Even a place as exciting and glamorous as the Cannes Film Festival can feel pretty lonely. You’re 4,000 miles from home, you don’t speak the language, and there’s nothing to eat but dried sausage and gherkins. Which makes it the perfect place to see movies like Gus Van Sant’s “Paranoid Park” and Harmony Korine’s “Mister Lonely,” the first in competion and the second in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, and both absolutely steeped in the nature of isolation.
Nearly all of Van Sant’s movies examine withdrawn heroes who’ve dropped out from society. His is a cinema of reclusion right on down the filmmography, which includes the emblematic figure of Norman Bates in his controversial shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” In recent years, Van Sant’s focused more on aloof youth, the killers and victims of the Columbine-like “Elephant,” the burned-out rock star of “Last Days.” “Paranoid Park” continues Van Sant’s streak of movies about adolescent estrangement. It follows Alex (Gabe Nevins), a skater with a blank stare and a guilty conscience. As the time-bending narrative unfolds mimicking a stream-of-consciousness entry in a frightened teen’s journal Alex is implicated in a train yard murder, one Van Sant recreates onscreen in shockingly graphic detail.
All of Van Sant’s recent movies have hinged more on atmosphere than stories. “Elephant” was filled with dread, “Last Days” with grief. “Paranoid Park” puts its theme right there in the title. To capture that feeling, Van Sant goes more subjective this time around: along with Alex’s narration, the film is peppered with dreamy skateboarding sequences that exist outside the narrative proper. The grainy Super-8 photography contrasts with the rest of the film’s stark imagery (the cinematographer is former Wong Kar-wai collaborator Christopher Doyle, with Rain Kathy Li).
Nevins who was, maybe, sorta (depends on who you ask) cast through MySpace is an emotionally distant actor, but emotional distance is practically a prereq for stardom, Van Sant-style. “Paranoid Park” is less immediately shocking than “Elephant” or sorrowful as “Last Days” but in its own quiet way, it surpasses both. Van Sant’s technique is incredibly confident and he’s increasingly comfortable in this slightly avant-garde mode that’s defined his decade of filmmaking. All of his choices, right down to the way he never shows Alex’s parents on camera save for one crucial moment, feel right.
During our interview about his “Mister Lonely” at Cannes, Harmony Korine made oblique references to his dark times and the gratitude he feels simply for being able to make another movie, his first in eight years, and being alive to share it with people (he also compared the experience of being at Cannes to smoking crack, but that’s probably a story for another time). He sounded like Blake, Michael Pitt’s Kurt Cobainish character from “Last Days,” if only Blake hadn’t succumbed to his demons.
“Mister Lonely” doesn’t really address drug abuse, but it does face head-on the solitary lifestyle that might come hand-in-hand with true addiction. It also recreates the feeling of being alone at Cannes in an even more direct way: its subject, a Michael Jackson impersonator (beautifully played by Diego Luna), begins the movie as a friendless street performer, moonwalking for pocket change on the streets of Paris. In his travels, he stumbles upon a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton) who invites him to a retreat her husband (a French Charlie Chaplin, played by Denis Lavant) has created as a safe haven for fellow impersonators.
Like “Paranoid Park,” “Mister Lonely” is less about the twists and turns of that story than the feelings they evoke. And where Van Sant’s movie has its ethereal skating scenes to balance and comment on its main plot, “Mister Lonely” has an entire counter-narrative, one that often dwarfs its main story for humor and memorable imagery. In it, a group of missionary nuns airdrop food and supplies on remote South American villages. On one run, one of the nuns falls out the open door of the plane and falls to the earth below but survives because of her faith. This section has its own misters lonely: the alcoholic priest who flies the nuns’ plane (played to the hilarious hilt by Werner Herzog), and a local adulterer who Herzog councils to stunning effect. The nun sequences might sound like an elaborate gag but they take on unexpected spiritual dimensions and the footage of those nuns falling through the air might be the most uplifting of this year’s festival.
Without spoiling too much, both “Mister Lonely” and “Paranoid Park” end on similar notes, not of happiness or sadness, per se, but of perseverance. The proper response to Van Sant and Korine’s cinematic loneliness isn’t to overcome it but to shoulder it and carry on. Watch them yourself by yourself.