Cinema never gets more serious than it does in Cannes. This year’s festival (May 12-23) was dominated by movies on a mission, including a spate of political dramas that subverted clichés about terrorism—Fair Game, Route Irish, Of Gods and Men, Outside the Law and Carlos. But perhaps the most radical trend to emerge from Cannes, at least among English-language films, was the raw exploration of a more intimate, but equally volatile, political arena: love and marriage.
If you go to the multiplex looking for emotional truth, you usually have to fight your way through the contraption of a romantic comedy, or the sludge of a chick flick. So it’s a thrill to come across movies that offer pure, stripped-down scenarios of domestic life. That was the case with some of the strongest entries in Cannes, notably Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, and Mike Leigh’s Another Year. In each case, though the directors are men, female characters drive the agenda, which tends to address the most chronic complaint in a marriage: we never talk.
“I don’t think there’s anything more dramatic than what happens between two people in a home,” Michelle Williams observed last week in an interview with her Blue Valentine co-star, Ryan Gosling, who would finish her sentences. “It’s a heavyweight fight and that is the ring,” he said. Williams and Gosling play a couple whose marriage is coming unglued, and the husband’s desperate attempt to fix it with a night of sex and vodka at a cheesy hotel only makes matters worse. “In most movies,” Gosling added, “you spend so much time looking for any scraps of truth, and this movie you’re just marinating in it.”
Blue Valentine’s director spent a decade developing his script, much of it working with Williams and Gosling. The story toggles between a courtship and a breakup six years later. Between shooting the two periods, the actors cohabited a house for a month, buying groceries on a budget, washing dishes. “It’s a completely different way of working,” said Gosling. “It’s not like acting.” On the set, Williams added, “we were so on top of each other, there was no relief”—literally, in the case of a nude shower scene they shot for two days, until their skin was raw from the hotel soap.
Juliette Binoche had a less harsh experience in Certified Copy, but then she was in Tuscany. This walking-and-talking drama is uncannily like Before Sunset—another tale of a headstrong Frenchwoman who meets an Anglo author in mid-book tour, takes him on an afternoon jaunt, and tempts him to delay his departure. As she looks for an opening in his English armour, their bantering argument takes a twist when they’re mistaken for a married couple. They begin acting the part, dredging up passions and resentments that never existed. The fact that Binoche’s co-star, English opera tenor William Shimell, had never acted before only compounds their abrasive chemistry. Because their Iranian director had a poor grasp of English and was focused on composition, “I was driving the whole deal,” Binoche told me in an interview on the beach in Cannes. “It was an almost orgasmic experience after every take.”
Another Year employs an ensemble cast, but it, too, is built from small domestic details. The narrative revolves around a comfortably married couple (Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen) who spend half their time pouring drinks for their lonely, alcoholic friends. Leigh, who devotes months to honing a script with his actors, has refined his method to an essence. Devoid of “movie moments,” this unassuming story unearths a world of emotion.
Even Fair Game—a political drama about the Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson affair—is most effective in scenes from the home front. Plame (Naomi Watts) comes across as the all-American working mom: a CIA spy who jets between hot spots, then comes home to mother young twins and ride herd on her blowhard husband (Sean Penn) at dinner parties. As her CIA cover is blown, the story takes Plame all the way to Congress, but it’s in the kitchen where the politics, and the acting, get real.