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Cannes Correspondences #8: Tarantino’s Hollywood Elegy and BDSM Mourning

Our Cannes coverage continues with Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” and Valkeapää’s “Dogs Don’t Wear Pants”.
The Notebook is covering Cannes with an on-going correspondence between critic Leonardo Goi and editor Daniel Kasman.
Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
Dear Danny,
In an interview with Esquire ahead of the world premiere of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino said something I kept going back to all throughout his latest feature and Palme d’Or contender. “I think of it like my memory piece. Alfonso [Cuarón] had Roma and Mexico City, 1970. I had L. A. and 1969. This is me. (…) And this is my love letter to L.A.”
Yesterday, May 21, Cannes woke up to Tarantino’s day. I’d been told there would be days like this, days when the buzz around the Palais du Cinema felt stronger, and the press room would empty out earlier than usual, with critics and festival-goers queuing and fighting for a spot in what was trumpeted as the film of the festival—at least as far as the pre-screening hype went. As I fought for one myself, a whopping three hours ahead of schedule, I tried to make sense of Tarantino’s words. And as I left the Debussy theater a little over two and a half hours after I miraculously made my way into it, the analogy with Cuarón’s Golden Lion winner, however far-fetched it may have seemed initially, sounded a lot more plausible.
Once Upon a Time rests on what is very possibly Quentin Tarantino’s most audacious narrative scaffolding since Pulp Fiction. Nestled inside it as a whole array of metafictional references, cinematic nods, and ellipses. It’s a film that unfurls as a movie within a movie, seesawing between archive and fiction. But it is also—and here’s why the reference to Cuarón’s black-and-white elegy to his own hometown feels so apt—the kind of film made by someone who’s so selflessly in love with a specific time and place that he conjures up a redemption song that’s at once historically faithful to its mood and vibe, and endearingly revisionist.
Leonardo DiCaprio is Hollywood actor Rick Dalton, and Brad Pitt his stunt double, Cliff Booth. Once a household name for his roles in the black-and-white NBC western series Bounty Law and a handful of other period pieces (one where an eye-patched DiCaprio torches Nazis with a flamethrower hearkening back to the revenge spree of Inglourious Basterds), the actor decides to break away from TV altogether in hopes of landing more respectable roles in auteur cinema. And now pays the price for his hubris. Much like Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson in Birdman, the ghost of past roles follows Dalton like a straight-jacket. Once a western actor, always a western actor; worse, once a villain in a western, always a loser. “Who’s going to kick the shit out of you next time?” sarcastically croaks a bespectacled Al Pacino, pitching for the job as Rick’s agent, eager to smash this potential client’s delusions of grandeur and divert him back to his natural habitat—U.S.-set westerns, or their Italian, spaghetti rendition.
There’s nothing short of wrenching in the way DiCaprio lets his stuttering, insecure Dalton fight against an industry that keeps relegating him to its margins, and nothing short of endearing in the bromance with his stunt-cum-confidante-cum-driver-cum-best (and possibly only) friend, Pitt’s Cliff. “You’re Rick-Fuckin’-Dalton,” Pitt shouts at DiCaprio as he watches the fallen star hobble around studios, a smoker’s cough and a lingering hangover pleating his body to the ground. Curiously, Pitt is a has-been in his own right. However much he likes to claim he still “carries [Dalton’s] load,” he hasn’t worked as stuntman in a long while, courtesy of a delirious, on-set fistfight with none other than Bruce Lee (one in a long series of referential confrontations Once Upon a Time is peppered with). More a factotum aide than a stunt double, Cliff happily helps Rick with all sorts of chores, parkour-ing up and down his hillside Hollywood house and cruising through L.A. aboard his boss’s car. 
But this is not so much a work relationship as a true, greater-than-life friendship. The pair may not refer to it as such until a poignant finale, but you do believe DiCaprio’s smile when he tells Pitt to stay over for some pizza and TV together, the chemistry enveloping the two in a male friendship for the ages, surpassing in banter and masculine affection even the best of Pulp Fiction’s John Travolta-Samuel L. Jackson, and Django Unchained’s Christoph Waltz-Jamie Foxx.
Opposite Rick’s home stands the mansion of the hottest new name in town, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), here hobnobbing with the Hollywood crème in a restless spiral of parties à la Great Gatsby. And indeed, there’s something frustratingly spell-binding about Rick’s next-door neighbors, like living opposite Xanadu and being forced to sit and watch from your own living room as a platoon of stars and guests enter a world that will remain forever shut to uninvited and unworthy guests.
And opposite the glitzy world of Hollywood studios and hillside villas is the movable universe of the hippie girls hitchhiking the streets of 1969 Los Angeles. It’s an army of young women with perfectly chiseled faces and arms of sinew; in Tarantino’s reverie, even when they happily dig into a pile of waste to scavenge for food, they retain the mesmeric vibe of ethereal muses, more like models plucked out of some Benetton spring collection than the deranged and stomach-churning hippies that made Joaquin Phoenix’s scream in horror in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (a movie which, both in content and tone, would make for an interesting double bill here).
TV and silver screens sprout everywhere. There’s the drive-in theater opposite Pitt’s caravan, the smaller screens offering flashes of DiCaprio’s roles, and the cinema Robbie’s Tate sits to re-watch her performance in the last installment of the Matt Helm saga, Phil Karlson’s 1968 Wrecking Crew. For this is a film by a movie-lover and about movie-lovers, people who, like Rick, may be succumbing to a cannibalistic industry, but are still unmistakably in awe of the medium. Even Charles Manson’s hippies at the sinister Spahn Ranch flock to the commune’s only TV to marvel at cop shows. And while there are moments DiCaprio’s wide-eyed enthusiasm at his younger, celluloid-crystallized self feels like a distant echo of Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, there is also a sense of child-like wonder to these moments, channeled most expressively by Robbie’s Tate. Much of the discourse around Once Upon a Time will likely zero in on the outstanding Pitt-DiCaprio duo, but Robbie truly does grace each scene she’s in with effortless bravado, her Tate smiling at her image on the silver screen with an contagious, engrossing blend of innocence and stupor.
By the time Once Upon a Time enters its last hour and an ultra-violent, bonkers last act, Tarantino has conjured up a nostalgic elegy that swells the screen into a glorious, perpetual late summer evening. It billows with the tunes of "California Dreamin’" and "Mrs. Robinson," resuscitates in the impeccable production design by Barbara Ling, thrums to the sounds of cars roaming the streets of Hollywood, the chatter and chaffing of alcohol-propelled dinner table conversations. A six months' ellipsis skyrockets Rick and Cliff on their way home from a work stint in Italy. The Italian spaghetti western Rick starred in, of dubious quality and even more dubious titles (Kill Me Quick Gringo, Said the Gringo) have earned the actor a wife and some cash to spend. But a woman means the cash will run faster, he tells Cliff. It’s the end of the ride. And as the two brace for a last bender together, a triumph of wry comedy and gore violence, Once Upon a Time hits a finale of outrageous, dizzying, maddening beauty. It's a stark contrast from the somewhat melancholic and lighthearted mood of the previous segments, but in the end, it speaks the same heartwarming tone Tarantino's love letter had kicked off with. A bittersweet finale for what is possibly the director's most nostalgic and heartfelt work to date.
Dogs Don't Wear Pants
May 21 may well have been Tarantino’s day, but it was a glorious one throughout. Early in the morning, in the bounty that is the Directors’ Fortnight, I caught up with another festival charmer, Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää's Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, an engrossing and darkly comic rumination on mourning dwelling into a man’s grief through the least likely —and in hindsight, best-suited—prism possible: BDSM.
The man in question is the taciturn, introvert heart surgeon Juha (Pekka Strang). Having lost his wife in a drowning accident some years prior, and left alone to raise their only daughter, now a teenager, the forty-something doesn’t seem as much interested in processing and overcoming the loss as he is in dwelling in his late wife’s memory with a near morbid intensity. Valkeapää and Juhana Lumme’s script crafts Juha as a wonderful exercise in contrasts: the clinical and borderline OCD precision with which the doctor keeps house and clothes impeccably tidy juxtaposed to his private persona, an emotionally paralyzed man indulging in desperate masturbation sessions, head wrapped in the late wife’s shirts, her perfume sprayed on his skin.
It’s not a question of healing from pain, but of stretching it as wide as can go. For the memories and flashbacks Juha must relive to ensure her memory endures only accentuate his loneliness. To remember, in this sense, is to stir up pain, in a sadistic and achingly nostalgic process Juha simply cannot escape from. And this is the crucial point upon which Valkeapää’s feature stands. For when a visit to a local tattoo studio where Juha’s daughter is to get her mouth pierced leads him to bump into a dominatrix in the middle of a session, Mona (Krista Kosonen), the encounter—and the pain the young woman unflinchingly inflicts upon him—opens up a whole new world. Chocked and grasping for air, much like his own wife must have done as she plunged deeper into water, Juha is magically restituted to the lake she disappeared into, Pietari Peltola’s cinematography crafting underwater reveries where husband and wife are reunited in engrossing underwater embraces, and the abyss around them acquires the consistency of something warm and whimsical, an amniotic liquid.
BDSM, and the pain it promises, beckons Juha into a transient state of bliss, a secret if flickering peaceful world no other self-destructive practice could grant him access to. It’s an epiphany that turns his life upside down. Having become one of Mona’s regulars, the man submits himself to all sorts of dom-sub role-playing, until the long-awaited moment the girl chains his naked, humiliated body to a chair, sits on his lap, and proceeds to suffocate him with a plastic bag.
There is nothing particularly sexual about these encounters. Valkeapää steers well clear of the romanticized, adulterated, and downright laughable depiction of the BDSM space trumpeted by the likes of the Fifty Shades franchise. Pain, not sex, is what’s at stake here. And should this not be clear enough by the feverish and imploring stare Juha darts at Mona as he begs her to hurt him in every single way possible, Dogs features a few stomach-churning moments in which said torture plays out in full, with a surgical attention to detail. In those moments, I am not ashamed to confess I was happy to focus on my notes and take my eyes off the screen.
And yet Dogs titillates as an unmistakably, if darkly, piece of comedy. There is something viciously captivating in watching Juha juxtapose his reserved, aloof public self to the clumsy and wide-eyed addict he turns under Mona’s merciless glare—and Strang’s ability to alternate an ice-cool swagger to outbursts of anger and desperation dons Dogs a certain electricity, the feeling of things stretched out an inch before breaking point. The BDSM routines too intersperse gravitas with chuckles, offering some respite in between all the pain, and gracing Mona’s routines with a goofy aura.
But even when Dogs hits its most lighthearted moments, it remains a story of mourning, of a man’s inability to picture a life beyond his wife’s passing. And the lesson it parcels out amid the leather-black humor and wrenching longing is that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. As Mona and Juha meet again for a final dance, an ending of liberating and cathartic beauty, Strang twirling in an outburst of happiness, I found myself entranced by their mesmeric chemistry.
Here’s hoping that my next few days here will prove to be just as riveting.
Leo
Mac
Tarantino's film is not an elegy for Hollywood or Los Angeles, 1969. It is a monument to himself, and nothing more. It is about reminding everyone that Tarantino considers himself the greatest filmmaker of his generation, something I'm sure Paul Thomas Anderson, Todd Haynes, and Steven Soderbergh would disagree with. The film is also a monumental shrug regarding history and its victims. The first time he did this I thought it was kind of audacious. But now I find it obnoxious. Films can't save lives and film cannot transcend mortality. That Tarantino, at age 54, still believes this, shows how little he has matured as a human being. He's still the world's coolest 27 year old. Good for him.

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