If there has been a characteristic that sums up this 75th edition of Cannes, it has been that the festival has been small. Partly because of Covid still affecting the way films are produced – yachts seem to be half-staffed and worlds depopulated: cinema downsized. So it is fitting that one of the last films to screen in the competition is Kelly Reichardt’s determinedly minimalistic Showing Up.
Michelle Williams plays Lizzie, a ceramic sculptor in Portland, Oregan. She works in the admin of the local arts college where her mother is effectively her boss. She has a show coming up, but is finding it difficult to finish her girls – a series of twisted figurines who are going to make up her exhibition. One problem is the hot water has been off for weeks and her artist-neighbour and landlady JoJo (Hong Chau) is too busy getting two shows of her own work ready to see about a new water heater. Also, her cat has attacked and injured a pigeon which now she finds herself caring for despite her initial instructions for it to go and find somewhere else to die. “I’m bad,” she mournfully admits to herself.
Yet her badness, such as it is, feels in part a response to the unctuous goodness of Jo and the distractions of her own family – especially her worryingly disturbed brother Sean, played by (First Cow‘s John Magaro). She lives in a community of artists and it is refreshing to see them treated sympathetically. Her father (Judd Hersch) was himself a potter who now potters about and then watches TV, blissfully content in his retirement – to her annoyance. One of the assistants at the college Eric (André Benjamin) oozes positive vibes and a visiting artist (Heather Lawless) is frankly taken with Lizzie’s work and to some extent Lizzie herself.
Despite a potential visit from a New York gallery owner, the stakes are self-consciously low; the drama muted and the comedy sly rather than satirical. It helps that the art on display is produced by actual artists and is actually quite good, rather than the usual movie isn’t-this-modern-art-rubbish art. Just as we learn to grudgingly like Lizzie, we also see the value in her work as it slowly comes together, emerging from the kiln with new colours and finally being displayed among her family and friends.
Portland, as well, is beautifully portrayed. The streets are occasionally wet with a shower of rain, but are usually sunny with warm, golden light. The college has its share of pretentiousness – the interpretative dance course – but there’s an almost idyllic cosiness to it; with everyone stepping over her mum’s dog to get into Lizzie’s office. In fact Lizzie’s irascibility is the tolerated abrasiveness, the grit that might make the pearl in the oyster. Or perhaps not.
The 75th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 17-28 May. Follow our coverage here.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty