Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Cannes Dispatch #10 - Epic Festival Overview

A few final thoughts for my last entry on Cannes:

- The general consensus among critics seems to be that the 2010 was one of the worst years in recent memory for the Cannes Film Festival. The consensus has also said that there were at least a few masterpieces at the festival this year and at least a dozen or so films that were solid filmmaking of the highest order. Oh, woe is the life of the jaded film critic!

- Juliette Binoche is quite good in Abbas Kiarostami’s “Copie Conforme”, but for the festival to give the official poster-girl of this year’s Cannes a Best Actress award doesn’t so much suggest “conflict of interest” as it does scream it. No doubt that Francophilia also played some part in Mathieu Amalric’s Best Director award for his excellent but relatively minor “On Tour”.

- I will miss many things about Cannes – the movies, the breathtaking beach views, the beautiful pastel-colored beach-front architecture, the preponderance of famous and attractive people milling about, the free press espressos, etc. But perhaps what I will miss most of all is the cheapo sandwich cart which was the only place I could afford to eat at regularly, whether it was the South-France specialty pan bagnat sandwiches made from tuna, Nicoise olives, eggs, and assorted vegetables, or even the hot dogs, which were served with ultra-high quality baguette bread that was almost comically mismatched to the humble origins of the contents it would hold.

- You may have noticed that I’ve talked quite a bit about press kits, mainly because this is the first time I’ve ever had access to actual physical versions of them for writing reviews. As you may have gathered, some of them are helpful, but most of them are decidedly not, spewing fawning enthusiasm as they do. The kit for “The Housemaid” (which, as noted below, I rather like) sets some new records in this regard. This obvious rush translation job not only gushes over every person involved in the production, but even humors director Im Sang-Soo’s attempts at poetry. To quote his statement about the film:

“Our main character who looks empty-headed and na├»ve…
What is it that she couldn’t endure for the life of her?
That is…
Something we give and take from each other,
we stomp in agony and try to forget
but we cannot so we crush on it and live on…
It is like the hard callus stuck around out soft, erogenous zones.”

The kit also features Im’s ground-breaking costume design philosophy: “All women have to be sexy!”

As a final entry, here is a comprehensive list of everything I saw at the festival, complete with new thoughts about films I haven’t yet discussed, links and snippets from past coverage, and lazy listings of films that I am now too tired to talk about. The films are ranked in tiers I, II, and II, which respectively correspond to excellent filmmaking of the highest order, solid filmmaking with issues, and films that range from noble failures to unholy messes (the ranking within each tier is meaningless). This officially concludes my coverage for The Daily Princetonian – if you simply can’t get enough my writing, feel free to take a look at The Asphalt Jungle, where I usually write every week or so. In any case, thanks so much for humoring my humble film musings – I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this coverage at least half as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.

Tier I

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (dir. by Apichatpong Weerasethakul) – Palme D’Or Winner - In Competition

Just as it defies the basic conventions of narrative, imagery, and filmmaking itself, Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul's "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" defies any conventional form of critical analysis. But that's precisely why it's so exciting - more than any other film in competition, "Boonmee" stretches the limit of what can be done with filmmaking, pushing its boundaries towards new ways of sensory, allegorical, and metaphysical expression (that should give you a pretty clear idea of the level of trippiness we’re dealing with here). "Boonmee" shares a fair amount with the rest of this Thai filmmaker's oeuvre, which includes past Cannes award-winners like "Tropical Malady" and "Syndromes and a Century". Using an enigmatic and symbolic narrative as a framework, Joe once again focuses on painterly compositions highlighting the contrasts between the verdant lushness of Thai jungles and the plasticky, artificial radiance of Thailand's urban spaces. He also again complements that visual emphasis with a complex sound design that pairs natural jungle recordings with ebullient pop music.

What's new this time is a new emphasis on the spiritual and supernatural. The elliptical narrative this time focuses on Uncle Boonmee, a man dying from a kidney infection who starts to be visited by ghosts, which appear both in human form and as startling shadowy shapes in the forest with laser-bright red eyes. This central story is surrounded by other vignettes, such as an ox breaking free from his master and a beautiful fairy-tale like story of a princess seduced by a catfish, which are suggested to be past lives that Boonmee is remembering. The film treats these supernatural ideas quite earnestly, but for Joe, "past lives" aren't solely the province of otherworldly realms - the recording of lives of film, self-image and memories of one's past self, and even political consciousness. For Joe, flow between these lives is a universal constant, despite the emphasis we put on the transition of death. History also keeps on repeating itself, even visually - the garish Christmas lights at Boonmee's funeral hall echo the naturally sparkling rock formations in a cave he visits near the end of his life.

I heard a critic in the press room noting that the amount of praise a certain writer bestows upon “Uncle Boonmee” is directly proportional to said writer’s pretentiousness, a statement that I find both thoroughly obnoxious and not too far from the truth. But if you can give yourself over to the mystery of Joe’s work, there are immense satisfactions to be had. Joe has made a film on a cosmic level that at the same time has deeply autobiographical elements (the kidney infection comes from Joe’s father, and the red-eyed ghosts are hilariously revealed by direct light to be men in cheap gorilla suits, an homage to the horror films of Joe’s youth). It’s a film with staggering artistic ambition that nevertheless encourages the audience to laugh with and at it, a film with laser-guided formal precision that nevertheless luxuriates in the swaying, gentle rhythm of wind rustling the palm trees. It’s a film quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and it’s a daring and truly deserving choice for the Palme D’Or.

Ha Ha Ha (dir. by Hong Sang-Soo) – Grand Prize - Un Certain Regard
Poetry (dir. by Lee Chang-Dong) – In Competition
The Housemaid (dir. by Im Sang-Soo) – In Competition

South Korea was the country to beat at this year’s festival, with all three of its films ranking as some of the best that the entire festival had to offer. My favorite of the trio was “Ha Ha Ha”, the latest film by two-time Palme D’Or contender Hong Sang-Soo, the winner of the top prize in the Un Certain Regard category, and essentially the Woody Allen film at the festival that Woody Allen himself could not provide. Hong’s detailed depictions of relationship minutiae have garnered comparisons to Allen and Eric Rohmer, but he has an extra interest in formal and structural games. Here, he tells the story of two friends reminiscing about their recent visits to a Korean shore town. They believe they went separately, but they were actually there at the same time, becoming entangled in love triangles with the same people. Hong ends up doing less with this structure than you might expect, but his writing and performances are pitch-perfect the whole way through. Hong is one of the premier poets of awkwardness, drunkenness (a trademark directorial method of his is to get drunk with his actors), and immaturity – imagine Judd Apatow’s films with less scatological humor and actual empathy for the female sex as well as the male and you’re not too far off.

Another past Palme D’Or contender, Lee Chang-Dong, returned this year with another character study after his “Secret Sunshine”. “Poetry” took home the best screenplay award on Sunday, fittingly enough given the rich, novelistic texture of this off-kilter morality tale. “Poetry” focuses on Mija (Yun Junghee), an aging grandmother who takes a poetry class hoping to counteract her gradual memory loss and starts to rediscover the beauty of the world. You’ll be forgiven for ignoring the movie based on this description – I skipped the first press screening myself – but “Poetry” quickly reveals itself to run darker and deeper. Mija’s grandson, whom she lives alone with, is implicated in a terrible crime, and “Poetry” soon becomes a fascinating parable about the parallels between personal artistic repression and broader societal repression, looking incisively into a word where hush money is enough to cover up even the most egregious offenses and writing a poem is only for the occasional rare genius. Rounding out the film is the brilliant performance by Yun Junghee, who probably deserved the best actress award for this year’s festival. Yun is brilliant as a woman rediscovering deeper emotions that shake up her shallow world, and her performance is the binding emotional glue that holds together this wide-ranging story.

The visual aesthetic of Im Sang-Soo’s “The Housemaid” reminded me quite a bit of Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” – here is a film where the human presence struggles to compete with the impossibly polished fashion-spread set design and the immaculate tailoring of the haute-couture costumes. Unlike that film however, “The Housemaid” applies this aesthetic to the kind of film to which it is best suited: a trashy tabloid romp of a thriller. On that level, Im’s latest film is some kind of idiot masterpiece, a potboiler on which the heat is ramped up until the pot starts to melt. “The Housemaid” is based on a 1960 Korean film of the same name, a film that is revered as perhaps the greatest Korean film of all time. As you might expect from a director whose last Cannes entry (“The President’s Last Bang”) played the assassination of a South Korean dictator for laughs, the irreverent Im plays fast and loose with his source material – where the original was about a psycho maid terrorizing a happy rich family, here the rich family terrorizes the maid. As said maid is seduced by the head of the family and plotted against by his vengeful wife, Im goes for broke with baroque formal gesture after baroque formal gesture – it’s safe to say that Im never met a cant angle he didn’t like. I can’t say I was ever able to take Im’s thoughts about class warfare too seriously given the fundamental silliness of the enterprise, but I was continually held in thrall by the nutzoid spirit of the work, and the sheer chutzpah of the ending is unforgettable.

My Joy (dir. by Sergei Loznitsa) – In Competition

Where the hell did this come from? I ignored this during the festival due to generally tepid reviews and went to the final repeat screening mostly because nothing else was playing at the time, only to be pretty blown away by first-time feature film director Sergei Loznitsa’s nightmarish vision of rural Russia. “My Joy” starts with a throat-grabbing opening – we see a churning maw of concrete swirling around like a vortex, followed by a shot of a body being dumped into a ditch. The rest of the film never explains these events, but they set an appropriately brooding tone for this story about a truck driver who finds himself trapped in a Russian village. Working with Oleg Mutu, the DP for “4 Months, 3 Weeks 2 Days”, Loznitsa captures much of that film’s overt-manipulation-free suspense as things get worse and worse for the truck driver in a seemingly post-apocalyptic landscape. Far more interesting is his decision at the halfway point to explode the film’s narrow focus and map out a canvas of the many sociopaths and victims of his setting, creating something like an Altman film on mushrooms. The film is probably too unrelentingly nihilistic for the social criticisms at play here to really scan, but the filmmaking holds you all the way through to the horror-show ending, which seems about as absurd as it seems right.

Copie Conforme (dir. by Abbas Kiarostami) – In Competition

On Tour (dir. by Mathieu Amalric) – In Competition

Carlos (dir. by Olivier Assayas) - Out of Competition

...It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a biopic that so thoroughly scourged its subject, and I’ve certainly never seen a movie that spent this much time doing it. “Carlos” seems like a reaction to movies like “The Baader-Meinhof Complex” (or for that matter, nearly any gangster film), which eventually get around to condemning their criminal protagonists, but not before admiring the thrilling way they live outside the law. You’ll be thrilled in “Carlos” as Assayas bounds from country to country, from criminal enterprise to enterprise. But you’ll be hard-pressed find anything admirable in this sleazily charismatic womanizer with frightening fetishes (Carlos quite literally makes his women handle his weapon), this self-aggrandizer willing to sell any cause he adopts out to the highest bidder, this dialectical materialist who couldn’t stop showing off his Mercedes...

Another Year (dir. by Mike Leigh) - In Competition

...As the synopsis may suggest, not all that much happens plot-wise. Leigh has always been much more interested in meticulously observing the way that people interact. Leigh used his trademark method of letting his actors interact in character off-camera for about a year, and then fleshing out a loose plot outline with improvisation during filming. As a result, the film's relationships have an unforced realism - characters who have know each other for years have the kind of gentle rapport where glances can sometimes substitute for full conversations, while characters who have just met have a painfully chilled awkwardness to their interactions...

Outrage (dir. by Takeshi Kitano) - In Competition
...Kitano has the kind of exquisite formal control that makes the film’s flaws easy to forgive, at least for this viewer. Every shot is carefully crafted to exhibit the symmetry to sleek lines, to catch the play of Tokyo neon light on gunmetal gray and waxed Mercedes black, and to plant disorienting visual surprises - what appears to be an iris shot in one early scene, for example, is created through millimeter-precise placement of a camera between two suited gangsters. This intense visual focus is a joy, and Kitano uses it to depict some inventive and gut-wrenching examples of violence – the traditional yakuza collection of fingers comes in way you might not expect and Kitano’s twisting camera moves and unpredictable cuts manage to make the expected approach of death consistently surprising...

Of Gods and Men (dir. by Xavier Beauvois) - Grand Prix Winner - In Competition
...Beauvois dispassionately watches the monks as they waver in their decision to stay and continue to pray, for deliverance, for strength to match their convictions, for courage to accept their fate. And this plot focus is exactly why Beauvois' clinical nature as a filmmaker is absolutely critical - for most materials, addressing topics like this would no doubt lead to mawkishness or sanctimony (and this film does in a few moments), when the monks try to drown out the noise of an army helicopter by loudly singing a hymn), but understatement both in formal terms and restraint in the performances lets the audience feel the full weight of the emotions at play without feeling unduly manipulated...

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

Tier II

Blue Valentine (dir. by Derek Cianfrance) - Un Certain Regard

As the great American indie hope of the festival, Sundance breakout “Blue Valentine” was one the best reviewed films to play at Cannes. I did find the film to be a pretty powerful experience as I was watching, although I couldn’t help shrugging my shoulders at it after it was over. The film’s central idea is to intercut the happy courtship of a couple (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) with the final days of their marriage. For the most part, this central structural device is kind of pointless, seeming to reveal only that many divorcing couples were actually happy at one point – making the film sometimes feel like empty aping of something more substantive like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. But the performances by long-time indie darlings Gosling and Williams do quite a bit to save the film, bringing believability and palatability to the shrill verbal battles of the to-be-divorcees as easily as they bring romantic charm to the courtship.

Carancho (dir. by Pablo Trapero) - Un Certain Regard

A Screaming Man (dir. by Mahamet-Saleh Haroun) - In Competition
...the heart of the movie is Haroun's sensitive depiction of a man dealing with a shattered world. Haroun makes clear that the sense of identity created by one's profession and the ensuing existential crisis following its loss are not solely applicable to white-collar businessmen (like the similarly struggling men of Laurent Cantet's "Time Out" and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Tokyo Sonata"). Even in his menial task, Adam finds immense meaning, and the drastic change to his life induces a temporary madness with horrifying consequences. "Man" is all the more powerful for the understated stoicism that Djaoro brings to his performance - when cracks inevitably appear in his facade, they truly mean something...

Route Irish (dir. by Ken Loach) - In Competition
...I'm going to be vaguer than most critics have been about the film's central moral arc, because I do think that the way it slowly and surprisingly reveals itself is quite stunning. Suffice to say though that where the first part of film takes pains to emphasize Iraq's distance, relying on the mediating technology of cell phones and Skype to separate the two worlds and depicting the Liverpool setting with watery blues and sleek modern architecture, the second half brings Iraq home in frightening visual and thematic ways. "Route Irish" soon reveals itself to be a novel take on depicting the toxic effect of war on men returning home, employing metaphor instead of the relative realism of films like "The Messenger" or "Stop-Loss"...

Film Socialisme (dir. by Jean-Luc Godard) - Un Certain Regard
...There’s a wealth of ideas here, to be certain (I’ll spare you my rambling attempts at interpretation). There’s surely also plenty of nonsense, as well as contempt for segments of the audience. Godard’s English subtitles generally only translate nouns and the occasional preposition from the original French (although there’s plenty of German to alienate native viewers). I’m terribly suspicious of anyone who exalts or dismisses this film after a single viewing – there’s no way anyone could fully engage with the density of the flurrying images here after a single viewing. Not that many really want to – avant-garde cinema of this sort has never packed seats and was never intended to. But it’s great to see that even at the age of 79, Godard is still frustrating, exciting, and provoking viewers as he did when he was a young man...

Tier III

Udaan (dir. by Vikramaditya Motwane) - Un Certain Regard
...My least favorite scenes in movies about artists force the viewer into accepting an opinion about the art they produce. Take one scene in "Udaan", a film about a boy who wants to be a writer and a father who wants him to go into the family business. At one point, the boy recites a poem he has written to a group of people that includes his father. The reaction that director Vikramaditya Motwane clearly is looking for from his audience is "What a talented young man! If only his father was more understanding!". The actual reaction is "Don't quit your day job"...

Outside the Law (dir. by Rachid Bouchareb) - In Competition
...Bouchareb is a thoroughly mainstream filmmaker - one who's interested in bringing an Arab's version of the history of France and its colonies to the masses - and he can achieve Spielbergian zest in his filmmaking sometimes (consider his rousing war epic "Days of Glory"). But "Law" feels like a half-hearted "Godfather" retread - oddly enough, considering that the film is about Algerian revolutionaries acting covertly in Paris. This is mainly because Bouchareb is far less interested in his character's psychologies here than he was in "Glory", which was gratifyingly thorough in getting into the heads of his characters....

Fair Game (dir. by Doug Liman) - In Competition
...those who were confused about why the director of "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" and "Jumper" had a film in the most prestigious film competition in the world were thoroughly justified. "Fair Game" isn't ever bad, exactly, but it's nothing to write home about (ha). It's a pretty generic geopolitical thriller, right down to the irritatingly boilerplate score (pompous thumping percussion! little bits of electronic stuff!), and anyone who has a basic handle on the Valerie Plame CIA leak scandal isn't going to learn anything here...

Biutiful (dir. by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) - In Competition
...In lieu of a plot summary, here is a list of things that happen to Barcelona-based Uxbal over the course of the film: cancer, poverty, a bipolar wife, a cheating wife, a wife who beats his kids, kids in poverty, spooky ghost hauntings, guilt over exploitation of illegal immigrants, more guilt after exploitation of illegal immigrants goes wrong, a drug-addled brother, a drug-addled brother having sex with his wife, spiritual uncertainty, police brutality, bloody urine, bloody urine combined with incontinence, hangnails, etc. Could all of this happen to a single person? Possibly. Are people, even in extreme poverty, generally affected by only a subset of these issues? Probably. Would a film that reined in its focus be more effective at tackling one or a few of these issues? Definitely...

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (dir. by Woody Allen) - Out of Competition
..."Stranger" seems shallow on most every level. Few of the characters are sketched with any depth (as the titular attractions, Pinto and Banderas function mostly as exotic cardboard cutouts) and the comedy is often stale (Hopkins' slow realization of his wife's golddigging nature seems too obvious to ever be really funny). Worst of all is the ending. Late in the film, Allen introduces some dark twists that ramp up the drama, but at the point where better movies would be rolling towards a climax, Allen simply cuts the film off, leaving only a few lazy and abrupt implications as to his characters' ultimate fates. You get the unmistakable impression that he doesn't care enough about these people to follow their stories through to the end - and if he doesn't care, why should we?

The Princess of Montpensier (dir. by Bertrand Tavernier) - In Competition
...Tavernier hints in the press kit that his intent is in part feminist, given his heroine's lack of control over her destiny and the cruelty of some of the men in her life, but he seems a little too fond of gratuitous nudity for that explanation to really pass muster. Perhaps Tavernier was aiming for something like Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" (famously and unfairly slammed in its Cannes premiere), which captured a young queen's entrapment in royal ennui with sympathy and formal ingenuity. What he ended up with is a wealth of admittedly fine production values devoted to a knockoff Jane Austen story with none of the romantic heat that made those stories work. Full disclosure: I'll confess that I stopped paying much attention during the last 20 minutes. It was much more interesting to look around the theatre as a steady trickle of audience members walking out of the theater expanded into a flood...

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