AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
CANNES – 2014
MOVIE BIAS AND BIOS
LIVES OF THE KITSCH AND FAMOUS
by Harlan Kennedy
Biopics. How would we live without them? They are marvellous, they are terrible, they are both things simultaneously and symbiotically. They spread across the land, the world, the solar system, like a blessing and/or a contagion. No one is proof against them; probably nowhere is proof against them. (If we go to Mars, won’t they be showing biopics of the god Mars?)
At the 67th Cannes Film Festival biopics were everywhere. They infected your brain and existence. You woke up each morning suspecting you were in a biopic. That person looking out from the bathroom mirror. Was it you? Or was it – depending on your degree of health or hangover that dawn – Brad Pitt or Mickey Rourke playing you. Alternatively, if your towel was marked “Hers” not “His”, the mirror spectre might be Angelina Jolie (good day) or Melissa McCarthy (not so good).
Take a rich and varied quartet of remarkable people. JMW Turner, the British painter. Princess Grace of Monaco, the film star turned Mediterranean royal. John Du Pont, the millionaire pharmaceuticals heir and murder-convicted Olympics patron. And Dominique Strauss-Khan, the French politician-economist. All these folk featured in frontline biographical movies at the festival.
Biopics take the truth of a single life and make it look weirder than fiction. That’s their job. They make us respond, “Wow, this could really happen? To or from one person? On our globe and in our history? Isn’t humanity amazing.”
Even so: some biopics are done responsibly and some irresponsibly. Some tell the unvarnished truth; some add a touch of lacquer or a touch or ton of shellac. No filmmaker is more responsible than Britain’s Mike Leigh. Every movie by the creator of SECRETS AND LIES (Cannes Golden Palm winner 1995), HIGH HOPES and the Gilbert and Sullivan drama-romp TOPSY-TURVY – Leigh’s only venture into costumed biopic before MR TURNER – insists on its organic growth from seeds of reality: seeds sown by the director and actors in hard, long, deep-delving collaboration.
No wonder Leigh’s screen portrait of the low-born Limey, Joseph Mallord William Turner, who painted wild romantic seas and sunsets, feels as real as the world around you. The world you normally live in, not the Cannes hyperbole state. Timothy Spall, playing Turner, could be the chap sitting next to you on the 9.30am train to Kings Cross, huffing and harrumphing a bit at delays. At the same time – everyone has different ways of exploding and self-expressing – you credit that this man’s Vesuvian moments, as portrayed in Leigh’s teemingly convincing Victorian Britain (which includes Queen Vic herself in a cameo), might take the form of painting early expressionist landscape works of a holocaustic majesty. Deservedly, Spall won the Cannes Best Actor prize.
That gong might have gone to Steve Carell. His John Du Pont in FOXCATCHER, superbly played, has a subtle off-world reality. Shading into the macabre. He walks a walk, and talks a talk, that don’t seem quite of this planet. (Ambling, arachnid gait; high-pitched voice with slow-key delivery). Carell has this advantage: few of us remember the original Du Pont, if we encountered him at all on TV and newsreels, before the chemicals billionaire’s story went ape with the murder of an Olympics wrestling coach.
It’s a jawdropping story, jawdropping yet true. Carell’s character-painting is perfect for the picture and its perspective. He seems both high-strung and affable, humdrum and spooky. We can’t stop looking at him and listening to him; seeking to work out what makes him tic and tock; wondering what, if anything, will set off his alarm bell. An hour in we know. Meanwhile we have become putty in his and the film’s hands: all the more remarkable given that the actor’s one high-risk accessory is a Nosferatu-style putty nose.
Nicole Kidman’s Grace Kelly begins the direction shift, or began it at Cannes, towards Fantasyland. The trap for all biopics is that they believe the stuff and guff put out by PR, in the first place, to give the subject legendary status. Kelly was only a Philadelphia girl who got lucky; first as a movie star, then as a princess. (Could happen to any girl). But director Olivier Dahan made the egregious LA VIE EN ROSE – Edith Piaf piffle adored by half the world, the other half being sane – and so his Grace, and Kidman’s, is a fully tanked-up glamour goddess from the starting grid.
The movie, a Monaco Grand Prix of fast-and-loose factoids, screeches around corners, gives the expected succession of fabulous views (Monte Carlo and the Med), whizzes past the famous lap after lap, and occasionally bashes a vulnerable spectator high into the air, towards the Cloud Nine metafiction comfort station and field hospital. Where probably the heroine herself will be waiting with a halo and a compress. By movie’s end you either want to hug this Grace or kill her. Or, most level-headed response, both.
But the acme, the Everest, the Parnassus of biopic kitsch, at Cannes, came from a director who used to be known for gritty nihilism with a gothic growl. Abel Ferrara; of DRILLER KILLER and BAD LIEUTENANT. He came to Cannes, in stellar company with actors Gerard Depardieu and Jacqueline Bisset, to introduce a sneak gala of WELCOME TO NEW YORK.
This had already become known the cine-world over as “the DSK movie” since the film hauls Dominique Strauss-Khan, former IMF chief turned rape-charge defendant, through the courts of celluloid arbitration. Actually Ferrara doesn’t bother much with arbitration. His hero, renamed Devereux, is a sexist and sex glutton from the word ‘Go.’ Or here more aptly ‘Come’.
The gurgling sound of a Depardieu orgasm – or dozens of them – is the main soundtrack feature for the first 20 minutes, a nearly nonstop naked orgy of slap, tickle and penetration, with the bimbo lovelies laid on for the hero as VIP greeters in Paris and New York. Debauchery comes easy to this thinly fictionalised French finance chief who clearly thinks the letters IMF stand for “I Must Fuck.” The movie gets more serious – we won’t go so far as ‘mature’ – with the marital reckoning scenes between Depardieu/Devereux and his wife played (with dignity) by Jaqueline Bisset. But by then the film has already fallen most of the way off the cliff of grace and credibility.
Yet – surveying the biographical movies at Cannes 2014 – a terrible demon in us says something demonic and provocative. The biopic world would be the poorer, surely, if we lost either extreme of approach in the screen portrayal or living or historical characters.
Hagiography or hack-iography? We don’t want to lose the serious movies: the MR TURNERS and FOXCATCHERS. But they can only be appreciated in a world of fully-provendered variety and contrast, where we can see and adjudicate on their complete opposites. It’s great to have the New York Times. But it’s made even greater by the occasional sneak peak – with a side frisson of illicit enjoyment – at its gonzo ugly sister, the National Enquirer.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE MMMM-MMMM YYYY ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved