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Cannes: Coppola on top after French and American gender wars

© Focus Features | Don't underestimate this group of women: Nicole Kidman (centre) runs a girl's seminary in Sofia Coppola's thoroughly enjoyable "The Beguiled"..

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2017-05-25

The Cannes Film Festival gives us American and French battles of the sexes with Sofia Coppola’s lavish art album “The Beguiled” and Jacques Doillon’s taxing biopic “Rodin”.

Rarely has a member of the Cannes festival jury attracted the level of attention afforded to Will Smith. The new Fresh Prince of the French Riviera has been “having a ball” on his first visit to cinema’s most glamorous gathering. He’s been “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” on the red carpet and flashing that famous grin, to the delight of fans and photographers. He’s also courted controversy by siding with Netflix in its battle with the big screen. All the while, patronising film critics have been speculating about his reactions to the many bleak, art-house meditations on bourgeois malaise this year’s festival has served up so far. Some were amused to hear that he’d jumped up at the end of the austere, all-talk, black-and-white “The Day After”, by South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, clapping enthusiastically.

There was no clapping after the press screening of Jacques Doillon’s “Rodin”, one of Wednesday’s two films competing for the Palme d’Or. One Spanish-speaking critic did jump up at the end – but to boo the movie and shout “cinema viejo !” (old cinema). By then, a sizeable segment of the audience had long walked out, groaning and sighing. There is indeed something frustratingly old-fashioned about Doillon’s biopic of the French sculptor, this year’s first real fiasco. I didn’t find it quite as insufferable as others did. But “Rodin” definitely felt like a wasted opportunity. It could have been a touching tale of an artist’s love for his sculpture, but was utterly ruined by excruciatingly tedious love affairs with women.

From left to right: Vincent Lindon, Izïa Higelin, Séverine Caneele and director Jacques Doillon at the photocall for "Rodin". © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

The film covers roughly two decades in the life of the great sculptor, starting in 1880 with his first state commission, the monumental Gates of Hell, which he never finished. It stars Vincent Lindon in Rodin’s role, his hands perpetually kneading clay, stroking trees trunks (as though they were torsos or arms), and fondling women. Izïa Higelin plays his alluring disciple and lover Camille Claudel, while Séverine Caneele takes the part of his stolid wife Rose Beuret. And then there’s a parade of foolishly giggling models, always running about naked and eager to get in bed with the famed artist.

Rodin’s troubled love life and tempestuous relationship with Claudel have been brought to the big screen before, in more satisfying ways. In Doillon’s film, the artist’s only interesting infatuation is for his Monument to Balzac, a work he becomes obsessed with and which many today regard as the first truly modern sculpture. In one standout scene, we see Rodin using a pregnant woman with a bloated tummy as his model for the prolific writer. Balzac is literally pregnant with his work (close to a hundred novels published in his lifetime), his swollen belly seemingly bearing the traces of a cesarean scar. “He’s got 2,500 characters in his gut,” says Rodin. “They have to find a way out somehow.”

There is beauty in the way Rodin is absorbed by his work, the way he senses texture, and in his frantic urge to mold with his hands the fleeting shapes and movements he catches with his eyes. Lindon, who won an acting award here two years ago for "The Measure of a Man", puts in a commendable performance, for which he reportedly trained over several months in a sculptor’s atelier. But his intense gaze and physically imposing presence are undermined by some wooden dialogue inaudibly muttered through a thick beard. A frustratingly dull watch, “Rodin” is full of the pretentious lines and fastidious name-dropping – Doillon can’t resist pointless references to the likes of Monet, Cézanne or Zola – only a French director could come up with.

While Doillon’s Rodin is perpetually surrounded by nudes, the male protagonist of Wednesday’s other competition entry, Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled”, ends up surrounded by a shoal of buttoned-up, repressed seminary girls – and yet they are the ones that exude scalding eroticism. A fantastically foolish but thoroughly enjoyable film, Coppola's latest lavish art album is a visually engrossing experience, the kind that really ought to be experienced on a large screen. She has said so herself, weighing in on the Netflix debate by stating that she hopes “people see it in a theatre, where it is meant to be seen.”

“The Beguiled” is a remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 take on a Southern Gothic book by Thomas Cullinan, this time made “from the women’s point of view”. Set in Virginia during the Civil War, it stars Colin Farrell as Corporal John McBurney, a wounded Unionist soldier who finds refuge in a girls’ seminary – of all places – deep in enemy territory. His initially reluctant (and ridiculously gorgeous) hosts include headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and precocious student Alicia (Elle Fanning). Naturally, each of them is in a flutter over the sudden arrival of a handsome and flirtatious male they have to tend to, and soon the house is taken over by sexual tension and rivalry, with dire consequences.

"The Beguiled" director Sophia Coppola (second from right) poses with Elle Fanning, Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

A decade after her “Marie Antoinette” divided audiences on the Croisette, the American director’s new work confirms her fascination for female characters tied up in silk and lace, and restrained by ritual – in this case the pious propriety required of a 19th century demoiselle. Once again, the drama is confined to a hermetic world, oblivious to events unfolding outside, the Civil War remaining as remote as the French Revolution that brought down Marie Antoinette (we hear canons fired in the distance, but Edwina calmly teaches her pupils to conjugate in French). Atmosphere is the real character, and Coppola is clearly less interested in developing the film’s human characters than she is in the long white nightgowns and candelabras, the lush vegetation and oozing mist, and the usual sun-piercing-through-leaves moments, all captured in ravishing shots.

This film is more playful and distinctly less lurid than Siegel’s original, which starred Clint Eastwood in the corporal’s role. I don’t think it has an awful lot to say, but it is funny, impertinent and often quite beautiful. The leading female trio are a treat to watch, with Dunst the standout performer. Both beguiled and beguiling, they are like a spider’s web ensnaring their visitor, and the film carefully entertains a certain suspense as to who is manipulating who. The ostentatious tempting includes a deliciously provocative “I hope you like apple pie” moment that smacks of original sin. I wouldn’t be surprised if Will Smith and others in the jury give in to temptation. One can only hope they don’t make Corporal McBurney’s mistake, and open the wrong door.

 

Date created : 2017-05-24

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