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Film Critic Harlan Jacobson: Cannes at the end of the Plague Year

Cannes Film Festival
Lou Reed in "The Velvet Underground"

Everything about Cannes over the years has become more tense: general labor strikes in France, the overheated political scene resulting in heavy security measures, the Covid pandemic shut down the Cannes Film Festival like everything else in 2020 and this year made the 74th running of it an impossibility in its usual time slot in May.

Cannes is both a standard bearer for well-told stories, on film, in theaters—a standard on which it refuses to compromise--and the most important bazaar for films in much of the world, even carrying great weight in the greatest ”market,” if you choose to think of our country that way. As the world does for everything it wants to sell.

So I came this year because I missed it. I’m vaxxed, I got Covid tested before during and likely after. I wore masks during screenings. A Cannes theatre like the flagship Lumiere with 2300 seats or the adjacent Debussy with 1100 -- even if not completely full this year -- looks like a bandit convention. Cannes made it all work; its thousands of unflappable frontline assistants smiled and kept the lines moving and kept their cool. The festival did for the first time go access-digital, your ticket is on your phone and matches the badge around your neck.

Could I say it’s the year of crazy characters—if crazy means being tested by the people and places driving them over the edge.

The festival opened with ANNETTE by French mega-star director Leos Caraz with Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in an Amazon produced story about the chicest art couple in LA who dominate the downtown performance scene, played by Adam Driver as an intellectual confrontation artist more than comedian and wife Marion Cotillard a rising opera diva. They love each other so much.

The film shifts gears on that motorbike on the arrival of baby Annette, a freaky baby puppet out of work since freaky baby horror films went the way of the dodo. Didn’t work for me, but in Cannes Annette got a standing ovation. Did I mention that standing ovations don’t mean anything unless it’s a film you like?

Cannes Film Festival
A scene from "Annette"

Carax has managed to extract the worst side of Driver and drag Cotillard down with him and bury both of them. The film reeks of pretentious condescension. It never misses an opportunity to crap on the audience in the narrative and in the theatre watching the film. It is possible that people who run in better circles than I do in Paris, or even in Croton on Hudson, where I reside, might think Annette is deeply insightful about culture. Best audience for it is in the Villages in Florida, if they can figure it how to stream it. Isn’t that ironic, France of Standards?

As I did Sean Baker’s RED ROCKET which stays right inside Baker’s wheelhouse — the sex industry workers, professional, amateur, haphazard, casual or casualties that inhabited Starlet, Tangerine and The Florida Project before. There’s just no victory or dignity in the path Red Rocket’s lead character, Mikey Saber, has taken to crawl back to Texas City, his dirtwater East Texas hometown after 17 years in LA, where he says he made 2000 porn films and claims credit for six Adult Film Awards. As a failed porn star, he’s got nothing but the tanktop on his back, $22 bucks and a big sign that says beat it on his forehead, in short, a radioactive loser who never met a ditch he couldn’t fall into.

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Cannes Film Festival
A scene from "Red Rocket"

Nobody’s glad to see this dude back in Texas, not his ex-wife, not her mother, no employer of any kind, not even Leondria, the local black boss weed lady who reluctantly fronts him some dope to sell, nor June, her para-military enforcer daughter, who understands without ever bothering to speak that Mikey is a mosquito. He’s all grift, starting with Lexi, moving on to her drop dead and die mother, Lil, to let him back into the house. He Svengalis Lonnie, the live-at-home son of Lexi’s neighbors, to become his livery driver in a beater, and then trips over Raylee, a 17 year-old high school girl rebranded as Strawberry for her hair, selling donuts at the Donut Hole—recalling the donut shack Baker used to convene his transgender hookers in Hollywood in the audacious and seductive Tangerine, the one he filmed on an iphone. Strawberry is a jailbait cruller magnet in the making whom Mikey sizes up as a born porn natural and his ticket to ride back to LA, this time as a promoter.

Baker could’ve recruited Simon Rex, who plays Mikey, not from MTV DJ-ing where he began before going on to play a type, nor from the solo gay porn jackoff tapes he made under the name Sebastian, but from Trump University, pursuing an advanced degree in Weaselhood. Rex seems to have taken acting notes from Eddie Haskell, as if Eddie had a grandkid who voted for Trump, who, in fact, flits across the background here on TV news, in case we miss Baker and his sharp, regular co-writer, Chris Bergoch’s point: Grifting in America works on the griftable, but better if the grifter has as inheritance.

It’s a brilliant performance by Rex, hilariously supported by Bree Elrod as Lexi the ex-wife and Brenda Deiss as Lil, Suzanne Son as Strawberry, the nymphette future porn star waiting to take LA by storm, plus the only two characters unfazed by Mikey’s line of bullrap, Judy Hill as the weed boss queen, and her killer daughter, June, Brittany Rodriguez.

My money’s on Red Rocket to win the Palme D’Or, with a pretty hip jury headed by Spike Lee.

A24, the Moonlight Oscar folks, have the film set for US release.

In THE VELVET UNDERGROUND, the early ‘80s Brown University Semiotics crew of Todd Haynes, writer-director, and Christine Vachon, producer reached back and pulled together a doc that more than simply captures the renegade Velvet Underground and its band of wayward angers, Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison and Nico and their ins and outs. It did something else which is difficult: without fawning -- well, maybe with a lot of well placed reverence -- it captures this particular group of flamethrowers’ fever dream bleed from the ‘50s Beats into ‘60s music and performance.

Cannes Film Festival
Todd Haynes and Christine Vachon

Not Hippies, mind you, the film speaks to the VU’s contempt for that, but the way forward from something more nihilistic into a truer art platform. It situates what must have driven everyone crazy at the time, what we now call Reed’s on the spectrum behavior when it came to work or almost anything and normalizes it as artistic furnace. When it comes to Reed starting out in Long Island, but ending not exactly like the kids that went on to be dentists or tattooists, the film lays it out: all that edgy homoerotica and sexuality carried forward by Reed smacked the culture like an 8-ball.

Using a split screen that alternates between forward narrative and archival portraits and films, the film anything but tonally hums along a clear line for an hour fifty minutes, bristling with energy and witness testimonies. It’s a hit parade of old hipsters: particularly the Welshman Cale, whose musicianship grounded Reed’s scattershot rock lyrics, avant-garde film lighthouse Jonas Mekas, who died two years ago and to whom the film is dedicated, guitarist “Moe” Tucker, and former bandmates from his Syracuse days, Mary Woronov, who is particularly funny about how the VU showed up clad in all-black in pastel LA, Reed’s surviving sister, Merrill Reed Weiner, and film critic Amy Taubin—including pics of her as a sparrow who drifted into the scene for a time. Taubin zeroes in on what film’s frames per second does to the perception of reality, and we watch her time capsule segment doing the stare-into-the-camera-and-not-blink-thing that was a signature of Warhol’s Factory. I tried it afterwards back in my apartment on Face Time, because Taubin points out in the film it’s a skill. It is. It’s also the atom of acting.

“We weren’t part of the subculture,” Mekas says in one clip, “we were the culture.” It’s a cavalcade of Reed or Cale, Amy or Mekas and a dozen others on one side of the screen over time, while the film summons extraordinary archival vapors on the other to carry the narrative. It connects the visual dots and the universal cycle hum that the sound guys at the heart of the music rethink were all addicted to and made it their business to unpack that got repacked by later generations of musicians and filmmakers.

I don’t know what I don’t know, so if Haynes missed stuff or misweighted people and details, I can’t say on the fly. Since it’s about the Velvet Underground and extends what Haynes has done before, there’s no detour into the fraught Factory housing of Paul Morrissey, Joe Dalessandro and Holly Woodlawn as part of the scene. That, as they say, is another film, but I can tell you that Trash had an outsize impact on me as a suburban college hippie film nerd. When I saw Trash at the Bryn Mawr Theatre—of all places, in those days--which has now become the great Bryn Mawr Film Institute, the light went on about what was possible on film in a way that my studies of the bad boys of 19th century literature remained abstract. Haynes’ and Vachon’s Velvet Underground glories in the Baudelaire and Rimbaud of all this and manages to pull off a slight dig at the more market-driven Dylan as if Reed and Co.were a downtown S&M shop talking about Bloomingdales.

Like other careless folk of my time, I have a takeaway: I wish I hadn’t given my Banana album to my son. Well, it’s in great hands, as I prepare my eventual exit as a suburban recluse: he has a turntable, after all, and I don’t. Which says something about both of us. This doc sets the tempo for 2021. Due out in theaters and online from Apple, Oct. 15.

I’m HJ… from the Cannes Film Festival


Cannes Film Festival
A scene from "Flagday"

FLAG DAY, directed by Sean Penn concerns the Family Vogel, late 20th century Minnesotans, played by the Family Penn, Sean as John Vogel, his daughter Dylan as Jennifer Vogel and son Hopper as son Nick, both from his time with Robin Wright. The story is about families living with a Charismatic dad besotted by the American Dream of living big with no disciplined path to get there. Jennifer Vogel’s story is about her determination to flee out and up as an investigative journalist. Dad Penn is going for the Daily Double here: young woman up, old dad, and by extension, dudes, down. (Aug 20 release in theatres via UA).

Waiting for THE FRENCH DISPATCH, which held over for a year from the Cannes that wasn’t in 2020, has been talked about in some circles as one of the key cinema torments of Covid 19, not equal to the dislocation if not outright suspension of animation and death of civilization, but definitely in the mix.

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Cannes Film Festival
A scene from "The French Dispatch"

The French Dispatch’s through line is the life and death of a fictional literary magazine meant to be the New Yorker, or New Yorker-like. Cast of thousands, just everyone is in it – Benicio Del Toro, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright, Adrian Brody, Tilda, the dread Timothée, Léa Seydoux (her fourth Cannes film this year), Owen Wilson and Bill Murray natch, Liev Schreiber, Ed Norton, Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston, Saoirse Ronan, Elizabeth Moss, Christoph Waltz, the Fonz, Bob Balaban. And more. Many more.

Next stop: the NY Film Fest, then in theatres via Searchlight/Disney Oct. 22.

Arnaud Desplechin’s DECEPTION, which showed in the new, non-competitive Cannes Premieres section, is everything you wanted to know about Philip Roth and more. Way more.

Cannes Film Festival
A scene from "Deception"

Arnaud is on to something, though: it turns out Roth may have been born a Newark Jew, Weequahic High School class of 1950, but based on his history of amour fou--and endless, endless, endless talking about it — he was actually French. Who knew?

MOTHERING SUNDAY is set post World War I in a manor house family, which lost four of its five sons in the war to end all wars. Directed by Eva Husson from Alice Burch’s script of Graham Swift’s novella, Mothering Sunday shades with femdom England’s Big Topic, the fall of the aristocracy and the rise of the working-class meritocracy, that Working Class revolution you’ve heard so much about. Downstairs servant girl (Odessa Young) takes a walk on the wild side with the surviving son and becomes world famous writer (Glenda Jackson) 50 years after the upstairs people crashed and burned. Reteams Olivia Colman and Josh O’ Connor (Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles) from The Crown, plus King Colin Firth. Sony Pictures Classics to release in theatres.

Cannes Film Festival
A scene from "Mothering Sunday"

On TITANIUM / TITANE winning the Palme D’Or.

In some respects, TITANE, or TITANIUM, is why I go to film festivals. Or one of the reasons. This second film by French film director Julia Ducournau (Raw) turns loose a transgressive crazy brat, Alexia, who adultifies as opposed to matures, into a murderous avenger of women and LGQBT grievances. Agathe Roussell plays Alexia like a killer crow from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, Ducournau has unleashed not just hell but revenge hell on the world. With Vincent Lindon, France’s most civilized masculinity principle. Titane knits together queer, feminist and motorhead genres: I never before saw motor oil all over the maternity room floor. Neither had the Croisette, apparently. The younger crowd the night I saw it was mad for it. Whatever else went on in that jury room sun-kinged by Spike Lee, they went decidedly edgy in picking Titane as the Palme.

Cannes Film Festival
A scene from "Titane"

A Cinetic film, Titane opens in theatres Oct. 1 from and Neon (Parasite, I Tonya, Old Boy, Border), the edgiest distributor in the biz.

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.