philosophical affairs that leave the uncharmed viewer crying boredom, but his recent work is so removed from plot as to be nearly unwatchable. Thankfully, A Hidden Life finds the director regaining some of his old form and magic with a narrative-based approach even if the resultant film is likely to leave the unconverted filmgoer remaining so.
A Hidden Life depicts the life of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer and conscientious objector who refuses to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler during the second World War due to his devout Catholicism. The move leads to Jägerstätter being ostracized by his community and eventually arrested, and anyone with a passing knowledge of the Third Reich shouldn’t have much trouble figuring out what happens next. But even as Malick’s new film does feature a narrative story, as with any of the director’s films, that’s hardly the focus of the movie. A Hidden Life runs a whopping three hours long, and Malick uses that time to investigate the moral and spiritual quandaries the film’s plot evokes. What does the gift of free will direct us to do when God seems impossibly silent? Are we called to suffer? Is it “moral” to stand on principles when such an act leads others to suffering? If you could endure six hours of screen time, then A Hidden Life would make a fascinating double feature with Scorsese’s Silence. Expect plenty of Malick’s trademark voiceover coupled with natural imagery.
No man takes a stand in a vacuum, and Jägerstätter’s actions are reflected in the effect they have on his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) who is left to run the farm and bear the brunt of ostracism in his absence. A Hidden Life is a love story, but far from simply examining the joys of first infatuation, it’s a story about the bonds and bounds of love and how two people find strength in each other as the whole world turns against them. Malick always made timeless films instead of topical ones, but it’s hard to miss the film’s parallels to the modern political moment. I doubt that’s intentional. Malick seems more interested in you catching the symbolism of Jägerstätter’s two condemned companions, one scoffing at Franz’s faith and the other asking for comfort, but one meaning doesn’t exclude the other.
A Hidden Life is as beautiful a film as Terrence Malick has ever made, with steadicam operator Jorg Widmer taking over cinematography duties from normal collaborator Chivo Lubezki’s absence. You won’t miss him. The film’s mountain vistas and windswept fields underscore the film’s comparison of the spectacular creation God (or nature if that’s your leaning) has provided with the horrors that mankind has wrought. Widmer shoots with natural light, Malick telling him during production to view the sun as the film’s gaffer. The results are breathtaking.
A Hidden Life is undoubtedly too long, but how much that bothers you will likely determine your take on the film as a whole. I’m a Malick devotee so I said you could trim 15-to-20 minutes. My seatmate said an hour. I can’t escape the feeling that the endurance is part of the film’s point. Franz Jägerstätter must endure, and so must we. It’s so easy to see Franz walking towards his death and want to beg him to turn back. The townsfolk tell him to do so. So does his legal advisor. Even the priests urge him to swear the oath even if he doesn’t mean it. “God cares what’s in your heart, not in your mouth.” They all want him to save humself even as the result would mean falling in line with the Nazis. So do we. Does that make us culpable too?