God’s Creatures at Cannes: Paul Mescal and the ‘muttered evasions of Irish family life’

Cannes Diary: Tom Cruise plays a blinder ... there's just one whisper of controversy

To the Miramar Cinema for the opening film of International Critics Week. As we were standing in the wrong queue outside, a whoosh of French fighter jets streamed overhead leaving a red, white and blue tricolour in the sky. The colours were conveniently ambiguous.

Introducing When You Finish Saving the World, his debut feature, Jesse Eisenberg observed that he too had spotted the flyover while travelling down the Croisette. “Thank you for not going to Top Gun,” he began before going on to explain that he felt he was hosting a nice little nerdy party at high school only to discover the cool football player was having his own bash. “In this case the football player is Tom Cruise and the bigger party is Top Gun,” Eisenberg said with perfect comic timing. (We will review his lovely film tomorrow in this place.)

Cruise had played a blinder all day. If you want a movie star to convince the world the medium still has a beating heart then nobody else will put his shoulder to the wheel with greater force. He and Jennifer Connelly, co-star of Top Gun: Maverick, could hardly have looked shinier on the red carpet as the French air force roared across the Mediterranean.

Earlier, he had taken part in a “rendez vous” with French journalist Didier Allouch in the Debussy Theatre. There were no hard-ball questions about Scientology or relationships. But you’d expect that. What the grateful attendees did get was a defence of the big-screen experience. He was asked if, during long Covid-related delays on Top Gun: Maverick, the producers or distributors pressured him to allow a streaming release.

“Let me tell you that’s not gonna happen,” he said to actual cheers. “There’s a very specific way to make a movie for cinema, and I make movies for the big screen,” he added. “I know where they go after that and that’s fine.” There is a real feeling that, now closing in on 60, Cruise came in with theatrical exhibition and he is intent on going out with it. When asked why he insisted on doing all his own stunts in the Mission: Impossible movies, he replied: “No one asked Gene Kelly ‘why do you dance?’”

The only negative was a tiny whisper of controversy concerning the exclusion of Nicole Kidman, Cruise’s former wife, from the montage of his career shown at the festival. Kidman and Cruise launched Far and Away here 30 years ago. They made two other films together.

There are signs urging people to wear masks. An announcement before each film recommends the very same. But, as you can tell just from looking at photographs, the practice is becoming increasingly rare at Cannes (like everywhere else). Signs and invocations are about the only things that might alert someone who’d been asleep since the 2019 event that a major pandemic had since taken place. This contrasts markedly with the 2021 festival that saw attendees undergoing spit tests before being allowed into the auditorium.

At the opening press conference (before a largely maskless media pack) Thierry Fremaux made some reassuring noises. “Our staff, who control bags and tickets, will wear a mask because we want to be reassuring and we want that those who are worried [will] not be worried and that if something happens it won’t come from the organisation of the festival, but they could also get it from a restaurant where there won’t be any masks. So we’re going above and beyond the government regulations,” he said.

One unnamed sales agent expressed concern to Variety. “There hasn’t been a major event where a lot of people didn’t get Covid. There’s no way Cannes will be any different,” he said. We shall see.

God’s Creatures

Directed by Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer
Starring Emily Watson, Paul Mescal, Aisling Franciosi, Declan Conlon, Marion O'Dwyer and Toni O'Rourke
Directors' Fortnight, 94 minutes

Here is a fascinating Irish film whose writers and directors have whittled their unsettling premise down to bony slivers that, without recourse to wilful ambiguity, ask the viewers to fill in more than a few gaps. There is not an ounce of fat on a folk drama that plays like the work of Federico García Lorca – only shrouded in worse weather and considerably sparser poetry. Lorca if drenched in North Atlantic spume.

The suddenly everywhere Paul Mescal – he also appears in Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun at International Critics Week – stars as Brian O’Hara, home to a fishing village in the west after a spell in Australia. He enters as the town is mourning a death by drowning and is soon working the seas semi-legally. His relationship with his parents is not untypical of Irish families: Aileen (Emily Watson), his mother, is often exasperated with the lad, but remains conditionally devoted; Con (Declan Conlon), his father, has long ago lost patience.

Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer, the American film-makers behind the acclaimed The Fits, appear implausibly at home on the Donegal coastline. There are universal themes here, but the film is very much connected to its location. Shane Crowley’s script, from a story co-conceived with producer Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, is packed with detail on the business of getting oysters from the seabed and on to retailers.

Set at least 20 years ago – look closely and you’ll see a James Joyce tenner – God’s Creatures thrives on the muttered evasions that constitute Irish family life. Watson gives the sense of a woman struggling with a better nature that is too easily overcome by baked-in family loyalty. Mescal, profiting from that Normal People boost, has already shown a spooky ability to work menace in with a consistently off-centre charm. Right from the start, the viewer is aware that something is not quite right.

The crux of the drama does not arrive until halfway through a shortish film. Something awful has happened to Sarah Murphy (the consistently excellent Aisling Franciosi) off screen. Aileen is shocked into a morally dubious choice. The village reacts as villages do in horror yarns. The inevitable drift to further tragedy is maybe a little too precipitous, but this remains a beautifully made, precisely acted masterclass in rural gothic. Expect much buzz when it arrives in commercial cinemas.

Tchaikovsky’s Wife

Directed by Kirill Serebrennikov
Starring Alyona Mikhailova, Odin Biron, Yuliya Aug, Miron Fyodorov, Alexander Gorchilin, Filipp Avdeyev
In competition, 120 minutes

Ken Russell, who never knowingly undersold his own work, described The Music Lovers, his 1971 study of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s troubled life, as “the story of the marriage between a homosexual and a nymphomaniac”. (It is sometimes wrongly suggested that this was the tagline.)

Kirill Serebrennikov, a Russian regular at Cannes, manages one somewhat mechanical orgy in the later stages of his take on the same relationship, but this is an altogether more sober examination of Antonina Miliukova’s sorry life as “beard” to the great composer. Occasionally dipping into the lower depths of Russian life that provided Dostoevsky with such fecund material, the film is shot in soupy greys that give the images the look of faded Penguin Classics covers. We get an early look at upper-class Saint Petersburg – with “society” talking in French – but this is mostly a sombre film that feels as if it’s “doing you good”.

No criticism should go the way of Alyona Mikhailova. The actress is onscreen almost throughout the picture as Antonina and makes a plausibly tragic lover of the initially deluded young woman. Infatuated with Tchaikovsky (Odin Biron, less taxed), she pursues him relentlessly until he, seeing an opportunity, agrees to marriage, but explains that he will be like a brother to her. Incredibly, the penny does not drop until well into the film and, even when the situation is clearly laid out, she continues to disbelieve the obvious.

Tchaikovsky’s Wife is thus a grim tale of a slow drift from happy ignorance to depressing reality and ultimately existential despair. That final act is undeniably powerful and may put Mikhailova in line for awards here. But the drift into torpor earlier on does still linger on the mind. A handsome, serious minded piece, but not one that ever takes flight into transcendence.

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