Amy Nicholson's Cannes Diary: A Party Crasher Thwarted, Inappropriate Steampunk Dancers, And A Loving Awards Hopeful

Unfortunately, a butterfly died to bring you this latest dispatch from our chief film critic

Here's the best party-crashing story I've heard at Cannes. On opening night, a new friend met a producer who said he could sneak her into the private dinner celebrating Woody Allen's Café Society. He gave her a name and told her to drop it at the door. She did and the guest list guard grinned and said, "Oh yes, of course, right this way to the VIP table." That's when she realized what name she'd been given: that of Letty Aronson, Woody Allen's 72-year-old sister. And her seat was right across from his. Oops.

Last night, my big event was the Voices for Refugees gala evening, hosted at a villa in the mountains where all the sidewalks were marble. It promised champagne and canapés — de rigueur for any black-tie event — and then it tempted me with something grander. "Could A Single Evening At This Year’s Cannes Film Festival Be A Nucleus Of Transformation?" the invitation asked. Could it? I had to find out, so for the first time since I arrived, I slipped on a pair of heels, convinced a buddy to wear a tux, and set out to save the world.

Last fall, French president François Hollande promised to welcome 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years. It's a brave call — a recent poll said that 64 percent of the French accuse asylum seekers of being a "major source of crime." Walking up the hill as the live band crooned the slow-rock jam "Sailing" — talk about uncomfortable irony — I spotted one famous Syrian refugee on the step-and-repeat, 21-year-old comedian Mahmoud Bitar, now living in Sweden, where he shoots YouTube videos and hosts a radio show about his experience. Otherwise, it was a party like any other, except for the stunning view.

We hung around for an hour and a half waiting for it to transform, or at least for a speech. Finally, the nucleus of the party — the pool — was surrounded by nine girls in steampunk bustiers. The band played the Isley Brothers' "Footsteps in the Dark," the melody Ice Cube borrowed for "It Was a Good Day," and the girls broke into a choreographed dance: right hand up-down, left hand up-down, hips to the left, hips to the right. I crouched down in the grass to adjust my shoe and saw a dismembered monarch butterfly, torn apart into four pieces. It seemed like the kind of heavy-handed metaphor I'd make fun of in a movie. Tonight, it meant it was time to go.

At least there are the films. Last year, the grand Palme d'Or prize went to Dheepan, a drama about three Sri Lankan refugees who move to Paris and pose as a family to improve their chances of asylum. This year, makers of short films from all over the world brought work documenting their own escape from oppression, some of which screened at a daylong conference about how cinema can be used as a tool to help people understand the refugee experience (and maybe sway the minds of the locals afraid that their country is being overrun).

"It takes a long time for society to get it right," said director Jeff Nichols at the press conference for Loving, his awards-bait drama about the real-life Virginia couple who forced the country to legalize interracial marriage in 1967. It's a restrained, almost ascetic biopic that sees Richard and Mildred Loving, played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, not as revolutionaries, but as a quiet rural couple who just want to sleep in the same bed without being arrested by the police. When the ACLU takes up their case and says it can fight all the way to the Supreme Court, Richard is confused. Can't these slick lawyers just talk nicely to the local judge?

In the film, Edgerton doesn't talk much. With his hair bleached blond into a platinum flattop and his skin sunburned into fruit leather, he communicates in squints. His wife is even more tongue-tied than he is. For the first half of the film, she's as big-eyed and passive as a doll; this is more of a portrait of a paternalistic 1950s marriage than of a groundbreaking union. But slowly — almost too slowly — Negga reveals Mildred's silent strength. She gets that they need the media on their side, though Richard would rather they and their three children simply be left alone.

The problem is, Nichols himself keeps too much of a respectful distance. Richard and Mildred barely even kiss. As good as Edgerton and Negga are, their characters still feel like symbols, with Nichols skirting around the pair with his camera, trying not to give offense. I like the idea that people can change history almost accidentally. On the day of the big trial, the Lovings don't even bother to go. But I've suspected in Nichols's earlier films, like Midnight Special and Take Shelter, that he doesn't have an opinion on the dramatic worlds he's created, and he has the same trouble here. Of course Loving wants us to root for Richard and Mildred's happy ending, but otherwise it flattens out any of the film's interesting wrinkles: that their own community ratted them out, that their lawyers are unqualified, that they really are just symbols to the ACLU, which is willing to risk its clients' safety for the national good. Instead, despite the upheavals of the 1960s, the movie is as hushed as a pair of tasteful slippers. I found it admirable but airless. It'll probably win an Oscar.