Chief film critics Owen Gleiberman and Peter Debruge share their thoughts on the 69th Cannes Film Festival thus far.
Gleiberman: Well, Peter, we’re six days into the festival, and as always the holy grail I’m searching for is a movie that wows me as a work of art, but that also looks like it can wield a significant impact in the world beyond Cannes. Last year, two such movies played early on in the festival: Todd Haynes’ “Carol” and “Mad Mad: Fury Road.” This year, I don’t think there’s been anything comparable — Woody Allen’s “Café Society,” for instance, which was the opening-night film, is one of his suavely crafted but minor ersatz-romantic baubles. For me, though, the closest thing to the ideal I’m talking about has probably been Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake.” It’s the story of a Newcastle carpenter who’s falling between the cracks of the British welfare state, but it’s really about something more global: the fraying of the social safety net in our time. It may be the first Loach film that, I think, can speak to a relatively wide audience in a crowd-pleasing, populist way.
Debruge: It’s funny to encounter a movie like “I, Daniel Blake” at Cannes — not surprising, mind you, since Loach (now 79) has sort of a standing invitation to premiere whatever he makes in competition, but funny in that Cristi Puiu (the great Romanian director of “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”) essentially told the same story — about how a decent man is let down by “the System” — better 11 years ago, but is now here with a new and far more challenging work, “Sieranevada.” Loach, like Allen, seems to have slipped backwards into easy, Hallmark-caliber treacle. “Sieranevada” is one of a trio of films in competition whose running time veers dangerously close to three hours, and in its own way feels like a riff on a film by a more nuanced British realist. That would be Mike Leigh’s “Secrets and Lies.” At any rate, it’s my least favorite of the three slice-of-life epics on offer, the other two being Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann” and Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey.”
Gleiberman: ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is moving in an old-school way, but only at Cannes would that make it treacle! I guess we can agree to disagree on that one. I found “Sieranevada” sourly gripping at times, yet it’s like being locked in a room with a dozen characters who hate each other and also hate you. The running time feels like a penance. “American Honey,” on the other hand, is an electrifying movie that has eye-opening things to say about what’s happening to middle-class America — that is, a certain attitude of reckless indifference that’s starting to bedevil the lives of young people. It’s about a group of kids — runaways, basically — who drive from city to city, surviving by selling magazine subscriptions, but it’s really about a new spirit of live-for-the-moment identity that’s fueled by no hope, no money, no future, no dream. If the Dardenne brothers had made this film (and the way Arnold has shot and edited it, it looks like they did) — though I doubt they would have made such mesmerizing use of hip-hop), it would be acclaimed as a masterpiece. As it is, I’d say that “American Honey” is Arnold’s most powerful film, and that it establishes her as a major artist. She’s even gotten a pinpoint performance out of a rat-tailed Shia LaBeouf! But the movie is so rigorous and austere (not to mention endless) that I’m not sure who, if anyone, is going to see it.
Debruge: It’s a fair question — and one that Cannes sometimes allows filmmakers to overlook, because this is cinema for cinema’s sake, dammit, free from commercial considerations. And yet, the festival also makes room for films such as “The Nice Guys” and “The BFG,” which I adored, even if Spielberg’s CG-heavy adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic is engineered to delight. It’s literally the Big Friendly Giant of the festival, though here — and only here — are Ade and Arnold’s unsettling micro-studies not dwarfed by such a film. Their films may run long, but still feel oh so fragile and small — like the many insects (nods to her Oscar-winning short “Wasp” perhaps?) that flit on the edges of Arnold’s post-grunge, yet still-plenty-grubby portrait of today’s lost “kids” (in the Harmony Korine sense). It’s easier to attract flies with “American Honey” than vinegar, as the saying goes, though Arnold’s movie has an acrid bite that sticks with me a day later. Where Spielberg’s “The BFG” still believes in dreams, the generation Arnold depicts doesn’t seem to have any, hooking up and whoring themselves out with no sign of self-respect. After nearly three hours, I wanted the story to go somewhere, but that likely would have been an artificial imposition on the festival’s most authentic film so far.