“Nostalgia is denial of a painful present,” says Michael Sheen’s “pedantic” academic Paul in Woody Allen’s luminescent new film, Midnight in Paris. The smug quote is directed at Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful screenwriter who’s struggling with his first novel while visiting Paris with his fiancée, a beautiful but bossy downer named Inez (Rachel McAdams). Even though Paul, all endless lecturing and deceptive cynicism, is the film’s dismissive heavy, he actually has a point regarding Gil’s disintegrating personal life. Immersed in the romantic history and setting of Paris, Gil is obviously “in love with a fantasy” all the while ignoring his soon to be wife and her judgmental parents, creating a deep tension culminating in the wondrous creation of a Parisian dream state filled with past personages and iconic locales.
The narrative trajectory of Midnight in Paris may be one-note, but it’s a lovely and charming one that directly contrasts with Allen’s recent studies of human frigidity. Every night at the stroke of midnight, Gil gets transported back to a smoky, idealized version of Paris circa the 1920s, finding momentary distraction in the charming dalliances of his favorite artists, including F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Huddleston), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stroll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody). They all seem to exist in a spinning ornate merry-go-round full of intricate art design and sparkling interiors. Gil connects most with Adriana (the jaw-dropping Marion Cotillard), a kindred spirit of sorts in that she also yearns for a Golden Age that doesn’t really exist. Through Gil and Adriana’s conversations, Allen hypnotically personifies the universal tension between nostalgia and present-day angst. Gil must experience the delusions of the past in order to fully recognize the disappointments of his present, and his process of realization feels entirely human.
Allen frames the story within a historical breezeway, where each moment is fleeting and crucial, part of a mosaic and yet entirely self-sufficient. The conversations between Gil and each famous personality are two-sided even when each fulfills a specific nod to their familiar historical personalities. It’s not so much that Gil is getting to talk with Hemingway or Stein, but that they are listening, and actually seem like they are his equals. Ultimately, Midnight in Paris becomes an argument for getting lost in something, be it work, art, or simply a walk in the rain. Despite obvious interior conflicts, Gil gives in to the magic and confidence of a new burgeoning narrative, where each step backward or forward becomes a moment in time all his own.
Bellflower, which screened in the Marketplace at Cannes, is no doubt a singular vision about the end of many people’s worlds. Everything from the fractured narrative structure about two friends sliding down an emotional rabbit hole to their unhealthy obsession with mechanics folds into director Evan Glodell’s ideas about social disintegration. Even the desiderated cinematography seems to be withering away, the image blurred by vignetting around the edges of the frame. In this chaotic world, movement is often lethal and character’s faces go from smiling and polished to bloodied and grizzled in mere seconds.
After a slightly misleading guy-meets-girl opening, where slacker drunk Woodrow (Glodell) and barfly Milly (Jessie Wiseman) begin an impulsive relationship, the story slowly pressurizes through a series of diverse social confrontations regarding power and formidability. Challenges are made, threats carried out, and warnings ignored. Each character, including Woodrow’s best friend Aiden (Tyler Dawson), constructs their own individual endgame that will ricochet off the others. Just as if the world was really coming to an end, none of the characters react to the impending doom in a timely fashion, panicked by the uncertainty just beyond the frame.
Bellflower’s fascinating central image is a deadly “apocalypse” car Woodrow and Aiden are building just in case the world does come to an end. Tricked out with flamethrowers and a super engine, the car is inspired by the Lord Humongous character in George Miller’s masterpiece The Road Warrior. Both an emblem of the men’s eroding fantasy world and their increasing need to destroy, the car is surprisingly a non-factor in terms of dramatic conflict. Instead, brutal flashes of hand-to-hand combat overwhelm other modes of conversation. This exhaustingly aggressive stance shows that Bellflower loves to throw punches, even when their thematic target is a bloody pulp.
Certainly not the belle of the ball at its first Cannes screening (boos were heard), Julia Leigh’s striking debut film, Sleeping Beauty, is a treasure trove of formal artistry and psychological abstraction. College student Lucy (Emily Browning in one of those bust-out performances) wears many hats—test subject, waitress, temp—until she gets a job working for a high-class firm specializing in erotic parties. When the money starts rolling in, Lucy’s life doesn’t change much; she simply becomes more fascinated with the dynamics of serving and being served. Her various experiences in the demented world of the upper crust take “sacrifice the body” to a new level.
Leigh instills a pristine antiseptic symmetry to almost every sequence, using static medium shots to put the process of domination on display. The camera only moves when Lucy’s role in these parlor games forces her to. During some of the more incendiary moments of female subjugation, Leigh lingers on what these images reveal about the older male characters in the film: weakness, impotence, and guilt. There’s a particularly devastating monologue midway through the film that showcases Leigh’s talent for uprooting conventions about mental and physical prowess. That Lucy inevitably becomes just as obsessed with the machinations of dominance as her employers shows that Leigh wants to make a universal statement, not one that’s gender-specific.
Maybe the most telling thing about Sleeping Beauty is its mastery of silence during the most provocative moments. A peaceful room is never trusting, and a calm demeanor almost always equates to a sadistic underbelly. The simple absence of sound unleashes more tension within whatever act of attrition is about to take place. While Leigh always keeps us at a distance from Lucy’s mental framework, we still understand her desire to be the controller, instead of the test subject. In a world this sadistically calibrated, curiosity doesn’t necessarily kill the cat; it just unveils a truth you never want to have dreams about. Sleep tight.