Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cannes Dispatch #3 - "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger", "The Princess of Montpensier", "A Screaming Man"

Apologies to anyone who may have expected a review of that movie with the homicidal rubber tire I mentioned - I ended up catching the African competition entry "A Screaming Man" instead. That decision, of course, has everything to do with my noble passion for highlighting under-represented world cinema and absolutely nothing to do with the fact that there were about 600 people in line for "Rubber" by the time I arrived at the 400-person-capacity theatre.

That latter lateness was the result of my being ensnared in one of the worst cases of human gridlock I've ever experienced (which is saying something given that I've frequently visited Mumbai). Having foolishly attempted to cross through a crowd gathered for a red carpet premiere with a slim group of people, I soon found myself completely unable to move in the sweltering mass that gathered to get a peek at the stars of Mike Leigh's "Another Year" (a TigerBeat cast if there ever was one). The lack of group cohesion from those looking to escape the crowd created a horrible human Chinese finger trap - the two pushes to get out happened to be in directly opposing directions. Polite French pleas proved to be no help - what ultimately worked was screaming loudly in English along with a few frustrated New Yorkers. So, yes, maybe we reinforced the awful Ugly American stereotype, but sometimes stereotypes are both surprisingly effective and kind of fun!

When I wasn't catching screenings and tarnishing my country's reputation, I had quite a bit of fun observing and eavesdropping while walking around the Palais des Festivals, the center for screenings and industry negotiations at Cannes. Blind item - which major Hollywood industry player was caught excoriating a lackey via cell phone in the film negotiations marketplace?* As for star sightings, Pedro Almodovar and Michael Haneke were seen walking around, but the way weirder sight was Valerie Plame, presumably in town to promote competition entry "Fair Game", which focuses on her CIA leak scandal. But all play aside, I got some work done - here are reviews of a few competition entries and the most prominent American film of the festival.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (dir. by Woody Allen) - Out of Competition

Anyone who caught Woody Allen's post-film press conference knows that the man hasn't lost any of his comedic timing or zest for one-liners. "My relationship with death remains the same," he noted. "I'm strongly against it". It's a shame to report, therefore, that Allen's new film doesn't reflect that skill. "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" is a wispy little nothing of a comedy, a trifle that is never unpleasant, exactly, but also never particularly interesting.

More in the farcical vein of "Whatever Works" than the darker territory of "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and "Match Point", "Stranger" takes Allen back to London to observe the comic self-delusions of a small group of characters. The Allen surrogate of sorts here is Josh Brolin, who has been given a floppy, tousled hairdo in an unconvincing attempt to nebbish up his He-Man physique. Brolin plays Roy, a one-novel wonder struggling to replicate his past success. As his frustrated wife Sally (Naomi Watts) nurses a growing crush on her boss (Antonio Banderas), he becomes equally drawn to an attractive neighbor (Freida Pinto). Also in the mix are Watts' divorced parents Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), whose mid-life crisis has led him to marry a hooker, and Helena (Gemma Jones), a devotee to psychics and New Age mysticism.

I'll confess that I was pretty taken with the preponderance of movie stars making googly eyes at each other here (after all, exposure to extended scenes of a man eating breakfast alone can leave you craving a little frivolity). And "Stranger" certainly hints at a few interesting ideas, particularly the necessity of some degree of self-delusion for everyday survival. But "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

Allen's film may have problems, but it has some charms - medieval costume drama "The Princess of Montpensier", on the other hand, is the first out-and-out dud that I've seen here at the festival. Director Bertrand Tavernier took home the Best Director Prize at Cannes in 1984, but his latest film offers little that is notable beyond gorgeous autumn foliage and abundant French cleavage.

The film takes place during the French Wars of Religion, where Protestant Huguenots took up arms against French Catholics. Hoping to protect his family's status through strategic alliances, the Marquis de Mezieres forces his daughter (Melanie Thierry) into marriage with the Prince of Montpensier, despite her long-standing love for the dashing Henri from the House of Guise. Soon, the two rivals battling for her hand are joined by two other suitors, a grizzled old warrior turned the princess's tutor and the Duke of Anjou, who would later become King. Backstabbing ensues. This is all familiar ground, but I'm not automatically opposed to a well-done retread. But "Princess" just isn't - on a meat scale, it's closer to a bloody raw. The film is bogged down by dull and incoherent action scenes, arcane and uninteresting political manuevering, and endless talkiness.

A few French critics supporting the film have noted that a pretty thorough familiarity with the political world of the time is needed to fully appreciate the film. Whatever - what I know is that the passion that a romance like this needs to stir the heart is conspicuously absent. As the princess, Melanie Thierry is good enough, portraying a woman struggling against the social restrictions of the time (heard that one before?). But she has no spark with any of the several suitors after her, who all range in personality from noble brooding to whiny brooding.

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.

A Screaming Man (dir. by Mahamet-Saleh Haroun) - In Competition

Working with a budget that is undoubtedly a pittance compared to Tavernier's lavish resources, Mahamet-Saleh Haroun has created a film far more worthy of its competition berth. "A Screaming Man" is the first African film to play in competition for 13 years, and although it's a small film with modest ambitions, it's nevertheless a moving experience. The film centers around Adam (Youssouf Djaoro), known to everyone in his hometown in Chad as Champion for long-past victories in national swimming competitions. Adam and his twenty-something son work as pool attendants at a hotel where business is threatened by the civil war raging throughout the country. Intensely devoted to his humble work, Adam is shocked when he is demoted to a position as hotel gatekeeper and incensed when he finds out that his soon has engineered this demotion to keep his own job. Adam soon arranges a severe betrayal of his own in turn, a betrayal that he soon realizes will haunt him.

Haroun low-budget technical achievement is quite impressive. War is never overtly seen in the film, but it continually haunts the action through the sound design, which counterpoints even the film's calmest moments with the sounds of distant gunfire and helicopters. The visual design is no less remarkable - Haroun captures the sandy, sunburnt palette of village streets as vividly as he does the crisp blues and greens of chlorinated water and plastic flora. His frames are also rich
with information, whether he's crafting Tati-esque setups of Adam dashing back and forth between busy entry and exit gates to lift them by hand or if he's showing Adam driving his moped down a narrow alleyway at night, his headlight creating a narrow square of light that dwindles into nothingness.

But 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.

"A Screaming Man" is no world-changing masterpiece, and it is unlikely to claim much awards attention at the end of the festival. But this film tells its small story exceedingly well, and when the story comes from a region so often neglected in film festival circles, it's something worth celebrating. And in case you were wondering, on the "A ____ Man" continuum, it ranks above "Single" but below "Serious".

*The correct answer, of course, is all of them.

-Raj Ranade

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