AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
CANNES – 2010
THE 63rd INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
A RIVIERA RUNS THROUGH IT
by Harlan Kennedy
I see a French fishing village. A sky of azure hangs above. A thousand people bustle below. The sun beams on the boulevards; the town twinkles. And a Riviera runs through it.
Even if you didn’t grow up fishing for films at Cannes, after 20 years you feel as if you did. You feel like the Brad Pitt of some Robert Redford-directed idyll about sparkling waters and the nourishing, leaping, silvered memories that shaped your growing up.
“Son,” you say to anyone polite enough to
listen, “I was here when Jean Cocteau sauntered through looking for some
fly-fishing. I was here when the Hole in the Zeitgeist Gang rode in, led by Franky Truffaut and Johnny ‘Luke’ Godard, looking for
trouble and revolution. I was even here in
Well, it should have been. How else do you categorise the 63rd Cannes Film Festival, weird and wondrous, where every competition pic seemed made against the current? Only the currents differed, and the directors’ reasons for swimming against them. We started on gala opening night with ROBIN HOOD, Ridley Scott’s revisionist romp about the man in tights, attempting to prove that Robin Hood (actually Robin Longstride) didn’t wear any tights – he didn’t even wear green or live in a wood – and that Maid Marian (actually Lady Marian) was a married woman.
Follow that? Cannes did with Bertrand Tavernier’s THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER, a counter-current costumer, crackling with passion, from the French craftsman of quiet contempo dramas (A WEEK’S VACATION). Then came Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s BIUTIFUL, swimming against the flow of his previous multi-plot output (BABEL and Co) with the intimately focused portrait of a dying street gypsy (Javier Bardem). Then – best and most defiant of all – there was Mike Leigh’s ANOTHER YEAR, a cine-salmon so strong it out-muscled all contenders in making for the head of the river.
This is the finest film yet from the British helmer, previously Golden Palmed for SECRETS AND LIES. Leigh’s way of reversing the practice of a lifetime – and our expectations – is to multiply his plots and characters. No Leigh critic can say of ANOTHER YEAR, as of some past movies (including his last, HAPPY-GO-LUCKY), “Oh he takes a little bunch of interlinked neurotics and mannerises them to death.”
Here the main characters, plainly yet compellingly played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, are not mannered at all. They’re a greenish couple sustaining themselves in exurban London (with allotment garden for homegrown vegetables) whose weirdest tic is to hold open house for friends and family. These do include a few recognizable Leigh oddballs: the middle-aged, overweight loner (Peter Wight), hooked on oral solaces (eating, drinking, chain-smoking), who vainly pursues the aging, chattering, insecure party girl (Leigh veteran Lesley Manville), who in turn has an unrequited yen for the host couple’s son, a sly extrovert with his own amatory secrets (Oliver Maltman).
Just when we think we’ll be staying with this lot till the film’s end crawl, the filmmaker ups sticks and moves to a northern-England funeral. A widowered relative (David Bradley) takes centre screen. His violent, disaffected son blows a brief hole in the protocol of mood-and-plot unity. The film’s rhythm becomes at once brilliantly uneasy and menacingly becalmed. Then, just like the seasons that cyclically chapter-head the story’s sections (‘Spring’, ‘Summer’ and so on) we wind back to beginnings, after the long year’s journey into bleak and comical enlightenment.
The movie is utterly beguiling. Chekhov in Limeyland. Its mastery lies in the connection made between different styles of characterisation. Manville’s social butterfly, with her semi-broken wings and toujours gai nerve reflexes, is a type known from past Leigh dramas, starting with Alison Steadman in ABIGAIL’S PARTY. But actress and director here add extra innerness, extra nuancing, sometimes in a mere wordless glance. By the time the most touching scene arrives – a meeting-quaint between Manville and Bradley, home-alone as a house guest down south while his hosts Broadbent and Sheen are out – it becomes a triumphant entente between opposites. Not just between the manic would-be cosmopolite and the dour lump of northern rock-salt; but between the tics-and-tropes style of portraiture, suddenly made human, and the minimal realist style, given (by Leigh and actor Bradley) just that extra wit, forwardness and vividness.
From the other side of the world, in the Year of the Salmon, came the competition’s two other big fish. A brace of eerily memorable Asian movies, their images as fluid and their spell as fugitive as their alluvial settings. A river runs through one film; a waterfall and magical pool are at the heart of the other.
Lee Changdong’s POETRY from South Korea gave a whale of a part – never mind smaller aquatic lifeforms – to Yun Junghee, playing a granny bringing up a teenage brat suspected of gang-rape activities. He’s only a schoolkid, but a girl has killed herself: we see her float downstream in scene one. Grandma is a touching biddy, still holding out for refinement (pastel-print jackets, lace-style white scarves) as Alzheimer’s Disease moves in and amour-propre starts to move out. The palsied old man she works for, as maid and carer, wants more for his money at bathtime than just a back rub.
The old girl goes to poetry classes: she’ll transcend her life if it kills her. But what to do about grandson? Director Changdong, who made the superb SECRET SUNSHINE, a Cannes hit two years ago, again zones in on bereavement, vulnerability, age and the ambivalent motives of those who ‘care’. In the earlier film it was a creepy religious sect. Here the fathers of the gang-rape boys band together, and recruit Grandma, to appease and buy off the dead girl’s parent. Will Gran blow the whistle? Will Gran even shop her own brat to the cops? The bewitching delta of story trajectories – even though we know they will all end and merge, beyond the film’s own completion, in the sea of death – are magically conjoined in the source character. Old age is no respecter of the quest for tranquillity; at least while life lasts and the heart, mind and soul are open to fresh truths and challenges.
From Thailand comes Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s UNCLE BONMEE RECALLS HIS PAST LIVES. This poet of the Asian screen made the haunting, fantastical TROPICAL MALADY, another Cannes revelation in its year, and now re-summons that movie’s jungle imagery and ghostly supporting cast. The ‘Uncle’, tended by his small family, is dying of kidney disease – his belly in bedroom scenes a spaghetti junction of tubes siphoning off effluvia – while his mind is swirled about, no less convolutedly, by spirits and essences that become more visible, more tangible as the tale progresses.
A dead sister materialises at the meal table. A son who mated with a ghost monkey returns as, yes, a ghost monkey. (Loved the two red eyes burning out of the dark Chewbacca fur). Soon we watch as the main characters, dead and alive, troop into deeper caverns of storytelling, journeying Jules Verne-like to the centre of their spiritual or karmic selves. Jungles, caverns; a waterfall at whose foot – a fairytale within fairytale – a princess is ravished by a catfish. By the last scene, in which two key characters or their avatars part from their bodies to go off for a Thai restaurant dinner (sic) while their source selves stay home to watch TV....Well, by that time you are either in seventh heaven or in the seventh circle of Incomprehension Hell.
Weerasethakul freely admits it helps to have been born a Buddhist. In Thailand transmigration of souls – people turning into animals – is part of the normal traffic of thought, even if not of belief. But what sentient westerner can resist the spooky spell and eerie flow of this film’s phantasmagoria? What clinches UNCLE BONMEE as poetry – screen poetry – is its very matter-of-factness. The beauties are entranced and entrancing, yet they are spoken not sung. They issue from the same daily life, the same marketplace of the mundane, as the family meal, the evening at home, the visit to the restaurant, the tragic but universal domestic rites of the terminal disease…
It is easy to believe in transmigration and metamorphosis at Cannes. Step out of your darkened cinema, and the Croisette – the palm-sentinelled beachfront boulevard – is a 24:7 wonderland, even in years when Tim ALICE IN WONDERLAND Burton is not president of the jury.
A man dressed as an 18th century dandy dandles two dancing cats on his shoulders. A troupe of breakdancers perform their upside-down gyrings and gimblings. The town’s sand-sculptor finishes his latest Neptune or recumbent mermaid. (This year he gave us Batman too). A gaggle of zombies, in a promo stunt for the latest living-dead romp, stagger towards you, one carrying his head under his arm. And just occasionally there’s a plain and simple celebrity. Ooh look, there’s Oliver Stone (squiring WALL STREET 2) or Cate Blanchett, looking fresh for the fight as France gets its first glimpse of ROBIN DU BOIS.
Ah Cannes. If you didn’t exist, the world would have to invent you. But didn’t the world invent you anyway? All your accretions and accessories, at least, of culture and razzmatazz, of picture premieres and partying. The last two are usually reserved for the dark hours, not that Cannes is ever really dark. Lit by the jewelled wattage of the Mediterranean sky – even the seagulls are luminous at night – the town answers the stars with its own billion points of light. The streets explode with glamour and gaudiness. The gigs on the beach begin. Then, after the long dose of hedonism and a night to sleep it off, we troop back into the cinemas, first thing next morning, to suffer for art.
The host nation does its best to mortify us. And itself. Two competition films addressed the agonized history that is north-west Africa. To former colonists this is still, it seems, an unhealed abscess. Xavier Beauvois’s OF GODS AND MEN powerfully imagines the human drama underlying a true story: the deaths of a group of monks in Algeria, 15 years ago, when Islamic terrorists raided their monastery and led them off to presumed slaughter. A sober, even sombre, mise-en-scene paints their devotional lives in shades of grey while allowing the actors’ humanity – Lambert Wilson as Father Superior, Michael Lonsdale as the elderly friar running the missionary clinic – to touch in life-giving flesh tones. The ending is shocking, though even here the film sustains a reverential distance, reverencing not God but those who bravely, even when blindly, serve him. As they hymn their defiance, who is not reminded of the tolling close of Poulenc’s opera DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES, the prayerful music of the martyrs rising against the grisly punctuation of their deaths?
Flashier and more of an intended flashpoint was Rachid Bouchareb’s HORS LA LOI (OUTSIDE THE LAW). Debate raged in the French press before the screening. The screening itself was a high-security gig worthier of an airport: bags searched, bottles impounded, bodies frisked. No bomb went off, unless you count the movie itself. Bouchareb, whose last celluloid explosion was INDIGENES (DAYS OF GLORY), about the ill-treatment of foreign-born French soldiers in World War Two, tells the history of the FLN, the Algerian resistance movement. The lives of three brothers (played by the earlier film’s stars Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem, Samy Bouajila) split apart, then come together, as the flames of anti-colonialism rage. The fictive story is a little corny, big with contrivance and tragic irony as it strides across the years. (Mix in your imagination Pontecorvo’s BATTLE OF ALGIERS and Victor Hugo’s LES MISERABLES). But the cold water of reality – murder, torture, betrayal – is thrown in our faces often enough to keep us alert and wired and discomforted.
France also chipped in with THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER and TOURNEE (ON TOUR). The first is a vivid costumer from Bertrand Tavernier, a director we had feared lost after his last film, the US-made IN THE ELECTRIC MIST, a slab of loony southern gothic starring Tommy Lee Jones. PRINCESS is set in 17th century France and based a novel by Madame de La Fayette. It skitters stylishly through war, love, royal politics and fine-turned dialogue. Definitely one for world arthouse distribution. TOURNEE, for contrast, is the tale of a burlesque troupe managed by Mathieu Amalric (also the film’s director), who does tousled sleaze to a T and an S. This charismatic scuzzball could be Archie Rice from THE ENTERTAINER crossed with Charles Aznavour in SHOOT THE PIANIST. Minor, but fun. And lots of gratuitous nudity.
French too, at least in language, was Mahamet Saleh-Haroun’s UN HOMME QUI CRIE (A SCREAMING MAN) from Chad. The ABOUNA director deploys a dark, poignant palette in portraying his strife-torn country. Here is the tale of a tragic father, guilt-racked after sending his son (and work colleague) into the army, partly to preserve his own job as a pool attendant in a tourist hotel making economies. Horrors start to happen. Grief rains down the screen, slow and ineluctable, like dirty rain. The ending – a bleak rhyme with the happier opening scene of father and son enjoying a breath-holding contest in the out-of-hours pool – is simple, laconic, devastating.
There was not much you could call ‘escapism’ at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival. Takeshi Kitano took time off from his serious self to make OUTRAGE, a Yakuza thriller. But the violence is so extreme – finger-loppings, a gruesomely novel decapitation – that two hours in Japanese gangland are hardly recreational. FAIR GAME was Hollywood’s bid to lighten the tone. But even with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn adding lustre, the true tale of outed CIA agent Valerie Plame and her persecuted husband Joe Wilson – who made the mistake of providing Bush and Co with WMD-doubting intelligence before the Iraq invasion – is a shock to the system, assuming your system doesn’t know the story already. Plame and Wilson suffered badly at the time. But both were in Cannes, smiling for the paparazzi. So for now at least, they live ‘happily ever after’. And Bush is back in Texas.
The film you approached with least expectation of escapism was Cristi Piuiu’s AURORA. Puiu made the grimly brilliant DEATH OF MR LAZARESCU. Here he was, at it again, we hoped, with a 3-hour film about a divorced man (played by the director), plagued by society and himself, who takes to murder. Yummy: there would be lots of Romanian schadenfreude, bitter comedy, social satire. And it’s only two years since Romania won the Golden Palm (Cristi Mungiu’s FOUR MONTHS, THREE WEEKS, TWO DAYS).
Sorry, we’re all out of schadenfreude. And the rest of the shopping list. AURORA limps at a slow pace, going nowhere while accumulating a great deal of useless detail. You can learn how to re-plaster a house. In some scenes you can almost literally watch paint dry. What a letdown. Still, Puiu is making four more films in this series. Keep hope alive.
AURORA showed noncompetitively in Un Certain Regard, the main sideshow at Cannes. This year’s programme was topped and tailed by Portugal and South Korea. The last film shown, Korea’s HAHAHA, also won the event’s top gong, the Prix Un Certain Regard. (For ‘noncompetitive’ read ‘oh all right, a bit competitive’). This award was Greek to me, never mind Korean: Hang Sangsoo’s film is a fey, logorrheic romcom hard to sit through for two reels, never mind two hours.
But the Portuguese opener. Ah Manoel. Ah Dolly. Yes, it’s the Manoel De Oliveira show again. Now 101, the prolix Iberian remains spry enough to take a Cannes bow, never mind to make a feature, THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA. This is like some divine coition between Hitchcock and Borges. A young photographer (Dolly regular Ricardo Trepa) falls in love with the face of a dead girl he is asked to lens-immortalise in her coffin. She ‘comes alive’ in her photographs. The photographer’s halo of otherworldly joy starts to disturb his boarding-house colleagues, a typical bunch of De Oliveira gossips and meal-table philosophers. Then there is his weird compulsion to watch, photograph and tape-record the singing diggers on the vine terraces of the opposite hill…..
It’s a film about past, present, future; about nostalgia for what was and ‘nostalgia’ for what cannot be; about speech and song as differently terraced states of being; about the dimension between sentient life and prescient life-before-death, which an artist of 101 is qualified, like no other, to know and address. We say ‘like no other’. But in a year’s time De Oliveira will be 102: better qualified still. And ready, no doubt, with his next billet-doux from the near-beyond.
So to the prizes. The spotlights waved, the fanfares sounded. The fireworks worked. The women in designer dresses and the men in penguin suits climbed the red carpet. The subsidiary prizes, read out by jury prez Tim Burton (wearing geek chic specs and hair coiffed in the dragged-through-a-hedge-backwards style) and his crew, were as follows in ascending order.
Jury Prize to Chad’s THE SCREAMING MAN. Best Screenplay to Korea’s Lee Changdong for POETRY. Best Director to Mathieu Amalric. (Bit of a surprise, but it’s a Gallic fest). Best Actor shared by Spain’s Javier Bardem (BIUTIFUL) and Italy’s Elio Germano (LA NOSTRA VITA). Best Actress to Juliette Binoche (for her incandescent performance in Kiarostami’s CERTIFIED COPY). Grand Jury Prize to Xavier Beauvois’s OF GODS AND MEN.
Finally the Golden Palm. Bent by winds of acclaim, combed by breezes of beatification, the palm bowed with generous reach towards Thailand. Yes. It was Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s UNCLE BOONMEE WHO RECALLS HIS PAST LIVES. Mr A-Pong thanked the gods and spirits of his native land. We thanked the gods and spirits of Cannes – those topless deities that hover over the Croisette with tans and Dior sunglasses – for the privilege of having seen the film and witnessed its apotheosis.
Yes, miracles can happen. A final one occurred on my plane home. The Catholic priest-critic colleague who once accosted this writer, when peering penniless-seeming and roughly dressed into a Cannes shop window, and promised him alms, finally – after many years – handed them over. As the Euro cent changed hands (roughly the value of one US cent), the angels in heaven cheered and applauded. And I was at peace.
It wasn’t a Palme d’Or, but it was an Alm de Cuivre (copper). This priest friend is now saved. He is able, when he departs the Vatican on his final pilgrimage, to tell St Peter: “I gave him the moolah.” St Peter, the patron saint of bouncers and doormen, can say: “In you go, then. And the drinks are free after the first one.”
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved