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Cannes 2016: "From the Land of the Moon," "Dogs," "Paterson"

Does a female director have a shot at the Palme d’Or this year? That honor has gone to a woman only once since the award was created in 1955: New Zealand-born Jane Campion for “The Piano” in 1993. Then and now, the festival has maintained a poor record regarding the selection of women for the competition. Three are featured this year: Maren Ade with “Toni Erdmann,” Andrea Arnold with “American Honey” and Nicole Garcia with ”From the Land of the Moon.” 

With this morning’s press screening of Garcia’s film, all three films by these directors have now been seen. The festival is not quite at the midpoint, and many competition contenders are yet to premiere. Based on my not-so-scientific method of considering generalized buzz, an assortment of trade magazine reviews, and gossip, my personal guess regarding the chances of a possible triumph by one of these women is: Yes (“Toni Erdmann”), Maybe (“American Honey”), and No (“From the Land of the Moon”).

“From the Land of the Moon” by Nicole Garcia (“Place Vendôme”) stars Marion Cotillard (“Two Days, One Night,” “The Immigrant”) in a period film based on the novel by Milena Agus, set in part in the 1950s, and covering seventeen years in the life of the character Gabrielle. This is classy, arthouse drama with a major star; qualities which may reliably prove to be a plus in the world market, but that don’t always make for very provocative filmmaking as such things are judged at Cannes. 

It’s a showcase role for Cotillard, whose Gabrielle is first seen as a young woman of unspecified age, but possibly in her late teens, who develops a misplaced passion for the married village schoolteacher. Following a scandalous public incident, Gabrielle’s family arranges to hastily marry her to an itinerant Spanish farm worker who is a poor but kind-hearted political refugee from the Spanish Civil War. She resists strenuously, then gives in, warning her husband-to-be that their marriage will be both loveless and celibate. The marriage is awkwardly consummated after a time, when Gabrielle dresses as a prostitute and demands that her husband pay the going rate.

It’s unclear how a bricklayer affords to build a beautiful house by the sea, or finds the means to send her to a palatial Swiss sanitarium for weeks of treatment for her kidney stones, but it is there that Gabrielle meets the grand passion and obsession of her life. He is André (Louis Garrel), a seriously injured veteran of the war in Indochina. Garrel is often an obnoxiously mannered actor, but here he’s stiff and uncommunicative, which does turn out to be the very point once the script pulls out a series of last-act turnarounds that change the perception of much of what has transpired. 

As always, Cotillard gives a thoughtful, studied performance, but it’s one that never seems passionate or spontaneous in a way that’s true to this deluded, off-kilter character. With the exception of a couple outbursts, she seems too emotionally reserved and rather too old to play the love-mad village girl at the story’s start, and not quite old enough by the time disappointment and life have changed her. This is the kind of film in which seventeen years pass and the heroine hasn’t changed anything except her clothes. 

“Dogs" a first feature by Romanian director Bogdan Mirica premiered in the Un Certain Regard section today. Welcoming the audience briefly after an introduction by Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux, as an afterthought, Mirica began to say, “I hope there are no pregnant women or children in the audience…” when he was cut off by a teasing Fremaux with “That’s enough!” 

It’s not hard to guess what it means when the ominous sound of flies buzzing is heard on a film soundtrack. In the case of “Dogs,” the hum of flies accompanies a tracking shot across a grassy field and out over a pond, where the only thing disturbing the green scummy surface of the water is a single bubble rising to the surface. It’s followed by a big chunk of something bloody.

This sequence comprises the introduction to the violent culture of a rural area on the border between Romania and the Ukraine, where the almost tribal rule of gangster strongmen supplants the rule of civil law. Roman (Dragos Bucur), city born and bred, has just inherited his grandfather’s land holdings in this remote spot. 

Upon arrival at the abandoned farmhouse, having the intention to sell as quickly as possible, he discovers that his grandfather was the powerful local gang lord, and that the land, acquired long ago by unclear means, covers hundreds of acres right on the border. The other crucial fact he learns the hard way is that his grandfather’s successor continues to use the windswept prairie property for smuggling operations, and has no intention of stopping.

“Dogs” is a brutal, violent film, but it is not without macabre humor. That hunk of flesh that rose to the surface of the pond turns out to be a severed human foot, which gets dropped off to the police chief in a plastic bag by the farmer who found it. In a grimly amusing scene, the cop examines the foot at his kitchen table following dinner and a beer, putting it on his used plate, and, for lack of other tools at hand, methodically removing the remains of a boot and a sock using his knife and fork. 

This is not a gangster film in the expected sense, but a waiting game that moves with deliberation to reveal the broader picture of a relentlessly cruel way of life. The police chief Hogas (Gheorghe Visu) is the most interesting character. He’s a grey-haired skeleton of a man who’s dying of cancer, but still slogs through his job with the acceptance of his role’s ultimate futility and the fierce dedication of one who has nothing to lose. 

American director Jim Jarmusch (“Only Lovers Left Alive,” “Ghost Dog”), a granddaddy of the American indie movement, has a major cult reputation, which explains why the lineup for tonight’s press screening of his competition entry “Paterson,” was large and seething earlier than for any other film so far. This mild, sweet-tempered comedy/drama is a tribute to the rustbelt city of Paterson, New Jersey, birthplace of the poet William Carlos Williams. Depending upon how much patience you have for Jarmusch’s idea of whimsy, you’ll either love it (like those applauding heartily at the end tonight), or (like me) regard much of it as wearying drivel.

The episodic story takes place over one week, each day of which is announced with a screen title. The days have a similar rhythm for Paterson (Adam Driver), a city bus driver who shares a last name with his native city. He wakes up each morning with his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), eats some Cheerios, goes to work, and then comes home to his wife. After dinner, he walks their bulldog Marvin to a corner tavern where he has a beer and shoots the breeze with the regulars. Each day is a little reminiscent of a TV sitcom episode.

Paterson also writes poetry in a secret notebook that he keeps with him at all times. The poems have titles like “My Little Pumpkin,” and lines like “There are plenty of matches in our house.” There are many scenes of Paterson looking soulful on a park bench as he composes a poem. Each new opus appears on the screen as text, and is simultaneously heard in his voiceover. He’s not a very good poet, but Laura, an artist who spends her days making cupcakes to sell at the farmers’ market and decorating their house with her black-and-white designs, is his biggest champion.

As Jarmusch does in films including “Only Lovers Left Alive,” he puts many of his own literary interests, collecting obsessions, and favorite visual motifs on display through the passions of his fictional characters. Locations involving the city of Paterson’s Great Falls, the historic industrial district with its old brick factories and mills, and the weedy but homey atmosphere of blocks of ramshackle housing create a lovely atmosphere. There’s an homage to a sequence from the Wim Wenders film “Kings of the Road” in a scene in which Paterson has a conversation with a little girl who is writing in her notebook. 

For a film ostensibly about the beauty of words, it’s the words that are the problem. Paterson and Laura are more like props whose dialogue is halting and tediously trivial. It’s as if Jarmusch built a dollhouse and furnished it with all his favorite stuff, then added a couple inert figures for scale. I wish he had simply made a documentary about Paterson, New Jersey.

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