The Notebook is covering Cannes with an on-going correspondence between critic Leonardo Goi and editor Daniel Kasman.
How nice it was to read your glowing words on Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or contender. His Parasite belongs, together with a handful of other main competition entries, to a list of Cannes titles I shall be catching up on Saturday, when the festival will run a few repeat screenings ahead of the awards ceremony. With a program as rich and tantalizing as this year’s, it’s virtually impossible not to let a few titles slip past you. And while I may have postponed my rendezvous with the likes of Céline Sciamma, Pedro Almodóvar, and Bong Joon-ho, I did make sure to catch the homecoming of one of Cannes’ youngest regulars, Xavier Dolan.
Ever since his 2009 debut feature I Killed My Mother, which found a spot at the 2009 Directors’ Fortnight, the Canadian’s career has unspooled as a series of almost uninterrupted Croisette bows. His following two features, the Heartbeats (2010) and Lawrence Anyways (2012), earned slots in the Un Certain Regard sidebar; after the 2013 Venice-premiered Tom at the Farm, 2014 marked his graduation to Cannes' main competition, with Jury Prize winner Mommy followed by It’s Only The End of The World, which received the 2016 Grand Jury Prize as well as a mauling from critics, the less than tepid response leading the then-27-year-old to vent at the festival’s “culture of hatred.” Whether or not the criticism was the reason that led his 2018 The Death and Life of John F. Donovan to seek other pastures, eventually premiering in Toronto, that Kit Harington-starring excursion into the power of celebrity fared more poorly still, universally received as the Canadian auteur’s biggest misfire to date. After a couple of less than underwhelming additions to his oeuvre, Dolan was in desperate need of a return to form. And as someone who owes him a great deal of emotional wreckage for his earliest titles, Lawrence Anyways and Mommy especially, it saddens me to report Matthias & Maxime didn’t really strike as one.
To be sure, a return Dolan’s Palme d’Or contender is: after the English-speaking, London-set Donovan, Matthias & Maxime brings the action back to the Canadian’s native Quebecois turf. A gorgeous lakeside chalet is home to a handful of twenty-somethings’ weekend retreat. Entry-point into the gathering is the eponymous pair. Matthias (Gabriel D’Almedia Freitas) and Max (played by Dolan himself, here in a writer-director-actor triple duty he hadn’t pulled since Tom at the Farm) have been friends since childhood, but brace for a looming farewell, as Max is a few months’ away from a semi-permanent move to Melbourne. It’s a rupture that takes on the magnitude of a break-up. For the two, never mind whether they never refer to themselves as such in the confines of their heteronormative world, do act and look like a couple. The chemistry enveloping Matthias and Maxime ventures beyond best-friendship terrain long before the pair agrees to star in a short film directed by party host Erika (Camille Felton), a scene that has them make out before the camera (and which Dolan curiously cuts). It’s not the first time they’ve kissed, reveal the other guests—and indeed, Dolan’s script subtly hints at the extent to which the two may have self-consciously internalized their union. “Doesn’t she know we hate her?” they ask of Erika on their way to the chalet, that “we” hinting at a liaison of deep, mysterious roots.
But the onscreen kiss brings the friendship to a halt. As an ellipsis rockets us to twelve days before Max’s departure, the two have grown apart, and Matthias & Maxime adjusts to the withered relationship conjuring up two separate portraits, and turning into a study of contrasts. This gives Dolan, via Maxime, the chance to return to some of the social commentary he’d articulated in Mommy. Contrary to Matthias, a brilliant young lawyer on his way to a promotion and a “two-window office view” his firm’s boss promises, a young man who’s unmistakably been raised in privilege—Maxime hails from the opposite side of the socio-economic spectrum. Raised by abusive, ex-addict, and chain-smoking mother Manon (Anne Dorval, of titular Mommy fame), brother to an estranged young man of whom nobody has heard from in ages, it’s easy to read Max’s intercontinental trip as an escape from a lugubrious family situation (part of the pre-trip arrangements includes figuring out how to convince his mother, clearly unfit to manage her own money, to accept her own sister as guardian).
But Matthias & Maxime isn’t a patch on Mommy. Where Dolan’s 2014 Jury Prize winner had crafted a piercing and engrossing mother-son relationship, the dynamic between Maxime and Manon is far more tenuous, partly because—much like every other character outside the titular duo—hers too gets mired in an unnervingly caricatural aura. And while Dorval strikes as a far tamer, and far less complex version of her own predecessor in the 2014 film, there’s something cringeworthy in watching Erika turn into the naive archetype of a pretentious, vacuous Franglish-speaking film student, introducing her short as a blend “between expressionism and impressionism” (whatever that may mean); something stomach-churning in her cartoonishly loud and gossipy well-to-do mother, who rushes to praise the daughter’s effort for being “like Elmodóvar” (sic). At best vaguely sketched—and at worst, reduced to a collection of stereotypes—the loud panoply of secondary characters surrounding the eponymous two only detracts tension from the plot.
And indeed, unlike the raw energy that had imbued the best among Dolan’s earlier works, there are moments when Matthias & Maxime strikes as unnervingly flat. For a film anchored on two ostensibly heterosexual friends waking up to the realization that their friendship comes with an expiration date—and that said friendship may be venturing beyond the contours of strictly platonic affection—there just isn’t much grit under all the theatrics. It’s a feeling of emotional emptiness that finds an echo in André Turpin’s handheld 35mm camerawork, zooming in and out of dinner table conversations and alcohol-induced confessionals, as if to frantically look for, and striving to accentuate, an already feeble drama. To be sure, Matthias & Maxime is a much-welcomed departure from the exhaustingly hysterical exchanges of It’s Only the End of the World. And a couple of heated altercations between Matthias and Maxime, and between Matthias and old-time pals, offer some of the most inspired moments here, where tension between the eponymous friends is tangible, their relationship negotiated, shattered, and rescued in the public realm of weekend getaways and parties. But even those scenes have the feeling of insular units, chunks of a large construction that never truly comes into a whole. And this explains the somewhat disappointing state Matthias & Maxime left me in: the feeling of having watched a film that thrives in the grinding of two characters fumbling after an identity, but once the grinding is over and the sparks that result from it fade away, little emotional resonance remains.
Matthias and Maxime’s friendship-bending kiss, and the identity crisis it plunged both young men into, took place against the backdrop of a strictly heteronormative world. A couple of days before Dolan’s Official Competition entry, I was able to catch another work that homed in on a relationship blossoming within—and constrained by—a patriarchal universe, Karim Aïnouz’s The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmão. Premiering in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, where Aïnouz’s feature debut Madame Satã had shown in 2002, The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmão is a beguilingly singular title for what is quintessentially a siblings’ tale, one of two inseparable sisters forced to fight against a calcified and all-pervasive patriarchy. Based on a 2015 novel by Martha Batalha (and written by Murilo Hauser, Ines Bortagaray, and Aïnouz), it follows two young women in 1950s Rio de Janeiro, the eponymous 18-year-old Euridice (Carol Duarte) and 20-year-old Guida (Julia Stockler). Raised in a conservative household by father Manuel (Antonio Fonseca) and submissive mother Ana (Flavia Gusmao), the two struggle to find a voice and space beyond the limited roles a male-dominated society has pigeonholed them into.
Preternaturally talented pianist Euridice dreams of landing a spot at Vienna’s music conservatory, while her more confident, volcanic older sister dances her nights away in the company of her boyfriend, Greek sailor Yorgos (Nikolas Antunes). In a lush, rainforest-set preamble, The Invisible Life had opened with the two sisters losing each other on their way home. It’s a separation that foreshadows Guida’s decision to abandon Euridice and parents overnight, eloping with her sailor across the Atlantic only to return to Rio pregnant and alone. But no begging can persuade her father to take her back. Her transatlantic escapade and unwanted pregnancy may irreparably compromise the family’s honor, and as both parents unceremoniously throw “ungrateful daughter and bastard grandson” back on the street, they resolve neither daughter should know of the other’s existence, telling Guida that Euridice left to pursue her pianist career in Vienna, and never once delivering the letters she will write Euridice and ask them to forward to her sister.
Aïnouz may not bear the same household name of fellow Cannes attendee and melodrama-savvy auteur Pedro Almodóvar, but The Invisible Life offers outstanding evidence of the Brazilian’s ability to play with the genre’s tropes and craft a wrenching tale of sliding doors, of lives unfolding along parallel lines and almost—but never quite—crossing. And that his latest period piece (however languid the leisurely 139-minute length may sometimes feel) still engulfs one in a tearjerking finale is courtesy of a script that blends ample doses of melancholia with a piercing dissection of patriarchy at its most execrable lows. Integral to the excursion is Aïnouz’s portrayal of sex. Shipped back to Rio and scavenging for cheap accommodation across the city’s lower-income neighborhoods, the few times single mother Guida allows herself to indulge in some casual fun carry a sad, mechanical aftertaste, the feeling of something performed as a loveless, passionless routine. And there’s a sad ring to the heart-to-heart she has with her best friend-cum-housemate Filomena (Barbara Santos): “I’m tired of being someone else’s fun.”
But it is in Euridice’s own body that sex comes close to embody an instrument of power, a belittling and humiliating mechanism akin to institutionalized rape. In what is possibly The Invisible Life’s most revolting scene, newlywed Antenore and Euridice consummate their marriage. It’s a sex scene that starts off as incredibly clumsy and gradually takes on a far more disgusting, almost predatory dimension, setting the tone for the future sexual encounters Antenore will effectively demand from his wife. And it’s a far cry from the wide-eyed stupor and inquisitive glances Euridice had darted at her sister, when, in that idyllic if long-gone era they spent under the same roof, Guida would tell her of her experiences with Yorgos, and the two girls who confide in each other—sex still some mysterious and ethereal notion lingering above them.
At its best, The Invisible Life crafts a timeless elegy of resistance, which speaks to the time and place it’s set in just as loudly as it does to present-day Brazil, a country which, as Aïnouz reminded the Debussy theatre, introducing his feature, “is the country with the biggest number of single mothers and crimes against women.” It is a story that unfolds as a correspondence, as Guida will continue to write never-delivered letters to her sister through the years, and the two women will move on with their lives, looking for each other and finding refuge in the solace of old reveries, billowing to life with Benedikt Schiefer’s score—interspersed with piano pieces by Chopin, Grieg, and Liszt—and in the vivid, warm colors of Hélène Louvart’s cinematography. It’s a dreamlike world of contagious beauty and nostalgia. By the time an ellipsis takes us several decades forward, and a now-octogenarian Euridice resumes her quest for her beloved sister, The Invisible Life has wrapped you in that curious and ineffable feeling you experience when you realize you haven’t just watched two characters grow onscreen, but have grown with them, too.
Until the next dispatch,