I keep waiting for a truly great film here in Cannes, an expectation and a hope for something really striking that is undoubtably a terrible attitude to take towards this festival and film in general. (Then again, a friend and Cannes regular, when I despondently shared these thoughts, told me that it is this hope that keeps her coming back, and that without it, indeed, why even go to the movies?) With this forlorn need haunting me by the fourth day, I was rightly chastised by the first of three films by the Portuguese director of Tabu, Miguel Gomes, in the Directors' Fortnight, a trilogy titled Arabian Nights. It is not a great film, but, abashed, I think it was the kind of film I needed, a lesson not to expect masterpieces, or perfection, but proof yet again that cinema is permeable, its beauties and faults can and should leak. Some directors struggle to close off their film from the outside, to master and perfect it. Miguel Gomes does not, and let's the world into his movie, and his moviemaking into the world.
Volume 1: The Restless One is not perfect and its director knows it. Its nested tale far more clever than the superficial structure of The Grand Budapest Hotel admits as much from the get-go: perhaps this movie is an adaptation of the Arabian Nights, a modern version Scheherazade's tales, or, as the film wonderfully suggest, perhaps it is made of the stories Gomes himself tells his disgruntled crew, upset over his flight from the production over, as he tells us in voiceover, conflicts of privilege. Indeed, The Restless One is a very privileged film, shot on of 16mm and 35mm film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul's cinematographer, and with the luxury of being able to combine documentary and fiction together into that most trendy of contemporary festival genres, the "hybrid film." So we open with some documentation of the closing of a major shipyard in Portugal, with audio interviews of the ex-workers on the soundtrack, but not content with this separation of image and sound Gomes tells us he also wanted to do a project on a bee and wasp problem besetting the area, so we hear—but don't see—some of those stories mixed into the ship tales, before finally being shown some staged and non-staged scenes of bee extermination. Gomes ruminates he wanted perhaps to see the bee situation as a metaphor for the ship situation, and it is at this moment under the duress of abstraction and pretension that he bolts from that set. He is pursued, caught and buried up to his neck by his crew: Preface over, then the proper "tales" begin—but of course preceding these were already three and perhaps more stories, all of a devastated and disconsolate Portuguese economy and populace.
Nothing if not upfront about what this movie is about and how it was made, not only with the director's explanations in voiceover but also in big bold intertitles, the three principle tales that follow are claimed to use the Arabian Nights as inspiration for re-interpreting anecdotes and situations found in Portugal between 2013 and 2014. The first is a satire of politicians and economists linking their heartless financial policies first to their complete, literal impotence and then, after the intercession of a "typical" (the film's phrasing) wizard, endowed with permanent states of unappeasable erections. With their penile problems cured, the bigwig troika are so overjoyed they decided to forgive debt and relieve the Portuguese nation and people. "The world spins around our penises," says a giddy top official, "it's so cool." But very quickly they find their stiff erectile status so annoying they have to cripple the nation's finances to bribe the wizard to uncast his spell. The second tale is also of cock, nearly a documentary on a small town's municipal elections whose banner issue is whether or not to suppress a rooster who crows far too early. Even if this section was mostly documentary—using non-actors and a real election—Gomes takes it into the fantastic by having the cock speak to a visiting judge who can talk to animals. The cock says he's been crowing early to warn the people of a coming disaster. It is in this way that the film never fails to not only engage in the very moment of its recording in Portugal as a topic of its drama but also inextricably intertwines fantastic moral tales with specific national and local issues, laying aside the too-defined tools of "fiction" filmmaking and "documentary" for a technique that doesn't care how it does it to obtain its mixture of piqued anger, a sense of lost direction, and of sadness, all dosed with plenteous goofy humor. The cock story merges into a tale of young love among the SMS generation (on a local level, the cock was warning of a spited teenage lover burning the town's fields in jealousy), before moving towards the third tale, itself nested with three long interviews with unemployed, middle-aged men, interviews done in single shots where the participants are too fluidly eloquent for the scenes to be pure documentation.
None of this I found audaciously clever, unabidingly lovely, gaspingly revealing or anything provocative; Gomes is too embedded in the idiom of a certain kind of hipster film to really detach from an often too casual and not firm enough development of his ideas and stories. A friend made a good point: the beautiful press kit for the film, which includes extracts of the director's diary and a stylized introduction to how the film was shot—a workflow of gathering topical stories around Portugal, fictionalizing them, then traveling and filming with participants and in the location—may in fact be more simple and eloquent than this first volume of Arabian Nights. Its separate tales are casually playful and sympathetically engaged with the world, but aren't particularly notable within the film's grand structure. But this is also the point: the first volume radiates freedom of the filmmaker, a seemingly complete freedom that can merge a film production with the country within which it is filming, a unity of being that allows this first part of Arabian Nights to do anything it wants, or even nothing at all. With two more two-hour parts yet to play in the festival, I hope Miguel Gomes and his team are able to keep going this sense of relaxed spontaneity and freeform, yet tightly grounded creation.
Back in Competition, you'd be hard-pressed to find such cinematic liberation, where Nanni Moretti's moving, straightforward, completely uncomplicated My Mother earned tears but probably not its widespread applause, and Gus Van Sant's bafflingly clichéd The Sea of Trees was not nearly as awful as the boos that met it suggested, but rather was so hobbled by constant pastiche and emotional contriteness one wonders why it is competing and films like In the Shadow of Women had to premiere in Fortnight or the Apichatpong was ousted to Un Certain Regard. Such festival politics are inside baseball to just about everyone but those on the ground in Cannes (or the films' producers), but such gestures are worth noting: Apichatpong took home the Palme d'Or for his last full feature, and now he returns to the Croisette on the second rung? I wonder if such a thing has happened before in the festival's history. Perhaps his interim featurette Mekong Hotel excused the selection committee from having to dedicate a precious slot in competition this year to something that undoubtably will look radical next to the cinéma de qualité of the Moretti—or the new film by Todd Haynes.
Carol, adapted by Phyllis Nagy for Haynes from a landmark 1952 lesbian novel that's a kind of melodramatic thriller, published pseudonymously by Patricia Highsmith (her follow-up to her debut, Strangers on a Train) to tremendous sales, follows in the footsteps of this director's previous glossy updates to Hollywood directors Douglas Sirk (2002's Far from Heaven) and Michael Curtiz (2011's HBO miniseries, Mildred Pierce). Like the "twist" of making the man with whom a buttoned down housewife has an affair in Far from Heaven an African American—something Hollywood never would have permitted at the time—Haynes filming Highsmith's novel almost (but not quite) as if it were a film from the 1950s is a kind of gesture of false history. What if Hollywood made movies about lesbian lovers in the post-war era of rampant social conservatism? Slimming down the book's more complex social situation involving early 50s bohemian single life in New York quite a bit and splitting its focus across its two heroines rather than just one, the movie follows the brief love affair of New York shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) with a high class New Jersey housewife, Carol (Cate Blanchett), as the latter's marriage to her husband falls in disarray.
While the novel was very much about the developing sensibility and consciousness of a young woman whose loneliness and dissatisfaction finds a possible solution in the realization, though not spoken, that she is queer, the film treats the relationship essentially as an affair, the issue is adultery tainted by homosexuality, not the other way around. While the main threat to Carol in her divorce is her husband using her history of female relationships to obtain custody of their child, other than this the fact Carol and Therese's relationship is a homosexual one bares little import in the film. While this gestures towards a possible effort at making a faux old Hollywood film that treats such a topic as a plot device rather than an exploration, as in the novel, of the psychology and stiff sensuality of a nuanced relationship that is constantly evolving moment to moment along with Therese's burgeoning self-awareness, the resulting film is all together too respectful. Its soft, luxurious Super 16mm images and blush palette is gorgeous, looking as close to the sumptuous Technicolor control of something like John M. Stahl's Leave Her to Heaven as one can without actual mimicry, but the angle the filmmakers take towards the story and its characters feel only half formed, the subtext or complexity missing. A small handful of charged conversations over meals net the few insights given by Rooney Mara's otherwise blank face, which barely registers the idolization, confusion and ardor Carol supposedly inspires in her, and whose frail body is so thin it seems like kindling, ready to be consumed by fire. Blanchett, elegantly curved, with those cheekbones and snake eyes so perfect for Carol's air of refined distain and distance covering a darting, anxious mind-state, similarly gets a few exalting close-ups and gestures but otherwise the performance seems a bit too lucid. Sarah Paulson as an old friend and ex-lover of Carol's likewise sits down for a meal and steals a scene with an immaculately bejeweled hand and a tension over the women's affair betrayed by a twirled cigarette. Indeed, these three women are exceptionally well cast for the roles, and yet their chemistry is lacking, the film carries none of the sensuality of the central relationship, the pressing worries or ecstatic freedom. Haynes plays for an odd middle-ground that refuses to commit to the observant distance of, say, a Stahl or Douglas Sirk, the reflexivity of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, or the sensual, empathetic elisions of someone like Claire Denis, whose work a few dreamy reveries in Carol suggest. Strange as it may sound for a melodrama and romance, the acute fatalism and cerebral academic quality of David Fincher, with whom Mara and Blanchett have worked, might have found an unexpected kinship here.
But unexpected is hardly what this careful film is going for. Nearly half the book is an epic road trip part escapade and part radical flight to a new life—one of many aspects supposedly inspiring Nabokov's Lolita—and here it feels and in fact is is a mere weekend fling, lacking the weight of time and the passionate, conflicted interchanges between the older and younger woman. What with the supreme plushness of the film's look, its costumes appearing as if never worn before, its glinting images in windows and mirrors, glamour comes very close to trumping these people and their story, such is the unwrinkled quality of each woman unto herself and, most cripplingly, the two together. It is unfair and not right to compare book and movie, but I fall back on it because the movie ultimately seems to give so little of what makes these characters, this situation, and this era so rich. The book was tremendously transgressive in its time and for years after; as a film now, taking place then, as an object of art and as a popular story, it is of course no longer deviant nor even does it emphatically suggest such a thing about the women's relationship then. So what is at stake here? Why do these two love each other so much, what is the fascination? And what, too, is Todd Hayne's for this story? I cannot tell.