Cannes Dispatch #3: Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc; The Florida Project; Good Time
Cannes, like virtually every other major international film festival showcasing feature-length filmmaking, is largely devoted to cinema that participates in a primarily theatrical mode — dialogue- and performance-driven works that feature subjects with whom we are meant to empathize to some degree. This is an expectation, fused into the medium’s DNA when it was still young, that is embedded in the layout of the festival itself; it’s the world’s largest film market (and therefore tilts mainstream, toward things that can make money), and the prizes it offers — honouring exemplary screenwriting and thespian turns rather than, for example, montage, photography, or sound design — privilege those films that follow along this institutional line. Far outside these understood benchmarkers of quality, Bruno Dumont’s new film and first musical, Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc, which premiered over in the parallel Directors’ Fortnight festival, is one of the true UFOs I have encountered in my ten years of Cannes attendance. So aberrant and ruthless is its pursuit of new forms of poetry, luminance and madness that it can be (and very much has been) confused for cretinism itself.
Adapting Charles Péguy’s Jeanne d’Arc (1897) and Le mystère de la Charité de Jeanne d’Arc (1910) with supreme fidelity, Dumont departs from prior incarnations of the Joan of Arc story — tending toward either austerity (Dreyer, Bresson) or grandiosity (Besson) — to offer something silly, metal, and deviant, but no less rapturous. The music, composed by French breakcore band Igorrr (a.k.a. Gautier Serre), constitutes at least half of Jeannette, ramming the film’s tone into and out of acidic chaos and playhouse doom. Jeannette, her friend Hauviette, uncle Durand Lassois (responsible for his own rap lyrics and choreography), and two twin nuns (who amount to a single character, Madame Gervaise) headbang, wheel pose, limbo and dab through Péguy’s verse, all but exploding on the screen whenever they’re singing and dancing. As in Straub & Huillet’s Schoenberg adaptation, Moses und Aaron (1975), Dumont opted to use live sound for the finished film, leaving in all the mistakes, stray sounds, and ambient noise usually eliminated in the post-production lip-syncing. (Actors wore earpieces to hear Igorrr’s instrumentation while the mics captured their voices a capella.) The result is a work that, in addition to being wholly singular (even by the standards of late-lunacy Dumont), is present before us, delivering the young Jeannette’s dreams of divinity for us as close to unmediated as it possibly ever could. Through her depiction of Joan, Falconetti and Dreyer practically invented a cinema of the face, detached and lacerated by the cut; here, Dumont reconfigures that legacy, re-tracing her radiance and prodigious energy to somewhere beyond the body, exorcising all dispensable energy to make room for the Holy Spirit.
By comparison, Sean Baker’s manic neorealist fable The Florida Project is stock and cute, which probably goes some way toward explaining my muted response to it. Baker’s latest is by all means a strong follow-up to his 2015 Sundance hit Tangerine, guided once again by the street casting method he’s employed to find actors for all his movies, and running loose with their input and impulses to compose the narrative and tempo. Revolving around bored, six-year-old misfit Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her buddies Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), The Florida Project is articulated by their adolescent lingo and awkward exploration of profanity — kids, they say the darnedest things — at least when it isn’t doused in the adult world, flailing through a post-recession America. The movie is set in a purgatorial motel cheap district on the outskirts of Orlando and Disney World, and the mise en scène thus bares all the blazing hues of the theme park’s ostentatious set design. Money, for Moonee’s mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), is acquired through re-selling cheap perfume and other junk to well-off tourists who have some green to burn, drawing a vivid picture of the ouroboros known as commercial capitalism. No one comes out unscathed — though motel manager Bobby, played by an excellent Willem Dafoe, does all he can to accommodate his tenants’ unstable lifestyles — and if there’s one clear flaw in the film’s design, it’s in its presentation of Moonee’s fate. There’s no space for optimism after she wipes away her tears, sprinting into the Magic Kingdom. Assuming ambivalence there just feels unnecessarily cynical.
Another timely American tale, Josh & Benny Safdie’s Good Time lit up a fairly paltry Competition slate with its fiery, maddening take on the crime genre’s caper narrative. Like Baker’s film, Good Time douses its locale — once again for them, New York City — in the ravishing, saturated glow covering every curve of the color wheel. Starring Robert Pattinson (as Connie) and Benny Safdie himself (Nick) as brothers, the movie detonates itself early on with a botch bank robbery and never looks back. Driven to overdrive by Oneohtrix Point Never’s characteristically glitchy score, the action is unsustainably intense, weaving and plowing through the city’s streets and businesses as one wrong step begets another and begets another again. Connie embodies the well-intentioned yet impetuous low-life persona rife in American crime films, diving into the most foolish schemes for attaining a better life for his mentally-challenged brother and fed-up mother, and navigating his strategies with the kind of faith in strangers’ cooperation that a non-white American could never rely on. To their credit, the Safdies never smear their social consciousness in our faces, and that allows us to garner a casual yet no less effective understanding of where class and privilege presently stand in this country. And indeed, Good Time seems readymade to eventually acquire the same kind of young, white male following that latched onto Nicolas Winding Refn post-Drive (2011) — a stroke that I hope proves to be as productive as it will be grating.