The Cannes Film Festival got off to a respectable—if not particularly exciting—start with its opening-night feature, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows.
Known for tightly scripted (and sometimes overly tightly wound) melodramas—especially the Oscar-winning A Separation—Farhadi’s latest effort is primarily of interest for the focused performances of the husband-and-wife team of Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, who receive solid assistance from the noted Argentinian movie star, Ricardo Darin.
It was a timely event, too, given that Farhadi, who declined to attend last year’s Oscars in protest of President Trump’s travel ban, premiered his film the same day that Trump announced the U.S. would be pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal.
Although Everybody Knows is Farhadi’s first Spanish-language film (his first European venture, The Past, in French and starring Berenice Bejo, premiered at Cannes in 2013), it follows a template established by his Iranian work—a single incident triggers a series of over-the top complications that quickly spiral out of control. In addition, like most of Farhadi’s recent releases, the new film pilfers from the tradition of realistic family dramas to highlight class tensions and noisy skeletons jangling in the protagonists’ closets. (It was far from coincidental that Farhadi’s previous Cannes competition entry and latest Iranian movie, The Salesman, featured excerpts from a performance of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.)
When Laura (Cruz), Alejandro (Darin), and their teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) arrive from Argentina to visit Laura’s old Spanish homestead outside Madrid and attend a wedding, the non-stop revelry makes one instantly suspicious. Family gatherings rarely remain consistently upbeat in a Farhadi film and the cranky outbursts of Laura’s father are enough to convince seasoned viewers that something will go awry very quickly.
Before long, the vulnerable and seriously asthmatic Irene disappears from her room and we soon discover that she’s been kidnapped. As is often the case in a Farhadi screenplay, this catalytic event is less important than the psychological and class tensions it generates. Desperate to pay the ransom to retrieve their daughter, the cash-starved couple call on Laura’s former lover Paco (Bardem) to save them from inconsolable despair.
Needless to say, the solution to the anguished parents’ problem is not so simple. Paco has gotten rich off Spanish vineyards with land that Laura sold to him cheaply. In addition, this imbroglio leads to a mid-movie plot twist that makes the film rather maddeningly schematic, even though this big “reveal” is meant to underscore the delicate nature of Alejandro and Laura’s marriage, as well as the latter’s ambivalent relationship to her old flame.
Steeped in theatrical traditions, the allure of Everybody Knows resides in the complex interplay between Bardem, Cruz, and Darin’s characters. The narrative imbues Cruz and Bardem’s relationship with a peculiar, but vibrant, form of sexual tension. Given that Paco and Laura have long broken off their affair but remain attracted to each other, their meetings (amplified by our awareness of Cruz and Bardem’s real-life marriage) are cautious confrontational pirouettes, full of stifled emotions and propelled by the need to handle the kidnapping crisis at hand. Cruz is particularly impressive in a role that requires her to be almost incessantly frantic. Recalling some of the complex heroines she played in Almodovar films, she has the gift of alternating manic intensity with admirable restraint.
Never an especially distinguished visual stylist, Farhadi manages to punctuate some of the drama enacted in claustrophobic spaces with the occasional adept camera movement. When the inept masterminds behind the kidnapping finally get their comeuppance, the film runs out of steam—and the audience is suitably exhausted.
Everybody Knows is a safe middlebrow choice to open Cannes—crowd-pleasing enough to not be as embarrassing as Cannes opening night choices can sometimes be. (Last year’s opening night film, Arnaud Desplechin’s disappointing Ismael’s Ghosts, is a case in point.) Farhadi’s moderately-thrilling thriller proved appealing enough that there are reports that Netflix, which withdrew from Cannes after being denied competition slots because of a dispute with French exhibitors, is now angling for the rights to distribute the film in the U.S.