Had it been directed by anybody else, I’d have assumed that an American horror movie called It Follows has something to do with Twitter, Facebook, or maybe a purely fictional social network. David Robert Mitchell, however, doesn’t appear to be very interested in modern technology. His lovely, beguiling debut feature, The Myth Of The American Sleepover (which screened here four years ago in the parallel Critics’ Week section—technically a separate mini-festival), wasn’t explicitly set in the past, yet featured an ensemble of horny, awkward suburban teens who carry no smartphones and never check their email. That same quietly retro sensibility pervades It Follows (also screening in Critics’ Week), which confirms Mitchell’s promise and then some. The film’s premise is inventive, brutally simple, and wisely left unexplained: After sleeping with new boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary), Jay (Maika Monroe) finds herself constantly pursued by…something. Wherever she is in the world, this thing, which can take any human form, and which no uninfected person can see, is walking directly toward her, at a steady but moderate pace, with murder on its mind. It can easily be outrun, but it never stops coming, and the only way to get rid of it is to pass it on to somebody else via sexual intercourse—though if it kills that person, it reverts right back to stalking you. No doubt that sounds like a Cronenbergian transmissible-disease metaphor, but Mitchell’s aiming for a more disarming, heartbreaking target, which comes into focus as Jay attempts to transfer her nightmare to random strangers, the callous hunk across the street (Daniel Zovatto), and the dweeby guy (Keir Gilchrist) she’s long friendzoned. Mostly, though, It Follows just goes to town with its spectacularly creepy conceit, which requires constant scanning of the frame for innocuous-looking extras who might be on the right trajectory. This is basically Look Out, It’s Right Behind You!: The Motion Picture, and if it doesn’t quite deliver on every level—Mitchell does very little with the idea, floated early, that the thing sometimes takes on the form of people you love, just to torment you—it nonetheless demonstrates anew that true horror requires neither gore nor jump scares, just vulnerability.
There’s plenty more vulnerability, albeit of a different type, in The Wonders, from Italian director Alice Rohrwacher—one of only two female filmmakers in this year’s Competition. Loosely based on Rohrwacher’s childhood in a multicultural family (her mother is Italian, her father German) with a beekeeping business, this charmingly naturalistic slice of life pivots on the desire of 11-year-old Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the eldest of four daughters, to enter her family in Countryside Wonders, a cheesy TV contest hosted by a platinum-wigged beauty (Monica Bellucci, the only star in a cast of mostly non-pros) and designed to showcase, with maximum condescension, the most “traditional” clan in the region. The movie builds gradually to the climactic broadcast, but is primarily interested merely in observing the sometimes fractious, sometimes tender relationships among the four girls, their frazzled mother (Alba Rohrwacher, the director’s sister), and their taskmaster of a dad (Sam Louwyck). Cast members learned how to work with bees, collecting runaway swarms from trees and extracting honey from the combs; the most affecting sequence finds Gelsomina and her father hunkered down together beneath a tarp in the rain, using their bodies to keep the lids from blowing off boxed hives in a windstorm, because there are too few stones in the area to hold them down. It’s a glancing, episodic picture, with none of the crass symbolism or stern moralism that tarred Rohrwacher’s previous effort, Corpo Celeste. A subplot involving the arrival of a sullen German foster child (Luis Huilca Logroño, looking not the least bit German; tellingly, he never speaks), taken in to provide the family with some extra income, only winds up distracting from such casual pleasures as the two smallest girls giddily splashing through puddles. A minor work, but thoroughly enjoyable.
For a brief moment, I thought that Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman, based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout (who also wrote The Shootist, and, weirdly, Where The Boys Are), might be making a major feminist statement—something truly startling, bold, and pointed. By movie’s end, however, it was clear that this was a false alarm, and that The Homesman is just a Western iteration on the tried-and-true buddy flick, featuring two diametrically opposed characters who come to respect each other. It’s 1855, and three women (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, and Sonja Richter) in the Nebraska Territories have gone insane, though it’s not clear whether this is due to some unspecified epidemic or is just the natural outcome of being female in that time and place. (The latter possibility contributed to my tentative feminist reading, and does appear to have been intended, at least to some degree.) Unmarried, childless farmer Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) volunteers to transport the loonies to Iowa, where they can be properly cared for, and more or less blackmails a grizzled claim jumper (Jones) into assisting her on the five- or six-week journey. She’s pious and uptight, he’s vulgar and mercenary, and it’s just a matter of time before the hardships they jointly experience bridge the gulf between them. About two-thirds of the way through the movie, however, something unexpected occurs (I honestly can’t remember the last time I was caught so off guard by a narrative development), which seems to push it into much nervier territory, especially with respect to a superb scene featuring James Spader as a politely obnoxious hotel manager. Subsequent events don’t really bear that interpretation out, though, and the way Jones’ newly dandified character is treated in the finale suggests that The Homesman views him and Mary Bee as kindred spirits—an admirably humanist viewpoint, to be sure, but not the angry ideological earth-scorcher that would have provoked interesting conversations.
For that, one might turn to Jessica Hausner’s Un Certain Regard entry Amour Fou, though any such post-film discussions are apt to be a good deal livelier than the movie itself. Hausner has a loyal following—her previous film, Lourdes, was highly acclaimed—but while I admire her formal rigor, her sensibility is a little bloodless for my taste. Here, she’s fashioned a fictionalized account of the double-suicide pact between Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel), author of The Marquise Of O and many other notable literary works, and Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnöink), a woman he barely knew but succeeded in persuading to die with him (mostly because she believed herself to be terminally ill). The film’s title is meant ironically: Kleist asks women to commit suicide with him as if he were inviting them to dinner, and he and Vogel speak of their “love” for each other with the studied, uninflected demeanor of two university students quizzing each other for a psychology exam. The disjunction between the gravity of their plan and the casualness with which they discuss it is bleakly funny at first, but quickly becomes repetitive, and the film as a whole is so predicated on their blasé indifference to life that a corresponding indifference seems the only rational response. When the strikingly patterned wallpaper in Vogel’s house has more personality than anybody onscreen, it’s a sign that the filmmaker may have taken deliberate impassivity a little too far.
Tomorrow: Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, about which I know nothing except that it stars Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo. Oh, wait, I just saw the word “wrestling” on the film’s Wikipedia page. Whaddaya need, a road map? That’s coming tomorrow as well, via David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars, which hopefully bears no relation to Miguel Arteta’s wretched 1997 film Star Maps.
(Mike D’Angelo’s Day One coverage of Cannes covered Nicole Kidman in Grace Of Monaco and the latest from Mike Leigh. Day Two suggests putting Atom Egoyan out to pasture, and checks in with Israel’s Keren Yedaya. Day Three slogs through two long, not-always-rewarding films by Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Bertrand Bonello.)