There’s a whole list of dos and don’ts at Cannes that are common knowledge, but not common sense. Booing after a screening isn’t just acceptable, but a tradition. If you tip at restaurants, they’ll take your money, but it’s not expected. Cross the street with oncoming traffic; the cars on the road don’t give a damn about your safety. They either have better insurance or the pedestrians are more agile here, but either way, walking across the street is like playing Frogger. No one is going to stop; you just have to go. Navigating the Cannes program is as hard. Getting hit by bad films is inevitable.
About 30 minutes into Personal Affairs (3/10), I realized the Un Certain Regard program is the roulette section of the festival, a dependable way to gamble important time. As an Israeli film from first-time director Maha Haj, Personal Affairs was relatively unknown and included in the program presumably for politics and not its objective worth. Despite its title, the film hasn’t cohesively amalgamated the personal with the political. The subtext doesn’t emerge naturally through the characters but is crammed in with blindsiding contrivances. The storyline is splintered in three: an elderly and well-off Israeli couple have marital and communication problems, a screenwriter is introduced to a beautiful women but is tentative to fall in love with her and a married couple continue to care for their demented mother. Each plotline intersects through familial relationships, but other than the basic plot connections there are no thematic links between any of these stories. Besides the terrible editing and uneven acting, whenever the film veers into political territory, which is well outside of the scope of anything that has been established, it sputters.
The Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio has mellowed out in his new and sentimental Sweet Dreams (5/10), a departure from his radical Marxist films that have defined his career. Premiering at the Director’s Fortnight, a section that is separate from the regular festival geographically and in terms of the group that programs the event, this year’s slate rivals the main competition. Alejandro Jodorowsky, Pablo Larrain and Laura Poitras all have new films playing here. Without many surprises, Sweet Dreams follows Massimo, a boy who lost his mother at a young age, for decades as he seeks surrogate relationship. A nanny and a girlfriend are just two of the many supporting characters that float in and evaporate out of this story. Running over two hours, not all of the film’s disjointed episodes contribute anything to an overarching arc or narrative.
Even when the screenplay isn’t working, Bellocchio is an interesting visual director. To sometimes great affect, he incorporates the stylized images from a tapestry of genres, evoking moods associated with a certain kind of image without ever becoming that kind of film. For the first act, when the boy is still coming to terms with the recent loss of his mother, Bellocchio uses long shadows, a dark color palette and pale makeup. Right as you’re about to expect ghosts, the skips ahead evolve from a war movie to a romance to a thriller. Sometimes the soapy and strained story works, like a poignant scene where a priest tries to the boy’s grief, but in other moments the film seems ashamed of its suffocating sentimentality. Sweet Dreams is a sleepy drama that leaves little to the imagination.
Also premiering at the Director’s Fortnight, Mean Dreams (5/10) is a conventional and uninspired thriller about a teen couple on the run with hot money. The underused character actor Bill Paxton plays Wayne, a corrupt cop and abusive father who, along with his teenage daughter, moves to a small Canadian town. Jonas meets his daughter, Casey, and the two start dating against Wayne’s will. Jonas steals a bag that surprisingly has a million dollars and rescues Casey from her abusive father. Like far too many Telefilm productions, the government organization that funds most “large-scale” Canadian productions, Mean Dreams emulates genre films made south of the border but with poorer production values and weaker acting. Josh Wiggins and Sophie Nelisse play the teen couple, and although their performances can be compelling, too often the contrivances surrounding the emotional beats suck out any fleeting moments of authenticity.
From the Land to the Moon (3/10), a Nicholas Sparks-esque story disguised as a prestige film, can’t even be saved by the reliable Marion Cotillard who flounders, acting with gusto but lacking conviction. Set during the Second World War in France, Nicole Garcia’s film centers on an unhappily married woman who falls in love with a chronically ill soldier in a remote treatment center. Divided by a flashback structure, the film begins with Cotillard’s character still married with a child to her husband. As the films circles back, we sift through the woman’s unreliable memories coming to a preposterous twist in the third act. Figuring out how such a weak and schmaltzy film made its way into is just another Cannes oddity.
The festival is just past halfway point, and Jordan and will be here until the Palme d’Or winner is announced on May 22nd. You can find all of our coverage here.