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Cannes 2019

Cannes 2019, Day 5: Ghosts of the past and genes of the future

El Deseo, Manolo Pavón | A soulful Antonio Banderas in Pedro Almodovar's "Pain and Glory".

Pedro Almodovar recaptures the emotional heft of his finest work with the self-referential “Pain and Glory”, while Jessica Hausner's sci-fi outing "Little Joe" doesn't live up to its tantalising premise.

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As a bastion of arthouse cinema and the world’s most glamorous film fest, the Cannes Film Festival always needs to strike a balance between auteur worship and Hollywood star power -- and between devotion to the past and turning to the future. This year promises plenty of stardust on the red carpet and a refreshing crop of emerging directors. But Cannes’ ritual auteur celebration scaled new heights on Saturday with the screening, out of competition, of “The Best Years of a Life” by 81-year-old Claude Lelouch. It returned legendary French duo Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée to their former roles in the 1966 classic “A Man and a Woman”.

Earlier on another darling of the Croisette, Spain’s Pedro Almodovar, gave us the best and worst years of his life in “Pain and Glory”, his seventh shot at the Palme d’Or. “I don’t like auto-fiction,” says the protagonist’s ailing mother in one of a handful of comedic flourishes that pepper this obviously autobiographical work. In less capable hands, such an unashamedly self-referential project about the life and work of the artist himself would surely have been deemed insufferable (some may find it insufferable still). But Almodovar pulls it off with purpose and grace, delivering a brilliant open-heart dissection of his past -- and in the process recapturing the emotional heft of his finest work.

In fact it is crucial that viewers see Almodovar’s persona behind the film’s central character Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas, in what is surely a career high), who is otherwise not a particularly compelling or endearing figure. A 60-something director aching both in mind and body, Salvador is afflicted by a startling range of ailments, though as his doctor gently puts it, others in greater pain suck it up with less moaning. The pain has stunted his emotions and thus his creativity, and only a journey through the past -- real or imagined -- can help him recapture the glory.

With his previous film “Julieta”, which competed at Cannes in 2016, Almodovar had warned he may “go down the road of austerity from now on”. He has certainly toned down the humour and the melodrama, though his films still ripple with the Spanish master’s typically vivid, overripe colours and flamboyant decors. In some ways “Pain and Glory” doesn’t have the freshness and boldness of his earlier work. But in this rumination on the declining creative powers of an ageing director Almodovar has found a new way to address many of his traditional preoccupations, including art, sexual awakening, memories of lovers and the ghost of his mother (played in her prime by Penelope Cruz and in old age by Julieta Serrano).

“Pain and Glory” has the most beautiful scene I’ve seen in Cannes so far, when Salvador is briefly reunited with a former Argentinian lover (played by Leonardo Sbaraglia) from many years before. Theirs is an extraordinarily candid and generous exchange, full of still-burning passion and regret. It culminates in a torrid embrace, with the emotional force of a first kiss that has matured with age. One could say as much of the film as a whole. There is far more pain in this wistful movie, but the glory stays with you long after its viewing.

Almodovar’s entry marked a welcome change of subject and tone after a string of highly political genre movies here in Cannes. It followed the screening of Jessica Hausner’s creepy sci-fi outing “Little Joe”, which also involved characters seeking a form of release from depression -- using neither pills nor journeys into the past, this time, but genetic manipulation.

Emily Beecham and Ben Whishaw play a duo of scientists who’ve designed a genetically engineered plant with a scent that makes people happy. But things get horribly out of hand when the flower starts bringing about other changes to those who inhale its pollen, with events stylishly shot in bright colours and a clinical, chilling light. The premise is tantalising, like an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” for the modern-day era of GMOs and commodity happiness. But the thriller peters out, and there’s potentially a disturbing message for people suffering from very real depression and who turn to shrinks or chemicals for help.

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