The Notebook is covering Cannes with an on-going correspondence between critics Lawrence Garcia and Daniel Kasman.
Like you, I also roved further down the seaside Croisette boulevard, past the Majestic hotel, and past the Directors’ Fortnight to the Critics’ Week: This is where I found Diamantino, which just won the top prize there. With festivals and arthouses too often full of the self-serious or those pandering provocation, it is a welcome relief to encounter the work of Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, merry pranksters whose vision of cinema has the audacity to be silly. But not only silly, as their work together (each directs separately and has collaborated with other filmmakers, a loose group we programmed on MUBI in 2016) is impressively rooted in the prickly, politically piquant modernist cinema of the late 60s like that of Godard and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
This dynamic duo’s new film together, Diamantino, impishly both skewers and honors football celebrity culture with its tale of the eponymous Portuguese player, God among men (and with the physique to prove it) who is disgraced in the 2018 World Cup and adopts an African refugee as personal and public penance. At the same time, he is being investigated by the government for money laundering, all the while his fame and figure are being exploited behind his back by Diamantino’s nefarious twin sisters. Oh, but this is not all, for Abrantes and Schmidt’s unique combination of calculated amateurism and intellectual rigor allows for plenty of digressions to fold into this world: A far-right party concocts a plan to use Diamantino’s celebrity to endorse a return to the Portuguese glory of old (“I deserve a second chance, and so does Portugal!”) in a scheme starting with a nationalist ad campaign and escalating into cloning an unbeatable team of footballers who will lead the nation (and its opiated football fans) to new glory—and vote to leave the EU. Meanwhile, to infiltrate Diamantino’s clan, the government sends a queer Cape Verdean to pose as the male refugee Diamantino will adopt as his son, which soon inspires much latent desire and Shakespearean gender-bending confusion.
All these antics are told with tongues so firmly in cheek it is sometimes painful–not that the irreverence is a stretch, but rather, like a lot of the humor that has proliferated in the Internet age, we seem to be forever skimming the surface of the ironic and the absurd. Diamantino is an impressively permeable film, pivoting and shapeshifting from moment to moment, satire to satire, here scoring points about image culture and celebrity worship, there joshing with the footballer's ecstatic visions on the playing field of puppies scampering through cotton candy pink clouds of powder. This image is the film at its cutest and most extravagant, using unexpected special effects to again toy with our expectations for this kind of film (whatever kind of film this is!). For me, the irreverence eventually proved exhausting, especially as so many jokes, like Diamantino’s guest room pillows and sheets being adorned by his image, were one-off rather than expanded, elaborated and taken to new extremes. Yet for all the easy jokes made about an empty-headed footie god, Diamantino surprisingly elicits a great deal of compassion and feeling from its titular hero, from his pet kitten (“Mittens”) to his sex-free naïveté. In the narration that opens the film we hear the calling card for the film’s central theme: the football stadium is our new cathedral that inspires faith from the people, the players are the artists, and Diamantino the Michelangelo of our time. What follows, then, is the tale of the abuse and exploitation of one of our paramount artists, told alternatively with a serious jokiness and a joking seriousness. Scrappily made as if tossed off on a mere lark, bending genre and tone at will, Diamantino feels a goof, piqued and liberated—for better or for worse.
A far more sincere debut could be found in Un Certain Regard with Lukas Dhont’s Girl, the story of a transgender teenage girl, Lara (Victor Polster), in the process of transitioning and, at the same time, struggling to keep up with her demanding ballet school. This situation could easily read as contrived, as could the fact that Girl presents very few points of conflict or friction surrounding Lara’s gender: Her father (Arieh Worthalter, excellent) is a paragon of tolerance and support, she’s surrounded by kind and encouraging doctors, and even her school, where she faces several humiliations, seems remarkably free of transphobia. Yet the accomplishment of the film resides exactly in this context: For Lara, even with the world remarkably on her side, she is still not okay with herself. Her beaming, reticent exterior, professing so much the woman inside her she’ll soon physically become, covers an inner being of such contradictory conflict and eagerness that this is where the violence in her world most lays. Ballet is the perfect analogy for her struggle for control of her body and focus of her being, and Dhont riskily shows her rehearse intensely again and again in an expression at once of her perspicacious passion for self-assertion and also the extreme effort it takes to maintain, let alone achieve this state of being. This struggle to maintain takes the place of much of a story in Girl, whose narrative suggests movement but whose true core is Lara’s limbo state, which feels interminable to her, before the complete transition. Thus, unfortunately, it’s a relatively one note film, but one driven by a winning, singular performance by Polster, and one that plays its note with as much keen observation and care as one can hope for.
Another carefully discreet film is one we all expected to be such: Shoplifters, by Hirokazu Kore-eda. A Japanese director now perhaps a bit too often found comfortably settled in a mode of compassionate family dramas that are gentle to the point of languid, his film in competition at Cannes is no different in atmosphere or energy. Not that such consistency is at all an issue, nor indeed is his approach, for we must remember that making such unpretentious humanist paeans without sap and with seemingly little effort is in fact proof of mastery, not an aspect to chastise.
Yet such soft films have me searching for an edge, and while the core of Shoplifters is not much different in in affect than, say, Like Father, Like Son (2013), the underlying subject of the film is actually quite provocative—indeed it is a subtle twist on this conventional aspect of Kore-eda. We are introduced to a family living in cosily cluttered squalor, each member busy with some kind of illegal or immoral hustle to earn money, whether the eponymous act, pension siphoning, or stealing from work, and at first the film seems a portrait of a family of criminals. But in fact, it’s a criminal family: No one, not the grandmother, the two elder sisters, the father nor the son are related to each other.
This "family" is an ad-hoc commune of miscreants, orphans, the abused and the cast aside, that have come together haphazardly and held together both through their petty criminal enterprise and, importantly, their humane camaraderie. This scenario is like something from a Shoehi Imamura film from the 1960s, pinpointing the bottom of society and finding in supposedly the worst of Japan that which in fact makes it best. The final act of Shoplifters’ makes this clear, as the style shifts to interviews with the members of the family and their true connections, which have been cleverly hard to parse throughout the story, are revealed. This switch in address is thrilling: an audacious and indeed moving complication to a film that, up until that point, suggested something otherwise quirky but quotidian. It is, in fact, a radical underbelly to a deceptively placid surface.
So expectations can be confounded, eh Lawrence?