By all accounts, the hottest ticket at the 76th Cannes Film Festival is not the Scorsese, not the Indiana Jones, ditto Glazer, Haynes, nor the Anderson. The one film that proved the hardest to see is Pedro Almodóvar’s 31-min short Strange Way of Life. Shown exclusively before a scheduled talk with no additional press screenings, tickets were gone literally within seconds. By some stroke of luck I still can’t believe, one such golden ticket landed on my lap.
Accompanied by his cast and crew (and with the likes of Catherine Deneuve and Xavier Dolan in attendance), the Spanish maestro introduced the world premiere himself, which is one of those spine-tingling magical moments you only experience in Cannes. And the film turned out great, too. Set in a desert town near the Mexican border, Strange Way of Life stars Ethan Hawke as Sheriff Jake and Pedro Pascal as out-of-town rancher Silva who pays Jake an unexpected visit after they parted ways 25 years ago. The setup is simple enough but, this being an Almodóvar joint, of course sex, violence, and intrigue quickly ensue.
Working with such a limited runtime requires all the more instinct for structure and rhythm of a filmmaker, and Almodóvar just goes ahead and – seemingly effortlessly – shows you why he’s one of the greatest there ever was. The film opens deliberately with a shot of Silva riding across the desert to see his old friend. Upon arrival, he lingers by the doorway to watch a lonesome cowboy sing a lovelorn tune. Without rushing into any plot device, the film communicates through these dialogue-free first minutes a sense of distance between the protagonists and puts you in a mood of impossible longing right away. In the next scene with Jake and Silva, Almodóvar’s genius for writing is on full display as he reveals additional clues about these characters’ history through an organically unfolding conversation. With incredible economy, he uncovers decades of desire, bitterness, and doubt that arise when two people are confronted with their unfinished business. Through flashbacks, the film then reconstructs a passionate affair that was never forgotten before imagining, in a blood-soaked, romantic finale, what a shared life could have been.
Beautifully shot by José Luis Alcaine and evocatively scored by Alberto Iglesias (both Almodóvar regular collaborators), Strange Way of Life has the impeccable aesthetic quality you’d expect from the maker of Pain and Glory, Volver, and Talk To Her. Both lead actors are excellent, but I’m particularly impressed by Hawke’s portrayal of someone using lust and frustrated rage to mask years of unmitigated pain. Another highlight is those flashbacks featuring young Jake and Silva, which remind you that no one shoots bodies and captures sensuality quite like Almodóvar. The only conceivable complaint against a film like this is that it’s over too soon.
At the same theater immediately afterwards, we saw the first competition film this year. Directed by Cannes habitue Hirokazu Koreeda, Monster is a moving, shape-shifting youth drama that bears many hallmarks of the Palme d’Or winner’s previous work but also sees him explore new thematic territory. It takes a little time to get going, but keeps gaining momentum up until a surprising, heartbreaking end.
After her partner’s death, young mom Saori (Sakura Ando) takes care of their fifth grader son Minato (Soya Kurokawa) alone. Minato is a fanciful if somewhat troubled kid, sometimes saying things that seem to come out of nowhere. When his behavior becomes erratic, showing up at home with unexplained scars and declaring himself to be a monster, Saori suspects abuse from his new teacher Hori and confronts the school administration. Hori denies any wrongdoing, and the robotically expressionless principal, still grieving from a recent loss, tries to downplay the matter. Saori eventually gets Hori to resign, but not before the disgraced teacher reveals that Minato is the one bullying classmate Yori (Hinata Hiiragi). As the unsettled mother tries to find out what’s really going on, her son disappears.
You might think the summary gives away too much information, but that doesn’t even cover half the story. The screenplay by Yûji Sakamoto is an intricately woven yarn that keeps stretching in new directions at every turn. Structured almost like a mystery where we revisit events surrounding the two boys from the perspectives of the mother, the teacher and the principal, it slowly, smartly reveals an intimate truth while quietly indicting an adult world that fails its children repeatedly. One could argue it’s trying to do too many things and that the film would have benefited from a leaner script. But there’s no denying the skills that went into building such a complex, thoughtful piece of writing.
Koreeda is a humanist filmmaker inside out, and while watching Monster, I kept thinking and loving how he so obviously revels in considering his fellow human beings. Watching us, observing us, studying everything that makes us the strange, beautiful creatures that we are. The genuine curiosity comes across in every frame. Towards the end of the film, a character says something about happiness. It’s a simply crafted sentence that carries so much wisdom and compassion, used so perfectly in a scene between two people who are seeing each other for first time, it destroyed me.
The cast is aces, even if none of them commands enough screen time to be called lead. Having said that, I wouldn’t rule out Ando or the two young actors, Soya and Hinata, being in contention for acting awards.