The race for the Palme d’Or opened Thursday with tales of runaway children by US director Todd Haynes and Russia’s Andrey Zvyagintsev: one enchanting but contrived, the other a kick in the gut.
For all its claims to be a “mirror of the world”, Cannes is also a bubble of glamour, celebrity-swooning and general indifference. Out on the Croisette, few will have noticed that the host country, France, has a whole new government; or that the president of the United States is finding it increasingly difficult to shake off that “Russia thing”. Luckily, the films are here to prick the bubble. Call it a coincidence or a dig at Donald Trump, the competition for the Palme d’Or opened on Thursday with a timely duo of deeply contrasting movies: one as bleakly Russian as it gets, the other quintessential Americana.
Like much of his previous work, Todd Haynes’s ambitious “Wonderstruck” is in fact a homage to one city in particular, New York, and to the history of American film. It is two period pieces at once, set 50 years apart, and already the second Cannes movie this year to feature a film within the film, coming on the heels of Arnaud Desplechin’s divisive festival opener.
Based on the bestselling 2011 young adult novel of the same name by Brian Selznick, it follows the parallel and interconnected stories of two fugitive children, both aged 12, lonely and deaf. One is an orphaned boy, Ben (Oakes Fegley), who travels from Minnesota to New York in 1977, following the death of his mother (Michelle Williams). The other is a girl, Rose (Millicent Simmonds), who makes the shorter trip from New Jersey to Manhattan, half a century earlier, to find her favourite actress (Julianne Moore).
Oddly, the two narrative threads blend in beautifully while 50 years apart, but their eventual merger in an improbable denouement feels clunky and contrived – largely scuppering the whole enterprise. Before then, there are moments of dazzling beauty as Haynes lovingly recreates the colours, costumes, cinematography and lighting of two very different eras in New York. Filmed as a black-and-white, silent movie, the 1920s segment is at times enchanting, carried by Simmonds’ ravishing performance on her film debut. But the scuzzy and multi-coloured later version of the city is the real treat.
“Wonderstruck” offers sweet nods to children's fascination with collecting objects, eye-opening visits to museums portrayed as cabinets of wonders, and an element of fantasy – all of which should appeal to child audiences as much as adults. It drew a mixed response after Thursday’s press screening, but is also the kind of film that may fare better with a jury of actors and directors.
There is another fugitive 12-year-old in Zvyagintsev’s “Loveless”, which also has its own scene of silent anguish, one so devastating it leaves you squirming in your seat. Suddenly revealed by a door thrown back, it features the muted, weeping scream of an unloved child who has just witnessed a vicious spat between his estranged parents.
The child is Alyosha, and the marriage between his loveless parents Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Alexei Rozin) is broken beyond repair. Both have found new partners and are in a hurry to sell their apartment, in a nondescript suburb of Moscow. But they have unfinished business in Alyosha, of whom neither wants custody. When he suddenly disappears, the film veers from vicious family drama to lost-child procedural, albeit one that ripples with insight on a society devoid of empathy.
The Russian director has described his first viewing of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 classic “L’Avventura” as a life-changing experience, and there are obvious similarities between the two films. Both treat a mysterious disappearance as the portent of a wider moral crisis gnawing at society. Zvyagintsev’s depiction of the city as a soulless dystopia, and his use of news reports on Mayan doomsday prophesies and the war in neighbouring Ukraine, add to the sense of decay and gloom.
“Loveless” describes a purgatory of a world, whose inhabitants are saddled with the ethical ramifications of past mistakes. Men are selfish and cowardly, while women wish their exes would “drink themselves to death”. Parents obsessively look at their mobile phones but won’t check that their children are home and tucked in. And police don’t bother looking for a missing child because “statistics show most eventually come home”. All of which is perfectly plausible, though not always subtly portrayed.
The film reteams Zvyagintsev with his crew from “Leviathan”, including screenwriter Oleg Negin, whose work on that epic and sobering corruption drama won the best screenplay prize at Cannes in 2014. A more focused work, powered by strong acting performances and magnificent cinematography, “Loveless” is perhaps even more disturbing, and already a contender for Cannes silverware.