CANNES, France, May 18, (AP): The cacophony of the Cannes Film Festival was tamed Thursday by a deaf 14-year-old actress, Millicent Simmonds, whose screen debut is being hailed as a breakthrough.
Todd Haynes’ partly wordless fable “Wonderstruck” premiered in competition at Cannes, bringing the festival one of its most anticipated films and a possible Academy Awards contender. The film, Haynes’ follow-up to his much Oscar-nominated “Carol,” is based on the young-adult novel by Brian Selznick.
Fanciful and sentimental, “Wonderstruck” is an unlikely family-friendly turn for Haynes, the director of “Far From Heaven” and “Mildred Pierce.” But it doubles down on his fondness for period tales, weaving parallel story lines from 1927 and 1977.
In the ‘70s setting, an orphaned boy who loses his hearing due to an accident, played by Oakes Fegley, runs away from his Minnesota home for New York. In 1927, the deaf Rose, played by Simmonds, escapes her overbearing father in New Jersey for New York, seeking a silent movie star played by Julianne Moore.
The film, richly evocative of different eras in film history, toggles between color and black-and-white, and between sound and silence.
Haynes and his casting director, Laura Rosenthal, cast the role of Rose via the deaf community, rather than choosing an actor playing deaf. Simmonds, from Utah, had no previous film experience but astonished the director with her audition tape.
“It was our incredible good fortune to find this girl, Millie, who from the very beginning — the very first time I saw her tape — I just shivered,” he told reporters Thursday. “There was something about the integrity of her as a person that showed through that was true and ultimately you see it on the screen. Our good fortune in finding Millie can’t be overstated.”
Simmonds sat next to Haynes while a translator fed her sign language from the front row. She said “Wonderstruck” changed her life.
“It was such a wonderful story, I just re-read it. I’d go: ‘Stop reading ahead. I have to focus on today’s scene.’ I just got lost in the story,” Simmonds said, using sign language. “It was such an honor. I can’t even find the words to explain what it was like to work with Todd. I never dreamt my life would come here, to this.”
Cutting between black and white and colour, silent and talkie, “Wonderstruck” was warmly received at Cannes on Thursday where it is already hotly tipped for awards.
Following on from “Carol”, which competed at the film festival two years ago, director Todd Haynes once again gives viewers an evocative vision of period New York — or in this case two: one in the 1920s and one in the 1970s.
A bleary-eyed audience at the 8.30 am screening gave the movie hearty applause, enjoying its intertwined storylines, one of which plays as a black and white silent movie of the period, the other bathed in the warm colours of 1970s American movies.
“It was an intensely cinematic idea on the page,” Haynes said of the script by Brian Selznick, based on his own book.
Selznick was also the author of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, a part novel, part picture book that Martin Scorsese turned into “Hugo”.
He used the same technique for “Wonderstruck”, which tells the two stories — that eventually meet — of a deaf girl and boy who run away from their troubled homes.
“For a filmmaker it was an irresistible piece of material,” Haynes told a news conference.
Julianne Moore, whose first leading movie role was in Haynes’ “Safe” in 1995, plays two characters: a 1920s silent movie star who is the neglectful mother of her deaf daughter Rose, and, in the 1970s, Rose herself in her dotage.
Her two parts, one in which she can talk, but is in a silent film and therefore unheard, and the other in which she communicates only in sign language, is at the heart of the film.
“It boiled down to how we communicate and what language is and how we effectively use, our bodies, our hands, our selves, without spoken English,” she said.
Hollywood Reporter called “Wonderstruck” “a genuinely affecting story of children and family that doubles as a work of fabulous cinematic artifice”.
Variety said that, for all its attributes, the sum of the movie’s parts was that it did not quite make a great film.
“’Wonderstruck’ is a movie that literally tries to add up, piece by piece, into a fully assembled puzzle of greatness, but the puzzle is less than transporting because you can still see all the seams.”
Meanwhile, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has finally received his Oscar for best foreign language film, nearly three months after boycotting the Academy Awards ceremony.
Farhadi received the statuette during the opening ceremony at the Cannes Film Festival in France on Wednesday.
Farhadi boycotted the ceremony in February over President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban on people from several majority-Muslim countries, including Iran.
In his acceptance speech Wednesday, Farhadi praised Cannes as a “place where cultures speak to one another.”
Farhadi won for “The Salesman,” a drama centered around the story of a married couple who performed Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman” on stage.
“House of Cards” star Robin Wright — who plays a quietly Machiavellian First Lady in the hit Netflix series — said Thursday that Michelle Obama should be the next US president.
The actress told reporters at the Cannes film festival that Donald Trump “has stolen all our ideas” for the next series of the drama about a villainous head of state who stops at nothing to stay in the White House.
Wright, a prominent activist, said a leader like Michelle Obama could galvanise liberals to get through the Trump years.
“We gotta see the hope somewhere, even if it is out there in the future,” she said at a “Women in Motion” talk in Cannes.
“Everyone is talking around the (water) cooler saying, ‘We have four more years of this! What are we going to do?’”
She added: “In 2022 I want Michelle Obama there. She would be a great female president. It does take time to break the mould and change the psychology. Maybe it’s going to take a little more time for Michelle to get that message through.”
Wright, 51, who is starring this summer in “Wonder Woman”, which she called the “first female superhero movie”, also said “it’s time the film industry addressed its gaping gender imbalance”.
With only seven percent of films directed by women, according to estimates, she said the problem was obvious.
“There are women CEOs who are making billions and billions for their companies. Why can’t we just implement that in the (film) industry? It’s time.”
“The problem today is that feminism has become a derogatory, diva-like word. Feminism means equality, period. Equal work for equal pay,” Wright told the “Women in Motion” talk organised by the luxury group Kering.
But she said feminism was about more than calling out crude discrimination.
“It is not just about ‘Yeah, girl power!’ but love and justice, and that is a great message to spread to our little women.”
Wright, who has also directed “House of Cards” episodes while starring alongside Kevin Spacey, said she decided to ask to direct herself after Spacey was offered the chance, which he turned down.
“We are like brother and sister on the show. It is like, ‘What are you doing? I want a bit of that’.”
She ended up directing seven episodes in the last season and her first short film, “The Dark of Night”, a “female vigilante movie set in the 1930s” is having its premiere at Cannes this week.