‘Evolve or die!’
John Cameron Mitchell’s HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES generates thunderous applause at its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival: a spontaneous alien odyssey within the underground punk scene of 1970s Croydon… filmed in Sheffield!
Imagine the creativity of splicing the alien lunacy of THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY (2005), the awkwardness and home-made costume aesthetics of CODEPENDENT LESBIAN SPACE ALIEN SEEKS SAME (2011) and the teenage rebellion of SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010) and you may just be able to contemplate the sheer unique spontaneity of Mitchell’s HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES. Based on a short novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman, the film explores a colourful and inventive love story between human and alien in an almost intergalactic Romeo and Juliet tale, with heavy punk notes and a cult class hierarchy at its core.
Premiering on May 21st at the 70th edition of the Cannes Film Festival, the cast and crew (sans Matt Lucas) came out in their numbers to celebrate Mitchell’s latest feature since RABBIT HOLE (2010). As Elle Fanning, Nicole Kidman and director John Cameron Mitchell followed the colourful, avant-garde red carpet into the grand auditorium of the Lumière theatre of the Palais to rapturous applause, their ascent was projected live onto the big screen for the entire audience to see. After the vision of the previous Palme d’Or winning directors on the infamous red steps charges the audience with excitement, and the numerous production company animations generate small bursts of applause from isolates among the seats, the film begins. Opening with an animated sequence in which six colourful orbs whizz around the screen with celestial grace, the film suddenly jumps straight into a cacophony of surrealism.
Enn (Alex Sharp, THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME), an eager yet outcast punk rocker, and his two equally misunderstood friends serve as the somewhat normalised viewpoint within the chaos of the film. Seemingly unable to integrate within the punk local community, Enn and his friends are forced to search for more accepting pastures when they happen upon a large house with colourful windows and unusual music oozing out into the street. In true cult style, á la Riff Raff opening the front door in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975), the three wannabe punks are met by PT Stella (Ruth Wilson, THE LONE RANGER), a high, ponytailed woman dressed in a suggestive orange catsuit, who invites them in. Inside, they discover a horde of strange individuals practicing unusual behaviour: one of which is the yellow-clad Zan (Elle Fanning, THE NEON DEMON (2016)) who immediately strikes Enn’s attention.
At the heart of this creative masterpiece lies a story of belonging and finding one’s place in society
At the heart of this creative masterpiece lies a story of belonging and finding one’s place in society, and even the world: merged between hypnotic music performances and outrageous hairstyles. The film follows the predictable narrative of boy and girl from different and supposedly antagonist backgrounds, who later discover they plenty in common; however, the film uses this structure to create something truly unique and magical. Firstly, the script is bathed in some of the most enjoyable and intelligent humour that can be found across the Festival programme. The jokes and snappy comments seem fluid and effortless alongside the story, and maintain the high energy of the audience. Secondly, the prestige of the cast not only gives the opportunity to see actors performing so well in unexpected roles but also gives audiences the chance to take a film riddled with silliness and respect it with a high professionalism, despite not a being an official contender in the Festival competition.
Elle Fanning and Nicole Kidman are the driving force for the success in the execution of the plot. Elle’s Zan is a naïve and inquisitive alien with a thirst for what human life is actually about. Her awkwardness and ignorance to the potential dangers on Earth allow her to transition from scene to scene effortlessly and find herself in some uncomfortable situations, from vomiting at people to shouting at a child. Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman (MOULIN ROUGE! (2001) and RABBIT HOLE (2010)) electrifies the film from start to finish as Boadicea, the outdated original queen of punk who shares an uncanny resemblance to David Bowie’s Jareth the Goblin King from LABYRINTH (1986) – with a dash of Toyah Wilcox. The relationship between Boadicea and Zan becomes maternal, and gives a generous slice of humility to the harsh exterior Boadicea insists on presenting. In combination with the frustration brought by Sharp and the dogmatic teaching of Matt Lucas’ alien ‘Parent-Teacher’, the personality dynamic throughout the film feels more like a dysfunctional family drama than an alien cult invasion.
Despite its messy script and bizarre imagery, the film stands strong as a unique piece of brilliant cinema. The charisma and humour of the characters entices the audience to defy any thoughts of doubt or confusion, and to simply enjoy the film for what it is: a punk space love story. Mitchell is known for outrageous films which manage to remain grounded and in all intents perform relatively well. HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES is no exception to this statement, and cements the knowledge that Mitchell can still surprise audiences with unique and fresh ideas for the big screen!