by Harlan Kennedy


At Cannes the director is star – and never were so many stars seen before, sparkling against the blue sky of the Cote d’Azur. The 2009 film festival was the auteur theorists’ finest, defining hour. Swing a cat anywhere near the Palais and the feline would have hit a top regisseur. “Meow!” it would have exclaimed as it thumped Almodóvar, Amenabar or Ang Lee, “Waaargh!” as it clonked Loach, Resnais, Haneke or Jane Campion. (Yes, I was the one swinging the cats).

We had been told the famous would stay away from this year’s Cannes junket because of (a) the recession, (b) swine flu, or (c) the conjugation of the planets in the year the Hubble telescope gets new spectacles.

The doomsayers had a long list, and some superstars did stay away, honourably excepting Brad Pitt who panzered into town to promote Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. (Marquee dyslexia lives). But the galactic helmers were present and unprecedented. They included four Golden Palm winners, 13 Jury Prize holders and not a single first-time filmmaker. Only one director, Spain’s Isabel Coixet, had not contended previously for the gilded frond. The most experienced veteran, Ken Loach, had contended ten times, winning at his last try with THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY.

Looking down on them all – intriguingly out of sync with the pictured movie’s 50th anniversary next year – was the shade of Antonioni enshrined in the 2009 festival poster. This bore an image from L’AVVENTURA (1960), featuring Monica Vitti gazing out from a dark doorway into the sun-blinding vastness of a Mediterranean terrace.

Cannes, like the heart, has its reasons. The sun, said this poster, is the biggest star of all. Here on the French Riviera it sears the beaches, scalds the sidewalks and swocks down on the dark, ecliptic activity of movie-watching. That magic doorway into the heart and mind. The five best films all had something to say about this star, and the manifold darknesses that fight it, for good or for ill. Those five films were by Jane Campion, Jacques Audiard, Michael Haneke, Marco Bellocchio and Pedro Almodóvar. One each – with admirable representativeness – from a UK-funded Antipodean, a Frenchman refereeing a film about Corsicans and Muslims, an Austrian setting his film in bygone Germany, an Italian and a Spaniard. As the joker in the pack – never forget the wild card – there was Denmark’s Lars von Trier going gothic in fantasy USA.

Jane Campion’s BRIGHT STAR is titled after John Keats’s famous poem and offers what Campion does best (and possibly Keats too), a blazing insight into mankind’s midnights. A past Palm-winner with THE PIANO, Campion has spent the intervening years going interestingly mad in Australia (HOLY SMOKE) and uninterestingly mad in America (the dismal cop drama IN THE CUT).

BRIGHT STAR restores her credibility. It brings fierce purpose and a furnace clarity to that often dead-ashes form, the literary biopic. The romance between the “Ode to a Nightingale” poet and his true-life muse, Fanny Brawne, contended with every obstacle that 19th century England could put in their way. He was too poor to marry. She was too parent-tyrannised to elope. Finally, consumption crept into Keats’s lungs and stole him away, never to return, on a convalescent trip to Italy. Campion’s script, inspired by poet Andrew Motion’s biography, imagines the few years they had together – though even that ’together’ reckons without estrangements, jealousies, heartaches and the weird triangulating presence of Keats’s friend Charles Brown (brilliantly played by Paul Schneider), who seems to have alternated between a sarcastic chorus figure and a jealous rival.

Ben Whishaw brings a quivering-lyre sensitivity to Keats, varied with sage disenchantments and wry reprovals for Fanny’s more ingenuous transports about poetry. Abbie Cornish, in turn, varies young-girl gush with a smart, tough sense of self-will. It is amazing what two good actors and a kitsch-free script can do with scenes that ought barely to work on either paper or screen. Campion’s (self-)belief makes it possible for Keats to recite “Bright Star” while actually “cradled upon my fair love’s ripening breast.” As the final tragedy moves across the story, like the shadow of an eclipse, we forget the Victorian costumes and dialogue. We are pierced only by the penumbral timelessness of pain and loss.

There is no bright star irradiating prison life in Jacques Audiard’s UN PROPHETE (A PROPHET). Or is there? Cheekily this gifted French director, whose last film   THE BEAT MY HEART SKIPPED set a new pace and a new high for the angst-ridden Gallic thriller, plays off the noir at the heart of this tale of a 19-year-old Muslim criminal surviving in jail on his wits and turncoat skill (now serving the Corsican gang, now his brother Muslims), against the rival effulgences – implied if not italicised – of opposed religious beliefs.

God versus Allah. Isn’t that the dialectic at the heart of this story?  The hero (Tahar Rahim), with his baby-faced Guevara features and body prone to fleet, unthinking martyrdom poses, is a sexy messiah Sartre or Genet might espouse. The sun that lights his life and powers his energy is himself. Audiard, more sparing than they with his sympathy, sees vice as well as virtue in the synergy of animal cunning, cerebral will and energised egotism. Malik’s only God is himself. But that makes him an antihero as darkly riveting as Romain Duris in BEAT/HEART/SKIPPED – and a flickery, protean centre who sets off the characters more fixed in their orbits. Most memorable is Niels Arestrup as the Corsican ‘godfather’: a whitehaired figure of silky malice, now whispering singsong promises of protection, now snapping in sudden fits of lava-spewing anger….

Michael Haneke’s THE WHITE RIBBON (DAS WEISSE BAND), this Austrian helmer’s strangest, most tantalising film yet, is set in a world different from either Campion’s or Audiard’s. The austere period garb, the black-and-white photography and the troubled solemnity of the voice-over narration – delivered in the first person by the village schoolteacher, though the voice’s aged timbre suggests he is looking back across decades – put a distance between us and the story’s emotional immediacy that makes THE WHITE RIBBON seem the screen equivalent of a 19th century novel.

The period is actually 1913. As a series of inexplicable atrocities take place in a Protestant hamlet in north Germany on the eve of World War 1- the village doctor goes to hospital after his horse is tripwired, a child is viciously tied and beaten, a retarded boy is nearly blinded – the God whom this community had supposed to be in his Heaven, looking down on goodness and virtue, either does not exist or has taken up warped and variform being in his earthly envoys. The village pastor, played with a subtle and repugnant fanaticism by German character stalwart Burghart Klaussner (THE READER),  trains his children in goodness by tying white ribbons to them when they misbehave. These ribbons symbolise and instil the image of purity. With his teenage boy he goes further, tying his arms to the bedframe at night to prevent onanistic urges.

Corrupted paradigms of goodness, we soon learn, are everywhere. The doctor returns from hospital to continue his secret abuse of his daughter. Many of the village’s children have learned and implement their parents’ taste for cruelty and intolerance. The formalism of Haneke’s storytelling – its dispassionate Dreyer-like tableaux, the formalistic sang froid with which the narrator hints at each next barbarity – becomes another kind of absent God. Where is the author’s helping wisdom and compassionate omniscience to help us over these moral hurdles set up in this darkness?

But that is THE WHITE RIBBON’S brilliance. A world of certitude and paternalistic prescript, already flawed and cruel, is about to be exploded altogether. When a character says, with a Shakespearean-messenger abruptness, “Archduke Ferdinand has been assassinated in Sarajevo”, we know the game is up. After the Great War’s purgings, the game of God will be over or changed beyond recognition. Notions of virtue and valour will lie mired in the mud of the Somme, humanity will have to grapple – for good and ill – with a world that is no longer set out with the prescriptive symmetries and sympathies of the Good Book, or of any other book.

As the speaking fox says in another Cannes entry, Lars von Trier’s ANTICHRIST – a sort of batty version of Haneke’s film, confronting moral-spiritual breakdown with midnight movie grand guignol“Chaos reigns!” Trier’s first film since his aborted DOGVILLE trilogy emerged from a dungeon-like depression, into which the Danish director had fallen, which may explain the movie’s wayward, psychiatrist’s–couch trajectory: its resemblance to a rock-strewn stream of consciousness zigging and zagging through a wilderness, whose story requires child-bereaved couple Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg to undergo therapy – he becoming her shrink as well as lover – in a remote forest cabin beset by memories, fears, violence and, ultimately, wacky woodland animals.   

“Where are the lodestars by which we guide our lives?” Trier has no answer. His greater problem, as an artist, is he finds no convincing or compelling way to frame the question. Whatever happened to the articulate visionary of BREAKING THE WAVES?

By contrast, Marco Bellocchio’s VINCERE is a dazzling presentation of darkness. Who’d have thought it? 40 years ago Bellocchio smacked the world across the face like a genius who meant to stay. The film was FISTS IN THE POCKET. But since then the career has mostly marked time, the dukes remaining in the denims even when we wished, during some festivals, that they could be brought out to smash the prevailing complacence of the art movie fare.

Now look at this tale of the early loves and state-powered hates of Benito Mussolini. Bellocchio the bruiser is back, right and left jabs working in a story that begins by assailing the firebrand Socialism with which Il Duce began his political career – meeting and romancing fellow radical Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), who later claimed they were married although she never produced a certificate – and ends by landing blows on the man who, apart from immolating Italy in fascism, excommunicated his early +inamorata+ and the firstborn son she bore him. Erased by history, mother and child each died after imprisonments in separate asylums.

The first half of VINCERE is a firework display of invention, at once painterly and grand-operatic. From the hypberbolised love scenes to the political rallies – private ardours and public grandstandings – we are swept up in a skywriting of history. This is lent sparkle and grandeur by the performances (Filippo Timi, whose knitted brow and bullfrog features later return in the role of young Benito) and crackle by the graphics, headlines and newsreels that whirl out from the screen. Not since CITIZEN KANE’s ‘March of Time’ sequence took its story by the scruff of its verismo, broadening the resonance of a fictive-factual portrait, has a director mounted a stronger multi-media assault on his audience.

If the second half is subdued by comparison, it still boasts scenes that stay burned on our retinas: not least the image, like a miniature of Angelopoulos’s border-railing crucifixion fresco in ETERNITY AND A DAY, of Ida clinging high to the window bars of her asylum, flinging out into the winter night the unsealed letters she has written to her and Italy’s lord and master.

All the 62nd Cannes Film Festival needed, at this point, to be the strongest cine-spree in memory, was a good film from Pedro Almodóvar. Abracadabra. BROKEN EMBRACES is a multi-character melodrama moulded with fire and finesse by a Spaniard now incapable of mediocrity. One looks on, jaw agape, like a spectator in a factory that makes multicoloured glass.

In the rainbow-hued sets the polychromatic personae parade, from the filmmaker (Lluis Homar) falling fatally in love with a mob-connected businessman’s young mistress (Penelope Cruz, looking like the daughter of the actress who buxom’d up for VOLVER) to the movie-location hangers-on, soon absorbed in the intricate love and death plot: the mysterious intruder who insists on filming a ‘making of’ movie, or Homar’s production manager and abandoned mistress, played by Blanca Portillo, whose spooky resemblance to the late UK actress Vivien Merchant conjures contraband memories of Merchant’s own real-life rejection, leading to her suicide, by husband Harold Pinter.

The rhythm and beauty of this movie are almost scary. ‘Learn from the master and surpass him’ must be Almodóvar’s motto. His love for Hollywood melodrama is there in every frame. But even Sirk, or Stahl, or Minnelli never organised their plots like such perfect clockwork, while simultaneously convincing us that the real beat behind this emotionalism – the real tick and tock – is the tattoo of the human heart. The template to invoke with Almodóvar is not just painting, or theatre, or American cinema, but music. For while each different character is a different instrument in the orchestral effect, scored to make his or her particular sound, we never doubt that an entire solo, or even concerto, could be given over to each one, so fully backstoried and brought to life is he or she. . 

By the last days of the festival we were almost begging for a bad film. Big mistake. We got our wish, in triplicate. Cannes went into free fall, showering us with rubbish. The films included Elia Suleiman’s THE TIME IS READY (Jewish history done as an alternation of basilisk tragicomedy and gnomic lecture); the 3-hour pretension of Gaspar Noe’s drugs-and-despair drama ENTER THE VOID; and Tsai Ming-liang’s FACE (VISAGE),  the Taiwanese director’s Louvre-commissioned film about – well, about 138 minutes, featuring a bunch of surreally disconnected scenes. Fanny Ardant, Jean-Pierre Leaud and Tsai regular Kang-Sheng Lee tackle the non-sequitur dialogue, the mirror-strewn snowscapes, the lost deer, Leonardo’s painting of John the Baptist, and a song-and-dance number in an abattoir. No wonder WAITING FOR GODOT is now deemed so lucid a work of art that it can play on Broadway.

For a proper escape from the good, the bad or the incomprehensible, on Cannes screens, a person needed the plein air variety of Cannes the town. Here pixilated visitors mix with practised festival veterans on the famous Boulevard de la Croisette, where you can bump into the famous without needing an introduction. Oh, there is Neil Jordan; oh there Michael Haneke and his wife. After years of being a Med regular one starts to radiate one’s own charisma and nimbus of illusory celebrity. I was several times mistaken for a Hollywood star, snapped by paparazzi convinced that if I was not Brad Pitt on a bad day I was Dustin Hoffman on a good one. With a stoical good grace, I agreed not to sign autographs.

It is a small step from the end of the Croisette to the Palais Stephanie. This houses the Quinzaine des Realisateurs (Directors Fortnight), on the site where the original Palais des Festivals once stood. Yes, this counterculture event unspools in the very temple and locus, though now rebuilt, where Cocteau loved and Carne sang – a popular double act in its day – and where the Golden Palm wrapped early victors in its frond embrace. This year’s Quinzaine had flying visits from the famous (Francis Coppola, Jim Carrey) as well as a few debuts that bawled like newborn babies proclaiming their right to life. Xavier Dolan’s J’AI TUE MA MERE was the loudest, a fizzy, stroppy, witty black comedy about matters Oedipal and Schmoedipal by a 20-year-old French Canadian. Sometimes you wanted to love it, sometimes to smack it on the behind.

The other top sideshow at Cannes? Of course, Un Certain Regard. Housed in the Salle Debussy next to the Salle Lumière, this is the reserve fuel tank for the competition. If the Palm programme were ever to run out of gas, people would run into the Debussy waving their ignition keys or petrol vouchers. The best two films this year were so much better than the worst in the competition, or even the most middling, that one wonders if the Palm-event programmers shouldn’t stop being starstruck by famous auteurs and think “Maybe fresh, sometimes, beats famous.”

The winner of the Un Certain Regard jury prize was Yorgos Lanthimos’s DOGTOOTH from Greece, a black comedy with a witty bark and bite. You have heard of those parents who incarcerate their kids for years or decades, in the belief that the best contact with the outside world is none. Lanthimos takes the theme to surreal heights and depths, the first including some sinister encounters in a swimming pool, the second the funniest scene ever to feature Frank Sinatra’s singing of “Come fly with me”.

Nationwise, Romania, winner of the Golden Palm two years ago with Cristian Mungiu’s 4 MONTHS, THREE WEEKS AND TWO DAYS, had another good Cannes. Picking up second prize in the Un Certain Regard gig was Corneliu Porumboiu’s POLICE, ADJECTIVE,  a brilliantly intelligent cop-procedural movie, less about the thrills and spills of law enforcement, more about its semantics and semiology. The early sequences of stalking and staking out – the quarry, a teenage drug gang – finally converge in a dialogue scene in the police boss’s office, both sage and hilarious, where definitions are unpacked of such gilt-wrapped lexical fundamentals as ‘conscience,’ ‘justice’ ‘crime’ and ‘police.’

A festival of riches and contrasts had its quirky individual moments, on and off screen.  Lars von Trier brushed off critical hostility to ANTICHRIST by declaring himself "the world's best director."  Bill Clinton, our great former President, made a headline worthy entrance at the AMFAR Aids benefit dinner. Sharon Stone wore and eye-popping cut-away gown and a smile stealing lightning bolts of flashbulb bursts at the entrance to the Palais. And Quentin Tarantino did a dance on the red carpet with leading lady Melanie Laurent before entering the screening of his INGLORIOUS BASTERDS.

That film was an insane treat out of left field or perhaps out of far-right. A gung-ho war movie inspired by Enzo Castellari’s 1978 pic of the same title (though correctly spelled) is lifted to grandeur by Tarantino madnesses – including a climax that beats TEAM AMERICA for barefaced revisionism, wiping out in one gala evening at a Paris theatre Hitler, Goering, Bormann and Goebbels – and by Christoph Waltz as the chief villain, a silkenly ruthless and opportunistic SS officer who evidently majored at the Claude Rains University of Urbanity in Casablanca, Morocco.

Waltz won the festival’s Best Actor prize while Charlotte Gainsbourg brought balm to the battered ANTICHRIST by winning Best Actress. The runner-up Grand Jury Prize bestowed itself on Audiard’s A PROPHET, an award catering to both art and the host country’s ego. And the Golden Palm winner? Haneke’s THE WHITE RIBBON. A few cynics commented on the well-historied working relationship between Haneke and jury president Isabelle Huppert – THE PIANO TEACHER, TIME OF THE WOLF – but most festivaliers recognized that in the most competitive competition for years the best film had won.

Who were this year’s losers? Jane Campion, Marco Bellocchio, Pedro Almodóvar (again) and – almost – dear old Alain Resnais. At 87 he had his delicate love comedy WILD GRASS cheered to the echo in the Salle Lumière, missed out on a movie prize but then won a lifetime achievement Palme d’Or. Resnais was the most touching figure in late festival. Frailly taxi’d to the Palais’s front door and whisked up an inside escalator, he was spared the exertion of the red carpet climb. Instead he materialised at the top, a deus ex machina in shades, to greet his own stars as they puffed up from base camp. Inside the auditorium Resnais received six minutes of standing applause and kept his shades on throughout. When you have made the most enigmatic film in history – LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD – you don’t abandon your air of mystery at the drop of an ovation.

Quel festival. Quel Cannes. It was eventful, dramatic, nourishing and memorable. I shall be back for more next year. But there hardly could be more, without a miracle. Not that those should ever be counted out at this all-capable shindig. To echo the rallying cry of affirmation made famous by a recently elected US president:

Yes – oui – Cannes!




©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved