Elle Cannes
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

The night before the Cannes Film Festival jury announces the Palme d'Or, Variety's two chief film critics debate the best and worst of the 2016 edition.

Owen Gleiberman: Today I saw my final film of the festival, Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” starring Isabelle Huppert as an outwardly placid and conventional Parisian bourgeois who is secretly an addict of depravity. (In the opening scene, she gets raped — and the movie suggests that she half enjoys it.) My central thought, apart from how odd it was to see Verhoeven show up at Cannes with a screw-loose psychodrama that’s like “Basic Instinct” impersonating an art film, is that “Elle” is entertaining, provocative, but not, in the end, truly convincing. And I think that’s the case with a number of films I’ve seen here. I didn’t buy “Personal Shopper,” Olivier Assayas’ drama in which Kristen Stewart may be getting visits from the ghost of her dread brother. It wants to be a supernatural fable for adults, which I respect, but there’s not enough there there. I thought the movie should have been called “Paranormal Inactivity.” And I really didn’t buy “The Last Face,” Sean Penn’s ponderous folly about triage physicians in Africa whose vague romantic problems always seem far more important than the lives of the African children they’re trying to save.

Peter Debruge: It might sound strange to say that “Elle” is the film I had been waiting for here at Cannes, considering how it hails from Paul Verhoeven, a filmmaker whose view of sex and violence has previously struck me as being that of a stunted 13-year-old boy, and that it violates one of my cardinal rules of cinema (namely, rape is too sensitive an issue to be depicted carelessly, and there’s no excuse for filmmakers to use it as a mere narrative device, ever). But “Elle” is the first movie of this year’s festival to take my psyche to a truly dangerous place — one that tackles the perverse complexity of modern relationships — and only the second (after Nicolas Winding Refn’s twisted cult of beauty parable “The Neon Demon” the night before) to leave me on the edge of my seat, in breathless anticipation of where it might go next. Turns out, “Elle” may as well be the unofficial sequel the world didn’t need to Huppert’s career-best performance in Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher,” and I don’t read that upsetting initial rape as you do at all: I saw no evidence that Huppert’s character enjoys the experience. Far from it. But she lives in a culture where reporting the crime does no good, and where she’s surrounded by — and a participant in — relationship-related hypocrisy on all fronts: her cuckolded son, her dishonest ex, the best friend whose husband she’s shagging on the side. The fact that there are multiple rape scenes in the film (including virtual ones at the video game company she co-owns) makes a chilling statement on how our culture continues to disrespect women.

Gleiberman: “The Neon Demon” and “Elle” really are a natural-born double bill of kink. There’s no denying that Refn’s head-trip horror film set in the L.A. fashion world is spellbinding to look at — every shot seems to have come out of a different gorgeous bad dream. But the film is such a stylized, overdeliberate pastiche that for me it never acquired the quality of a nightmare. It’s more like a Calvin Klein music-video nightmare, and by the end it edges into bloody surrealist kitsch. The two festival films that had me on the edge of my seat are “American Honey,” which we discussed last time, and which — to me — fully deserves the Palme d’Or a lot of people predict it’s going to win, and “Hell or High Water,” a tale of bank-robbing brothers in West Texas that looks like a genre film, only it’s been given such an artful humane pulse that it lingers in the imagination in a way few crime stories do.

Debruge: I missed “Hell or High Water,” but liked Bogdan Mirica’s “Dogs,” which is set in the Romanian boonies, but may as well be a West Texas thriller, à la “Blood Simple.” It’s my favorite of the three Romanian films in official selection, though I’m not counting German director Maren Ade’s mostly Bucharest-based father-daughter dramedy “Toni Erdmann,” which is my prediction to win the Palme d’Or. Like so many of the films I’ve seen here in Cannes, it spoke to something very personal — in this case, the fact that I’m up to my eyeballs in work here Cannes, to the extent that I’ve been all but ignoring my parents’ needs back home. The movie serves as the sort of intervention I suspect many a dad wishes they could offer kids who’ve lost sight of life’s real priorities — and it’s frequently hilarious in the process. Hitting even closer to home was Jim Jarmusch’s simple, so-much-depends portrait “Paterson,” about a blue-collar New Jersey bus driver who does put his family first, and even makes time for creative writing on the side. As someone who yearns for the zen-like simplicity Jarmusch captures, that film offered the closest thing to what Paul Schrader calls a “transcendental” experience at the movies — oof, if only his film, the dog that was “Dog Eat Dog,” had done the same.

Gleiberman: I wish I could share your enthusiasm for “Paterson.” I did find its ironic version of domestic coziness — ironic for Jarmusch, that is — quite appealing, and I loved the slice-of-life verse, but where’s the conflict? Adam Driver’s poet-prole is in the same place at the very end of the movie that he is at the beginning. He hasn’t been on even the tiniest of journeys. And I do wish he talked more! I found the Tehran couple in Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman,” for all their troubles, to be far more arresting. Even for those who loved “A Separation” or “The Past,” this is a Farhadi movie that sneaks up on you. For a while, it’s a little staid, but its climax has the kick of a mule, and Farhadi’s theme — his whole critique of the male ego, notably in his native Iran — has a resonance that speaks volumes.  

Debruge: It’s been a fascinating Cannes for gender issues across the board, and now that we’ve had time to evaluate the entire lineup on its own terms, I side with festival topper Thierry Fremaux, who told the P.C. police obsessed with counting the paltry number of female directors in competition (three) to wait until they’d actually seen the films, which — like man-made “Carol” and “Blue Is the Warmest Color” before them —collectively offered what are sure to be the year’s juiciest distaff-driven stories. I didn’t care for “Personal Shopper” either, but totally understand why Assayas essentially broke out Kristen Stewart’s “Clouds of Sils Maria” character into her own movie. Kleber Mendonça Filho’s “Aquarius” also let me down, but makes magnificent use of Sonia Braga. Two-time Palme winners Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne are so good at getting us to identify with real-world women that we almost take the accomplishment of “The Unknown Girl” (starring Adele Haenel) for granted, while over in Director’s Fortnight, fellow Belgian gets a career-best performance from Bérénice Bejo in his tough “After Love.”

Gleiberman: I agree, Peter: The seismic presence of female sensibility at Cannes this year wasn’t about bean-counting the number of women directors. It was about reveling in the raw power of the actresses in “American Honey,” like Sasha Lane and Riley Keough, who express a bold new freedom (and also a perilous lack of knowledge about what to do with it), and also about how Andrea Arnold’s epic existential improv filmmaking takes the youth-culture exposé to a whole new level. Having said that, I couldn’t let this dialogue finish without a quick nod to my two least favorite films at Cannes this year. Runner-up: “Slack Bay,” a monstrously twee turn-of-the-century homicide comedy that reveals Bruno Dumont to be a director of such grating misanthropy that you wonder why he even bothers to make films. And, by far the worst movie I saw here: “It’s Only the End of the World,” Xavier Dolan’s excruciatingly scrappy, incoherent ramble of a family hatefest. The yelling, the ragged monologues that barely connect to each other, the endless close-ups that are like metastasizing selfies, the hero whose refusal to reveal what’s on his mind is even more hostile to the audience than it is to his family — once it leaves Cannes, this movie should be shown in film schools all over the globe as a quintessential example of how not to do it.

Debruge: A lot has been said about the overall quality of this year’s Cannes lineup, which has been true, although I’ve had my share of allergic reactions — one being a movie you loved, Owen: Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake,” which telegraphed where it was headed from the outset, and hit every obvious note along the way. Like you, I found Dolan’s movie largely insufferable, though I loved his use of music (not nearly as much as Refn’s or Arnold’s, mind you) and found the climactic confrontation nearly worth the ride. Speaking of music choices, the farther I get from Gérard Depardieu’s embarrassing rap impersonation in “Tour de France,” the better, whereas in the absence of dialogue, Michael Dudok de Wit’s inherently understated “The Red Turtle” uses a lovely score to bring its animated desert-island Adam and Eve story to life.

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