Cannes Diary 3: 'Armageddon Time,' 'Brother and Sister,' 'Triangle of Sadness'

by C.J. Prince

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday May 24, 2022

Jean-Christophe Folly, from left, Vicki Berlin, Woody Harrelson, and Ruben Östlund pose for photographers at the photo call for the film 'Triangle of Sadness' at the 75th international film festival, Cannes.
Jean-Christophe Folly, from left, Vicki Berlin, Woody Harrelson, and Ruben Östlund pose for photographers at the photo call for the film 'Triangle of Sadness' at the 75th international film festival, Cannes.  (Source:Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

As we got into the thick of the Cannes Film Festival this week, the Official Competition started to show some common themes across its titles, namely families and directors who are no stranger to the event. James Gray brought his latest film "Armageddon Time" this year, which is his fifth time competing for the Palme d'Or. And after the sci-fi spectacle of "Ad Astra" in 2019, Gray takes a far more personal approach for this film, which is largely an autobiographical story about his own childhood. Set in New York in 1980 before the Carter/Reagan election, 6th grader Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) essentially plays a young Gray, an imaginative kid interested in art who has typical issues for someone his age; whether it's avoiding the bad side of his mother (Anne Hathaway) and father (Jeremy Strong) or putting up with terrible teachers at school. He has a close bond with his grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) and classmate Johnny (Jaylin Webb), both of which change as his grandfather gets older and Paul is moved from public school to a private academy.

At first, Gray doesn't have much interest in plot, instead using the specificity of his own childhood experiences to paint an authentic portrait of the era and Paul's upper middle class family (cinematographer Darius Khondji, who did strong, stylish work on Gray's "The Immigrant", opts for a restrained look with more flat imagery to give the setting more authenticity). But as time goes on and "Armageddon Time" reveals itself to be an examination into conservative politics from Reagan to Trump along with his own privilege as a white kid in a private school, Gray's sincerity turns into a sense that he's out of his element.

The biggest issue has to do with Johnny, Paul's Black classmate who he makes fast friends with and causes nothing but trouble for their teacher. Johnny comes from a poor background and lives with his senile grandmother, and his "disruptive" behavior is presented as him lashing out against people who never gave him a chance. Gray tries his hardest to make Johnny a fully developed, well-rounded character, but given the nature of his story there's no other way to interpret him as something symbolic, and in service of the life lessons Paul learns about his own advantages. By making this Johnny's main purpose, it dehumanizes him into little more than a storytelling device, and in turn finds Gray doing the exact thing he's trying to call out and reckon with.

Jeremy Strong, from left, Jaylin Webb, director James Gray, Michael Banks Repeta, and Anne Hathaway pose for photographers at the photo call for the film 'Armageddon Time' at the 75th international film festival, Cannes.
Jeremy Strong, from left, Jaylin Webb, director James Gray, Michael Banks Repeta, and Anne Hathaway pose for photographers at the photo call for the film 'Armageddon Time' at the 75th international film festival, Cannes.  (Source: AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

This is combined with political themes that practically jump out of the screen, like how he draws a direct line between the concerns over Reagan getting elected in 1980 with Donald Trump's 2016 election (Gray's private school had Fred Trump as a major donor, and at times shows up as a character, once again connecting this ultra-privileged world to the positions of power many of its members ended up in). There's very little subtlety here, but Gray's fumbling of issues around race, class, and privilege he's trying to distinguish himself from via self-awareness only emphasizes just how much he's still a part of those same issues. There's a noble effort, even though the good intentions don't translate to the greatest execution.

This being my first time at Cannes, it was only a matter of time until I got to experience the notorious booing after a screening that didn't go over well. That honor went to Arnaud Desplechin's "Brother and Sister," which had several critics at its press screening boo and hiss the moment it ended. I didn't agree with the naysayers, and I say this as someone who might have joined in with them years ago. I was not a fan of his earlier films like "Kings and Queen" and "A Christmas Tale," both of which are overlong, messy, and frustrating experiences. Comparatively, "Brother and Sister" feels more subdued than those works in its look at a decades-long feud between siblings Louis (Melvil Poupaud) and Alice (Marion Cotillard). Louis struggled as an author for ages before finally finding success, while Alice has been a renowned stage actress for years and not long after Louis' career takes off, Alice decides she despises her brother, cutting him out of her life entirely. When the film starts, a tragic accident puts their parents in the hospital, requiring the two to interact again for the first time in more than five years (and almost 20 years since their feud started).

For those who know Desplechin's work, and as I've come to realize, the messiness of his films is by design. "Brother and Sister" can switch between subdued drama, histrionic theatrics, full-on fantasy sequences, and broad comedy from one scene to the next, all while characters and subplots bounce around. That tonal whiplash can make it hard to stay with the film, but what I've come to appreciate about this approach is how all of it works toward unlocking a greater truth, both for the characters and themes Desplechin wants to explore. Here, Desplechin looks into the complicated dynamics of familial relationships and hatred itself, with Alice's disdain abstracted into an anxious weight around her neck and Louis a ball of rage after being the subject of one's dislike for so long (in an ideal world, Poupaud's ability to keep his character grounded among all the tonal changes should make him a frontrunner for Best Actor). "Brother and Sister" has an innate understanding of how strong emotions and family bonds can go hand-in-hand for better or worse; it can form the foundation of negative emotions and stubbornness that can seem immovable, but given the right time or place it can shatter that foundation with almost no effort at all.




All the moving parts in "Brother and Sister" might look like they're erratic or bizarre at first glance, but it might be better to see them as various tools Desplechin uses to dig deeper. It takes a long time before both Louis and Alice come face to face in the film, spending their time avoiding each other as they split time between friends and family. When they finally do reunite, Desplechin lets it happen in the most banal and unexpected of ways, which in turn completely changes the course of the story. I can't see anyone but Desplechin pulling that scene off, nor do I see "Brother and Sister" able to achieve the emotions that scene evokes without going through every good, mediocre, and bad moment beforehand to get to that point. Some people might consider that investment too imbalanced to justify. I've come to admire it myself, since there's a risk factor that I can't say I've seen in any other film at this festival.

After that pair of films in competition, Swedish director Ruben Ostlund came in on the festival's first weekend to offer up his first film since "The Square," which won the Palme d'Or in 2017. And while both "Armageddon Time" and "Brother and Sister" offered more nuanced takes on intimate subjects, Ostlund's nasty satire of capitalism acted as an aggressive palate cleanser. At first, "Triangle of Sadness" hones in on models/influencers Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean) spending a vacation on a luxury yacht for the uber rich. With their tickets paid for through sponsorships, the two stick out against the largely older guests, who make their money through war, technology, or other areas. The ship's crew, terrified to say or do the wrong thing around people with immense power, let the passengers do whatever they wish to everyone's eventual detriment, when a combination of bad seafood, a violent storm, and the alcoholic captain (Woody Harrelson) winds up in complete disaster.

Harris Dickinson, from left, director Ruben Ostlund, and Charlbi Dean pose for photographers at the photo call for the film 'Triangle of Sadness' at the 75th international film festival, Cannes.
Harris Dickinson, from left, director Ruben Ostlund, and Charlbi Dean pose for photographers at the photo call for the film 'Triangle of Sadness' at the 75th international film festival, Cannes.  (Source: AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

Ostlund's films tend to have a central idea reflected through a series of sequences that could be almost entirely self-contained. With "Triangle of Sadness," he takes the biggest hammer he can find to the worst of capitalism, smashes it to pieces, and then tries to see what comes out of the carnage. A lengthy, almost half-hour sequence consisting of the smashing part will go down as one of the best things Ostlund's made to date. Without getting into too much detail, the aforementioned combination of seafood and bad weather turns a quiet dinner into a revolting horror show, while Harrelson's captain turns out to be a self-declared Marxist who squares off against a Russian agriculture tycoon on whether capitalism or communism is better. It's maximum chaos that had the theater howling with laughter, and Ostlund ends the scene with a grim punchline where his overkill feels justified.

The rebuilding section afterward, where several passengers and crew end up stranded on an island, never quite reaches the highs of the yacht sequence, although there's still plenty of fun to be had. The new environment of the island creates a new social order, where the previously powerful upper class have next to no use, while the yacht's resourceful member of the cleaning staff Abigail (Dolly De Leon) relishes her new position at the top of the chain. There are still plenty of laughs with Ostlund's skewering of all sides in his always-cynical view of humanity, but after some time he can't help but expose the simplicity of his core ideas here involving class relations, resulting in an abrupt ending with a lackluster message that's a little too predictable. "Triangle of Sadness" may hit the most obvious targets in the broadest way possible, but if you're going to take that route, you might as well swing for the fences. Ostlund definitely does that to great effect, and even if he doesn't pull it off completely, his film offers a shot in the arm this festival's Competition was definitely needing.