Friday, May 14, 2010

Cannes Dispatch #1 - "Aurora" and "Chatroom"

It took about 48 hours of flight delays and cancellations that sent me bouncing through four cities in Europe, but I arrived in Cannes last night, and it quickly became difficult to recall any of the bad vibes from my Iceland-volcano-travel-delay reenactment. I hopped off the shuttle to the sight of fireworks bursting in the sky above the Riviera, and the experience has been rather thrilling ever since, from the postcard-ready glittering beach views to the constant presence of beautiful people pretty much everywhere (except the press tent, natch). The best part, of course, is the fact that all this energy is devoted towards highlighting the finest in world cinema. Now, I won't echo the traditional line about Cannes, which is that this is a festival where someone like Manoel De Oliveira gets as much red carpet attention as Naomi Watts (hint: which premiere required large police cordons?). But Cannes is undoubtedly a hallowed Mecca for cinephiles, and I'm absolutely delighted to be able to bring you coverage from the heart of the festival. I'll have plenty more about the city and the festival throughout the week, but here are some (admittedly jetlagged and rough) impressions of the first two films I saw.

Aurora (dir. by Cristi Puiu) - Un Certain Regard

Even by the rather exacting aesthetic standards of the Romanian New Wave, "Aurora", the new film from Cristi Puiu ("The Death of Mr. Lazarescu") is a rather tough sit. During its three hour running time, "Aurora" sticks to the static, unadorned camerawork and rigorous accretion of mundane detail that have marked past films of this Romanian film movement (like Palme D'Or winner "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days"), but manages to be even more withholding in how it reveals its plot and characters. For the majority of the film, the name of the game is ellipsis. We follow our lead character (Puiu himself) through a thoroughly ordinary daily routine of bathing, eating and commuting, but we don't learn his name for about two hours; we think the plot may be kicking in when the man buys a gun and begins lurking suspiciously in dark alleyways, but when the film's acts of violence start to occur, they raise more questions than they answer; we see the man's extensive conversations with others, but it takes a while to determine what his relationship with them is exactly.

Puiu has a sharp visual eye as a director, imprisoning his characters in the industrial wasteland of Bucharest with vertical barriers and Ozu-esque hallway shots, and the sheer unknowability of the early sections maintains enough suspense that you could charitably call this a crime thriller, especially in the shocking scenes of violence. But those virtues and Puiu's own excellent performance don't change the fact that the audience is left begging for a hint of explanation as the final scene rolls around. And in the fascinating payoff of the ending, they get it - without spoiling anything, Puiu provides all the answers we could have asked for and more in a comic rebuke to our expectations of explanations, psychological or otherwise. "It worries me that you seem to understand this," says a character as the info begins to flow and reduces a ordinary person into a familiar type. Puiu wants the viewer to recognize the inherent falseness of attempt to patly explain the three-dimensional psychology of a real human being, and his epistemological approach to the mind reminded me a bit of Scorsese's struggle to understand Jake La Motta in "Raging Bull".

Of course, Puiu is no Scorsese when it comes to, shall we say, user-friendliness. If the ending challenges a central cliche of the crime genre, that daunting length certainly puts the term "thriller" to the test, and it is a bit hard to see what exactly Puiu might accomplish in three hours that he couldn't do in two. Nevertheless, "Aurora" is another uncompromising and daring vision from the bold new generation of Romanian filmmakers, and it represent the kind of risk-taking spirit that Cannes at its finest has always encouraged.

Chatroom (dir. by Hideo Nakata) - Un Certain Regard

The teenagers of "Chatroom" wander through their everyday lives in color-desaturated, gloomy shots that cast their skin in a sickly pallor - they're like walking ghosts crying out for some kind of release from their dreary existences. Director Hideo Nakata, director of the Japanese "Ringu" films, gives them one in his teen cyber-horror thriller, which takes the internet chat-rooms that the kids frequent and literalizes them as surreal physical meeting locations. Nakata's vision of cyberspace looks a bit like "The Shining" with brighter wallpaper - a long hallway leads to different chatrooms where reality shifts at will, mirroring the ease with which users can adopt and shed entire new personas.

But Nakata is less interested in the "Matrix"-style possibilities opened up by such a world than in the frightening underbelly of these technological systems. "Chatroom" is inspired by the recent spate of real-world teen suicides that stem from cyber-bullying with a magnitude of cruelty made possible by internet anonymity. The lead psychopath here is William (Aaron Johnson of "Kick-Ass"), a hacker who funnels rage from family troubles into elaborate psychological torture of his internet friends, particularly a depressive named Jim who seems to be only one short mental push from self-harm. Pouncing on their insecurities and past emotional traumas, William plays his victims like theremins, establishing fierce loyalties and breaking friendships at will.

Nakata's hyper-caffeinated style makes the mind-games fun for a while, and if the obvious telegraphing of William as "the evil one" dampens some of the suspense, Johnson's leering grin and nervy intensity mark a terrific step up from his bland performance in "Kick-Ass". Ultimately, though, Nakata doesn't have anything particularly interesting to say about the potential wealth of ideas concerning teenagers and the internet. The eerie terror that the early scenes conjure starts to fade quickly as the plot contorts far past the breaking point. It's a shame that the second half of the film resorts to characters acting in absurd and implausible ways (William's climactic push to make Ben kill himself is egregiously confusing), particularly when the incidents that inspired the film involve motives and behavior that are real, terrifying, and all too understandable.

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