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US helmers gently move Cannes with tales of poetry, love and race

© Ben Rothstein

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2016-05-16

Quietly moving entries by America’s Jeff Nichols (“Loving”) and Jim Jarmusch (“Paterson”) offer a welcome change of tone at the Cannes Film Festival after a string of audacious and sometimes overblown pictures by European directors.

“Tell them that I love my wife.” That’s all Richard Loving has to say to the nine judges of the Supreme Court in Washington. He won’t go DC to hear the historic ruling that is about to change America. Instead he’ll be laying bricks, playing with his kids and exchanging loving glances with his wife in their native Virginia – the state that jailed and then banned them because he is white and she is black.

The landmark 1967 Loving vs Virginia case, which made it unconstitutional to ban interracial marriages across the US, forms the backdrop to Jeff Nichols’ “Loving”, which premieres in Cannes’ main competition on Monday. It is secondary to the film, just as it is to Richard (played by Australia’s Joel Edgerton). The history comes after the love story, and Nichols wisely places the focus of this moving drama on its two main characters – though the lack of nuance and depth in their relationship is one of several shortcomings in this sensitive but underpowered film.

A taciturn, modest and hard-working bricklayer, Richard starts off as the driving force, pushing for a marriage he knows will land him and his pregnant wife Mildred – played by a warm and gracious Ruth Negga – in jail. But when faced with the prospect of a titanic legal battle involving intrusive media coverage, he pulls back, leaving Mildred and a duo of civil rights lawyers to lead the moral battle. The latter are intriguingly portrayed as ambitious young men who spot in the Lovings’ case a chance to make history, though their characters are somewhat underwritten.

Nichols is very much France’s favourite director these days, and his offering was endorsed by hearty applause at the press screening this morning. “Loving” refreshingly tackles the South’s race issue without caricature. It is has menace but no gratuitous violence (a brick with a threatening message is left on Richard’s car rather than thrown at him). But it is also trapped in the mild-mannered politeness of its protagonists. Perhaps that is why Nichols seems to be looking for ways to pull on the emotional strings towards the end of the film, undercutting its initial, admirable restraint.

Still, his venture into historical drama is far more successful that his overhyped sci-fi outing “Midnight Special”, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year (the Berlin-Cannes one-two punch is a veritable tour de force by the prolific US director). Both films feature Edgerton and Nichols regular Michael Shannon, who makes only a cameo appearance as a photographer in “Loving”. I was a little Shannon-fatigued after “Midnight Special”, and glad to see Edgerton got the leading male role this time.

Driver drives a bus

The nerdy, bespectacled NSA agent played by US heartthrob Adam Driver in “Midnight Special” was one of several characters who made Nichols' sci-fi outing verge on the downright silly (though Driver is hardly to blame). But Hollywood's rising star has a lot more to chew on in Monday’s other competition entry “Paterson”, a small-scale, intimate story of a bus driver and unpublished poet directed by Cannes habitué Jim Jarmusch.

Adam Driver (left), Golshifteh Farahani and Jim Jarmusch (right) attend the Cannes photocall for "Paterson", the US director's competition entry. © Mehdi Chebil

Driver stars as the discreet and mild-mannered Paterson, who lives and works in the eponymous New Jersey city. Paterson is disconnected from time and mass media (he wakes up at 6.15 without an alarm clock, has no mobile phone, no TV, and walks around with an old metal lunchbox that is straight out of the 1950s). He jots down verse on his notebook when he has a spare minute, and listens to fragments of passengers’ conversation while driving his bus (this being America, they are loud enough to be heard by everyone). Every evening he takes his dog for a walk, stops at the bar for a beer, and that’s about it.

His wife Laura (played by Iranian star Golshifteh Farahani) could hardly be more different. She is chatty, effusive and appears to have a new hobby/career plan each day, from painting to baking cupcakes and playing the guitar. Laura is sweet, radiant and cheerful to the point she is grating, and it is rather odd that someone with her personality should never leave the house nor appear to have any friends. Laura and Paterson are very much in love. Their scenes of marital bliss start off sweet but end up feeling tiresome.

I never tired of watching Driver. His low-key but quietly expressive performance is perfectly tuned to the movie’s languid pace, and I doubt the film would have worked with a less remarkable voice. It is a sweet and moving story about an artist’s personal sustenance – though Paterson keeps his poetry strictly to himself and has none of the trappings of a public artist. We are not invited to pass judgment on his poems, but rather to appreciate how they sustain him and form an integral part of his discreet, unassuming existence.

“Paterson” confirms Jarmusch’s flair for drawing quiet pleasure from the non-dramatic moments of life, and finding beauty in Rust-Belt America, portrayed as a quaint, non-commercial and distinctly un-Hollywoodian landscape. It has many of the indie director’s familiar hallmarks (vintage objects, outsider characters, and taverns where everyone knows your name). A sweet link is made between poetry, notebooks and Japan (the land of cute notepads). And while “Paterson” doesn’t quite feel like Palme d’Or material, there is enough footage of an impertinent British bulldog named Marvin to make it a shoe-in for the annual “Palme Dog” award.

 

Date created : 2016-05-16

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