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Cannes 2011: Sleeping Beauty, We Need To Talk About Kevin and Restless

Posted on Thursday May 12, 2011, 11:18 by Damon Wise in Cannes 2011
Cannes 2011: Sleeping Beauty, We Need To Talk About Kevin and Restless

A day into the festival and the first scandal has arrived. OK, so it's not as outrageous as Orange mobile's data charges, or as cold and distant as their customer services, but Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty (pictured) is a thing of frosty wonder. “Presented” by Jane Campion, whose films it doesn't resemble, Sleeping beauty is a gnomic study of female sexuality, starring Sucker Punch's Emily Browning as Lucy, a promiscuous student who's falling behind on her rent, despite working at three separate jobs just to stay afloat. Responding to an ad in a student paper, Lucy gets a job with an escort agency that offers scantily-dressed silver service for private parties. The money is good but Lucy needs more, so her boss – the enigmatic Clara – upgrades her. In this new role, Lucy is drugged and put to bed naked. While she sleeps, a series of ageing clients, all of them men, enter the room to sleep with her (penetration is forbidden), each with varying degrees of respect, violence and outright abuse.

The film's explicit nudity caused a lot of nervous coughing and shuffling in the screening I attended; indeed, any man that staged such a pageant of nubile flesh might well have been run out of town, tarred and feathered or even just given the Palme D'Or. And it's to Leigh's credit that she doesn't back away from the film's more risqué content: the film's sexual encounters have a dreamlike, abstract quality that, at times, really ought to be “erotic” but simply aren't (which is a compliment, by the way). Key to this is Browing's startling performance, the kind they call brave in the broadsheets, which perfectly captures Lucy's trance-like state. It's a rarefied film, not for everyone and slightly more Catherine Breillat than David Lynch. But I enjoyed the film's oblique details: Lucy's strange, alcohol-fuelled friendship with a lonely man, her strained relationship with her telephone-astrologer mother, and the man who pays to insult her and lick her catatonic face. I'll stick my neck out now and say that Sleeping Beauty may pick up a prize or two next Sunday.

Equally strong is Lynne Ramsay's We Need To Talk About Kevin, an extraordinary piece of high-end filmmaking based on Lionel Shriver's novel and starring Tilda Swinton as Eva, an American housewife with a tragic burden. As we learn rather quickly, Eva's son – the Kevin of the title – has been involved in a horrific high school massacre, and not in a good way. In fact, he's involved in the very, very worst way, and as the browbeaten Eva tries to pick up what's left of her life, Ramsay's film deftly pops back in time to recount Kevin's progress from crying baby to surly child and homicidal adolescent. Less narrative-driven than Ramsay's last two movies – the shattering Ratcatcher and the love-it-or-hate-it Morvern Callar –  We Need To Talk About Kevin is a hard film to love, chiefly because Kevin, in all his incarnations, is nothing short of a monster. Ramsay also withholds details that niggle – we find out in a single shot that Eva is (or was) a well-known travel writer but the fact is never really referenced again. Likewise, we see Eva falling in love with her husband (John C Reilly) but not how they met and what binds them (I think you'll agree that they're an odd match). Nevertheless, it's an absorbing and elegantly crafted film; whether it will catch with a mainstream audience is open to question but the critic-love bandwagon has already begun rolling.

The first disappointment of the festival, surprisingly, comes from past Cannes master Gus Van Sant, whose new film Restless falls firmly between the stools that comprise his career, lacking the unapologetic arthouse edge of, say, Last Days or Paranoid Park and nowhere near as accomplished as his mainstream dramas (the excellent Milk). It reminded me a lot of Harold And Maude, and not in a good way since it felt like someone had pitched a remake of Hal Ashby's wonderful 1971 black comedy and decided to make it more about a morbid teenager who meets a sick girl his own age rather than a 77-year-old Holocaust survivor. Interestingly, the film features Henry Hopper, the son of cult icon Dennis, and Henry certainly channels Hopper Snr's piercing intensity rather than Harold And Maude star Bud Cort's owlish reserve. With any other actress, this would be a major risk, but thankfully Hopper Jr is playing opposite the very lovely Mia Wasikowska – so great in The Kids Are All Right and so staggeringly undirected in Alice In Wonderland – who plays the girl.

The story plays out pretty much as you might expect; the beauty tames the surly beast and teaches him the meaning of life, while Sufjan Stevens plays on the soundtrack in place of Elliott Smith. But it's hard to see who it's aimed at: older audiences will have seen it all before, with more originality, and kids will find its melancholy tone a turn-off. Still, Van Sant's misfires (with the exception of the lousy Psycho) are generally a cut above average, and this isn't entirely out of place in the canon.

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