In the final lap of competition at Cannes, which wraps tomorrow, the race just heated up between Drive and This Must be the Place—two movies shot in America by European filmmakers. Both have emerged as real contenders for the Palme D’Or, which will be awarded Sunday. And the jury, led by Robert De Niro, will likely end up trying to decide which of their respective stars most deserves the best actor prize, Ryan Gosling or Sean Penn.
In Drive, a noir thriller set in Los Angeles, Gosling stars as an ace stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver. The movie is styled with the kind of arty visuals and cutthroat wit that would make Tarantino jealous. Call it Pulp Traction. Directed by Denmark’s Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising), it’s a contemporary samurai western, with sparse dialogue, and a quiet tone of hair-trigger suspense that’s snapped by short bursts of extreme, bone-crushing violence. As a noble hero on a mission to save his neighbour (Carey Mulligan) and her boy from a gangland retribution, Gosling combines a sensitive, Zen-like grace with a slow-fused capacity for psychotic brutality. Albert Brooks makes a surprisingly scary villain. And in a bravura performance, Gosling reveals himself as an über-cool action hero reminiscent of Steve McQueen or the young Clint Eastwood.
Directed by Italy’s Paulo Sorrentino (El Divo), This Must Be the Place is another stylish fable filmed in an iconic America by a European auteur. But the Paris, Texas tone, buoyed by a score from David Byrne, is quirky, not intense. And while Gosling plays a stunt driver, Sean Penn gives a stunt performance. He stars as Cheyenne, a retired American rock star who shuffles around his Irish mansion in full make-up, and is almost catatonic with depression or boredom, except when he’s playing spirited games of handball with his wife (Frances McDormand) in their empty swimming pool. Returning to America for the funeral of his father, a Holocaust survivor, this droll naïf who has never left childhood finally comes of age—by traveling across the country to fulfill Dad’s quest to hunt down his former Auschwitz guard. It seems that pesky Nazi question (which Lars Von Trier put on the table with the inflammatory comments that got him banned from the festival yesterday) just won’t go away.
Penn and Gosling held court at back-to-back press conferences in Cannes today. Both actors raved about their European directors as cinephile man-crush romances. But the Gosling session was more lively. Describing how he courted his Danish director, he described their first meeting as a bad blind date.
“We sat there for about two hours and he wouldn’t look at me or talk to me,” said the Canadian actor. “He seemed very bored and unimpressed. It was like a date that was going horribly wrong. I feel terrible. It turned out he had the flu and was on medication and was high. So he said, ‘Can you take me home?’ Like, basically, ‘you’re not going to get any action.’ It was one of those awkward drives home, so I just turned up the music, and REO Speedwagon’s I Can’t Fight This Feeling came on. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him crying, and I looked over and he started singing at the top of his lungs, ‘I can’t fight this feeling any more/It’s time to bring this ship into the shore.’ Then he said, ‘I got it. This is the movie. The movie is about a man who drives around Los Angeles at night listening to pop music.’ We also thought the driver shouldn’t talk.” British screenwriter Hossein Amini was remarkably sanguine when they suggested stripping out much of Gosling’s dialogue.
Refn, meanwhile, raved about the experience of making the film as a kind of romantic pilgrimage. “I wanted to live the mythology of what it was like for a European to come to Los Angeles to make a movie,” he said. “Usually you just hear the horror stories. But it was the f—ing best!” He talked about getting to stay in a dream house in the Hollywood Hills with a swimming pool and an orange tree. “I was waiting for the attack. When are they going to take away my vision? You’re kind of suspicious—they’re Americans, not Ryan because he’s Canadian and closer to the Scandinavian mentality. And in the end I was allowed to make the film I wanted to make. So I had the best Hollywood experience anyone can have.”
At these press conferences, there’s inevitably a dumb question from a TV journalist, in this case a woman from Indonesia who asked Gosling, “We all know you are a fantastic actor. So do you feel it’s time now for you to win a prestigious award?”
“We all know you’re a fantastic actor.”
“Now you make me feel bad, because I haven’t won an award. We’re here. I thought being here was cool. Is that not cool enough?”
As the laughter subsided, Gosling, ever the diplomat, added: “You obviously can’t think about those things when you’re making a movie. You start doing tricks for treats. To get to come to Cannes with this film is an honour. I don’t mean to sound cheesy but it’s true. To make a low budget action film, and an art film, and come to Cannes—I feel like we’ve won.”
Meanwhile, a Danish journalist had to ask Drive’s Danish director his opinion of the Nazigate scandal surrounding Lars Von Trier, which is front page news in their home country. “Oh you Danes,” sighed Refn. “I think that what Lars said was very unacceptable. I just think that it shows that in Denmark we have a very small mentality and we sometimes forget that there are other people around us. I was very much repulsed by what he said, for my family’s sake and everyone else. I don’t want to get into it.” Right answer.
Gosling’s and Penn’s films both deal with issues of retribution in America—though from wildly opposite viewpoints—so I asked Penn a question about the culture of vengeance in the United States, on screen and off. I still can’t make head or tail of his answer, but here it is, for what it’s worth:
“You bring up something that can certainly be elaborated on outside the length of what we’re doing here. When we see a sense of vengeance and the way it’s responded to, embraced, rejected recently in the United States, as vengeance was cast and completed in the killing of Osama Bin Laden and throughout the culture the various responses to that, the way people get emotionally taken away with it. In this film . . . it’s pursued but not particularly thought out. It’s one more smell in the air that’s carrying the question and the journey.” Uh huh.