14-25 May 2008

I. Statement

The Cannes Film Festival is an anachronistic bastard. Make that every film festival that maintains the idea of being able to select a mere handful of films as a representation of the current state of cinema and imagines itself as sovereign. There certainly once was a time when heartfelt celebrations of the art of cinema, even if they were competitive, had a noble purpose in that they enabled aficionados and professionals alike to surf through a manifold variety of films that would otherwise not be seen and maybe to discover some fresh new talent, who may renovate the language of cinema or at least provide an infusion of formal innovation. But times have changed and films are no longer exclusively encountered in cinemas, but can be bought on DVD only a few months after their theatrical release, can be seen on television and, most pertinently, can be illegally obtained with an action as simple as a click on the mousepad. It is clear that this unlimited availability of films, the mutation of what once was a glorious 35mm or 16mm print into millions of bits and pieces produces a mutation in how films are seen as well. The internet and its thousands of torrent trackers, who allow you download a film by Philippe Garrel, an exploitation fest from the German Underground or a Japanese silent oddity within a few hours time, give each and every person out there access to a broad range of films that once were exclusively only seen at film festivals, selected arthouse cinemas and cinematheques.

Severe doubts remain about the air of exclusivity maintained by such big events as Cannes. It is obviously and quite thoughtlessly celebrating a notion of cinema that can no longer be sustained: rigid controls at the entrances, bag searches whenever one enters a screening venue and an impenetrable hierarchy of badge-colours (white being the top, yellow being the flop), placing each and every journalist on a fixed position within an artificial and seemingly arbitrary ranking of importance (making all those online journals, dedicated blogs and net-zines media non grata and presenting them with an accreditation that low in the ranking that it renders a serious discussion of Cannes, the phenomenon and its films almost impossible) all seem like desperate measures (from the studios and producers as well as from the festival chiefs) to protect this Grande Dame named Cannes from a radically mutating reality.

D’altronde non potrei festeggiare in un festival dove c’è tanta polizia pubblica e privata alla ricerca d’un terrorista – il terrorista sono io, e vi dico, parafrasando Franco Fortini: finché ci sara il capitalismo imperialistico Americano, no ci saranno mai abbastanza terroristi nel mondo.

By the way one can not celebrate at a festival where there is private and public police in search of a terrorist – the terrorist is me and I tell you, paraphrasing Franco Fortini: as long as there is the American imperialist capitalism there are no other terrorists in the world.

– From a communiqué by Jean-Marie Straub that he placed in the pigeonholes of accredited journalists shortly before the world premiere of his and Danièle Huillet’s next-to-last film Quei loro incontri at the Venice Film Festival of 2006.

For myself, being 27 years old when typing this, the idea of a film premiered in theatres with limitations as to who is allowed to see it first has a cosy nostalgic feeling to it. Just to make one thing clear: I am definitely addicted to cinema in its purest form, always hoping for the best of screening conditions and I would never want to doubt this basis of cinephilia, which is very precious to me. The one thing I am wary of though is the organisation of a film festival as a competition (mirrored in all sorts of media around the world) in a time where the distribution of audiovisual cultural products is no longer placed solely in the hands of those who acquired the rights to it, but always and inevitably leaks into the public domain of the internet, where the market law commands diversification, resulting in incredibly broad offerings of downloadable content. In essence the commonplace “Everybody is an expert on film” now gets a whole new foundation as the politics of distribution get democratised, allowing each and every film buff out there to get information on films and of course to own a digital copy of them. Professionals no longer have exclusive access to information and films only to be seen at festivals: it is the loss of this privilege that produces a shift or a mutation of power.

II. Notes on an unrepresentative selection of films seen at the 61st Cannes Film Festival

It was a buffet of diverse qualities, depending on the sensual delights you shovelled on your plate. One particularly gruesome example of self-proclaimed “Haute Cuisine filmmaking” that turned out to be mould and tasteless, was the entrée: Festival capo Thierry Frémaux is quite reliable when it comes to selecting the most uninteresting production available as the opening night film. Brazilian director Fernando Mereilles, whose breakthrough film City of God (2002) was a feverish, interesting-enough actioner that, with its concern for portraying and discussing socio-political realities while remaining entertaining enough to embrace a mainstream audience, erected a model for many socially conscious, speculative art-blockbusters to come. Following his painful, unnecessarily complex adaptation of John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener (2005) is yet another screen version of a famous novel. This time around it was the adaptation of Portuguese scribe José Saramago’s apocalyptic humanist parable Blindness that had the honour of opening the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Set in an anonymous city – Mereilles makes it clear in the first minutes that his work concerns everybody in the industrialised world – and quite accurately following the happenings in the book (although the director misses the tone of the source material), the psychological drama starts with numerous persons suddenly and randomly going blind, until the whole world – save for a doctor’s wife, played by Julianne Moore – loses their eyesight and is bound to re-shape their organisational structures. Of course Mereilles is less interested in systemic transformation than he is in fleshing out – in a speculative fashion – the emotional aftershock of the social catastrophe resulting in the unexpected bonding of some newly-blinds, who have been stashed away by the government in a downtrodden asylum. Confined within high walls with no chance for escape, the sappy humanist angle of Mereilles’ film feeds on the atrocities falling into place, when a megalomaniac (played by a miscast Gael García Bernal) proclaims himself king and wants first money, then women in exchange for the food rations he is in possession of. What might have been a profound and entertaining, even unsettling, meditation on human nature (and culture), as was Children of Men by Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón one year ago, becomes a highly glossy, easy to digest but hard to stand apocalyptic melodrama that backs away from anything that might offend the more sensitive of viewers. One particularly annoying sequence has the men from the “totalitarian party” mass-rape the women from the “democratic party”: Mereilles directs with his usual high concept aesthetic and includes numerous tracking shots and other stylistic devices, which results in what seems to rather be a nude ballet performance than a crime indicative of the beast-like nature of ordinary man. The only thing more bizarre than the film itself is the fact that Canadian indie filmmaker Don McKellar, who has been attached to the project for years and got substituted by Mereilles because of its ever-increasing scale, is responsible for the screenplay.

Lion’s Den

It came as no surprise that Blindness – by the way the first competition film ever to open the Cannes Film Festival; what a choice! – was (almost) unanimously despised, as was Woody Allen’s latest offering, the dreary summer fantasy Vicky Cristina Barcelona, shown out of competition. If the twenty-something productions racing for the prestigious Palme d’Or are seen as the vanguards of present-day cinema, then nobody should rejoice over things to come. Sure, there were some rays of light: Argentine director Pablo Trapero served up the respectable, in fact even enjoyable, if a bit too long “female prisoner”-film Leonera (Lion’s Den), which didn’t shy away from the classic (and notorious) images inherent to the genre (showering women, fighting women, naked women, women arguing) but trimmed them down in order to fit in with his gritty realism (that sometimes wishes to be a fairy tale). Martina Gusman, who is also one of the film’s executive producers, is utterly believable as 25 year-old Julia, who one day awakens bloodstained and surrounded by bloody bodies, and is subsequently convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to “I don’t recall how many years” in prison. One impressive tracking shot pictures the other inmates, revealing that almost all of them are either pregnant or already blessed with motherhood. Lion’s Den’s strong and resonating key image thus is comprised of bars and buggies, a file of imprisoned mums, with lots of toys lying around on the cell floors. What Trapero lacks in innovation (the quest of a troubled woman for independence and self-sustenance is hardly an original premise for a film) he makes up with a formidable cast and poignant dialogues (“Why are you in here? I am poor and dumb”). Lion’s Den comprises one third of this year’s offering of Argentine cinema in Cannes.

Director Lucrecia Martel’s latest, La mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman), also made it into competition.  Although quite puzzling at first sight, the fragmented story of a middle-aged woman who runs over something she first thinks is a dog, but then is convinced was a person, once again expresses the profound philosophical underpinnings of Ms Martel’s stories via dreamlike, yet concrete imagery with distinctive materialistic charms, making her film both a very heady exercise and a visually stunning piece of art. Somehow reviving the strange symbolical arrangements from her previous films (who doesn’t love the cow in the marsh from La Ciénaga [2002]?), the director shows an increased interest in the – yes, that’s how it is – heads of her female characters, both on the outside (hairdo, hair colour) and on the inside (memory).

Young director and critic favourite Lisandro Alsonso also likes to project the mental state of his protagonists, although he favours landscapes among other things. His Liverpool, presented at the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Directors’ Fortnight), basically continues the corporality of his previous films and tells the story of a seaman returning to his home town one last time before disappearing into the woods in long and beautifully composed sequences set in emptied out environments of snow and rocks and winter meadows, mirroring the solipsistic approach to life of his protagonist. While Liverpool certainly remains a satisfying enough film, it lacks the profound coherence of his “trilogy” – La Libertad (2001), Los Muertos (2004), Fantasma (2006) – somehow opting for a new road in his directorial style but at the same time not really wanting to mutate.

The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael

Not only Argentine cinema was very visible at this year’s Cannes edition, British cinema was as well. Shortly after the program press conference several voices from the UK lamented the fact that none of their arthouse stallions such as Loach, Leigh or Meadows was present at the world’s biggest film festival, but – even worse – strange and provocative new-doers got invited into the official selection. Truth is that Thomas Clay’s first directorial effort The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael (2005) wasn’t to everybody’s likening, some even naming it an abomination, but not everything about it was bad. At least it injected some sense of offensiveness, some kind of daring into the otherwise totally static, paralysed British cinema landscape. Clay’s new, quite enigmatic, quite puzzling film is called Soi Cowboy and is set in Thailand, where its bleak black and white images chronicle the relationship between an overweight British guy and a Thai woman. In long, drawn-out sequences – that are not always in favour of the film’s slightly deranged dramaturgy – and spiced with occasional oddball humour Clay is able to establish a credible tenderness between the couple, although the caesura two-thirds into the film, clearly indicated by an abrupt change to colour images, produces nothing but vain mysteriousness. Vanity may also be the most often uttered argument against artist Steve McQueen’s high-glossy directorial debut Hunger that was selected as the opening film of Un Certain Regard: but his three-part tale of Irish republican hunger strikers is original and convincing enough in its symbolisation of solidarity, camaraderie and peaceful protest to overshadow its more shallow, crudely propagandistic sequences. The best British film of this year’s Cannes film festival undoubtedly and unsurprisingly comes from one of the most enigmatic, interesting and talented directors of Great Britain: the oeuvre of Terence Davies is nothing short of spectacular. This makes the fact that he was not able to find financing for a film after his period piece The House of Mirth (2000) even harder to understand. His collage masterpiece Of Time and the City is mainly comprised of archival footage, out of which Davies composes a brilliant portrait of his birth town Liverpool. Backyard wrestling and horse races, the Beatles hysteria and coronation ceremonies, dancers and workers, the economic rise and fall of the region. “All are gone, all the familiar faces.” Mr. Davies’ sonorous voice narrates this unique tale of time and the city: “The problem with being poor is that it takes up all your time. The problem with being rich is that it takes up everybody else’s.” He loves and hates Liverpool, he calls it an Anus Mundi. “Now I am an alien in my own land.”

One of the strongest underlying currents of this year’s Cannes Film Festival was the notion that a lot of once-innovative directors got caught up in variations of their greatest creative achievements: that is true to the bone for the much cherished Dardenne brothers whose competition entry Le Silence de Lorna (Lorna’s Silence) was nothing but a major disappointment. Although the tale of a young woman who tries to break out of her involvement with a criminal organisation features all the basic ingredients of the directors’ far better films, enabling humanist storytelling without the obligatory moral strings attached or discussing morality in capitalist societies in general, it doesn’t click for one main reason: whereas Rosetta (1999) and Le Fils (The Son, 2002) seem to have grown out of the Dardennes’ home region in an utterly organic fashion, juxtaposing tragedy and the everyday life in a unique way, Lorna’s Silence, for its at times strange and unmotivated, even clumsy plot developments, feels almost like “just another script”, this time adapted by talented directors. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for the Dardennes conquering new territory and in fact in the film’s final ten minutes, when Lorna lies contemplating in a cabin in the woods, her silence in the almost fairy-tale surroundings producing an otherworldly charm, one wishes for the two Belgian arthouse darlings to embrace the idea of a genre film.

A Christmas Tale

This year’s competition, save for the standout films by Arnaud Desplechin (Un Conte de Noël/A Christmas Tale, for the appreciation of which one would need an extra text) and Clint Eastwood (who with the much despised Changeling returned to the neo-classicist perfection of his great run of masterworks in the 1990s, crowned by Unforgiven [1992] and Space Cowboys [2002]), was so devoid of any major revelation, that it might as well have been exchanged for the selection of Un Certain Regard (UCR) and nobody would have noticed the difference. In this section, James Toback’s Tyson did not turn out to be the expected transcendental experience that one would have expected from a teaming up of Toby and his long-year-friend and partner-in-crime Mike Tyson (who made a beautiful appearance on stage), but it remains a well-crafted and intimate document of an extraordinary life. Japanese genre-bender Kurosawa Kiyoshi exceeded expectations (which were quite low after his two previous, sub-par works) by far with his sombre family tale Tokyo Sonata. Centring on the ordinary life of the Sasakis, the director virtuously frees each of the family members from their self-imposed ties made up of tradition and morality, resulting in their free-roaming around the city, engulfing in extra-marital affairs, (forbidden) piano lessons and soldiering in Iraq (in order to protect the “homeland”). Kurosawa’s assured directing makes way for a new family structure that falls into place at the very end of the movie. “When is that giant earthquake coming?” And then a soft breeze enters the Sasaki home through the terrace window. The theme of family renovation is not exclusive to Japan: American director Kelly Reichardt manages to establish the slightly odd alliance (friendship) between a young woman (Michelle Williams) and a dog as some kind of family substitute or alternative, when “Wendy and Lucy”, on their way to Alaska become stranded in a small town. Wendy’s social decline seems inevitable (a bunch of hobos much earlier in the film foreshadow the possible final destination of her travel to independence) when she can’t afford the repair of her car. Furthermore her pet companion disappears: a seemingly trite, almost ridiculous event, which solely through the self-assured directorial work by Ms Reichardt becomes a happening of some magnitude. Her Wendy and Lucy remains one of the best films of this year’s fest.

The further off one strives from the main axes of attention the more fruitful and stimulating are the films one sees. The Directors’ Fortnight, located in the bowels of a hotel building a ten minute walk along the Croisette away from “Le Bunker” (aka the Palais du Festival) usually delivers what the official selection keeps on promising: daring, innovative cinema, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes painful, but usually worth the risk. Apart from the buzzed-to-death, stylistically intriguing Chilean psycho-comedy Tony Manero, whose title – some of you might already guess – stems from John Travolta’s disco dancer in Saturday Night Fever, there was plenty of weird stuff to feed on.

Allow me a quick digression: There are some guys you meet at each and every festival you attend. Possessed by the idea of discovering the latest awkwardness in world cinema, this circle tends to promote filmmakers no one else has ever heard of, in order to establish some informal secret society of common gusto and taste. This phenomenon, which one might call cinephilia 2.0 in that it heavily relies on global networks via which thoughts on new talents may be easily exchanged, is as progressive as it is traditional. Its quintessential subjectivity, which is grounded on years and years of excessive devouring of films, doesn’t contradict its charming and almost nostalgic dedication towards certain filmmakers. To name but a few: Pedro Costa, Giulio Questi, Brian Yuzna and, of course, Albert Serra. The Catalan with the striking resemblance to Rainer Werner Fassbinder conquered the stage of world cinema with his beautiful Honor de Cavalleria (2006) in which Serra boiled Cervantes’ Don Quixote down to its bare essentials, namely the happenings when nothing is happening. His follow-up film was one of this year’s most anticipated outings in the Fortnight: in El cant dels ocells (Birdsong) Serra pictures in pristine black and white photography the biblical Three Kings’ (played by three actors with the first name of Lluis!) tramp towards the baby messiah. At times transcendental and enlightening (the three Lluis’ improv-performances lying under bushes), at times harrowingly slow and pointless, Birdsong was a mixed package. Although I was not nearly as ecstatic about this one as I was about Honor de Cavalleria, one thing remains certain: Albert Serra is one of the most innovative and daring artists in world cinema. It is not hard to draw an ideological and aesthetical line from this Catalan madman to two of Europe’s greatest, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, the latter of who passed away 2006. The Fortnight presented their last co-directorial effort Itinéraire de Jean Bricard, a 40 minute chronicle of Straub’s return to the place of his birth, filled to the brim with jaw-dropping images and anecdotes of the director himself, as well as Straub’s first solo work Le Genou d’Artemide. Once again a recitation of a text by Cesare Pavese performed by two actors posing in the midst of a forest, this film is easy to read as Straub’s eulogy for Danièle Huillet. To me this was the most emotional moment of this year’s Cannes Film Festival.


But there was a close runner-up: It may be a coincidence (but I don’t think so), but for the past two years my favourite films in Cannes were not shown in the official selection, not even in one of the sidebars, but in the market, this massive and wondrous place, where you can find the genre films missing from the rest of the fest. It was only my second day in Cannes, when I – together with a good friend and colleague – discovered what is likely to remain in my Top 10 list for 2008. Young and hitherto unknown French director Mabrouk El Mechri presented what seems to be the final version of a movie, that for the past months put almost all of the noteworthy internet communities and forums in a state of ecstasy and anticipatory bliss. None other than Jean-Claude Van Damme himself spurred this horse, a highly intelligent meta-thriller on fame, the fading of fame and last but not least a poignant and entertaining meditation on the nature of cinema itself. From the late ‘80s on till the mid ‘90s Van Damme was, together with similar Euro-hunks like Dolph Lundgren, a highly successful beefcake and world saviour, whose testosterone-filled adventures have only been regarded as quick shots for the addicted, dumb entertainment for the presumed target audience of acne-ridden males. With El Mechris’ stellar JCVD Van Damme, who portrays the once-successful action star “Jean-Claude Van Damme” (who is NOT identical with the real life Van Damme), is bound to rejuvenate his career: starting with a spoof on one of the “Muscles from Bruxelles” more one-dimensional one-man-shows, JCVD follows the actor as a private person into a bank, where he wants to withdraw money, but becomes hostage to a bunch of fierce, aggressive, spleeny robbers. With the movie mutating towards a kammerspiel, in which the hero myth is talked and torn to pieces, Van Damme is able to convince even the most severe doubter in the audience of his talent as an actor. “I’m too old for that shit!”

My notes on the 61st Cannes Film Festival shall end here with a listing of the 10 films I want everybody to see:

1. JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri)
2. Changeling (Clint Eastwood)
3. A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin)
4. Le Genou d’Artemide (Jean-Marie Straub)
Itinéraire de Jean Bricard (Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet)
5. Birdsong (Albert Serra)
6. Eden Lake (James Watkins)
7. Of Time and the City (Terence Davies)
8. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
9. Tokyo Sonata (Kurosawa Kiyoshi)
10. Chelsea on the Rocks (Abel Ferrara)

III. Movement Per Mutation

To whom it may concern,

Please contribute to the removal of all those gatekeepers and watch-dogs, try to destabilise this dusted aristocracy, that installs films like portraits in an art exhibition. Focus on a festival like Isola Cinema (which truly, sadly does not take place this year due to an outrageous struggle between the organisers and the corrupt politicians in Slovenia) that holds the idea of cinephilia and camaraderie between film lovers dear to its heart. One has to try to tear down the artificial barriers between the audience and the films because a film festival like Cannes no longer seems to work as a pool, in which one can discover something new, but solely as a glitzy hull for the danse macabre, a Dance of the Dead that celebrates not cinema as it is, not even cinema as it was, but cinema like an elitist minority wishes it to be. Only per mutation there can be movement again, a movement towards a cultural landscape in which everybody who wants to see the new Ferrara (very cool, by the way), the new Serra, the new Straub has the possibility to do so. Cinema alas is and will always be the perfect place for utopian thoughts.

Cannes Film Festival website: http://www.festival-cannes.fr
Directors’ Fortnight website: http://www.quinzaine-realisateurs.com

About The Author

Markus Keuschnigg, born 8th of May in Kitzbühel (Tyrol); student of communication, political and film science in Vienna; regular film critic for the daily newspaper Die Presse and the radio station FM4; film-editor-in-chief of the magazine thegap; currently lives with his two cats and his boyfriend in an apartment in Vienna.

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