AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
CANNES – 2012
WELL MET BY MOONRISE
by Harlan Kennedy
It’s 7.30am. Step into the sea. Full immersion as the sun creeps over the horizon. Wash of icy cold. Shock of spray, delicately rainbowed by the sunrise. Yes, this writer was in the Med every morning as usual. Try and stop him. You can’t come to the Cote d’Azur without getting in the azur (liquid variety).
Never mind the weather, feel the wonderland. Cannes was still Cannes this year – a meteorology-defying marvel of an art-fest – despite the wettest and coldest fortnight in memory. There were wind, thunder and asymmetrical warfare between brollies and cloudbursts. There were beach lunches abandoned for monsoon-strength mistrals. And almost each evening the stars struggled up the slopes of Mount Red Carpet – Brad Pitt, Nicole Kidman, Zac Efron, Robert Pattinson, Isabelle Huppert – helped by sherpas bearing parapluies. Heroism against the odds. Showbiz against the elements.
Water, though, seemed appropriate, so appropriate. For what is Cannes but a yearly cyclical initiation rite for new art, new movies? And what is an initiation without an anointing….?
“I name this festival….”
Baptism and christening aren’t often part of the same programme at Cannes. But they were this year. What an opening flick Wes Anderson’s MOONRISE KINGDOM proved to be. Everyone but the mad or misanthropic adored it. Its young love tale set on a Boy Scout-infested American island – under a daft enchanted moon – was funny, cute, silly and star-speckled (Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Teddy Norton). As it laved holy water over a newborn Cannes festival, it also came up with an irresistible new name for the junket. For let’s agree: ‘Moonrise kingdom’ says it all about this Riviera The moon rises each May over a movie monarchy where film holds sway. A tide-lapped bay plays handmaiden to the lunar orb. The sceptre of a golden palm is handed each prize night to the new prince of picturedom.
Before that the rival princelings fight like cats (another moon-favoured creature) and this year’s were a rich pack of Cannes royals: a dozen A-listers of art cinema, led by four former Palm winners. These were Michael Haneke, Abbas Kiarostami, Ken Loach and Romania’s Cristian Mungiu.
Mungiu got the frond embrace in 2007, when his 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS subjected festgoers to GEH (grievous emotional harm) with its tale of love, death and abortion in the Ceausescu era. In BEYOND THE HILLS, Mungiu updates things to 2005, year of the truth-based events depicted in this tale of exorcism set in a Romanian monastery. The facts were laid out in two ‘non-fiction novels’ by Tatiana Nicolescu Bran, who once explored the case for the BBC.
Just as well the shocking happenings are non-fiction: you wouldn’t believe them if they were invented. A Romanian girl returning from Germany bunks up with the ex-orphanage friend, now a nun, who lets her stay chastely in her cell. The Father Superior (Valeriu Andriuta) tolerates the arrangement, so long as Alina (Cristina Flutur) toes the disciplinary line. But she doesn’t. She is increasingly and fractiously anxious to take Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) off with her to secular friendship or – the film never spoils its tense ambiguities by revealing – a more-than-sisterly passion.
Mungiu takes two and a half hours to tell this tale. It’s an inspired pacing, so measured, so sombre that the film never tips into sensationalism, even when the Father and his main nuns decide Alina is such a menace to the devotional status quo that “Exorciso te” is required. We don’t know if it’s reality-based, or filmic licence, that the girl ends up fastened to a virtual crucifix – a wooden stretcher with a crosspiece – while the devil-expelling mumbo jumbo is recited at her. We do know that the outcome was fatal. (She was already ill and the exorcism rite required pre-fasting). The movie ends with a mood of chastened, incredulous, muted horror: a nuclear-winter tonality, with snow falling thickly as the victim-participants look out into a world suddenly robbed of God, love, faith, grace and all the things they thought they were living for. (Will these Christians never learn?)
At the end of the Cannes screening a couple of boos rang out before the applause. They must have come from the last Christian dogmatists in Europe. The rest of us secularists sat there in awe, thinking, “There but for the grace of godlessness go we.”
No other film, in the Competition’s early days, reached that red-for-danger mark. Most were Defcon One-and-a-half. Jacques Audiard’s RUST AND BONE (DE ROUILLE ET D’OS) and Matteo Garrone’s REALITY were standout disappointments. These two men were recent super-achievers at Cannes, grabbing a Grand Jury Prize each with A PROPHET and GOMORRAH. But Audiard’s new film is a bloated love/pain opera about a paraplegic girl (Marion Cotillard’s whale trainer, made legless in a Marine World accident) saved by the lurve of a hunk (Matthias Schoenaerts as a petty crook cum bare-knuckle street fighter). Pure schmaltz-and-pepper: part emotional wallow, part in-yer-face contrariness of mood and style. REALITY is a hit/miss comedy about a Big Brother auditionee whose delusional ambitions of fame turn his head. Think of Walter Mitty, relocate him to a Naples fish market and make it up from there. Filmmaker Garrone clearly tried to change his pace after the dour thrills and shocks of his debut Camorra drama. But sometimes, when you change pace too fast, you just sprain your ankle.
Better was Youri Nasrallah’s AFTER THE BATTLE, depicting Egypt after, or during, Tahrir Square. You’d think it’s too soon for anything about this country’s convulsions, on the movie screen, except reflex pamphleteering writ large. But Nasrallah paints a subtle range of warring interests into his fresco of a fractured country. The young PR woman (Mena Shalaby) hoping justice and liberty can flourish in a threatened Islamist dawn; the horseman (Bassem Samra) she befriends, from the Pyramids neighbourhood, who has been stigmatised by his participation in the Mubarak-endorsed charge on demonstrators. Both come to support the Tahrir resistance while resisting – in their fashion and with their vulnerable passion – the new apocalypse’s horse-charge of ideological extremism. A canny, eloquent piece of political cinema.
Alain Resnais’ VOUS N’AVEZ ENCORE RIEN VU (YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET) was loved by the near-90-year-old’s fans but yawned through by others: a riff on Anouilh’s EURYDICE with a galactic cast (Sabine Azema, Lambert Wilson, Michel Piccoli etc) trying to bring mid-century French theatre back from the dead. (It’s a long way to and from Hades). John Hillcoat’s LAWLESS is a Prohibition romp weirdly peopled with non-Americans (Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce). Abbas Kiarostami did cryptic (LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE); Ken Loach did cute (THE ANGEL’S SHARE); Thomas Vinterberg did convoluted (JAGTEN/THE HUNT). Actually Vinterberg came closest to quality, with Mads Mikkelsen’s divorced loner fighting unjust child-molestation charges in a Denmark streaked with the nasty-satirical verismo so perfected, years back, by this director and his Dogme95 chums.
Soon, happily, it was whammo time again in the main event. If BEYOND THE HILLS had set the early gold-medal standard, as the runners headed for the final straight, another film moved up fast on the inside rail.
Michael Haneke’s AMOUR (LOVE) continues this Austrian director’s grip on the French festival and indeed on French cinema. Though his 2010 Palme d’Or winner was German-language, Haneke wowed Cannes previously with two Gallic wonders: LA PIANISTE and CACHE (HIDDEN). AMOUR is better than either. Love story? Yes. But the lovers are married; they are over eighty; and they are played by veteran French stars Jean-Louis Trintignant (UN HOMME ET UNE FEMME) and Emmanuelle Riva (HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR). Both put vanity to the sword and both are stunning. Trintigant is a balding, tortoise-wrinkled retiree padding about in endearing grey sneakers. Riva suffers a stroke and shrivels visibly as she takes to bed – for most of the movie – losing hold on health, speech, mental coherence….
Visitors come, peer, tut sympathy and go; all but daughter Isabelle Huppert, who stays a little longer to weep, rail and be railed back at by dad. “Your concern is useless to me,” he says. Her showboating tears no longer float his boat, let alone the ark of parental survival.
Love story? Yes, malgre tout. There never was a more unflinching screen portrait of human decay: that terminal beach where grief, sympathy and marital devotion wash helplessly on the shore of a dying life. The husband keeps up his tidal efforts. He laps the wife with words, or a washcloth, or a well-meant surge of rage when the spouted water cup won’t be sipped, the spoonfeeding won’t be taken. Haneke makes the big apartment – book-filled, ramshackle, with greying walls and begrimed corners – a brilliantly detailed determinant of the drama. So much for ex-concert pianist Riva’s jet-setting students and wealthy daughter (herself married to a celebrity pianist). They leave their ‘betters’ in this place? The film doesn’t judge or condemn, though. That’s its genius. Health fails; humanity fails; it’s just the turning circle of life. Whose turn next to the top or the bottom?
Finally, movingly, husband and wife escape the circle, though not till Haneke has sketched two near-identical tragicomic scenes of husbandly despair. Trintignant fretfully pursues a pigeon that keeps touching down on the apartment landing. Rat with wings! Bird of omen! Fluttering like a dying heart. Shuffling like a malignant parody of himself. (Grey claws for grey sneakers). Should he catch it? Smother it with a blanket? Kill it? No, he lets it free. The crueller, kinder fate: that’s for someone else, someone who deserves its mercy….
It wasn’t all pain and pathos, death and devil-expelling at Cannes. For those who get enough of that at home, lighter moments could break the gloom, as the sun broke the clouds. “Adieu, chers impermeables!” we cried. (“Farewell, dear raincoats!”). And we watched a European premiere of MADAGASCAR 3, with voice stars in attendance, including an effervescent-in-French Chris Rock, or dropped in on the James Bond retrospective at the beach cinema, a new adventure each evening. “Je m’appelle Bond, James Bond,” burred the handsome Francophone greeting the night’s bikini’d nymphet.
We could watch firework displays too when rain didn’t douse the touchpapers. “Let a thousand flowers explode.” And lo, they did, accompanied by those delayed bangs-and-crackles that prove the rockets have shot far, far, far into the night sky, possibly into a neighbour galaxy.
The Quinzaine Des Realisateurs (Directors Fortnight) – a walk across town in the Theatre Croisette – was often fun too. Fancy a late-night premiere of British director Ben KILL LIST Wheatley’s new black comedy? In SIGHTSEERS two dimwitted young UK tourists kill half a dozen socially objectionable folk – litterbugs, cyclists, dog-poop-collection enforcers – on a trip from the Pencil Museum (ah England) to the Lake District. There’ll always be a Britain….especially while its comical murder tradition lasts, school of SEAN OF THE DEAD/THE LADYKILLERS/KIND HEARTS AND CORONARIES.
The Quinzaine got giggles, too, from Rodney Ascher’s Kubrick documentary 237. Multiple interpretations of THE SHINING are the menu here. A dozen distinguished geeks are rounded up – distinguished mainly by their insanity – to toss their takes into the multi-analytical potlatch. Did you know Kubrick helped Nasa film footage for their ‘faked’ Apollo moon landing? (The clues are in THE SHINING: look at Danny’s rocket-picture T-shirt). Have you counted the phallic symbols in the hotel manager’s office? Why does Jack’s typewriter change colour? (It does actually, from white to grey). And is it an Adler because THE SHINING is a covert allegory of the Holocaust, adler meaning eagle in German, the Nazi symbol, and also being the name – no, don’t go away – of the philosopher associated with Urge-to-Power theories?
Amazingly, amid all this anal retentiveness, no one points out that Stephen King has the same initials as Stanley Kubrick. Surely this is a starter-kit observation – there’s another ‘SK’ – if you want to go nuts with conspiracy deconstructions of a (one more for the road) Spook Klassic? (By the way, all the geeks were wrong).
Okay. Fun is a loose definition of what we had in Cannes when (a) it wasn’t raining or (b) nuns weren’t being exorcised on screen. The really most fun we had outside the main event was attending the talk by Norman Lloyd. Lloyd is the 97-year-old Anglo-Hollywood actor who fell to his death from the Statue of Liberty in Hitchcock’s SABOTEUR (1942). For 90 minutes on the stage of the Salle Bunuel he was irresistibly fascinating, whether recalling Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre, for whom he acted in JULIUS CAESAR, or reminiscing on friendships with Chaplin and Renoir, or giving an A-to-Z of Hitchcock’s follies and fortes in the great man’s later decades.
Horses for Concourses
‘Hors concours’ is the French phrase for ‘outside the competition’. But inside the main pavilion this year, there wasn’t much at all outside the Palm contest. It was heads down and get serious. And though AMOUR and BEYOND THE HILLS were unassailable mid-festival favourites for the frond embrace, one film arrived late and got a storm of response, divided – as in any proper storm – between positive and negative impulses.
Leos Carax’s HOLY MOTORS is crazy from the word “Commence!” Carax is a Kubrick-worthy recluse who seldom does interviews and indeed seldom does films: only four in 30 years. The director himself appears in the new movie’s first scene, rising from bed to enter, via a secret door, a cinema auditorium – the playhouse, sans doute, of his and our dreams! We are then in the care of lead actor Denis Lavant, gremlin-faced marvel of BEAU TRAVAIL, who shuttles from identity to identity while limmo’d around Paris by impassive chauffeuse Edith Scob, herself no mean icon of French cinema. (She was the surgeried daughter in LES YEUX SANS VISAGE).
Lavant exits the limmo to be by turn a rich man, poor man, beggar-woman (sic) and thief; a leprechaun, a hit-man, a hit-man’s victim. Near midnight he meets, as one does, Kylie Minogue singing a full-dress production number. The whole film is deeply glorious, the dream of a madman who may be Carax, may be Lavant’s character, or may be the man played in shades and an aureole of mystery by Michel Piccoli. Someone is choreographing these speeded-up Shakespearean ‘seven ages’. Life is a multi-role performance, never more wittily demonstrated than when a deathbed-recumbent Lavant ‘expires’ after addressing his ‘last words’ to a weeping ‘niece’ and seconds later sits up, saying “Excuse me.” The grief-stricken head buried in bedclothes looks up. Lavant leaves after a few exchanged words. (“What’s your next job?..” he asks). It’s surreal and funny. The film is a reduction to the ridiculous which only proves that the ridiculous, done with enough flair, is a secret door to the sublime.
The ridiculous can also come with no secret door at all. There was no exit from some Cannes follies vying for the fronde d’or. Several of these came from respected masters of the annual Med-fest. Carlos Reygadas’s POST TENEBRAS LUX is as clunkily pompous as its title: two hours of portent-laden quasi-autobiography depicting a family (including the director’s kids) strained by marital stresses when not strafed by symbolic interludes. What the hell was the English rugby game all about, never mind the luminous animated devil figure who bookends beginning and end?
Walter Salles’s ON THE ROAD showed that Brazilian directors shouldn’t tackle a tone-sensitive American beat novel, while Lee Daniels’s THE PAPERBOY showed that a tone-deaf script set in Mississippi cannot be handled even by an American. Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, Zac Efron and John Cusack share out the “Y’alls” and the sweaty vests and the alligators and the campy emotionalism, here attached to a murder investigation plot that barely gets investigated. Up the bayou without a kayak.
But cinema is unguessable: that’s its joy. That’s what keeps Cannes fresh even though the word “cans” vouches the opposite. The day after THE PAPERBOY, came another southern drama starring Matthew McConaughey. And it was a lollapalooza. (Further thought-food for Cannes craziness collectors: Was it impishly written in the stars that McConaughey, his career even as a hokum hero appearing to head down the chute a few years ago, would in 2012 command two consecutive press conferences at the world’s premier film festival?...)
Jeff Nichols (SHOTGUN STORIES, TAKE SHELTER) wrote and directed MUD and needn’t write or direct anything else. It’s a kids’ adventure – mystery island, boat up tree, befriendable outlaw, scary reptiles, chase-and-vengeance – which accretes a grown-up resonance. It’s about growing up. The two pre-teen pals (Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland) dodge about among doubting elders (Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon) while secretly scurrying to help the island-sequestered runaway (McConaughey). He wants to get back with his gay-al (Reese Witherspoon, luxury casting for two coughs and a spit), patch his boat and get the Hay-al out of mainland USA. Huck Finn meets Catcher in the Rye; What Maisie Knew meets The Coral Island. At the Cannes showing the audience cheered like gangbusters at the climactic moment when – no, that’d be spoiling. Go see. Take the kids.
It was a good Cannes to look back on, even if the Cannes jury, led by actor-filmmaker Nanni Moretti, didn’t seem to look back on the same things – or in the same way – as the rest of us. Bizarre films landed baubles: not least Matteo Garrone’s REALITY, whose TV-satirising drollery, arduous to many, must have appealed to fellow Italian mirthmaker Moretti. His team gave it the runner-up Grand Jury Prize. Even more gob-smitingly, Carlos Reygadas won Best Director for POST TENEBRAS LUX, a movie many of us wanted to post to outer darkness, or wherever lux might briefly shine a conduit to oblivion.
Romania’s BEYOND THE HILLS rightly shared rich supporting spoils. Filmmaker Cristian Mungiu won Best Screenplay award. The two main performers, Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan, divided Best Actress.
Best Actor went to Denmark’s Mads Mikkelsen for his divorced dad, unjustly persecuted in THE HUNT. The Jury award – lowliest picking among he prizes but nice to put on a poster – was bestowed on Ken Loach’s THE ANGEL’S SHARE.
But the Golden Palm had to go to – it did go to –
Michael Haneke’s AMOUR. A great film. A great or near-great director.
Justice was not only done, it was seen to be done: by the spectators and viewers of what is still the world’s most watched art and culture bash. Long live the Cannes Film Festival. It is 65 this year. Retirement? Never heard of it.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved