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Entries in Cannes (6)


DOGS DON'T WEAR PANTS (Koirat eivät käytä housuja)

Stars: Krista Kosonen, Pekka Strang, Ilona Huhta, Oona Airola, Jani Volanen, Ester Geislerová and Ellen Karppo.
Writers: Juhana Lumme and Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää.
Director: Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää

WORLD PREMIERE: May 21st at Théâtre Croisette; Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Director's Fortnight), Festival de Cannes 2019.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

FESTIVAL DE CANNES 2019: A widowed cardiologist mends his broken heart with a dominatrix seeking her own like-minded connection in Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, J.-P. Valkeapää darkly funny, surprisingly sweet, occasionally challenging take on grief, emotional redemption and the recuperative qualities of a golden shower. Finding a sliver of lovely memory while on the verge of one’s own mortality is the starting point for the Finnish director’s leather-&-buckles love story; it is a film that talks tough and plays hard but has at its core, a message of acceptance and joyful release.

The idyllic married life of Juha (Pekka Strang) is torn asunder as he naps; in a dreamlike prologue, his wife (Ester Geislerová) drowns at their lakeside home while their small daughter Elli (Ellen Karppo) watches on. In trying to rescue his tangled wife, he has a moment of spiritual connection with her soul, nearly drowning himself in the act. Ten years later, Juha is still consumed by grief; he finds comfort in his lonely daily routine, which includes his own form of self-abuse using his late wife’s underwear and perfume, while barely registering the existence of teenage Elli (Ilona Huhta).   

As his daughter gets her first body piercing (with his blessing, in his presence), Juha wanders into a backroom BDSM chamber, an act of accidental trespassing that sees him choked into semi-consciousness by parlour mistress Mona (Krista Kosonen). Her attack energises his senses; a subsequent visit, in which he is humiliated and stripped bare (hence the title), leads to consensual asphysixiation, an act that triggers in him the moment when he last saw his wife’s life force. Juha grows dependent upon Mona’s skills, while failing to register the bond that his willingness for pain and degradation is generating in her.

Which all sounds potentially soul crushing to an audience, yet manages to play out in the hands of bad-boy auteur Valkeapää with classically deadpan Finnish humour and an increasing sense of warm emotion. Even a pivotal third-act moment involving teeth and pliers (as awful, but also a lot funnier, than it sounds) is in the service of his character’s re-emergence into a world of human connectivity.

Pekka Strang walks once again on the fringe of Euro-sexuality, having starred in the equally chafing leather-clad opus Tom of Finland (2017); as Juha, he plays desperation and absolution with equal conviction. Krista Kosonen, as Mona, provides a great deal of character shading even when Valkeapää’s script (co-penned by Juhana Lumme) leaves her backstory ambiguous. As the dominatrix whose understanding of pain alters the decade-long depression of a grieving widower, major star Kosonen (Blade Runner 2049, 2017; Miami, 2017) leaves no pressure point unexplored in her on-screen interactions with Strang. While the dungeon scenes are daring and confronting (and the film’s final sequence, set in a BDSM niteclub, entirely forthright about life in this realm), Valkeapää avoids leering over the perverse by remaining bound to his themes of redemption and understanding.

Herein lies the difference between this Finnish spin on sexual deviance and the decidedly more puritanical Hollywood versions of bondage living. In Adrian Lyne’s 9½ Weeks (1986), walking on the darker side of sexuality led to the damaging and ultimate destruction of ‘true romance’; in the recent Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy, a room of whips and chains came to represent a shallow, lesser version of human connection. In Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, the darker and more painful the exploration shared by Juha and Mona, the more a fuller understanding of each other’s emotional needs began to form. What could be more romantic than the strengthening of that bond, by whatever means?



Stars: Carolina Sanín, Leticia Gómez, Antonio Martínez, Vladimir Durán and Alejandra Sarria.
Writers: Franco Lolli, Marie Amachoukeli and Virginie Legeay.
Director: Franco Lolli.

OPENING NIGHT: 58th Semaine de la Critique, Festival de Cannes 2019.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

The emotional extremes we bear witness to in the face of impending mortality and the generational flow of familial love provide the existential framework for director Franco Lolli’s elegant, often profound and deeply resonant sophomore feature, Litigante (The Defendant). Having travelled to Cannes in 2014 with his debut Gente de bien, the Colombian director’s return to the Semaine de la Critique is an understated triumph.

Fronted by two superb actresses crafting vivid portrayals of old and new matriarchy, Lolli constructs a mother/daughter dynamic not dissimilar to that utilised by James L. Brooks for his Oscar-winner Terms of Endearment (1983). Unlike that relatively upbeat slice of well-to-do white American melodrama, however, Litigante presents a middle-class Colombian family in a downward spiral of tension, grief, black humour and barely restrained conflict. This is a home that runs deep with resentment and unfulfilled expectations, despite maintaining a façade of tolerant warmth and stable intellectualism.

With co-scripters Marie Amachoukeli and Virginie Legeay, Lolli provides layers of rich humanity for his key protagonist, 40-ish lawyer and single mother Silvia (Carolina Sanín); introduced as a passive observer, she sits by her mother Leticia (Leticia Gómez) as the elderly woman reacts with defiance to the news that the cancer that has been in remission for a year has returned. Refusing an extended hospital stay and invasive treatment, Leticia decides to see out her final days in the family home, not entirely aware of the burden it will place on her family (which has been patriarch-free for many years).

As Bogota’s Deputy Legal Secretary of Public Works, Silvia is implicated in corruption charges brought against her boss – another man absent for most of the film (as are several influential males in this female-centric story). Silvia must fend for herself in a heated radio interview conducted by journalist Abel (Vladimir Durán). An unlikely romance develops, but theirs is a love destined for difficulty as the obstinate and ailing Leticia weighs in on his suitability as Silvia’s prospective partner.

Carolina Sanín is wholly wonderful as Silvia, every ounce of pain she withholds and frustration she endures etched on the lines that seem to take shape on her face over the course of the narrative. As the title suggests, she is under constant scrutiny, forced to defend herself from a judicial system out to prosecute her office or a mother questioning her entirely reasonable life choices. The personification of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Sanín is a true contemporary female heroine; stoic and determined to face her hardships, focused on others above herself and unwavering in her commitment to family, regardless of how challenging and tenuous that link may sometimes appear to be.   

All of life’s distractions, and the narrative’s subplots, fade away as Leticia’s health deteriorates; Silvia, her young son Antonio (Antonio Martínez, a natural screen performer) and 20-something sister ‘Majo’ (Alejandra Sarria) experience firsthand the daily pain and dwindling life energy of their once vibrant mother. So to does the audience, in scenes of aching tenderness and sharply focused emotionality; the astonishingly transformative performance by Leticia Gómez is even more remarkable given that the actress is the real-life mother of the director as well as the inspiration for the story, having been cared for by her son while recovering from a cancer bout.

The final frames of Franco Lolli’s Litigante speak to the cyclical nature of the parental bond, acknowledging that Silvia knows she is next in line for a similar decline and that Antonio, blissfully unaware as he presently is, will step into the carer’s role. It is a beautiful, universal, heartbreaking observation from a filmmaker fully invested in his story and characters.



Stars: Charlize Theron, Javier Bardem, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Jared Harris and Jean Reno.
Writer: Erin Dignam
Director: Sean Penn

Rating: 1.5/5

Representing an inconceivable disconnect between the humanitarian activist we know him to be and a filmmaker capable of this tone-deaf dreck, The Last Face is a tortuous misstep for director Sean Penn. The global refugee crisis is entitled to a far more respectful and insightful account of its horrors than is afforded in this shrill melodrama, in which the displaced (and often dismembered) people of central Africa are only addressed when it benefits the turgid romance between Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem.

Shooting the carnage of tribal conflict with the kind of rich colours, ambient music cues and soft focus edges usually reserved for high-end consumer ad campaigns, Penn asks of his movie star leads the impossible – to imbue their rocky, photogenic love story with the same resonance as the hell on earth in which it unfolds. Not a chance, given that Theron’s spoilt brat daddy’s girl and Bardem’s heart-of-gold warzone lothario are two of the most objectionable characters of contemporary cinema.

Bouncing between the conflicts of South Sudan, Sierra Leone and Liberia, Theron vocalizes her South African origins as Dr Wren Petersen, the beautiful white face of global social activism. Tired of fronting conferences and boardrooms in an effort to affect minimal change, she lands in Africa to join fellow medical heroes on the ground, saving the population with their superior skills and winning smiles (amongst them are the wasted acting talents of French doc Jean Reno and Brit medic Jared Harris). Most charismatic of the lot is Bardem’s Miguel Leon, a smooth-talking playboy surgeon capable of wooing his new charge with his stubble and grin as they celebrate a successful night time jungle caesarean.

But warzone romances never go as planned, and soon Wren and Miguel are bickering, then making up, then amputating legs, crying a bit, then having sex, then riding in jeeps. It doesn’t help that Wren’s cousin Ellen (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a past conquest of Miguel’s, keeps turning up (HIV positive, to boot). It does help that the lovebird’s most emotional moments are shot in Africa’s ‘golden hour’ sunlight, the cries of the wounded silenced just long enough for both stars to emote their own pain. All that faux emoting requires some serious padding; cue yet another bloated, droning score from Hans Zimmer.      

In the hands of veteran DOP Barry Aykroyd, Penn’s visual style mimics the floaty, ethereal lens of his Tree of Life director and obvious influencer, Terrence Malick. Yet mimicry is all it is, with The Last Face offering not a single frame of Malick’s contemplative strengths (which, to be honest, have even let Malick himself down lately). Penn’s strengths used to be gritty understatement in the service of society’s fringe dwellers (The Indian Runner, 1991; The Pledge, 2001) and spiritual dreamers (Into the Wild, 2007). In his latest, Penn only proves adept at staging the grotesque horrors of third world civil conflicts; in addition to the birth scene, piles of bodies buzzing with flies and corpses, both dismembered and disembowelled, offer up the pic’s only moments of realism.

Whatever Sean Penn’s good intentions may have been, in every other regard The Last Face is the kind of misguided vanity project/message movie only the egos of Hollywood’s most powerful talents can afford to conjure.



Stars: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Nora von Waldstätten, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie and Ty Olwin.
Writer/director: Olivier Assayas.

Selected In Competition at 69th Festival de Cannes; screened at 7.00pm on Monday, May 16 at Salle Debussy, Cannes.

Rating: 4/5

A lonely existence tormented by distant voices is examined in Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, a moody, occasionally frustrating, often brilliant study in isolation, grief and disenfranchisement. Although it is likely to prove more critically divisive than his last film, Clouds of Sils Maria, the French director’s latest is a typically challenging drama employing such disparate flourishes as murder, high fashion and the supernatural. Reports of audience discontent at the Cannes screening your critic attended were greatly exaggerated; the absorbing work should further strengthen the director’s reputation as one of world cinema’s most idiosyncratic visionaries.

Assayas sets a chilly tone with a haunted-house opening sequence that introduces Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a twenty-something American suffering the emotional stress of having recently lost her twin brother, Lewis. Walking the dark halls of an empty, vast suburban home, Maureen reaches out to her sibling’s spirit; as a medium, her will to connect with the afterlife is strong and soon evidence of her twin’s presence becomes clear. Assayas seems to enjoy the genre tropes inherent to a ghost story. The cloudy wisps of ethereal intrusion into her world that are glimpsed in the corner of a room or over Maureen’s shoulder bring on the goose pimples; a last-reel development leaves a last-gasp impression not soon forgotten.

In the real world, Maureen is a ‘retail expert’ for flighty model/starlet Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), tasked with sourcing the latest Euro-threads for an employer she rarely sees. A cross-borders train ride that consumes the second act pits Maureen against a nameless text-stalker, whose flirtatious words initially empowers her (she is ‘seduced’ into visiting a hotel room and dress in erotic attire to appease his wishes) but soon become sinister and frightening. Assayas proves a deft hand at these Hitchcock-like machinations; the text may be from Kyra’s smarmy boyfriend Ingo (Lars Eidinger) or, more intriguingly, from beyond the grave.

For over two decades, Olivier Assayas has provided complex, multi-dimensional roles for women, from Clotilde de Bayser in Winter’s Child (1989) and Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep (1996) to Connie Nielsen in Demonlover (2002) and Juliette Binoche in Summer Hours (2008); the female lead in an Assayas film requires an actress of international standing at the top of her game. Kristen Stewart proved she had the mettle to carry a support part as (another) personal assistant opposite Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria; she became the first American to win a Cesar, taking a Supporting Actress trophy for the role.

Stewart steps into an Assayas lead role with a performance of slowly unravelling psychology coupled with a brittle emotional and physical presence. The scenes where she calls forth the afterlife capture a heartbreaking longing for her late brother. The connection he provided to human emotion is now gone from Maureen’s life; she talks to a distant boyfriend via Skype, about a job that she undertakes alone, in a city that speaks in a foreign language. Her sadness is conveyed in such an understated manner by Stewart, the inevitable moments when her disconnect consumes her and she begins her journey back to self-belief proves deeply moving.

Personal Shopper wrings the most out of every moment, which occasionally messes with the tonality of the film and the flow of a coherent narrative; is it a horror film or murder mystery or a coming-of-self drama? But Assayas and Stewart both exhibit masterful command in their grasp of twisty storytelling and full-bodied characterisation; the joy is in deciphering their examination of an unsatisfying existential familiarity, presented in a most unfamiliar manner.

Read the SCREEN-SPACE Feature on Kristen Stewart, 'Can The Queen of Cannes Conquer The World...Again?' here.



Stars: Pyotr Skvortsov, Viktoriya Isakova, Yuliya Aug, Aleksandra Revenko, Nikolai Roshin, Svetlana Bragarnik and Aleksandr Gorchilin.
Writer: Kirill Serebrennikov; based upon the play Martyr by Marius von Mayenburg.
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov

Screening in Un Certain Regard at 69th Festival du Cannes; reviewed at the Salles Debussy.

Rating: 4/5

Fervent creationism faces off against wide-eyed Darwinism amidst the already volatile environment of high school life in Kirill Serebrennikov’s chilling psychological drama, The Student. The Russian auteur’s journey into the dark recesses of a fanatical mindset provides religious extremism with a truly terrifying façade – the unbridled and fearless arrogance of a disenfranchised teenage boy.

Serebrennikov (Yuri’s Day, 2008; Betrayal, 2012) offers up a compelling microcosm of the faith-vs-fact debate that has grown in intensity and ferocity around the world in recent decades. That he also bolsters his narrative with themes such as teenage sexuality, institutional bias and agenda, free speech and Oedipal issues proves both ambitious and intellectually engrossing. The melding of the director’s storytelling skill and playwright Marius von Mayenburg’s stageplay proves a match made in…well, it’s a good match.

The titular protagonist is Veniamin Yuzhin (the remarkable Pyotr Skvortsov), a lean, surly teenage boy living with his struggling single-mom (Yuliya Aug). In a pre-credit sequence, he seems to be remarking with typical teenage disengagement that he wants out of his school’s mandatory swimming lessons on “religious grounds.” Only after he is taunted by the bikini-clad mean girl Lidiya (Aleksandra Revenko) and ends up submerged beneath the bodies of his classmates do we learn of his spiritual will; the young man lives an existence devoted to the Bible scriptures, each memorised and instantly recalled, often with a cruel bitterness capable of levelling any counterpoint.

Soon, the school body is energised and enraged by Veniamin’s outbursts, none more so than biology teacher Elena (Viktoriya Isakova) who finds both her devotion to scientific study and faith-free middle-class life the target of the teenage evangelist’s wrath. In one ferocious sequence, Veniamin’s reacts to a carrot-and-condom sex education lesson by stripping bare and leaping from table to table, citing verse after verse of the scripture’s stance on love, sex and marriage. The passages cited begin to take on deeply anti-social views, be they homophobic, anti-semitic or just plain hypocritical; the foreboding sense that Veniamin’s crusade is about to turn irreparably destructive mounts with tangible tension.

With the school administration towing both the Kremlin’s line on religious education (in 2013, President Putin made the teaching of faith-based culture compulsory in secondary schools) and allowing for their own beliefs to affect their handling of Veniamin’s and Elena’s conflict, the scourge of religious extremism leads to an inevitably chaotic and tragic conclusion. The filmmaker leaves no doubt as to the role that unwavering and literal devotion to the written word of God plays in his narrative; Serebrennikov is not the type of director to create this vivid, scorched landscape of complex morality and biblical scale and then not take a stand.

As rich in allegorical intent as the very best of Russian cinema, The Student will ignite post-screening debate as it traverses the global festival circuit. Religious devotion at the expense of the very humanity it purports to enrich is endemic to every faith-based society; the existence of Kirill Serebrennikov’s frantic, frightening film will help to generate crucial discussion on the true nature of dogmatic fundamentalism the world over.



Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, Parker Posey, Judy Davis, Paul Schneider and Anna Camp.
Writer/Director: Woody Allen

Opening Night Film, 69th Festival du Cannes; reviewed at the Salle Debussy Theatre.

Rating: 4/5

Given the richness of Vittorio Storaro’s breathtaking cinematography and the rose-coloured hint of melancholy it invokes, the urge is to posit Café Society in with Woody Allen’s ‘Americana’ period of the 1980s. Just as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days reminisced on bygone days, his latest is an often giddy, always gorgeous love-letter to both the Los Angeles of Hollywood’s golden era and New York’s swinging jazz club scene of the 1930s.

Yet for all the declarations of passion and sun-bathed joie de vivre of lovers encircling each other, Allen’s characters are an immoral, shallow, even shady bunch. They are descendants of comic creations that the auteur has crafted superbly in past works, that much is true, just not the films that Cafe Society aesthetically recalls. These self-absorbed philanderers and shallow socialites are the miscreants of Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Match Point.

To his own narration, Allen opens his film poolside in LA, as a Hollywood party is in full swing. Uber-agent Phil Dorfman (Steve Carell) is holding court, name-dropping with sleazy Hollywood abandon (“I’m expecting a call from Ginger Rogers”), when he hears from his East Coast sister, Rose (Jeanne Berlin, stealing most scenes she is in); his nephew Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is heading his way and needs work. The young man’s arrival leads to some neat fish-out-of-water bits that don’t particularly further the plot (notably an extended gag about Bobby’s first visit from a professional girl), before he is given a menial job at the agency and assigned to Phil’s PA Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) on weekends to be shown around town.

Eisenberg, riffing on Allen as has become de rigueur for the director’s leading men, and Stewart, whose lightness of touch proves a revelation and classically photogenic charms are adored by Storaro’s lens, have developed a sweet rapport after past efforts together (Adventureland, 2009; American Ultra, 2015). Their courtship scenes are the best moments in Café Society, especially a sequence that has them tour Beverly Hills, taking in the star’s palatial digs while wonderfully revealing character and chemistry. Another glorious set-up, during which the electricity in Bobby’s apartment blacks out and he tends to Vonnie’s broken heart by the glow of candlelight and streetlamp, all but guarantees DOP Storaro mention come Oscar time.

Soon, the machinations of plot take over and we learn that the love that keeps Vonnie from Bobby is very close to home. The west coast scenes skip along at a lively pace, endearing each character and milking the most from a storyline that is not very ambitious (and, to Allen’s fans, a tad familiar) but which engages thanks to Allen’s ensemble and masterful sense of timing.

The story shifts to New York and characters that were peripheral comedy relief become the centre of an ever-expanding narrative. Bobby returns home and begins to walk in the shadow of thuggish big brother Ben (Corey Stoll), robbing the film of Carell’s and Stewart’s presence and the ‘zing’ they share with Eisenberg. As Bobby’s east coast love interest Veronica, Blake Lively is every bit as captivating as Stewart but is afforded far less character development; an underworld subplot that involves murder and corruption feels unconvincing and perfunctory (and often overtly bloody). The Woody Allen who once perfectly captured the alienation of a New Yorker in Los Angeles is nowhere to be found here; Allen’s LA story is sublime, while his NYC-set narrative stutters.

Allen last filled the Cannes opening slot with arguably his best film in recent memory, Midnight in Paris. If Café Society does not match the sheer delight of that period piece gem, nor attains the caustic and captivating immorality of, say, Crimes and Misdemeanours, it fits with a body of work from a director still determined to explore the shading between the themes of love and deceit, truth and pretension, desire and commitment. Though not the sum of its many wonderful parts, Café Society still represents a captivating melding of the light-and-dark complexity of Allen’s best work.