By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 23, 2012 at 7:06AM
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.