Notebook is covering the Cannes Film Festival with an on going correspondence between critics Leonardo Goi and Lawrence Garcia, and editor Daniel Kasman.
Dear Lawrence and Leo,
I’m happy to learn of your appreciation for One Fine Morning, a superficially normative bourgeois French drama that slowly but surely reveals its touching nuances and gentle expressions through Léa Seydoux’s restrained performance and Mia Hansen-Løve’s ineffable ability to pinpoint the tenor of a scene or a character through a deceptively unobtrusive, gently luminous style. Its aspect of being a drama of personal memory from the director I’m less enthused by, but still found it to be one of the best films at the festival so far.
I never would have thought to compare Hansen-Løve to American director James Gray, but of course one of the much-remarked upon pleasures—as well as hackneyed writing devices—of festival-going is the unexpected resonance between happenstance adjacent encounters like these two. One Fine Morning and Gray’s film at the festival both share a profound root in their directors' personal experiences. Not only this, but their realizations also have less to do with resurrecting memories—the dramas are hardly set in lost epochs—than carefully revisiting personal pasts to evoke from them their feelings and thinking now better understood, as well as to center their dramas around critical moments of decision-making, emotive (for Hanson-Løve) and moral (for Gray).
It’s always curious to see what American films are deemed worthy of the Cannes competition—keeping in mind that there seems a level of production deemed unfairly advantaged when compared to international art cinema, which is likely why George Miller’s new film is out of competition, but small movie master Kelly Reinhardt’s is. James Gray's last two films, excursions into the jungle (The Lost City of Z) and outer space (Ad Astra), had scope and budget beyond Cannes’ vague definition of American-of-interest. (Ad Astra premiered in Venice, whose competition has lately been vigorously jockeying with Cannes for prestige Hollywood slots, which seems less to do with curation and more to become a funnel for the American awards machine.) These two masculine sagas were welcomely made well beyond the director’s wheelhouse of New York stories of hushed, emotionally intense grandeur, and while variously successful, they were gorgeously sweeping and trying something quite different—grand cinematic adventures. Gray’s new film, Armageddon Time, on the other hand, returns the director to his old neighborhood, quite literally in this case.
Directly inspired by Gray’s childhood, the film is centered on a young redheaded schoolboy, Paul Graff (played with great transparent resonance and emotive detail by Banks Repeta). Intimately surrounded by his small but colorful first and second generation Ukrainian Jewish family in New York, Paul’s dreamy attention goes more towards his interest in art and a tentative but warm and growing friendship with Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a discontented Black boy in his class, than towards his studies. The milieu here—set in 1980 in outer Queens, with family dinners filled out by elderly accented generations—is familiar to past Gray pictures, but surprisingly seems a bit more glancing and less lived in, despite the personal source. Almost all casting choices outside of two excellent school chums feel forced and lack the sublime integration into the screen’s tapestry that Gray’s past muse, Joaquin Phoenix, has: Anne Hathaway, as the mother, hardly seems like she could be the daughter of family patriarch Anthony Hopkins, who is both too old and too Welsh-accented to make in any way plausible the family story of fleeing an antisemitic Ukraine for Liverpool (thus, the accent), then Queens. Jeremy Strong, as the distant yet goofy yet abusive father, is so stiff and stilted in demeanor that he comes across more like an Andy Samberg comic performance of oddball asshole dad than anything like Gray’s usual deeply-felt earnestness. Authenticity always was a hallmark of Gray’s New York films, echoing 1930s Hollywood’s temporary emphasis on the ethnic diversity of American cities, and while I don’t doubt there are bountiful accurate personal touches in the film, it often felt to me generic and flat.
Yet the director’s touch, when truly activated, is wonderful, and we certainly encounter it frequently and enough to ensure a fine picture. All the scenes between the kindly grandfather and adoring grandson are flush with a love and devotion that is tender and touching in scene after scene. Nearly every time Hopkins instilled advice to the young boy, who responds in guileless admiration and respect, I seemed to uncontrollably tear up. Great details and flourishes come frequently: Hathaway’s mother admiringly requesting the family drive by houses in a nicer neighborhood; family explanations of their history before America; how Paul goes to a public school and his older brother a private one; and perhaps above all, the relationship between the white child from the stable household and the Black one lacking such a support structure. The seriousness of their connection calls to mind No Greater Glory (1934), a film made by Frank Borzage that is a rare Hollywood picture to respect children as much as they regularly do adults. And this film exudes that respect, at least for Paul and Johnny. In many ways Armageddon Time hinges on the face of young Repeta, with his nervous, intelligent eyes and kind, eager demeanor. Watching him respond and start to understand the complexities of the world outside his home is the chief source of the film's power.
Both through his time spent with Johnny and guidance given by his grandfather, Paul sensitively absorbs lessons of a growing awareness of disparities in wealth, family history, and social advantages intertwined between his immigrant origins and his friend’s displaced life and daily racist discrimination. It’s a touching progression of consciousness connecting people's origins to their present conditions, but I must say without trying to sound too American, that the need of the cinema for stories of white adolescence boyhood retold by those same people who experienced it is hardly urgent material anymore—we’ve seen this coming-of-age genre since the French New Wave, and it’s well past the time for these stories to shift their protagonists and perspectives. (Richard Linklater’s recent Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood, while sweetly humane as well as intriguingly realized as disparate animated memories, suffers under this same why this, now scrutiny.) This hardly means Gray’s film isn’t relevant, and in fact it does a strange thing of trying to remain modest and keep context away from the look in his hero’s eyes or the auburn palette of Darius Khondji’s sedate photography, yet it never fails to point out that Reagan is about to be elected, that Fred Trump speaks at the prep school that Paul is transferred to, that the racial disparities of 1980 seem no different than those of the present. The film is clearly funneling a moral tale through not only personal memory but also anger and dismay at the fraught America of today, trying to locate not the source of one in the other, but rather their echoes through American immigrant and racial experiences over time. Culminating in Paul making a choice to embrace or reject what he is given with ease, it bravely suggests that it is in our youth that we can recognize the disparities around us and make the most pointed choice, unlike the ossified and inflexible older generation, no matter how liberal.
The how and the why of certain films being in this section or another in Cannes is a mystery courted and therefore rarely dispelled. The desire, for example, of putting populist genre films in the Out of Competition section rather than duking it out with supposedly more refined or important films in the competition ping pongs from year to year, when Takashi Miike or Johnnie To might compete, or be shunted to a sidebar or another festival entirely. This year the example is Hunt, an ambitious and boldly accomplished writing, producing, and directing debut from actor Lee Jung-jae, who has shot to international stardom as a lead in the series Squid Game. An almost chokingly convoluted Korean spy thriller whose political ambition and contortionist ideology makes it as complicated as any film competing for the Palme d’Or, it nevertheless is placed outside the competition for whatever reason. (In comparison, the undoubtedly warm and compassionate Korean-language film debut by Hirokazu Kore-eda is of course competing, as if he needs a continued spotlight). Perhaps this premiere position is due to the backstage politics of the sales agents managing the ways their client films are presented, or to the budget comparison alluded to above. But just as likely it is Hunt’s predilection for high body-count gunfights, frequent torturing and beatings not done in the social realist house-style of message cinema, and a fantastical (to say the least) approach to evoking the 1980s atmosphere of national paranoia, teetering relations with the North, and what could ominously be termed domestic turmoil in the form of military rule, civilian surveillance, free speech suppression, and fascist policing of the status quo. Yes, perhaps this approach might make one who is used to art cinema a bit nervous or overstimulated, but in terms of subject, remind me why this isn’t important enough to be presented in the festival’s main slate?
All this is the milieu for a battle of supremacy between rival security heads, one internal (Jung Woo-sung) and one external (played by director Lee), of the government that followed the 1979 assassination of the dictatorial President Park Chung-hee and the violent suppression of pro-democracy students in the Gwangju Uprising. While trying to maintain a repressive social order and avoid escalating the never-ending war with North and root out their spies, the two are not only jockeying for political power, but accusing one and the other of being a high-level mole leaking the president’s movements in order for the North to assassinate him. Cue relentless, exhaustive back and forth, twist and turns, is he or isn’t he thriller plotting, undergirded by gruffly yelling and chauvinistic men assured of their own moral supremacy, which is of course enacted via brutal interrogations and coercion of enemies and friends alike, all in the name of state security and maintaining the homeland.
Student protestors and framed professors are subject to such abuse, as are the terrorizors’ own men, once suspicion turns to them. Back and forth the pendulum swings, and the horror of the torture, precariousness of national stability, and dextrous backstabbing is further dynamized by exuberantly staged action scenes, which wrack up a ridiculous body count in the US, Korea, and Thailand. Such violent extravaganzas transcends any semblance of Le Carré-esque period plausibility and throws the film with welcome aplomb into a speculative and expressionist alternative history. Here, the fierce violence put on Koreans by Koreans is the dominant theme, as is paranoia and brute self-serving hypocrisy—we see those charged with running society turning increasingly towards fear, hate, and desperate survival, destroying themselves and their charge in the process. A suggestion of equilibrium, of men on both sides stripped of the meaning and motivation of their different perspectives but equally violent ways, nearly climaxes the film, only for it to again turn man against man, Korean against Korean. Destruction reigns supreme, leaving but a grace note of hope at the end, of something raised from the ashes of arrogance, ruthlessness, and masculine pride. Little we see before this suggests much hope though, and this action triumph offers the dark assessment that perhaps the country needs to start over from zero.
It is this oscillation at Cannes, between delicately wrought personal cinema told in quiet registers, and the more bombastic if not provocative side of the red carpet that for me makes for a most fulfilling and honest experience. One without the other seems to ignore both the many ways the cinema can express itself and reach an audience, as well as the stuff that life is made of, including attending this festival: The intimate moments of respite with friends that will be well-remembered after so many movies are forgotten; and the furious peaks of energy and activity that come along with such an important event and for a few brief hours can make this Riviera town feel like the center of the universe.
Do tell me, Leo, how those hours have treated you.