Cannes 2017: John Cameron Mitchell’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties

On Film / The Daily — May 22, 2017

“At the risk of accidentally donating three words to the poster, How to Talk to Girls at Parties looks like it was phenomenally good fun to make,” grants the Telegraph’s Tim Robey. “An alien-sex-comedy-punk-musical-doodle set in 1977 Croydon, it packs half its cast into studs and leathers, and the other half, as a colony of visiting humanoids, into brightly colored PVC, top to toe. Everyone looks as pleased as punch to be lounging around in Sandy Powell’s kinky outfits, making out from time to time, and delivering their scads of pastichey dialogue as if a new Barbarella had come to town. But an unfortunate amount of the enjoyment began and ended on set.”

So “the arrival of punk appears to have coincided with a still-more dangerous visitation—that of a cult of intergalactic space-cannibals.” The Guardian’s Xan Brooks: “This, in a nutshell, is the intriguing-enough premise of John Cameron Mitchell’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties, freely adapted from a Neil Gaiman short story. Or rather, it’s the premise right until the moment it’s not, when Cameron Mitchell decides to adopt another premise, and then another after that. What an extravagantly muddled, borderline incontinent film this is.”

“It tells the story of Enn (Alex Sharp), a pogo-ing punk who’s really a sweet kid next door, and how he falls for Zan (Elle Fanning), who belongs to a mysterious alien cult,” explains Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. Then, “after an explosive dive-bar gig featuring the Dyschords, a local band managed by Boadicea (Nicole Kidman, looking too refined for her surroundings), Alex and his mate, the peroxide-blond ‘Eh, wot?’ rotter Vic (A.J Lewis), stumble into a mansion with some very odd people inside. The most confounding thing about them—and the movie—is how utterly inexpressive they are.”

But Nikola Grozdanovic, writing for the Playlist, has had a pretty good time: “This outer space oddity is destined for the cult-classic section of some future camp horror and sci-fi B-movie aisle. If Invasion of the Body Snatchers had sex with This is England, their Neon Demon spawn would be called How to Talk to Girls at Parties.

“Imagine an anarchic collision between Derek Jarman’s Jubilee and a gender-flipped Earth Girls Are Easy (anyone?), then toss in a hallucinogenic dash of Romeo and Juliet, and you're at least in an adjacent galaxy,” offers David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “There's a sprinkling of incidental pleasures here, among them Nicole Kidman as a jaded low priestess pedaling hardcore nihilism with a sneer; and the ever-ethereal Elle Fanning as an alien with a dreamy sensuality and a healthy curiosity about the ways of our planet. But there’s too little narrative cohesion or persuasive subtext to make this much more than a low-budget folly that's outre without always being terribly interesting.”

“Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco’s shadowy cinematography goes a long way toward evoking a dreary, Thatcher-era London, while the movie’s key actors enhance the underlying emotional struggle,” writes Eric Kohn, who gives the film a B- at IndieWire.

“By rights, How to Talk to Girls at Parties shouldn’t work, as it feels at times like a film made by a talented student collective who overheard a ‘punk vs aliens’ elevator pitch,” suggests Screen’s Lee Marshall. “But work it does: it’s all a bit mad, but ultimately rather moving.”

For CineVue’s John Bleasdale, though, the “the anachronisms, punk posturing and dodgy accents combine to create a film that might have been better titled How Not to Make a Film about Punk in 70s Croydon.

The Hollywood Reporter’s Alex Ritman talks with Mitchell “about contributing to Kidman’s busy Cannes schedule (she’s in four films), how Assassin’s Creed got in the way of another A-list casting and his upcoming autobiographical project, Homunculus.

Updates, 5/23: At Vulture, Emily Yoshida finds that “the script is unfocused, and seems insecure about how compelling Zan and Enn’s relationship is, constantly veering off to focus on alien politics and Enn’s family history, when a little punk-alien courtship would have been fun enough to linger on. Nicole Kidman’s supporting turn as scenester grande dame Boadicea is plenty kooky, but could have been cut out completely at no loss to the film. The script is frantically trying to build a whole world when a modest house would do.”

“After How to Talk to Girls at Parties premiered to raging applause and huge grins from both stars and a gorgeous Kidman in silver sequins, I felt I’d finally seen a great movie, or at least a future cult classic,” writes Miriam Bale for W.

“While Mitchell is American and the two biggest names on the marquee are not British, How to Talk to Girls at Parties feels like a British ’80s rom-com on-the-cheap through and through,” writes Marc van de Klashorst at the International Cinephile Society. Is this “actually a good film? To be honest, not really. But it is infectious and has a certain irresistible charm to it.”

Update, 5/24: From Ben Kenigsberg at RogerEbert.com: “‘I once harmonized with a brown dwarf,’ Zan says. ‘A brown dwarf? Didn't they open for the Shins?’ Boadicea replies. Your own tolerance for such wordplay is a good litmus test for what you might think of How to Talk to Girls at Parties, a ready-to-serve midnight movie that may or may not eventually earn the cult it so desperately wants.”

“Mitchell proves to have a tin ear for the culture and the era,” finds Donald Clarke in the Irish Times. “What we appear to be looking at is ‘punk rockers’ as represented in a contemporaneous British sitcom. Imagine an episode of Terry and June in which the suburban couple were inconvenienced by Roger Revolting and Vanessa Vomit. That sort of thing.”

Update, 5/26: “Whether she’s griping about Vivienne Westwood, telling someone his skin smells like cheese, shouting indignantly about her abortions, or ending a cute little flirtation with Ruth Wilson by saying, ‘Sex is over, haven’t you heard?’ it’s Kidman who feels like the center of the universe,” write Kyle Buchanan and Jada Yuan at Vulture. “Feel free to spin off Boadicea any time, because we’ll be there.”

Update, 5/30: “The beauty that arose from Gaiman’s graphic novel was in its simplicity, in how it could take this infectious sci-fi romance and add beautifully realized imagination to it,” writes Jordan Ruimy at the Film Stage. “The story of Enn and Zan does not need to be abrasively surrounded and interrupted by the psychedelic culture-clash of alien and human characters the film overstuffs in its script. The ideas are there, but the execution isn’t.”

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