Now at the halfway point, the competition films at Cannes have come from France, Germany, Romania, the UK, and South Korea, but finally the American competitors have landed and both Jim Jarmusch’s splendid Paterson and Jeff Nichols’ quietly impressive Loving have their official red carpet premieres today. However, the early press screenings have happened and both of these are worthy contenders for some kind of prize.
We have had plenty of Americans here with Out-Of-Competition titles from directors Woody Allen (Cafe Society), Steven Spielberg (The BFG), Jodie Foster (Money Monster) and Shane Black (Nice Guys), but in the race for the Palme d’Or, the U.S. is only showing its hand today, with the third Yank – Sean Penn -coming in at the end of the week with The Last Face. As for Loving’s case, Oscar watchers are eagerly gauging reaction since, on paper at least, the Focus Features’ November 4th release looks like it has the kind of bona fides that make Academy Award contenders, something Focus is hoping to encourage as they have put it in their traditional November Oscar slot where films like Dallas Buyers Club, The Theory Of Everything and The Danish Girl have all brought home at least one major acting statuette (and in the case of Dallas, two) for the company. If Loving is to keep this remarkable trend going for Focus it is going to have to start here in Cannes, and Oscar buzz was already being bandied about at the press conference following this morning’s 8:30 AM debut.
Both stars, Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga who play the real life couple threatened with Virginia prison time simply because of their interracial marriage in 1958, were asked if they are prepared to “win the Oscar” as one Brazilian journalist blatantly asked Negga. She deflected that one and Nichols said, “let’s just get through this press conference first”. The director said he just wants people to see this important film, which focuses on the case of Richard and Mildred Loving’s 12 year ordeal all the way to the Supreme Court for the simple human right to be married, no matter what the color of the betrothed. Sound familiar? It is still going on today, and in fact the court’s ruling on gay marriage came down as this film was in production. Nichols (in Cannes for the third time after Take Shelter and Mud) said he had initially wanted to get it made as soon as possible in order to have an impact that might influence that decision, but the Supremes beat them to the punch.
Even though the Lovings were triumphant in the end with a groundbreaking ruling in 1967 (the same year the comedy about an interracial relationship Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner ironically became a major hit movie), Negga pointed out she was astonished to learn it wasn’t until 200o that the last state, Alabama, finally complied to make interracial marriage legal everywhere in this country. But Nichols is too smart a filmmaker to turn this into a melodramatic courtroom drama and instead keeps the focus on the couple themselves, presenting the human side of the story and showing that Mildred and Richard are just like other people who fall in love, get married and have a family — even if in this case the threat of jail time is always there lingering in the background. Nichols has made a film that isn’t showy in the least, with performances that are understated and exquisitely modulated. “I wanted to make the quiet film of the year,” he laughed.
While that kind of ad line will probably not get people lining up at the multiplex, it is the truth. Loving proves to be a touching movie about a quiet couple who, in their own way, had a very loud impact on society when all they wanted was to be able to love each other. It is a great American story and how ironic that two foreign actors got the roles. Edgerton is from Australia, and Negga is Ethiopian born and half Irish. Nichols said the HBO documentary, The Loving Story had such an impact on him as he was writing the film that he wanted to find actors who looked like Richard and Mildred. This pair not only fills that bill, their accents are spot on (Edgerton’s Richard though is a man of few words). Both are superb, and if the Academy’s actors branch can respect subtlety for a change we will be seeing a lot of them on the circuit next awards season. Neither has a flashy scene or traditional outburst that guarantees Oscar consideration, but both so inhabit these roles they become the definition of what true screen acting is really all about.
“This movie was very special, and it was special because of how quiet and meditative and simple things were. I think the guide to it was the truth, the guide of the film was what really happened,” said Edgerton who told me over the weekend he thinks Negga for sure should be nominated. “It was very particularly un-Hollywood in the sense, for example, certain moments a lesser screenwriter might have rearranged the truth in order to make it more Hollywood.” Certainly , as Nichols said, the film has definite social and political implications, particularly in a hot button election year like this, but his goal was to make a special kind of love story. He succeeded.
So has Jarmusch, who has the near-record bragging rights of having two films in the official selection in one year, Paterson and the Iggy Pop documentary Gimme Danger which premieres Thursday in the midnight slot. Jarmusch, like he has done many times before, also does not lay on bells and whistles in Paterson which stars Adam Driver, excellent and pitch perfect as a New Jersey bus driver who also dabbles in poetry as he goes about the same routine day in and day out. He has crafted a masterpiece of mundanity that becomes profound and very rich in its ultimate impact. It, like Loving, is also quiet and meditative and the story of a happily married man who gets up, goes to work, eats dinner with his wife who wants to be a country singer but can’t sing (a lovely performance from Golshifteh Farahani) , takes his bulldog for daily walks, goes to the same bar for a beer etc., but also views the world through his poetry. It’s about life lived on a daily basis.
This is a movie that completely snuck up on me. Jarmusch told me at the Amazon Studios party ( it is one of five Amazon movies in the official selection) Sunday night that the scene stealing bulldog Nellie, who has third billing on the end credits, died of cancer at age 8 right after filming. She’s great and Paterson will be a nice memorial for her. By the way, it was truly diverse casting as Nellie plays a male dog in the movie. For me, Paterson may be the most memorable movie I have seen so far here this year, although opinions will vary as it is the kind of movie a viewer will bring their own life experience to.
Jarmusch has been to Cannes in competition a few times since 1984 when Stranger Than Paradise won a prize. In 2005 Broken Flowers won the Grand Prize but he has yet to get the Palme d’Or. Paterson would be a worthy choice, a movie that, also like Loving, is unapologetically human.
Another American director who just saw the debut of his film, Mean Dreams at Directors Fortnight last night is Nathan Morlando who, on the basis of this startlingly assured second film, is one to watch. It’s a noirish crime story that looks like a cross between Badlands and particularly last year’s great, and under-appreciated Cop Car. This one stars Bill Paxton as a crooked father chasing down his daughter (Sophie Nelisse) who has just run off with a boy played by Josh Wiggins, who also has grabbed a case with her dad’s dirty cash haul in it. And though, directed by Brits not Americans, two other quintissentially American stories populated with familiar U.S.-born stars are also making waves including today’s Un Certain Regard premiere of David Mackenzie’s pulsating bank heist Southwestern, Hell Or High Water, and Andrea Arnold’s polarizing American Honey starring Shia LaBeouf as titular leader of a low-life group of traveling teens selling magazine subscriptions in the Midwest. I have yet to catch up with the latter (it premiered yesterday), but hope to before the week is over, but critical reaction runs from love to hate so far. At two hours and 42 minutes I am betting it could take another crack in the editing room after Cannes ends. There are quite a few loooooong movies on display here this Cannes Fest. Whatever happened to compact storytelling? That brings me back to Hell Or High Water (not to be confused with the Richard Widmark 1954 war flick Hell AND High Water). I just got out of its first screening and it is indeed a movie I have a definite “certain regard” for. It’s solid genre stuff, but expert all the way. A rock solid thriller about two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) pulling off a series of bank jobs in order to pay off a mortgage to retain land they have discovered has oil on it. Jeff Bridges, in another great character turn, plays the all-but-retired sheriff on their tail. This is a solid American film, pulled off by a Brit, that ignites the screen. And it has an undercurrent of topicality as the threat of foreclosure and getting screwed by the banks is also part of this movie, just as that theme of the system driving people to desperate measures is also on display in two other Cannes movies seen here, Money Monster and Ken Loach’s moving I, Daniel Blake (just picked up today by Sundance Selects). Considering there is so much minimalist drivel on display as usual, Hell Or High Water is actually a movie that does what movies are supposed to do: move. CBS Films releases it August 12.
Things are looking up here on the Cote d’Azur.