Cannes, on festival weekends, is wild: Every night is busy on the Croisette, the long boulevard that winds along the shore and past the Palais des Festivals, the large complex where most of the festival action — including screenings, premieres and red-carpet walking — take place. But the crowds swell even further on the weekend. Around the Palais, civilians (and that includes film critics) are kept at a safe distance from the stars by barriers, uniformed guards and policemen, but that doesn't mean that hundreds of people don't turn out to look, many of them dressed to the nines for no other reason than to see and be seen. The women look great — this is France, after all, and though not every woman fits the French stereotype of being reed-thin, they almost all seem to understand the importance of well-fitting clothing, and of wearing low or midheight heels if they can't walk in high ones — I see much less precarious tottering here than I do at home in New York.
But for me, it's the men who stand out. At home, it's standard to see young couples out on a date, with the woman having made an effort to put on heels and a silky dress, and the guy having failed to keep his half of the bargain, opting for the apparently standard going-out uniform of too-long jeans with bad sneakers and an untucked plaid shirt (if the girl is lucky, it has at least been ironed). Here in Cannes, there's no awkward mismatching of dressed-up girls and willfully dressed-down guys. Boys of all shapes, sizes and ages dress as if they care what girls think.
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Cannes is largely about people watching, which is a natural extension of watching movies: Both require curiosity about what people do, how they do it and how they look while they're doing it. And both require — one would hope — a sense of humor, though admittedly, watching movies here at Cannes, we don't get many laughs: Genre films are few and far between, particularly among the movies in competition. Maybe that's what makes Argentine writer-director Damián Szifrón's Wild Tales such a standout, a way for festivalgoers overstuffed on Serious Films in Which People Talk (a Lot) to let off some steam.
Wild Tales is a collection of sketches, six in all, which have virtually nothing to do with one another aside from their astute, and not necessarily generous, view of human nature. In the opener, a tall stunner of a woman (Maria Marull) boards a plane and, just after takeoff, strikes up a conversation with a semi-flirtatious classical music critic (Dario Grandinetti). She mentions that her first boyfriend, some dude by the name of Gabriel Pasternak, was a musician; the critic, it turns out, has had occasion to suffer Pasternak's woeful lack of talent. From there, the conversation spirals into madness, culminating in a bitterly funny take on nerd revenge — it's a whacked-out disquisition on the big dreams of the little guy who fights back.
In another sequence, an asshole speeding down the highway in a fancy new Audi (Leonardo Sbaraglia) yells “Redneck!” as he passes an unshaven thug in a dirty truck (Walter Donado). Then — naturalmente — Audi Guy gets a flat tire, and Mr. Redneck proceeds to make his life miserable, using every tool at his disposal (including some you really won't want to recall while you're eating). Their macho posturing escalates into an absurd man-versus-man struggle that goes over the edge and beyond, until their hatred for each other becomes a twisted bond.
Wild Tales is loose-limbed, rowdy and exhilarating — in its vibrant lunacy, and with its cartoonishly brash violence, it's a little bit Almodóvar, a little bit Tarantino. (The picture was, in fact, produced by Pedro Almodóvar and his brother, Agustín.) The most effective sequence, and the one that cuts the deepest, is the final one, in which a bride (Erica Rivas) discovers that her groom (Diego Gentile) has cheated on her — the proof drops during the wedding celebration, and after that, chaos reigns. There's blood, broken glass and sloppy gobs of cake — and also an unexpected note of wary tenderness. The line between love and hate is perilously thin, and Szifrón walks that tightrope deftly.
Less successful in its observations about human nature — or, more specifically, about one enormously gifted human being — is Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent, in which the genius designer is played by French actor Gaspard Ulliel. Bonello attempts a fractured, no-structure structure, but the risk doesn't pay off. The picture focuses largely on Yves Saint Laurent's drug addiction and attraction to the wrong sorts of guys (chiefly Louis Garrel's dangerous boy-toy Jacques De Bascher), and doesn't come close to capturing his mercurial mystery. Still, Saint Laurent appears to be striving for at least some understanding of this shy, fragile man, and it's notable for some early sequences set in the designer's atelier, in which a cadre of women in white coats flutter in near-silence around a regal, willowy model, their hands molding muslin to her curves and hollows as if it they were working with clay. It's rare to see process — the making of anything — dealt with as clearly and poetically as it is in Saint Laurent. It's too bad the movie feels like an unfinished, misshapen muslin.