Last week at Cannes I encountered a familiar problem: standing in line for a crowded screening and getting turned away at the door. Within hours, I heard that a consensus had been reached: The new Michel Gondry film was terrible. "The We and the I," the opening-night selection of the Directors' Fortnight sidebar, finds the director working on a small, amateurish scale with a bunch of non-professional teen actors and, apparently, failing miserably to make something good out of it.
A few days later, I finally saw the Gondry, and there's more to the story than that rushed verdict. The movie has its issues, but there's a lot to appreciate about it. First of all, it's the only Gondry movie with no semblance of overt magic realism. The entire story takes place in real time, on a Bronx school bus, with a free-flowing, improvisational dynamic closer to a Duplass brothers movie than anything else in Gondry's oeuvre.
True, Gondry coaches hugely uneven performances from a cast of young non-actors who might not make the cut in a high school play, but he also nails the essence of teen testosterone. The narrative's framing device develops a nice rhythm as it goes along: A crew of wisecracking bullies hang in the back and pick on nearly everyone else, the crowd shrinks and eventually their ringleader receives an unexpected comeuppance. Made on the cheap while Gondry was working on "The Green Hornet," "We" has a handmade aesthetic that pervades nearly every ingredient of the design, and it frequently compensates for its rough edges with effective small moments between the various high-strung youths.
Had I acted on the bad buzz and simply crossed "The We and the I" off my list, I would have missed the opportunity to experience this intriguing footnote to Gondry's larger career until it found its way to another festival or surfaced in theaters, which these days can take ages. That's the inherent problem of Cannes this year and every other: The environment invites extreme, instant reactions that can define the entire reputation of a movie even before the lights go up. A single reckless boo or dismissive tweet can cause a ripple effect with hugely debilitating results.
Sometimes, this fragile dimension of the environment can make it a tremendously exciting place to be, but such sudden polarities cause flawed movies still worthy of discussion to flatline. There have been some terrific achievements dominating the headlines so far, and consensus has formed around Michael Haneke's "Amour" and Pablo Larraín's "No" as the two strongest achievements of Cannes 2012; Leos Carax's "Holy Motors" is certainly the most memorable. These are the best movies to write home about. On the opposing side, you have John Hillcoat's complete misfire "Lawless" and Ken Loach's middling lower-class whiskey heist comedy "The Angels' Share," which is nowhere near as interesting as that brief description might sound. (I'm pretty sure that at this point a Loach movie has the power to land a slot in the Cannes competition from the moment the director thinks it up.)
But what about those movies neither forgettable nor impeccably brilliant? They face a merciless crowd. Gondry's movie isn't the only one coping with this conundrum. Two entries in the Un Certain Regard sidebar have received notably divisive reactions but certainly deserve more nuanced looks. Chilean director Pablo Trapero's "White Elephant," his follow-up to the tense 2010 drama "Carancho," was anointed with a "boo" in Cannes' Debussy Theatre less than half a second after the final cut to black. While suffering from a lack of payoff, "White Elephant" nevertheless assembles a complex look at two priests attempting to improve the quality of life in the crime-riddled slums of Buenos Aires. Even when it meanders, "White Elephant" maintains Trapero's distinctive ability to seamlessly transform a leisurely scene of exposition into a suspenseful action sequence within the same shot. His mise-en-scene is thoroughly engrossing, and the high stakes never let up even when Trapero fails to take them to a satisfying end. If nothing else, "White Elephant" confirms Trapero's mastery, and sometimes that's enough to keep it in the conversation.
Another director able to make his talents evident even in a lesser work is 23-year-old Xavier Dolan, whose debut feature "I Killed My Mother" announced the arrival of a director with a strong eye for capturing intimate relationships. But Dolan's sophomore feature "Heartbeats" treasured style over substance, and now comes the supremely bloated "Laurence Anyways," an initially perceptive story about a high school teacher attempting to stay on good terms with his girlfriend while exploring his desire to become a transsexual. Melvil Poupad delivers a tremendous performance in the title role, and Monia Chokri nicely complements his efforts with an equally vivacious turn as Laurence's conflicted partner.
But the movie runs two-and-a-half hours and achieves the apex of its appeal after about 80 minutes. I heard grumblings on the street throughout the day following the first screening about how trying it had been to sit through Dolan's unnecessary opus, and the child actor-turned-auteur does push the limits in that regard. However, "Laurence Anyways" isn't bad simply because it could use a trim. Dolan remains a filmmaker of note, and I look forward to seeing him return to the more restrained approach he displayed at 19 when he directed his first movie. Some filmmakers grow too ambitious as they go along, but Dolan can't use that excuse until he hits 30. Until then, he remains a good director of scenes — in "Laurence Anyways," the problem is simply that he directs too many of them.
In the main competition, Danish director Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt" hasn't gained much prominence in the lineup compared to many of the bigger buzz titles, but this engaging story of a kindhearted man inadvertently accused of child abuse and alienated from his close friends sports a marvelous performance by Mads Mikkelsen in the lead role. "The Hunt" invites plenty of nitpicking with regard to its screenplay, which includes a number of logical gaps that hold it back from being as emotionally charged as Vinterberg clearly wants to make it. Cannes reaction was somewhat positive but fairly muted as well, as if the movie's best scenes were rendered irrelevant by its flaws.
A different situation faces German director Ulrich Seidl's twisted "Paradise: Love," the first in a trilogy about a family of privileged white women traveling the globe. In this one, the portly, middle-aged Teresa (Margarete Tiesel) heads to a Kenyan beach and spends most of the movie paying young black men to fall in love with her. It's a terrifying spectacle of touristic madness made particularly unsettling by the director's use of repetitive motifs: Teresa goes along with the false romantic encounters several times over, haplessly buying into the illusion even when every man she beds eventually makes up a story about a sick relative in order to raid her bank account. Essentially avant-garde in its execution, "Paradise: Love" also bears a certain atmospheric connection to Todd Solondz movies, as both feature hopelessly alienated and deeply conflicted characters seemingly disconnected from their lives.
Like the protagonist of "Paradise: Love," Cannes attendees frequently feel out of place and frustrated. For several days, a harsh rain shower assaulted the Croisette, making no distinction between celebrities and gawkers in its relentless downpour: Everybody got soaked, even as the show went on. In a line for one screening, a mass of journalists ran into a bizarre logistical problem when dozens of umbrellas locked together and intensified the chaos. The view of the umbrella disaster from below gave the impression of a giant tent with metal teeth. The experience was akin to a mosh pit, elbows and shoulders jammed together in a mad push toward the entrance. Were these reasonable conditions to endure immediately before sitting down for a patient, cryptic, two-hour Japanese excursion from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami? I did my best with his competition entry "Like Someone in Love," but conditions weren't exactly ideal.
Cannes is unquestionably one of the best places to discover the latest accomplishments in world cinema, but the prospects of finding them often come at the cost of everything else not quite worth the battle. At Cannes, a problematic movie is sometimes as good as dead.