Text by Benjamin Dodman, France 24
The race for the Palme d’Or stumbles with a French tale of sexual urge and unhappy marriage starring the ever-suffering Marion Cotillard, and a visually bold but indulgent non-story of a road movie presented by British director Andrea Arnold.
When the line-up for the 2016 Cannes Film Festival was unveiled last month, I wondered whether the conspicuous absence of Italian films from this year’s competition might put off the legions of film buffs and critics who cross the nearby border each year. But Italians are still here en masse, as entertainingly noisy – and hypercritical – as ever. Their sighs, groans and open mutterings involving male genitalia have grown louder as the competition stumbles over a batch of underwhelming entries.
There were groans aplenty during the screening of Nicole Garcia’s competition entry “From the Land of the Moon” (“Mal de pierres”), in which the long-suffering Marion Cotillard is made to suffer another 120 minutes as she grapples with an unhappy marriage and a couple of impossible loves. Cotillard’s radiant smile is a fixture of the red carpet, but I can’t remember the last time I saw it beaming on the big screen. I certainly hadn’t seen her running and falling over – on a hospital floor, a lawn, in a forest and in the sea – as regularly as I did this morning.
Garcia’s film is based on Italian author Milena Agus’s 2006 book and relocated in 1950s France. Cotillard stars as Gabrielle, the wild child of a well-off lavender farmer who is possessed by a feverish (and unrequited) infatuation with her teacher. Her very visible sexual urge is an embarrassment for her parents, who marry her off to José, a mild-mannered and dependable Spanish mason played by Alex Brendemühl. José is patient, understanding and actually very attractive – but Cotillard is clearly not impressed. Instead she is emotionally awakened by an ailing lieutenant she meets at an Alpine thermal resort, played by French heartthrob Louis Garrel (who is hardly credible as a career soldier).
“From the Land of the Moon” is a pretty picture, with some delightful costumes and ravishing landscapes, particularly in the opening scenes set in the lavender plantations of Provence. It is powered by a typically vivid and intense performance by Cotillard. But it makes for an unoriginal melodrama that is often dull and fails to exploit the dramatic potential of the key twist in the plot (which is further undercut by a frankly ludicrous case of photoshopping).
Andrea Arnold’ “American Honey”, Sunday’s other competition screening, has some even prettier cinematography, delivered by the British director’s longtime collaborator Robbie Ryan. But compared to her previous Cannes entries (jury prize winners “Red Road” and “Fishtank”), it is characterised by hugely diminished narrative energy.
“American Honey” follows a group of moneyless youths as they zigzag across the Midwest, partying hard on cheap booze and eking out a living by somehow selling magazine subscriptions that nobody wants. It opens with Oklahoma-based 18-year-old Star (played by newcomer Sacha Lane) abandoning her younger siblings to join the band and its charismatic leader Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who turns out to be under the thumb of the real boss Krystal (Riley Keough). That’s about it plotwise, in so far as there is a plot.
Arnold’s first American feature confirms her flair for casting novices alongside known quantities, and getting strong performances from both. LaBeouf’s character is entertaining and sexy, much as Michael Fassbender was in “Fishtank”. His insolently flirtatious encounter with Star is a treat. There is also a strong performance from Keough as the ruthless Confederate-flag-bikini-wearing Krystal. As for Lane, she has wonderful freshness and presence, but it is remarkable how little her character is developed over a full, gruelling 162 minutes on screen.
The director looks at “white trash” America much as she portrayed the rough Essex suburbs of “Fishtank”: with a tender gaze that is neither sentimental nor condescending. But while she is clearly fascinated by her subject, she fails to make it interesting, producing a catalogue of clichés of Americana that left me wondering what was the purpose of the film. It can hardly be a coming-of-age road movie when Star learns nothing and gets away with everything. Nor does it tell us much about growing up in contemporary America when characters are so underdeveloped.
“American Honey” feels like a lot of wasted talent. The van wherein much of the film takes place is a jukebox on wheels, and while Arnold’s choice of rap and country-rock tunes is excellent, the tedious succession of musical clips is exasperating. The drifting, hugging camera and richly sensual colours have a heady effect, and the movie conjures some glorious images of Midwest prairies and racing blue skies. Some will find the sensorial experience engrossing. Others will be too fed up to enjoy it.