Film Going On Steroids
The 2009 Cannes Film Festival
A film festival is a bizarre place to watch films. Credits come down on one and you race out to another theater to check out the next. Four, five, six films a day. Nevermind palm trees on the sunny croisette—Cannes is about sitting in the dark all day. There’s a perverse enjoyment in overdosing on film appreciation. Seeing films in this kind of hyper-environment stimulates the critical faculties to the point of reviewer coma. Is a minimalist Serbian drama the best choice for 9:00 am on a Tuesday? If you walk out of a bad film and hear of a great one playing at the same time, you stand in the Mediterranean sunshine and scream.
Since Cannes is the ne plus ultra of festivals and film markets, those who attend also force it to be a harbinger of the future of cinema. There is the inevitable question: “How was Cannes?” With the inevitable answers—“a strong year,” or “not so much.” Nothing I saw was life-changing, but hardly any were abysmal.
Few liked Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank as much as I, and welcome vindication arrived when it shared the Jury Prize on closing night. (Arnold also won the Cannes jury prize with her first feature, Red Road, in 2006, and she won the 2003 Oscar for her short film Wasp.) Red Road dealt with surveillance cameras checking out every detail of life in a working class neighborhood. Fish Tank takes those cameras (metaphorically speaking) behind the closed doors of a council flat where 15-year-old Mia lives with her loose mom and younger sister in cramped quarters, which become even more cramped when Mom brings home a new beau. Everyone has a complicated internal life, and although no one can articulate their emotions, we glean bits of these lives from time to time. Arnold brings to mind Mike Leigh in her social realism style: both focus upon working class characters who grow in a way they themselves can’t describe.
Xavier Giannoli directs In the Beginning as a police thriller though it’s based on a true story (aren’t they all?). François Cluzet, France’s latest go-to guy, plays petty con man Philippe who, by dint of circumstances and mistaken identity, helps an economically depressed community create jobs by building a highway through it. In Giannoli’s first feature, Eager Bodies (2004), catastrophe befalls characters who seem to have everything going for them. In the Beginning’s cast of desperate, unemployed people have nothing going for them at all, and it looks like they’re going to get screwed even more. Cluzet is a charismatic presence seen most recently in Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One. And while there are many other fine actors playing roles central to the action, Gérard Depardieu and Emmanuelle Devos among them, the story rests on Cluzet’s shoulders, and he wears it well.
Bahman Ghobadi’s sixth film, No One Knows About Persian Cats paints a picture of day-to-day life for certain Iranians. Ghobadi is known for his films A Time for Drunken Horses and Turtles Can Fly, and for his relationship—professionally as well as personally—with Roxana Saberi, the Iranian-American journalist who was arrested in Iran in February and released three days before Cats premiered at Cannes. Ghobadi combines fiction and documentary while exploring the Iranian underground (of course it’s underground) music scene. People were of two minds about this film in Cannes; the jaded figure there was nothing new to learn about the Iranian indie music scene, and the structure is too messy to intrigue newcomers to the subject. Go beyond the music and you find the realities of life in Tehran: for young people desperate to break out, music gives them hope.
The lead in Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro was supposed to be Matt Dillon, but apparently there were scheduling conflicts. Instead, Coppola cast the emotionally frustrating Vincent Gallo as the title character—the son of an overbearing father who left home long ago and made a life for himself in Buenos Aires. Newcomer Alden Ehrenreich plays the younger brother, Bennie, who comes to Argentina looking for a reunion. As the story unfolds, one can’t help thinking that Joaquin Phoenix wasn’t available to play Tetro, while Ehrenreich resembles a younger Leonardo DiCaprio. One can bet that bits of Coppola’s internal life are on view here, but there’s more to chew on than his own familial angst. Tetro could be a follow-up to Rumble Fish, Coppola’s coming of age tale of another set of brothers (both films are in black & white). Coppola spends a lot of time shooting in beautiful parts of the country, and I get it: landscape as character. That can happen, but not here; he just shoots pretty pictures.
Many of these films keep their emotions on the inside. Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, a bit of a psychological horror, keeps the emotions on the outside, even though the idea of a shrink husband treating his wife after the accidental death of their toddler is pretty much all about internal emotions. The Jury gave the best actress prize to von Trier’s star, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays a woman devastated after the accidental death of her baby boy. Accidental because while the kid falls from a window, Gainsbourg is fucking Willem Dafoe. This is one of the most elegant death scenes I’ve ever witnessed. Dafoe’s her husband, and a therapist who’s going to work out all of Gainsbourg’s issues in a creepy cabin in the woods they call Eden. Von Trier makes many missteps (introducing, for instance, a talking fox), but his films remain worth watching for the nuggets of genius that stand out. In Antichrist they stand out in the imagery—like the giant tree whose roots are writhing naked humans. It’s pretty cool, and it represents the wild, feral aspects of madness. But, his representation of women is problematic, as it is in most of his other films (such as in Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark).
The female character fares much better under ultimate film geek Quentin Tarantino’s gaze. His uber anti-Nazi fantasy, Inglourious Basterds, like Jackie Brown and both Kill Bills, features not a hero, but a heroine. I went in looking to hate it. I thought it would be a guys’ movie. But Tarantino has created a history-changing WWII revenge flick. When a young Jewish woman, the last surviving member of her family, encounters the Nazi elite in her Parisian movie theater, she hatches a plan to avenge the murders of her family—in true cinematic fashion. The acting is all over the map (as is the story), but Tarantino’s obviously having fun reimagining the war by paying homage to classic Hollywood. Brad Pitt plays soldier Aldo Raine, named after macho character actor and WWII movie regular Aldo Ray. Sergio Leone’s ghost is all over the opening scene, and Pitt’s ragtag army of American Jews scalp their victims in homage to the American Western. Much was made of the fact that Tarantino would insist the French speak French, Germans speak German, and so on, but he snookers us up front with a delightfully cheesy excuse for having two actors speak English. Inglourious Basterds is a treat to watch. It elicits basic movie-going feelings such as humor and fear, and the characters have a simple goal that everyone can get behind: after all, who doesn’t hate Nazis? (Except other Nazis.) Tarantino throws so many elements in that it can be hard to keep track, but most everything comes together in his grandiose thesis: Cinema, in destroying itself, can save the world.
Some say that the programmers have been getting lazy in their selection process—it seems as though many Cannes favorites are given a pass. A few too many big names producing average work still find their way into the competition. And quite a few of their pictures weren’t really finished. The number of times that film publicists chant “it’s not the final cut...” grows every year. If the purpose of Cannes is to give an overview of things to come, they can be forgiven for opening their doors to those who already went, as long as they let the newcomers in as well.
MARIAN MASONE couldn't believe they only showed two movies on the flight home.