Locarno 2017: Staying Safe with Lucky (Lynch) & Las cinéphilas (Alvarez)

Every day 90-year-old Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) goes through his morning routine: He wakes up, does kinesthetics, has a glass of milk, his cup of coffee and puts on his cowboy boots. One morning, though, he falls for no discernable reason. Physically unscathed, the experience nonetheless is a brush with mortality that sets him into a spiral of despair.  Featured in the international competition, Lucky is deceptively simple as it channels a vision of a dusty American town that seems more fantasy than reality (but realism is still “a thing”). David Lynch even shows up in a substantial supporting role, upping the stakes in the game of cinephilic seduction. 

Stanton has always had a one in a million face that channel’s Buster Keaton’s stoicism with a cowboy’s edge. Lucky‘s best moments revel in his inherent physicality, like his repeated morning routines which bring into focus his rice-paper skin, the ripple of his muscles and his careful movements. But, beyond thunderous authenticity of Stanton’s performance, the film too often maintains an ironic distance from its character, world, and ideas.

Take the fiesta scene, where Lucky is invited by the woman he buys milk from to celebrate her son’s birthday. While Lucky’s world may be opening night figuratively and literally, the possibility for challenging experiences narrows. This party has a dry exaggeration of Mexican-Americans that borders on cartoonality. It renders Lucky’s reckoning with mortality as something that can be solved through the appreciation of the “little” things and life’s hidden beauty, all the while reducing the supporting characters to, well, characters: paper cut-outs that only serve to add a little colour and move Lucky’s journey along.

When you “go deep” in a film fest, it is always refreshing to see a film that manages to avoid common pitfalls. Too many critics are too quick to praise these films, just as they are too quick to condemn movies that challenge their comfort. Many festival films are flawed and frustrating and Lucky is anything but — yet, for all its virtues, it seems too calibrated: it hits the marks but fails to take any of the risks.

Maybe I am setting the bar too high, but my goal at a film festival like Locarno is to see something new. I want to be able to walk away from a film, even if it is flawed, and say “that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before,” – I can’t say Lucky passes that test. 

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In a similar vein, there is María Alvarez’s Las cinéphilas, a documentary about retired women in Spain, Argentina and Uruguay who go to the movies every day. The movie is charming and likable – it is refreshing to see a film about older women as well. 

Movies about cinephilia are the bread and butter of film fests. As film fans, we have a natural inclination towards self-indulgence as we gravitate towards movies that reflect our obsession back at us. These films rarely offer deep insight or criticism and unfortunately, Las cinéphilas is no different.

The film is pleasant to be sure, and it is refreshing to feature women who challenge the conception that cinephilia is nothing more than a masturbation factory for young men. There is a poetry in the beauty and tenacity of these women: a virtue of documentaries that allow the subjects to speak for themselves without judgment. Yet, the film lacks self-reflection or push to really challenge the audience.

As a start to the festival, these selections are disappointing, especially as they seem to represent the new status quo of major festivals. Increasingly festivals hide away their daring cinema in small programs (Signs of Life still dazzles) and hidden theatres, as competition films shift increasingly towards populism. This should not be unexpected in a behemoth industry focused festival like Cannes or TIFF, but Locarno can do better.

 

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