In Cannes movies, Paris is the city of love lost
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The mood in Cannes turns bittersweet with tales of lovers who can live neither apart nor together in Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” and Christophe Honoré’s “Sorry Angel”.
Just four days into the 71st Cannes Film Festival and our red carpet photographer has already proclaimed this an off year – and you can’t really blame him. With Hollywood shunning the Croisette, the dearth of stardust on the famed crimson walkway is a problem for cinema’s most glamorous gathering. But the film critics, for once, aren’t complaining, because black-and-white movies from the east with low-profile actors suit them just fine. We’ve had two so far, both of them good. Who needs America anyway when the (former) Soviet bloc is going so strong?
After Kirill Serebrennikov’s rock-infused “Leto”, set in Leningrad, the focus moved to Poland with Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War”, a bittersweet tale of love thwarted by stubborn egos and iron curtains. It follows the Polish director’s acclaimed “Ida”, about the oddest of pairs (a novice nun and her hard-drinking aunt) making a road trip into the country’s darkest past. Like “Ida”, “Cold War” is superbly photographed in luminous monochrome. Once again, it takes an intimate path into period drama, weaving together the personal and the political.
Set in postwar Poland and Paris, the film reunites Pawlikowski with “Ida” star Agata Kulesza, who excelled as the worldly aunt in the Oscar-winning feature (though this time she is shunted out of the movie somewhat abruptly). Joanna Kulig, who also appeared in “Ida”, takes the lead role as Zula, a plucky and gorgeous young singer who has a passionate affair with pianist and composer Wiktor (Tomasz Kot). Their romance plays out in the increasingly stifling context of a Polish folk music ensemble that is pressured into serving the Soviet cause. Early on in the movie, Zula and Wiktor have an easy chance to defect while on a trip to Berlin, and their fateful decision will haunt their relationship till the end.
“Cold war” is a visually stunning film, driven by a beautiful musical score and neatly wrapped up in just 84 minutes. It is a chilling examination of state-sponsored repression and a melancholic meditation on the disappointment of love. Like “Ida”, it feels intensely personal (Pawlikowski has described his own experience of spending time in Paris as being a “lost guy in a weird city”). There isn’t a false note from the cast or an ugly frame in the entire film. But for all its formal beauty, “Cold War” left me cool, perhaps because the characters are neither endearing nor particularly interesting.
There is a scene in “Cold War”, filmed from a Paris boat, in which the camera’s gaze gently caresses the banks of the River Seine. Hours earlier, that most romantic of walkways also starred in Christophe Honoré’s “Plaire, aimer et courir vite” (bizarrely translated as “Sorry Angel” in English). Set in the early 1990s, this deeply moving French drama is another tale of impossible love involving a young student from Brittany and an older Parisian writer. It stars Vincent Lacoste as Arthur, a 22-year-old with cheek and charm, and Pierre Deladonchamps, from brilliant gay-cruising drama “Stranger by the Lake” (2013), as the more mature and forlorn Jacques.
In that riverside scene, Arthur looks longingly at gay lovers embracing in broad daylight – something this ardent and promiscuous student is yet to experience in his hometown of Rennes. There is a very French subtext here, a liberating countryman-goes-to-the-capital narrative that mirrors the filmmaker’s own experience of moving from the provincial Breton city to the city of light and love. But while the pull of Paris is strong, so are Arthur’s roots; being Bretons (like Honoré), he and his friends talk about their “Bretonness” all the time.
French geographical considerations aside, this is above all a powerful tale of love and friendship at a specific time for gays – one in which awareness of AIDS has spread but the disease is still very deadly. It comes a year after Cannes awarded its Grand Prix to Robin Campillo’s “120 Beats Per Minute”, about ACT-UP activists striving to live life to the fullest even as they battle death and indifference. While Campillo’s film had a defiant, almost heroic quality, “Sorry Angel” is a more nuanced work, in which some characters no longer have the strength to carry on living and loving.
As in past Honoré films, the love story here is a study in contrasts – superbly conveyed by the two actors. While Arthur is eager to embrace love and “let the body exult”, Jacques is wistful, often cynical, and resigned. Those who lost sight of Lacoste after his awkward-teenager part in “The French Kissers” will marvel at his swagger, chutzpah and sexiness. Unusually for a very French tale of conflicted love, “Sorry Angel” was broadly hailed by both the home and the foreign press – though local paper “Nice Matin”, where one normally goes for gossip rather than film critics, gratuitously dismissed it as “120 Yawns Per Minute”.