AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
CANNES – 2008 THE 61ST INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
LET THE SCREAMING BEGIN
by Harlan Kennedy
Life re-begins at 40. At Cannes this year there was dancing on the streets, the beaches, the screens, the roofs, the clouds. There were fireworks on the Croisette. And there was a giant mural of the Lumiere Brothers – cinema’s founders – at the railway station to greet guests arriving by cheval de fer. The mural’s multi-part design included the famous screen image of a train that swooped out at audiences in 1895, causing screams at the world’s first public movie show. That moment was an earnest of wonders to come from a medium determined to reach out and touch. We have been screaming, weeping, sobbing and cheering ever since.
Midlife crisis? What crisis? At Cannes 2008, we seemed to be celebrating a new birth or rebirth. We were certainly feting an anniversary. Not 1895 but 1968. That was the last major nativity – or re-nativity – for this bash. The waters broke that year in early summer. Sweeping down from Paris like a tidal bore, les evenement de Mai flooded the Croisette, halted screenings, encouraged Godard and Truffaut to fling themselves at the throats of the establishment, and had Louis Malle and others hanging onto the curtain in the main palais to stop the show going on.
And they did. Cannes shut down. These rebels with a cause wanted a new festival and got it. The Cote du Cinema closed for a year of ideological maintenance. The following year Cannes had the new Quinzaine des Realisateurs – Directors Fortnight – which didn’t just present a counter-event to the competition, it re-energised the competition itself. Today that event lobs new directors into the limelight and provides its own official sideshow – ‘Un Certain Regard’ – as a vital overflow for invited talent. The Directors Fortnight, responding, has dug ever deeper into the new and unexplored. In sum: there’s something for everyone, in the name of novelty and excitement, and sometimes too much for anyone, without 25 hours in his or her day.
To reaffirm this junket’s refusal to stand still, there were two ‘firsts’ in the main competition: whole new spins of the colour wheel that is cinema. Ari Folman’s WALTZ WITH BASHIR from Israel gives us an investigative documentary as animated feature, an experiment with hallucination and expressionism in the realm of nonfiction. And Jia Zhang-ke’s 24 CITY, from China, freely but artfully blends real interviews with scripted-and-acted monologues in a movie shaped as a documentary history.
What is truth and what is invention, these films ask? Or at a certain pitch of authenticity are they the same thing?
Jia’s subject and setting are a giant aeronautics factory in Chengdu, Sichuan, now closing to make way for a giant housing estate. What do this Behemoth’s death throes tell us about China’s social and industrial history – and about the country’s own rebirth? Filming in crystal-sharp HDV, the director whose best films have peered into China’s soul with a unique combo of political illumination and human psycho-surgery (PLATFORM, STILL LIFE) again finds the beating heart and mind of his subject.
The forbidding history of Maoism is remembered by these factory folk: the work drives, the rallying songs, the displacements, the diasporas. (Many people were shipped to Chengdu from Shanghai or further to fill the employment rosters). Meanwhile they look to China’s shining future with an uncertain dazzlement. Between the montages of demolition or denuding – the bulldozers and earth-movers, the monster machines of the old plant being unhoused beneath their roofless hangars – the human beings talk, one by one or two by two, to the camera.
Mostly these workers or ex-workers are real. But on four remarkable occasions they are played by actors. There are scripted monologues for three women, in each of which imagined life-memories are pushed to the point of tears. Work and love – the life of the state and the life of the heart – conflict and intersect in their recall. In one imbroglio of ironies, which Jia surely constructed to challenge the frail frontiers between art and actuality, the veteran Chinese star Joan Chen (of THE LAST EMPEROR) plays a factory girl who was once nicknamed ‘Little Flower’ for her resemblance to a heroine in a famous Chinese movie. The heroine in that movie was played by – Joan Chen.
The real workers are just as riveting. Sometimes they unparcel entire lives or family stories or philosophies of work or nationhood. Sometimes they are just caught in frozen candid poses, human beings startled into spontaneity by the glare of camera lights. In an unforgettable two-shot, a young worker and his mate, the arm of one round the neck of the other while the playful thumb of the first fondly flicks the face of the second, stare at the camera with a gauche, bright happiness. Either they are gay lovers – in a nation that denies gayness – or they are yuppies for communism in love with the dream that never dies.
Some dreams don’t. It is their tragedy and their triumph. The dream of Jewish sovereignty in the vexed homeland of Israel? Not content with novelty of form – an animated documentary – filmmaker Ari Folman creates in WALTZ WITH BASHIR a near-first in ideological content. This is an anti-Israeli film from Israel. More exactly it digs deep into a forgotten or repressed past – whose reconstitution is the purpose and process of the movie – to unearth a military outrage from the early 1980s. When the first Lebanese war climaxed in a massacre of Palestinian men, women and children at the Sabra and Shattila refugee camps, Christian Phalangists avenging the death of their ruler, President Bashir, were blamed. But Israel, far from guiltless, stood by and connived. Its army sent flares into the night sky to aid the slaughter.
Folman adopts a classic movie structure, sanctified as praxis ever since CITIZEN KANE. The piecing together of the jigsaw. The director himself fought in the war and is haunted by remnant nightmares. These expressionist sequences alone – ghostly, naked corpse-soldiers emerging from a midnight sea – justify the choice of graphic art over live action. But even the hard reportage – the modern-day interviews and the montage’d war footage – gain eerie power from the Munch-like visuals. Folman didn’t rotoscope filmed actors or actions in the style of Richard Linklater’s WAKING LIFE or A SCANNER DARKLY. But WALTZ WITH BASHIR, painted from scratch, has the same air of distraught and spectral lifelikeness. And the same hypnotic power.
Renewal isn’t always so dramatic in cinema, even at Cannes. Many a director insists on dancing on the head of the same pin, over and over. All he asks of audiences and critics is to watch him through a magnifying glass, so the subtle differences of Terpsichore are discerned and decoded. What looks the same may not quite be so.
So is Arnaud Despleschin, a favourite French son at Cannes and kindred fests (SEXUAL LIFE, KINGS AND QUEEN), just doing another multi-character psychotherapy gig in A CHRISTMAS TALE? Or is the rich froth of self-examination and self-discovery that textures his cinema given a new dynastic whisk? A top cast – Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Devos – peoples this Yuletide reunion, as unseasonal torments (life-endangering illness, traumatic memories, family feuds) ironise the December gaiety. Honesties shower down like snowfall on people grateful for the benediction of candour even as they flinch at the shock of the true.
And what of fellow French director Laurent Cantet? Is he merely applying the probe of his dapper realism (HUMAN RESOURCES, TIME OUT) to another part of the body existential. Oui et non. ENTRE LES MURS is fly-on-the-wall filmmaking, but what a fly and what a wall. Or set of walls. As we gawp at this tale of pain and pedagogy in the compression chamber of a mixed-race French school, Cantet’s style of fiction/verite is unflinching – and spellbinding.
He has torn the pages from a source memoir by teacher Francois Begadeau and turned them into living cinema. Begadeau co-wrote the script with Cantet and the film’s editor Robin Campillo. Begadeau also plays the teacher hero: alias, himself. Real teachers and schoolchildren fill out the other roles, in a movie that was workshopped by the cast and crew to a pitch of often hairraising realism.
And what of three auteurs without whom the Cannes Film Festival would surely be the Can’t Film Festival? Who can imagine this Cote d’Azur event in the 21st century without the Dardenne brothers (two-time Golden Palm winners), or Nuri Bilge Ceylan (the not-so-young Turk who seized Special Jury Prize with DISTANT and followed up with CLIMATES) or Monsieur Clint Eastwood, rumoured in the pre-festival to be back with a mystery relative of MYSTIC RIVER.
This year’s Dardenne endowment was LORNA’S SILENCE, another icy slice of moral quandary and existential pain acted by a tingling newcomer (Kosovo actress Arts Dobroshi as an Albanian girl imperilling herself with a paper marriage), helped by an old hand of the Belgian Brothers acting troupe (Jeremie Renier, tremendous as a wasted junkie clinging to life).
Nuri Bilge Ceylan offered THREE MONKEYS. We assume the title denotes the old triplets – see, hear and speak no evil – but maybe it means the three human primates who caper and go ‘hoo-hoo’ around that old devil playground called Love. The corrupt politician; the politician’s driver, bribed to take the rap for a hit-and-run killing by the boss; the driver’s wife, bribed to bed the boss while hubby’s in the hoochow. It ends in tears while Turkey – messages the director – is increasingly in tiers: a nation stratified by deadly divisions of class, wealth, envy and exploitative ascendancies. Dog eats dog. Or monkey monkey,
And then there was Clint. Those red steps rearing to heaven at the business end of Cannes – what would they be without the annual hand-wave from Hollywood’s great grandee? Old Whisper Voice was back, greyer and taller and squinting down into the flashbulbs. While DIRTY HARRY (revived on the public beach) re-showed us the young Clint, a shock-quiffed heartthrob settling hoodlums’ hash in 1971 LA, director Clint’s new CHANGELING, released in 2008, is set in 1928.
How’s that for a triangulation of time? You needn’t call the film a masterpiece, this truth-based tale of kidnapping and corruption in old Los Angeles, to admire the gravitas Eastwood now brings to potentially purple plotlines. God knows it could have been over-the-top. Angelina Jolie plugs her tear-ducts into LA’s mains water supply. She plays the distraught mother whose vanished son is returned months after an abduction. But the kid delivered isn’t, she insists, her child. Police and courts cry “Nonsense!” They bung her in the booby hatch. But the evidence grows, the pedophile is captured and radio priest John Malkovich is winning his war of words with the LAPD.
The asylum scenes are hootenanny and then some: imagine SHOCK CORRIDOR merged with THE SNAKE PIT. Then there are Malkovich’s blond wig and moustache. These belong in a novelty shop while his creepy rolling-stock delivery seems anachronistic – and actorish – in the tableau style of Clint’s visuals, each perspective framed, composed and almost handtinted. The French loved the film, of course. Anything that looks as if it could have been made in Hollywood 50 years ago – by Sirk, Minnelli or God – gets their juices going. Some bet-makers at Cannes put 100 Euros instantly on Jolie for Best Actress; others didn’t. (“I am shocked to hear that gambling is going at this festival…..oh, my winnings, thank you”).
The other American magnum opus was Steven Soderbergh’s CHE. This was so big it was two films, lasting a total of 4 ½ hours. We who lived to tell the tales – filing our piping copy about a first movie that covers the Cuban invasion and a second that narrates Che’s last months as a revolution-maker in Bolivia – did so thanks to a ‘Che’ dinner bag given each of us at the interval. This contained a ham sandwich, a chocolate bar and a bottle of Contrex mineral water: the guerrilla warrior’s essential survival kit at Cannes. (A special blessing to the Contrex water people this year).
Benicio del Toro as Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara bestrides the diptych like a Colossus, though it is quite a straddle. Some of us feared he would be Herniated Ernie by the end. Soderbergh hops between time zones in part one, using soundbites from Che’s 1964 visit to the United Nations in New York to cerebrate the jungle warfare. Part two – much stronger – throws political pensees to the wind. It is a chase movie, but by god what a chase movie. (This sentence can be hired out to posters). The jungles are leeched of the hot colours used in movie one. Sinisterly paler, they are a silvery sepulchre for the hot dreams and tropic utopias that burgeoned in the march on Havana. Here everything bleaches to an endgame, as Che and his dwindling band struggle through rivers, ravines and rainforests to the last rendezvous with history-shaping death – their own.
Soderbergh, said many, will have to shape this marathon into multiplex-friendly form. Elsewise it will end up on TV, a megaseries condemned to the gaze of sofa potatoes; or else in one of those all-night arthouses watched by four anoraks and a dog. Then again (say I), why not leave a humungous folly alone? At least there is DVD; at least there is and will be the download market. Those have their quenchless acolytes. Those people don’t care about length or unwieldiness. Both time’s mighty jumps and time’s marathon continuances are software for the starving cinephile. Take your hand off my iPod.
We sometimes escaped the viewing cells at Cannes to discover there was a real world outside. Here on the Croisette the sun blazed down, hitting everyone with a solar-powered mallet. Here brioche and burger kiosks stood shimmering in the baking heat. Here crowds poured down the promenade towards the hot-ticket screening of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. Here my picture was constantly being taken, as I walked along, by paparazzi mistaking me for Brad Pitt. Here PR persons come up to press on one the latest invitation to a new film from Papua or Patagonia, to an Estonian stoner party, to a séance with Siegfried Kracauer (dead but loving it) or to a film called NIGHT OF THE CHICKEN DEAD. Actual title, actual film. Horror with zombie poultry: you have to love the people at Troma.
Showing on the fringe were sensible movies too. More of Terence Davies’s OF TIME AND THE CITY and Raymond Depardon’s LA VIE MODERNE, standout works of revelation and reflection, in another American Cinema Papers cyberzone. But let us salute, from the Un Certain Regard sideshow, Bent Hamer’s O’HORTEN and C’EST DUR D’ETRE AIME PAR LES CONS by David Qesemand, Xavier Liberman and Thomas Rich. One film is fiction, one fact. But both show, in diametric ways, that fortune favours the forward-gazing.
It may be a retired train driver in Norway who finds the ‘super’ in superannuation, or the put-on-trial editor and staff of a French satirical magazine which published Danish and French cartoons spoofing Mohammed and got away with it in a country that respects freedom, art, wit and the right to say ‘ya boo’ to divinities of all denominations.
This documentary is a lovely thing. It doesn’t just show the doodles that drew fundamentalists’ wrath. (My favourite is the one in which Allah holds up a hand to freshly-smoking terrorists arriving at Heaven’s gate and says, “Stop! We’ve run out of virgins”). It interviews everyone concerned, condenses the epoch-making trial into cogent soundbites, and reports the turning-point euphoria of the defendants when they received a letter of support from no less than Nicholas Sarkozy.
Bent Hamer made the sweetest comedy at Cannes. O’HORTEN has an irresistible eponymous hero, a pipe-smoking railway retiree, gnomic and laconic while also tweedy and upstanding. In a Walter Pidgeon lookalike contest he would beat all comers, including Walter Pidgeon. He preserves his unflappability – just about – as his first days of leisure are assailed by episodes of inadvertent crime, dognapping and the brief friendship of a mad inventor who likes driving blindfolded through Oslo. As a side-note, the frequency of distant train whistles in the film, nostalgically reawakening the hero’s past, make the US/UK title surely inevitable. O’HORTEN HEARS A ‘WHOO!’
Neither film, as it happened, won the best prize in Un Certain Regard. (At Cannes even notionally non-competitive sideshows end up with bauble ceremonies). This event’s mini-jury picked TULPAN from Kazakhstan, in a gesture some saw as a riposte to BORAT. As if to say, “there is more to this primitive but characterful Asian country than bullying patriarchal men, downtrodden women and obsessive bonding with animals”, here is a film about – well, all right, bullying patriarchs, downtrodden women and obsessively bonded-with animals.
But what fun. What colour. What humanity. The young uncle back from the navy woos the daughter of a nearby farming family. (“Nearby” in the steppes can mean 100 miles). The girl says he has big ears and won’t accept him. The uncle’s family come back with a photo of Prince Charles cut out from a newspaper. “Look, big ears are princely.” “Who is he? Is he an African prince?” “No, American.”
If you resist this, you surely cannot resist the mile-high ‘twisters’, egg-whisking across the flatlands; or the sight-for-sore-eyes jalopy driven by the local postman/delivery boy, a majestic boneshaker hung with tattered nude pinups and multicoloured gewgaws; or the scene of an angrily honking camel pursuing a hapless itinerant vet as he tries to take her baby into care; or the gasp-inducing sequence of a lamb’s birth, complete with attempts at a kiss of life by the hero and his brother. (“You first,” “No, you first”). The movie has the vastness and variety of Mikhalkov’s URGA, combined with the comic acuity of a GOOD SAILOR SCHWEIK.
Out in the Directors Fortnight there were standout films from a dozen countries. My pick was Romania’s BOOGIE: sharp, sombre and perfect in its tale of a holidaying couple, plus kid, whose seaside idyll is wrecked when the husband meets old schoolchums and decides that one night of beer and whoring won’t upset the missus. Oh but it will, Boogie, it will. Romania, which won last year’s Golden Palm with 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS, seems incapable of producing bad cinema. Here the performances are frighteningly real. Likewise the sense of a small straying that turns, by the doomed increments of a dirigiste destiny, into fatal schism.
Cometh the hour, cometh the Palms. Sean Penn herded his team onto the stage of the Salle Lumiere and announced that the 2008 winner of the Cannes gilded frond was – Laurent Cantet’s ENTRE LES MURS.
Millions of French persons jumped in the air simultaneously all across the world. This is the first time Gaul had won gold since 1987, when Cannes triumph was clouded by an unpopular choice Director Maurice Pialat, you recall, laurelled for the loathed-by-many SOUS LE SOLEIL DU SATAN, waved his Palm at a booing audience and said “You don’t like me, well, I don’t like you!”
Quite different here. Cantet and his film were adored. The rafters rang. Those who were percussing enthusiastic palms also like the Best Actor prize: Benicio del Toro in CHE. Best Actress went to Brazil newcomer Sandra Corveloni, playing a feisty slum-dweller in Walter Salles’s LINHA DE PASSE. Italy’s GOMORRA, a lumbering drama about the Camorra, got runner-up Special Jury Prize. But Nuri Bilge Ceylan (THREE MONKEYS) and the Dardenne Bros (LORNA’S SILENCE) grabbed deserving gongs for Best Director and Best Screenplay respectively.
As for the most important prize of all, the Palme Dog, that annual recognition of the best canine performance, it went to mongrel pooch Lucy in Kelly Reichardt’s WENDY AND LUCY, a girl-and-dog odyssey to Alaska.
The runner-up was Molly the mongrel, so memorable and affecting in Bent Hamer’s O’HORTEN. Lucy was away working on another film, so unable to collect her award. But Molly strode to the stage, took her award and unfurled her carefully prepared speech:
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved