Monday, May 17, 2010

Cannes Dispatch #5 - "Biutiful", "Film Socialisme"

I have little to no experience when it comes to French (I’ve gotten really good at charades during my time here), France (they have Chinese food here?), or Frenchmen (Gerard Depard-who just walked by?), but I do consider myself something of an expert on the annual cycle of press coverage, particularly the whining that ensues. To start off, you have your whining about the slate, ideally in terms that contradict whatever you said the year before. This year, the whining focused on the lack of famous directors and actors present in the competition entries (where’s the glamour? where are the icons of cinema?). Last year, of course, the whining focused on the preponderance on famous directors who were blocking opportunities for new talent (the purpose of film festivals is discovery! these people have had their day in the sun!).

Next, you have your mid-festival griping about how the festival has been a washout. In the Hollywood Reporter, Kirk Honeycutt said (I’m paraphrasing) that the competition had for the most part been “a rush to the bottom”. He sensibly called that unfair in the next sentence (although he also noted that the joy of discovery was exemplified by “Biutiful”, which suggests that a Universal production that’s part of a 100-million-dollar deal with a director needs “discovery”) but the sentiment has been echoed far and wide throughout some of the press here. Keep in mind that half the festival slate has not screened yet.

The next wave should occur soon as people talk about how film A in Un Certain Regard belongs in the competition slate more than competition film B. Maybe it’s just because my presence here is comically incongruous and implausible (seat-trading and slipping past a chatty guard got me a better seat than “real” newspaper critics for Godard’s new film) and I’m happy just to be here, but I’m always surprised by the complaining that you only get, say, one masterpiece and several other top-quality films over a period of five days. I just know I’m more than pleased with the competition slate – I’ll be bringing you reviews of two more top-notch competition films (Abbas Kiarostami’s “Copie Conforme” and Xavier Beauvois’ “Of Gods and Men”) soon. For now, here’s two films that were a bit more difficult to deal with.

Biutiful (dir. By Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) – In Competition

I find few filmmakers as frustrating as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, because his egregious weaknesses as a filmmaker go hand-in-hand with his astonishing strengths. Take "Babel", for example - a staggering visual achievement, a showcase for a series of incredible performances, and a fundamentally stupid movie that thinks it can explain the entire world by contriving up a web of implausible connections. I rarely fault filmmakers for excessive ambition, but that clearly seems to be Inarritu's problem - every film he makes has to be about everything all at once. So when I heard that Inarritu's new film "Biutiful" would focus on one character in one country speaking one language, I was tentatively excited. That was a bit premature - if "Babel" told too many stories exploring too many issues, "Biutiful" piles too many issues onto the story of one person. Overall, that’s an improvement, but not really by much.

Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is the center of “Biutiful”, and he is as much of a Job figure as Larry Gopnik was in “A Serious Man”, except this time we’re supposed to take it oh-so-seriously. 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. But Inarritu has to tackle his three Gs (globalization, God, and griminess) every time at bat, and swallowing the implausible concoctions he comes up with requires another G, gullibility.

And again, it’s extraordinarily frustrating that the film is loaded down with so much horseshit because Inarritu is spectacular at most every other aspect of filmmaking. Working with Inarritu, Javier Bardem has not only a lock of the Best Actor award here at the festival, but a very likely Oscar nomination in the works. Bardem comes as close as anyone possibly could to selling his character’s misery, and the sorrowful lines seemingly etched into his face are the most moving things about the film. And working with DP Rodrigo Prieto again, Inarritu has crafted a terrifying world of strobe lights and supernatural terrors with an array of indelible images – the strip club that characters visit towards the end of the film takes the objectification of women to horrifyingly literal new levels and is surely one of the creepiest ever filmed. Gustavo Santaolalla’s electronic-noise-inflected guitar score also provides a nice elegiac quality to the proceedings though.

But the world’s tiniest violin would probably have been more appropriate – Inarritu tries to stomp on our heartstrings until we weep, but all I could do was scoff. Despite a decidedly mixed critical reaction, I do have an ominous premonition that this will be the Palme D’Or winner. Enough critics seem to be bowled over by this thing –Jeffrey Wells wasted no time throwing out comparisons to “The Bicycle Thieves” and “Open City” (the famously unhinged Wells also wasted no time calling the film’s opponents “dweebs” and “elite know-it-alls who live in a cloistered realm”, but let’s not go there). Oscar attention in many categories seems likely as well. C’est la vie, I guess – preposterous rigmarole always has its defenders.

Film Socialisme (dir. by Jean-Luc Godard) – Un Certain Regard

LOLcat Egypt Palestine. Il n'y a pas de cuillère. Israel oil balalaika Stalin. Globalization economies equal cheese sandwiches. Tire fire gaslight doom gloom floor. Ce n'est pas une critique de film. Godard ist eine Kunst, Gott, Gemini Kriegsführung Vieh prod? 戛納電影節更像電影節可以可以在這裡有一些詞在 This sentence is written in Arabic. كما هو مكتوب في هذه الجملة العربية

OK, I’ll stop now. But a bit of a prank is a good way to get into the latest from film icon Jean-Luc Godard, who played at least a few jokes on his audience here at Cannes. “Film Socialisme” begins with a series of title cards that flash on screen for less than a second each – each contains about fifty or so names. I only really caught some of the credited writers, who happened to include William Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett. The final words on screen before the lights go up are “No Comment”, and fittingly enough, Mr. Godard abruptly canceled his post-screening press conference just hours before it was to occur.

Those were the easiest points/gags/provocations to glean from Godard’s film, everything contained in between is closer to the opaqueness of my opening. In the first main section of the film, people on a yacht (including Patti Smith, for whatever reason) adrift in sea discuss politics in gorgeous HD shots while what looks like cell-phone quality video films herds of people in malls, pools, and discotheques. In the second section, a journalist at a gas station is harassed by a Balzac-reading attendant and a child wearing a CCCP t-shirt who paints exact Renoir replicas. The third section is a loose image-association involving world politics (Americans love Youtube cat videos -> cats were gods in Ancient Egypt -> Americans are at odds with the modern Islam found in Egypt).

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. (Ironically, the most difficult film of the festival will be one of the first that general audiences will be able to see if they're so inclined. You can buy a stream of the film here and the attached trailer is actually the full film, fast-forwarded to fit into a minute and a half).

1 comment:

Max said...

Watch the interviews, trailers and behind the scenes of Biutiful Movie and many more videos.