Home > Features > Cannes 2017: Timelines And Animal Rights, Faces And Places

Cannes 2017: Timelines And Animal Rights, Faces And Places

On Day 3 of the Cannes Film Festival, thoughts on the new films by Todd Haynes, Bong Joon Ho and JR-Agnes Varda

Baradwaj RanganBaradwaj Rangan

May 19, 2017 | 07:05 PM

Cannes 2017: Timelines And Animal Rights, Faces And Places

The seventies means different things to different people. To some, it's the nostalgia of the last gasp of a certain kind of artistic Hollywood movie (Altman, Coppola, Scorsese). To others, it's the Spielbergian mainstream, which would take full flight in the coming decade -- the suburbia, the split-up family, the innocence, the wonderment. Todd Haynes' Wonderstruck is set in Minnesota in 1977, and it reproduces the latter with a faithfulness (right down to the shooting star at the end) not seen since J.J. Abrams' Super 8. This story has to do with a 12-year-old boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley), whose mother is dead. What about the father? That is what he wants to find out.

Haynes has always been drawn to period films -- here, he goes after a second era, the 1920s. In this setting, we get a New Jersey girl named Rose (the amazing Millicent Simmonds). She worships a silent film star named Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) and modelled on Lillian Gish. One of the films Rose watches is even named after Gish's Orphans of the Storm. This one's called Daughter of the Storm, and we get a scene where Lillian clutches an infant to her chest as the wind howls around her. Hang on to this bit of detail. It's important.

For a while, there isn't any... plot as such. Sure, things keep happening in parallel between the two timelines -- both kids flee to New York in search of..., both encounter the name "Kincaid," and both end up in the Museum of Natural History -- but the devil is in the details, which hint at things to come. Note how, in a flashback, Ben's mother surveys his room and remarks, "You really do live in a museum." Or how a motivational line in Ben's house ("We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars") cuts to Rose gazing at a magazine featuring another kind of star: Lillian.

ALSO READ - CANNES 2017: THE CASTE SYSTEM, AND PHANTOMS FROM THE PAST

A key revelation, read out from a narrative scrawled in a notebook, begins with this gentle injunction: "I need you to be patient with this story and read it slowly." That is the key to Wonderstruck as well. Even as we wonder what all these connections and commonalities (between the timelines) are adding up to, there's just so much to savour, like how Rose's portions are shot like a silent movie. (There's a reason.) And the stretch where Ben discovers an ally in Jamie (Jaden Michael) is pure Spielbergian magic.

Wonderstruck is adapted from the book by Brian Selznick, whose Hugo was brought to screen by Scorsese -- and this is, by far, the better film. For all his formidable strengths, Scorsese is too muscular, too big a filmmaker, and he oversold the magic. Haynes' interiority and delicacy sits really well with the material -- the magic evolves gently, organically, magically. The flashbacks with dioramas are achingly beautiful, but they don't make us think "visual effects" -- we think, instead, of how right everything seems. The ending is another beautiful variation on the theme of stars, but the real wonder comes during the closing credits, where we hear a funk version of Also sprach Zarathustra. Not since Saturday Night Fever updated Beethoven has a piece of classical music seemed so thrillingly... seventies.

***

Bong Joon Ho's previous film, Snowpiercer, married post-apocalyptic action and messages about food scarcity, the class system and global warming. His superb new film, Okja, manages a similar feat of being about a topical subject (animal rights) and yet not beating the audience on the head with well-meaningism and do-goodism. It just wants to tell a story -- the "spinach" doesn't stick in the teeth.

The film begins with a Wes Anderson tweeness that colours the rest of the proceedings. We are in New York. Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), the CEO of a bio-tech corporation makes a sweeping speech about eradicating global hunger. Cut to 10 years later, far away -- not just geographically (we're now in the mountains of South Korea) but also in mood. Okja likes to contrast the frenetic bustle of New York with the rustic surroundings of Mija's (Ahn Seo-hyun) home, where she lives with the giant creature after which the film is named. It's part-hippopotamus, part-bulldog, part-Jar Jar Binks.

ALSO READ - CANNES 2017: A FAMILY AT WAR, CULTURES AT PEACE

The plot gets going when Okja is abducted and Mija sets out on a rescue mission, and Bong Joon Ho mounts some fantastic action set pieces. And the lines are hilarious. An animal activist says he doesn't eat much because he's afraid of leaving a footprint. His colleague (a perfectly cast Paul Dano) says, "I admire your conviction, but your pallid complexion concerns me." I died. Jake Gyllenhaal is a hoot as a narcisstic TV star. But the serious portions are unforgettable. The ending feels a lot less happy than it should have been.

***

In the wonderful documentary, Visages, Villages (Faces/Places), Agnes Varda looks at her co-director JR, who never takes his sunglasses off, and says he reminds her of Godard, who never took his glasses off either. The one time Godard did, Varda recalls, she was 33. That's JR's age now. Varda is 88. What could they have in common to make a movie? Admiration for the other's work, for one. JR brings up Cléo from 5 to 7. Varda talks about his photography -- he blows up prints and pastes them in public places. The film is what happens when they tour the countryside in a van that has a photo-printing machine. As JR says, "Make images together, yet differently."

Like this collage of miners (blown up from old photos) they paste outside the houses of these miners. Memories are unearthed. A miner's daughter remembers her father setting out "with his bread, full of butter, to eat in his pit." Then the directors move to a farmer who says he's become more anti-social because his modern machines make hiring labour unnecessary, so there's no one to talk to.

When we think of giant posters on walls, we think of the big people, the politicians, the film stars. Visages, Villages is an ode to the little people: the postman, the bell ringer at the bell tower, a man who is retiring and "heading into the unknown," the workers at a hydrochloric acid manufacturing plant, the timid waitress with the umbrella who is now a little disturbed at the attention she's getting, thanks to people gawking at her blow-up. Her little boy, though, thinks otherwise. Asked what he feels about his mother's picture, he beams, "She's super pretty."

Watch the trailer of Okja here -