It’s a guilty pleasure of mine trying to concoct the most groan-worthy headlines from the festival. The best I’ve come up with yet is: DAY TWO AT CANNES LEFT ME FEELING LOVELESS AND WONDERSTRUCK, in reference to the competition entries by Andrey Zvyaginstev and Todd Haynes that arrived yesterday.
If you’re reading this, you might already know that Todd Haynes’ new film reunites the director with his favorite actress, Julianne Moore, for the first time in a decade. You may also know that half of Wonderstruck is done as a silent film. It may come as a surprise, however, to learn that Wonderstruck’s other star, Michelle Williams, has a grand total of five minutes screen-time as a single mom who calms her nerves to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” And despite Haynes’ well-known flair for melodrama (he did, in fact, direct the weepy Far from Heaven, a vastly overrated Douglas Sirk homage that can’t hold a candle to Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), nothing in Haynes’ career can quite prepare you for the supreme cheesiness of this latest movie. Wonderstruck left me, in a word, dumbstruck.
A mere 24 hours after Cannes opened with the haunted love story Ismaël’s Ghosts, Wonderstruck adds more missing persons to the festival line up. 12-year-old Ben (Oakes Fegley) lives with his aunt in Minnesota in the late 1970s, after his mother (the underused Michelle Williams) dies in a car crash. When a freak accident involving a telephone during an electrical storm leaves him deaf, Ben sets out to find the father he never knew, guided by a bookmark he finds inside an antique book from the Museum of Natural History. His odyssey takes him from the filth of the old New York Port Authority to the faded glory 1964 World’s Fair grounds in Flushing Meadow Park. In between, he gets pick-pocketed in Times Square, spends the night inside the Natural History Museum with his new friend Jamie (Jaden Michael, who leaves much more of an impression that the diffident Fegley) and takes a nap inside a used bookshop on the Upper West Side.
Ben’s old book was once owned by Rose (Millicent Simmonds), the deaf 12-year-old daughter of a silent film starlet. Ben’s quest crisscrosses with Rose’s escape from her repressive home life in Hoboken, New Jersey, half a century earlier. Haynes depicts Rose’s childhood as a luminous black and white silent epic. The wide-eyed Simmonds, who is deaf in real life, has far more charisma and presence than Fegley. The period recreation of New York, with ferries, carriages and hundreds of extras, is the single most wondrous thing about Wonderstruck, although the very best silent footage is a film-within-a-film called Daughter of the Storm, that stars Rose’s mother, a Lilian Gish lookalike named Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore; who also plays Rose in the 1970s).
Wonderstruck is based on a novel by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the clunky screenplay, and one imagines the outrageous coincidences, revelations and constantly changing points of view are something that’s easier to pull off on the page. Brought to the screen, Wonderstruck practically bursts at the seams with twists and turns and ultimately collapses under the weight of its own contrivances and absurdity. Occasionally a character awkwardly blurts out a reminder of a key plot point, just in case we’ve lost track of what exactly is going on. The narrative insecurity and overstuffedness is matched on a formal level. Not only does Haynes give us half a silent film; in the film’s last chapter, we are treated to a figurine-based puppet show inspired by the Panorama of the City of New York housed in the Queens Museum, which is where Ben, Rose and Jaime ultimately wind up, in the middle of another thunderstorm looking up at the starry sky. It’s a cheap parting glance that invites us to read cosmic significance into a film that has absolutely none.
The festival’s missing person angle is taken even further in Andrey Zvyaginstev’s Loveless. It has been three year’s since the Russian director last graced the Croisette with the shattering Leviathan, which was a highlight of the 2014 festival. The well-to-do couple Boris (Alexey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), live outside St. Petersburg with the unwanted fruit of their failed marriage, 12-year-old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). The stage is set for a messy divorce, and, in a move that Henry James would have applauded, neither parent wants custody. Since his presence is such a matter of indifference to them, and since both are absorbed in new and highly sexually-satisfying relationships, neither so much as notices when Alyosha goes missing. The search that follows is much closer to L’Avventura or The Vanishing than Not Without My Daughter. Leviathan was about corruption in a small Russian village, but had a brave and thinly veiled message to deliver about Russian society and politics. With Loveless, one feels certain that Zvyaginstev is up to more than just generating Hitchockian suspense and dread. The critique here comes far more obliquely than in Leviathan, which ran afoul of the Russian Minister of Culture after debuting in Cannes. Much of Loveless takes place in living room, cars and police stations, places where the radio or television is always on. The soundtrack is full of reports on everything from U.S. politics (the film is set before the Trump era) to the war in Ukraine to apocalyptic prophecies of the Mayans. Another striking element is the amount of time characters spend on their smartphones, scrolling through Facebook and Instagram (the vain Zhenya is the film’s biggest offender). Indirectly, Zvyaginstev gives us a portrait of a world in crisis and a middle class that is at once too comfortable, too narcissistic and too sex-obsessed for empathy. It’s a painful portrait of a world that would gladly sacrifice its future for the pursuit of selfish pleasures.