Cannes Report #3 (The BFG, Handmaiden, Toni Erdmann, Slack Bay)

It’s a moment etched in Cannes history. Steven Spielberg’s E.T. premiering in 1982 as the closing night film, the famous bike ride to the moon sequence occurring and the entire audience firing up their lighters in the dark. Goosebumps. Any Cinephile wishes they could have been there for that goosebumps-worthy moment. That was then, this is now.

Spielberg’s The BFG  got its world première here at Cannes just a couple of hours ago. The lineup to get into the 11:45 am screening, at the famous Grand Theatre Lumiere, was the biggest the fest has seen thus far, but not all got in. Those that did get a chance to catch a screening, saw a film that will only come out on July 1st. Adapting Roal Dahl’s famous children’s book, Spielberg seems to be at home in the first few scenes presenting us Ruby Barnhill as orphan Sophie, who gets snatched away by a Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance). The set-up is all money encompassing the camera techniques and use of music that the famous director is so well-known for.

Things get a bit rocky once Sophie catches a glimpse of the BFG and, worried she might tattle-tale his existence, he forces her to come with him to his homeland. The ensuing scenes are rocky, as they try to forcefully explain the do’s and don’ts of the BFG’s homeland and his passion for dream-making. That part of the film could have easily been trimmed down in half, but Spielberg is just too in love with the visually colorful world he’s created and doesn’t let go. Things do get a bit better in the mid-way mark as the action picks up with Sophie and the BFG facing mean, hungry giants and then having to go visit-no joke-the Queen of England.

It’s all good-natured fun and if The BFG didn’t have Spielberg at the helm, it might have garnered far more enthusiastic words from this critic. It is an adamantly well-done action adventure yarn that boasts top-notch special effects and real heart, but it’s Spielberg and it’s Cannes and expectations are too high. The film is no classic, but it’s also no Hook, Spielberg has matured and leaned out his errors since the time of his misbegotten 1991 film.

It was in 2013 the sexually explicit, lesbian drama Blue is the Warmest Color justly won the Palme D’or. That same year Park Chan-Wook released Stoker, a gothic murder drama that evoked Hitchcock.  This year at Cannes Park is back with The Handmaiden, a film that seems to be a mix of both films.

Erotically charged and ready to explode at any minute, the film is sure to confuse fans of the director’s bloodier works such as the classic Oldboy. Instead of explicit violence, we get explicit lesbian sex. It’s a Victorian romance with backstabbing surprises on all fronts. The story of a good-hearted pickpocket artist, who is hired to become the maid of a rich heiress, is not far off from the mood the 52 year-old director has been in as of late. If you saw his last film Stoker, you will know that Park is trying to go in a very different direction as far as his film career goes. He is now more interested in tense, character-driven, slow but building period pieces that contain just an antsy bit of violent bite. No problem there.

Park will push the limits of the American censors board once The Handmaiden gets released. The erotica on display is no doubt very sexy but, much to the director’s credit, in the way he shoots these scenes, no full frontal nudity is shown and yet I wouldn’t be surprised if the film picks up an NC-17 rating once it’s released. Suffice to say, that the film is a handsomely opaque, overtly familiar, sexually evocative romance that never bores you and yet, throughout, I felt like something was missing.

There is only one movie everyone seems to be talking about and it’s Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann. If you’re not familiar with Ade’s work then please do yourself a favor and catch her excellent, but under-seen 2009 film Everyone Else. 

Erdmann, which press screened to enthusiastic applause, centers on  Winfried (an awards-ready Peter Simonischek) who doesn’t seem to click like he used to with his now older, career woman daughter Ines (an excellent Sandra Huller). She wants none of dad, especially after his dog dies and he decides to surprise her with a visit.  The problem is Ines is working on an important project in Romania and is so dead-set on completing it that she shuns her dad off. That’s when the nasty fun begins and Winfried decides to annoy his daughter with the strangest, most surreal, prank but to him it doesn’t really count because he goes undercover as “Toni Erdmann”: a ridiculously unsmooth-talking, wig wearing, fake-teeth clinging master of mayhem. A self-proclaimed “life coach”, with a business card to prove it.

No need to divulge any surprises of this 162 minute German comedy, especially in its second half. Yes, 162 minutes, but they fly by, even when Ade purposely changes the tempo of her film every so often to let the scenes linger on, instead of cutting them short and on to the next one. That’s fine, the flawed, scrambling, ambitious narrative structure of the film does it no disservice. Instead, it’s a pure delight and the current top contender for the Palme D’or.

A few notes of French director Bruno Dumont’s Slack Bay, a competition title slapstick comedy, murder-mystery that is very much influenced by Laurel and Hardy, but also silent pictures from the 1910’s! You can’t fault it for being original, but after an hour or so it grows tiresome, its thin story irrelevant and the acting gets on your nerves.