Saturday, May 15, 2010

Cannes Dispatch #2 - "Another Year"

Another day, another flurry of film-related magic. In between screenings at the Grand Theatre Lumiere, I caught glimpses of Roger Ebert and Oliver Stone (currently sporting a hilarious mustache), indulged in an amazing shrimp risotto with noted cinephile and gastronome Fareed Ben-Youssef '09, and received an elbow to the stomach during the frenzied rush to get into the premiere of Woody Allen's new film. I'll have much more about the sparkling atmosphere (including photos!) throughout the rest of the week, as well as a review of Allen's "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" (for now, two words: frothy trifle), but at the moment I have to rush to a screening of a film about a rubber tire that kills people (which, for whatever reason, is featured in the ultra-highbrow Critic's Week selection). For now, here's a review of my first screening of the day, which happened to be the best film I've caught at the festival so far.

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

Time will tell if Mike Leigh's new film "Another Year" takes home any prizes at Cannes this year, but it can certainly claim one distinction already: the most irritating synopsis of any film in the competition. Here it is, quoted in full:

"Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. Family and friendship.
Love and warmth. Joy and sadness. Hope and despair.
Companionship. Loneliness. A birth. A death. Time passes..."

Those unfamiliar with Leigh's work might be understandably suspicious about the film's quality given the substitution of high-school poetry for information in the press kit and the rather bland title. But the three-time festival-competition veteran has long had one of the most consistent quality records of any leading auteur, and "Another Year", undoubtedly a strong contender for the Palme D'Or, is no exception.

"Year" works quite nicely as a complement to Leigh's last film, the joyous "Happy-Go-Lucky". Like that film, "Year" deals with the contrasts between those in life who manage to achieve happiness and fulfillment and those who are left alone on the margins of society. But the canvas of this new film is wider than the character study of "Lucky", providing opportunities for a full talented ensemble to shine.

The center of "Year" is the London couple of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a pair sharing marital bliss with the kind of glowing warmth that recalls the Gundersons in "Fargo". Bouncing off this calm center are a series of visitors in varying degrees of distress - there's the couple's unmarried and lonely thirty-year-old son Joe, the husband's one-time drinking buddy Ken who has descended into alcoholism, and, most notably, the wife's ditzy 40-something co-worker Mary (Lesley Manville), who is prone to ill-advised flirtations and loud desperation.

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.

"Another Year" is suffused with a deep melancholy - by the end of the film, Leigh has suggested that the differences that resign the socially marginized to loneliness are irreconcilable, and (like "Aurora") that there are fundamental limits to the empathy of even the most caring souls. This kind of dour insight is well within Leigh's comfort zone, as demonstrated by past films like "Vera Drake" and Palme D'Or Winner "Secrets and Lies". What's new in "Happy-Go-Lucky" is his additional new emphasis on happiness and optimism. "Another Year" is frequently laugh-out-loud funny (particularly when Broadbent employs razor-sharp snarky deadpan to tease his visitors) and Leigh recognizes here that the goal of happiness is as achievable as its opposite.

Midway through the film, Broadbent's character discusses the environment and notes that the magnitude of the problem is large enough that personal conservation efforts might as well be "pissing in the ocean". But he soldiers on with those efforts, because he must at least do what he can. Leigh has catalogued the miseries of life as thoroughly as any other director, and he sees their occasional insurmountability. But it seems that he's now more interested in those who do what they can - like them, he's pushing forward and soldiering on with a smile.

- Raj Ranade

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