AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
CANNES – 2011
LIGHTING THE DARKNESS
by Harlan Kennedy
What did we expect – what didn’t we expect – on arriving at the Cannes Film Festival? The world’s greatest movie event is 64 this year: bonne anniversaire and many happy returns. What would we see as we de-planed, debouched or de-taxi’d on the Boulevard de la Croisette? Surely there would be a Beatles tribute band singing, “Will you still need me? Will you still feed me?” Fireworks would go off; a dove would break from the clouds; a giant hand would reach down.,….
It wasn’t quite like that, but it was pretty good. Cannes looked as gorgeous as ever, a Paradise on the Med, and around the Palais steps on the first evening the rubberneckers were setting up for a giddier-than-usual starspotting orgy. Woody Allen, director of the opening night film, was there. Bernardo Bertolucci was official cutter of the opening ribbon. Jury prezzer Robert De Niro was accompanied by jurors Uma Thurman and Jude Law. And in ensuing evenings the stars came down from the sky to take earthly shape – Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn, Jodie Foster, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz ….Were there ever so many screen celebs here in one year? We onlookers, wearing torn T-shirts and holding hands to faces blanched with emotion, could only look up into the night and howl, “Stell-ar! It’s stell-ar!”
The main theme arrived instantly and seldom went away. This was a festival whose films were obsessed with the young. You never saw so many dramas crawled over by children or teenagers. It was as if 2011 were a cue to replay like drowning persons our younger lives or to prepare the planet for those who come after, assuming it survives. (The Mayan calendar says the world will end in 2012. Lars von Trier says sooner).
Terrence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE, the big event for fans of America’s most gladdening or maddening genius, was about kids growing up to learn about nature, grace and revelation. There was a plethora of films about teens or pre-teens troubled by the usual crises involved in leaving infancy. There were tots here, urchins there, and the frightened little boy in Germany’s MICHAEL, a paedophile abduction plot inspired by recent reality, up to and including the lucky-break ending.
Best of all, for me, was Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s LE GAMIN AU VELO (THE KID ON THE BIKE). The Belgian brothers have won the Golden Palm twice before, with ROSETTA and L’ENFANT, so Cannes bookies scrawled “Not a chance” on blackboards at the fest’s beginning. But the odds shortened overnight; the night being that of GAMIN’s showing when the Palais gave it a 12-minute ovation.
They suspected, as did I, that this was that rare and frightening phenomenon: a perfect film. The title kid is brilliantly played by newcomer Thomas Doret: a combustive, breathless, full-alert energy, a face aged with the precocious wisdom of victimhood. A motherless near-orphan trying to break away from a juvenile home, 11-year-old Cyril stumbles – accidentally and almost literally – into the arms of a young woman (Cecile de France), a caring hairdresser, who agrees after a little coaxing to care for him.
A storm of grief and rage erupts in the boy when his elusive father (Dardennes regular Jeremie Renier), a thirtyish wastrel, finally refuses to see him. The story skitters into a crime-and-delinquency mid-plot, an +Oliver Twist+-ish episode with Cyril groomed for an assault/theft crime by a smooth-talking artful dodger (his brief, ill-chosen father substitute). But the drama regroups. One more grim surprise awaits. But by now we believe in the grace and redemption forming, as if from the very motes of street dust in the wake of the boy’s recurring bike trips.
On his beloved velo – a modern-day mediaeval charger heraldically colour-matched with Cyril’s clothes (black jeans, red shirt) – he is a knight of the winds. The bike gives the film its rhythm, a perpetuum mobile of hope and exhilaration edged with desperation. That makes all the more effective the quiet, isolated moments when stillness descends on a scene and when the Dardennes overlay, like a caress, a rare, repeated musical gesture: a cadence from Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. By the film’s close nothing is finally resolved. But we have seen enough of the boy – and seen enough into him – to recognize the possibility of salvation.
Happy endings? Cannes was big on those. Perhaps the mood was set by Woody Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, the fest’s opener. Okay, it’s a frivol. It could have been scribbled by Allen 40 years ago, circa his famous time-traveller-meets-Madame-Bovary comic prose sketch. Here Owen Wilson, incorporating deft Woody intonations, dips back into Paree to meet Hemingway, Picasso, Gertrude Stein and Co. It does the young hero the world of good. Bestowing a new perspective, it enables him to ditch his tinny modern fiancée Rachel McAdams and her snob parents. It also teaches him that ‘golden ages’ shouldn’t be sought like sanctuaries in the past but worked for, with might and main, in the present.
Happy endings? Well, they weren’t completely the rule. After the Woodywork the festival hit a reef of doomy repetitiveness. Inside 24 hours we had three films about troubled teens, all in English. The best was Julia Leigh’s SLEEPING BEAUTY from Australia, a glacially curdled tale of sex and prostitution, whose student with the Barbie doll looks (Emily Browning) is paid to take date-rape drugs so that elderly, infirm or impotent gents can spend nights pawing her naked unconscious body. (As in the well-known Aussie exhortation: “Throw another gimp on the Barbie.”)
Creepy? You bet. Nympholepsy meets narcolepsy. In images so frigid and insouciant you could be watching a series of Boucher tableaux adapted for Down Under.
The two other tales of teen-related trauma performed an odd dance of concealed cousinship. Lynne Ramsay’s WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is based on Lionel Shriver’s novel about a demonically dysfunctional kid and his strung-out mom. (Tilda Swinton does mom, or overdoes her, as a human scarecrow in fright hairstyles). The film ends Columbine High-style with a school massacre I found implausible, like most of this blending of autistic tragedy with OMEN-style diabolism. Meanwhile Gus Van Sant – whose ELEPHANT won the Golden Palm for its powerfully persuasive picture of a high school murder spree – has sold his mojo to Ron Howard’s Imagine Films. He presented the sappy, maudlin RESTLESS. Two young funeral-crashers (Mia Wasikowa, Henry Hopper) fall in love; she’s dying of cancer; he’s a heartthrob with a hidden tragedy. It’s like BENNY AND JOON on tearjerk drugs.
Intrepid critics, faced with peril and pottiness at the one end of the Croisette, do the sensible thing and make off to the other. Here are the homes of the Directors Fortnight and Critics Week, main counter-event sideshows.
The critic’s journey is taken at a brisk walk, on legs that skilfully avoid the oncoming tsunamis of humanity: the tenue de soiree wearers advancing towards the evening gala, the fun-seekers surging west towards the setting sun (scarletly matching the tapis rouge), even the Croisette buskers who homeward plod their weary way after a day of Chaplin impersonation, goat-balancing, breakdancing, firebreathing or standing in goldpainted repose in the likeness of Greek gods.
What fun. And this year there was more entertainment inside, once you reached Croisette East. In the Directors Fortnight I loved Colombia’s PORFIRIO, directed by Alejandro Landes. It’s the recreated true story of a paraplegic, a wheelchair-bound spinal victim of police gunfire, who actually did try to hijack a plane with two grenades hidden in his incontinence diapers. You couldn’t make it up. And if you could, it wouldn’t be a better movie than this. The real Porfirio plays himself, in a screen portrait of semi-paralysis startling for its humanity, humour and (in one scene) candid sexuality.
Three other Directors Fortnight films took the eye. Rebecca Daly’s THE OTHER SIDE OF SLEEP, shot in a slow hallucinatory style, was the haunting tale of a somnambulant Irish girl who may or may not have committed a murder. Lots of trompe l’oeil – and trompe l’oreille as the soundtrack trades eerie sounds of nature and the elements. Urszula Antoniak’s CODE BLUE from the Netherlands was a success de scandale before it was even shown. Warning posters were stuck up alerting viewers to distressing scenes. These must have been either the passages featuring real terminal patients, in the hospital where the heroine works, or the graphic erotic sequences, later, through which she seeks a cure for her sexually frustrated loneliness. Oddly enthralling; a bit gauche.
Best in show, Quinzaine-wise, was Bouli Lanners’ LES GEANTS. Three young teenagers goof off one summer, in an extended rural rampage, as if they have decided to pay tribute to Andre Techine’s LES ROSEAUX SAUVAGES (WILD REEDS), that classic of the contemporary adolescent pastoral.
The movie begins and ends with tracking shots through lush riverland rushes. In between we get a story combining Gallic growing-up with touches of Huck Finn – a gorgeously shot sequence in a sylvan river cabin – or with surreal dabs of Godard-worthy Dadaism. One house they break into proves a treasure-trove of cosmetics and hair treatments. They go blonde overnight, before haring off into the dawn at the first sound of returning owners. The tale ends inconclusively, but in this film that’s completely apt. Will they go back to their homes and parents? Or will they drift on deeper into their bucolic Eden: victims of Man’s Fall re-seeking the prelapsarian state.
Back in Croisette West the festival improved with the weather. All it took to clear the clouds was a man-made storm, which came late in the evening of the first Saturday. Yes: a firework display loud enough to be heard in Marseilles and bright enough to be seen in Mar Del Plata. Blue skies arrived the next day. So did the big-event movies, starting with Malick, proceeding to Aki Kaurismaki, climaxing with Lars von Trier and Pedro Almodóvar. (The Dardennes had biked in early).
The serious prizefight, the tussle for the Palme d’Or, was thought by many to be between THE TREE OF LIFE and MELANCHOLIA. Follies of grandeur both – or masterpieces of reach and ambition? They gave us respectively a history of Creation and a vision of the end of the world. THE TREE OF LIFE presents evolution from the Big Bang to the dinosaurs in a half-hour fairground ride, co-fashioned with 2001 effects visionary Doug Trumbull. Quite whether this early extravaganza fits with the ensuing tale of a family in 1950s Texas, or with the framing scenes featuring Sean Penn as its grown-up oldest son pondering Mammon and meltdown in high-rise Houston, is food for thought.
Trier’s vision isn’t. Or rather it is: the whole movie is a banquet for thought. ‘Melancholia’ isn’t just the condition of Trier’s despair-prone heroine, played by a Kirsten Dunst stretched to the limit of her talent (but successfully reaching it), it’s the name of the planet moving towards collision with Earth. This director’s chutzpah is colossal. He made the metaphysical uber-dramas BREAKING THE WAVES and ANTICHRIST, rife with thoughts of life and death, good and evil, existence and eternity. MELANCHOLIA brings a new authority and novelty of vision. It’s a critical toss-up whether you are more stunned by the apocalypse ending – terrestrial annihilation – or by the eerie, surreal tableaux that begin the film. Still shots flickering with hints of motion: a lawn fiery with lightning; footsteps quagmiring in the grass of a golf course; a horse collapsing as if from some unseen bolt; a white-dressed bride held back by mysterious trusses as she strides, or tries, across a moonlit lawn….
There will be, and is**, more to say about both films. It’s a tribute to the charm and artistry of Aki Kaurismaki that, in Cannes critics polls, his LE HAVRE kept pace with the bookies’ darlings. In this Finn’s cinema seriousness performs a tango with comedy. Legs bent low, brows held high, arms cinched round waists, the partners keep switching direction and twitching heads – now this way, now that – as the music carries on.
This time the music is sombre and postwar-French. The plot puts a stowaway African boy ashore in the bleak Normandy port, where his only salvation – from fate, cops, jail – lies with a retired author turned dockside boot-black. (Ah, the changes of fortune for Kaurismaki heroes!) The dapper madness goes on, amid colours whose faux-naif gravity we haven’t seen since Fassbinder and whose shadows we haven’t seen since Marcel Carne. He’s the main influence here. Through these swathes of chiaroscuro, varied by studio fog, we expect Jean Gabin to step, his craggy features shaded by a felt hat but murkily lit by a Gauloise. Doom; foreboding; portent; done to a turn by world cinema’s greatest Sunday painter.
Pedro Almodóvar, at the other end of Europe, is off to fresh fields and pastiches new. His latest film is THE SKIN I LIVE IN. He’s never ‘done’ a horror film before, or not one so full of mad science and gaudy guignol. (LIVE FLESH, based on a Ruth Rendell novel, was a medium-saignant murder thriller). Antonio Banderas, welcomed back to the Almodóvar world where his fame began (TIE ME UP! TIE ME DOWN!), is oddly cast as the demonic plastic surgeon who takes revenge on the boy he believes raped his daughter. Didn’t we need a Spanish Vincent Price? An Iberian Bela Lugosi?
That may be Pedro’s point. Nice Senyor Banderas, with his Mediterranean good looks and boyish tousle of dark hair, couldn’t possibly be inflicting sex changes on reluctant patients, could he? Doc B gives this practise the neutral name ‘transgenesis.’ The screen soon goes feral, even if the terminology doesn’t. Early on we get the agonised young man in the mysterious tiger suit and mask, bursting into the lab demanding emergency repair-work. (LES YEUX SANS VISAGE meets THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU). Later a half-naked youngster is chained raging to a cellar wall, awaiting a cocktail of deranging drugs. This is the Doc’s equivalent of a pre-op.
The movie doesn’t get seriously surreal till the scene of the beautiful young heroine (or is it ex-hero?) exorcising his/her claustrophobia by writing down and across the walls of the room – endlessly – the word ‘Respiro.’ It’s horror-film Cartesianism: “I breathe, therefore I am (I hope).”
The Almodóvar colours are more sober than usual. But the Almodóvar soundtrack, its supercharged score swelling at each climax, is irresistible. So is the story’s logic of revenge and punishment, ingenious enough to be called Sophoclean.
Perched on the edge, or almost on the lap, of the Competition – like an orchid on a debuntante’s knee or a dummy on a ventriloquist’s – is the sideshow ‘Un Certain Regard.’ This is where the good-but-not-good-enough (in theory) films go, having been found of secondary merit by the Competition selectors.
We all know the truth. Many films in this section are more interesting than those in the Competition. Braver and sometimes better. In what way is Bruno Dumont’s HORS SATAN inferior to Radu Mihaileanu’s Palm-contending feminist tract, torrid with tendentiousness, LA SOURCE DES FEMMES? And in what way is Mohamad Rasoulof’s AU REVOIR from Iran a less achieved work of cinema than Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA, the talented Turk’s disappointing follow-up – a longwinded police procedural – to UZAK and THREE MONKEYS.
Dumont and Rasoulof are both, in different fashions, outcasts from mainstream cinema. Though the French mystical minimalist has twice won the Cannes Grand Jury prize, for HUMANITY and FLANDERS, the first film was jeered at its Cannes press screening and the second has struggled against mockers, as will HORS SATAN. Dumont does wide, windy, untamed landscapes and people walking through them. As they walk, they talk. Terse, runic dialogue is stolen by the wind or sometimes merges into symbol-moments as when, here, the semi-goth girl with the black hair and nose-piercing ‘walks on water’ to fashion a miracle for the messianic itinerant poacher she has fallen for.
The film is crazy like a fox, or like a Delphic Sybil. It knows exactly what it does and says: complex matter about life, love, redemption, atonement.
Rasoulof is an outcast more literally. He has been banned from filmmaking and sentenced to jail in Iran. Defiantly he sent this feature, clandestinely made, to Cannes. It made a pair with a documentary about fellow jail victim Jafar Panahi, co-made by Panahi, THIS IS NOT A FILM, depicting a day in the WHITE BALLOON director’s life as he awaited sentence.
AU REVOIR is the bitterly compelling tale of a young woman lawyer (Leyla Zareh) seeking to flee Iran, by any means up to and including a bribery-obtained visa for a foreign conference. She wants to escape the net. Her husband is a jailed human rights activist. Pregnant herself, she doesn’t want her child born and growing up in the land of the Ayatollahs.
Suspenseful to the last, the film is lit by the chiaroscuro of hope and despair and photographed in a drained colour bordering on monochrome. That matches the anxiety, bordering on paralysis, in the heroine. Marvellously played and directed, this is a chamber drama in which we hear the acoustic of an entire country.
Light relief? Was there any of that at Cannes? Well, there was PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 4, allowing visiting stars Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz to swing aboard the good ship Festival amid musket-fire pops from the paparazzi bulbs. There was Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE, a Danish-directed shoot-and-bash crime thriller starring Ryan Gosling. Above all there was THE ARTIST, the sleeper hit of the competition. French director Michel Hazanavicius fashions a spoof silent-era comedy – black-and-white photography, intertitles – with fizzing performances from Jean Dujardin, a Douglas Fairbanks lookalike with a Sean Connery lip curl, and the funny, talented soubrette/superbabe Berenice Bejo.
Both the last two films were among the prizes. DRIVE’s Refn won Best Director. ARTIST’s Dujardin won Best Actor.
The jury behaved with genial evenhandedness, less twelve angry men, more nine men and women blowing kisses in every direction. Terrence Malick, predictably, won the Golden Palm. THE TREE OF LIFE was the must-see festival movie even before anyone had seen it.
Turkey shared the runner-up Grand Jury Prize, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA going ex aequo with the Dardennes’ more deserving LE GAMIN AU VELO. Israel’s Joseph Cedar won Best Screenplay for FOOTNOTE.
Best Actress went to Kirsten Dunst. She not only acts a storm in Lars von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA. She tsk-tsk’d openly during the film’s press conference, a Hollywood actress determined to show that mad Danish directors talking about their sympathy with Adolf Hitler – L’affaire Trier was the offscreen drama of the festival’s closing days – did not get the approval of liberal movie stars sent from Obama’s New America.
Can we free westerners show our disapproval of old-order European ubermensch politics, when the need arises?
Yes, we Cannes.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved