Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt give us the bromance of the festival in “Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood”, Quentin Tarantino’s ode to Tinseltown at the time of the Manson murders.
There was an after-party drowsiness about the Croisette this morning, a sense of an ending, compounded by the clatter of suitcases rolling to the train station. What a contrast after last night’s frenzy. The pushing, shoving and shrieking, bodies writhing in expectation. We knew all along that the festival would peak last night with Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood”. And it duly did, with a glittering red carpet for the ages and an exhilarating journey into the source of Tarantino’s dreams and obsessions (though the following film, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite”, was actually superior).
It’s no secret that Cannes loves Tarantino as much as Tarantino loves Cannes. As festival director Thierry Frémaux put it, the iconic director is a “real, loyal and punctual child of Cannes”. Never mind the insufferable critics and the rotten timing for the all-important Oscar race; Tarantino will only ever premiere in Cannes, the bastion of arthouse cinema. And the festival will always bend over backwards to give him pride of place, however late he files (this movie was submitted well past the 11th hour). The result is a carefully choreographed gala premiere, coming 25 years to the day since Tarantino brought his “Pulp Fiction” to the Croisette and redefined the possibilities of cinema.
While no revolution, “Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood” makes for engrossing and outrageously provocative entertainment, its 161 minutes whizzing by with such brio and gusto it felt shorter than many films half its length. Like “Pulp Fiction”, it is only loosely interested in narrative, offering instead a riveting catalogue of set pieces and figures from a movie landscape. It could have gone on forever, were it not for an explosive finale Tarantino has understandably begged the press not to spoil. “I didn’t ask for the whole story,” quips the 8-year-old co-star of one of the film’s many movies-within-the-movie. Just give us the gist of it.
The thrilling – and unprecedented – duo of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt take the lead parts in the most star-studded cast Tarantino has ever assembled, respectively playing jaded TV cowboy Rick Dalton and his longtime stunt-double Cliff Booth. Struggling to shift from television to the big screen, Rick is in the boozy twilight of his career – though, in a wry dig at the Hollywood he loves, Tarantino notes that he’s already outlasted most female stars in this mercilessly macho industry. Rick’s decline means Cliff’s career has taken a hit too, though he more than makes up for it by filling in as driver, handyman and best pal.
Far bigger film stars make brief appearances, including Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). And there are delicious cameos for Kurt Russell as a stuntman coordinator and Al Pacino as the agent who wants Rick to revive his career by doing spaghetti westerns in Rome – because Hollywood will only cast him as the baddie in small-budget movies and it doesn’t look good when he invariably gets busted at the end.
But there’s a sinister backdrop to the on-screen fun, set at the time of the Charles Manson murders. Cliff has a closer encounter with the Manson cult when he is lured to their farm by an outrageously flirtatious hippie girl, and the scene that follows has all the gripping suspense of the finest westerns. Rick’s hillside mansion, meanwhile, is right next to the home of Polanski and Sharon Tate, meaning he is steps away from one of Tinseltown’s power couples of the time and the site of one of the most gruesome events in Hollywood history.
Tate’s horrific murder – aged 26 and eight-and-half months pregnant – has been restaged often enough for some to speak of “Tatesploitation”. Without spoiling the movie, one can only say that Tarantino is too enamoured and respectful of cinema to give this particular event an exploitative treatment in what is otherwise pure exploitation film. Margot Robbie gives a sweetly moving turn as Tate, her standout scene showing her revel in the experience of movie-going – and of seeing people watch her on the big screen – as she wanders into a cinema for a screening of “The Wrecking Crew”.
Billboards and cinema marquees are ubiquitous features in what is an extraordinarily rich recreation of 1969 Hollywood, with the director giving himself ample – perhaps too much – scope for a display of his unique eye for pop culture detail (and his foot fetishism too). This is a showpiece for the B-movies, television shows, spaghetti westerns and musical genres that have had such a formative influence on Tarantino. Martial arts get an amusing tribute in a punch-up between Cliff and Bruce Lee – introduced with the glorious line, “My hands are registered as lethal weapons”. And there’s an interesting take on hippie culture going both mainstream (right up to the “hippyish” costumes Rick wears in his westerns) and dangerously deviant (culminating in the Manson cult).
For all its vintage sophistication, I thought “Once Upon a Time…” was most appealing as the story of a bromance, with DiCaprio and Pitt delivering both wonderful chemistry and two of their finest performances (in Pitt’s case, perhaps his finest ever). DiCaprio gives us a convincing and moving portrayal of a deflated, sobbing macho yearning for another shot at fame. But you sense Tarantino is getting his biggest kick from filming Cliff’s character. Pitt is outstanding as the impassive, rough-and-tumble guy you better not cross. He’s now 55 and has never looked sexier and cooler.
Minutes before the press screening, a Cannes official read a statement from the director asking journalists not to give away any spoilers (he was greeted with a smattering of boos from a minority of critics, who generally don’t like being told what to do). Bong Joon-ho, the Korean director whose film was shown shortly after, made much the same plea in a note left in the press lockers. There are indeed extraordinary twists and turns in his brilliant “Parasite”, which instantly made him a strong contender for this year’s Palme d’Or – or, at the very least, the Best Screenplay award.
A Seoul-set, family-based tragicomedy about the growing divide between rich and poor, “Parasite” revolves around an impoverished family’s cunning scheme to improve their lot. Bong, whose Netflix-produced “Okja” caused a kerfuffle in Cannes two years ago, has a history of blending genres and defying categorization, and his latest film is perhaps his most hybrid yet. It mixes social-realism, comedy and thriller, with more than a splash of horror. The director has suggested it may be “too Korean” for international audiences. But I was on the edge of my seat throughout this absorbing drama, a beautifully-shot work as hilarious as it is harrowing. What a day in Cannes.
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