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A scene from Xavier Dolan's Mommy.

A scene from Xavier Dolan's Mommy.

The Globe guide to Cannes: Mommy blows a gust of fresh air through Cannes Add to ...

Live from Cannes, Liam Lacey reviews the festival's top films as they screen. The most recent reviews (today, Mommy) are at the bottom of this list. Come back often for his quick-takes and a look at the trailers:

Grace of Monaco

Starring Nicole Kidman and Tim Roth

Directed by Olivier Dohan


“The idea of my life as a fairy tale is itself a fairy tale,” reads the text introducing Grace of Monaco, the very well-dressed but overall very silly account of the life of Grace Kelly’s marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco (Tim Roth, chain smoking and wistfully troubled). 

Essentially a retelling of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, it stars Nicole Kidman as the breathy, wide-eyed young actor, walking away from a Hollywood set and entering the palace as Her Serene Highness, Princess of Royalty. 

Jumping forward from her 1956 marriage to 1961, the film makes much of Kelly considering going back to work with Alfred Hitchcock, while struggling with an apparently treacherous assistant, Madge (Parker Posey), dealing with snooty socialites, seeking consolation from an American priest (Frank Langella), facing down a French invasion and exposing a diabolical family plot against her husband. All the while, advisers keep assuring her she’s playing “the role of your life.” 

Both fictionalized and considerably sanitized (where are the affairs?), Grace of Monaco at least offers some camp value. At one point, Charles de Gaulle screams at Rainier: “You’ll accept my terms by tonight or I’ll send Monaco back to the dark ages!” Which, given the décor and the decorum, would be a very short hop.

Mr. Turner

Starring Timothy Spall

Directed by Mike Leigh


Mike Leigh’s latest film does what he did in Topsy-Turvy, finding the human in the genius, following the last 25 years of the Romantic English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner's life (1775-1851).  

At the film’s start, Turner is already a financially secure, celebrated painter, and lives with his doting father (Paul Jesson) who works as his assistant. Turner’s mother was mentally ill, a wound that seems to have unnaturally bound the two men. Their housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) accepts her complicated role as housekeeper, cook and occasional object of Turner’s sexual urges. 

Together, father and housekeeper keep Turner protected from the outside world, though not always from his angry former mistress (Ruth Sheen) with whom he produced two daughters.The second half of the film follows his father’s death, his professional controversies and relationship with a new mistress, the Margate landlady Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey).

Leigh’s own artistic vision is more about pathos and comedy than Turner’s search for the sublime, but the contrast of subject and tone works wonderfully here. Mr. Turner immerses us in a world abundant in both its natural beauty and suffering, and offers us clues to specific paintings and the cultural climate of the time. 

Mostly, though, it gives us the performance of Timothy Spall playing a character as grotesque as any film hero since David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. By turns obtuse and hyper-sensitive, he’s an inarticulate storm of emotions whose inner reality spills out on the canvas.

Timbuktu

Directed by Abderrahmane  Sissako 

Starring: Ibrahim Ahmed


Born in Mauritania, raised in Mali and now residing in France, director Abderrahmane Sissako brings a rare film from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Cannes competition: the poetic, heart-rending Timbuktu

Inspired by a brutal video of unmarried parents stoned to death by Islamic fundamentalists, Sissako weaves together a mosaic of stories set in a north Malian village in the wake of the 2012 takeover by jihadist militia. The invaders break traditional masks and statues, outlaw music and sports, and order women to cover their faces and hands. Soon, the quiet village is filled with unintentional criminals, from some young musicians in their own homes, to a local mad woman and a woman who sells fish without wearing gloves.  

The central story concerns a herdsman and doting father, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), who accidentally kills a neighbour in an altercation and faces the death penalty. With outdoor cinematography by Sofian El Fani (Blue is the Warmest Color) the film is a visual stunner, featuring long, beautifully composed takes, capturing splashes of colour against the arid landscape.  

At minimum, a jury prize or technical award, seems a likely conclusion.

The Captive

Directed by Atom Egoyan

Starring Ryan Reynolds and Mireille Enos


Early reviews for Atom Egoyan’s The Captive have been blisteringly harsh, with critics declaring the thriller everything from crass to ludicrous. There was even a scattering of boos at Friday morning’s screening. So it doesn’t seem like a Palme d’Or is in Egoyan’s future, but is the lambasting justified? My reaction is that it’s overkill, in some ways a reflection of a sensibility shift from the nineties and its taste for complexity and ambiguity, which is now dismissed as recherche and pretentious. Egoyan, after all, is the same director who was a Grand Prize winner and double Oscar nominee for 1997’s The Sweet Hereafter, which was full of ambiguities. In fact, one jury member who may very well like it is jury head Jane Campion, whose films also pursue sexual danger zones and uncomfortable behaviour.

The plot is textbook abduction thriller: fairly familiar imperilled children and rich-folk-up-to-no-good stuff that made the recent HBO series True Detective a critical hit. Ryan Reynolds plays Matt, a struggling landscaper in Niagara Falls; his wife Tina (The Killing’s Mireille Enos) works as a hotel maid. One wintry day, on the way back from his nine-year-old daughter Cass’s skating practice, Matt stops to pick up a pie. When he returns to his truck, the girl is gone.

Movie dramas these days, largely shaped by serial television, are all cliffhangers, all explosive resolution. The Captive isn’t like that. The detectives on the case (Rosario Dawson and Scott Speedman), who specialize in child-abduction cases, initially suspect Matt, but the whole story fragments like a dropped crystal, with the time frame jumping around over eight years as the investigation crawls along. Both detectives have things in their past that push them. The couple’s trauma exposes cracks in their relationship: his irresponsibility, her anger. Reynolds is very good; Enos, broodingly intense as usual. And while I’m less happy with the cops (some hint of Speedman’s backstory would have helped), the acting isn’t a problem.

I can’t claim The Captive really works. There are some outright clunkers in the script (“We could do this here or down at the station,”), and a black-widow character in a bad wig (Christina Horne) who slips a mickey into someone’s drink, like something out of an antique melodrama. There’s even an convenient overheard conversation at an ice rink that felt like old-time stage business. But the biggest challenge here is the attempt to blend the pedestrian thriller and the larger, madder world of operatic emotions, fantasy and archetype. Given the film begins with the villain (Kevin Durand, and no, that’s not a spoiler) listening to the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute (“The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart. Death and despair flame about me!) viewers should be on the alert that this is not naturalistic drama. The same could be said of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which had a similar oppressively foreboding score and a far more outlandish plot, which was rated by Sight and Sound critics as the greatest film of all time.

What irritates people about The Captive, I suspect, is that it’s a film about child abuse (though it never gets graphic) that doesn’t contain any conventional catharsis. Also, a lot of it is unfashionably “meta:” There’s a recurring trope in Egoyan’s work about a Scheherazade-like character that delays punishment by storytelling. And at the plot’s hall-of-mirrors centre, there’s a cult. Not of de rigueur villain perverts, but of voyeurs who use hidden cameras to feed on the pain of the victims’ family and friends. They are stand-ins for all of us ghouls who shake our heads and thrill to these true and fictional sex crime dramas. |And who, even a critic, wants to be told that their pleasure is morally complicated?

Saint Laurent

Directed by Bertrand Bonello

Starring: Gaspard Ulliel, Lea Seydoux, Louis Garrel, Jeremie Renier 



The second French movie in the last five months about the famed fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent, begins with the designer at the height of his fame in 1974, checking into a Paris hotel under the Proust-inspired name of Swann, and conducting a telephone interview in which he describes being put in a mental hospital and given electric-shock treatment in his youth in Algeria.

Apart from this brief hint into his fragile psyche, Saint Laurent is threadbare in plot and characterization, but stuffs its two-and-a-half-hour running time with lovely clothes and gilded surroundings. Gangly star Gaspard Ulliel (Hannibal Rising) maintains a faint smirk of troubled amusement throughout, either working his white atelier (resembling a medical lab) or watching passively, with a Warholian gaze through his specs, at the drug and booze shenanigans of his entourage. The implicit message here seems to be that personal creativity is best fueled by a diet consisting of pills, champagne and chocolate mouse.

 Brief attention is give to his muses, models Betty Catroux (Aymeline Valade) and Loulou (Lea Seydoux)  and more to his destructive relationship with Karl Lagerfeld model, Jacques de Bauscher (Louis Garrel).  Saint Laurent’s brilliant business partner, Pierre Berge (Jeremie Renier), is shown conducting an interminable business meeting with American partners that lays out the YSL business strategy.  The dumbest moment is a split-screen montage of  student riots and Vietnam protests paralleled with Saint Laurent’s seasonal 1968-1971 collection. Despite the occasional attempts to suggest YSL’s tortured soul through dream sequences in which the designer’s bed crawling with snakes the film is at its best with the designer’s costumes, not his content.

Winter Sleep

Starring Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sozen, Demet Akbag

Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan


Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan confirms his status among the world’s best cinema story-tellers in Winter Sleep, a beautifully acted and shot drama about a marriage between a retired actor, Aydin (Haluk Biliginer), and his estranged younger wife, Nihal (Melisa Sozen).  Together, they manage  a cave house hotel  for foreign travellers in Turkish Cappadocia, an area known for its natural wonders.  Sharing their home is Aydin’s recently divorced,  sister, Necla (Demet Abag), who shares his ownership of a string of tenant properties.

Aydin is a familiar type from late-nineteenth century fiction, is an erudite,  vain, older man with a frustrated young wife. While Aydin writes sententious columns for the local newspaper and talks about  the history of Turkish theatre he will someday write, Nihal  has formed a group to try to help the impoverished community.  When the son of an impoverished tenant throws a rock at Aydin’s car window, it triggers a series of incidents that reveal some painful truths. There’s a distinctly  Chekhovian sense of tragic comedy, while the stunning  landscapes and uncanny  rock formations seem to comment on the characters’ emotional paralysis.

Maps to the Stars

Directed by David Cronenberg

Starring Julianne Moore,  Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack and Evan Bird


Hollywood, it turns out, is crawling with career-driven narcissists, hooked equally on drugs and therapy babble. That much isn’t news in David Cronenberg’s new film, a mixture of  satire and mock Oedipal tragedy about a Hollywood family with bad secrets, based on an archly literate script by novelist-screenwriter Bruce Wagner. Taking things one step further,  though, Maps to the Stars spins a plot around a damaged family, taking that narcissism as as kind of a poison which echoes out from the Hollywood dream machine to the culture as a whole.

The Weiss family consists of adage-quoting dad, Standford (John Cusack), a glib therapist and best-selling author; his wife, Christina (Olivia Williams in a severe Kris Jenner bob), who manages the career of 13-year-old Benjie (Evan Bird), a child star with a history of addiction problems. Standford’s star client is Havana Segrand (sounds like “fantasy grand”), played by Julianne Moore, in high neurotic form as a petulant package of envy and need,  suggesting what a middle-aged Lindsay Lohan might be like.

Havana’s great issue is her mother, a troubled cult movie star who died in a fire in the 1970s, who Hannah believes, probably falsely, sexually abused her. The Weiss family, by contrast, has a real dark secret: At the beginning of the film, their estranged 18-year-old daughter, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska, nervously ingratiating) who wears black gloves and her hair around her face to hide burn scars, arrives from a Florida psychiatric hospital, determined to seek out her family again.

Maps to the Stars is, per Cronenberg’s usual coolly measured and impeccably composed,  though at times it feels too close to the written page. Benji, in particular sounding improbably articulate. Humour tends toward brimstone cynicism -- an actress’s joy when a death opens a part,  pebbled with bits of topical name-dropping.  We hear, for example, that drug recovery can boost an adult’s career, we hear, but it’s usually bad for children  -- with the exception of  “Drew”.

Also yanking viewers out of the film’s reality, there are two characters who see visions of dead people. While this may be a fair metaphor for pop culture’s obsessive necrophilia, unfortunately, the scenes feel more like metaphors rather than emotional experience. For some  compensatory lyrical balance, throughout the film, both Benjie and his sister repeatedly quote the surrealist Paul Eluard’s poem, Liberty (“On all the white pages/Stone, blood, paper or ash/I write your name.”) Only in the film’s final sequence do we step out of sterile modernist interiors (shot mostly in Toronto) into a distinctly Los Angeles’ and, rather beautiful, landscape. 

Foxcatcher

Directed by Bennett Miller

Starring: Channing Tatum, Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo


Bennett Miller’s new film, Foxcatcher, is a modern Beauty and the Beast tale, set in the world of U.S. Olympic wrestling. Employing the same understated observational style with a well-shaped script that distinguished Miller’s previous films, Moneyball and Capote, Miller cuts through the tabloid speculation to discover how one rich man's mental illness is a symptom of larger social illness. 

Though Variety has already declared an “Oscar lock” for Steve Carell’s  prosthetically-enhanced, vocally-pinched performance as  homicidal billionaire John E. du Pont,  the film is built on three indelible performances. Channing Tatum does his best work to date as wrestler Mark Schultz, a bundle of muscle and  unarticulated emotions, while Mark Ruffalo offers an immensely appealing performance as Dave, his older brother, coach and fellow Olympic gold medalist.

Stretched out over almost a decade, the story is told with an incremental sense of inevitability.  Early scenes establish the unusually close bond between the Schultz brothers in intense training sessions. Just as Dave is planning to move out of state with his family, Mark gets an invitation to visit John E. du Pont, heir to his family’s chemical fortune on his Pennsylvania estate. Dave's benefactor is a pontificating kook (his resume as a  “ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist” seems destined to become a  meme). But he’s also the answer to Schultz’s prayers: A salary, a home, and access to a state-of-the art gym. The offer is extended to a sprawling crew of other Olympic hopefuls, and, eventually,  Mark’s brother, Dave, who moves onto the property with his family, whose existence stands for everything his wealthy benefactor can never possess.

Lost River

Directed by Ryan Gosling

Starring:  Iain De Caestecker, Christina Hendricks and Saoirse Ronan

The out-of-competition Cannes festival sidebar where Ryan Gosling’s debut feature film, Lost River, screened Tuesday, is called Un Certain Regard, literally “a certain look," focusing on films that are considered original or at least different in an interesting way.  The one thing Lost River has going for it is a certain look – full of modern trash - gothic décor and a palely luminescent palette (courtesy of Irreversible cinematographer  Benoit Debie). The rest of the movie is a sub-David Lynchian southern-gumbo fantasy that apart from some pretty images  (fiery bicycles without riders), tests the patience.

The story is apparently an opaque allegory, related to the cruelty of the rich and the idea of performance as a form of  torture-tease. In the sparsely populated town of Lost River, on the banks of a reservoir that flooded another town,teenager Bones (Iain De Caestecker) lives with his mother, Billy (Mad Man’s Christina Hendricks), and  toddler brother, Frankie (Landyn Stewart). Rather than lose her house, Billy takes a job at a nightclub owned by her sinister bank manager, Dave (Ben Mendelsohn). On stage, women simulate homicide and torture with lots of artificial blood for the entertainment of the crowd. To help out, Bones strips abandoned homes (shot in the ruined suburbs of Detroit) for scrap metal, which earns the enmity of local punk psychopath, Bully (Matt Smith), who likes to cut people’s lips off with scissors. Bones’ semi-girlfriend, Rat (Saoirse Ronan), lives across the street with her mute grandmother (Barbara Steele) and, funny enough, a pet rat (though the rat’s name is Nick). If only Bones can dive into reservoir to retrieve a stone dragon head, perhaps he can lift the town’s curse. While Gosling’s steaming psycho-drama is unlikely to appeal to fans of his youthful work in The Notebook, it is, at heart, rather romantic and, possibly, a  test run for a movie with an actual script.

 

Mommy

Directed by Xavier Dolan
Starring; Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément

Mommy, the funny, brash, emotionally generous fifth feature film from 25-year-old Quebec filmmaker Xavier Dolan, has blown a big gust of fresh air through this year's Cannes competition. Shortly after the first press screening on Thursday evening, the Twitterverse was alive with speculation that the late entry film could be the Palme d'Or winner. There's no doubt Mommy is one of those rare, raw nerve, passion projects, like last year's Cannes winner Blue is the Warmest Color, that leads juries and other viewers to cast aside reservations about modulation or concision and fall under the sway of Dolan's love for his emotionally messy characters and with the act of film-making itself.

Mommy takes a welcome departure from the over-dressed archness of his last two Cannes entries, Heartbeats and Laurence Anyways (Dolan's fourth feature, Tom at the Farm, adapted from Michel Marc Bouchard's play, opens in Toronto and Vancouver next week). It returns to the subject of his explosive 2009 debut, I Killed My Mother, about the tempestuous relationship between a troubled teenaged boy and his single mother (also played by Anne Dorval). But the sympathy in this film lies much more with tough, working-class mother, Diane "Die" Despres, than with her son, hyperactive, vulnerable angel-devil, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), whose violent outbursts are invariably followed by shame and contrition.

A lot of the Dolan elements are here - the familiar repeated shouting matches between co-dependent partners, the indulgent slow-motion montages to vintage pop tunes, the scorn for the boring and conventional - but they're subservient to the drama, a heartfelt tale of a three characters struggling for independence and dignity in a world that marks them as losers.

The story begins as Die crashes her car on her way to pick up her son, expelled from a juvenile facility for lighting fire to the cafeteria. But instead of this being a grim occasion, both mother and son, foul-mouthed, tempestuous and full of life force, seem joyous at being reunited.

Shortly after they've settled in, they meet a neighbour, Kyla (Laurence Anyways star, Suzanne Clément), a school teacher who is taking a health leave after developing an unexplained debilitating stammer. Drawn by Despres' frank energy and friendliness, she agrees to help home-school Steve. The dynamic between the three misfit characters makes this resemble a sort of Quebec answer to As Good as It Gets, but without the sugar-coating. Nearly all of Mommy is shot on a square frame (by the reliably excellent André Turpin) to suggest both the claustrophobia and whirling intensity of the Despres household, popping wide only twice: once as a vision of the future that Die dreams of for her son, which is a heartbreaking distance from the reality.

Follow on Twitter: @liamlacey

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