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Cannes 2019: Frankie, Parasite, Matthias & Maxime

Today, the mayor of Cannes held his annual free lunch for the jury and members of the international press. Perhaps half of the 4,000+ accredited members of the press at the festival showed up for a typical Provencal feast of salted cod and steamed vegetables slathered in aioli, the region’s famous garlic mayonnaise. This event is held in the courtyard of an ancient church on a cliff high above the oldest part of town. The view of the old port and out across the Mediterranean is worth the steep walk, and rivals any movie.

A popular tourist destination noted for vistas from steep places figures prominently in “Frankie," a European-set film by American director Ira Sachs (“Little Men”). With this eighth film in his career, he competes for the first time at Cannes. Like a model for a Woody Allen comedy but without the laughs, “Frankie,” is an ensemble family drama of tangled relationships that features more light navel-gazing than sightseeing

French star Isabelle Huppert plays the eponymous heroine, an international film star very much like herself, except with a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Calmly accepting, and knowing that her time left is limited, she sets up a destination reunion for her blended family in the picturesque Portuguese city of Sintra.  

As family members are gradually introduced, so are the prevailing complications. Husband Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson) can’t hide the onset of the early stages of grief; amiable ex-husband Michel (Pascal Greggory) now lives with a man; son Paul (Jeremie Renier) has cycled through many women without settling down; stepdaughter Sylvia (Vinette Robinson) is about to leave her husband Ian (Ariyon Bakare); and granddaughter Maya (Sennia Nenua) is in revolt against her mother. Into this mix, Frankie has also invited friend Ilene (Marisa Tomei), with an eye to setting her up with Paul, but she shows up with significant other Gary (Greg Kinnear).

Wide-ranging though it is in the realm of relationships on the precipice of permanent change, “Frankie” is very much a flattened story in which characters don’t actually connect so much as stand in for who they are supposed to represent. Huppert’s Frankie, physically slight, almost wraithlike, is the catalyst, with a sharp tongue and an undiminished ability to interact. Key cast members speak their lines awkwardly, often with the measured cadences of a stage performance. Family members relate as if these actors of varying nationalities and disparate accents had only met for the first time minutes before the cameras rolled. 

Frankie’s imminent demise remains on the horizon while subplots play out among Sintra’s wooded roads and villas. Sachs has packed this plot with film industry references that begin to seem like veiled salutes to filmmaker friends. Ilene, a film production hairdresser, knows Frankie through her work. She and her boyfriend Greg, a cinematographer, are working on a new “Star Wars” film. At one point, Greg pitches his personal film project to Frankie when he comes upon her sightseeing alone. Greg also pitches a marriage proposal to Ilene, but her waffling feeds into another subplot.

Among a number of testy dialogues, there is the hardheaded discussion of her estate that Frankie initiates with Paul, triggering a rash gesture. He has an adversarial relationship with his stepsister, that connects with the revelation of a family secret, thwarting one of Frankie’s cherished plans for when she is out of the picture. Lines are drawn among these characters, but only resonate in a meaningful way when Sachs eschews the face-to-face drama, and, in effect, diagrams the future in a series of revelatory long shots.

Family is everything in Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” a satire that pulls a series of sharp comic switcheroos for an unexpectedly poignant social comment. Bong’s “Okja” competed for the Palme for the first time in 2017, and he is well known internationally for thrillers including “Snowpiercer” and “The Host.” 

The unemployed Kim family of four lives in a basement apartment, where they gleefully poach on a neighbor’s Wifi and make a little cash doing piecework assembling pizza cartons for a chain. A passing nod to the triangular stink bugs that infest their cramped fetid home will take on a meaning that will eventually cast a symbolic shadow in Boon’s larger scheme of things. 

A posh friend of son Ki-woo, aka Kevin (Choi Woo-shik), shows up mysteriously, gifting him with a big craggy “scholar’s stone” said to bring good fortune, and passing on the connection for a gig to tutor the teen daughter of the wealthy Park family. Sister Ki-jung, aka Jessica (Park So-dam), utilizes her ace Photoshop skills to fake his university diploma. Within minutes, Kevin’s caring line of patter has twitchy and vulnerable Mrs. Park and her cute wide-eyed daughter eating out of his hand.

Mrs. Park confides that she’s also looking for an art teacher for their hyperactive little son, and Kevin just happens to think of someone named Jessica—very much in demand but possibly available. Boning up on a load of art therapy jargon on the web, she also is installed as a valued expert in the Park household by the clueless lady of the house. With a combination of dirty tricks and some innocently proffered advice, the Kims soon succeed in getting dad and mom on the payroll as chauffeur and housekeeper, all four pretending to be unrelated.

While the Parks are satisfied with their new employees, even as they are being massively hoodwinked, husband and wife agree on one little drawback. There’s a whiff of something unidentifiable about each of those four. Turns out it’s the dank basement smell on their clothes. “People who ride the subway have a special smell,” sniffs Mr. Park, a corporate CEO.

Creating a setup in which sympathy at first builds for the filthy rich Parks, Bong takes it to the limit. Nice, trusting and gullible, they are easy marks for this family of grifters. As slickly as Bong created comedy around the Kims’ rampage of rascally shenanigans, he introduces a note of dire economic desperation with the surprise return of the former housekeeper, whom they had succeeded in ousting from her job. She has her own agenda involving a labyrinthine bunker under the post-modern mansion, and may also be out for revenge. 

Bit by bit, Bong succeeds in turning the tables on this plot with a conspicuous sense of righteousness, to reveal his whole crew of merry grifters as little people fighting over crumbs. A slapstick rampage turns into an imaginatively choreographed violent melee on the mansion lawn in the course of child’s extravagant birthday pageant. Just deserts are served. 

Canada’s enfant terrible filmmaker Xavier Dolan, based in Montreal, has been coming to Cannes regularly ever since he won the Camera d’Or in 2009 for his first feature “I Killed My Mother” at the age of twenty. Family is a running theme in his films: the family his characters choose in their search for love, and the ones they are born with. “Matthias & Maxime,” competing for the Palme d’Or, mixes coming of age, coming out, and coming to terms, in a millennial drama that poses a post-millennial challenge.

A group of longtime friends, mostly guys, gather at a summer cottage for a party. It’s a casual, roughhousing and rude-joking pack of millennials. The younger sister of one of the guys is in a bind. She’s making a student film on assignment, and her two male actors have backed out. She needs replacements. Max (Xavier Dolan) volunteers, and his childhood friend Matt (Gabriel D’Almeida-Freitas) is joshed into reluctantly raising his hand. Then it is revealed that the scene involves a kiss.

The central story involves Matt, who is straight, coming to terms with new sexual feelings about Max, who is gay. Max is about to leave Montreal for two years in Australia, and the film is a countdown, not only of days, but in stages of anger, attraction, and denial that draw friends, girlfriends, and some of their families into an emotional process where raw feelings begin to change the group dynamic. 

Dolan’s films always involve mother issues in many different permutations. Max is dealing with legally transferring the financial power of attorney for his recovering addict mother to his aunt for the duration of his absence. Rejected and abused by his own manipulative mother, he has a surrogate relationship with mothers of his friends. Given Max’s special rapport with several of the film’s maternal figures, the grotesque shrieking caricatures he employs to introduce them is a puzzler.    

The shooting style of “Matthias & Maxime” is rough, often with a jittery camera and low light levels, as if we had just dropped in on someone’s home movie. The realism of the photography often underlines the realism of raw emotion, but Dolan mixes and matches dramatic styles, sometimes resorting to jerky sped-up movement with the heavy addition of soundtrack music in lighter scenes. 

The film’s most intriguing challenge comes from the female student filmmaker, a know-it-all post-millennial smart-ass. She looks at Max and his friends like they came from the Stone Age, and essentially suggests that there’s no such thing as assigned gender.

Barbara Scharres

Barbara Scharres is the former Director of Programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, a public program of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  

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